Productivity 2019

by Sunita

For a number of years I was in the habit of writing posts on my productivity tools and habits every January, but then I fell off the wagon and missed a few years. This year I decided to write one again, but it’s taken me until March to put fingers to keyboard. Part of the reason is probably that I haven’t changed many things over the last couple of years. I bought one medium-priced and one inexpensive fountain pen in 2017/18, I’m using the same planner I have for the last three years, I use the same color scheme in my planner to make looking at teaching-related stuff easier, and I’ve generally been happy with my tools. My issue is not the tools but making sure I use them.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile having a record. I do go back and read previous years’ posts, marveling at how many different things I tried and how much seems to remain the same across time. So many notebooks! A range of planners! Pens, pens, pens. And of course computers and files and all the odds and ends that go in an everyday carry bag. I’ll do a “what’s in my bag” post at some point, but here I’ll talk about the actual tools and what I do with them.


I’m still using the Hobonichi Techo planner (the English-language version). It’s worked well for me over the last few years and I love having the full day-per-page format and the thin but fountain-pen friendly Tomoe River Paper. I’m also still using the compact leather cover I picked up a couple of years ago. I couldn’t resist the Alaska cover in this year’s collection, but I switch back and forth between the two. My pen is a Sailor Profit fountain pen with a 14k EF nib. It’s perfect for the Hobo because it lays down a smooth line and dries quickly. I also keep a small notebook in the inside back of the cover, and it stores my IDs and a couple of credit cards so I don’t have to carry a separate wallet.

This year I also started using the Hobonichi 5-year planner in the A6 size. I looked at it last year but didn’t get one. But it’s nice to be able to see past years’ activities quickly, or it will be after the first year. We do a lot of the same travelling every year, and I wind up digging out the previous years’ planners to remember where we went, what route we took, restaurants, etc.

Pen Case

Last year I switched from a rollup pen case to a flat case with room for other small items. Hobonichi calls it a “small drawer pouch” and I bought it in the Liberty print version. It tucks away nicely in my bag and holds 7-10 pens, a wite-out tape dispenser, a USB-C to USB-A converter, a flash drive, a short micro USB cable, and pen cartridges, all without bulging. Consolidating the cables/adapters with the pens and cartridges has reduced the number of little bags I carry around on a daily basis.


I’m down to two notebooks. Really! I’ve always had a bunch at the office and at home, and I’ve found that in the academic writing I’ve been doing I prefer to write longhand in the initial draft and then retype into a distraction-free text editor on the next draft. Then I finally switch to Word when I have to format, add tables and figures, etc. I’d love to use something other than Word but increasingly the journals and publishers I submit to are Word rather than LaTeX (or anything else) operations, so I’ve pretty much given up on alternatives even though Word, ugh.

My main notebook is an A5 spiral-bound one that I keep in a leather folio. It goes in my daily bag and sits on my desk at work or at home. For places where I don’t want to take the folio but need access to quick notes I have the aforementioned small, thin notebook I store in the Hobo cover so it’s always with me. Finally, if I’m writing a lot of longhand at a stretch, I have A4 writing pads I keep at the office and at home. They’re too big to carry around but I like them for sustained stretches of writing when I’m in a flow. When I’m not in a flow, the A5 in the folio is less intimidating. 😉


Since I spend less time chatting on social media or surfing on the internet than I used to, I’ve filled the brain space by listening to music regularly again. I put a proper, 1980s-era receiver and slightly more modern (but still semi-automatic) turntable in my work office along with some real speakers. I also use Spotify at work and at home, but I like listening to full albums and I have a pretty big collection, so I almost never listen to pre-made playlists. My music is old.

I’ve always carried a separate audio player, even as phones started to provide better audio quality and had more storage. I converted most of my CD library to 320 bit rate or FLAC, and I have a range of earbuds and headphones which let me hear the quality difference (wired and wireless earbuds and wired headphones from Sony, B&W, Master and Dynamic, Sennheiser, etc.). What Apple did to music with its 128 bit rate standard was a crime. But thankfully it is possible to get equipment that is compatible with higher audio standards, and even Spotify and Amazon now stream at 320 kpbs if you have the paid versions.

