Over the time I have been writing here I have talked about a number of different technology experiments regarding making myself more productive.  Some have been successful, while others haven’t.  Time for an updated on some of what I’ve tried.

A voice recorder and Dragon Naturally Speaking for note taking while reading:

The experiment: I would speak into a voice recorder, summarizing what I was reading as I read it.  Then when I was done I would plug the voice recorder in to my computer, download the recording and use Dragon to convert it to text that I could then keep as searchable notes.

The result: Basically unsuccessful.  It worked, but I learned a few things in the process.

  1. Dragon has a lot of great editing capabilities, but you need to be speaking as it converts in order to correct the errors it makes.  Working off a recording requires very accurate speech.
  2. I don’t speak accurately enough to make this work.  I ramble, I am not succinct about my notes, and I make errors that Dragon doesn’t know what to do with.  I found that I was taking as much time to edit the results as I would have spent had I just typed them in initially.
  3. The writing process does force you to organize your thoughts in a way that speaking doesn’t.  This is part of why my notes were so rambling and incoherent.
  4. Any background noise at all made it hard for Dragon to convert the speech to text.  Since I read with classical music on (old habit; keeps me focused locally instead of hearing every noise throughout the house) the recordings I was making were less than clear, making Dragon perform even worse.

I do intend to work with Dragon more as an “in front of the computer transcription” tool, although I’m not ready for that yet.


The experiment:  A new way of tracking my references, which are extensive, and spitting bibliographies into documents.

The results:  Resounding Success!  With one exception, Zotero can automatically suck in references as I search (entering far more information about a reference than I would manually) and spit it out into a very wide variety of formats.  (The exception is HWWilsonWeb sites, such as Education Full Text, which uses a non-standard metadata format.  Zotero is working on it.)

I was able to import my EndNote references and have more than doubled the size without a single hint of a performance problem.  Their latest versions offer ways to use a single library from multiple computers, addressing the only real limit I had found with the product.  I uninstalled EndNote, if that tells you anything.

Ongoing Experiments

I still have two experiments going on.

Bamboo tablet to hand-write notes: I just got the tablet a week ago and am still working with this.  So far I have discovered that too many years of typing has caused my handwriting to go into the toilet.  It is taking some practice to get used to writing on the tablet, and right now it is slower than typing.  It is possible that this will end up being something I use to overlay my typed notes with arrows, circles, connections, etc.

OneNote: This is working out well so far; It has yet to not be able to do anything I have wanted, although there are a few key tests yet to perform.  I am specifically concerned about tagging capabilities and the ability to search based on tags, but need to get more data into it before I will be able to truly test this out.

There are three items on my “just starting to be tested” list:

  • gtdagenda.com – an application for implementing gtd online.  It includes the capability of both calendar events and scheduled items like classes, has a concept of a goal above projects, which means that the goal can be completing my dissertation but I can break down the projects better, and so far appears to be the best web-based gtd implementation I have seen so far.  However I haven’t had a chance to put a lot into it, so it needs a lot more testing before I can recommend it.
  • WikidPad – a wiki software that runs locally on your machine (so backups are your own business and as good as you make them; mine are very good).  Most interestingly is that if you type a word with more than one capital letter in it it will automatically link that to other places where that same word appears.  This makes linking between different documents REALLY easy.  Worth more exploration, particularly if tagging in OneNote is too weak for what I need.
  • scholarz.net – recommended in a comment, this is an online service that lets you organize your references, add notes to them and create document outlines/shells.  It also adds a social networking/community aspect, since you can collaborate and share your reference library.  It is being developed by a group of academics in Germany, and is interesting so far.  I like that it is being developed by “practitioners” rather than IT geeks who think they know what is needed.  For that reason alone, I need to spend more time with it and give it a good hard look.

Of course, there are technologies that I use that have become so integrated I hardly think about them anymore:

  • Jungledisk and Amazon S3 for backups, since losing my work would set me back years
  • Firefox for browsing, along with a wide variety of plug-ins
  • A label printer, file folders and hanging files for organizing paper
  • Gmail, Gcal, Greader, etc.  Also Gmail Backup, a program to download your Gmail periodically to files on your hard drive that can be backed up in case of a problem.
  • Microsoft Office (primarily because it is everywhere I work, teach, and learn)
  • SPSS (because my advisor uses it and can be more helpful if I do)
  • The usual assortment of lifehacker-suggested software for things like antivirus, malware protection, etc.

Did I miss anything?  Once some of these evaluations are complete I’ll post an updated summary.  In the meantime, drop me a comment if you think know of a good productivity enhancing tool for an academic that you think I might find useful!