Why the Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool

I own a 15″ MacBook Pro, an 11″ MacBook Air, an iPad, an iPad Mini, an iPhone, and an iMac. Perhaps rather surprisingly, my new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool. Here’s why…

Form Factor and Build Quality

I really enjoyed my Surface RT and Surface Pro 2, but the Pro 3 is in a whole other class. While in both prior instances the build quality was excellent, the Pro 3 feels just right. Its 12 inch, 4:3 screen is perfect for reading PDFs and other documents. While the prior Surface models felt a little cramped and too wide-screen for my liking, this tablet really does work like a laptop (with a much better detachable keyboard than the prior versions as well). The screen is amazing and responsive. It’s also weirdly light. I was carrying it in a messenger bag the other day and I thought I had left it on my desk. I literally thought the bag was empty. It actually makes my 11″ MacBook Air feel a little heavy. And did I mention how perfect the screen is for reading? Hands down, this is the right form factor for my day-to-day work.

Surface Pro 3

Stylus and Handwriting

I’m not sure what Microsoft has done with the stylus experience, but it is almost as natural as writing on paper. I didn’t find this to be true with the Surface Pro 2’s Wacom stylus. The new NTRIG device is fantastic. Add to that the push button to launch OneNote (either the modern UI app or the full desktop version) and the note-taking experience is fantastic. Compared with the quality of capacitive stylii available for most other touchscreen devices, the stylus and handwriting experience on the SP3 is in a class all by itself. And for someone who prefers to take handwritten notes at meetings as well as in marking up PDF documents with circles, squiggles and notes, it is a godsend. Whether I’m using the PDF annotation tools built into OneNote or PDF Touch, this feature alone makes the SP3 worth the price of admission to me.

Microsoft Software

In terms of productivity, having full versions of Office available on your laptop/tablet combo is critical. I chuckle when I think back to how hard I tried to make the iPad a real productivity device. With the SP3, it’s completely seamless. I realize that Windows 8 gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. I honestly don’t get it. I actually strongly prefer the 8.1 UI to both Mac OS and iOS. I think that most operations are more intuitive and more flexible from the user’s perspective. Add to that the fact that the one operating system supports both full Windows desktop apps and the modern UI apps available in the Microsoft Store, you have a lot of great flexibility. Now, if we could just get some more apps in the Store, I’d be a really happy camper.

All in all, I think Microsoft nailed it with the Surface Pro 3. I think that the more users see this device in stores, conference rooms or classrooms, more folks may find that this may be their favorite digital device too.

Online Storage and Access

With all the digital content in our lives (documents, images, presentations, pdf files, etc.), it’s critical to develop a robust storage solution that allows you to access what you need, when you need it, from where you need it. In this quick post, I’ll share two online file storage and access solutions that will literally make your life better – in a geeky sort of way.

Option 1 – Dropbox

I started using Dropbox probably 3-4 years ago with the free 2GB storage account. At first, I really only used the Web interface that allows you to upload documents into folders you create through the Web site. Once uploaded, you can access your files in Dropbox from any Web browser or through apps on your phone or tablet. Stop there, and this is already pretty amazing. 2 gigabytes of free storage that you can access from anywhere. Add to that, though, the ability to share a folder or single file with anyone via an email address or link, and you’re really cookin’ with gas. I’ve saved the best for last, though… Install the desktop client, and Dropbox creates a local folder on your computer’s hard drive. From this point on, any time that you save a file into this folder it is uploaded to your online file storage automatically in the background. Access and change a file on your smartphone? It’s automatically uploaded to your online storage and downloaded to any computer with the client installed. I literally have Dropbox installed on probably four computers or tablets and the service magically keeps the files synced across all devices. Really amazing. Seriously.

Option 2 – SkyDrive

Just when I thought nothing could trump my love for Dropbox, I discovered Microsoft’s SkyDrive through my work on the Technology Enriched Instruction project. SkyDrive does everything exactly like Dropbox, except it includes 7 GB of free storage (both services offer multiple upgrade options to get more storage space). This just where SkyDrive gets warmed up, though. The huge added benefit of SkyDrive is the built-in, free Web apps that allows you to work with your files via any Web browser on a computer or tablet. These Web apps are essentially slimmed down versions of all the Office applications. So, if you save a Word document in your SkyDrive folder, you can access the file through the Web browser, then click on the Edit tab and you can edit the file in your Word browser or, if installed, on your desktop application. Either way, as soon as you save changes to the document, it’s automatically uploaded to your online storage space (and all your computers or other devices with the desktop application installed). There are free Web apps for Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, my personal favorite notetaking utility. It really is an incredible tool… for free. 

