Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Organized Scientist

Some professors consider it a badge of honor to keep huge stacks of papers covering their desk and often most of their floor. But in reality once you bury a paper in other papers you won't ever deal with it or find it again when you need it. We are really no different than any other professional and just a few simple techniques can greatly unclutter your life.

For every piece of paper that enters your life you should do one of three things:

  1. Trash (or recycle) it.
  2. File it away, and it its an action item put it on your To Do list.
  3. Deal with it right away and then do one of the above.
Do not just drop it on your desk for future action. It will get covered by another piece of paper and you might as well have recycled it.

If it is a form that needs to be filled out than do so. If it is something you don't have time for now (like a referee report) than keep those in a special place in your desk and add it to a To Do list.

The above rules apply to email as well.

For a To Do list, I use the Tasks page on Yahoo Calendar which I can access from any computer (and it's free). I use the "Due Date" field as a start date so I can sort tasks by when I want to do them.

If you print a paper from the web to read and you think you might need it again in a week or so what should you do? Recycle it and print it again when needed. Don't tell me I'm wasting paper. You'll just print it again when you can't find it anyway. As a general rule you should never save anything you can find on the internet.

How to get started? Go through all of your papers in your office applying the rules above. Too much effort. Then recycle everything. You weren't going to deal with them anyway and now you'll have a clean office and be ready to stay organized.


  1. When taking option one globaly for email it is called declaring email bankruptcy.

    You can then choose to send out a wide email saying you've been busy and for important matters to try emailing you again, which is the equivalent of some of your creditors being paid off.

  2. This post is too self-righteous. Not everyone wants to be as anal about their job. Write more about Computer Science please.

  3. How do you take notes on papers you read? If you scribble in the margins, how do you record this if you then toss the paper?

  4. I disagree with the anonymous (Mon, Jul 11, 12:46 AM) comment above. Lance's advice is good and I appreciate his making these general guidelines public. Now, whether you can/want to follow them is a different story ....

  5. As a general rule you should never save anything you can find on the internet.

    I disagree. The internet is certainly not static. Even if you can find an on-line version of a paper through your library system, that doesn't guarantee that your university will keep the liscence to that publisher for all time. You never know when the resource in question will become unavailable for any number of reasons. Furthermore, though google is man's new best friend, there is no guarantee that the same search will end up with the same results years or even months from now.

    It doesn't take too much disk space to simply save a pdf/ps version of the paper, tar/gz it up and place it in an archive somewhere. I usually user the entire paper name & first author as a file name so that I can easily find it later.

  6. I think Lance's advice is very good. I just printed it out and taped it to my wall so that I can easily refer to it when I reorganize. Unfortunately, there are lots of other slips of paper taped to my wall. :-)

  7. Don't print it out--you can find it on the web whenever you need it!

  8. "Write more about Computer Science please."
    (posted by Anonymous Mon Jul 11, 12:46:40 AM CDT.)

    This is ridiculous. It is Lance's blog. He can write anything he wants. Infact there are people(include me in) who like these kinds of posts as well :-)

  9. I apologize if I too heavily bothered anyone. Mostly I appreciate being an academic because I can have a messy desk and keep weird hours and be hairy and unshaven. And I saw Lance's post as judgemental of people who might embrace disorganization.

    There also have been fewer CS-y topics lately -- I appreciate some ammount of CS culture. But the real reason I read what Lance writes is to get a perspective on theory that can't be gotten so much from just treading through papers. (And to know which are worth treading through!)

  10. What I really want to know is what prompted this post. Lance, did you see a particularly messy office today?

  11. There's an important difference between physical office space and disk space. Your office space is constant (unless you get a promotion and move to a bigger office), but disk space seems always to be increasing at an exponential rate, satisfying a kind of space-based Moore's law. Once or twice a year, the techies in our department upgrade the disk storage, so I almost never delete old files. Doing so is pointless: even without deleting files, the amount of UNUSED disk space allotted to me by my institution has always increased over the years.