Tagged organize

Initiating, planning, and running collaborations

Collaborations are everywhere in research. They are the Number One way to import methods and expertise into your research group, and to export your own knowledge to help others go new ways.. They also give your team members additional training opportunities. So today’s post is all about initiating, planning, maintaining, and quitting collaborations – both for PIs and their group members.

together we can

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

In this post, I address collaborations both from the view of the PI, and from the view of a scientist in training. One of my PhDs asked me to write about this topic, and it’s definitely one of the topics that should be discussed and taught during graduate training.

Being strategic about collaborations

I first collaborated at the very beginning of my PhD; of course, this collaboration had been initiated by my supervisor. Then, nothing followed for a while. When the first opportunities presented themselves toward the end of my PhD, I was thrilled and jumped at them. But I found that with my first papers out, and with becoming known in my field through conferences and talks, there were soon more opportunities than I could possibly serve.

At this point, senior scientists told me that I should be strategic about my collaborations. So, while it might be take what you get at a very early stage, opportunities for collaborations abound once you’re at the stage of Postdoc or PI. And then, each collaboration you agree to means saying no to others.

The three most important questions to ask about any potential collaborations are:

  • What am I looking for, and what is my gain? Some aspects are access to data acquisition and anaylsis methods; expanding into a new topic; getting into a new social network. You might have others.
  • What can I offer the collaborator; what is his gain? One important thing you can always invest is your time and effort.
  • Therefore, is this collaboration worth investing my and my team’s time? And, what other work, projects, or collaborations will I have to sacrifice to be able to handle this one?

Responding to invitations to collaborate

…if the PI is asked

As PI, inquiries can go three ways:

First, the collaboration might involve you directly, such as writing a review paper together, writing a collaborative grant together, or providing expertise only you as PI own in the lab. In this case, you have to answer the above questions about the value of the collaboration; probably more importantly, you have to decide whether you have the time to take part.

Second, the collaboration might rather involve someone in the lab, for instance, an expert for some fancy method. Of course, the decision whether to start this collaboration should involve that person. But step one should be for the PI to decide whether it strategically fits the lab. Step two is to discuss with the lab member whether the collaboration will advance their career. The worst way (though this happens quite a bit in real life) is to inform the lab member that, by the way, there is this new project they will soon be working on in addition to all the other stuff they are already doing.

Third, a potential collaborator might ask to work with or in your group. Although the first response to this is usually that as long as that person comes with their own money and do the work, all is fine, any such collaboration does require your supervision, and, at the latest when the resulting paper must be written, considerable time. If the student wants to join your lab, it is also important to think about whether s/he will fit into the group, and how much your lab members will need to be involved in the project. Accordingly, don’t forget to ask them.

…if a lab member is asked

Lab members are probably most often asked to contribute their expertise. This means, they will have to invest considerable time. Let your team members know whether you are open to them discussing collaborations, and at what point you want to be involved. On the one hand, they are on your pay roll. On the other hand, they are on a career path. The further they are in their career, the less they will be willing for you to impose decisions on them. To take conflict by its horns, it is best to discuss openly how much freedom they would like, and how much you are willing to give.

Your team members are likely less experienced with collaborating than you are as a PI. So share your experience with them, and help them get their priorities straight for effective career planning.

…in any case

It’s a risk to enter a collaboration with someone you do not know. I’ve read that some people advise to collaborate only with people you know well. I personally don’t think this is realistic if you want to build a relatively wide network of collaborations. However, it is important to get to know your collaborator as much as possible before giving the final go.
Ask others in your network. Most of the time, someone has information about your prospective collaborator. Furthermore, trust your gut during the initial discussions. If it doesn’t feel right, consider letting it go. And make sure all important aspects of the collaborations are negotiated up front and agreed upon by everyone.

Initiating collaborations

Initiating a collaboration is probably the easiest part of the whole endeavor.
It usually takes as little as a conversation at a conference, or an email.

Your approach will be most successful if you communicate the following things:

  • What is the specific project / topic / experiment you are proposing?
  • What is your background, your lab, etc.?
  • What time frame are you thinking about?
  • Who will pay for the project (travel, living expenses, experiments), and/or does it involve writing a grant?
  • What is your investment, and what would you like the collaborator to provide?
  • What result are you aiming for? (In most cases, this will be a publication.)

You might not communicate all of these points at once; in a conversation, you can contribute them piece by piece when they fit. If you go via email, some things might be discussed only after initial contact has been made.

Your collaborator will have his own agenda and ideas, and might propose alternatives to your own ideas. Don’t be too quick to say yes to everything. Remember to evaluate the collaboration strategically. Therefore, before you make initial contact, know what you really want out of the proposed collaboration.

Planning the collaboration

Once it’s clear that both sides are generally interested, it’s time to do some real planning:

  • In your own lab, make sure people know who is involved in what way.
  • Specify the project. Decide on the exact experiment or product. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Discuss who will provide funds. If the collaboration involves someone staying in the other’s lab, this includes travel and housing cost. Make sure to think hard about all types of cost that will arise: experimental subjects, materials, publication cost etc. If grant writing is necessary, agree upon who will provide which parts.

  • Discuss a timeline.

  • Discuss authorship of a prospective publication. This can feel very weird, especially when you do it the first time. But it really helps to clear up everyone’s role in the project ahead of time. For instance, the first author will be expected to do pretty much all the work noone else feels responsible for. The last author will probably be the one to provide funds for experimentation. But these things will depend on your field, and on the specific situation.
    Discussion about authorship is especially important if junior members of both collaborating teams are involved: both might want to use this work toward their qualification (e.g. PhD), which is often only possible with a first authorship. Equal contributions are becoming more common, but might not be admissable in all graduate programs. As PI, be sure such administrative aspects are cleared up well in advance to avoid dark hours for your PhD later.
    Discussion about authorship is also relevant for the seniors of the collaborating labs, as last authorship may be important for tenure, success-oriented funding, and salary increases. Here, too, shared authorship is becoming fashionable. Again, it’s smart to clear up the consequences of author order in advance.

  • Distribute tasks. Where will what work be done? Who will program the experiment? Who will do what analysis? Who will write? Will there be student assistants who can support data acquisition? It’s good to know these things early on.

Maintaining the collaboration

Schedule short status checks to show your collaborator that you have the project in view. If the work is done in your collaborator’s lab, ask for status updates if they are not provided. If the work is done in your lab, be proactive: let your collaborator know how it’s advancing regularly. If it is not advancing, let him know too, and explain the reasons.

If your lab members are involved, make sure they represent your lab in the way you expect. For instance, ask them to give you and the collaborator regular updates. Make sure they keep their deadlines, and communicate well in advance when they see that they can’t keep them.

If the collaboration goes well – and this mainly means: if everyone gets a long well, and mutual trust has developed – one collaboration will lead to another.

Handling problems and taking the exit

Not every collaboration goes the way you imagined. There might be personal issues. You might learn that you do not trust your collaborator, or that their work ethic differs from yours. It’s possible that your collaborator does not deliver what he promised, or passes deadlines by months.

Whatever the reason: if you notice early, bring it up in your meetings. Your collaborator might not be aware that he is not meeting your expectations. Or he might think that you are fine with how it’s going as long as you don’t complain. As PI, let your collaborating student know that you will support him if the collaboration becomes difficult. As a junior researcher, claim your supervisor’s support if you don’t get enough.

Yet, sometimes all the talking does not result in the changes you want to see. There can come a point at which the value of the collaboration has become too low for you to maintain it. Or, to say it in more colloquial words, at some point, it’s just annoying without benefits.

At that point, consider ending the collaboration. There might be some reasons that make you feel you can’t, such as if your collaborator is someone really important in the field whom you do not want to cross. But even then, think hard whether you can find a way to exit gracefully. If you can’t come up with a good solution, ask a mentor or a colleague you trust.

The more work has gone into a project, the less we are inclined to let it go. Yet, if the situation in the collaboration is such that success does not seem probable, any additional effort going into the project is too much.

Celebrate your wins

And because I don’t want to end with such depressing things as quitting collaborations, let’s instead end with something happy: when a collaboration ends successfully, don’t forget to thank your collaborators. A phone call or email can be adequate. Or a dinner with all project members at the next conference. Or raising a glass of sparkling wine over skype.

Now, all the best for your collaborations!

I’m sure there are more tips for collaborating, both from the view of the PI and of junior scientists. Please share them below by leaving a comment!


Others have discussed how to quit a collaboration if it doesn’t work anymore.

The book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is a plea for reducing the number of things we do. Certainly something to consider when planning collaborations. Then again, don’t forget that collaborations build your network like nothing else.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / Foter.com / CC BY


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Debriefing: two questions to ask when it’s all done

Most of the time, I’m more than glad when a project is all done and written up. Research projects can have this tendency to take too long and require a lot of breath towards their end. In a hurry to get it over with, it’s easy to forget to look back and evaluate what went well and what didn’t.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

In our scientific work, we are used to progress step by step. Each time an experiment doesn’t turn out the results we expected, we adjust methods and paradigm a little and try again.

