One thing I find most fascinating is to see how people approach their tasks with the help of some sort of technology. It takes quite a bit of effort to establish a more or less consistent workflow and but I think it’s worth dedicating some thoughts on that topic.
At that point a more precise definition of workflow might be helpful to further illustrate my point. Establishing a workflow means for me answering the questions, a) how to organize the tasks in the context of your schedule and other requirements, b) which dedicated tools or technology you choose in order to accomplish or accompany the task, and c) how to employ (or not employ!) those tools or technology within your tasks. This sounds utterly abstract, I know, and I’m not quite sure if this definition is applicable to a very broad definition of “task”. Yet I believe it works quite well with any academic, research, mentally focused whatsoever sort of task — so pretty much the kind of tasks I’m confronted with at university.
(Unfortunately this one is not mine.)
When I started studying I tried to employ my iPad as working device. Using mainly two apps, I did most of the note taking with iA Writer for iPad and managed the lecture slides, PDFs and so forth with GoodReader for iPad, with iCloud as backbone for file management across iOS and OS X. It worked quite well and it had the advantage not having to struggle with loads of paper like my colleagues.
Yet, this workflow had its flaws as soon as it came down to mathematical stuff, because you can’t write down equations as convenient as simple words with your iPad. There might have been an appropriate app solving that problem, but I’m sure it would have been disturbingly ugly to look at. I circumvented that with always reaching out for my notepad if it was inevitable and for the first two semesters I sticked with that workflow.
With the new semester having started in October I almost completely ditched the iPad. Instead I revived my love for pen and paper. Interestingly it gets much more ingrained in my head if I write something down with a real pen. (It would fascinating to find out if that’s just habituation or if there’s some sort of deeper connection between learning and writing things down.) But of course I’m not just scribbling in my notepad, setting up a framework is essential to work efficiently! That’s why I’m basically working with a special sort of note paper I can easily print at home. It’s supposed to be a double-sided document which is why I bought 90g/qm paper, so that I can write on both sides without any problems.
On the front page you see 26 lines, one for each letter of the alphabet. Whenever I take notes I try to fit each point in one line (preferably less) starting with a letter I can associate the point with. Mostly those points start with words of which the first letter is the same as the line is starting with. But sometimes a line is already taken up so you have to come up with an appropriate solution (which can require quite a bit of creativity to paraphrase your point). On the backside you have squares familiar from math notepads, because some things just can’t be stuffed into the framework of the so-called “abc-list“.
I work with abc-lists most of the time, they are quite versatile. They are not just great for lecture notes, drafting concise outlines of much more complex papers whatsoever is working as well. Actually, the concept of abc-lists is part of a relatively new the research field of learning methodology and mnemonics (which explores techniques how to memorize things), but this is story I’ll delve into at another point.
Wrapping it up: whatever technology or techniques you use with your workflow, make sure everything feels as intuitive (and efficient) as possible. That’s why I don’t regret ditching the iPad, because the abc-lists just feel more intuitive to work with, which is the crucial point. Also, working with such a tight framework is quite helpful, because it requires your mind to be more focused and in a way creative. Consider that framework aspect for your workflow setup as well!
If you’re curious to test the abc-lists for yourself, you can download the template I designed right here. Recommendation: Print it as double-sided document on 90g/qm paper.