Physical tools to improve research productivity

Using the right tools can improve your productivity:

  • I use black gel pens with a large to medium point. Right now, I favor uni-ball 207 pens.
  • I always carry a pocketbook. I use it to collect current actionable items. There is exactly one active page at any one time. Once it gets filled up, I move to the next page. For example, I might have a three-item list: “prove conjecture A, find an algorithm to solve problem B, and run script C”. If I am shopping and I have an idea, I jot it down in my pocketbook on the active page. I never delete anything, though I strike through completed or irrelevant tasks. Right now, I am using a Paperblanks back pocket.
  • I use larger notebooks to brainstorm ideas. Again, I never delete anything: I move from page to page through a random collection of ideas. Most of the ideas I jot down are wrong. I do not worry about it since my notebooks are just collections of ideas. I only work out details on my laptop. If you see me carrying notebooks, I am probably working on some crazy new idea. Right now, I use Winnable Executive Journals.
  • I have a white board in my office, but I only use it with visitors, students or passing colleagues. I never work directly on a large board. I never use a white board for serious mathematics.
You may have noticed that these tools keep me mobile: I can do research anywhere, as long as I have a laptop and an Internet connection. I have no one true workplace. I can work in my living room, in my kitchen, in my university office, in our home office, in my bedroom, in my garden, and so on.
Other people use different tools:
  • Suresh Venkatasubramanian says he uses white boards and livescribe.
  • Ragib Hasan says he likes to use large boards so he can step back and look at the overall picture.
  • I believe that Peter Turney uses post-it notes where he jots down ideas. I seem to recall that Richard Feynman also posted notes in his office.

Which tools do you use, and how do you use them?

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

20 thoughts on “Physical tools to improve research productivity”

  1. One of my favorite tools is my digital voice recorder. I use it to capture ideas when it’s not convenient to write, such as when I’m driving.

  2. While I was interning at Google, we used the whiteboard extensively for scheduling. It might sound pretty low-tech, but was quite effective. We divided the board into 3 parts: this week, next week, and “may be sometime in future”. So, each Monday we’d sit for a meeting and write this week’s tasks into post-its, and put them in that block. There was also a “Done” wall near the board.

    This worked better than electronic tools because of its physical presence, and the ease of moving things from one category to another. Sometimes, low-tech triumphs over high-tech.

  3. As for low-tech research tools, you should mention pencils too!! Either a mechanical pencil, or a wooden one.

    A clipboard, and/or a set of binder clips also help keep together printouts of related papers, or your post-its, notes on scrap paper etc.

    You didn’t mention one important advantage of notebooks … in some scientific areas, e.g. those involving labs, notebooks are a must. I’m not sure if that will apply to CS per se, but still putting your ideas on paper in a chronologically ordered notebook might help you should a dispute ever appears over the invention rights/patents etc.

  4. I had a whiteboard in my old office and used it all the time with students and colleagues.

    I don’t have a whiteboard in my new office. Maybe this is why I no longer invite people to stop by.

  5. Preferably whiteboard while working out ideas, paper if whiteboard is not convenient. Once the ideas are polished they get transferred to plain text notes, or these days sometimes to google docs along with pictures.

    I lose physical notebooks with alarming frequency, so notes not transcribed electronically are basically write-only; they’ll never be read.

  6. Do you ever find yourself going back to your notes? I often jot notes down but I can’t think of the last time I looked them over. At the time they seem vital but later on you forget all about it. I find them only useful in the short term.

    I use tiddlywiki.

  7. I cannot exist without my whiteboard. I use it mostly as an idea “stack”, onto which I “push” ideas that I want to try in the future, and “pop” them off when I’m finished with an old idea and want to move on to a new one.

    I even physically order my scribblings into a push/pop stack.

  8. I keep a stack of scrap paper nearby at all times. If I’m mobile, some kind of small notebook and a writing tool. I’m not very picky with respect to the brand.

    I don’t particularly like using a computer to take notes. And I don’t do much math, I do programming.

  9. I love whiteboards and I’m so happy I finally have my own in a workplace setting. The one thing I wish I heard more about with respect to benefits of a whiteboard is the sense of freedom and creativity that it inspires. For me, there’s something about having a “clean slate” that can be erased with ultimate ease that makes me feel invited to explore new corners of my mind without fear or being somehow “wrong” on the first go. I sometimes notice myself hesitate for fear of mistakes with pencil and paper, and my natural intuition is often to move my task to the whiteboard where thoughts seem to flow more freely. Thank you, whiteboard.

  10. I carry, in a small satchel, a smallish notebook (about 10″ diagonal) and a mechanical pencil. A key point is that the notebook has a sort of spiral binding so I can stick the pencil in it as a bookmark.

    Left page is a hand-written weekly plan.
    Right page is free-form notes and work.
    I staple random external sheets in.

    In a side-pocket of the satchel is a larger eraser, a small stapler, a USB drive, and a pen.

    The satchel holds printouts of papers also. I find I can’t read/annotate papers on a computer. The computer is for code and email and searching.

    I plan to add a netbook so I can *really* work anywhere.

  11. I never use whiteboards, unless with students (and I prefer blackboards). I put all my notes in evernotes and carry a pocketbook for urgent ideas.

  12. I like to use mind maps for ideas. Everytime I have some insights or find a relevant piece of litterature while doing some other work, I can simply paste the information under the right idea in the map. This way, when it is time to attack a new problem, I can see how much information I have under each topics and which one is likely to be solvable next.

  13. I’ve tried adopting the habit of always carrying a notebook and a pen, but it never worked for me. Either I forget to bring it, or I have nowhere to put it (i.e. when I don’t carry a bag/backpack), and then, when I use it and write something down, I later misplace it and can’t find it again when I need it.

    Because of this I have “given up” and resorted to using my mobile phone for notes. I carry it with me most of the time anyway, and even though writing on it is somewhat painful, it gets the job done. What I usually do is write down whatever is on my mind in a text message and save it as a draft. Later I go through all the drafts and transfer the relevant stuff to a wiki.

    When taking notes in a group (i.e. brainstorming or explaining something to other people) I prefer using a whiteboard or a (big) piece of paper. If there is need to persist the information after the session, I usually take a picture of the paper or whiteboard with my mobile phone.

  14. A recent tool I bought, which I really enjoy: a digital voice recorder, pretty much the only electronic tool I have (apart from my computer).

    As mentioned by someone else: very easy to use… anywhere, anytime, including while biking and roller skating — time where interesting ideas (or bug solution) often come up 😉

  15. I guess I should also mention that I got a new phone, that with one external ) button click allows me to do voice recordings. I’ve used it a few times while driving to or from work on my 50 minute commute, to quickly record an idea. But I immediately transfer that to the whiteboard or to the notebook, once I arrive. I never just store the digital audio, only.

    It’s amazing how practical physical things are! Even that voice-recording cell phone.. I don’t have to take my eyes off the road; I can locate the correct button by feel. So much nicer and more practical than a touchscreen iphone!

  16. I have been using org-mode in emacs for some time, synchronizing the files automatically, and like it a lot (as you know, emacs does everything, including coffee).

  17. What do those of you who use whiteboards that aren’t in your office to do to remember what was written on them? Do you refer to the notes after the fact, or is this a write-only medium?

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