Every Historian Needs a Workflow – A Primer for the ‘Digital Age’

The Importance of Habits

I am only as good as my habits. Habits are the mortar in the foundation of my life. As healthy habits are ignored, the foundation grinds itself down. For years I shied from explaining life through necessity (even sufficiency). The problem, I thought, was that our metaphors of failure and success ignore a disturbing reality: that we kid ourselves to imagine a concrete “rock bottom.” There is only abyss.

But I became more flexible in my outlook: whether or not I accept it from a logical or ontological outlook, necessity is useful. I need habits in my life as much as I crave necessity. I did not even realize what the abyss was showing me: I can start forming appropriate habits right now. More importantly, however, is that habits are a life long process. Rooted in our idea of a ‘bottom’ is a detrimental narrative that we can reach a top through some steps or ‘life hacks’ and then we are in the clear. Then when we fail, we believe we are somehow worse for climbing because we keep hitting the bottom again and again and again. No. Not at all. Falling is part of life. We can have necessity and goals without idealizing an end-point at the top. We float through the abyss. We see different parts of the abyss. But the abyss is beautiful. It is in the abyss that we find habits.

You cannot wait for motivation. You have to plan your days, manage your time, and act. Occasionally we will be spurred by a motivational spike that strengthens our resolve. The reality is that motivation will rarely come to the rescue. Daily you need to develop habits, work through discomfort, pain, and stress. Habits are stronger than motivation.

I am going to guide you through creating a customized workflow that works for you. The internet holds a vast repository of resources. Below I provide a few resources to help you simplify your daily experience. In turn, you will have less stressful and more productive days. I will help you navigate the digital terrain to streamline your research approach.


You need people to hold you accountable with everything you do. While there are definitely methods to hold yourself accountable, there is no denying the sociality of human experience. We need others – friends, colleagues, internet acquaintances – to hold us accountable to our actions. Get your friends and colleagues to hold you accountable. Be proactive and help each other. You can always start small. Remember: Baby Steps.


If you take any advice from this post, I want it to be simply this: Meditate for 10 mins per day. That’s all. We are all busy and stressed out. You definitely have 10 minutes. But I understand how hard it is just to tell yourself to sit down and meditate for 10 minutes every day. There are distractions. You are actually not doing that bad. You can put it off. But meditating will help you! It will begin to change your perspective on life. It has a strong effect on your neurology and thus a positive effect on your well-being.


Mediation is a complex activity. A single 10 minute meditation session can be both incredibly relaxing and incredibly frustrating. Even after years of meditating, I still get frustrated trying to clear my mind. We are always moving and thinking so much. It is hard to take a moment of silence. The key to meditation is to push through discomfort. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to commit to doing it, learning about your body, and being patient with yourself.

A great program to begin learning mindful meditation is Headspace. Headspace is a guided meditation approach to help you reacquaint yourself with your mind and body. The benefit of Headspace is that it is also a mobile app so you can take it with you. It is also structured as a daily program, helping you stay accountable. The only disadvantage is that after a 10 day program, your trial ends and you must pay to continue.

Calm.com is another aptly named site. The benefit of calm.com is that it is simple, has calming images and soothing sounds, and you can choose the amount of time you want to devote to meditating. It also has a mobile app. But calm.com is more of a way to breathe, calm, and relax. Headspace is a structured approach that focuses on building your habits and routinizing meditation in your daily life.

Mindfulness: Journaling and Sentence Completion

Mindfulness means understanding yourself and your actions to better yourself rather than jumping to conclusions about your self-worth and perspectives of reality. You need to habituate mindfulness. Aside from meditating, the best way to do this is writing. Journal about your day, thoughts, feelings, etc. Read it. Understand yourself and your actions.

Sentence completion is another great activity to foster mindfulness. This site is a great primer to sentence completion with a list of questions you can copy and work with – print them off, copy them into Evernote, a word document, anywhere.

It is so easy to zone out an run through our days without attention to our actions. We value thought so much more than attention. Mindfulness helps us escape a detrimental cycle of ‘Drone Consciousness‘.

Navigating the Cyberscape

Now to practical digital solutions for your life.


  • Evernote is a cross-platform productivity program. You can take notes, save emails, web pages, resources, audio, etc. You can also tag notes and notebooks to access information via keywords, as well as set reminders for yourself. Evernote is free, though the paid versions have even more features including PDF annotation, group chats, etc.
  • Zotero is a research tool that works in your browser. The desktop version syncs with your browser so you can work with your files offline. You can save any web page, pdf, online book, journal article, etc. Zotero automatically grabs as much meta-data as it can. You can also edit the information yourself. You can share your libraries with groups, organize your research, and even export your data as citations for a bibliography (great when working on essays).
  • nvALT is another note taking program based on Notational Velocity (they are essentially the same but nvALT has more features). I use nvALT to take quick notes and jot down thoughts, Evernote for the heavier research.
  • Tomighty is an app to help you manage blocks of work. It uses the Pomodoro technique to help you track your time. I personally only use the Pomodoro technique when I have no motivation whatsoever to work. It uses the ‘baby steps’ approach: you need only devote, say, 25 minutes of your day to work. (Note: I suggest starting with 25 minute work blocks and 5-10 minute break periods to decrease your chances of mental burnout.)
  • RescueTime is another time management program that helps you track your computer usage. It attaches a negative or positive value to your computer usage, based on productivity. So if you spend an hour on Netflix, it tags it automatically as ‘Entertainment’ and thus puts you in the red, or ‘not productive’. A site like Wikipedia, however, will be tagged as ‘Productive’. RescueTime not only tracks your web browsing but the programs you use locally on your computer, even offline. At the end of the week they will email you your ‘score’. Your account dashboard also has a beautiful and simple interface to track your time online.