I’m sure there are other options available, but these are two outstanding, free ways to store and access files online from anywhere. If you don’t already use one of these services, what are you waiting for? Get to it.

Don’t Get Lost in “Doing” Productivity

One tricky rabbit hole that is easy to go down is becoming so focused on “doing” productivity that you don’t get anything done.













I have to continually check myself to make sure I’m focused on the important work in front of me and not experimenting with the latest system or app. I had planned for a couple of weeks to do this post, and then I ran across this post from Asian Efficiency –  Why you should stop fiddling with apps. It’s an excellent post from Thanh Pham. Enjoy. 

Determining Priorities: The Eisenhower Matrix

One of the aspects of being a professor that I really enjoy is the freedom to pursue different interests and projects. I do find it challenging at times, however, to select among competing priorities. Because there’s never enough time to take on all the possible projects that come your way, it’s important to be able to determine those opportunities that are the best for you, personally and professionally. One such strategy is what’s become known as the Eisenhower Matrix (fans of Stephen Covey will also find this familiar).  

This method was said to be used by President Eisenhower to help him to determine priorities by considering a task or project relative to how urgent and how important it was. According to this method, the more urgent and important a task or project is, the higher you should prioritize it. If a task or project is low in terms of urgency and importance, it’s probably not worth doing. It is typically presented in a four quadrant matrix, as depicted in the image below from the Mindtools blog:

I particularly like how the author of the post characterizes each quadrant with a descriptor. Labels help me, I guess. 

As a new opportunity or task comes your way, consider it’s urgency and importance relative to what else is on your plate. You can use your work roles/responsibilities to help you define urgency and importance. You can also consider your own personal needs and desires as factors that help you position an opportunity on the matrix. For example, I recently received proofs back on a book that will come out this November. Assuming it comes out on time, it will coincide nicely with a conference presentation about the book. Now, if the book is completed and printed in time, this may result in higher sales and greater visibility for my work. Therefore, while attending to the minutia of the proofs was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do today, it was both urgent and important. This translates into a “critical activity.” In contrast, while developing an ebook on effective presentation techniques with digital media is very interesting to me, relative to what else I have on my plate, it’s probably not urgent or important. In other words, at least at this point, this would probably be classified as a “distraction.” Beginning this blog is kind of an interesting case, however. While it’s not likely to help me to advance in rank or line my savings account, it is a personal interest and is sustaining to me personally. It helps me to process my ideas and hopefully develop a community of like-minded folks to share strategies, tools, and ideas. Therefore, while not urgent, it is important to me and therefore I would classify it as an “important goal.” So, it’s worth doing, but probably will get put on the back burner in cases where more urgent and important tasks come to the fore.





Eisenhower is said to have remarked, What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” I think of this approach as a kind of compass to help address Eisenhower’s observation. While still requiring some thought and subjectivity, breaking down a task or project’s relative urgency and importance can be a helpful cognitive tool to prioritize your work. What’s trickiest for me is not spending too much in the “interruptions” category. A high percentage of emails certainly fall into this category. And while some of these items do need attention, the matrix helps to keep me focused on trying to stay in the “critical activities” category as much as possible.


What tools and strategies are helpful to you in being strategic with your priorities? 

Paper vs. Digital

When considering how to be the most productive, digital vs. paper is a key decision. We have lists to make and review, ideas to sketch out, notes to take, and information to keep track of – all of which can be done through digital, paper, or some combination of means. This is something I’ve continued to struggle with over the years, but I feel like I’ve finally hit on what works for me.

First, it’s important to point out that there advantages and disadvantages for choosing one approach over the other. Paper equals simplicity. Nothing is quicker or less obtrusive than jotting down a quick note in a notebook.  You can select from a range of different size notebooks, writing tools, and products. Paper is great for quickly capturing ideas, sketching, and processing information in a number of ways. This format also has a number of limitations. When you have a number of different projects and meetings, it can be very difficult to keep things organized. It’s also very tedious trying to find a particular note among a number of different notebooks, pages, and sections. 