But when it comes to the way we organize our teams and our projects, we often don’t show the same scrutiny. Maybe we’re just fed up with that project. Or it’s all the new stuff that’s already piled up. Either way, we forget to sit down with the project members and evaluate or debrief.

Although there are detailed schemes available, a project debriefing can be really simple. All you need to do is ask yourself, and your team, two really short questions:

What worked? And, what should we do different next time?

That’s all. Easy. And note, it’s about the positive just as it is about the negative. Just like any good feedback should be.

The two questions can apply to any aspect of organizing your projects, but here are a few examples:

  • Communication and supervision. Did everyone know what their responsibilities were, and did the supervisor delegate well? Was conflict dealt with adequately? What kind of communication worked well (email, skype, personal meetings…)? Was help available when needed?
  • Writing. Was authorship handled properly, e.g. did everyone know early on where they would land in the authors’ order? Did manuscript reviews go smoothly between all authors? How can writing together be improved?
  • Lab handling. Did everything work out with the technical setup? Are there any procedures that need to be changed, and communicated to others? Which procedures were good, and can be distilled into workflows that others should follow?

Of course, there may be many other aspects that merit discussion. Then again, it’s not necessary to make it a therapy process. Just don’t skip the debrief all together, and identify a few good things to keep, and the bad ones to throw out.

In some cases, a project evaluation may be part of the conversation you have during the personal evaluation meetings with your individual team members. Yet, if a project involved several people, debriefing together with the entire project team will provide more valuable input, and allow clearing up any hickups that may still await closure.

Do you have a routine for project evaluation? Tell us about it in the comments!


I think there’s a lot to learn from entrepreneurs and marketers. Jeff Walker presents the two questions in his video blog here.

Photo credit: Stocksnap>


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

The rule of 3 and 10: group life still working?

Humans like routine. Group life is no different. Before you know it, things just “go like that”, “work that way”, and “have always been like this”. Of course, routines break all the time. The rule of 3 and 10 predicts that routines stop working when the number of group members changes. But even if it doesn’t, rethinking group life from time to time keeps your group healthy.

still working?

Organic growth

Every group has its own life. You have certain meetings, certain ways to communicate, and certain ways to do things.

A lot of these aspects of group life develop by themselves, driven by the people of the team. Some things, of course, you decide in the beginning, such as the kind of meetings you will have and when.

Things stop working

Sometimes, what worked really well for a while just stops working. Meetings get so boring that you can hardly keep your eyes open, and people start texting instead of listening.

Communication fails: tasks are forgotten, important messages aren’t delivered.

Information becomes hard to find: team members just don’t find the info they need, and start reinventing the wheel.

Take action before it’s needed

If you look out for it, you can catch these kinds of decline well in advance. On a regular basis, ask yourself and your team whether things are still going well:

  • Are meetings still effective and instructive? Have the regular building blocks of your meetings become boring? Have they lost their purpose?
  • Are you even having the right meetings? Are the right people attending? Can some people stop attending?
  • Are the organically grown processes still efficient and effective? Where does information get lost, and where is the way things are done complicated or annoying?

Together with your team, find better ways and improve things. It doesn’t have to take long.

I put meeting evaluations on my calendar every 3 months, and just ask at the beginning of a meeting what everyone thinks could be done differently. Nothing’s built in stone.

The rule of 3 and 10

Grown group structures become obsolete especially when the number of team members changes. Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote, reports that pretty much all processes need overhaul whenever group size triples or reaches the next order of magnitude. So, from being alone to being 3; from 3 to 10; 10 to 30; 30 to 100.

In science, most groups won’t reach 100 members. But the lab I used to work in grew from 4 to 40 within some 7 years. I didn’t know the 3/10 rule, but looking back, I can see how things broke and needed fixing.

Group growth can go much faster than you anticipate. Over the last couple of years, my core group was 5 people, but we had a flow of student assistants, BSc and MSc students. In the blink of an eye, a group meeting grew from 5 to 15. And indeed, we changed the meeting structure. New people, new needs.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

Leave a note about how you go about changing your lab’s routines in the comments below!


The rule of 3 and 10 was passed on from Hiroshi Mikitani to Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote. Read more about it here.

Photo credit: jeffeaton / Foter / CC BY-SA

Evernote Hacks V: Using Evernote for teaching

Evernote is not only great for personal note-taking and organization. Because notes and notebooks can be shared, Evernote is also great for collaboration in teaching. This post looks at some use cases.

evernote for teaching

This post is part of my Evernote Hacks series – check out the other posts!

There are many online tools to provide materials for teaching and collect contributions by students. My university offers at least two. Many online tools work in the browser, and uploading stuff can be a pain. I’ve found Evernote to be a great alternative.

Sharing the course notebook

I create a notebook for the course, and then share it with all attendees. For this purpose, they must register with Evernote using an email address of their choice. Students can use the free plan, so no cost is incurred. I share the notebook with the email address they send me. Done.

Because sharing requires entering the email address in Evernote, I haven’t used Evernote for lectures with a large number of listeners. However, interaction is usually limited in lectures anyway. Evernote unfolds its potential in smaller courses in which lots of materials need to be shared.

Using Evernote for regular classes

The greatest advantage of Evernote is that it integrates with almost all major platforms (Linux excluded, unfortunately, though there it works in the browser as everywhere else). My biggest motivation for using it for teaching is that all my information is either already in Evernote, or I can easily move it there. It simply integrates perfectly with my computer environment and my workflows.

Providing a course outline

Before I start a course, I create notes with the course overview and course rules. Then I create a note for each session. Each note simply outlines the general structure of what I want students to fill in when they prepare their contribution:

  • The names of the students responsible for the session
  • The objectives of the session
  • The session plan
  • Slides
  • References

When they prepare their session, students fill in this grid. It helps them to know what I expect them to prepare.
I also use these notes to give an overview over the course in the first session. I directly write into each session’s note who will be responsible for each session.

If you name notes beginning with an exclamation mark, they will be sorted to the top when sorting notes alphabetically. Similarly, numbering sessions will result in the correct order then.

Providing materials

It’s hardly worth mentioning that both you and your students can upload whatever they want to share. I make all papers used in the course available. Students add their own papers, their presentations, photos of flipcharts, metaplan posters, and the chalk board, content they find on the web, and whatever else might come up in the course.

It is worth mentioning that students’ upload goes against your account. This means they can upload large amounts of stuff, even if they are using the free account. That is, as long as you have a paid account (both professional and business accounts come with unlimited upload nowadays).

Using Evernote for research classes

In our Psychology BSc and MSc programs, we offer courses that teach students hands-on experimental work. In these courses, I use Evernote to collect everything, just as in a regular teaching course: relevant papers, programming code for the experiment, etc.

In addition, students save their data files, notes about data acquisition, and code for statistical analysis. Some also use the platform to exchange ideas and have discussions.

Because Evernote synchronizes automatically, students don’t have to remember to download anything. Their materials are just always there. It’s practical.

Using Evernote for individual student research projects

Finally, I use Evernote to share materials for BSc and MSc thesis projects. In the end, this is no different from using it for our group’s regular research projects (I’ve explained in an earlier Evernote Hacks post how we organize Evernote for this purpose).

I ask my students to collect everything in their project folder: meeting notes; notes about their experiment; notes about data acquisition; etc.

This way, if you ever want to use the work of your student in a paper, you’ll know where to find everything. If you still have to save data elsewhere, such as large data files, create a note that states where the data are. This is very helpful if you are searching several months (or years…) later. Really.

Everything in one place

In short, all my teaching is in Evernote.

I always know where to look. Finding stuff is easy, because everything is in one place.

Copying materials from an earlier course to create a new one is as easy as marking some notes and copying them over to the other notebook.

And with all of that stored information, Evernote’s many features are always at hand: sharing notes with new people, sending stuff by email, working on documents right out of Evernote, and search capabilities.

Have you used Evernote in your teaching? Good or bad experiences? I’m curious! Let me know in the comments…


To read more about how you can organize Evernote when you have to share your stuff with many different individuals and groups, check out my post Evernote Hacks Part I: Setting up your Evernote Business and Personal notebooks.

And find out more about my Evernote Hacks series.

Photo credit: blieusong / Foter / CC BY-SA

Four common mistakes in delegation

Delegating can be the Number One time saver, but it does have its traps. Even after several years of heading my group, there is still lots of space for improvement for me. Here, I’ll cover how you can avoid four common mistakes with delegating. Let’s make life just a little easier…

mistakes in delegating

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

Delegation is the Number One strategy of freeing up your time, so that you can focus on doing what’s most important and what you do best (I discuss more strategies here). I guess, it’s also everyone’s dream before they become a leader: Once I am the boss, I’ll tell everyone what to do… Well. As it turns out, this can be harder than one might think.

