What I do: taking things in (text, sound, video)

Round about now, it might be useful to note how I take in information, and what I do with it.

I’m laying this out not because I think anyone else should do things the way I do, but because doing so gives a way to talk about some other possible approaches and issues, and figuring out what choices might work for you.

You should know about me…

I have – for reasons related to the chronic health issues – a pretty set routine about my life. This means my day to day is pretty consistent (and that I try to keep it like that.)

I read very fast compared to most people, but find watching videos for active content very tiring (and I also have a very limited amount of time that’s something I can reasonably do.) Audio’s somewhere in the middle: I can only do some things while listening to podcasts, but they include driving and time at work.

(I’m also laying this out because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about different kinds of media and how I use them, for an upcoming post, and explaining it here will make it easier to reference when I get there…)

Where I get things

Reading online

My core online reading includes my Dreamwidth reading list, and The Cauldron (the online pagan forum I’ve been on for approaching two decades in some form, and am currently staff.)

The former takes me about 10-15 minutes to read several times a day, unless someone’s made an extra long thinky post, the latter runs between about 20 minutes a day and an hour or more, depending on what replies I make.

I have a large number of blogs in my Feedly rss reader, and they produce about 120-200 posts a day. A number of these are from very busy sites (Metafilter and Ask.Metafilter) where I read only the ones I find intriguing from the opening, and it also includes a handful of Tumblr blogs where the posts tend to be short.

On an average day, I probably read 30-50 actual posts, and skim a lot of others.

I find Metafilter and Longform.org both fabulous for finding longer in-depth reading material that gets me looking at things from a different perspective, or getting me to read about something I might not have selected.

I dip into Twitter, though I have lists set up so I can keep up with a few close friends on there, and skim other things as I have time.

Finally, on the news front, I have digital subscriptions to two papers and one of my local NPR stations. They all send me at least daily updates on new stories, and I click through the ones that interest me. (Plus various other newsletters, information from organisations I donate to monthly, and the other stuff that happens in email.)

ebooks

I have a long To Be Read pile, read some amount of fanfiction on a regular basis (some of which can be quite long). These days, most of my reading is in electronic form (three long distance moves will convince even the most ardent adorer of books that moving the physical objects is a pain in the neck. And the arms and the back.)

So I mostly only buy print of titles I might want to lend out or reference with people in future (Pagan titles, mostly, or things where the print layout really matters) and everything else is digital. Conveniently, this also means I can walk around with 600+ books in my pocket, and never have to have the “Might I run out of book while out today? I’d better bring another one” mental discussion with myself, like I do with print.

My ebooks go into Marvin, an app that has a very functional list feature. I move items into “to be read” lists by broad genre (fiction, non-fiction, and Pagan) so I can skim different things, and then have a “read next” list for things I want to read sooner than later, a “read” list for things I’ve read, and so on.

I read about 10 books a month, give or take, though I’ve had months where it’s only about 4, and months with 15 or more (especially if I’m travelling.) In months where I’m short on brain, it’s a lot of reading things I already know something about, or rereading old favourites.

I’ve read for at least 10 minutes (and usually more like 30) every night of my life I could read, except for a handful of times. Since I do most of my reading on my phone these days, I also do a lot of bits of reading at other times (waiting for my work computer to boot in the morning, while things are processing, etc.)

Listening

I got the podcast bug fairly hard within the last year or so. I actually have three different kinds of podcast listening I do.

Swimming :
I swim three days a week before work, and I have a waterproof MP3 player and headphones. I put them in when I get ready to swim, and turn it off after I’ve showered and changed and gotten back to my car, which is right around an hour total. Keeps me from getting bored. I mostly go for longer ones here, and usually with multiple hosts, because I find that easier to follow early in the morning.

Work :
Some of my work tasks involve routine sorting of information that gets a little tedious, so I listen to podcasts while I’m doing that.

Since I work in a school (not directly with students, but with a range of people nearby at times), I want to be attentive to content, so I avoid some topics and podcasts. I mostly aim for history podcasts about topics I know something about (but not tons) which works out well for me.

Driving:
My commute is about 25-40 minutes (depending on traffic) and I listen to podcasts there. This is when I’ll listen to other content (there’s a couple of spooky or true crime ones that I won’t listen to at work, or Pagan/esoteric topics, and I avoid explicit political discussion there too.)

Watching

A lot of my video watching is material I am already familiar with – it’s what I have on while I’m home after work (or on the weekends) doing other things online.

Right now, I’m watching Classic Doctor Who from the beginning (BritBox made all the surviving episodes available streaming last year: I’ve seen them all at one point or another, but in many cases, not for decades.)

I usually get through 1-2 hours in a given night, but if I need to really focus on content, then the video is the only thing I’m doing, and time for that is a lot harder to come by.

What that looks like in a day

On the average workday, I get up, read my core online spaces, get dressed, get my things together, and drive to work, while listening to about 30 minutes of a podcast. (Some days I go swimming, first, and listen to about an hour of podcasts while swimming. Either way, I’m out the door within 30 minutes of getting up.)

I go to work. Sometimes I can’t listen to anything (because there are other people – volunteers, interns, visiting researchers – working in my office.) Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes it’s podcasts. It probably comes out to 3-5 hours of podcasts a week.

During this time, I’ll take breaks while I’m waiting for things to run, check in with the core online spaces, read blog posts, and so on.

I drive home (another 30 minutes of a podcast), get home around 5 and do things like make dinner, be sat on by the cat, eat dinner, and other necessities.

From here, on a good day, I’ve got about 3 hours of time I could do something with (including making and eating dinner) before my concentration goes away. On a bad day, I’ve already run out of focus. That’s due to multiple chronic health issues that can play havoc with concentration, focus, and ability to process new stuff at all efficiently.

This is my time for writing (hi!), reading more blog posts, knitting, making images for the blog, some kinds of other project work, and basically any other small hobby things.

This is also the only slot where I can actually watch video. So for me, video has to be really extra important for me to make the time for it. Written material (blog posts, books) or podcasts, I’ve got multiple places I can do them, and they take me a lot less processing energy.

It’s often a question of “Watch this video thing attentively or write a blog post?” or “Watch this video attentively or help out a friend with a question” or “Watch this video attentively or do this project” Most of the time, the video loses.

About 9pm, I start wrapping up, do one more pass through my core online spaces, and I try to be lying down in bed by 10. I read for 15-30 minutes (This is my one solid book-type reading time, though I read in small chunks at other times during the day. I read about 10 books a month, to give you an idea of my text to audio processing ratio.) Then I fall asleep.

How does that add up?

In total, my average weekday involves:

  • 1-3 hours of audio material
  • 30-60 minutes of reading a book
  • 1-2 hours of background video time
  • A hard to count amount of time in text-based online spaces (reading, commenting, etc.) but probably 3-4 hours most days.
  • Little focused video time (an hour once or twice a week at most, usually)

My weekend time is obviously a bit more flexible – there’s no going to work in there! – but it’s also when I work on larger projects at home, or just relax.

I’m curious

Where do you get your information, and what forms work for you?

I share some of the reading I’ve found particularly interesting in my fortnightly newsletter (and a new one will be out on Wednesday) so if that’s a thing you’re intrigued by, you can sign up over here.

Copyright for Pagans: Key concepts

Welcome back to my series of posts on copyright. As I said in the intro to the last post, it’s a very complicated subject, so today’s post focuses on some specific terms and a few common confusions (we’ll be getting to some more in part 4). Here are the parts in this series.

