Automated reminders of documenting your work (Max Kemman)

During your PhD (and perhaps also before or after), it might be a good idea to keep track of what you have done during the day. My supervisor told me to maintain a sort of diary early on. My problem for a long time was to be conscientious enough to actually write down what happened. The first problem was to remember to write down what happened, and when I would finally remember on Friday to do so, I already had long forgotten about all the things I had done during a week. The second problem was to know what to write down. What is of interest? Surely not what I had for lunch! A problem with a diary page is that it’s entirely empty, it does not tell you what it wants to know.

Still, it is important to keep a sort of diary, for several reasons. First, it is a way to keep track of all the ideas you might generate throughout the week, that will otherwise be forgotten. Second, it is actually very satisfying to write down at the end of the day what you have done, and so see your productivity. Third, later on it could be interesting to look back and compare your thoughts now with those two years ago.

I had to come with a way to force myself to write down in a diary. In this blogpost, I will describe my solution, which is a simple Google Form. Below I will turn around the two problems I had with problems, and first describe how to tell myself what to write down, and then to remember to do so.

Step 1: knowing what to write down

With a Google Form we can create questions that we want answered. None of the questions are mandatory, and we can add questions later on, so it is flexible, but it triggers me what to do. I have created a Google Form with the following questions, all allowing “paragraph long text answers”:

  1. What did you read? (i.e., bullet points summaries of articles and why they are relevant)
  2. Who did you talk to? (i.e., bullet points summaries of discussions and why they are of interest)
  3. What did you write (including number of words)?
  4. Other activities
  5. Ideas for the PhD thesis
  6. Ideas for blog posts or other projects
  7. What would you like to learn?

All the answers are saved to a Google Spreadsheet, so easy enough to find everything back later on.

Step 2: remembering to write

The other problem with a diary is that when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. I have installed the Google chrome extension Crontabs which can open a tab and put it on top of whatever you’re doing at a specific time. I have set Crontabs to open the Google Form we made in step 1 at 16:30 on every working day. Under “Advanced” I have set the “Action” to “Show” so that the tab replaces my screen.

Step 3: now actually do it

The only thing left to do now it just to keep doing it every day, and not close the tab when busy with other things. I still do that often enough, but by having questions ready and a daily reminder I usually end up writing down everything in time to remember the details. Good luck!

Max Kemman, C²DH, University of Luxembourg