Using ConnectedText for project and task management

Here is a copy of a post I just made on the OutlinerSoftware forum, in response to a forum member’s problem about how to deal with a large volume of tasks prompted by emails with attachments:

… since I’m a CT enthusiast, let me describe how CT could be used to deal with the above type of problem (partly also for my own amusement at the end of a long week, but also if anyone else might be interested in this).

This might not satisfy your “quick entry” requirement, as there is a bit of setting up involved, but after a while a lot of it can be automated by using keyboard shortcuts and templates (and even more so with AutoHotkey scripts).

There would be many different ways to do it, but here is the simplest scenario (using either the desktop or USB portable version), and the benefits:

1. create a new CT database (“project”) for managing your work projects.

2. when you get an email with attachments that you need to do something about,

2a) create a new “date and time topic” (a new document with temporal features) in CT and give it a descriptive title (can have up to 256 characters),

2b) select all relevant text in the email,

2c) drag and drop it into the CT topic,

2d) if the attachments are important, save them on the hard drive in a folder, and then drag and drop the files into CT from your file explorer, which would create links to the files (clicking on which would launch them in their respective applications, such as Word, PDF reader etc.).

Benefits so far:

Moving the email and the attachments over into CT will identify them as important (a todo), and they won’t disappear as more emails arrive in the Outlook inbox.

Keeping such tasks in “time and date topics” will automatically order them chronologically, and can be also sorted in reverse chronological order, and viewed as a list in the Topic List pane. They can also be navigated through a Calendar interface.

Links to topics created on the same day will be displayed at the bottom of each “date topic”, as “tasks”.

Having the contents of the email and the links to attachments in the same topic will serve as a mini dashboard for that task. More content and files can be added to it, and it can be linked (using wiki links) to other tasks in the CT database.

It can also be split into smaller, linked topics, as a task grows (which can be visualised as a mind map or outline in the graphical Navigator pane).

It is also possible to open and view multiple topics as floating (repositionable) windows, which helps when you need to refer to other tasks in other topics.

3) In order to identify this task as part of one of your larger projects, add a “Category” label to the topic, denoting the project. This will help filter tasks belonging to the same project, e.g. by ticking that category in the Category pane. Alternatively, a separate CT “project” (database) could be created for each real world project, if we are talking about huge projects. But normally it’s better to work from one database initially.

4) Add a red warning type icon to the topic in the Topic List pane to signify it requires attention. Topics can be filtered according to their icons in the Topic List.

Now, let’s say that you’d want to reorder these tasks according to their priority/urgency, which currently are listed in chronological (or reverse) order. For this, you can create an “outline” file in the Outline Pane (or multiple outline files, one per each project, i.e. category). Then,

5) Drag and drop selected tasks (i.e. “time and date topics”) from the Topic List pane into the Outline pane. This will create new outline items with links to the topics.

The benefits are that you can now quickly reorder the various tasks in a hierarchical tree, and it only takes a click to launch any of the linked topics. The Outline Pane has other useful features such as checkboxes (that cross out the done tasks), icons, hoisting etc.

When a task is done, then you can also change the topic icon from a red warning sign to a green tick. The benefit of using CT and date and time topics is that a permanent record of the task and all its contents and linked files will remain in the database and will be easy to find in the future (through search, or the dates, or other parameters).

This would already work as a basic task management system. The above assumes that you have the Topic List, Category, and Outline panes docked in the CT desktop, so it’s easy to see everything and drag and drop stuff from one to the other.

But CT also has a host of other features that make it possible to make the task management system more sophisticated.

This is a long enough post, so I don’t want to go into the details, but there are commands that one can add to templates that can be automatically inserted when a new topic is being created, and they enable you to add “attributes” or “properties” to each topic easily, e.g. to display a pulldown list to choose whether the task’s importance is “very important, important, medium, low, or none,” or a checkbox that, when ticked, adds the “Done” property.

Other options could include adding start and due dates to a topic (task).

The key benefit of using such attributes/properties is that now you can create a summary page (e.g. the Home page of the wiki database or “project”, that is easy to click on or call up with a hotkey), which will automatically populate and update a table of todos with the dates ordered according to a selected parameter (such as start or due dates or importance), another table for actions that are done but you’re waiting for others (this requires adding a “waiting” property, and the name of the person responsible), and another table with the Completed tasks, just for the record.