  • Part 1: Why is copyright so complicated? 
  • Part 2 : Key concepts and terms (This post)
  • Part 3 : What is under copyright? And what isn’t?
  • Part 4: Examples and common confusions
  • Part 5: Fair use: what it is and isn’t.
  • Part 6: Common Pagan situations, including some best practices.
  • Part 7: What creators of material should know. (We all create material.)

Image text reads: Copyright for Pagans: Basic terms and concepts

Intellectual property:

Intellectual property is the broad term used to describe “creations of the mind”. It covers written material, fine arts, music, theatre, performing arts, and also things like inventions, designs, names, concepts, and much more.

These different areas have different laws that apply to them. For example, patent law deals with inventions, and trademark law deals with names, or the copyright law we’ll be focusing on in these posts.

You’ll often see people refer to intellectual property or Intellectual Property Law to describe this group of laws and policies. Intellectual property can also cover things like industrial designs or even identifying a particular food as coming from a specific location.

Pretty much everyone – especially in our modern, Internet-filled world – is producing intellectual property on a regular basis. Most of it doesn’t have a lot of commercial value, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intellectual property.

Copyright

Copyright law has to do with the rights someone has, around a particular kind of intellectual property (original works in a fixed form). These rights include who can make a copy (hence the name. This can help with people who get confused and call it copywrite.)

Specifically, for most countries these days, copyright is about who can…

  • make copies of a copyrighted work (that includes posting it online)
  • distribute copies of a copyrighted work to the public (also includes posting it online)
  • make derivative works based on the copyrighted work (use it in other ways, new formats, translations, etc.)
  • perform the work in public
  • display the work in public.

For some kinds of works, it’s common for the original creator to transfer the copyright to someone else (like a musician might transfer the rights that relate to making and distributing copies to a recording studio.) Some creations, like a movie, are the work of many people, and so part of setting up those projects is figuring out who gets what rights.

Many social media and online community sites have something in their terms of service agreements that note you give them permission to share what you write with others (making and distributing copies) because otherwise people couldn’t read what you wrote or look at the photos you took and shared. Well-designed sites will make it clear they’re only asking for the permissions that allow the site to function, and they aren’t trying to claim copyright over your materials.

It’s possible to give permission for a particular use without transferring the copyright, so a copyright holder can choose to let someone else give a performance or make copies, while still retaining their rights.

Sometimes this process involves a license, which spells out the specific agreement in detail. That way everyone knows what to expect. Some fields, like mainstream publishing and music distribution, have standard sets of license agreements they want to use. Other times, it is entirely up to the people involved and what they agree on. (Also worth noting: licenses are often much more restrictive than the law is.)

My copyright professor said that the vast majority of copyright cases that make it to trial begin with people not being clear about their agreements. This is why you want to work with people who focus on intellectual property law if you’re setting up your own agreements with someone.

Plagiarism:

Plagiarism is different than copyright. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s material and claiming that you wrote it, created it, or otherwise were responsible for it. It gets talked about a lot in education, because it can come up a lot there.

In short, copyright is about who can make decisions about the work, and plagiarism is about whether you give credit to the person who came up with it. Both can apply to a given situation, or only one.

You can plagiarise something and have it also be a copyright violation.
One example: someone takes an extended passage out of a recently published (under copyright) book written by someone else, and puts it in their own blog or essay or article, making it look like they wrote that section.

Another example: Someone takes a poem (or song lyrics, or a song) that is still under copyright and presents it as if they wrote it.

Another example: Someone finds a piece of art on Tumblr (under copyright) and passes it off as theirs.

You can plagiarise something without it being a copyright violation.
If someone took several paragraphs out of a much older book – say, one written around 1900 – and put that in their essay or article without any indication someone else wrote it, that would still be plagiarism, but because the book is out of copyright, it is not a copyright violation.

You can have a copyright violation without plagiarism.
On the other hand, someone could copy a section from a book, say it came from the book, and if it was a big enough or central enough part of the work they were taking it from, that could still be a copyright violation, even though you identified where it was from. (I say ‘could’ here because there’s several factors involved. We’ll get to that in the post on fair use.)

Citation is how we avoid plagiarism.
Basically, citation is the formal term for “Say where you got this from.” There are lots of different citation formats and details, but those are details. What matters is identifying what material is yours, and what you got from other places and people.

Fair use:

One obvious question that comes up around now is “so when is it okay to share parts of a work with other people?”

If you’re talking about a particular work, you might want to quote a bit so you can say “This is the bit that confuses me” or “This is a really great bit.” People doing research into a topic might want to compare different parts – say, different translations of the same section of text, or different perspectives on the same historical event. And some of us really love parody songs, filk, and other forms of music that take pieces of music and change words or change perspective.

These all fall into an area that is called ‘fair use’ – basically, the idea that there are some uses that are beneficial to the community, or encourage artistic, scientific, or intellectual creativity and growth. Copyright law recognises that these are important, so there are some options for sharing things.

They are complicated sorts of options, though – it’s not as simple as saying “I want to share this, so I can.”

Anyone who tells you that (about copyrighted works) doesn’t understand copyright, so be dubious about other things they say about sharing files, copyright, or related topics.

I’ll have a whole post on fair use coming in part 5.

Idea / expression distinction:

This is an important concept in copyright law. Basically, an idea is not something you can copyright. However, the expression of that idea can be copyrighted – the specific words or images or other aspects you choose.

Think of it like this: the ideas behind a story or myth (the Descent of Inanna, Prometheus bringing fire to humanity, your Great Flood myth of choice) aren’t something you can copyright.

But your particular retelling of it (as soon as it was in a fixed form) would be copyrighted in most cases. The words you chose, the descriptions you used, the order you might put parts of the story in, all of those things create a unique creative work.

The same thing is true of photographs: the idea of an eclipse, for example, isn’t something anyone can copyright. But individual people framing and taking photographs of it, or making artwork that reflects, or writing a poem about it, all of those could potentially be copyrightable works.

Now we’ve gotten those terms and concepts out of the way, Tuesday’s post (part 3) will be about what is under copyright and what isn’t.

Copyright for Pagans : An introduction

The Pagan community has recently had another round of commentary on people posting PDFs of books. These discussions often make it clear that a lot of people are confused both about copyright in general, and about how it specifically applies to some common uses in the Pagan community

That makes it time for me to do a series of posts on how copyright works, and some specific applications for the Pagan community and for common things that come up online. This first post explains why copyright is so complicated, and then will describe my background.

(Pssst. Posting complete copies of books or other works that are under copyright is not one of the complicated bits. It is against copyright unless you have permission to do so from the copyright holder. Period. End of statement.)

This series

I expect this will be a series of seven posts (it’s possible I might split one or more if they get very long.) Topics I’ll be covering include:

  • Part 1: Why is copyright so complicated? (This post)
  • Part 2 : Key concepts and terms
  • Part 3 : What is under copyright? And what isn’t?
  • Part 4: Examples and common confusions
  • Part 5: Fair use: what it is and isn’t.
  • Part 6: Common Pagan situations, including some best practices.
  • Part 7: What creators of material should know. (We all create material.)

Copyright for Pagans: Why is copyright so complicated?

Why is copyright so complicated?

Copyright – especially in our current technological age – is exceedingly complicated. It’s no wonder people get really confused about parts of it.