You can also use a range of digital tools to capture and process ideas. From robust, full-featured note-taking and data processing/organization applications like OneNote and Evernote that work on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, IOS, Android) to more single purpose tools like OmniOutliner, Padlet, or MindMeister, one can easily find a digital processing tool to fit a particular need. Digital tools provide a number of advantages. First, it can be easy to lose a notebook. I know I’ve lost several. When this happens, you are completely out of luck. With digital tools, they are often automatically backed up to the cloud. So, not only can you recover them, you can access many of them from any Internet-connected device. Searching for specific notes or information is also much easier with digital capture tools. You can incorporate any type of digital content and also share your ideas much more easily than with paper.



The trick, I think, is to find the right balance for you between the “naturalness” of pen and paper with the utility of digital tools. After much searching, I believe I’ve found what works for me. For quick notes (e.g., when someone shares a Web address with me over lunch, I jot it down in my David Allen Notetaker Wallet) or to plan out specific tasks for a day (see the post on the Emergent Task Planner) I prefer paper. This is the quickest, and least obtrusive way for me to capture this info. For all my note-taking, I’ve migrated to OneNote. This is the easiest way for me to gather everything in one place, access it on all my devices, and easily search across all my notebooks. For a discussion of how I use OneNote, check this post. It’s not a flawless or totally consistent system, but it seems to help me get things done.

This is what’s working for me. It may not work for you in the same way. I think the key is to choose deliberately, based on the tool’s affordances and constraints. What are the key tools in your workflow in managing all the stuff in your daily life?


“Seasons” in the academic year

On a recent Mikes on Mics podcast with Erik Fisher (host of the Beyond the To Do List podcast), they briefly explore the idea of repeating and recurring tasks that are sometimes related to the seasons. For example, they talk about the fact that in the northeast U.S., you need to hire a snowplow in the fall so that you’re ready for the winter snow. Ideally, you set up a repeating reminder on say October 15th each year to remind yourself to hire a snowplow. For those tasks or projects that you can anticipate happening at regular intervals, it can be helpful to set up these reminders in advance so that they are out of your head, but not completely forgotten. This notion of capturing tasks and placing them in a trusted system is one of the hallmarks of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to productivity, and one that works very well for me.

Even though in the podcast they only touched on this notion of seasons dictating certain tasks and projects, it made me think about the rhythm and seasons of the academic year. The start-up tasks that occur at the beginning of each year are fairly predictable. One needs to develop/revise syllabi, obtain class lists, set-up a class Web space or other way to diffuse information, and do the careful planning for the first few class sessions. This is true for the Fall and Spring semesters. In the Fall, though, there are probably additional, predictable tasks. I know, for example, that I need to attend to program reviews that are due in early October, circulate the spring class schedule, and do the requisite travel authorization forms for fall conferences. These tasks are as predictable as February 15th (tax day in the U.S.). And yet, every fall I tend to plan for project development work, writing, and a myriad other generative tasks that are simply less urgent than the aforementioned recurring tasks. In reality, no matter how motivated I am to plan the next research project, it probably needs to wait until I get these other (less engaging) tasks completed first. It is hard for me, though, once these generative tasks are on my radar to let them go until I complete the other tasks.

What if, though, we were more forward-thinking in our planning? What if we blocked out time (a realistic estimate of time) to attend to the recurring tasks that have hard deadlines and slotted in some of the more generative tasks at a more appropriate time (or season) of the semester? I have three two-week blocks of time during the semester that I know my preparation/feedback work in my courses is going to be slow. What if I organized my calendar to focus on the generative tasks during these time periods instead of trying to cram them in around the inevitable beginning of the semester tasks? There will be the inevitable unpredictable diversions, but they can be more easily absorbed into a more deliberate planning approach. Of course, I think of this every Fall about this time and fail to act on it. This time, though, I’ve set up some recurring tasks for each Fall semester going forward as well as the Spring and Summer. I’m hoping that in doing so, I’ll be more realistic, productive, and satisfied during these busy times of the semester.

When do you start your day?