Mistake 1: Not delegating (enough)

Once you are in that admirable position of being able to delegate, doubts start creeping into your head:
Can the person I hired really do this task well? Without all the knowledge that I have collected over the last years, it’s impossible to do it well! And besides, I can do it so much faster than this new PhD student, so I should just do it myself.

Chances are you know the feeling: no one can do anything as well, or as fast, as you can.

This is the biggest mistake of all that you can make with delegating. It keeps you trapped in the everyday tedious tasks that eat up lots of time. It feels important to do them (and it is!), but too little time remains to do all the things that come with leading: planning; supervising; writing.

Often, we’re stuck in our old routines, and, without thinking, we execute whatever tasks lay before us. Here are 5 steps that help you identify which tasks you should delegate.

  1. Get an overview. Write down all the things you have done in the last one or two weeks. Try to catch everything, especially all the little stuff.
  2. Identify recurrences. On your list, identify all tasks that recur regularly. These are prime candidates for delegation. First, you will save time every time the item recurs and someone else does it for you. Second, given the recurrence, it’s well worth teaching someone else how to do it.
  3. Find what you do best. Make a new list. Write down those things that you do best. Try to avoid biasing your list towards the what I’ve done recently list; this new list should be more of a what I’d do if I could freely choose list. Compare this new list with the old list. Those things that overlap between the two lists are things you probably shouldn’t delegate. Your aim is to have only these kinds of tasks on your todo list.
  4. Sort out what you can. Re-examine your first list (the what I’ve done recently list) once more. There are now probably items on there that weren’t recurring, but that also aren’t on your wish list. For each item, think hard whether it is something that you have to do yourself, and that can be done so fast that teaching someone else to do it is not worth it.
    My experience is that there are many items that at first feel like I must do them myself. Often, though, I realize that someone else can do them just as well. Consider, for instance, handling finances, hiring student assistants, or checking out choices and getting quotes for a new lab device.
  5. Improve continually. Once you’ve made a start by identifying tasks that can be delegated, make it a habit to ask yourself with everything you do: is this something I can potentially delegate, or does it belong to my core responsibilities and to the things I do best?

Mistake 2: Not taking enough time for teaching

Delegating can go wrong. You’ve handed a task to someone, and the result is not what you wanted. In the worst case, you have to run after the whole thing and clean up a mess.

As a consequence, next time, you do the task yourself again. But, with this strategy, chances are some unloved tasks will stick with you.

When you first delegate a task that requires either special knowledge or skill, you will first have to invest time and work. This is a common hurdle, because in the beginning it feels as if delegating takes more time than doing things yourself. This is true, but temporary.

It is important to invest the time and effort to teach the person you delegate to. Only then can s/he successfully do the task. And you’ll have peace of mind.

Mistake 3: Not communicating clearly

The other day, I needed to find the best option for a product we needed in our group. Luckily, I remembered that I don’t have to do everything myself, and delegated the task to one of my PhD students. In my mind, I’d get the info about the best product in a day or two. Instead, I got a long email with a lot of links to many different products, with the friendly note that I could now look at all of them.

Clearly, I had failed to communicate my requirements and expectations.
When communicating what you want, let the person know what result you want to receive, and at what point you want to be back in the loop.

Michael Hyatt distinguishes 5 levels of delegation:

  1. Do exactly what I tell you. You give step-by-step instructions, and expect that they will be followed. No room for creativity.
  2. Research the topic, report back, I decide. Someone does the collecting for you.
  3. Research, outline the options, make a recommendation. Here, you want the person to actually think.
  4. Make a decision, then tell me what you did. You trust the person you’re delegating to with the task. You only want to make sure you can step on the brake if you disagree after all.
  5. Make a decision, act, no reporting necessary. This works either with unimportant things that you really don’t care about, or with people who are competent with the task at hand and whom you fully trust.

Besides defining the result you want back, it is often useful to set a deadline. Some management people insist that every delegated task must have a deadline. Of course, we all know we only start things the day before a deadline. So the assumption seems to be that without a deadline, the task would never be done. So, if you experience that your delegated tasks often don’t get done, try out deadlines.

When delegating a task, let the person know what you want and need. It’s useful to

  • summarize at the end of a delegating conversation
  • ask the person what she thinks she is supposed to do (and correct if wrong)
  • and to leave room for questions.

While these points may sound self-evident, they really are not, when you distribute tasks via Email, or shout out your request in a hurry before you run elsewhere.

Remember: It’s important for the person to know exactly what you want. If they don’t know, they’ll make their assumptions, and those might be right. Or not.

Mistake 4: Not following up on your delegated tasks

It’s crucial to keep track of the tasks you’ve delegated. So, keep a list. If you use the Getting Things Done system, then you’ll tag every task you delegate with the waiting context, and also tag it with the person you’ve delegated to.
(If you don’t know what GTD is, you can read about it in this post; and about implementing it in Evernote here.)

Why is it important to follow up on delegated tasks?
First, you want to be sure that they got done.
Second, by following up on each and every task, you create a culture in which it is clear that you are serious about the tasks you distribute.
Third, with many tasks, you’ll want to check the results or base a decision on the outcome.

An easy way to keep track of finished delegated tasks is to ask your team members to email you when they are done.

Have you experienced difficulties with delegating to your team? Do you have useful tips? Leave a comment for everyone to read!


Michael Hyatt has podcasted and blogged quite a bit about delegation, for instance, The fine art of delegation and How to do more of what you love (and less of what you don’t).

Hyatt also has an episode about delegating if you don’t have a team to delegate to. Interesting. Not all of it will work in the science world, but some might. After all, we never have enough people to do the all work!

Manager Tools Basics podcast has a couple of episodes on delegation. These guys talk much, but their advice is very helpful.

Delegation is but one of many ways to recover time for yourself. I’ve written about some others in my post Remove yourself: start leading, stop micro-managing

Photo credit: Skley / Foter / CC BY-ND


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Evernote Hacks IV: Saving things to Evernote on the go with Drafts

Evernote is great to remember everything. In my previous Evernote Hacks post, I showed how to set up Evernote as a complete Todo/Getting Things Done system. One of David Allen’s GTD principles is to always be ready to write down what comes to mind. Here, we’ll set up iPhone and iPad with the Drafts app as a capture-everything tool. With this setup, you can save to your GTD Evernote Inbox any time and on the go.

This post is part of my Evernote Hacks series – check out the other posts!

The iOS app Drafts makes a rather unpretentious first impression. When you open it, you basically see an empty screen on which you can type. The app’s power hides behind a small button in the upper right corner. When you click it, a sidebar appears that lets you dispatch the text you’ve typed to multiple destinations, such as email, Twitter, SMS, Calendar, and Evernote. In addition, Drafts lets you set all kinds of parameters, such as the Evernote target folder and note tags, along with sending the text.

Let’s set it up for the Evernote GTD system.

Set up Drafts to send to Evernote

  1. Install Drafts from the Appstore and open it. If you have several iOS devices, go to Settings (hide keyboard, then click the cogwheel in lower right corner >> iCloud >> turn on Sync. This way, after you go through creating this action on one device, it will sync to all others.
  2. Click on the upper right icon. Choose any tab. Evernote is considered a “Service”, so that’s where we’ll put our Drafts action in this post. drafts start screen
  3. Click on the Plus sign in the upper right corner. In the appearing dialog, choose Create Action.
    drafts actions
  4. In the first field, next to the empty box, enter a name for your action, for example “Save to Evernote Inbox”. In the color row, choose the color you like. For example, green for Evernote… Click on the empty box to the left of where you entered the action name. In the icon list that appears, you’ll find the Evernote elephant. If you prefer, use the peace sign. Or maybe the snowman?
    drafts evernote action
  5. Click on the line that says 0 steps. An empty page appears. Click on the Plus sign in the upper right corner. Scroll down the list until you find Evernote. Click on it.
    evernote action type
  6. In the screen that appears, enter “[[title]]” as title. This takes the first line of whatever you typed and uses it as the title of the note you save.
  7. As notebook, enter your Evernote default inbox notebook, presumably “Inbox”.
  8. You can enter one or several tags. If you’ve set up Evernote according to my Evernote Hacks GTD post, then leave the tags empty: you’ll assign them later, when you go through your inbox while clarifying and sorting new entries.
  9. Leave write type create. This means that Drafts will ask Evernote to create a new note.
  10. As content, enter “[[body]]”. This will save all text you entered in Drafts in the Evernote note, except for the first line that we used as note title. Just to add, Drafts lets you do many more fancy, nerdy, geeky things. For example, you could set up the tags field to use the content of the second line, and to add to the note body only the input of line 3 and following. I trust that if you are that geeky, you’ll find out how it works yourself…
    evernote action specs
  11. Click Save in the upper right corner. You return to the Action Steps screen, which now shows your Evernote note creation action. Go back to Action (upper left corner this time).
  12. You can set up your action to automatically delete your text in Drafts when it’s been sent to Evernote. If you want that (very practical), scroll down to Advanced and select Delete in After Success. And, no worries: if the note could not be created, then your text will not be deleted.
  13. Click Done in the upper left corner. Find your new action on the bottom of the list in the Services tab.