On the other hand, some parts of it are really straightforward. You might not agree with them, but the lines are clear.

This series of posts will help sort out which parts are which, and what you should know about them for common Pagan uses.

History:

Copyright law in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some other countries with close legal ties to those places got its start in what is called “common law”

Copyright law in other places – like much of Western Europe – started from a different body of law, called “civil law”.

While there are places these two agree, there are also lots of places they disagree, or put different priorities on different things. The concept of “moral rights” is a common example here. Moral rights are the idea that an artist has some say over how their work is used after it’s made public (i.e. they sell it, put it on display, etc.) Common law mostly doesn’t consider moral rights in its decisions, but civil law countries often do.

Based on case law:

While there are legal statutes that define the laws, most of the actual details of how copyright law works have been decided as parts of specific cases brought before judges. If no one’s brought a suit about that specific combination of things yet, we don’t actually know how judges will rule.

This is why there’s no absolute list of how much it’s okay to share of a written work. What we have are a collection of cases where people have quoted segments, and different court decisions about whether that’s okay or not.  There are patterns, but no clear lines or boxes.

Most commonly, in the US, significant cases are decided by the circuit courts of appeals: there are eleven regional circuit courts in the US, plus one for the District of Columbia, and one for federal cases. This also makes things complicated because sometimes you have a case decided in one circuit court of appeal, and a very similar case decided differently in another circuit.

Third, because the details are often sorted out only when there’s a specific case that requires it, it can take a long time for some kinds of issues to be resolved. Someone has to do something that seems to be a violation, the copyright holder has to decide to bring suit, the suit has to work its way through the courts, the court has to make a decision, the decision gets appealed, and so on…

This makes things especially tangled when you’re talking about new technologies, particularly ones that involve copying, sharing, or distributing files in new ways.

Decisions and values:

One challenge in copyright law is that a lot of the pieces involve individual decisions, and reasonable, well-informed people can make different ones, especially about edge cases.

In some places, we’ve decided as a community that judges shouldn’t make particular kinds of judgement – for example, copyright law doesn’t generally consider if something is art, or what the specific artistic values are. At least not anymore. (There was a case right around 1900 about circus posters that established this.)

This makes some sense – judges are highly trained in the law, but not generally nearly so much in art theory, art history, philosophy, cultural theory, or other relevant topics. (And whether something’s art is something a lot of artists, scholars, philosophers, and people who enjoy artistic things can’t agree on either!)

Sometimes judges do have to learn new things, or judges with previous related experience may make different choices than someone without that experience. There are, for example, judges out there who also have experience as computer programmers: they’re going to bring different things to their decision-making about copyright cases involving computer code than someone who doesn’t have significant experience as a programmer.

Treaties:

One of the reasons that copyright is so complicated is that some of it is international law. Various countries have entered into a series of treaties to agree on what’s covered by copyright, and what countries need to do about that. The actual agreements involved are really complex, and there are some distinctly different approaches in different countries.

I’ll talk about a couple of them as we go on, but the one many people have heard of is the Berne Convention.

Like a lot of international law (or any kind of law where there are people with rather different ideas about what’s most important) a lot of copyright treaties are a series of compromises, and sorting out those compromises gets very confusing.

Along with the fundamental differences in the laws I mentioned above (in the section on complicated history), different countries want to reward or discourage different kinds of behaviour. Countries use laws to do this, so obviously coming up with treaties can get complicated, because they’ll have different laws.

Laws get changed:

Some of why copyright is complicated is that the laws get changed. Often this is for good reason – to make things more clear, to bring us into alignment with treaties, to deal with issues that keep coming up.

But it can also be really confusing.

One thing I’ll talk about more in the third post in this series, about what is under copyright, is that it depends when something was created.

Roughly speaking, almost everything before 1923 is in the public domain (no longer under copyright), and everything since 1976, you should assume it is unless you can determine differently.

But what about the fifty years in the middle? In that gap, it depends on a lot of different things – if there was a copyright notice when it was published or put in a fixed form, if it was published, if someone registered the copyright, if someone renewed that registration.

My professor for CopyrightX said that probably at least 80% of the things in this time period are no longer under copyright (because they didn’t do a step that was required under the laws at that time) but in many cases, we can’t tell, so it’s risky to assume something is no longer under copyright. Only a fraction of works were correctly registered, and many of those were not properly renewed.

Here’s the problem. There’s no universal database you can go to look up whether something is under copyright, or who holds the copyright currently if someone does. (I mentioned registration: you’d think that would help, but it helps much less than you’d think it should.)

So, if it’s a work that looks like it should be copyrighted, it’s often safer to treat it as if it were. Especially if you’re talking about books, musical performances, or movies where there’s ongoing commercial interest.

Where I learned what I know

I am not a lawyer. (I am also not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.) However, I am pretty well informed about copyright.

In various of my library jobs, I’ve been responsible for helping educate teachers, students, and colleagues about it, and about specific applications or situations. I’m aware of a wide range of sites that can be very helpful, some of which I’ll be linking to in these posts.

In spring of 2017, I wanted to deepen my knowledge, so I applied for and took the CopyrightX class offered by Harvard Law. It’s offered as an online course to a limited number of students (about 500) with an application process. We watched the same lectures as Harvard Law students in the equivalent course, answered many of the same questions on the final exam, and covered a lot of the same material. (They covered more case studies and had some additional expectations about the exam. Because, well, they were in law school.)

You can view the videos and other materials for the course yourself, they’re all made available online. The one thing you don’t have access to without applying to, being accepted in, and taking the course, are the sectional discussions (which I found very useful, but the public material also has lots of great helpful info in it.)

I did very well in the class – in the top 20% of the exams – but more importantly, it gave me a really good grounding in how copyright law in the United States (and a bunch of other countries, but we focused on the US) got like it is, the different theories that have been used to develop it, and I got to discuss key cases in depth.

At other times, I’ve also helped design an employer’s process for dealing with DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) violations, and been one of the people handling them for a large online site.

I’ve taught classes in the Pagan community (both one-shot workshops and ongoing classes). I create transformative works that combine elements of copyrighted works with new takes or new directions for various reasons. I also use sites where transformative works get shared, read fanfic, watch fanvids, etc. All of which is to say, I’m pretty familiar with a wide range of possible situations.

I did a presentation at Paganicon in 2013, just before this came up in the Pagan community in one of the periodic flares, and wrote up many of my notes about copyright at that time on my blog. I’ll be revisiting many of the ideas there in more detail in this series of posts.

Productivity : Tarot spreadsheet

Last post, I talked about what I track in my daily spreadsheet. Most of the things I count are pretty straightforward (at least if you’re comfortable with spreadsheets), but the way I set up the Tarot sheets is a bit less intuitive.

One of the things that’s really true about spreadsheets is that they can do a ton of things, but it’s often hard to see the potential until you have a thing you want to track (and play with it) or can explore some examples.

It relies on a couple of more complex formulas, and has three basic sheets. I’ve made a copy of it so you can see. You won’t be able to to edit it, but if you have a Google account, you can make a copy for yourself – go to File and ‘Make a copy”. I left a week’s worth of card draws there so you can see how it works, but you can delete those (just delete what’s in the B and C columns)

I’m also going to explain the basics of how it’s set up, so you can play with it in Excel or Numbers or LibreOffice, or another spreadsheet tool if you like. (These other programs use the same formulas, though some of the syntax may be slightly different.)

