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

ConnectedText as replacement for Blackwell Idealist

Lawrence Osborne’s thoughts on why he replaced Blackwell Idealist with ConnectedText:

For me, the main advantages of CT are its support for Unicode, its ability to display rich text formatting (via Markdown), its support for LaTeX commands (which makes it possible to include equations in notes), and the fact that it is supported by a very active developer and an enthusiastic community of users. Most importantly, with a bit of tweaking, it is possible to make CT import Idealist records from one of Idealist’s export formats and treat them as CT topics with the same name.

I should add that CT does not currently support Markdown (although it’s a feature that has been requested), so Lawrence probably meant CT’s own wiki markup (which nonetheless is not that terribly different from Markdown).

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.

Latest enhancements to my ConnectedText ‘ecosystem’

Actually I’ve used these tools for some months now, I just haven’t had a chance to mention them on this blog. I use the two in conjunction with each other, so it makes sense to mention them together.

The first tool is a software called TaskSpace. The need arose for this one with the introduction of the floating windows feature in ConnectedText v. 6., which allows you to open an unlimited number of CT ‘topics’ (documents). If you work with a multi-monitor setup (and even if you don’t), there comes a point where you might have several floating windows open, which you would need to move around individually (in my case from one monitor to another), which quickly becomes a hassle. Moreover, floating windows come into focus every time you have the main CT application in focus, meaning that the floating windows would obscure whatever other app window you might want to look at in the other monitor while looking at the main CT window.

TaskSpace solves both of these problems. Firstly, by using the handy CTRL+SHIFT+M combination, you can send individual CT floating windows to a single TaskSpace window, where you can further organise them into rows and columns, and then move them around the various monitors as a single window. It is also possible to create tabs within TaskSpace, so you can add as many CT floating windows to it as you like. Secondly, the paid-for version of TaskSpace also gives you the option to change the behaviour from “always on top” to “normal” etc., which I presume would disconnect the floating windows from the main CT app, making it possible to view them independently (and hide them from view at will). I say “presume” because I’ve never tried that feature. I use a comparable feature that comes with Direct Folders, where you just right-click on the close button of any window (except Chrome, with which it doesn’t work for some reason), and the window changes from “normal” to “always on top” and vice versa.

Here is a screenshot of a TaskSpace window with three CT floating windows docked:

TaskSpace_with_CTThe second tool is a piece of hardware called Boogie Board Sync, which I use almost exclusively with ConnectedText, by creating handwritten notes, syncing them via Bluetooth to my PC, converting them from PDF to .PNG files in PDF-Xchange Editor (which allows you to semi-automate the process by setting up the file names and desired image resolution), and dropping them into CT. Then I use TaskSpace to view these handwritten notes as CT floating windows in one monitor, while working away in CT in the other monitor. I use Boogie Board Sync mainly to capture ideas concerning my main writing project quickly (especially when my PC is not turned on), and then I tick them off in CT eventually, once the work recorded in the BB Sync file has been done.

BB_SyncIf you are a CT user and you are still looking for a Christmas present for yourself, I can highly recommend the BB Sync. But make sure to read the Amazon USA etc. reviews about it to understand its limitations. Many customers seem to have unrealistic expectations about it, and then they complain that BB Sync didn’t meet them. However, if you read carefully what BB Sync offers, and you’re happy with those limitations (such as the inability to recall notes on the device itself – saved or deleted notes need to be synced with the PC to be viewed), then BB Sync can become an invaluable tool for getting handwritten notes into a PC quickly, and into ConnectedText in particular. There are of course many other possible use case scenarios, such as e.g. using BB Sync to write handwritten diary entries and then using the date topics feature in ConnectedText to build a handwritten journal.

ConnectedText v. 6.0.7.25 improves floating window functionality

One of the main innovations of ConnectedText v. 6 was the introduction of floating windows, which allowed the user to view multiple repositionable CT ‘topics’ (documents) while for instance editing another topic in the edit window. Besides other enhancements, today’s update of v. 6.0.7.25 improves the functionality of floating windows in a number of ways. Firstly, you can now launch floating windows from a variety of new locations: by double-clicking on the topic title in the viewer/editor’s header; by ALT-clicking on a bookmark; or by ALT-double-clicking in a Go To dialog window or on a node in the Navigator (CT’s visual browser of topics). The other improvement that stands out for me is the adding of a number of Copy functions to the floating window’s context menu. My favourite is the “Copy as URL,” which allows you to paste links to CT topics into external applications (e.g. WorkFlowy) and then launch them from there.

ConnectedText

Taking reading notes with ConnectedText

Recently I have developed a reading note-taking process with ConnectedText that follows the Zettelkasten method more closely and is an alternative to the note-taking process with Freeplane that I have described earlier. The main difference is that the earlier method with Freeplane produced one large mind map that contained all the reading notes in a single document and which tried to capture the inherent outline (logical hierarchy) of a book’s argument, while this new method produces many small index cards with quotes and notes, which nonetheless can be assembled into an overall outline at the end, to reproduce the overarching flow of the original text’s argument. The main advantage of this latter process is that it results in bite-size chunks of texts that can be connected and reassembled in many other ways, thus providing more versatility and ease of use during the analysis and synthesis stage, and throughout the life the Zettelkasten.