There are many more options to work with Drafts and Evernote. Drafts understands Markdown and allows you to send a formatted text to Evernote. If you have some inputs that should bypass your Inbox, set up a separate action for it. For example, I have an action to “Save to blog ideas”. If you’re working on a bigger project (say, a paper or book), you could set up an action to save ideas for that. I use drafts to take notes during talks (on the iPad), and have an action that sends those notes to a “Talks” notebook.

Do you have your own flow to get stuff into Evernote quickly? Which apps are you using? Any tips for Android? Leave a comment!


Get Drafts at the Appstore, or find out more about it. The developer also entertains an Action Directory (actions are the type of things we set up in this post) – people can upload their Drafts actions for everyone to download. If you decide to buy Drafts, it’s worth checking out what all can be done with it.

The One Tap Less blog has some nifty stuff for Drafts, too.

Remove yourself: start leading, stop micro-managing

When you were a PhD and Postdoc, you became an expert for the scientific methods you used for your research. Stepping up the career ladder as a group leader, you use your hands-on scientific expertise less and less, and your work is dominated by conceptual planning and team leadership. I’ve said before that the step from Postdoc to research group leader is very similar to that from expert to small business leader: the most important step of the entrepreneur is to remove himself from the everyday business.

remove yourself

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

Any business depends on its owner – but, as Michael Gerber explains in his book The E-myth, often for the wrong reason!

Gerber explains that the biggest mistake small business owners make is that they stick to doing expert work, that is, the work they used to do so well that they decided to base their own business on it. This ties them up, and they aren’t free to do the work for which their business should really depend on them: leading and expanding.

As leader of your research group, you face the same challenge: to get stuck in the day-to-day research and to fail stepping up to steer. The solution is to systematically “remove yourself” from the research work. A weird thing to say, isn’t it? Yet, before I started leading my own research group, those who already did consistently told me that my work would change. So, rather than waiting until you can’t wait any longer, make it an explicit aim from the start: remove yourself.

3 reasons to remove yourself

Why would you consider to remove yourself? There’s at least 3 important reasons.

Your job description has changed

First and foremost, you now employ people who do the operative work. Your role in the group is to lead. Some of the tasks that come with being a group leader are rather obvious, such as making decisions and structuring everyone’s responsibilities. But maybe the more important part is that you now have to grow and develop your group. This means that you have to write and revise many more papers than before; decide when you need new people and new money, and write the grants for it; make sure that your team members develop new skills and expertise and coach them. You simply won’t have time for operative work anymore.

The idea of scale

In business, scale refers to doing more of the same simply by adding one more. One more McDonald’s. With one more set of employees who have exactly the same functions as those in all other McDonald’s franchises. Look at my post on Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, which lays out the idea of scale for small businesses in more detail.

The idea of scale ports directly to your research group. It means that you have to make sure that you can get more research done by simply adding new people to the team. This will only be possible if the work in your lab does not depend on you. If you have to train every new lab member yourself, then there’s a tight limit to the number of new people that can join. If you have to invest significant time into every project that is running in your lab, then the number of projects is seriously limited.

Make your group sustainable even in times when you can’t be there

remove yourself – but stay in controlAs you climb up the career ladder, you’ll have more stuff going on outside the lab: talk and conference invitations, review boards, administrative meetings etc. You’d like to be sure that work gets done when you can’t be there.

You might find that writing and planning – of which you’ll presumably be doing more than before – is easier in other places than the office, and decide to work at home on some days.

And if you are planning to take a break from work or to reduce your working hours to raise children, this point is especially important. You’ll be much more calm about being gone if you know that your group’s work continues, and that you will be notified only when it doesn’t.

So why am I still here?

As the leader of your group, your main responsibility is to steer where the whole thing is going. Of course “removing yourself” cannot mean that you have nothing to do with your group anymore. It means that you stop doing the operative work that you used to do and for which you became expert during your PhD and Postdoc time. Yes, you drop all that to free yourself for a different kind of work: planning, expanding, guiding, supervising, thinking, and writing.

6 strategies to remove yourself

How can you set up your group in such a way that you can remove yourself? Although you want to be able to be gone, the research group is still your baby, and you have to be in control.

I’ll give a brief list of strategies, and pick each point up again in separate posts later on.

  • Delegate. The most obvious thing to do is to hand off as many tasks as you can to your team. Your work should be the things that a) only you can do, and b) you do best. This means that you have to hire the right people – those who can take over as much as possible of all other tasks. I’ve written about delegation here.
  • Templates, Workflows, and Instructions. Create documentation of the knowledge that is necessary to do the research right. I’ve posted about this here.
  • Create a group culture. When you aren’t there, then your team must make its own decisions. You would like those decisions to be the same ones you would have made yourself. The way to ensure that is to have a group vision and culture. If you and your team share the same priorities and values, then everyone will make compatible decisions. Development of a group culture requires explicit communication with the team.
  • Set up an organizational structure. It must be clear who is responsible for what; who can answer what questions; what kind of events may be handled entirely without you (and by who); and for what kind of things you want to be kept in the loop, or make the final decision. You can delegate some leadership roles to some of your group members, e.g. Postdocs. Make sure they know what you expect of them, and where their competence ends.
  • Set up communication. Make sure you can be reached. For example, hand out your mobile number, or have an emergency email address for your team that you check even when you don’t check other email. Everyone should know how to best forward information to you. There are many interesting options for team communication besides Email, such as Evernote, Slack, Gitlab, Google Docs, and Asana. I’ve posted on being available here.
  • Set up regular meetings. It is essential to have regular meetings with the group, and with each team member. Many business people recommend weekly One-on-Ones with individual teams members; I’ve found that this is good for new lab members, but can be too much later on.
What strategies are you using to remove yourself? Share it in the comments!

Photo credits: walking up stairs: Pexels; waving woman: Starbug / Foter / CC BY


I’ve mentioned Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, in several posts, for example in my review of the book, and in The Scientist as an Entrepreneur.

Tim Ferriss has written a lot about the idea of removing yourself in his book, The 4-hour workweek. The book’s aim is rather different from this post’s, but it is full of thought-provoking ideas that can be used for our purposes.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Starting in a new place with new funding: what should be on your list

If you’ve just received grant money to set up a research group in a new place, or have been offered a leading position or professorship, there’s a myriad of things to make sure, check, negotiate and set up. Check this list to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

todo list

I’m trying to make this an extensive check list of all the things you should look at when you start your research team or science group. Not every point has to fit everyone. But everyone should be reminded of all relevant things here.

This is work in progress!! If something is missing, please give feedback in the comments!


Note: depending on what kind of position you are negotiating, some of these points are really obvious, but for other jobs they may not be. Some points might not apply to you.
This list is geared towards first-time grants (e.g. ERC starting grants; German Emmy Noether grants) and (German) junior professorships, not towards negotiating a full professorship. There will be many more points for the latter (a list to come later).

Your own work situation

  • When does the contract start? When does it end?
  • What is your salary?
  • Can you get training for your new challenges? Ask your funding agency whether they pay for some training; ask whether your university offers training.

If you are your new position is not a professor position in Germany (e.g., you got an Emmy Noether grant):

  • Is it possible to negotiate your salary? Check what steps are necessary to rise to the next income rank (e.g. TV-L15). It might be necessary to submit a request the administration to be placed in a higher income rank.
  • What is your status? Are you considered equivalent to a junior professor? Or are you considered “just a postdoc”? In election and in administrative decisions, is your vote a professorial vote or not?
  • Are you expected to take part in administrative meetings? (Germany: Fakultätsrat; Professorium; …)

Your group’s work situation and your new lab

  • Where will be everyone’s office? How man people should share an office?
  • Will you be provided with computers, other hardware, software? If your research includes CPU or memory intensive computations, make sure that you will be provided with adequate hardware.
  • Can you use somebody else’s lab(s)? Are there labs that are shared by everyone? Do you have to share your own lab?

If your grant includes equipment:

  • Who is going to order it? This will depend on the funding source and cost of the device. For instance, the German Research Foundation purchases equipment >50.000€ itself.
  • Make sure you know what is being ordered. Depending on when you obtained the quote you submitted with the grant, there may be newer/better products. Find out whether you can purchase those.
  • Find out when your equipment will be delivered. This can be important information for you to decide when to hire new team members.
  • Are you required to document anything? This may be the case especially with EU money (work hours, what people are working on etc.). Find out early and do it right from the beginning to save yourself lots of headaches later.
  • Do you need to submit an ethics proposal before you can do your work?

