Tools of the trade: back-to-school tech tips

As I get myself organized for a new semester, I’ve taken an inventory of the technological resources I use to help my school year run a bit more smoothly. Here are some of my favorite tools of the trade. Do you have any other helpful tools to add? Have you tried any of these? Let us know in the comments!

  • Toggl

What it is:  A free desktop and cell-phone app that helps you keep track of how you use your time.

How I use it: A fellow graduate student turned me onto Toggl last semester, and I started using it to see how much time I was actually spending doing work each day. The unpleasant reality — that most of us have a lot of wasted time during the average workday, even when we claim to be working — was a really important insight. Now I use Toggl to make sure I’m getting in a pre-determined number of hours of good work-time each day, to have an overview of where and how I’m allocating my time, and most importantly for me: as a reminder to not waste time.  The extra step of having to pause my toggl timer every time I want to go chat with an office-mate or idly read Buzzfeed helps keep me on task.


  • OneNote

What it is: OneNote is a Microsoft Office program that mimics the structure of a physical notebook — it organizes your work into “Notebooks” that have as many sections as you need. Within each section, you can add as many pages as you need. The seemingly endless number of useful features (audio recording, ability to add excel spreadsheets, searchable images, screen-clipping tools, and being able to print into your pages) all come in handy for academic work. The best part: it all auto-syncs to your microsoft account, so you can access it from any computer.

How I use it: I use OneNote to take my notes in class for two reasons: I think it has the best functionality of any word processor and it auto-syncs, much like Google docs. OneNote also lets you draw and, overall, lets the user have much more freedom, which makes it very easy to take visual notes, like I like to: charts add in easily, text is easily move-able; you aren’t confined to any real constraints on where you can move things, begin a new textbox, etc. If you copy and paste something from a website, it automatically includes a link to the URL; if you want to add a PDF, the text becomes searchable. OneNote has really improved my note-taking and project management over the years. You can watch quick videos that demonstrate the functionality. Unfortunately, I think it’s still not available for mac users (with the exception of the web-app, which anyone can use.) Now available for macs!!


  •  Google Keep

What it is: A free, google-based memo app. Keep functions similar to many digital post-it apps, with a bit more functionality. For example, you can add alarms and  pictures and can record audio, and it auto-syncs to your google account (you can also use it on your desktop).

How I use it: I like to set myself small reminders on the go using Keep. While I use an old-fashioned planner to keep track of assignments, appointments, and more, Keep is great to use for ongoing lists. I have a list for blog topics, for example, and another for books I’d like to read in 2014, articles of interest, reminders attached to the list of dates to send in my quarterly taxes, etc. Any running lists — groceries, wishlists, to-do lists, goals, things to read/watch/listen to/buy — or notes that require reminders go in Keep. It also lets you color code (which is always a selling point for me, as anyone who has ever seen my keychain knows)

 Some other tips I try to live by:

  • Still try to take notes by hand — research says you learn and remember better. In some cases, it’s impossible: a super speeding-talking instructor, classrooms in which discussion or lecture never proceeds linearly (and thus makes notes on paper fairly tough), three hour seminars in which your hand will be on fire by the end, etc. It’s super easy to scan in your notes later (if you don’t feel like re-typing them) in OneNote or whatever program you choose.
  • Have a go-to source of background noise. I really like coffitivity (a website) and elmnts (a chrome extension).
  • Put your phone on airplane mode. Sometimes when I’m in the office, I put my phone on airplane mode to avoid getting texts, calls, or emails until later.
  • Work outside! That is also a good way of unplugging — just you, the grass, your book, and some loose-leaf.
  • Work standing. I have a chest-height filing cabinet I use as a standing desk; there are lots of ways of improvising a standing desk: make a tall pile of books (we all know grad students have plenty of books to do this with…), put your computer on a bookshelf, etc.
  • Give yourself a break! Have clear guidelines set for when you can leave your work and take some time for yourself. Toggl helps with this, but so does a daily checklist: once you reach a certain level of productivity for the day, pack up and go do something to recharge before your next day of work.



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