Image of spreadsheet screenshot showing different coloured totals. Text says: Productivity, Tarot spreadsheet

What I track

While I love having a Tarot deck in my hands, I discovered I often don’t remember to check for a card of the day before I get myself out the door (that’s the downside of an early start time and an early morning). Via the app, I can check when I get to work, easily and conveniently.

Sheet 1 : Daily cards

This has four columns:

  • Date (in whatever format you prefer)
  • Card
  • Suit or Major
  • A column that combines these.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing daily Tarot card readings : described in text.

Here are the daily cards for the first week of this year: The Heirophant, Page of Pentacles, The Wheel of Fortune, the Page of Swords, the Ace of Pentacles, the Star, and the Four of Pentacles. The name of the card is in the second column, the suit in the third, and the combination of the two in the third column.

You can actually just enter the card name manually (so long as you are completely consistent) but I use two optional tools to discourage random typo errors. Typos will mess up your statistics, because this spreadsheet is only going to count things that exactly match what you tell it to count.

I use data validation on the second column to verify the card names. This looks at a column of the card names on the “data validation” sheet and will only allow me to enter names on that list. As a side benefit, this means that as you start typing, you get a drop down menu of the choices that match that card. If your deck uses different names for some cards, you can adjust the text on the data validation sheet.

The third column is suit : I used conditional formatting to change the color based on the suit, because I like to be able to glance at it and see the difference. In this case, highlight the column, and then set up five rules, one for each suit plus the majors. Conditional formatting looks at what’s in the area you select and changes the formatting based on what’s there. In this case, it does a different background colour for each suit. On the stats page, I did something a bit more complicated with conditional formatting. We’ll get there in a minute.

I use the fourth column to automatically generate the statistics consistently. This uses the concatenate function which combines text strings. In this case, it combines the thing in the second column (B), a hyphen and spaces (the thing in the quotes), and the thing in the third column (C).

It looks like this as a formula:
=Concatenate(B2,” – “,C2)

The results will then say things like “The High Priestess – Major” and “Six – Cups”

Once you set up one row, you can click, hold, and drag it down the entire column to copy the formula line for line (or if this doesn’t work for you, you can edit it manually.)

The quote marks indicate that text should be inserted. You can put anything you like in there, but the – mark is nice and consistent, and lets me count both majors and suits easily.

Sheet 2 : Statistics

This is the more complicated one, since it counts automatically from things on sheet one. Basically, there are six columns. Four suits, the Major Arcana, plus a general statistical count of type (suits, numbers, court cards). I use additional columns to make the spacing attractive and more readable for me.

Screenshot of Tarot statistics sheet, described in text

The basic formula looks like this: =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Major”– this is an example from the first count, for Major Arcana cards. 

  • = tells the spreadsheet that the next thing is a formula.
  • COUNTIF is a formula that counts only if an entry in the identified range matches the identified text “Major” in this case)
  • The part up to the comma tells it where to look (up to the comma). In this case, it is a range. You can click and identify ranges in other sheets in most spreadsheet apps, so this is looking at column C on the ‘daily cards’ sheet.
  • The thing in quotes is what it’s looking for. “Major” in this case. (This is why consistent terms are important.)

Here are some other examples:

  • The specific card “The High Priestess” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“The High Priestess – Major”
  • The specific card “Six – Swords” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“Six – Swords”)
  • All Pages : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!B:B,“Page”)
  • All Cups : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Cups”)

Different columns for different goals:

Note that these look at different columns, depending on whether you’re looking at for a class of card (Pages, in column B), a suit (Cups, in column C) or the combination (column D). This is why the first sheet is laid out like it is – it allows for much more elegance in counting the stats.

Color formatting:

I’ve also applied conditional formatting so it’s easy to see at a glance which cards come up more often. There are an absurd number of variations possible in how you set this up, so find something that’s pleasing to you. Here, I’ve chosen colour scales relating to the suits (with purple for the majors, and blue for my generic statistics because I like blue.)

These scales weight the colors, so you can see that there are differences depending on the totals. (In this case, I’ve set the midpoint colour to be 50% of the highest number in the range.) This means the shades will change as you enter more data.

Looking at smaller amounts of time

This spreadsheet looks at everything in the main sheet – so in my case, it’s all the cards I’ve pulled from January 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017. (Because it’s still the middle of August, and I haven’t put August’s data in.)

What happens if I just want to look at a month? Or three months? In that case, I can easily look at a smaller portion with just a couple of steps (though I should be careful to avoid deleting the data I want later.)

  • Make a duplicate of the Daily Cards sheet. Maybe move it to the end where I won’t accidentally click on it.
  • Edit the daily cards data to just show the time period I want.
  • Look at the statistics and save a copy.
  • Copy the data from all the days back to the Daily Cards sheet.
  • Delete the extra duplicate sheet I made in step 1.

If this sounds too complicated, you can just count manually. If you want to have months separate, you can make duplicates of both the daily sheet and the stats sheet, rename them (for example : June 2017), and then edit the part in the formula that says ‘daily cards’ to the new name you’ve chosen, i.e. ‘June 2017’. Obviously, this is sort of a pain in the neck.

One more example of spreadsheet power

After writing the last post, I did some more fiddling with my stats sheets. I have multiple chronic health things, so part of why I’m charting things is to see how I’m doing, and whether there are any patterns I should be aware of.

Screenshot of tracking spreadsheet: described in following text.

Here’s an example from the week I took vacation in July (I stayed home and set up this site, mostly.)

  • Column A : The date
  • Column B : Number of items in the next columns that qualify as ‘good’ or better.
  • Column C : Moon phase (it turns out I do usually do a bit worse over the full moon. Good to know!)
  • Column D: How much activity I got (general movement + exercise).
  • Column E : How much exercise I got (in this case, I walked downtown a couple of times).
  • Column F: How long I slept (I color code particularly long nights so they stand out)
  • Column G : Quality sleep (a percentage my tracking app gives me)
  • Column H : How many words I wrote
  • Column I : How many tasks I completed.
  • Column J : Tarot card of the day (colour coded in text.)
  • Column K and L : Notes for unusual days and if I was sick.

What you can’t see in this screen shot is a set of columns used to generate the number in Column B.

  • Column M : Total number of “good” or better for that day.
  • Column N : Uses CountIf to count if activity was more than a certain level. (30 minutes, in this case)
  • Column O and P : Count sleep info, using CountIf (more than 7 hours, more than 70%)
  • Column Q : Adds them, so I can do the calculation in Column R.
  • Column R: Looks at the total in column Q. If they were both good (i.e. the total is 2) it uses CountIf to give me one point. If the total is less than 2 (i.e. I didn’t sleep enough, or not well enough) it doesn’t count it, so no points. I figure that if either one was below my fairly generous margin, I didn’t actually sleep well.
  • Column S: Did I write things? Counts if I’ve written any words that I track (not casual discussion, but anything lengthy)
  • Column T: Was I reasonably productive? My baseline here is 3 or more big tasks.
  • Column U: Uses CountIf to count if there is anything in my “Sick” column

This part takes a little explaining. For Column U, I wanted to note why I was sick – a cold? A migraine? Feeling generically lousy (multiple autoimmune issues means that happens to me sometimes). But I wanted it to count that I felt sick no matter what the text was. So, I used what’s called a wildcard – something that will match any text in that cell. In Google Sheets, * (an asterisk) is the usual wildecard.

