Sunday, March 14, 2010

Getting Organized

... or at least less disorganized ...

I've never been one for outlining, diagramming or in general planning projects. Whether I'm writing a paper or a computer program, I generally dive in, compose in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness way, and then refactor things until I'm satisfied (or run out of time, or lose interest). Maybe it's a sign of age, but lately I've been using a couple of open-source tools to try to organize my thoughts a bit better. They both seem to have a lot of utility, if I can just get more regular in my use of them.

One is Tomboy Notes, a simple application that lets you jot down notes on the fly. Notes are essentially small HTML/XML files that can be organized into notebooks, linked to each other, and searched. You don't have to worry about naming and saving files; that's done automatically in the background. It's a Linux app, but there's a Windows port that works just as well as the original. You can park an icon for it your system tray/quick launch bar/panel/whatever so that it's one click away. I suspect there are ways to launch it with hot keys as well, but I'm not a hot key aficionado. (If I had enough memory cells to remember all those hot-key combos, I wouldn't need a note taking app!)

The other application falls into the category of mind-mapping software. When I first encountered stories about mind-mapping applications, it struck me as a way to make easy things harder. I'm changing my mind about that. The mind-mapper I've settled on is XMind, which has both free and pro versions. The free version is fine for me. Basically it's an easy way to draw a few types of diagrams that organize ideas into some sort of coherent display, with links connecting various concepts, and with the option for various types of annotations (including notes on individual concepts). I'm still trying to adjust to the use of a mind-mapper. Ideally it should be my first stop when starting a project, but so far I'm still in "dive in head first" mode there. Nonetheless, I'm finding productive uses for it, and I think it will grow on me.

Two recent examples relate to a service project for a professional society (the Decision Sciences Institute) and a research project. For DSI, I was asked to chair an ad hoc subcommittee that would make recommendations about improvements to their web site. I started by scribbling things on scrap paper (no sheet of paper with a blank back escapes me without some scribbles), but quickly realized that was turning into an incoherent mess and transferred the ideas to XMind. As with word processing software, one advantage of a mind-mapper is that you can quickly add, delete or modify things without having to rejigger the entire diagram. I was able to use the XMind diagram not only to organize the committee's activities, but also to present a preliminary set of recommendations to the institutes Board of Directors.

On the research side, a current project requires a relational database (SQL) to hold results. Once again, I started in scrap paper mode, then created the database in SQLite. When I needed to verify which fields were foreign keys to which other tables, I realized my error. The scrap paper notes were too hard to decipher, and there were enough tables in the database that looking through all the schema was a pain. So I retroactively mapped the database in XMind. At least this way, the next time I need to modify the database design I'll have an easy reference.

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