Browsers: Simplifying Your Web Experience

If you are using Internet Explorer, STOP NOW. You’d be surprised how many colleagues I see using Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer is sufficient for light browsing and basic computer usage. But to really get the most out of your digital experience, you will need a more stable, powerful browser. For Mac users, Safari works quite well but keep in mind many browser extensions are not available for Safari. Your best bet for any operating system is to use Google Chrome and/or Mozilla Firefox.

(Note: Mac users with El Capitan as their operating system, Chrome may be slow and buggy. [Check your operating system version by clicking the apple icon in the top left of your screen and then clicking About This Mac]. You may need to download Chrome Canary, a developer’s version of the Chrome browser which is, unfortunately, less stable, though nevertheless functions quite well.)

Chrome and Firefox are powerful, well supported browsers with humongous communities creating great extensions. You can find plenty of sources about ‘Chrome vs. Firefox’. It really depends on personal choice – each has their advantages and disadvantages from functionality, to support, to user interface/aesthetics. Try both out. I am constantly using both of them depending on application or even just how I feel on a particular day.

Extensions for Chrome and Firefox

  • Zotero (Chrome / Firefox) extension allows you to save your items into Zotero. For Firefox user it is powerful enough to work solely within the browser. For Chrome users it is lighter and thus more a web clipper for the desktop program.
  • Evernote Web Clipper (Chrome / Firefox) allows you to clip from the web directly into Evernote. It syncs automatically. It is similar to Zotero.
  • HTTPS Everywhere (Chrome / Firefox) is similar to Ghostery in helping you control your digital identity. It encrypts every web page you visit, making it more secure.
  • Honey (Chrome / Firefox) automatically searches the web for coupons and promo codes when online shopping. Very useful for buying books online!

Just Chrome

  • Momentum is a simple new tab interface. When opening a new tab it greets you with a new beautiful image and motivational quote, the time, as well as the option to write down your tasks for the day.
  • Project Naptha is a neat tool that allows you to copy text from images. It uses an impressive Ocular Character Recognition technology to grab text from digital images in any format. It works surprisingly well, depending on image quality/angle of text in an image. It will also pick up text where there is no text making for a cool ‘bug’ in the program.

Web Apps

  • If This Then That allows you to connect different programs, websites, accounts, etc. You either create or use predefined ‘recipes’ to communicate between two programs. It is great for simplifying logistical conundrums you may face. For example, I have an open research notebook online using Pykwiki. It runs from my desktop and I push new notes online. I created If This Then That recipe that tweets to Twitter whenever I publish a new open notebook post. It is great for connecting social media accounts.
  • Hemingway App allows you to simplify your writing and make it more readable. It colour-codes sentences and tags them as hard to read or very hard to read, as well as suggesting simpler words in specific cases. It is also available as a desktop download for $10.


Backup your data! If not daily, do it at least weekly. Buy an external hard-drive. They are relatively cheap, depending on the size (and only getting cheaper!), and will save your work. Google Drive is a great free alternative. With a Gmail account, you get 15GB free space on Google Drive. If you are technically inclined, you can automate your backups with python (see here). Set reminders. Do it!


A Smartphone is not necessary for historians, even in your digital environment. But it will help you greatly. Working on your smartphone without your computer, you will want to update across platforms. Google Drive and Evernote both have mobile apps that will help you work flexibly.

That’s it!

Now get out there and take control of your life. Accept your strengths and limitations. Pursue habits and if you sway, just breathe and keep grinding through your habits.

3 thoughts on “Every Historian Needs a Workflow – A Primer for the ‘Digital Age’

  1. This is great! I’ll definitely look into some of these tools.

    Ps I sometimes use the self control app on my laptop. It blocks sites that I go on to procrastinate and I find it useful when I notice that I’m not being the most productive. It’s amazing how many tools are out there to help students. Thanks for highlighting some of them here. Great post Robbie!

  2. Robert Blades

    What a refreshing commentary on the purpose and function of mindfulness! Well done! I would also recommend that you check out 7 cups as well. It has a built-in wellness module (They like to call it growth path) that builds upon aspects of meditation and positive self talk! Check it out!

    P.S. I really love the links to some really cool extensions, websites and features! You are razor sharp (Mr. Blades)

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