I’ve been flying a fair bit over the last few months and I discovered that I’m surprisingly productive on airplanes because my concentration is excellent. I think it’s because planes are almost always darkened during flight now, so unless you have a really uncomfortable seat or a squirrelly seatmate you can sink into your own zone. I’ve been using music to do the same thing when I’m working at the office or at home, using headphones when I’m in spaces where it helps to block out the world around me. I have a couple of pairs with light noise cancellation (mostly for flying) but I don’t use ones with heavy noise-cancelling technology like Bose headphones have.

Hardware and Software

The big change I made this year is in my computing choices. I switched from Apple back to Microsoft a couple of years ago, but I wanted a working environment that was more stripped down so I decided to look at Linux again. I used and built simple Linux systems about 10 years ago, when tiny netbook computers were all the rage, but it wound up being a lot of ongoing work and tinkering, and I eventually went back to the big guys. It turns out that Linux has changed a lot over the last few years. It’s much more new-user friendly and there are flavors which basically mimic OSX and Windows. You don’t ever have to touch the command line if you don’t want to.

Well, that was the opposite of what I wanted, so I used Ubuntu just enough to decide I liked Linux in general but not Ubuntu in particular and then played around with a variety of distributions. I think I’ve finally settled on regular Debian in the testing channel with the XFCE desktop environment. It’s fast, it doesn’t take up much RAM or storage space, and I only use half a dozen programs and a handful of utilities. Focuswriter and Wordgrinder are two great distraction-free writing programs, nano is a sufficient text editor for my needs, and Sylpheed/Claws does most of what I need with email. VLC runs every audio and video codec invented, just about, and Spotify has a Linux version.

It’s still easier to have Windows for work and for programs like Adobe Digital Editions (for the Kobo), but I can work mostly in Linux unless I need to run statistical analyses (if I’m writing equations I just type them at the Word stage). I’ve also got versions of Debian running in a virtual machine on my work computer and via containers (Crouton and Crostini) on a couple of Chromebooks. It’s a pleasure to have just as much computer as I want and not more than I need.

Since I can’t entirely live without Windows I traded in my Surface 3 for a Surface Go, which gives me a tablet and little computer in one package and weighs less than two pounds. When I travel I carry the Go along with a Lenovo 500e chromebook, which is ruggedized for military and education use so it doesn’t need a case. The weight is a bit more than I’d like but not awful. I put one in my carry-on and my personal bag, and it’s equivalent to carrying a lightweight computer and an iPad.

Oh yeah, my phone. I would love to get by with a dumbphone or feature phone, but I really can’t. So I use a Samsung Galaxy S8 but with very few apps. I have less than 20 enabled and all the bloatware I can’t delete is disabled. That works pretty well for me, especially since I don’t enable notifications for anything except texts and voice calls (not even email). It’s a very quiet phone that way.

Social Media and Online Engagement

The only social media I use now is Goodreads (and believe me, I’m aware of the irony of that). I’m a frequent visitor and I belong to a handful of groups, but I only post in some of those groups and I talk primarily to people I already know. I like having the book talk (and unlike most other social media the conversation in my corner of GR remains centered on books and the reading of them). But even there I’ve cut back a bit because there’s a lot of conversation about prizes, lists, and group reads, and I’ve pulled away from those activities too.

I realized at some point that while I loved being part of the online book communities for all those years, they’ve changed lot more over the last few years than I have. I just want to read and talk about books. Not market them, not be a cheerleader for a genre or an industry, not be a Bookish Influencer. These changes aren’t just taking place in Romland; lit fic, mystery, and SFF share these characteristics too. I don’t want or need ARCs; I have libraries and bookstores that provide me with more books than I’ll ever be able to read, not to mention the various TBRs of Doom. I’m so tired of everything being commodified and/or monetized and the book world is as susceptible as every other community in which people buy and sell things. I understand why it happens, and if people enjoy participating in it, that’s great. I don’t anymore.

I need to knit more. That is one area I’m really behind in, and my stash is SO BIG. But other than that, I think my productivity habits are in a pretty good place.