Keeping Productive and Sane

Here are the various links and things I've been sending out while we're all the doing the work from home thing.

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LinkedIn Redux

Happy New Year all! I hope this is a good one for everyone.

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Listening: The Life Scientific

And now for something a little different... Instead of suggesting something to read this month I'm going to suggest something to listen to.

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Tool Time: LinkedIn

Some academics like to make fun of LinkedIn, but that's because they don't really use it. 

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Reading: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing

This month's suggested reading is "How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing" by Paul Silvia.

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Tool Time: CVs

I know you've heard it before. Maybe even from me. But it's true. You need a CV and you need to keep it up to date.

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Reading: The Extraordinary Leader

Like it or not, you will end up in a leadership position.

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Tool Time: The Eisenhower Matrix

Not all tools need be electronic. The Eisenhower matrix is a tool that helps you think about how to discriminate between urgent and important tasks. 

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Reading: The Art of Explanation

Continuing on the theme of improving how you present your work, this month's recommended reading is The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever.

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Previous Editions

Reading: Presentation Zen

Giving presentations is a big part of being a scientist. Even in industry. Anyone can give a talk. Not everyone can give a really effective talk. Taking all your fantastic data and making a compelling presentation is as much an art as a skill. This month I'm recommending Garr Reynolds' book "Presentation Zen" which has some fantastic advice on how to improve your presentation skills.

Find it here!

It's well worth a read. Or two. Reynold's also has a website,, with valuable tips on presentations. 

Tool time: PubMed, RSS, and Feedly

I'm sure you all make use of PubMed(and probably Google Scholar) to try and keep up with the literature in your field. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to have automate the process? And have not only the results of your searches but also things like journal tables of content delivered in a single, user-friendly package?

There is.

You may or may not already know that you can set up saved searches in PubMed and have the results sent to you. There's a slicker way. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds coupled with an RSS reader (e.g. Feedly). When you do a PubMed search you'll find a "Create RSS" link under the search bar (after you've done the search). You can use that to get a link to an automated version of the search that can be used in a RSS reader. PubMed has a good set of instructions online for doing this. A RSS reader is simply a web site (or app) that aggregates all of your RSS feeds in one place. I happen to use Feedly. You can set up a free account on Feedly and paste in the RSS links you create in PubMed.

Wait! There's more!

Many journals also provide RSS feeds of their tables of contents. You can add those to your RSS reader as well. The RSS feed link for some journals are not always obvious, but can be found with a little digging. Add those in and the table of contents for each new issue will appear in your reader. Some professional societies also have RSS feeds. As do some news sites. Add whatever piques your interest.

And there you have it, a single site you can visit on a regular basis to see what's happening in your field. Maybe even put this as a recurring event in your ToDo or Calendar app.

Reading: Work Simply

This month's book is "Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style" by Carson Tate

Find it here!

This is about being more productive at work but goes at step further than just providing a bunch of tips. Tate recognizes that everyone is different and that we have our own styles/approaches to getting things done. She classifies people into four broad work styles - prioritizers, planners, arrangers, and visualizers - with the recognition that the boundaries are fuzzy and people can have characteristics of more than one style. Tate then provides productivity tools designed to work with each of the four work styles, including organizing your workspace(s) to match your style. Chapters 9 "Tame Your Inbox", 13 "Work Well With Others" and 14 "Lead a Meeting Revolution" by themselves make reading this book worthwhile.

Tool Time: Electronic Note Taking

This month I want to talk about electronic notebook software.* These apps have become extremely powerful and are something you definitely should consider having in your toolkit. I'm not talking about electronic lab notebooks, although you can use these apps for that. My lab does. I'm talking about a more generalized, and powerful, class of software. The most widely known examples are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, although many alternatives to those exist. The nice thing about Evernote and OneNote is that the basic versions are free**, run on almost anything (Macs, PCs, iOS, Android), and are in widespread use (i.e. are well-supported and unlikely to disappear any time soon). These both store your notes in the cloud, allowing you to access them from any device with the associated app. From anywhere where you have internet.

