Penultimate in the current series on how research has changed, I want to talk about digital-only workflows.
I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of how I get information starts digitally these days. Having a workflow that works for you is critical if you’re doing larger projects.
There are a fair number of resources out there to help you get a grip on tools that work for you (I’m going to talk about my current setup here, but there are lots of other ways to do this.)
I find the Prof. Hacker blog, a collective blog focusing on tech tools and resources, a helpful read. A lot of the tools aren’t things I need, but they highlight things I want to know about fairly regularly, and I find it interesting to know about other tools. The already mentioned Productivity Alchemy podcast also brings up interesting tools regularly, on a less academic front.
Basically, though, you want a way to collect things, and then a way to organize the things. If you’re like me, many of your things may be webpages or sites.
My basic workflow
This is what I use for all online content I want to save – it works for me, but it’s not the most elegant option. What I like about it is:
1) I can use it from any device
I use a Mac at home, a Windows machine where I can usually add browser extensions but not apps at work, and an iPad when travelling. Because this relies on extensions (or the iOS ‘send to this app’ option) it’s pretty easy to use anywhere I happen to be.)
2) The management can be sporadic
Obviously, there are benefits to keeping on top of it, but the way my system works, it’s okay if I get behind on moving from the collection point to the organisation part.
3) I can usually find the thing I’m looking for.
This is key. If I couldn’t find things, it’d be a bad system. But I usually know which place to look for it, and the search tools work well enough.
I rely on two tools, Instapaper and Pinboard. Instapaper is currently free (but is owned by Pinterest, so changes are possible in the future). Pinboard has a small yearly fee ($11 currently) but is run by someone independent, Maciej Cegłowski, who designed and runs the site. There’s also a full page archival option for another $25 a year.
(There are plenty of other tools out there for saving things as you read them, but I really do recommend Pinboard for organizing them once you’ve got them.)
My actual steps look like this.
- Read or find a thing I want to save.
- Use extension to save it to Instapaper.
- Periodically, go through Instapaper and move new items to about 8 folders in Instapaper for later sorting.
- When I’ve got time and feel like it, put things into Pinboard with much more useful tags.
Right now, I go through Instapaper every two weeks, a few days before I start doing my newsletter for the fortnight. I have a folder where I put the links I want to share in the newsletter, so I can work my way through writing them up efficiently.
My other folders include recipes, links related to my day job, writing, Pagan topics, writing, and business things. I have a catchall folder (cleverly called ‘links’) for anything else I want to save. I also have folders for things to read (which is where I save books I want to read), and things to watch or listen to.
Every so often, I make a point of churning through links and tagging them in Pinboard – it’s a great project for when I don’t have a lot of focus to write and have a thing I want to watch.
I usually can remember if I’ve moved something to Pinboard yet, so I also usually can figure out where to look for something.
Having a two step process also helps for saving things to read later (especially when I’m travelling and have less time or internet access), or weeding out highly aspirational recipes I’m never going to actually consider making.
I use this process for all my links, but it’s pretty easy to see how to adapt it for research work. You could have a folder for each big project, or make a point of moving those to a bookmarking service more frequently.
Or you could use a citation manager. Which will be my final post in this series, coming next week.