Here’s what that looks like for a day I was sick (May 9th) : =Countif(L130,“*”)

The total (column M) adds up the good points (Activity, decent sleep, writing, tasks), subtracts a point if I was sick (otherwise it just subtracts 0.)

Then I just had to drag the formulas down the screen so they covered the entire year, and there we go! I’ve got another sheet that calculates percentages of how the days went (so I can tell you that I had good days about 3 days out of 4. Which is useful to know – and useful to know that about one out of four days, I can expect to not get as much done as I hoped for, whether that’s because of a cold, a migraine, or feeling ill in other ways, or just plain lack of brain. (My stats also tell me that I was ill about half those days, so the other half are my brain just not working well.)

Total spreadsheet geek

As I said last time, if you’re baffled by how I did this but want one for yourself? (Putting the data in is so much easier than setting it up!) That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project.  Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

I’m also very glad to answer questions here, or via the contact form, if you’re just trying to figure out how to do a specific thing.

Want more stuff like this? My next set of posts coming up are going to be about copyright and some related topics, but I’ll be circling back to productivity in the not too distant future. Check out my newsletter which will have occasional links about it as well as other things I’ve found interesting in my travels around the net.

Productivity : Spreadsheet of doom (how I do my personal tracking)

I have spreadsheets for a lot of things. (Enough that my friends tease me about them.)

The one I use most often is my personal tracking sheet. Why do I track things over time? Because it gives me a comparative sense of I’m doing.

I’ve had a rough few days, brain-wise: a grand state of exhaustion for no obvious reason and brain fog that’s making it hard to get much done. At the same time, I can look at the data and figure out if there are particular patterns.

Screenshot of tarot tracking speadsheet with statistics : text reads productivity : spreadsheet of doom

What I track right now:

Sometimes I track more, sometimes I track less. These have been pretty consistent for at least a couple of months now, sometimes much longer. (The last ones I added were sleep time and quality, which I’ve kept data on for years, but weren’t in the spreadsheet.)

  • Activity I get (and how much deliberate exercise)
  • Sleep amount and quality
  • Tarot card of the day
  • Words written
  • Productivity
  • Number of unusual days (outside my normal schedule) and days I was sick.

And then I do a summary page by week (so I can see changes over time) and by month (for larger chunks of time)

Unusual days are the number of days that were outside my ordinary schedule (so vacation, travel, etc.) and sick days are days in which I felt sick enough to not do at least some of the things I would normally do (so when I’m home sick from work, but also ‘I am getting over a horrible cold and sleeping miserably and can’t brain at all’ which took up two weeks this May. Just as a random example.)

I divide it up into different sheets: here’s what that looks like. E is exercise, T is Tarot, W is writing, S is productivity stats. Since it’s hard to show you data that isn’t very personal, here’s a list of what the sheets look like instead.

On my list to add in (probably starting in September) are astrological transits, to see if that is related to any particular pattern.

Screenshot of spreadsheet sheets (described in nearby text)

I also keep writing topic ideas and a log of things written in this sheet (since I have it open a lot and it’s easy to add things here), and then the summaries by week and month. The last sheet is data validation for the Tarot cards, and for categories for my writing topics. I prefer having that on a separate sheet for tidiness.

I used to have all the archive data on the same sheet, but found it annoying to scroll back and forth, so I separated the archival info out into its own sheet. I copy each month’s data to the archival sheet at the beginning of the new month, and update the summaries and do some additional number crunching on it. This week’s addition to that is looking at how good the day was by different categories and counting that up.

Tools I use:

Two Google Sheets spreadsheets. Why Google? So I can access them from home or work (or with some annoyances, from the iPad while travelling. Also, I like the formatting tools a lot.

One sheet has my current data (by calendar month) plus a summary. The other has archival data (previous months).

I track the information that goes into the spreadsheet in multiple apps. (The ones I use are all iOS, but equivalents exist for other phone OS)

General activity

I use Human.

This app tells me how many minutes I moved for. I add in exercise manually (since that’s usually swimming, and my phone and the pool are not friends.)

If I walk somewhere for more than 10 minutes, I manually edit the time to count that as exercise. I also have a column for activity my phone doesn’t count (mostly housecleaning, where the phone is usually on my desk while I’m doing things.)

I use my phone rather than a specific fitness gadget because the phone’s basically always on or near me, and I lost two Fitbits before I figured out that part.

Because of the chronic health issues, part of why I track activity is so that I know if I’ve had an unusually active day so I can take steps to rest, recover, and take care of myself – more activity is not necessarily better for me!

Sleep quality and amount:

I use Sleep Cycle.

This is not always the most incredibly accurate (I’ve had nights that felt pretty lousy that the stats said were pretty good, and vice versa) but it is good at catching when I actually fell asleep, and if I was up in the middle of the night and I feel like the overall trends match my experience.

It also works very reliably for me as an alarm. (I should note I’m a light sleeper, though). It can be set to wake you up in the lightest part of your sleep phase.  It will also make note of weather, heart rate (using a pulse tool with the light from your camera’s flash) and some other useful statistics.

For example, I sleep less well pretty reliably around the full moon and new moon, and sleep better between them. Perhaps more usefully my sleep quality tends to be a lot better on Friday and Saturday nights (aka the days I don’t get up early for work) which makes me more protective about scheduling them. I try to avoid scheduling things that mean I need to be up and moving at a set time (at least before about 10) now.

Tarot card:

I use the Shadowscapes deck app for my cards.

Anything that produces a card will work for this, whether that’s a deck or an app. (And if you like apps, the people who made the app for the Shadowscapes one also have a number of other decks.)

I track what cards I get over time, and find the summary of what cards came up interesting. My weekly summary does a simple count by type (Major Arcana, Swords, Wands, Cups, Pentacles), though I’ve got a more thorough card counting sheet I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Tarot card stats look like this (this screenshot has all my daily cards from January 1, 2017 until June 30, 2017. I actually find it fascinating that the suits come out almost even over time. And yet, over six months, there are some cards I’ve never pulled for a daily, and a number I’ve pulled five or six times.)

I’ll be talking about how to set up a spreadsheet like this in my next post.

Screenshot of Tarot card statistics : described later in text

Productivity:

I use Todoist, as described in the previous blog post. I then count up the number of each size of tasks, and add it to the spreadsheet.

This is just a quick slash and tally on a scrap of paper: since I divide my tasks up by size, I write K (for knut), S (for sickle) and G (for galleon) across one side, the dates down the left, and just count and tally, then add them all up. It goes very quickly for me.

Putting the task count in a spreadsheet lets me measure how productive a week was (overall) against other weeks, and figure out if there’s something that’s messing me up.

Words written:

Counted in whatever app I’m writing in (or copy and paste into a thing that will tell me) and put in the appropriate column.

I track both number of words, and number of days I wrote that week or month. My current goal is to write at least 5 days a week, and I’ve got half a dozen projects, so there’s a column for each general project. Over time, that helps me see where I’ve been doing more writing or less.

Fun with spreadsheets

Of course, these techniques can be applied to a lot of other topics – one of the things I learned about spreadsheets is that a lot of people use them only in the ways they’ve come across before. I hope seeing some other examples and hearing about some additional things they can do help.

Come back on Saturday for how I set up the Tarot spreadsheet!

