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Ask YC: How do you keep track of the different things you are doing?
14 points by saikat on Nov 19, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 18 comments
I often work in a depth first sort of way. Right now, I am trying to learn Weblocks and get better at Lisp by going through the Weblocks User Manual. But as I read that, I see that it doesn't explain something all that well so I find a separate tutorial for that. As I am reading that, I will see some Lisp concept that I want to read more about, so I open a new tab and read what Practical Common Lisp has to say about it. While reading this I see something else I don't understand so I Google about it, and that leads me to see a quote I like so I open up Emacs to write down some thoughts on it, which makes me realize that I really need a better way to keep track of all the things I am doing, so I write a post on Hacker News about it. In the end, I lose track of all the other threads of thought and learning that I had started.

So my question is - does anything exist that helps with this? Something that just keeps track of the windows and tabs I have opened in a stack-like fashion seems like it would be great - even better if it lets me write notes or keeps track of where I am in each. I know Juice tries to do this a little bit for browsing the web in Firefox but it seems not exactly what I want. Right now I just make notes in a text document but it is distracting to any kind of flow I have going and it seems like a better way should exist.


I think everyone's susceptible to this sort of frenetic behavior when it comes to knowledge work. We all have our own coping mechanisms, but mine may help you:

Start each day's work the night before by considering the big-level picture of what you're working on (learning LISP, starting a new marketing campaign...). Then make a to-do list of smaller pieces that sum to that component of your overarching goal. Keep what's within reason -- stretch yourself a little -- but save the rest for another day.

Then the next day work around that list. And when you inevitably encounter interesting bits that aren't among your executable (clever quotes, concepts that surprise you) put them in some storage bin. This part is tremendously important for me... the "brain dump" lets me put the distraction out of mind because I know I'll return to it.

Then rinse, repeat.

Over a few weeks you start moving closer to your goals, and you even have a record of interesting things to keep your attention on a rainy day.

I know your question was about tools specifically, but the tools question becomes less important (a spiral-bound notebook works) when you separate strategy from hour-to-hour productivity.


You do have a limited amount of working memory, so if you pursue ten threads at once, you'll just lose track of what you're doing. But if Thread #1 is your do-my-project thread, and Thread #2 is your save-distraction-for-later thread, you'll do fine.

Seconded. You're already in emacs, and orgmode is excellent (and it should be already there). Spend a day or two learning it, and then use it - you won't regret it.

Pencil and paper.

No elaborate scheme needed. Write a word or two. Arrows. This is just a temporary hand-rail for support, not a documented history. If you try to make this more elaborate / formal, you lose the flow. Have a simple system.

Use Google bookmarks from the g-toolbar to make sure you don't lose links.

If you're on a Mac and you're using Safari you might like Urly (http://www.zenonez.com/urly/news.html). It lets you make a pretty basic stack of browser links. If you don't like that (and you're a Quicksilver user), it might be worth writing some Quicksilver triggers to push and pop urls using a text file as a stack.

That's a bit too much, but shit! I can save URLs on my Dock! That just solved my immediate problem.

well, one partial solution would bee tree style tabs plugin for firefox. It nests the tabs you are opening so you have an easy way to backtrack and find what other tab you got to this one from, etc.

If you're a bit more conservative with your screen real estate, I'd recommend the Tab Kit plugin instead:


It includes the vertical tree-style sorting, but I prefer the horizontal mode with several rows of tabs visible -- it lets you see more at a glance.

It also color-codes each group of tabs uniquely, and lets you collapse groups. It's a handy way to open a bunch of research on one topic, then set it aside for later.

This is going to sound trite - but I use a notebook.

I have the things I'm working on, and a parking lot of things I think of/see/etc along the way.

Periodically - e.g. when I'm having a coffee, I go through the parking lot and (optionally) make them into tasks in the future.

If it's a webpage, I bookmark it and don't bother exploring - otherwise it's a recipe for going on some weird tangents. My bookmarks are a mess, but it's actually pretty easy to just search than come up with a filing system.

delicious links work great. I add "toread" tags and other relevant categories. Every couple days I go through the toread pile, and un-tag the page (but keep it in my bookmarks).

Thanks for the suggestion. I use Evernote similarly but that mostly works for things that are okay for me to read later. I am wondering more for something to keep track of things that I need to read or do now - if I am exploring something new and want to learn as much as in necessary to get up and running. With my Weblocks example - I am just diving in and there is a lot that might be in the tutorial that I don't understand but need to understand to keep going. This is fine when the depth of the stack of things I am doing to learn is shallow (for example, the one that comes up most when doing a tutorial - reading the tutorial , opening up Emacs to code it yourself, then going back to the tutorial). But when doing something where I know very little and am trying to learn a lot, the stack gets fairly big at times and that is when a program would be useful to keep track of it.

I think of tracking this stack as my memory's RAM and I feel like I am doing a lot of disk writes (to some notebook or text document). I feel like my computer has a lot more RAM, so maybe it can help me =).

I wrote an essay about this problem, and offered a solution to fix it. However, I'm not going to be able to hack on it until the holidays...


A notepad txt on the desktop

I would agree that pen and paper or a single textfile you keep open all the time is the easy way to keep external memory of what you're doing without getting bogged down in a complicated tool.

However, I'd also advocate focusing by multitasking less.

"There are 22 windows open in Safari, with a total of 43 tabs. Do you want to quit Safari anyway?"

Er, no. Not just yet, thanks...

Read a real world book, not something on the internet.

It sounds like your internet's untied.

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