Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Scientific Productivity Series: Evernote

After seeing so many conversations on Twitter, I've decided to start a blog series about scientific productivity. This is something I think about ALL. THE. TIME. I'm constantly trying to make my work (and my life!) more efficient, so I've played around with a lot of different tools in the search for what works best. A short disclaimer: what works for me what might not work for you, so this series is meant to be a showcase of the software and methods I've found most useful.

Part 1: Evernote

Evernote is one of my favorite pieces of software, a note-taking platform offered as a freemium service (offering a free basic tier and paid premium option with expanded features). There are tons of articles on how to use Evernote - like this one on Lifehacker and also this other one on Lifehacker (yeah I'm a little addicted to Lifehacker).

Evernote offers a desktop version (what I primarily use) and mobile apps (invaluable for accessing info on the go - like a grant code or your airline frequent flyer number).

I've found Evernote to be invaluable for the following things:
  • Having a quick reference list for administrative details - grant codes, office phone numbers (mine and other people), shipping addresses, wifi passwords, serial numbers for computers, product keys for any software I buy
  • Archiving notes from any type of meeting or conference call - I have notes from conferences/workshops, Skype calls, seminars, and lab meetings I attend. These notes now go back to 2011 when I first started using Evernote.
  • Writing email drafts - especially if you're on a plane with no wifi
  • Storing email drafts, for formal messages you send out frequently - inviting speakers for departmental seminars, logistical information for recurring workshops/events, acceptance and polite rejection letters for any kind of event that has limited spots (in my case, an undergraduate bioinformatics workshop that pays full travel costs for applicants)
  • Brainstorming and collating resources for grant proposals - usually I keep a note for each grant I'm applying to (records of Skype planning chats, links to RFPs and template documents, my general outline/vision for the grant)
  • Cheatsheets for any sort of software or command line tools - especially ones you use too seldom to remember from memory, but often enough where you should write it down. One example - my list of Wordpress HTML tags
  • Organizing job applications - for faculty jobs last year I had one note listing all the jobs I was applying to, with jobs ordered according to application deadline. I'd change the color of the job depending on status (application submitted, invited for interview, rejected, etc.), and I had a checklist of reference letters for each job so I could confirm that my letter writers submitted their documents by the specific deadline.
  • Blog posts - I do very rough drafts of blog posts on Evernote (often on planes or other places with no wifi), although the Evernote XML formatting makes copy-pasting into Wordpress a bit of a pain. So once I get towards the advanced draft stage I finalize the text and add formatting and pictures in Wordpress itself.
  • Any type of professional or personal development plan - I'm a little bit of an obsessive organizer/planner. I have Evernote notes listing my New Years resolutions each year, my 5-year academic and research plan, my "mission statements" for various things (I wrote a personal document to help effectively guide/plan my social media use)
  • Links roundups for any topic - For example, I have a list of online clothing shops that I want to try. Or a list of books I want to buy. Or Christmas present ideas for friends and family.
  • Travel Rewards Club numbers - A list of all your frequent flyer numbers for airline, hotel, car rentals, etc. Invaluable when you're on the go and need the number!
  • Digitizing important/interesting articles or documents - I'll scan articles from travel magazines because embedding the PDF in Evernote looks prettier than just typing out the information, and gives me a bit of inspiration when I'm planning a trip. Or I'll scan some documents as backup into an Evernote note - like the packing list and movers' business cards I got when I shipped my stuff from California to the UK recently.
  • Travel packing checklist - I always used to forget at least one thing when I traveled for work. Then I decided to brainstorm a master packing checklist in Evernote and now I (almost) never forget anything! I have one master packing list with a separate "appendix" for international travel (gotta remember that passport and plug adaptor).
Just to give you an idea how I organize my Evernote, here's a screenshot of my notebook stacks:

And because one tool is never perfect for everything, here's what I've found Evernote to NOT be useful for:

  • Keeping up on the scientific literature - Instead I use Feedly to subscribe to new articles via journal RSS feeds, and Papers3 to organize, annotate, and read my PDFs.
  • Project management - I've tried project mangement with Evernote, but for some reason it's just not interactive enough for me; I've even used shared notebooks for one of my research projects with collaborators, but I never remembered to check or update the shared notebook. I think I just I see Evernote as more of an archive and planning tool. So for project management I use Trello to define tasks, set weekly goals, and list tasks I've accomplished.
  • Documenting code or commands - Evernote kind of sucks for reproducible research. I've tried it, along with an online lab book, plain text files, and iPython notebooks. The XML formatting makes documenting commands hopeless - and its a b**ch to copy and paste anything because of line breaks. The text formatting options are also limited, so you can't denote code by font, e.g. by using Courier New, because that's not a font listed in the drop down menu. I pretty much gave up on Evernote pretty quickly for this. Right now I'm heavily using text files and iPython notebooks to document all my data analyses, along with posting other files, logs, and protocols in GitHub.

I'm going to write blog posts about all these alternative tools I mentioned in the above section - so stay tuned.

Also note - there are many features of Evernote I haven't really got around to trying - like the screenshot feature that makes a new note. Or the ability to record audio. At some point I might play around with these, but if anyone has any experience or feedback with other Evernote features I'd love to hear about it.

And to end with a nice picture - here's another screenshot showing my travel notebook, where I've scanned PDFs from magazines:

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