Keeping track of stuff

by John Q on November 6, 2004

In the aftermath of the elections, it doesn’t look as if anyone in government will be calling on me for frank and fearless advice[1] any time soon. So this seems like a good time to get my records in order. My piece on time management elicited some follow-up discussion along these lines, notably here, with followup here . For those who are looking for moderately constructive routine activities in the wake of recent catastrophes, here are some (not very organised) thoughts.

I’ve never found a satisfactory “one size fits all” solution, though I’ve acquired lots of experience in the associated search. For my main bibliographic file, I’m using a Mac-only product called Bookends, the product of a one-man show called Sonny Software. I tend to go for obscure products like this[2]. The industry standard at the moment is Endnote, but I had some problems with this (can’t remember exactly what) and decided not to adopt it when I shifted from Procite a couple of years ago. When I get time, I plan to work out how to use BiBTeX – Bookends produces output in this format. The physical copies of papers I’ve accumulated are stored in filing cabinets, and marked in Bookends. I’m also trying to keep my PDF files in a similar fashion, but I’m well behind on that.

Email is another gigantic database in itself. I’ve been using Eudora, which has pretty good filtering and search capabilities, but I’m now dipping my toe into Google’s Gmail – I’m just a bit worried about Google having access to all my mail, black and otherwise.

Then I’ve got a bunch of Filemaker databases. As well as the usual contact lists and so on, I’ve got a system of two linked databases which is supposed to keep track of my articles, where they have been submitted and rejected, and so on. As I’m both quite active and somewhat out of the mainstream in economics (both geographically and ideologically), I tend to get a lot of rejections, and I live in fear that I’ll resubmit a paper to a journal where it’s already been rejected. The system also lets me know how long things have been in process, so I can send polite reminder notes in cases of extreme slowness (I normally wait a year, but unlike some authors I’ve heard of, I don’t mark the event with a birthday card).

If I can summarise my views on this kind of organisational stuff, they are

* Something is better than nothing

* The best is the enemy of the good

* Filing is good if it provides a constructive activity during dry spells, downtime and so on, bad if it becomes a displacement activity. If you’re involved in any way with blogs you already have more than enough avenues for displacement activity.

Anyway, back to my new working paper database, which is going to make all my stuff available on RePEc

fn1. They’ll get it anyway, of course, but only in my spare time, and only through channels like blogs and opinion columns

fn2. I also like Nisus Writer as an alternative to Word.



Dubious 11.06.04 at 4:32 am

LaTeX is also pretty handy. A shareware program called WinEdit is a comparatively painless way to interface with it.


Ravi 11.06.04 at 4:55 am

Try Zoe instead of Gmail ( ). It’s a local personal server for email, so you’ll need a bit of technical savvy to set up, but it can be quite handy.


jet 11.06.04 at 5:06 am

At $40/month it is ridiculous not to have a cable/dsl connection and run your own server. Being the captain of your own ship is worth immesuarable pain and suffering.


John Quiggin 11.06.04 at 6:15 am

What benefits do you see from running your own server, Jet? I’ve generally preferred to have a host who can help me with SQL problems and similar, but I may well be missing something.

I certainly agree wrt broadband vs dialup.


Kieran Healy 11.06.04 at 6:19 am

shareware program called WinEdit

Do you mean “WinEdt”: I used to use that when I used Windows.

Being the captain of your own ship is worth immesuarable pain and suffering.

I have found this not to be true.


novalis 11.06.04 at 8:06 am

Being the captain of your own ship may not be worth the pain and suffering, but once you try it, it gets pretty addictive.

I’ve found that for desktop setup and software development, it is worthwhile, while for web servers and email it’s not (although I do keep a local copy of all of my email, searchable via my mail client). Disclaimer: my sysadmin gives me (at present) 3.4GB of free space for mail and webspace; if yours doesn’t, your milage may vary.


Dubious 11.06.04 at 4:51 pm

Yes, I did mean WinEdt… weird. I always subconsciously mentally added in the ‘i’ there. The brain is a curious thing.


Shai 11.06.04 at 8:03 pm

some cable/dsl providers aren’t friendly to users with servers, especially smtp, and if they aren’t already blocking, their terms of service probably doesn’t rule it out for the future.

and if you’re new it will take a couple weeks to get up to speed. waste of time in my opinion.


Rich 11.07.04 at 1:01 am

I’ve been looking for a free-form database that allows me to pull together various thoughts, notes, etc. Being stuck in the windows world, I’ve been wistfully staring at Tinderbox for Mac, hoping that their windows version comes soon.

In addition to being a database, Tinderbox also appears to be a nice brainstorming utility. I just can’t find anything like it outside of the Mac environment.

In the meantime, any suggestions for something like Tinderbox?


John Quiggin 11.07.04 at 1:27 am

I’ve been meaning to play with Tinderbox but haven’t yet had time. Maybe I should look for some time management tips :-).


smallerdemon 11.07.04 at 7:09 pm

Well, if you are using a Mac, you actually have included with the OS a great number of organizational tools. Mail, iCal and Address Book can all work together with some great results. iCal in particular is a source of untapped organizational power, able to email to any address as the alert for for the event. Address Book is certainly one of the best Address Books I have used. Mail, although I use it, I believe could use some work. I use it for checking my IMAP accounts, but for the storage of all of my email I continue to use Entourage (up to 2004) which I am fairly happy with.

From what I can tell, Entourage 2004 itself is a pretty well thought out piece of software, although I have not tapped the depth of the project manager as of yet. As my own personal projects get more and more behind, and more and more piled up, I certainly find myself asking the same questions that everyone else does about keeping up, keeping organized, and keeping on top of it all.


Michael Mouse 11.08.04 at 5:00 pm

I can’t believe nobody has mentioned the “Heaps of Stuff” filing method yet. Papers – whether articles or administrative guff – are assigned to one of a number of heaps. Rough heuristics about which goes where are applied very loosly. Retrieval is often a matter of applying one’s spatial memory – which I certainly find to be more reliable than conceptual memory.

This has lots of benefits. Recently-used stuff tends to float to the top, related stuff naturally groups itself. One real big win is that the filing overhead is negligible: day to day you just put stuff on the heaps, and once every year or three (or when heaps become serious structural hazards) you go through the heaps and throw everything you’re not actively working on away.

Oh – and for the citations in articles, you do what everyone else does in the papers I review: cut and paste from your other articles and worry about checking them thoroughly and putting them in to the right format when you’ve had the paper accepted somewhere. This is a real timesaver too unless you have an absurdly high strike rate with publication.

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