I wouldn’t say I’m a morning person, but I’m definitely no night owl. I get working around 8am and by 4pm, I’m next to worthless. On those days when I teach a 4:30 class (or heaven forbid, a 7:15pm class) I literally have to get away for a few hours during the day so that I’m not exhausted before I even begin class. Recognizing these patterns in my work life, I’m beginning to wonder whether I ought to get started even earlier. Today while I was doing some yard work, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Mikes on Mics. The guest on the show was Andy Traub, author of The Early to Rise Experience. Andy made a great case for the benefits of the quiet of the morning to jumpstart your creativity and productivity. I appreciated that he kept coming back to the point that it’s not fun to get up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. But the benefits that can accrue may outweigh the difficulty.

After listening to the podcast, I bought the book. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m looking forward to receiving the daily email audio segments as I try it out. I’ll report back as I try the experiment. In the meantime, when do you start your day?

ProfHacks begins

“Cairn” by Sha Sha Chu – http://www.flickr.com/photos/shashachu/

The career of an academic is an interesting experiment with balance. In contrast to ┬ámany careers and professions, professors have the ability, to a great extent, to chart their own course day to day, year to year. In doing so, however, they must find a delicate balance of time and energy in three roles: teaching, scholarship and service. It may be relatively easy to prioritize tasks, goals and projects within one area of focus, it is often more challenge to prioritize across these areas. For example, is it more critical for an untenured faculty member to provide feedback on a students’ dissertation proposal, prepare for the class meeting the following day, or┬ácomplete revisions on a manuscript?

This dynamic nature of the professoriate was something that attracted me to this world, but also befuddles me from time to time. Somehow I managed to navigate the gauntlet and achieve promotion and tenure. My success, at least in part, is due to my efforts to systematize my day to day work and planning. I’m certainly no expert though. I consider myself more of a hack; someone who continually experiments, refines, and hopefully improves the quality of my work and consequently, my satisfaction in my career.

This weblog is a space for me to share what I have and will continue to learn about working more efficiently, productively and effectively as a professor. It will be a space for others to both garner new ideas and share their own. It will also be a space for me to clarify my own thinking and test out new ideas and processes.

So what can you expect to find here? Some weeks, I may only post one new resource, idea or experiment. Other weeks will probably be more productive. I assume the content of the site will ebb and flow with the academic year. You can expect posts around productivity tools (both digital and analog), resources, screencasts, interesting ideas, and book reviews. The content will center primarily around the work of academics – researching, teaching, writing, organizing, and planning.

I hope we all find utility with the content of this site. I hope that you’ll comment and share your own experience, ideas, and perspectives. In short, I hope the prof hacks will make our work more productive, meaningful, measured, and fun.

Task Management Software

One critical aspect of staying productive for me is managing my tasks. Like you I would suspect, I have a number of different projects on my plate at one time. It can be very difficult to keep moving them all forward without a system to keep track of where you are and where you want to go. For me, a good task management app is critical to help me to keep all the plates spinning – and especially to keep them from crashing to the floor. 

The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology developed by David Allen has really helped me to keep myself organized over the years. One of the key aspects of this approach is to develop a trusted system to organize and track all there is to do. One of the first and best apps available to implement the GTD system was Omnifocus. I’ve used Omnifocus for years to create projects, tasks, start dates, end dates and to develop systems for weekly and monthly reviews. I never quite felt, though, that I had my arms totally around the capabilities of Omnifocus. I was always aware of the fact that I was only scratching the surface of it’s capabilities. I eventually ran into two limitations that led me to explore other alternatives, however. First, it is only available on Mac and IOS. Second, there is no Web interface to access your data. As I have grown more fond of my Surface and increasingly work at a number of different computers, these limitations have really hamstrung me. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed using Omnifocus, I needed a new tool.

There are a number of different tools, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, available for productivity nerds. I really like the collaborative capabilities of Asana, but for whatever reason the metaphor and user interface didn’t click with me. I like the look of Remember the Milk, but it’s just too limited for what I need in a system. I really thought I’d found a winner with Wunderlist, and even paid for the premium service, but the workflow of adding and working with tasks just didn’t work for me. Finally I found Todoist, and I couldn’t be happier.