Your new team: hiring

  • Make sure you find out all the rules of your institution first.
  • When should your team members start?
  • Where do you have to advertise your positions? Where else can you advertise? Is there a budget for ads? If not (probably not…), then can you use your funding?
  • Can you refund applicants’ travel cost (often no)?
  • How long does the position have to be advertised?
  • How long does it take from your decision to hire someone until that person gets a contract?
  • What is the procedure for interviews? Who has to be present? Does the women’s representative have to be involved, or even be present for the interviews? Do you need to involve the personnel’s representative (Germany: Personalrat)?
  • Find out beforehand how you have to document the application process. For instance, at German universities you will have to give reasons for every person that applied but you did not invite; you might have to show what you did to encourage women to apply; etc.


  • If you’ve never had to do with financial administration in science, you’re in for some struggles. There will be lots of rules about what you can buy, and how. It might be worth to meet the administrative person who is responsible for you in person.
  • Find out whether you can sign your own purchase orders.
  • What can you buy from your grant money, and what not? Check wether the funding agency excluded anything (they tend to). If you really need what was excluded from your grant, can you get it from the university? In Germany, ask about “Grundausstattung”.
  • Do you have a yearly budget apart from your grant money?
  • Do you get parts of the overheads that your institution gets from the funding agency? If so, what can you spend that money for?
  • When does your grant officially start? For instance, at the German Research Foundation, the grant starts with the first money spent. If you are ordering equipment early, so that you have it when the team comes in, then your grant will already be running. In this case, make sure you know when the grant ends. Often, you can prolong the grant’s running time if this does not add any cost. So, although your grant started with the order of the equipment, your team will be able to have the expected duration for their contracts.
In your experience, what other points are important when someone settles in a new place? Are there things you wish you had known ahead of time? I’d be curious to hear about it in the comments!


Look for courses you can take to get acquainted with leadership, administrative aspects, finances, etc.

In Germany:
Courses of the Deutscher Hochschulverband
Courses of the Zentrum für Wissenschaftsmanagement


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Photo credit: Emily Carlin / Foter / CC BY-ND

Evernote Hacks Part III: Implementing Getting Things Done with Evernote (Business)

Although I’ve found several task planning apps I liked, it always bothered me that I had my todo items in my task planner, and then had to look for the information related to it in other apps, like Email, Word, and Evernote. Here I’ll introduce you to using Evernote to collect everything task-related in one place. It’s pure bliss.


This post is part of my Evernote Hacks series – check out the other posts!

All in one place

Do you often have to look for the stuff you need to actually execute a task?

Maybe you’ve gotten a long email from a collaborator. You don’t have the time to reply to it now. Instead, you write on your todo list: reply to Colin’s email. When you finally get around to it three days later, you start searching for that email. Did you leave it in the inbox, archive it, or move it to some folder?

This is just one of many situations where the reminder is separate from the material you need. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if your materials had their reminder attached to them?


Putting todos where they belong

I’ll introduce the steps to set up a full-fledged todo system in Evernote. Because I’ve found Getting Things Done a great way to organize myself, I’ll detail how you can set up a GTD workflow as your todo system in Evernote.

The GTD ideas I’ll implement are:

  • Capturing things to do in the Inbox
  • Clarifying captured stuff into actions and projects, defining next actions, and using contexts
  • Touching things only once to get them into your trusted system
  • Reflecting on your lists and weekly review
  • Extracting a list from which to engage
  • The waiting for context
  • Organizing everything that requires 2 or more steps as a project
  • Writing down all related information about a project

Now, that’s a lot of stuff. So it’ll be a long post. Get yourself a cup of tea. Or coffee.

Note: this post will probably make a lot more sense if you know GTD. If you haven’t read the book, it’s something to consider…

Setup Part 1: Basics

I start with some basic setup steps that we’ll use later.

  • Create a notebook named Inbox in your Personal Evernote account and make it the default notebook for new information. Almost everything that goes into Evernote goes through the Inbox.


  • Create a notebook in your Personal account, named !Todo. Because Evernote filters folders as you type, the ! will find your todo folder immediately if it is the only folder that starts like this.
  • If you use a keyboard shortcut app like TextExpander, then you can create a shortcut that types the name of your todo notebook. I use ^1.
  • Set up your Evernote Webclipper in the browser to select Inbox as the default notebook to save clipped info, and turn off auto-filing and auto-tagging. Click on the Webclipper icon in your browser, then on the Settings cogwheel on the bottom of the Clipper window. In the options window that comes up, choose always start in, and select Inbox as notebook. This way, everything you clip goes into your Inbox, and you can sort later within Evernote. It’s faster, and you batch sorting with all your other task sorting.
  • Designate a start character for your todo tags. If several people in your team want to implement GTD in Evernote, each one needs their own initial character (or character sequence). You can use initials, but it’s nice to have something that’s fast to type. I use two dots. So my tags are named ..email, ..read etc. When I enter two dots in the tag field of a note, all my todo tags are listed in a dropdown menu, so I can choose one.
  • If you haven’t read my post on handling email and Inbox Zero with Evernote, now is the time.

GTD Step 1: Capturing and saving everything to Inbox

With this setup, you can already capture everything to your Inbox.

There is a simple rule: Everything you save goes into Evernote’s Inbox notebook. The GTD Inbox eliminates the question of where stuff should go when you think of it or find it. You just collect it in the Inbox. Done.

If you’ve implemented the basic setup, then web clips and email already go into the Inbox. When any kind of todo comes to mind, create a new note in the Evernote Inbox, write that thought or todo in the title of the note, and done. Read the Evernote Hacks IV post for more ways to get stuff into the Inbox.

If you try to get your email inbox to Zero, then save any email that contains information you need to store, and any email that requires some action, into Evernote using EverMail.

When you write an email for which you expect a response, save that sent email to Evernote, too. You can send a bcc to your Evernote email address. However, then you do not get a link back to your original email. If you go into the thread in which you wrote the email, or into your sent folder, you can save the email with EverMail. Later, you can click on that link in Evernote, the Email will open again in Mail.app, and you can re-send to ask why you haven’t heard.

GTD Step 2: Clarifying by tagging and creating projects

Regularly, you go through your Evernote Inbox. GTD suggests that you touch every item in your Inbox only a single time. This means: for every note you find in your Inbox, you decide a number of things (refer to the book or website for details, I’ll list the most common things here):

  • If it’s something you can do in 2 minutes, do it now. Else, …
  • If you realize you saved it but don’t really need it, delete it. Else, …
  • If it’s information you need to store, file it. Move it to the appropriate folder in Evernote. Examples: Your flight schedule for the next conference goes into the event notebook for that conference. For stuff I know I will need only for a short time, I tag it with ..material and move it to the !Todo notebook. Example: the agenda for next week’s faculty meeting.
  • If it’s an actionable task, make sure it’s written up as one: GTD suggests action words. If you’ve saved emails, you’ll probably need to change the note title. Then, tag the note with the appropriate context(s). Depending on what contexts you use with your system, you can use places, energy levels, people, etc. These are not mutually exclusive. You can tag ‘Call Emily’ with ..phone, ..lowEnergy, and ..emily. With these tags, we’ll find the todo later, so you can put it into any notebook you like. I put a lot of todos into the respective project notebooks (see the Evernote Hacks post on setting up the folder structure). Anything not worth filing just goes into the !Todo notebook. So the !Todo notebook is simply a place to collect all things that aren’t worth sorting, or are not associated with a project.
  • If it’s something that requires more than one step, make it a project.
    • If it’s a big project, create a notebook for it. Into that notebook, place a project note that contains a project description, concrete result or outcome, brain storming about what needs to happen to get it done, and specific action steps that you can pick as next actionable step to move the project forward.
    • If it’s a small project, create a project note with the same information, but store it in a notebook ‘small projects’. For example, ‘order new desk’ might require researching desks, getting a quote, and writing an order form. You save the project note so you don’t forget to order a desk. But you create separate actionable todos with appropriate context tags, like research desk with tag ..online and ..lowEnergy.

Setup Part 2: Create tag searches and organize Evernote’s sidebar

Up to now, we’ve created notes with tags. Now we’ll set up Evernote so that you can easily access notes with those tags.

Simple tag searches

Click into the search field. To search for all notes that you’ve tagged with the ..email context, type:


The notes will be listed for you. Go to menu Edit > Find > Save Search. In the window that appears, give the search a useful name. This could be the tag name, or the tag name without the prefix (.. in my examples), or a longer description (‘Work context: Email’). Whatever your style. Save.
Now, click in the search field and press Esc until the field is empty. Click in it again, and a dropdown list will appear that lists your saved searches. Drag your search from the dropdown list to the sidebar. Now you can run the tag search by just clicking on the shortcut in the sidebar.

Repeat for all tag searches you want to use. This can be many. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, it is not possible to group searches under a collective heading (like you can stack notebooks). If you want to display separators between, say, different types of contexts, then save a search with a lot of dashes as name, and place it where you want the separator. Not extremely elegant, but it works.

If you’d like to create more complex searches, you can combine tags, exclude tags etc. — check Evernote’s search grammar or read in Evernote Essentials on how this works.

