How I Work Now

I’ve talked about my Hobonichi habit and my Morning Pages ritual.

I recently posted about my tools on the Tinderbox user forum. Here’s a bit of a deeper dive.

When I started my PhD work in about 1978, the library was a building full of bound back issues of scientific journals. There were some useful printed helps to finding literature like Current Contents and Citation Index.

Current Contents was just just a weekly digest of the contents pages of the journals published the previous week or so. The copy circulated through the lab, starting with the boss then going to junior faculty, post-docs, graduate students and everybody else. It would be a few weeks before I got it, particularly if some procrastinator was in the circulation and had a stack on their desk they hadn’t gotten around to. Of course the alternative was just to go over to the library and flip through the four or five important neuroscience journals of the time.

Citation Index had it’s big update yearly with smaller periodic updates as I recall. It listed all of the articles that had been referenced that year by new publications. So one could follow the literature forward by identifying those key papers everyone cited and see who had cited them recently. Of course following the literature backward was the other side it, having found a new paper, you could go through the new paper’s references and identify the previously published relevant literature.

Having lists of references in hand, you went into the stacks and spent days and weeks copying the literature that seemed worth reading. My process was to take notes on papers on legal pads and file the papers in manilla folders (or big piles on my desk). Those notes were the raw material for writing as I could find the original pretty quickly for detailed reference. I took notes on the basic findings and the significance for me.

I now have a system that more or less replicates the same workflow. Finding and copying the original papers is of course completely different. Its a combination of PubMed searching and following chains of references cited by papers or linked via any one of a number of services like Web of Science which is a descendent of the whole Citation Index system I once used.

All of my PDFs live in Dropbox folder. I use Mendeley to provide accurate citation info, keywords, abstract and a standard title for the PDF file. I then index that folder with DEVONthink Pro which provides me with a robust searchable PDF database. I love how I can copy PDFs from the sync database into other project specific databases. These databases function like the manilla folders full of xeroxed papers I used to have before libraries and literature became digital.

In Eastgate’s Tinderbox, I pull links to the files in DEVONthink into notes for use when I want to refer back to the original documents. The idea is to keep my notes and summaries of the literature in a central place independent from all of the PDFs. This is an idea I stole from the Zettelkasten guys. Sometimes I will clip a critical table or figure out of a PDF and paste it into a Tinderbox note for quick reference so I don’t have to copy over or rewrite summary information.

I use the idea of replicating and amplifying my habitual way of working as a touchstone whenever a new tool comes along or I read about someone’s workflow. I think its about adopting best practices that work for you over the long term.

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