PhD Advice

    My Current Productivity Stack (including scholarly tools)

    I am a productivity hobbyist and have a bad habit of chucking my whole system every once in a while to try and adopt somebody else’s from scratch. This never works, though, and I inevitably end up rebuilding my own Frankenstein’s monster of tools. I started feeling this itch again recently, and after briefly flirting with Tiago Forte’s PARA method, decided to go back to basics and look at what I already know works for me before spending a lot of time switching things up.

    Personal Productivity

    Here’s what I’m using right now. I based the list on what kind of things are in a productivity stack on this Pleexy blog post.

    Personal Task Management

    I don’t like using software for this. There’s something about the feeling of pen on paper that makes me prefer it intensely. It does mean that my tasks are not linked to relevant email messages, as Tiago Forte suggests they should be, but I can use email labels to hold things for later in a sort of David Alleny method with folders like Waiting For, Read/Review, and Reference.

    So because I prefer to do task management on paper, I use the Bullet Journal method and its companion app. I do a pretty vanilla implementation of the core collections and add custom collections as appropriate.

    The notebook I prefer is a large hardcover squared Moleskine/. I’m experimenting right now with the expanded edition, since I usually go through a couple notebooks a year. At first I didn’t like the added weight or feeling of it in my hand, but now I’m used to it and it doesn’t seem that different from the regular one.

    The pen I prefer is the Pilot G2 07 in black.

    I also use tabs with my notebook: 1” ones across the top to mark the future log, this month, this week, and today, and 2” ones down the side for collections.


    The Bullet Journal Method includes a way to calendar, and I do use it some. But I mostly use Google Calendar for this. It’s useful for collaboration - my colleagues and my husband all use Google Calendar, so it’s easy to schedule things with/for them this way. I also schedule a lot of recurring tasks and appreciate being able to search to see when something happened in the past.

    Note taking

    The Bullet Journal is great for note-taking, too, but I have a tendency to ignore notes once I get them on paper. For short notes that I want to be easily accessible, I use Google Keep. I use recurring reminders with these. For example, I have a list of all my meds and a recurring reminder to fill my cases with them, and a list that pops up every day of stuff M. needs to be ready to go to school.

    Longer notes end up in my blog, which I host on, or in Google Docs. This is an area where I could grow. If I decide to really get into personal knowledge management, I’ll probably experiment with some other tools. I’ve tried Evernote and Notion in the past and neither of them is quite right for what I’d imagine doing.


    I use Forest, but I use it pretty inconsistently. When I’m in flow, I don’t really need this kind of app. As I do more writing, though, I might use it more.

    Time management

    I could use Forest for this, too, and I might. So far I don’t do a lot of time tracking.

    Habit tracker

    These never work for me, so I don’t bother with one.


    I don’t do this much, either. I like a bit of friction in my workflow. As I keep refining it, I may discover areas that could benefit from automation, though.

    Scholarly Productivity

    Scholarly productivity requires its own specialized set of tools. Here’s what I use.

    Citation management and reading

    I use Paperpile for both citation management and scholarly reading. It integrates seamlessly with Google Docs for writing. It has its own built-in reader interface available on web or mobile. It costs about $30/year and I love it. It has completely eliminated lots of document-syncing headaches I had in the past when I used Zotero.

    Literature tracking and notes

    I use the labels and folders in Paperpile, along with Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method for this. I track a given body of literature using a Notion spreadsheet I created. You can get it (pay-what-you-can starting at $0) here.

    Keeping up with literature

    I use a combination of Google Scholar alerts and journal alerts for this.


    I use

    Writing pipeline

    I track my writing pipeline in Notion, with a database that lets me view it as a list or as a kanban-board according to stage in the publication process. I have a pay-what-you-can (again, starting at $0) template you can download for that.


    I have a revisions database in Notion for each paper, as well. I haven’t made this available as a template yet, but I plan to soon. Sign up for my Newsletter if you want to find out when it goes live. It will be pay-what-you-can like the others.


    If you are using images from others’ work in scholarly publishing, you will need to obtain and track permission to use that work. I do that in a Notion database. You can get my template. (As always, pay-what-you-can, $0.)

    Areas for growth

    There are two big gaps in my productivity stack right now. One is the difficulty in serendipitously serving up notes to myself. The kinds of connections that build creativity aren’t readily available using Google Docs or Keep. I started to build a personal wiki for this purpose but I think the amount of labor required to keep it up was too high. I’ll probably play with Notion for this some more, but I might just keep putting stuff on my website and occasionally scrolling through categories there to find connections.

    The other big gap is REVIEW. I don’t have a solid review process. I’ve tried timers and time blocking and so far they haven’t worked for me. But I know all of this would work much better for me if I dedicated the time to review it, so I will keep working on figuring that out.