GTD Part 3: Fancy stuff with Evernote reminders

The waiting for context

Anything I am waiting for gets the tag ..waiting and a reminder with date.
The search for it is a simple tag search, like just described above.


Things for later

Anything I want off my mind, I tag ..scheduled and give it a date.

The search looks a bit complicated:

reminderTime:* -reminderTime:day+1 tag:..*

The first term looks for notes with a reminder. The second term excludes all reminders that are due after today. In other words, I get all reminders due today or earlier. The last part makes sure I see only notes that I have tagged with my own GTD tags (..* stands for all tags that start with ..). If other people in my team use reminders, I won’t see them in my searches.


Things I currently want to work on, e.g. my next actions of the different projects, get a reminder without date.
To set up the search, I look for notes that have a reminder, but no date, and that have my GTD tags. The first part selects all notes with a reminder.

reminderOrder:* -reminderTime:* tag:..*

GTD Part 4: Reflecting and weekly review

Now that you’ve collected all kinds of todos with all kinds of tags, it’s important to keep an overview. David Allen has said in a podcast that the one thing most people do wrong is not to review their lists on a regular basis.

For larger projects with a designated notebook, I have an overview note (briefly described above). For small projects, I only use one note that I keep in the small projects notebook. These project notes gets a few tags:

  • a tag ..projects that designates the note as a project note
  • ..personal or ..work
  • ..active, ..parked, or ..waiting
  • tags with the initials of the project members

I have set up searches for:

  • active work projects. These are only the projects that I currently work on. Every time I review my todos, I make sure I have at least one next action for each active project.
  • work projects I am waiting for. Each time I review, I decide whether I have to ask for a status report, offer help etc. Other than that, these projects don’t require any work from me at the moment.
  • parked work projects. These are projects I have decided I won’t work on at the moment. Each time I review, I quickly scan them to decide whether one of them should become an active project again. You can also add the ..scheduled tag and a date to be reminded by your Today search at a later date.
  • people. Because my team members all have several running projects, it’s convenient to search by person.
  • Depending on how complex your non-work life is, you can have the same structure for personal projects.

Bringing it all together

Now that we’ve set up all this stuff, you can explore why it’s so useful. I’ll give you a few use cases that show how information and todo reminders come together.

  • Reviews I get for submitted articles are saved from Email to Evernote and filed in the notebook of the project about which the paper was written. They are tagged with the date at which I want to start writing the replies at the latest. When I start working on the replies, I have everything in one place: the reviews, the dates, and the project information.
  • For meetings, I prepare a meeting note in one of my meeting folders. Any material I’ll need at the meeting is tagged ..materials. Everything gets the date of the meeting. This way, it will pop up in my Today view on the meeting day. During the meeting, I make notes in the agenda note, so that it serves as minutes.

  • If you store project overview notes in shared project folders, then all project members can view, edit, and tag this note. That way, it is easy to coordinate and add info everyone needs to see about the project.

  • For conferences, I collect travel info, poster/slides files, abstract book, related emails etc. in one notebook. I set reminders for travel info and slides. Before the conference, all todos related to it are stored in the same notebook.

Do you use Evernote to organize your todos? What’s your workflow? Do you use GTD, and if so, do you have a favorite app you use for it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo credit: Courtney Dirks / Foter / CC BY

Evernote Hacks Part II: Handling email and Inbox Zero with Evernote

We’re all overwhelmed by the amount of email we receive. On a bad day, there’ll be 30 new emails waiting after I’ve had a couple of meetings. Inbox Zero is the concept of trying to keep your email inbox empty and, as a result, your head free. Combining Email with Evernote is a great way to do just that.


This post is part of my Evernote Hacks series – check out the other posts!

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests to touch an email only once, and process it in your to-do system. If you leave stuff in your inbox, you’ll find yourself reading those emails over and over, at times where you actually don’t want to be distracted. Merlin Mann has introduced a similar concept, Inbox Zero, which originally meant that you shouldn’t waste your time on email, but is now often used as the idea of trying to keep your inbox empty.

Touch your email just once

A good way to process Email is to sort each email when you first read it:

  • Stuff you don’t need => Trash
  • Information you should store => save to Evernote
  • Emails that require that you take action => make a to-do item in your task planner (see my post on Implementing GTD with Evernote)
  • Emails you write yourself, and for which you await a reply => waiting for list in your task planner

Evernote is a great place to store all emails that don’t get trashed. I’ve explained why and how in the GTD Evernote post. Here, I’ll point out a couple of very useful ways to get your email into Evernote.

Cc’ing yourself to Evernote

Your Evernote account has an email address. Anything you email to that address lands in the notebook you have set as default notebook. If you don’t know how to find your Evernote email address, look here.

To store an email you’ve written, just cc yourself with the Evernote email address.

Saving email from the Gmail web interface

save gmail to EvernoteIf you use Gmail, you can save email conversations with the Evernote Webclipper. The Webclipper will automatically offer the Email option only when you’re on Gmail.

The great thing about this is that Evernote saves a link back to the original Gmail email. By clicking on that link, you go back to the email conversation. This is handy when you want to inquire about a task you’ve delegated, or when you need to email a result or status update of a task you are doing for someone else.


Saving email from Mac Mail.app with Evermail

The Evermail plugin for the Mac’s Mail.app creates that same sort of link, and clicking it opens the original mail in the Mail.app. I love this plugin. By the way, both Gmail and Evermail save any attachments in the Email to Evernote, too.

Many Email clients and mail apps on mobiles allow saving emails to Evernote. Unfortunately, a lot of apps just save unformatted text, don’t save any attachments, and don’t even save the email sender and title along with the email’s body. Examples of quite good Evernote integration are CloudMagic and Spark on iOS.

How do you get your emails into Evernote? Know any great apps that interface between Email and Evernote? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Photo credit: Paper plane by DdOo on openclipart.com

Evernote Hacks Part I: Setting up your Evernote Business and Personal notebooks

The web is full of tips on how to set up your Evernote account for efficient use. But pretty much all tips you see online are for using Evernote on your own. Find out which of these tips don’t work well when you use Evernote in a team, and learn about some aspects that are only relevant for group use.


This post is part of my Evernote Hacks series – check out the other posts!

Notebooks vs. tags in your Personal account

Many posts recommend using only few notebooks, combined with more or less extensive use of tags. Let’s look at both.

  • Notebooks are the equivalent of folders. Any note can go in exactly one folder. If you wanted a note to go into several folders, you’d have to make copies. As a result, changes you’d make to one of the copies would be specific to that copy, and all other copies would stay unchanged. Mostly not what you want.
  • Tags allow organizing your notes orthogonally to folders. You can use a tag on notes in different folders, and then display all notes with this tag. The great advantage over organizing via tags is that you can assign many tags to a note. So, you can classify your note in multiple ways, much in contrast to only sticking it into one single notebook.

These differences between notebooks and tags seemingly make it a no-brainer to use only few notebooks and generously apply tags for fine-tuned organization (as suggested, for instance, by mh-evernote).

Notebooks vs. tags in your Business account

When you use Evernote in a team, however, it’s a whole different story. Why?

  • You can share notebooks selectively with people in your team, publish them for access to everyone who is member of your Evernote Business , and share selectively with others outside of your Evernote Business.
  • Business tags are shared by everyone who is part of your Evernote Business. They cannot be shared selectively.
  • Every Evernote Business team member has a Business and a Personal account. Every notebook must be either one or the other.
  • There are separate tag sets for the Business and Personal accounts. The Business tags are shared by the entire team (that is, everyone who is part of your Evernote Business). Personal tags are, well, personal — they only work in Personal notes and are invisible to others.

As a result, if you want to install a rudimentary rights management by sharing content only with those team members who need it, then you have to use notebooks more often than you might in a personal account.

In addition, if team members want to use tags across business and personal accounts (see my post on Getting Things Done with Evernote for a use case that implies such tag sharing), then you must set rules in your group to avoid tag chaos.

A notebook structure for your team

After all this introductory theory, let’s look at the notebook and tag structure we use in my group as an example that I have found to work well.

  • Meeting notes. I have a meeting notebook for each team member. The team member and I share the notebook. It contains the agendas for upcoming meetings and meeting minutes for later reference.
  • Projects. Every project has its own notebook. A project is, for instance, an experiment, a paper, a collaboration, or a grant proposal. Project notebooks are shared with anyone who works on the project. This could include collaborators outside the Evernote Business, student assistants, and a secretary.
  • How-tos. In our group, we have a somewhat detailed notebook structure for how-tos, such as notebooks for statistics, operating systems, programs, experimental procedures etc. It would definitely be possible to store all how-to notes in one single notebook and use tags to structure them. We started with the detailed notebook structure and got stuck with it. If you are just setting up your Business Account, consider using tags. Cases where the notebook structure often gets in the way is for notes that would categorize as statistics and a specific program; a specific program and a specific operating system; a specific program and a scientifc method. On the other hand, people in our team are syncing only those how-to notebooks they need for their work, and ignore the rest. This reduces the amount of info that potentially clutters everyone’s notes.
  • Group stuff. We maintain a few notebooks for group-related topics, like article summaries, group rules, administrative forms, and administrative things like vacations, finances, and purchase orders.
  • Events. Each event — a conference, a talk guest, a group retreat — gets a dedicated notebook. It can be shared among those who attend the event.
  • Teaching. I use Evernote for teaching and use a separate notebook for each course I teach.