Here is a link to a CT forum discussion with some templates and more details on this approach:

http://connectedtext.com/forum/index.php/topic,3139.msg15299.html#msg15299

Using Classic Calendar with ConnectedText

While ConnectedText does come with a built-in calendar that in conjunction with its “date topic” documents and outliners allows one to produce all kinds of sophisticated project plans and carry out date and time-related tasks (see some examples here and here), sometimes you may just want to use a very basic calendar to plan a project over a week or a month in relation to a piece of work that you happen to be using CT for.

This is where Classic Calendar [free] comes in very handy, as it is light, easy to use (it uses plain text), and it can be launched from within CT, so you can always remember to use it.

Classic CalendarTo create an individual instance of Classic Calendar, all you need to do is place a copy of the ClassicCalendar.exe file into your current project folder (for example, if you are writing a book, then you could put it into the folder that holds files associated with that manuscript in your directory, and within that folder it might be best to put it into its own folder called “Classic Calendar,” so its settings files can be preserved there), and then either drag and drop the .exe file from there into a CT outline (to create a shortcut) or place an Application Button into the body of a CT topic, so you can launch it from there by clicking on it.

ConnectedText with Classic CalendarYou can have as many Classic Calendars for different projects as you like, as long as you put them into separate folders.

My current task management “system”

I’m just taking a moment here to reflect how I manage my to-dos these days. I’m not saying this is a great system. But currently it works for me. I work with three monitors on my desk. In the left monitor I have Firefox open with four tabs open all the time. I switch the monitor on and off, as needed. For times when I’m not at my desk, I have an iPod Touch and an iPad, which form part of the system.

The first open tab in Firefox has Google Calendar in Week view. The calendar contains all appointments, recurrent tasks (such as payments I need to make), and other important tasks that must be done at a particular day and time. It is not for managing small or detailed tasks or tasks that have not been allocated to a time coordinate. All Google Calendar tasks have an automatic alert set up to warn me 10 minutes before the task is due. These also go off on my iPod and my iPad. I can’t miss them.

In the second tab I have a Google Doc/Drive spreadsheet open called “Productivity.” Here I manually log how many Pomodoros I had done each day, how long they’d lasted, and what task I had accomplished (in one word, such as “writing,” “editing” etc.). At the end of the day I add up the Pomodoros to count how many “pure productive hours” (all work time excluding breaks) I had done. I know that I can do roughly 4 “pure hours” of writing a day, and so if I had done less, I push myself to try to achieve that goal. If I’m writing, I also record the word count I had done during each Pomodoro. To time my Pomodoros, I use an iPod app called Repeat Timer.

In the third tab I have WorkFlowy open. It has become an absolute life-saver for me. I was able to consolidate all my other to-do lists that I used to keep in a variety of iPod/web apps before. But WorkFlowy is more than just a to-do manager. It is also a project management tool for me, as it allows me to break down tasks ad infinitum (what’s called a “work breakdown structure” in project management). And it is also an outliner. As a PhD student, many of my tasks are writing-related, and so often a to-do is actually a writing task of some sort. WorkFlowy is an amazingly flexible tool for managing infinitely long lists and infinitely deep hierarchies. And it’s also a note-taking application for me, for taking very short notes. The iPod and iPad apps are particularly helpful for taking notes on the go, and they are synced automatically with the web version.

My fourth tab is a new experiment. I started a project plan in Gingko (which is a very funky horizontal outliner and more), using the month > week > day structure described here. This project plan is purely for planning and tracking the writing of my PhD, and I am planning and recording only the big chunky tasks that I want to accomplish each day. So it could be just one big task, or 3 or 4 smaller tasks, but never more. The point is to have a  bigger picture of my overall project and the bigger daily tasks. Most directly this Gingko “calendar/journal” has replaced Classic Calendar for me for this kind of day-to-day planning and tracking. Classic Calendar is great, but Gingko is somehow more fun to use, and its Markdown code allows me to create checkboxes and cross tasks off, which was not possible in Classic Calendar, and is something I find very satisfying for some reason.

The final piece of my task management jigsaw puzzle is iDoneThis. They send me an automatic email at the end of every day to ask me what I had done today, which gives me an opportunity to reflect on what happened today and take stock of my progress. The email gets converted to a task list on their web-based calendar, which can be downloaded in text form.

Looking at my “system” above, I have just noticed that I seem to be moving more and more towards minimalist, text-based solutions. Other than Google Calendar, all the services I use are black and white or grey, and the content can be exported in basic text form. That should help with archiving the data and making it sure that it remains easily readable for some time to come.