Why use an electronic notebook app? You have notes, right? And are constantly generating more. Notes from class, on papers you've read, experiments you've planned and executed, protocols, recipes, vacation plans, etc. That can add up to a lot of notebooks, folders, files, loose paper, post-it notes, papyrus, and stone tablets. Which can be difficult to organize well. And hard to search - try finding that note you made some time early last year - or was it late in the previous year? - on that little trick about making your assay run faster/better. A good note app has a user-friendly interface that lets you create multiple notebooks, add notes to them, and search them easily. In addition, you can add attachments. Reading a paper and making notes on it? Just drag and drop a pdf of the paper into the note so it's all together. Analyzing a bunch of data using Excel or something similar? Add the Excel file and raw data files to a note describing how you did the analysis.*** It's a great way to keep everything together and organized. You can have notebooks for each project you're working on, one for protocols, others for recipes or hobbies. As many as you need. And you can keep them private (i.e. only you can see what's in them) or share them. You can also share individual notes. My lab members share their Evernote lab notebooks with me so I can look at their data etc. We have a common lab protocol notebook that everyone has access to.

Some of these apps have other bells and whistles. Evernote includes a built in chat function, reminders, and the ability to create audio notes. There are browser plug-ins that allow you to "clip" web pages and save them as notes. There are downloadable templates for notes. An iOS app called Scannable that let's you take a photo of a document, converts it to a pdf, and uploads it into an Evernote notebook. I'm not very familiar with OneNote, but would be surprised if it didn't have similar functionalities.

I've found that people either love these apps and use them constantly (I use Evernote a lot), or struggle with them. As with everything, these apps are only useful if you are actually going to use them. They are worth checking out.


* Many people prefer physical, paper note books. If that's you, then go for it! As always, you need to have/develop a system you'll actually use.

** There are limitations (e.g. storage space) with the free versions, but they are still extremely powerful.

*** Your future self will love you for doing this when it comes to manuscript or dissertation writing time. Might even buy you an adult beverage or two.

Reading: Turn this ship around!

This months reading takes a decidedly nautical turn. L. David Marquet's "Turn this ship around!"


This is a rollicking tale of pirates and treasure and...

Actually, it's not. It's about leadership. Whether you think so or not, you are, or will be, leaders. You're not in grad school to become passive drones. Learning something about leadership is an important step towards establishing a career. This book is about how the captain of a nuclear submarine took his crew from being one of the worst performing in the US submarine fleet to one of the best. He did this by empowering those in his command. That's important lesson. You don't want to be a passive drone. You shouldn't let those you oversee be passive drones either.

Tool Time: Todo Lists and Reminders

This is episode two of tool time. As promised, this one is about todo lists. And the related tool, reminders. As with all these things, it doesn’t matter whether you use electronic or paper forms. What’s important is that you find what works for you. And experience that sense of satisfaction you get from crossing items off a todo list.

There are a plethora of ways of keeping and using todo lists. I know someone* whose desk is plastered with post-it notes, each with a set of related tasks. That’s their way of keeping todo lists. And it works for them. Personally, I go the electronic route. There are many apps out there specifically for todo lists. Todoist, Remember the Milk**, Wunderlist, Microsoft Todo, Google Keep, etc. Last month Eugene brought up one called Momentum that’s a Chrome extension. I happen to use Todoist, but most have plenty of functionality. A quick search on Amazon turned up thousands of todo list notebooks and notepads. What you’re looking for is a system that you’ll actually use and keeps you organized.

Remember how I talked about completely filling your calendars with the various tasks you hope to achieve each day? Think of each task as a waypoint on a journey. Todo lists provide the maps that guide you through those journeys. On your calendar you may have blocked off time to “Run Western blot on protein X”. That could be one of a series of tasks on a todo list titled “Characterize protein X interactions.” You might be working on multiple projects/sub-projects at any given time. Todo lists help keep those organized and moving forward.

In Todoist (and other apps) you can set up “Projects” and associate each task with one (or more). And you can designate specific days the tasks needs to be completed. You can have repeating tasks - I have “Tool time email” scheduled for the second Friday of each month. Most apps let you prioritize tasks - a very important and useful function. One of the nice things about Todoist is it awards you “karma” for each task completed (and subtracts karma for overdue tasks). I know that sounds silly, but there is a psychological boost to seeing your karma build up over time.