Baffled but want a spreadsheet set up for your own personal goals? That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project. (Spreadsheets like the one described above are probably under an hour’s work on my end, especially if you can explain clearly what you’re hoping for.) Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

Productivity : Todoist in action

One of the productivity apps I rely on most heavily is Todoist. So many things go in there, and I can use it to help me figure out what to do with my day. I talked a bit about the tools I use in my last post, but figured Todoist deserves some specific examples.

My job and my personal energy levels both mean I end up moving stuff around on my to-do list a lot. I need a system that’s okay with that, and that lets me move things (both within a given day, and between days) easily, while also accommodating a lot of “I want to do this sometime in the future, but not any time soon” goals.)

That’s a big part of why I like Todoist – it lets me rearrange without fear of losing things.

It can be really hard to figure out how to use a tool without seeing it in action. So I thought I’d give you a practical example of what this looks like for me.  The three days I include here are actually a great example. I hit “Wow, I can’t even things” rather early on Saturday, had an unexpected not-quite-nap on Sunday, and my work days always involve a certain amount of rearrangement based on what questions we actually get.

One accessibility note : I’m including a number of text-heavy images here, but I’ll explaining what’s in the screenshots in the surrounding text.

Image has screenshot of a project list along with the text "Productivity. Todoist in Action. Jenett Silver : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Background and layout

First, I should note that I have Todoist Premium (which costs about $30 for a year). I find the additional tagging options and filtering useful, but the thing that makes me sign up to pay them every year is the ability to link emails from Gmail as a task. Your needs may be different!

Projects and how I divide them

I divide my broad project list up into broad categories based on the planets (via their general astrological associations, and adding in the Earth for ‘I live on this planet in a physical body’ tasks.) I’ve tried different categories over the years, started with these around January, and have really been liking them. They help me keep an eye on balancing different kinds of things in my life.

Here’s what that looks like.

Screen shot of project list - described in text.

The colours are chosen based on options in the app and colours associated with those planets, with enough visual distinction to be able to pull out different options. The parentheticals are quick reminders to me of what goes where.

  • Sun (work) : Subprojects for ongoing reference questions I’m working on, reviewing and improving library practices, projects I want to keep in mind, meetings, ideas for the future, and regular tasks like timesheet approvals.
  • Mercury (writing) : Broken into specific writing projects. Each specific topic I want to write gets a task.
  • Venus (relationships) : Also tasks related to the arts that don’t fit other places.
  • Earth (practical) : I live on the earth with a physical body. Household and health tasks go here.
  • Moon (priestess) : Priestess and religious tasks, including planning and doing rituals.
  • Mars (active) : Goals I want to make extra sure I get done (often reorganisation and other home tasks that aren’t routine.)
  • Jupiter (expansion) : Things I’m learning, also my research consulting business.
  • Saturn (structure) : Tasks about getting things done (sorting files, reviewing tasks, managing schedule) but also where I put tasks that are about limits or foundations.
  • Uranus (groups) : Group activities and projects, volunteering, staffing on an online community tasks.
  • Neptune (someday) : Things I want to do sometime, but not any time soon.
  • Pluto (finances) : Reminder to update my budget app, mail my rent check, pay credit card bills, etc. Also tasks about long-term legacy (so, will, intellectual property notes, etc.)

In some cases, I just have a general reminder I want to work on that thing, and add a task related to it when I decide to work on it.

For example, for fiction writing, I add a task of “Write some fiction” on days when that’s the thing I want to write, rather than have a lot of tasks saying “write some more on this fiction project”. For articles for Seeking, I want to remember the specific topic I wanted to write about, so it gets a task. (I keep some additional notes for these in Trello, too.)

My Venus project list often doesn’t have a lot on it (or Saturn) : those tend to be things I put on at short notice and then check off, based on other events. I’ve got a regular monthly dinner with friends (and their kids), and then other things that get scheduled on a week to week basis.

Tags

While my system is roughly based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, (more about that in a future post), I don’t actually use context as tags. I found it didn’t work well for me to keep up with them, and the project classifications and task notes give me a pretty good idea what’s involved. (I do usually tag errands.)

I use a very rough system of magnitude of task. Because it amuses me (and works better in my brain), I use the exceedingly non-decimal money system from the Harry Potter books: knuts, sickles, and galleons. (17 knuts to a sickle, and 29 sickles to a galleon.) In practice, knut tasks take me less than a minute or two, sickle tasks take me 5-15 minutes, and galleon tasks are about an hour.

I track how many of each I complete each day, and on a reasonably productive day, I average 4-5 galleons, 2-7 sickles, and a handful of knuts. My spreadsheet calculates tasks at 20 knuts to the sickle, and 10 sickles to the galleon, because I often don’t break out sickle tasks as much as I probably should, so a given task is probably 2-3 sickles.

I also have some tags for other things: focus (things that require focus to do), next (so I can pull a list of the next projects I want to work on easily), ongoing (things that I do a little bit over time), and waiting (if I’m waiting for a response from someone.)

What those task lists look like in practice

One of the things that’s hard about talking about to-do lists is figuring out how they work out in practice, so I thought having a couple of sample days would be really helpful. You’ll get both a sample of what my task lists look like for three days (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) and also an outline of what I did when.

You’ll notice there are some things I don’t put onto my task lists.

  • Medication reminders (three times a day in 2 hour windows – I use a separate app)
  • Reading RSS feeds and other online content (I do that anyway, in an order that works for me.)
  • Watching things while doing other tasks and chatting online (again, I do that anyway.)

As you’ll see Monday, I do put swimming on my task list once I’ve done it, but that’s to help me track a “I did a thing that took a chunk of time and energy” so I can factor it into my stats for the day.

Saturday : tasks

Screenshot of my task list, starting on Saturday morning. Described in text

Here’s what my task list looked like Saturday morning. I usually do grocery shopping either Saturday or Sunday morning, depending on the rest of my weekend. I needed to write a post for this blog. I had an acupuncture appointment.

I had a couple of project tasks I wanted to do (putting notes in my astrology study file for Leo: I didn’t finish with the new moon in Leo last week, and the thing with a little email icon is an email for me to review that’s related) and prepping an outline for the free class I’m working on in detail.

I also have three tasks with upcoming dates. Two of the ones on this list are astrological: reminders of current retrogrades, with questions from Briana Saussy’s AstroRx 2017 resource. Last January I put them in, and they pop up on my todo list (long-term ones on weekends, when I can think a little more, lunar cycles on the days they happen) when appropriate. I also did a year’s Tarot reading with a reader, Theresa Reed, last year for my birthday, and put the card of the month and her summary into my todos.

My acupuncturist is a friend and husband of one of my college friends, and they live about 40 minutes drive from me. So it’s a hike to get up there – why I’m glad he’ll do an appointment on Saturday – but it’s also a mix of social time and treatment time. Here’s what my list looked like when I got back, and checked some things off, and added one (remembering I kept meaning to deposit a check via phone.)

Screenshot of my task list, Saturday afternoon. Described in text.

Did I actually do all those things? No, I did not. I started feeling out of it around 4:30, and didn’t get a lot else done, though I did add another task (making turkey burgers, which go in the freezer so I can eat them later).

This was a 4 galleon, 2 sickle, 3 knut day. The galleon tasks were reviewing my task list, grocery shopping, acupuncture, and writing that blog post.