Todoist is a cross-platform app that includes a Web interface and several different native applications. The data syncs seamlessly across all my devices for a totally seamless experience. New users can sign up for a free account that is probably all that 90% of users will need. I chose to upgrade to the Premium service for $29 a year to add some key functionality for me. Honestly, even if I didn’t need this functionality, I probably would’ve upgraded anyway, just to support the development of this great service.


I’ve set up Todoist with a number of different projects along with their attendant tasks. I’m able to focus on just those tasks I’ve assigned to be due today, or I can look at 7 days at a time. I love that on the app icon on my iPhone it includes a badge with the number of items due today. It’s great to see at a glance how much more I have on my plate on a given day. It includes a number of other features that I don’t use yet, but may explore as I become more comfortable with my system. For example, you can add labels to tasks. One thing I’ve been considering using this for is when I’ve delegated a task to someone else. If I add their name as a tag on a particular task, then I can just view a particular tag to see what that particular person owes me. You can also add different priorities to tasks as well. 

I’m sure I’ll continue to refine my workflow and the way I use Todoist to manage my projects and tasks, but it’s working great for me right now. I highly recommend this rock-solid service. What tools do you use to help you manage all that you have on your to do list? 



The Microsoft Surface as a Productivity Device

One of the things that intrigues me most about personal productivity is the idea of designing efficient and effective workflows. By this I mean developing common sets of processes to accomplish different tasks. For example, I often need to read and comment on my students’ writing. In the past, I relied on printing their work and marking it up with a pen. I would then pass these back the following week in class. This worked fairly well for me and my students, except for three issues:

  1. My writing is terrible – I even had trouble translating my own writing when students couldn’t read my chicken scratch
  2. This process delayed my getting comments back to students in a timely manner – particularly on rough drafts that they hoped to revise prior to submitting the work
  3. Unless I made photocopies of the commented work, I didn’t have a record of comments I’d given them at different stages of the process – a problem with a major piece of writing like a dissertation proposal that goes through many revisions

So, these issues were frustrating enough that I was determined to plan a better workflow.

To mitigate these concerns, I began to use the robust commenting features built in to Microsoft Word. Between highlighting snippets of text, tracking changes, and adding comments in the margins, I was able to replicate the same kind of process without some of the challenges inherent in working with paper/pen.

When the iPad was released several years ago, I began an experiment in trying to shift this workflow to a tablet device. I loved the lightweight form factor and ability to read the work more like a document on a table in front of me instead of reading on a vertical screen of my laptop or desktop. I was especially jazzed about the idea of being able to add hand drawn comments and scribbles via a capacitive stylus. Fortunately, a number of robust PDF editing apps were developed for the iPad. I so wanted to figure out and enjoy this workflow, but after two years of near constant exploration, I ran into some new (and old) workflow challenges.

  1. I had to convert every piece of student writing to a PDF file, then either email it to myself or save it to Dropbox in order to access it on the iPad
  2. It was often even more difficult to get the commented documents off the iPad and back to the students
  3. Using the capacitive stylus to leave handwritten comments made my poor handwriting even more difficult to read.

Essentially, with the iPad I introduced even more problems to my workflow than in either of the first two approaches.

When I began working with the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project, I had the opportunity to explore a range of Microsoft software, tools, and devices. About two months ago I received a Surface RT and began to explore this as an iPad alternative. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Surface is an entirely different device than an iPad. While the iPad is an excellent consumption and entertainment device (my kids love using it for all kinds of activities), trying to use it as a real productivity device was a constant headache for me.

Here’s what the workflow looks like on the Surface.

  1. I either save my students Word documents to a Dropbox or Skydrive folder (or set it up so that the students can upload files there directly)
  2. I open them up in the full version of Word (that’s included for free on the Surface RT) and use the full set of track changes, comment options, etc. to mark up the documents
  3. I can use the same capacitive stylus with the writing recognition tool built in to the device and it does an amazing job of translating my chicken scratch into crisp, clear typed text
  4. I simply save the file and send it back.

The addition of this one device has literally transformed the way I can provide students with feedback on their writing. The workflows I use with the Surface are not only way more robust and simpler than the iPad, I actually find that this 2 pound device has replaced my laptop and desktop for all but a few key functions. The best part is that not only can I develop these workflows easily, I actually look forward finding new opportunities to use this productivity tablet.