The downside of using notebooks is that Evernote sets a limit to the number of Notebooks you can have in your account. There are separate limits for Business and Personal accounts, and in 3 years and with many projects, I haven’t hit that limit. But depending on the size of your group, this might become relevant.

Unshared notebooks: Business or Personal?

If your team members use some notebooks just for themselves, they could make them Business or Personal. For everyday use, this really doesn’t matter. However, any notebook that is created as a Business notebook will remain in Evernote Business when the team member leaves the group. It can be assigned to new owners who may need the information contained in it.

In contrast, Personal notebooks go with the person.
In my personal experience, if you make sure that any project-related information is shared in Business notebooks, then it doesn’t matter much whether other notebooks are Business or not. However, if your group handles sensitive information, then you might want to enforce rules about this.

A tag structure for your team

Recall that Business tags are shared by everyone in your Evernote Business. Therefore, it is useful to discuss tag usage in your team, and to come up with a scheme that everyone uses consistently. In my group, use of notebooks has proven easier than use of tags. Many of us use hardly any tags at all. One reason is that when we installed tags, tag handling didn’t work very well on Windows, which most of us used. It might be different now. But it’s often hard to change a grown system. Therefore, put some thought in it at the outset. 

Here are some guidelines that may help in setting up your tag structure:


  • Group them by a common start symbol such as an underscore, a semicolon, a dot etc. Use one of these for each topic group. For example, your group could use tags starting with a dot for scientific topic tags, an exclamation mark for process tags like ‘!in progress’ or ‘!final’, and a comma for how-to topics.
  • When you click in the note’s tag field and enter this first character, a drop-down list will show all tags that start with it. Therefore, all that your team members must remember is the symbols you have installed for the different tag groups. The specific tags can then be selected in the list.
  • Because tags are shared by everyone, and likely defined top-down by you or a group discussion, try to use a few tags and tag groups that really help.
  • You can clean up tags in the administration web interface. From time to time, check whether tags have been doubled through misspelling. Merge those. In addition, check whether some tags only belong to a few notes. These can mostly be deleted or merged with another tag. To merge, first assign the tag you want to keep to all notes that have the to-be-merged tags. Then delete the tag(s) that are now unnecessary.

Keeping your Evernote structure up to date

In my experience, we create too many folders and too many tags. To keep the structure lean and usable, it’s good to evaluate which notebooks and tags are actually being used. You can check the number of notes in notebooks; you can check when the newest note was added to a folder; but most easily, you can ask the group which information they use and which they ignore. Delete unneeded notebooks and tags.

For instance, we initially saved a lot of small programming solutions from the web into Evernote, but have found that all of us google them anew each time we need them. We now save less of these kinds of notes.

How do you use your Evernote account? Do you use have a setup everyone in the lab follows? Do you use folder sharing? What is your folder structure? Use the comments section to share your favorite setup!


One of my next posts in my Evernote mini-series, Implementing Getting Things Done with Evernote goes into some detail about using tags, and about creating shortcuts to access combinations of tags from your sidebar.

If you have stumbled upon this page, check out my Evernote overview page to see what else I have posted about using Evernote efficiently.

If you and your team are relatively new to Evernote, then Brett Kelly’s book, Evernote Essentials, may be of help. It covers everything you need to know about handling Evernote (though not the Evernote Business aspects).

Sven Fechner has blogged about claning up your Evernote structure.

Photo credit: Evernote Logo by Evernote

Evernote: The swiss army knife of organization and documentation

A team must share lots of information and save it for later use. If you want information management to work, it must be easy to store information, easy to share it with others, and easy to find later. Evernote gives you all three.

pocket_knifeWhen I started my group, I wanted to implement an easy and reliable system for documentation. As a lab manager during my PhD time, I had set up a Wiki for our lab, but after some initial enthusiasm, it had been pretty much a failure. Administrating the server was sometimes tedious. People found it inconvenient to have to log in and to work in a browser. Sharing files was possible, but not really practical.

Then I found Evernote, and I can’t picture my lab without it today. Therefore I’ve decided to write a small series of blog posts about how we use Evernote in my group that will come out over the next 2 or 3 weeks. Here are the topics I’ll cover (I will link to them as I publish them):

These posts will be truly hands-on and give you step-by-step instructions.

The things that Evernote can do

If you’ve never used Evernote, let me explain what it is and does. That’s actually kind of hard to do in short. You can do a lot of things with it. And so, this list is not even complete.

  • You can store any kind of information in one place. I used to have physical folders for my experiments, projects, purchase orders, invoices. No more. I’ve gone paperless. So much less stuff in the office! My digital information used to be spread over different programs and folders on my computer. No more. It’s all in one place.
  • Your information syncs to all your devices, including phone and tablet. The one unfortunate exception is Linux — no official client is available there, although you can find a number of independent Linux Evernote client projects. Evernote also works in the browser, and that of course works on Linux, too.
  • You can write and format notes. You can paste text from other programs. For example, output of your statistical analyses. Or screenshots of your plots. You can link to the web and to email.
  • You can save webpages. Or parts of webpages. And Links to webpages.
  • You can save emails. You can also link back from the saved email to your email app, at least with some email clients.
  • You can organize your notes in “notebooks” — equivalent to folders. And you can tag notes. You can display notes with a tag across different notebooks, effectively allowing you to use several, orthogonal ways of organizing your information.
  • You can store files. Of any type. For example, we store the figures of our papers in Evernote. When we prepare talks, we can just pick the figures we need to create slides. We store al kinds of forms everyone needs (vacation forms, purchasing forms…).
  • Everything is searchable, and the search capabilities are quite powerful. Evernote searches doc and pdf files, along with any text you’ve written in your notes. It even extracts text from pictures and recognizes hand writing if you feed it with a photo of your paper notes.
  • You can share notes and notebooks with others. You can share with your entire team, or just with selected people.
  • Evernote has a presentation mode that displays your “beautified”/simplified note in full screen.
  • You can chat within Evernote (for whatever that’s worth).

The title of this post is no joke. Evernote is the swiss army knife of organization and documentation. It’s genius.

Getting started with Evernote

If you just started using Evernote, there is an eBook, Evernote Essentials that explains the nuts and bolts of using the app. It’s well worth reading when you’re starting out.

Evernote Basic, Plus, Premium, and Business

Evernote is a subscription-based service. You can use it for free with the Basic plan, but with some limitations for upload allowance and sharing. The Plus and Premium plans remove these limitations and add some other nifty stuff (check it out here).

Evernote Business

For teams and companies, there is a business option that adds some chat and sharing functionality. There is no upload limit. Your “business” will have its own folders and tags, side-by-side with a personal account for every team member included in the price. You can administrate folders and tags for your group, so you have control over the business account. You can also delegate administration to other users.

Most importantly for you as a researcher, there is a 75% educational discount for the business subscription, with a minimum of 5 users. This means that with a team of 5, Evernote is almost the same price as a personal Premium subscription. You can add and cancel users anytime. At 2.50€ a seat/month (as of 06/2015), I have even made students who wrote a thesis in my lab members of my business account.

But you can share folders with free subscription users, too. So even if you don’t want to spend those extra Euros, you can use Evernote with students and collaborators.

Evernote Basic, Plus, Premium, and Business

Evernote is a subscription-based service. You can use it for free with the Basic plan, but with some limitations for upload allowance and sharing. The Plus and Premium plans remove these limitations and add some other nifty stuff (check it out here).

Evernote Business

For teams and companies, there is a business option that adds some chat and sharing functionality. There is no upload limit. Your “business” will have its own folders and tags, side-by-side with a personal account for every team member included in the price. You can administrate folders and tags for your group, so you have control over the business account. You can also delegate administration to other users.

Most importantly for you as a researcher, there is a 75% educational discount for the business subscription, with a minimum of 5 users. This means that with a team of 5, Evernote is almost the same price as a personal Premium subscription. You can add and cancel users anytime. At 2.50€ a seat/month (as of 06/2015), I have even made students who wrote a thesis in my lab members of my business account.

But you can share folders with free subscription users, too. So even if you don’t want to spend those extra Euros, you can use Evernote with students and collaborators.

If you use Evernote, what do you like and dislike about it? What are your most important uses? If you don’t use Evernote, how do you store, organize, and share information in your group? What are your trusted apps? Let us know in the comments section!