Saturday : what happened when

  • 7:45am: Wake up. Putter. Read a bit.
  • 9 : Grocery shopping.
  • 10 : Write a blog post and do the image for it.
  • 11:15 : Get in the car, drive north for acupuncturist and friendly chat.
  • 12:15 pm : Acupuncture and social time.
  • 1:45 : Drive home.
  • 2:30 : Get home, minor puttering, have a bath.
  • 3:30 : Settle into computer, figure out what I should do next. Stare at things on the computer in a not very productive manner. Add “Make turkey burgers” to my task list, since I should do that either today or tomorrow. Eventually decide to make them now.
  • 4:15 : Finish making the turkey burgers. Sit down again. Fiddle with depositing check. Putter online (reading stuff in my RSS reader).
  • And then I hit ‘unable to do more things’ and puttered all evening. (And caught up on my RSS feeds.)
  • 10pm : went to sleep

Sunday

Here’s my list for Sunday, as it was when I started the morning.

You’ll notice that there one repeating task (my standard ‘prep things for the work day tomorrow’ task that reminds me of the specific things I usually need to think about doing.) There are the Leo note tasks I didn’t get done on Saturday. There are some routine tasks I need to do (laundry, prepping lunches for the work week.)

I woke up feeling sort of lousy, with a headache that got worse during the morning, and pretty much decided it was not a good day for an organisational task like sorting through old mail and catalogs, nor was it a great day to work on a complex resource guide, like the visual impairment and ritual access one I want to write as a sample for Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

Screenshot of todo list for Sunday, as it was in the morning.

It was actually a day where I got a lot of tasks done – this comes out to 6 galleons, 8 sickles, and 5 knuts. And that’s not counting a nap! It’s a long enough list I can’t actually get a useful screencap in one shot. I’m sort of startled by this, because the day definitely didn’t start out feeling productive. This is why a task list and tracking help me so much.

Sunday: What I actually did when

  • 6:30am : Wake up. (Thanks, cat.) Puttering and reading in a not-very-awake way.
  • 9 : Put laundry in, read RSS feeds.
  • 9:30 : Put laundry in the dryer, have a bath to short circuit allergy issues, have breakfast, sort my download folder and add some new music to iTunes.
  • 10:20 : Get clothing out of the dryer. More puttering trying to get my brain to go so I can do other things. Take an ibprofen for headache.
  • 11 : Work on putting notes into my astrology research (that’d be the two Leo related tasks)
  • Noon : Have lunch. Still have headache. This is annoying.
  • 12:30 pm : Pause to lie down for a bit and see if I can make the headache go away. (There was some quality supervision by the cat in this time.) Never quite nap, but lie there and read and doze.
  • 4 : Sit up again. Work on the product design outline. Finish it around 5pm.
  • 5  : Combine things into a black bean and corn salad for lunch at work this week. Eat dinner.
  • 6 : Fill my meds containers for the week, discover that the formulation of the supplement I take for migraines has changed, do a bit of spot research to see if there’s likely to be a problem with the new thing in it, determine probably not, order the new formulation, and make a note to check with my doctor at my appointment later this month. Do other small tasks (charging and swapping out podcasts on my swimming MP3 player, packing my swim bag for tomorrow.
  • 7 : Break down my astrology study project into actual well-defined tasks.
  • 8 : Work on this post, as part of my ‘write 500 words today’ project. (It was actually more like 1000.)
  • 9 : Take notes on the astrology chapters
  • 9:30 : Play silly Flash games on the computer, prepare for bed.
  • 10pm : Go to bed.

Monday:

Here’s my list of tasks before I leave the house on Monday. It’s got five coming dates, two work tasks, part of my astrology study, a reminder to work on this blog post, and a reminder to do some sorting of links in my Pinboard account.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of work tasks, does it? That’s because I mostly set my work tasks once I’m actually at work, unless there’s something that’s carrying over from a previous work day, because my day is highly dependent on what questions people have asked, and we get most questions in email.

In this case, I know in advance I have some guides to review for our museum since we’re updating the formatting, and our archivist did some updates but wanted another pair of eyes.

Task list of items from Monday before leaving for work

Here’s what the tasks I actually did look like. (Up until about 7:30pm)

They’re in order of when I checked them off (so the most recent are on the top). I forgot to add in the swimming until I was leaving (even though I swim first thing in the morning.) I don’t make that a regular task for several reasons, and put it in each time.

So, that’s 6 substantial work-related tasks (plus one I hadn’t put in yet, and one I’d forgotten to check off a while ago), swimming, five reminder notes. And then two personal projects at home, and a couple of minor home and householdy things.

How Monday went in practice:

(I should note here: I get up for work absurdly early and I am totally not a morning person by nature. But scheduling my work hours for 7:45 am to 4:15pm mean my commute is about 30-40 minutes, instead of 20+ minutes more, and I am much better about actually swimming if I do it before work. I’d much rather get up early than lose nearly an hour and gain a lot of frustration in traffic.)

  • 5:25am : Wake up, do morning necessity things, do morning-of packing stuff for work.
  • 6 : Drive to pool. Swim from 6:25 to 7. Shower and get dressed.
  • 7:30 : Arrive at work, check in with the library assistant, who was on vacation last week. Check my work email. Decide on what I’m working on this morning while we have a volunteer here. Add updating reference question statistics to my task list. (I’m way behind, which is why I’m still working on March.)
  • 8:30 : Realise that our volunteer is here Thursday (dear self, look at your work calendar). Rearrange the day a bit. Work on a “Do we have copies of this set of historical conference proceedings problem”
  • 9 : Work on email archiving project.
  • 10 : Sort the first half of March into my reference questions stats tracking.
  • 11:30 : Pause from reference stats to review museum guides and make notes.
  • 12pm : eat lunch at my desk because in the midst of the museum guides.
  • 1 : Finish the guides. Talk to my assistant. Put in a vacation day request. Skim through work mailing lists for useful bits.
  • 2 : Work on stats for the second half of March.
  • 2:30ish : Get a reference phone call that takes about 20 minutes to sort out what we can offer, and then about another 10 to write up notes for me and my assistant so we can figure out how to make it happen tomorrow. (It involves a chunk of transcription)
  • 3:30 : Finish stats for the second half of March, paste them into my stats sheet, watch my computer grind to a halt, reboot, and recover most of it.
  • 4 : Wrap up and head home.
  • 4:45 : Get home, putter, make dinner, eat dinner, putter.
  • 7:30 : Work on this post, and a few other tasks.
  • 8 : Work on the astrology notes and bookmark sorting.

No day’s quite like any other

And that’s really how it should be – I have a pretty structured life, in terms of schedule and what I do when, but there are also a lot of moving parts depending on my energy, focus, and what has priority at a particular moment.

For example, at work, reference questions get dealt with before long-term projects, most of the time.

You’ll also notice there are some fairly large gaps here where I’m not all that productive in measureable terms. And that’s okay. After extensive tracking, I’ve determined that 5-6 large tasks is a pretty good day for me most of the time (and a level of productivity I can sustain, that keeps me on top of things at work, and making steady enough progress on long-term tasks both at work and at home.)

Doing things that are useful but not immediately productive (a lot of the random online reading I do, plus self-care) also matters.

Productivity : laying out the basics

I’m a productivity geek – I love looking at different methods to get things done. This is partly because I find process geeking (figuring out how things work, and how to make them work better) fun in general, but it’s also partly because I am much happier when I keep on top of it.

