How are you supposed to work as a scholar in the humanities? What is it, exactly, that we do on a daily basis, and how do we march steadily towards publication? How do we ergonomically incorporate digital tools? 2020 was rough, but one thing I managed to do is to completely overhaul the way I work. I would like to present it here.
The jumping off point was a growing resistance against Evernote, the note-taking app that I did not use so much for notes but as a digital drawer to throw anything in I thought I might need later. I used it in concomitance with MarginNote, OmniOutliner and Nisus Writer Pro to write my book Among Digitized Manuscripts. I was able to do so, since nearly all (and I truly mean nearly all) literature I used for that project was digitally available to me.
I have abandoned these applications almost entirely. Nisus remains a favorite, with its excellent support for RTL scripts, good stability for long documents, and its laser-focused “Full Screen Minimal” view. In their stead I now use Notion, Obsidian, Zotero, Flexcil, and -believe it or not- a paper notebook. The paper notebook has become central to my workflow. That’s right, as much as I am an advocate of digital tools, I have found the joy pen and paper again!
I should note that I have a separate workflow for digital projects, which mostly pivots around GitHub, Slack, VS Code, Jupyter Lab, and Firefox Developer Edition.
The edges I need
Much more than say something about these specific pieces of software, I wish to share my thinking behind it. Much of this comes from reflecting on the ‘productivity’ genre, with its many books, blogs, and podcasts. A few stand out, and among them towers the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. He says:
Work no longer has clear boundaries. In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed. It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished. Now; there are no edges to most of our projects.David Allen, Getting Things Done, p. 5.
This will ring true for many of us in academia. When do you not worry about finishing your next publication? When do you consider yourself not available for your students and colleagues? But it is true for something else as well: computers. Note-taking apps give you this blank slate that scrolls infinitely far down. They give so much freedom, they are so edgeless, it can actually give you the sense of powerlessness. And what about the absence of edges between different applications and uses of your computer? How can you expect to work and socialize and relax on the very same screen? This plays into another aspect of computers (which I described in my first chapter of Among), the strong pull towards consuming rather than producing. This is another kind of edgeless, one associated with it being a black box, the mesmerizing effect of the touch screen, which effortlessly hides the entire machinery behind it: “it just works.” Working for whom? Towards what purpose?
There have been some attempts at finding edges in the digital sphere. The notion of Inbox Zero is one that comes to mind: you work towards clearing your inbox to be completely empty. While it does give a clearly defined boundary for measuring a productive day, it remains a bit awkward to be expected to be enthusiastic about … nothing. zero. zip. Most other attempts are not fully digital but revolve around time management: the Pomodoro Method asks you to be entirely focussed for twenty minutes on one task only and suppress any urges to check social media or even pick up your phone when it rings. It will come after those twenty minutes. You can lock apps during certain times of the week. They do introduce edges to digital tools, but actually only by means of the non-digital world.
I come back to David Allen’s point about the farmer plowing his field. I am reminded of a senior colleague who spiritedly insisted: Don’t get distracted by setting up some blog (yes, dear reader, it later became this very magazine) but just work on your dissertation. You plow your own furrow!
What I wanted was to get my clearly defined acre of land back. I have found it in my notebook: every page is literally a rectangle of land that needs to be planted with notes.
To be fair, I had slowly been working up to this idea for some time. In 2019 and 2020 I worked with a Leuchtturm 1911 monthly planner. It worked really well: academic time management is not about the microscopic day-to-day, but the month-to-month progress you need to track. But the Leuchtturm planner did not invite for any note-taking, even though it did have blank pages. I do find that invitation, daily, in a Hobonichi Techo. This is a truly remarkable piece of technology, if I make call it that. It is a maximalist planner with the looks of a minimalist notebook. It has monthly spreads (which I use for planning ahead), weekly spreads (which I use to track what I did on a day), and daily pages (the acre I need to fill).
Edges in my head
A tool is only useful when skillfully applied. Shiny new things will not make your work instantly better. So I should say more about the actual method, the philosophy, of my workflow, which has been subject of interrogation as well in 2020. Out of the post-GTD field of productivity books, it is David Kadavy’s Mind Management, Not Time Management, that I found to be most relevant. He has also explored this issue of an edgeless world, suggesting to think of tools as either ‘grippy’ or ‘slippy’. A smartphone is very slippy: all too quickly will my fingers find their way to Twitter, Reddit, or some news app and before I realize my mind has wandered. Using my laptop without an internet connection connected to an external monitor is grippy: I can write long stretches without even the urge to go do something else. A paper notebook is even more grippy. He also proposes to change what you are doing on the state of mind you are in, and not manage your time as though each block is a discrete unit convertible in a same amount of productivity.
Out of his ideas, I have distilled my own seven mindsets, each coming with a triplet of things to do. It is highly literature focussed: I ‘do’ something with texts and that can only mean I need to read it and I need to write it.
Unfocused immersion in sources and where they lead you.
- Reading and browsing fairly freely (esp. footnotes)
- Writing bibliography
- Listening to talks
To create a plan and decide what needs to be done and what not
- Reading bibliography (and notes, now and then)
- Writing outlines and to-do’s
- Team meetings
Making the journey deemed necessary
- Skimming and close reading of bibliography entries
- Writing notes and highlighting
- One-on-one conversations
Producing the (scaffolding of the) envisioned product
- Reading notes and returning to sources
- Writing arguments and paragraphs
- Team meetings
Making it into something that can freely circulate and be useful to others
- Rereading yourself and comments by others
- Writing chapters and articles
- Asking and giving feedback
Doing the things needed to keep it all afloat
- Reading email (inherently with someone else)
- Writing email and social media (to promote or engage) (inherently with someone else)
Coming back to yourself
- Reading news, social media, and nourishing literature
- Writing a daily log
Edging to a conclusion
I will, for now, leave those mindsets for what they are and I invite you to think them over for yourself. I will close with a final thought that has been growing on me: E V E R Y D A Y D E L I G H T. (I may have picked it up from a gear reviewer if you will believe it). The things you do constantly should, if possible, not be ugly. To pick up my Hobonichi is a delight. Every time. Opening up Microsoft Word is ugly (to me). No wonder I seize the first opportunity to abandon it. So how can you cultivate delight in your own daily life?