Here is my process flow (when reading a book in PDF format):

  1. I read the PDF document.
  2. I copy and paste interesting passages into NoteTab (plain text editor) to fix the line breaks with CTRL+J and use CT’s markup to preserve formatting (mainly italics and superscript for footnotes), if required.
  3. I paste in the quote into a new “date topic” in CT. Date topics are CT documents with some special properties. E.g. they are prefixed automatically with the date and time of the creation of the topic and allow the topics to be listed in chronological order in the “Topic list” pane. Before starting to take notes for a section of the book (e.g. a chapter), I create a dedicated template (a plain text document) for that section. CT remembers the last template used, which means that whenever I create a new topic, I don’t need to worry about selecting the template again. The template contains all the major fields of a reading note you’d expect, such headings for “Quote,” “My comment,” “Bibliographic reference,” link to page in the PDF file, and “Categories.” The reference is already marked up with CT’s “attribute” tags, which allows for automatically gathering topics with the same attributes. In the “Categories” I would include any labels (tags) that will pertain to all the notes within that particular chapter (including the chapter’s title and the author’s name). I also set up a phrase with the “author date” format in PhraseExpander, so that when I create a new topic, I won’t need to retype that bit again. Here is the sub-process for creating a new date topic in CT:
    1. click on the “new topic” button in CT.
    2. click on the “add current date/time” icon in the “new topic” dialog box.
    3. start typing author’s name and select phrase from PhraseExpander’s pop-up, e.g. “Smith 2013”
    4. type a descriptive title for the quote. The final topic title will look something like this:
      1. 29/04/2014 10:34 Smith 2013 definition of scientific method
    5. click “OK” to create new CT date topic.
  4. paste in the quote from NoteTab.
  5. Add any comments, such as interpretations or ideas triggered by the quote.
  6. Use yellow and pink colour to highlight any crucial sentences in the quote (optional).
  7. Add the page number for the PDF page link (to be able to go back to the source page with one click).
  8. Add labels (tags) in the Categories section to characterise and categorise the quote.
  9. Save.
  10. After having finished reading a chapter, I drag and drop all the newly created date topics into a CT outline file (.cto) I  created for the whole book, and organise them into a hierarchical structure, thus recreating the underlying logical structure for the chapter’s argument (and gradually for the whole book). This is the process and mechanism that replaces the single Freeplane mind map with the previously described method. Should I still wish to see this outline as a mind map, I can export it into Freeplane, where each outline item would be a node, and each node would have a link that leads to the quote in CT, thus acting as a virtual dual-pane mind map/outliner.

 

Zettelkasten: one database or several databases?

In recent months I have decided to implement the Zettelkasten approach to taking reading notes a bit more rigorously than I did in the past, by which I mean that I started taking individual bite-size (index-card type) notes, rather than keeping all notes pertaining to a book or article within a single document. I created a separate database in ConnectedText (my Zettelkasten software) for this, which I named “Quotes.” I also created another database called “Notes” for my own ideas, which I intended to keep separate from “Quotes.” My main reasoning was that I wanted to keep “Quotes” ‘pure’ as a reading notes database, rather than contaminate it by a type of notes that were of a different provenance.

This dualism didn’t matter much until just recently, as I was almost exclusively taking reading notes, which allowed me to record my own associated comments, without the need to start populating the “Notes” database. You could say that I did not have any “original” ideas of my own to record. However, just today I had an idea, which, although inspired by my reading of a book, I thought was an original thought worthy of recording on its own. And then it dawned on me that I do not need to put that note into a separate database. I can just consider it a special type of a “reading note,” the author of which is me. Rather than recording it separately, I can just add my own name as an author in the Categories field, so that I can filter those, if needed. Otherwise there are all kinds of benefits to keeping it together with my other reading notes. For example, they can be searched together or grouped together thematically. And there is no need to be switching between databases.

I realise this may not sound like a very profound realisation that should merit its own blog post, but for some reason I found it a relief that I could reduce the number of databases for my notes. I still have my old “Readings” database, which is based on the principle of collecting all notes per publication in a single CT document. But since I’ve started using the index card approach, I had not felt the need to create another “Readings” entry. I suspect that one day I may break those up into index cards as well and merge them with the “Quotes” database (which I should really rename to “Quotes and Thoughts”).

How do you deal with quotes and your own thoughts? Do you keep them in the same database or in separate databases? Do you keep quotes and your comments about them in the same note or in separate ones? And why?

Christian Tietze on the Zettelkasten way

Here is an interesting post by Christian Tietze that spells out the main software requirements for the implementation of a Zettelkasten type notes database. This is pretty much how I manage my reading notes these days in ConnectedText. I am really looking forward to reading the software reviews that Christian aims to undertake.