My job has a number of different parts. Some of my work is reactive: I am a librarian, someone asks me a question, I answer it. (But some answers take 3 minutes and some take 3 hours, and some might turn into a 3 month project.) Some of my work is ongoing projects. Some of it is other things that come up.

And then there’s my home life – I’ve got over 300 things in various lists I’d like to write some time (those are the article length things: the book-length projects aren’t broken down that far right now.) I have ritual I want to do. I have long term research projects (and some shorter-term ones.) And I’ve got all the usual household and health appointment tasks that go with being a human with a body.

Research is about the relationship we have with information, and productivity is a subset of that.

All the task lists and todos and so on are about how we interact with our world – both our intentions and our actions. Getting a handle on them makes us better researchers – and like research, while there are some general best practices, a lot of how we work best is going to be individual.

In this post, I’m going to lay out the basics of how I do things, talk about a few other options (and why they don’t work for me, but might work for you). Someone I know is trying to figure out how to make Todoist work better for them, so my next post will be some screenshots of the specifics, both over the weekend and on Monday.

Photo of fountain pen on a lined spiral bound notebook with a blank page. Text reads: "Productivity: laying out the basics"

A few notes about me:

I am actually a naturally organised person with good executive function. Except.

Oh, except.

In 2010, my health crashed badly, including what was eventually diagnosed as thyroid issues. That did a number on my ability to sequence tasks. It was really bad for about 6 months, and then not great for about another year. I’m now back – on reasonably good days – to about 90-95% of where I was before.

But on the bad days, when my head is all cotton wool, and I forget what I was working on if I’m interrupted even briefly? I really need the help.

I got along fine without a system until 2010, or at least anything beyond a Post-It note with a few things to do. But since then, I’ve really needed a structure where I can put things, find them again, and structure what I need to get done.

My health issues also come with exhaustion and stamina issues. I have structured my life so I can go to work (and the gym) and manage the basic household stuff and still have some energy and focus for writing and personal projects and just fun things, but I have to manage it pretty carefully or bad things happen.

In 2014-2015 (due to a shift in work location), I was having serious migraine issues – basically, six months of daily migraines. Mine aren’t so much about pain, as a lot of neurological glitchiness and that included having a horrible time getting back to tasks if interrupted, short term memory glitches, and a degree of dizziness and proprioception issues that lead to a couple of scary falls and a very limited range of cooking options for safety reasons.

In the middle of that, my job was cut, with six months notice. (Yay, union contract.) I’d already been job hunting, but I had to ramp it up very quickly, and because of where I was located at the time, basically every interview involved at least 6 hours of driving and travel, often more.

My system made it so I could juggle job interviews, tasks at work I was still doing (though thankfully some of the more difficult ones dropped off my list when they cut the job), and all the many tasks of relocation to another state, and not drop any pieces (at least not too badly.) That’s pretty impressive.

My system may well not work for you – you’re not me, your head doesn’t work like mine, chances are really good your set of tasks isn’t like mine. But I really encourage finding a system that does work for you. Chances are, sometime in your life, you’re going to need more help keeping things sorted, and having a system that works will make that so much easier.

These posts are going to talk about why I’ve chosen what I do, and some options that do different things, to help you find things that work for you.

My core tools

One of the things I think gets complicated for a lot of people with productivity is that we have different kinds of tasks and they require different kinds of tools.

Technology:

I have an iPhone (the 5SE at the moment) which is in my pocket any time I’m not at home. I don’t use audio reminders because they drive me up a wall, so my phone is always on vibrate.

I use a Windows PC at work (with limited ability to add apps or make changes, which is why I’ve favoured web tool options) and a Mac at home. I had a hard drive failure in June, and got a new computer, so I’ve been rearranging things and doing a lot of tidying and reorganising as a result.

Todoist:

Todoist is my task list, and the place I put all the things I want to remember to do. (With a couple of exceptions.) I’ll be talking about how I structure my list in upcoming posts, but here are some different kinds of tasks in my lists.

  • Specific task I need to do (answer a reference question, review a file, write a blog post)
  • Things I want to do sometime (article ideas for Seeking, long-term projects, etc.)
  • Notes about things to remember (topics to discuss in my next meeting with my boss or my assistant, or mention in our next newsletter.)
  • Reminders for things on my calendar (so I remember to do them, prep for them, and can include them in the list of things I did that day).

There are lots of other approaches to task lists – I’ll be talking about bullet journaling in another post, for example. But because a lot of my task choices depend on changing circumstances or focus and energy levels, having a system where I can adjust on the fly turns out to be critical for me.

One of the paid options I use all the time is the ability to mark an email in Gmail as a Todoist task: it creates a task with a link to the email so I can click on it, open it, and answer it easily.  My basic sorting is an approach I’ve been using since January of 2017, which is based on the astrological associations of the planets. That’ll be getting its own post!

(Sometimes I intend to work on a project in the afternoon, and get a new reference question that’s going to take time. Sometimes I get home, and writing coherently is just not on the table.)

Calendar:

I use Google Calendar for personal things. Scheduled appointments live on my main calendar.

Here’s the thing, though – I often don’t remember to check it, and after missing an early morning appointment for a blood draw, I started putting appointments in Todoist for the day before, so I can remember to arrange my day for them better.

(I’ve set up Todoist to automatically pull new appointments on my calendar into a task.)

Plan:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to arrange my day better (as part of an ongoing project to make better progress on long-term projects). In the past week or two, I’ve started using a service called Plan to do this – it lets you drag and drop tasks onto a schedule so I can figure out how I’m going to put work on a larger project in my day, or balance out different kinds of things I need to get done.

This is the newest addition, but so far I’m liking it a lot.

At work:

We’re currently using Outlook, but we’re about to transition to Gmail and the associated apps.

Since a lot of my reference work comes in by email (about 75% of it), I’m really excited about being able to add these tasks to Todoist without having to do a manual quick entry and then have to go find the email.

Tools for drafts, notes, and bookmarks:

Notes that just have to live on my computer at home (and not be accessed while I’m at work) are currently in Bear, which is a beautifully designed note app for Mac OS (it has iOS versions and syncing for a small monthly fee: I haven’t done that yet because I haven’t needed it.)

Large writing projects are in Scrivener, and that will let me sync portions to SimpleNote, so I use SimpleNote’s web access for other drafts and pieces I’m working on.

Bookmarks are in Pinboard, and my books are in Calibre (ebooks) and LibraryThing (catalog that includes the print books). I’m currently in the process of cleaning up all three of those.

I’m also using a bullet journal specifically for religious tracking and some kinds of notes.

More about all of these in future posts!

A few specific apps and a spreadsheet

I have a few things I don’t track in Todoist, and I also keep a spreadsheet of info I want to track over time. (And yes, there will be more about the spreadsheet, too.)

Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Medication reminders: I use an iOS app called Round that I really like. It lets you do multiple reminders, and will remind you over a period of time (hours, if you like) in a way that works really well for me. Also lets you track things you take as needed and build a record.
  • Pedometer : I use Human. I use it not for “I should walk more” as much as “I did a lot yesterday, there’s a reason I feel ouchy today”.  I’ve tried clip on options, but found having something on my phone that I have with me all the time works better.
  • Sleep : I use SleepCycle which will wake you up at a better point in your sleep cycle, but also tracks basic sleep data. I use it as a rough guide.

Those are my tools

Future posts will go into most of these in more detail – Todoist is first up on the list, for Tuesday.

If there’s something you’d particularly like to hear about, let me know!