Whatever you use, make sure you actually look at your todo lists at the very least daily. In the “Deep Work” book I recommended last month, the author talks about how he checks his todo lists (which are in a notebook if I recall correctly***) at the end of the day so he knows what he’s doing the next day. I look at mine first thing when I get to my office in the morning and again around lunch time.

Okay, reminders. These can be built into calendar and todo apps, as well as be stand alone apps (e.g. Reminders in iOS). These tie in with your use of calendars and todo lists. You may have a beautifully organized set of todo lists and fully blocked out calendar setting aside the time to get tasks done, but those don’t do you much good if you lose track of time. Reminders can alert you when it’s getting close to time to switch tasks. Or go to seminar. Or go home. Or breathe. Breathing is good. They can let you know when you’ve reached the due date for something. Couple a good reminder app with your calendars and todo lists and you will soon be Captain Organized! More importantly, you’ll get that PhD and move on to bigger and better things just a bit (or a lot) more quickly.

If you have thoughts on todo lists and reminders you want to share, please do!

Next month: note taking.


* Not at UK. You were going to go looking, weren’t you?

** I almost started using that one just because of the name.

*** And he’s a computer science prof. Paper works for him.

Reading: The No A$$hole Rule

Next up on my recommended reading list is Robert I. Sutton's “The No Asshole Rule.”


Sadly the world is full of assholes, bullies, jerks etc. This book makes the case for not tolerating them. It’s worth a read.

Tool Time: Calendars

In addition to the one on useful reading, you’re going to get another monthly post from me. This is the first. I’m going to blather on about some tools you might find useful or should definitely be using. As with the suggested readings, feel free to ignore.


You all use a calendar, right? If not, don’t admit to it, just start now. It doesn’t matter whether you use a calendar app or a paper version, this is something you should be, and probably are, using daily. Smart phones and computers generally come with calendar apps for free, and there are more that you can download than you can poke a stick at. Maybe you’ve immersed yourself in the Google app ecosystem - that has a decent calendar app. It’s worth taking the time to find one that works for you.*

Are you using your calendars to their full potential? At the minimum you have things like lab meetings, student seminars, faculty seminars, etc. recorded in your calendar. University holidays should be in there (labeled IMPORTANT! of course). Personal stuff (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). That’s what you should have at a minimum.

Here’s something to try as a way to maximize productivity (this is discussed in the “Deep Work” book I recommended). Use your calendars to schedule every minute of your work day.** Seriously. The idea here is that you’re never at a loss for what you do next and you don’t waste time watching cat videos on the web. That means taking the time (which you’ll block out in your calendar) to plan out your days carefully in advance. Okay, research doesn’t always stick to timelines. Often you’ll find an experiment takes longer (or shorter) than planned. That’s okay, just be flexible about it. And plan carefully. If possible, don’t schedule that absolutely crucial, must be done today, task as the last thing of the day just in case thing don’t go as planned.

Most (all?) calendar apps I’ve looked at let you set alerts to remind you of upcoming events. Those are very useful. For example, if I have a meeting the other side of campus, it’s good to be reminded to start heading over there in advance. It’s good to have advance warning of cookie time so I can grab some coffee to take with me. Important stuff like that.

Maybe try using different colors (actually different calendars in the app I use) for different types of events. Don’t laugh, I do that. With a glance I can tell whether the next thing on my calendar is something to do with research, teaching, DGS duties, etc.

Finally, there’s no point in putting all this stuff into a calendar if you don’t look at it. Make it a habit to go through your calendar first thing each day. Maybe set up an alert in your calendar to remind you.


* I’ll be typing that sentence a lot in these Tool Time posts.

** An important benefit of maximizing productivity while at work is that it frees up time you can spend doing things like having a life.

Reading for Fun, Profit, or Just Whatever

Each month I am going to suggest reading (mostly non-science related) that I think you might find useful or at least interesting. These will typically be books I’ve read at some point. When possible, I’ll stick to books you can get at the Lexington Public Library. Note that these are just suggestions - feel free to ignore them! If you find any of these useful, let me know.

First up is a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.


This is an interesting read that suggests ways to focus on your work and remove/ignore distractions. It’s generally applicable stuff, although in terms of grad school it doesn’t hurt that Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and that he developed many of his ideas as a grad student and postdoc. I’m not suggesting that anyone follows his approaches to the letter (they won’t work for everyone). Rather, these are things worth thinking about.