How I Organize All My Data Across 2 MacBooks, an iPad, and a phone: My Academic and Personal Workflow

I’ve been getting a bunch of questions about how I use my iPad for academic stuff, which leads to the broader question of how I integrate my academic and technological lives. I’ll try to answer that briefly here (though I’m still happy to talk with you about it).

Cloud Storage — The Backbone of My Workflow

Cloud storage serves as the backbone of my workflow. For Cloud storage, I variously use Google Drive, SugarSync, Dropbox, iCloud, and Box.net. These applications are on my home MacBook, work MacBook, iPad, and phone. They keep all of my relevant files synchronized. My primary computer is my home MacBook, so it is host to many more documents than my other devices. As such, it is backed up regularly to an external hard drive using Mac OS X’s Time Machine. This way, I ensure that all of my files are backed up, and all relevant working files are synchronized across all of my devices.

I use iCloud for Apple’s iCloud based services: Notes, Reminders, Contacts, Documents (Pages, Keynote, Numbers), Photos & Photo Stream, and backup for the iPhone and iPad. When you upgrade to iOS 5 (or soon iOS 6), iCloud should be part of the setup process. Using up to 5GB of space on iCloud is free, but more than that will cost you (though it is cheap). iCloud does not yet have a general file storage feature, so I can’t use it for most of my other needs.

SugarSync is my cloud storage application of choice. It runs on all devices folks commonly use. And it is relatively cheap compared to apps like Dropbox. It is also (or was at least when I started using it) one of the few cloud storage devices that allows you to keep your current computer file structure, rather than having to move your documents over to a special Dropbox or Google Drive folder. I use SugarSync to synchronize working papers, my library, and documents for work.

Dropbox and Box.net I use less regularly. Loads of people use Dropbox, so I have an account to allow people to share with me. This is, as far as I can tell, the only advantage of Dropbox. Box.net allowed me to get 50GB of free storage when I first started using it, which I hope will some day come in handy.

Google Drive is the replacement for Google Docs. It stores and can create/edit documents just like Microsoft Office. But your documents are available anywhere you can log in to an Internet-enabled device. And you can share documents with others, as well as edit collaboratively. I use Google Drive for any collaborative projects I work on. Google also recently updated the app to be able to edit Google Docs on the fly on iOS, which is a great new feature.

Summary: SugarSync and Google Docs are two excellent cloud storage services. Both have Mac and iOS apps that will sync with each other over the Internet. Cloud storage services are the backbone of my workflow, allowing me to keep the same files consistent across multiple devices.

Reading

I read a lot. I use a number of tools to help me do so. This is where my workflow gets rather complicated. Here’s how I read and organize various types of information:

Academic Papers

I do most of my academic reading on my iPad. I use the app GoodReader for this purpose. GoodReader allows you to synchronize your iPad with various cloud services, including all those listed above. I generally only use SugarSync here. I synchronize my entire library of articles, so I can read whatever I want when I’m on the road. GoodReader does highlighting, drawing, and notes, so you can mark up your documents and save notes for later.

In addition to reading with GoodReader, I use Sente as a reference manager. There are many decent applications for reference management that are free, including Zotero and Mendeley. Papers2 is also a popular Mac app for reference management. I went back and forth for a long time before committing to using Sente. Sente is not the most polished (Papers2 wins that prize on Mac), nor the most feature-rich (Mendeley), nor open-source (Zotero). However, it has a decent number of features, has a pleasing aesthetic, and most importantly for me, allowed me to synchronize my files using my own cloud services. The others make you pay to synchronize your files over the cloud. You need to pay for Sente up front, but only once per major version.

Here’s where things get a little complicated, but the payoff for me is worth it. Sente can create synchronized libraries to work on multiple computers and your iPad. It is important not to store that library in one of your cloud synchronized folders. This will definitely mess up your library. Sente synchronizes itself. However, I wanted access to my Sente files through GoodReader on my iPad. The secret to doing this is to see that a Sente Library on your Mac is just a clever folder. You can therefore synchronize a subfolder of your Sente Library — the Attachments folder. In SugarSync, add the Attachments folder that is PART of your Sente Library to your synchronized files. Then, on your iPad in GoodReader, you can sync the Attachments folder. This lets you read and update your PDF files in GoodReader on your iPad, but have them still open as attachments in your Sente program. Awesome.

Personal Reading

I have more personal reading workflows as well. This includes reading Kindle books for pleasure (or because I needed them delivered quickly). However, it mainly is the large number of news sites and blogs I keep track of. For this purpose, I use a Google Reader account. I store all of my RSS feeds on this. On my Mac, I use Google Reader as my RSS reading app as well. On my iPad, I use MobileRSS, which simply loads my RSS feeds from Google Reader.

But, I don’t often actually read anything in my RSS readers. Typically, I browse my RSS feeds very quickly and save everything to Instapaper. I also use the Google Chrome browser plugin for Instapaper. This way, whenever I open Instapaper on my iPad, I have all the websites I wanted to “read later” in one place, and in one format. It makes for a very seamless and aesthetically delicious reading experience.

I use diigo to keep track of pages and bookmarks. Diigo is great because you can store all your bookmarks in the cloud, and return to them from anywhere. You can also highlight and leave notes on web pages, which will appear when you return to them. Diigo is a web browser plugin. There is also an iPad app called “Diigo browser” that I don’t use much.

I use Chrome as my web browser of choice. Chrome is on Mac, Windows, Android, and now iOS. If you “log in” to Chrome, it will synchronize your browsing history across all your devices. You can also open a tab on one device that is currently open on another device. This is a great feature for moving between multiple devices.

Writing

I do most of my note taking on my iPad. I use the default Notes application for quick notes. But primarily I use Evernote, a cloud-based note taking program. This lets you store notes and documents of all kinds. It also has a photograph app and a recording app built in. I have about 12 notebooks within Evernote and I store everything from Research to Inspirational quotes and videos. It helps me keep track of a great deal of information. Also, if I am reading in Instapaper and decide I want to keep something for good, I export it to Evernote.

For bigger writing projects, I often start out in Google Drive. This gives me the ability to collaborate with anyone at any time. From there, I may switch to Pages or Word, depending on my needs. On the iPad, I use Quickoffice. This app can open any Office documents and can sync with any of your cloud storage services. For very large writing projects that are not collaborative, I use Scrivener, which has a bit of a learning curve, but is well worth it.

Concluding Thoughts

That was a lot. A mind dump, really. But there it is. Thoughts? Responses of other workflows?

I find it extremely important to continuously develop and iterate my workflows. Technology changes extremely rapidly, and keeping up with it enables you to manage huge amounts of information faster and more efficiently. I also think it has another important benefit: continuing to look back at previous notes, writing, and reading gives you an ability to reflect on where you’ve come, which can inform where you are going. My recent commitment to using Sente has made me return to a number of old papers that I am now re-inspired by.

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