I forget which episode it is, but in season 3 of The West Wing Toby Ziegler declares one morning that he has nothing more to do in the day. It is a situation no doubt rare for a White House Communications Director, but unheard of for a research academic. Here’s why: for a research academic work is thinking, and you can always think.
You can think in the shower in the morning; you can think as you brush your teeth; you can think as you walk or drive to work; you can think while eating; you can think in bed, and someone has no doubt proven that you can also think while asleep. So the reality of the academic life—by turns exhilarating, grim and just plain exhausting—is that the only time you are “off” is when you force yourself to be off.
This clearly has implications for “work-life balance”, and I hope to address those implications in future posts. What I want to focus on today is a great way to capture those precious “anytime thoughts” that can so easily escape. Here’s a frustrating scenario many academics will find all too familiar:
You’re cleaning your teeth and as you contemplate your foaming mouth in the mirror it suddenly strikes you that there is a great way to re-structure Chapter Four (this might sound weird; researchers will know what I mean). You think “I’ll definitely write that down when I get in front of a computer”. An hour later, at your desk, your mind draws a total blank. You remember that the idea was important, just not what it was, and it gnaws away at you for the rest of the week.
What you need is a quick and easy way of recording thoughts as you have them, so that you can capture everything and say goodbye for ever to that awful feeling of “just what was that thought I had earlier?”
You could carry a pencil and notepad with you, but in my opinion this slows you down too much and you can’t easily write while doing other things. I prefer to use a dictaphone, which I try to carry round with me wherever I go. It is the equivalent of the artist’s sketchbook for those of us who primarily work with words rather than images. My own model is an Olympus WS-853:
Here’s why I like it:
- It’s small and fits easily in my pocket
- I can operate it without looking at it
- it stores 5 X 200 audio notes even without the optional micro-USB storage
- It has built-in USB connectivity so I can download notes to my PC without any extra gear
- It charges directly from USB so I don’t need to worry about new batteries
- It has settings for personal dictation (which minimises extraneous sounds in a noisy environment) and conference recording (which does a decent job of picking up voices from all parts of a large room)
- It has a voice-activated option, particularly useful when doing hand-intensive jobs like cleaning the house, exercising or driving. Just attach a lapel mic (I use an Olympus ME 15), set the voice activation level and you have a hands-free solution for recording whatever you say with no tracts of silence to fast forward in between).
Another advantage of this sort of note taking is that, as you begin to record a thought, it can often expand to the point where you find yourself saying much more than you had planned when you began to speak. You don’t know what you think until you try to express it, and the final results are often a pleasant surprise.
This productivity hack has served me very well over the years. I remember, for example, hitting on the conclusion to Difficult Atheism while waiting for my order in a kebab shop, scurrying outside to record my thoughts. The kebab tasted so much better afterwards.
A dictaphone may not be your thing, especially if you work in a graphically rich area or like to think in images, but if you want to avoid the dreaded “What was that thought I had earlier?” moment, then try to figure out your best way to capture everything.
Just to be clear, I have no relationship with Olympus and I’ve received no benefit, financial or otherwise, in exchange for recommending their gear in this post.
CC Image courtesy of Victor Rosen on Flickr.
What solutions work for you to take advantage of the useful thoughts you have at “random” times?