Mindsystems Amode V3 under development

I was glad to find out yesterday that Mindsystems has decided to develop a new version of Amode. I’ve written about Amode V2 before, explaining why I like it as a project management solution. I can only hope that Mindsystems will preserve their unique tree + Gantt + calendar integration, which is the main reason why it’s my preferred project management tool. Mindsystems are offering a discount to existing and academic users, and the price should be even lower if you buy it from outside of Australia, as you shouldn’t have to pay the tax.

Update (24/01/2013)

Mindsystems have been kind enough to contact me today “To confirm the multi-view will be a strong feature of the new design.” That is really good news. I have tried several project management software but Amode is the only one I’ve seen where you can choose to construct your project in a hierarchical tree, a Gantt chart, or a calendar, and it only takes one click to switch between them.

Update (27/06/2013)

Got word a few days ago from Mindsystems that development of Amode has been suspended due to lack of sufficient market interest. Too bad.

Modelling process workflow for thesis writing

Recently I’ve been finding that whenever I’m stuck in my odyssey towards writing up my dissertation, modelling my process flow in a concept-mapping software (such as VUE) usually helps. In this (hopefully) final stage of my PhD project there are so many resources scattered around in various software and folders on my computer that I need a formal “concept map” (if that’s the right term) to pull them all together and work out the relationships and interactions between them.

Here is for example my last concept map that I’ve knocked up when I was unsure how to proceed with writing up the first four chapters of my dissertation. There is nothing particularly scientific about this map and it probably doesn’t follow any of the conventions of process workflow modelling. But who cares: it did the trick and allowed me to plan out the next stages of what I need to do.

Actually at least 2 or 3 days of deliberation are captured in this chart. First, I needed to decide whether I was going to use ConnectedText or something else for doing the actual writing. Through trial and error I established that it’s better to use another software because however much I love working in CT, it does have some limitations. One of them is that you can only have one instance of CT running and only one edit/view window open. Since I’ve decided to use CT as my database for my reading notes, I need to use another software, so I can be writing in one software in one monitor, while referring to the CT notes in the other. Also, there isn’t an easy way to track the word count of your document while writing in CT.

I had considered WhizFolders briefly as an alternative, but I find its interface too busy to be able to concentrate on the actual writing. So I settled on Scrivener for Windows, which works well both as a two-pane outliner and as a writing tool with decent word-count tracking.

As the sequence of the process flow is not apparent from the chart, let me describe it briefly. I start with importing my master outline with inline notes from Outline 4D (via Word). The reason I created my outline in Outline 4D is because it is a single-pane outliner that allows you to have inline notes, which you can also view in an index card view on a corkboard. Then I use Scrivener to break up the imported document into a 2-pane outline using Scrivener’s handy “Split with Selection as Title” command. As I start writing the actual text (I’m working on the first 4 chapters of my thesis, which need to be contextualised within their respective literatures, namely the Introduction, the Literature Review, the Conceptual Framework, and the Methodology), I begin to review my existing reading notes.

Over the years I have read all kinds of things that are no longer relevant. Therefore I need to deploy some kind of a filtering process to select the most important notes, as well as any new reading that still needs to be done. To consolidate my final reading list (a list of bibliographic references), I use a Natara Bonsai outline. First I import into Bonsai an existing outline document that contains some of my selected references that I have kept on my iPod/iPad in CarbonFin Outliner. Then I go through my old conference papers and other writings to extract references that are still relevant and which are kept in Word files and an old Scrivener project.

Simultaneously to this process I have also designed a ConnectedText project for keeping my final reading notes and quotes, using a similar model to the one I have developed for my empirical analysis. As my old reading notes and quotes are kept in a WhizFolders database, I will need to review those and transfer them one-by-one to the CT database (I deliberately don’t want to import them en mass, as I need to separate the wheat from the chaff). I will also use the CT project for recording any new reading I still need to do. I am designing this CT database not simply just for this writing project. Very likely it will become my main database for all my future readings for years to come. This is just an opportune moment to get started with it, as I no longer want to use WhizFolders for this.

Getting back to the chart, there are basically two important elements to it: 1) the big blue Scrivener rectangle which represents my writing, and 2) the big green rectangle below it which represents the CT reading notes database. If we look at the arrows pointing to the latter, we see mostly the data that needs to be transferred (by carefully sifting through) from my old files, as well as new reading notes that will be created in iPad.

