As I have progressed through college I have found it necessary to look for and invest in the right tools for the tasks I have at hand. I think it is important to be aware of how I work, and test out ways to improve my efficiency.
This is often dangerous, as it is very easy to spend more time trying to find the right tool than actually using some tool to just get the work done. However, it has proven useful for me and I have been able to create a workflow that has helped increase my productivity and my ability to get work done. I would like to lay out some of the ways I have gone through this, and hopefully it will convince the reader to do the same for themselves. Naturally what I have found works for me will not work for everyone else; I just wish to convey that it may be good to self-evaluate what could be better about the way in which you work.
I will start simple and discuss basic health and daily routines. While this may not be considered a “tool” for productivity or work, I believe that it is inseparable from getting work done at a reasonable pace. At a base level, when I eat well and exercise, I get more sleep and feel better in the morning. When I wake up at a good time to shower, shave and brush my teeth, I have a better morning overall and this extends into the day. And throughout this past semester I have taken steps to increase the regularity of this, determining a schedule that helps me feel much better.
The first thing changed was when I woke up and what I chose to do in the morning. Because I start my classes and work each day at 8, I had to make a judgement as to when I would get up in the morning. Some nights I have no choice but to be up until at least 11:30, so despite wanting to be able to workout, shower and eat in the morning, I could not accomplish all of these without sacrificing more sleep than I was willing. I decided on showering and eating, so I began getting up at 6:30 in the morning. Then when the dining halls opened at 7, I could be ready and in line at the omelet bar, ready to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
My next tool that I have been exploring this semester (and longer) is technology. Last year I had a small Android tablet to carry around with me. For the most part it was nice, since it fit nicely in my hand, I could easily read textbooks and course documents on it, as well as surf the internet or watch videos idly. The battery life was great (especially compared to my phone), and I even had a small keyboard. However, I realized it could not do everything I needed to do and ultimately did not significantly help my productivity. The reason I bought it at all is because my laptop is 17 inches and pushes 5 pounds. It is a behemoth, which I love to have, but hate to carry anywhere. The battery life is miserable to top it all off. Thus the tablet.
When this year came I decided to make a change. I traded in my tablet and got a small 11 inch laptop, thinking I could write up notes and homework on it, do a little programming, respond to emails and just get some work done on the go that would be tedious or impossible to do on my phone or the tablet. For a while this worked wonderfully. I was able to typeset my homework and notes in LaTeX (if you are in math or physics you have probably heard of it; it is just a fancy and efficient way to type math), work on some computer programs, mess around online, read textbooks, everything I wanted to do without needing to be in my room. But then it backfired. I did not spend much money on this computer, and so it began freezing on me regularly while on the internet. Eventually it froze while typing up my homework and I lost a significant amount of work. This was not acceptable. I immediately began researching alternatives and decided on an iPad Air 2. I realized this was what I had been waiting for all this time, the ultimate tool for me to be productive (or just about).
The iPad allows me to do everything I wanted to do — typeset notes and homework, respond to emails, read books on a screen (which is far better than the laptop) — in addition to being able to take notes while also restricting me from distractions. The main issue with having a computer in general is the ease with which I could go onto YouTube or Netflix or any other number of distractions. With an iPad though, if I do not install the apps, I have no temptation to use these. The only downside is that there is no good way to write any complex or robust code on the iPad and run it easily, but this is not much of an issue. Overall I have been more focused and more organized because of the iPad, and it has proven a wonderful piece of technology for the tasks I have.
For people who know me well, this last topic will not be surprising, and I find it to be the most important: writing utensils and paper. While the iPad is helpful at times, it cannot compare to the feel of doing math with pen and paper. As a mathematics major, it is absolutely necessary that I have writing tools on hand that I can rely on and which help me work efficiently. For example, with all things related to scratch work I absolutely hate using lined notebook paper. The lines feel limiting, the paper is thin (and not uniformly so), and pens and pencils just do not look quite as good on lined paper to me. The next best thing is graphing paper. I have a dull-yellow, faint blue-grid quad-ruled notebook which I like a lot. Black pen looks good on it, the grid is not too obvious so my brain does not feel the same limitations that it associates with lined paper, and the paper is thick enough that I can use both sides.
But then they are spiral-bound. This is a big issue since spiral bound notebooks get stuck together, the paper rips sometimes when you flip through them, and when writing on the left side of the notebook my hand bumps against the spirals, which is very uncomfortable. Ideally I would take all of my notes on plain white paper, but binding these in a way that does not have the same issues as a spiral bound, yet still allows me to lay the notebook down flat, is problematic. So this is an aspect of my work that is still up in the air.
Naturally paper requires a writing utensil, and this is an eternal struggle for me. While I have momentarily solved my pencil issue — I use two wonderful TUL brand mechanical pencils with 0.5mm lead and an extra block eraser — I write all of my notes and scratch work in pen. Pencils are reserved for tests. So I have been on a long search for a pen that does not bleed through paper horribly, yet has clear, dark ink and does not have any “stop and go” to its ink flow. The nib/tip needs to be of a particular size which I can only determine is appropriate by trying it out. Again, I have momentarily solved this issue with a roller-ball uni-ball Vision Elite pen in black and blue, as well as two personalized ballpoint pens for things like essays (I cannot use ballpoint for math.) While the rollerball bleeds a bit more than I would wish, it is not unreasonable. The ink flows perfectly each time, and it feels good in my hand. Yet there is room for improvement. I would love a pen that is a bit more ergonomic and has more weight behind it, and potentially has cartridge replacements. This has been a passion and a struggle for me since middle school, but I believe that my ability to be creative in my work (yes, math is a creative subject) is tied to what I am writing with, as a good pen allows me to not think about using the pen or fighting with it; it just feels to be an extension of my brain.
There are even more tools I have purchased or played around with (a bike, for example) that have helped me but are not entirely worth mentioning. I find it necessary to keep thinking about how I work and how I can improve my processes and tools I surround myself with. College is a great time to be doing this, since we are enveloped with tasks and responsibilities, and to handle everything being thrown at us it is important to be efficient and effective.