Read about all kinds of uses for Evernote in science on Personal Knowledge Management for Academia & Librarians and Astrobetter. Both posts apply to any research field.

Evernote webpage and info about their different plans. If you are thinking about using the business plan, make sure to contact them about their 75% educational discount (see my post about discounts here).

Brett Kelly’s introductory book Evernote Essentials gets a lot of positive reviews on the net. I find it a great resource, especially for beginners.

Evernote also has lots of documentation online, such as a Getting Started Guide and a Business Getting Started Guide.

Photo credit: courtesy of posterize at freedigitalphotos.net

Book: Getting Things Done by David Allen

If you’re struggling with task management – keeping an overview, choosing what to do next, and finishing enough stuff – then Getting Things Done by David Allen is probably the first book to go to.

book getting things done

The book Getting Things Done by David Allen is a classic, and I find it a must-read if you are looking for ways to improve your productivity. The strength of the book is that it offers a complete system to approach to task planning.

The ultimate credo of the book is that you have to get stuff you need to remember (i.e., your todo list) out of your head into a “trusted system”. What Allen means by this is that you need to follow your system so consistently that you are never afraid that it won’t work. This frees up your head to be 100% on the task you decide to do at any given time. And if you follow the book’s advice, you can set up such a system. Warning: it can feel very anal, especially at first. But: if you do follow it, it’s really great.

5 steps to peace of mind…

Allen breaks up task planning into 5 steps:

  • capture anything that comes to mind that needs to be done, be it small or huge
  • clarify what you want to do with every single item you captured and identifying the next concrete action you need to do to move towards getting this thing done
  • organize by putting stuff where it belongs (and he has a very specific set of lists and places)
  • reflect, that is, review your lists, on a regular basis so that you always know what’s going on in your life
  • engage by choosing, from your lists, what to do right now.

There’s a lot more to each step, and Allen also goes into levels of planning, from how to organize today to identifying what you want to be or do with your life.

There’s a 2015 updated version of the book. If you believe what people are posting on the net, then it doesn’t really matter which version you read.

If you’ve read Getting Things Done, I’m curious about your thoughts. Have you implemented the system? What works? What doesn’t?

Related resources

David Allen has made a company out of his system, and they’re selling coaching and all kinds of related stuff.

There are many apps that are either designed to use GTD, or can be set up for GTD.

One such app for real enthusiasts (or nerds?) is Omnifocus (Mac/iOS).

Another one I really like is 2Do (Mac/iOS/Android).

David Allen explains his ideas quite well in several podcasts, for example in two episodes of Beyond the Todo List (one: www/iTunes; two: www/iTunes), and in an episode of [EntreLeadership][itunes-entre] ([www][web-entre-episode]/iTunes).

In the Evernote series of my hands-on section, I’ve described how you can set up Evernote for a pretty nifty GTD implementation.

Check out more book reviews!

Three ways to make sure knowledge stays in your group

I had a shocking experience recently. Within a week, my three PhD students all told me that they were thinking of leaving the group and going elsewhere when they’re done. Who’s going to do their work? And how??

When you started your group, things probably developed somewhat “naturally”. Without really planning for it, your group develops “a way we do things around here”.

Your group members know things you don’t

In my group, each PhD student has specialized beyond my own expertise. This means, they know more than I do. At least about the specific methods they are applying in our current experiments. In the beginning, I tried to keep up and learn with them. This started with technical things; for example, we use motion trackers to monitor movements of human participants. With my last grant, I had bought a new brand. Besides having to figure out the complicated setup, we had to re-write our Matlab code to control online measurements and data transfer. Today, I wouldn’t be able to run an experiment without the help of my PhDs.

But their knowledge monopoly doesn’t end with technical things. It continues with expertise about data analysis, experience in how data should look so that they are usable, and many other aspects of everyday scientific work.

So, when my three PhDs leave… well, I really don’t want to finish this sentence.

Document what your group is doing

People turn-over is high in science, with our short-term contracts on third-party funding, so my PhD disappearance problem is definitely not a one-time mishap. So, how can I retain the knowledge in my group? How can I make sure I consistently get similar quality in all the work done in my lab?

The answer is threefold: workflows, instructions, and templates. All three are types of documentation. Will you be surprised when I mention that I got these ideas reading business books?


A workflow is a series of steps that have to be taken to complete some task. You can think big and small.

For a big example, in my group we’ve created a workflow for running an experiment. It has all the steps that need to be done from creating a standard folder structure; Evernote documentation folders; documentation of idea, goals, computer code; instructions about what steps must be discussed with me or in the group; …

For a small example, we have a workflow for giving a contract to a new student assistant.

So I can see you thinking: running an experiment? I don’t need written instructions for that! But have you ever tried to find a file in the idiosyncratic folder structure one of your PhDs came up with, because there weren’t defined places of where specific files should go? Have you ever forgotten to check the experimental setup before your master student started acquiring data, only to find later that there was a cardinal mistake in the setup?

Multiply these “accidents” by 10 when you have a new lab member. Multiply by 100 when your team changes completely.

And have I mentioned how much time you save when you don’t have to explain everything to the new guy yourself, but he can go to a document and only return to you with a couple of things he didn’t understand?


Document how things are done. For the new motion tracker I mentioned, my PhDs created detailed instructions about how to set it up. You can use photos, mark things on them, and make detailed lists. Seriously: the more detailed the instructions, the less will go wrong the next time someone new has to do it the first time.

Write lists for things that need to be done regularly. For example, we have a list of what all needs to be done when we clean the lab.


These are masks that you can use over and over. You can use templates in quite a few situations.

If you have to contact a lot of people, such as to recruit them for experiments, you can have email templates.

We have a set of templates for the consent forms our participants must sign before they can take part in our experiments. Every time someone starts a new experiment, all they have to do is get the doc and adjust a few lines.

There are ethical guidelines about what all you have to tell your participants when you instruct them for experiments. We have a template so that no one forgets any of the required info.

I’m sure you can think of more.

Nice. But we don’t have time for this.

My group didn’t love me for it when I introduced workflows and instructions. It’s extra work.

We were lucky, because we had documented here and there already in Evernote. Those documents weren’t always complete and up to date. But we could use them as a start.

Your documentation will build over time. You don’t have to do it over night – unless you wait too long, until your PhDs have one foot out the door. So start now – the earlier, the better. If you are starting a new group, ask your group members to create re-usable workflows from the beginning, and then use them the next time they do the same task. Then they can revise and optimize them continuously with little extra effort.

Making it a priority to document all your lab’s best practices in is central to retaining knowledge in your group.

Does your group document workflows, instructions, and templates? If not, then why? What other things do you document? Use the comments section to let us know!


Michael Gerber takes documentation to the extreme in his book, The E-Myth Revisited. His point is that the more everything is standardized by documentation, the easier it is to scale, that is, have someone do the same thing again elsewhere, because you don’t have to be there yourself to make it happen. The classic example is a franchise. Every McDonald’s is the same. Obviously, not really what we want in research. But it’s worth looking at what all you can at least consider to document and standardize.

Michael Hyatt suggests using email signatures to create templates for replies you repeat often. Instead, you can use tools like TextExpander that paste arbitrarily long and complex text when you type a shortcut.

This article in PC Magazine has a long list of tips about how to write good workflows.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. If you need to document a lot of stuff on-screen, then Skitch might help; it integrates with Evernote. But there are plenty of other solutions, such as Clarify-it and Jing.

There are some fancy (but rather pricey) online tools to create pretty workflows. But a txt file, Word doc, or my favorite, Evernote, will do.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Book: The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber

This book about how entrepreneurs can build a successful and scalable business has lots of insight for a science team leader.

book cover emyth

Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited, has been an eye-opener for me.

At first sight, it has nothing to do with a science group. Gerber talks about new small business owners, and how they screw up and fail within the first few years of their endeavor. And then about what they can do to succeed with their business.

The key idea of the book is that the job of a business owner is very different from the job of a specialist. But before becoming their own boss, most small business owners are specialists, and then attempt to build their own business based on their expertise. They then make the mistake of doing the same as they did before – being a specialist – instead of becoming the head of their new business.

Why does that matter to a scientist?

You’ve probably realized now why the book is relevant to a science leader: we basically go the same path. First, we are specialists. Then, we become group leaders – boss of our very own “small business”. The big mistake we can make is to not fill that leading role, and instead try to continue being a specialist.

The two points I find most important in Gerber’s book are, first, that you have to build a vision about what you actually want your business to be. The second point is that you have to systematically remove yourself from the everyday work of your business. Of course, you don’t disappear, but your planning and actions have to follow this ultimate goal: to be free of the operative work, so that you can shape the business.

I’ve written more on the idea of removing yourself and porting Gerber’s ideas from a small business to a science lab in a blog post, Remove yourself: how to be free for leading without losing control. Suffice it to say, although the book reads a bit cheesy, it provides lots of food for thought.

Check out the book here.

If you’ve read the book, post your comments below!

Check out more book reviews!