    I hope it’s been helpful for you to read about my productivity stack. What’s in yours?

    7 Things to Do Before You Start Your PhD

    It’s the time of year when people are announcing their PhD acceptances. If you are psyched to be doing a PhD, yay you! I have some advice for things you can do to make it easier. If you are already into your program or even graduated and haven’t done these yet, it’s never too late to do them. But I wish I’d done all of them before beginning my PhD, so if you can do them ahead of time, I think it will go better for you.

    1. Choose a citation manager.

    You’re going to be reading a LOT of scholarship: articles, book chapters, conference proceedings. You’ll read some assigned by your professors and some you find for your own work. If you start out capturing all of them, it’ll be easier to find them later when you reference them in your own work.

    You have two options here: something that will grab references for you and build citations and reference lists, or doing it manually.

    Software that will do it for you

    There are a lot of options for the former. I personally use Paperpile. It integrates with Google Docs, which is where I do most of my writing. It has mobile apps and includes a reader that will save your highlights and annotations. It costs about $30 a year.

    I’ve also tried Refworks, Zotero, and Mendeley. I recommend looking at the features for each option and choosing the one that looks like it will match best with your anticipated workflow. Paperpile is good for me because I like to read on a tablet and it requires no extra steps to set that up. Think about your plans for reading and your plans for writing.

    Know that this is a pretty low stakes choice, as most of these have an export option that will let you move all of your references to a different manager easily.

    Doing it manually

    You can do this manually if you like, though it can get unwieldy if you start to build up a large collection of resources. (I currently have over 3500 in my Paperpile library.) To do it this way, I recommend setting up a spreadsheet according to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method. (If you’re a Notion user, I’ve got a pay-what-you-can template for doing this.)

    To create the references to include in your bibliography, you can either build them manually or find them in Google Scholar and click “Cite” to get a list of formatted citations.

    If you go this route, you should be meticulous about keeping track of which references you use. I would recommend building your reference list as you write rather than waiting until you’re done writing.

    2. Choose a way of storing readings.

    With Paperpile, Zotero, and Mendeley, this is handled for you. If you use Notion, you can use their web clipper to gather readings. You can also just download readings into a folder you manage yourself. If you do this, I recommend backing them up to the cloud using Dropbox or Google Drive and backing up to an external hard drive for extra security.

    3. Figure out how you prefer to read.

    Knowing this preference will save you time later and help you build a reading-writing-citation environment. You might like to print things on paper, read them on your computer screen, or read them on a tablet or phone. Try all of the options available to you to figure out what you like best.

    4. Look for information on your university library’s website about help with research.

    Is there a specific librarian assigned to your department? Learn about them. Maybe even get to know them. You are not bothering the librarian. The librarian’s job is to help scholars with research. You are a scholar. The librarian will work with you.

    Does the library provide instruction in how to use databases? Sign up for a session. Do they offer topic guides? See if there’s one close to your research interest and get familiar with the resources included in it.

    5. Learn to read and take notes.

    This is the most important one. Don’t be like me and spend hours of your PhD reading every paper in excruciating detail. If you are in the social, natural, or applied sciences, check out Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion method as a starting point, then dig deeper into readings that feel especially important for your own work.

    Track everything you read, keep notes on it, and later you won’t have to work as hard to hunt it down. Again, I recommend setting up a spreadsheet according to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method. (If you’re a Notion user, I’ve got a pay-what-you-can template for doing this.) Dr. Pacheco-Vega also has a lot of wisdom to share on note-taking techniques, so look at those and see what might work for you.

    6. Develop an elevator pitch for your research interests.

    You’re going to have to introduce yourself and your research interests to people, a lot. Try to get down a quick explanation of your research interests. This will change over time.

    For example, in my application, I said I was interested in researching how connected learning could fit in school libraries. Then, I said I was interested in interest-driven learning in libraries. Now, I am interested in how connected learning as manifested through fan activity contributes to information literacy and practices. (Would I need to define some of those terms? You betcha. In that case, I could say I’m interested in how fans engaging in activities like cosplay and fanfiction learn through those activities, as well as how they find, evaluate, use, create, and share information.)

    7. Get a hobby or two.

    A hobby gives you something to do that’s not school, and that’s important. Ideally, it’s something you will have begun learning before school starts so that you’re not, say, simultaneously trying to understand Marxist geography and the sociology of space while also learning to knit. If you can get more than one hobby, even better. I like having a solitary one and one that will lead you to interact with non-school people. In my MSLS days, my principal hobbies were baking cupcakes and being in the Durham Savoyards. During the PhD, they were tinkering on the IndieWeb and doing improv comedy.

    There are a lot of other things you might do to make your experience go smoothly, but if you’ve got these seven down, you’re going in with a strong foundation.