As for the arrows coming in or out of the Scrivener project, those have to do mostly with referring to external sources. In the end I won’t need Excel for planning the word count because Scrivener has good enough tools for that. I will also use Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictating, whenever I feel the need. Sometimes it’s easier to write without it, other times it speeds things up. As for EndNote, it is simply the central database for my references, which are linked to the PDFs that may need to be read for the first time or reviewed.

But my main point here is that it was the creating of this concept map that was crucial for getting me started with the whole writing stage. Without it I would have probably sat in front of a blank page with a writer’s block for days. Now I feel fairly confident that I know what I need to do next.

Designing your QDA project for ConnectedText

If you have completed the steps suggested in the previous posts (here and here) for this tutorial on how to use ConnectedText for qualitative data analysis (QDA) (or if you are already a CT pro), then you are ready to move on to the next stage of the CT QDA process, which has to do with designing your QDA project for CT. I am suggesting that before you import and dump all your qualitative data and other notes in CT, it might be a good idea to come up with an overall shape for your project and work flow. It is certainly possible to ignore this advice and dump all your data in CT first and worry about organising them later. However, I found that being methodical and designing the project first and then importing data (strategically and incrementally) has helped me keep my head above the water – the data ocean, so to speak.

Let me first present you with my concept map (created in VUE) for the design of my PhD research project in CT, and I will explain how it works below.
Essentially what you are seeing here is a mixture between a top-down hierarchical model for organising topics in ConnectedText and a flow chart indicating a process flow (roughly from left to right) for the qualitative analysis of data and the production of the eventual report, in this case a PhD dissertation. At the very top sits the “project dashboard,” which is the tip of the data iceberg, if represented in this hierarchical model, or the central node of a flat network, if you try to visualise it as the home page of your personal Intranet system.

At the second (horizontal) level of the hierarchy (which are the topics that are linked to from the project dashboard/home page) you will find the main elements of the project. Let’s tackle these one by one.

“Meta project considerations” is the topic that contains or links to information that pertains to the overall organisation of the CT project, the work flow, the project plan and related tasks. This is the place to collect those thoughts and materials that are looking at the project from the outside or from above and are concerned with the overall design and operation of the system as a whole. (For example me reflecting on the design of my PhD project right now is an instance of such a meta-consideration. I will be including the above concept map under this main topic in my own CT project.)

The second main topic, “empirical data (case studies),” is the heart of the project and will contain the bulk of the material. It contains all the empirical data that I have collected as part of my research. It is organised into individual case studies, which contain such material as interview transcripts, participant observation notes and collected files (such as emails, PDFs, MS Office files or even URLs). The red arrows indicate the flow the qualitative data analysis process that I will be focusing on in future posts, showing how CT can be used as a CAQDAS. The main objective of the analysis is to extract findings from each case study, which will be eventually aggregated and evaluated in the fourth major topic, “findings.”

I have skipped over the third topic, “theory notes.” These include notes of all such reflections or interpretations that I have produced myself but which are not strictly speaking part of the empirical materials. It is debatable whether these observations should be included in the empirical data, if they were triggered by – or during – the data collection process. But I prefer to separate out material that was more part of the interpretation of the data than the data itself. Nevertheless, note the dashed lines which indicate that these “theory notes” are closely related to “empirical data” and feed into the “findings.”

While you are analysing your empirical data and evaluating your findings, simultaneously you will start having some ideas about the significance of these findings and how they should be presented later on. You might even want to select quotes to be included and discussed in the final draft itself. So the next two topic areas, “outlines” and “draft” are very closely related to the analytical process (from empirical data to findings) and start developing simultaneously with it. Hence the dashed lines coming out of “case study 1 findings”, which start to inform the outlining and drafting (writing) processes.

You might be in the middle of analysing an interview and have a sudden insight into how this material might fit into the overall or individual chapter outline, and you might even want to engage in some ad hoc writing and type up some paragraphs in the corresponding draft chapter topic. Nevertheless, outlining and drafting/writing will emerge as important processes in their own right, once the coding and analysis of the empirical material had concluded.

The final topic is an “inbox” for uncategorised and unprocessed material that had been imported into CT but has not been allocated to any of the aforementioned topics. I would generally advise against importing too much of such material, as it will just sit in CT and clutter the workspace. Regarding importing material, I found it helpful to work on one case study at a time and only import materials that relate to that case study. Also, I have treated the importing of material as a filtering process and a quality control process. After all, what’s the point of importing stuff that turns out to be utterly useless? It would just end up sitting in CT as dead weight.

