How I work

a page out of my messy notebook
an even messier page

I’ve been thinking about how I work – be it my writing or scientific work (which tend to be offshoots of the same thing as the tangents here are often of stuff that don’t fit with my science). When I started my current project I made an effort not to work the same way as I did with my previous project. I wanted to be more deliberate and structured – basically, I wanted to work from a plan.

I like structure and I like thinking about how to apply structures to my work. I do this with most projects I work on, even my garden has a carefully thought out structure which starts as sketches in one of my notebooks. Structure is form of a plan which allows me to put separate pieces together and not miss anything.

One of the things that stuck with me from my army days was having a plan. At the very least by having a plan, I have a place to write my changes on. It gives a place to start and can be shared with others. When I go out and do field work, I always have a plan. Things may not go according to the plan, and that’s okay. Sometimes deviating from a plan when an opportunity arises can create better results. Or, if things aren’t going well, I can quickly determine what’s important to my grand scheme and what isn’t and can be canceled.

For the thinking/analyzing work I do when I get home, I don’t see how a straight forward plan would work as I’m looking at data that has never been seen before. I worked somewhat aimlessly on a previous project, which resulted in me taking more time that I would have liked. For my current project, I try to work within a structure based on notes. I’m trying (hopefully successfully) to combine the new things I find with other work to create a story worth telling – not analyze every piece of data with every possible analytical tool.

I’ve been following note keeping ideas from Organizing Creativity (he seems to have really thought about how to work and many of his ideas work well for me). I keep multiple Circus Ponies notebooks that are annotated and organized. The outline of the paper I’m currently working on has been assembled from these electronic notebooks. But, I don’t start electronically (perhaps I’m a luddite).

I find that I need to physically write things down to internalize them. Plus, keeping notes prevents me from skimming the source material since academic papers tend to be very dry reading. As I read, ideas often pop into my head which I write down with a different coloured pen. Since, I like to make visual connections between ideas, my notebooks are littered with diagrams and mind maps.

Keeping physical notes allows me to get away from screens for a time, which is good for me (there is plenty of current research that shows sitting in front of a screen all day isn’t the best for your health). I haven’t figured out how to juggle reading a paper and having a laptop on my lap while sitting in my comfy chair. Yes, I could read the paper on an electronic device, I’m just not that technically advanced nor do I have the will to be. Sitting away from my computer for a time works for me.

My written notes all get transcribed into an electronic form. This may seem time consuming, but I find it gives me the opportunity to rethink some of my ideas and remind me of important details in other work.

Since, I think about how I work, over time I’m likely to change my working habits. I doubt there is a magic working method that I won’t evolve over time.

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