Now, “inbox” needs to be understood metaphorically here, as CT is a wiki and therefore there are no folders or boxes into which you can drop stuff. Nevertheless, you can emulate an inbox in two ways: 1) either by creating a category label called “inbox” or “uncategorised” and append it to all new topics that need to be put into this virtual inbox, or 2) use a topic as an inbox and drop text, links to files and URLs into that topic. The same is true for all the other topic “areas”: they are not so much areas or folders as local networks of interlinked topics, for which the top level topic acts as the central node.

As for the overall project, it is essentially a process of trying to find an answer to a question. You can include the research question in your project dashboard, interrogate your empirical data with your chosen conceptual tools (theories), develop your findings, develop outlines to organise your argument, and write the eventual draft, which should hopefully provide an answer to your original research question. The great thing about CT is that it has tools for conducting this entire process in one place, within one software.

There are a few glaring omissions in my model above: a literature review topic, a conceptual framework (theoretical lens) topic, and a methodology topic. You could certainly include them here. I had worked on those phases of my PhD before discovering CT, so I haven’t had a need to include them in my CT project yet. However, as I will be moving onto writing up my dissertation, it is very likely that I will add in those topics and import the related material into CT as well. For the purposes of this blog and this CT tutorial I have decided to focus the above model on the qualitative data analysis process. However, it is easy for you to include those elements. All you need to do is type [[literature review]], [[conceptual framework]], and [[methodology]] into the body of the dashboard topic, and these topics will be automatically created for you and linked to the dashboard.

I have found writing this blog post a very useful exercise. This reflection allowed me to improve my model, as up until this morning it looked a lot less organised in fact. I didn’t have my meta considerations included in an organised way, neither did I have an inbox for uncategorised data.This type of meta-reflection on the design of your project and your work flow can be an important quality process in the ongoing development and improvement of your overall system.

Finally, let me include a couple of screenshots of the above model as implemented in CT. First, the edit mode (I have used a vertical tree view in the Navigator instead of the horizontal tree view of my concept map, so that it could fit into the left-hand-side pane. However, there is also a horizontal tree option in the Navigator, if you prefer that):

And then in view mode:

Please note that in the “PhD project dashboard” (or Home) topic only the words in blue are active links (e.g. “meta considerations“). The bullet-pointed text in black underneath (“CT project design” etc.) is only there to remind me what is inside that top-level topic (or link). Links to “CT project design” etc. are inside the “meta considerations” topic, which is currently not visible in the view window (as we are editing/viewing the “Home” topic), however the relationship can be seen in the Navigator pane on the left. Had I made those links live in the “Home” (PhD project dashboard) topic as well, it would have resulted in a messier Navigator picture, as they would have also showed up as part of level 2 hierarchy.

The Topic List pane on the right simply displays all topics in alphabetical order.

Mindsystems Amode V2 for project management

I use Mindsystems Amode V2 for managing the overall PhD project. It’s not the only project management tool that I use but it sits at the top of my project management system hierarchy (see my other PM tools here). I have my entire project mapped out in it and I monitor its progress daily, amending the tasks and completing them. I put my main Amode file into Windows’s Startup folder, so that it starts up every time I restart the computer (it’s a way of having it in your face every morning).

The reason I chose Amode over other competent project management tools (and I’ve checked out a few – see the discussion surrounding the search process here) is that it is reasonably simple to use for a single personal project, such as a PhD dissertation (although Amode also can handle several open projects through its tabbed interface). Other PM software I found too bloated, as they try to cover every imaginable PM scenario from building bridges to organising NASA space missions. Amode on the other hand is sophisticated enough to give you the main PM functionalities (the Tree, which serves as the work breakdown structure, the Chart which is a proper Gantt chart, and the Calendar, which is integrated with the other two) but it’s also simple enough for everyday use. In fact I probably only use 10% of Amode’s functionality but I’m very happy with it as a PM tool.

I just noticed that Mindsystems uploaded a bunch of videos to YouTube about Amode’s features. Here is the project management module, so you can get an idea (actually it’s quite funny that it ends with the line: it “does not require a PhD to operate,” as I still don’t have my PhD :)

Update:

I thought it’s worth mentioning that if you are buying this software from outside of Australia, then you don’t have to pay their GST (tax), so the price should be considerably lower.