I’ve been trading emails with people recently about my setup for working my LL.M. classes while staying busy with the day job from different locations, and thought I’d provide a brief of summary of what I’ve found helpful as far as devices and systems – some of which might apply to mobile work more generally. (No promises whether it’ll be helpful, and the part about being brief is unlikely at best).
Canvas My Life
As your kids can tell you, a lot of schoolwork at the college level is presented to students through platforms like Canvas, where reading and writing assignments are distributed and collected. For online programs like my master’s programs in World War II Studies and now Litigation Management at Baylor, each “module” also contains video lectures.
In the World War II program, because the courses were larger and presented sequentially, each module generally took a week. I would start on Monday reading the assignments and watching the lectures, and later in the week start drafting papers or participating in discussions online. In the litigation management program, there are five or six courses presented simultaneously, with many being one or two hour credit programs. Accordingly, you can often work a module a day, or work two or even three modules across different sections to fit your schedule.
As I’ll discuss below, the devices I make use of the most are – as shown above – my iPad, my reMarkable (with EMR stylus), and to a lesser extent a rubber-tipped stylus for highlighting and my headphones.
The reMarkable bears a quick note. Yes, you can take notes on your iPad, but the screen real estate is too small to take notes and refer to content, so several years ago I began using the reMarkable for all my notetaking, and carry it wherever I take my iPad. There is a limited exception in the courtroom for anything I am doing personally – voir diring a jury, examining a witness, etc. – where I am likely to need to refer to multiple pages either at the same time or in very quick succession. Otherwise I am essentially paperless.
Reading, Watching, Writing
It doesn’t have the glamour of “Eat, Pray, Love” but to each their own. I generally start with the assigned readings. I’ve learned that I can read more easily on the iPad because it is easier to highlight readings using a stylus than with a mouse on a large screen. I can do this almost anywhere.
I then move to the lectures. I have tried watching them on my computer monitor or casting them to a television, but oddly, I have discovered that playing them on an iPad – the worst option in terms of size and audio – works best. I also usually watch them at 1.5 speed, except for Professor Powell, because even after 32 years I’m a little afraid of him, and worried he might find out.
As far as devices, all I normally need is an iPad, my reMarkable and an EMR pen (I use the Lamy shown above, and keeps smaller spares in my bags just in case). When traveling, such as in an airport, I’ll use headphones. All this allows me to keep moving forward wherever I am. As Professor Liz Fraley says about having to work through 65-70 modules each trimester, it’s like eating an elephant – you do it one bite at a time. Working one reading of four or one lecture of three is still progress.
When I’m at a familiar work station, I usually have a slant-top desk of some kind. At home a Levenger desk holds the iPad with the lecture while I take notes. At the office I often use one of the slant-top writing/reading stands I made from old Hub shoe shelving. Actually that might take a little explaining.
Slant-Top Writing Surfaces
I made several of these little stands in my workshop out of shelving from the Hub when it was a shoe store (1897-2001). They can be flipped to serve either as a slant-top reading/writing surface or a copy stand.
I’m ready to make a new set since while the basic design is good, the dimensions need to be changed, and I want to handle the construction and finishing a little differently. But I digress.
I require a little different setting for writing assignments than I do reading or watching videos, so if I am away from my computer, I’ll finish the readings and lectures, and then start moving forward on a module in a different course. Once I’m back at my computer, I knock the assignment out using the professional-grade word processing tools, including dictation software.
Nope – it’s not happening right now. When you are handling multiple responsibilities, it becomes more important than ever to ensure that you make the best use of the available time by finding something that will fit into the bandwidth you have available for mental effort at a given time. Most time management gurus tell you to be aware of what work is best performed at different times of the day, based on how demanding the specific work is.
Boiled down, what this means is that I can’t put off working on modules until after the end of the work day. Like most lawyers, I expend a lot of mental effort during the day, and by evening I’m not in the best frame of mind to do my best work for something that’s not an emergency.
Accordingly, what I find works for me is doing readings in the evenings after dinner, and depending on their length, lectures. I have found that litigation management goes well with red wine, although something with more body like a cab seems to work better than merlot or pinot noir. Coincidentally, World War II matched well with red wine as well, but including even the lighter varietals. I will usually let the subject matter sit until at least the following morning, and write the required assignment or report first thing in the morning when I am fresh.
Part of that is that the iPad isn’t the best writing tool – but part of it is that I know I can focus better on writing at my desk.
Music & Noise
Another aspect of the process I have explored in the last couple of years is what sort of sound accompaniment works best for study. I have known for a long time that I cannot listen to music while studying – I find it too distracting. This might be because I have a musical background and I can’t help but start paying attention to what is happening in the music. But pure silence is distracting as well.
Several years ago I started using a program called Focus@Will on my iPad. It is a subscription service that provides music that is selected its consistency and, candidly, substantive dullness. The idea is that it keeps your mind occupied enough to allow you to focus on your work, without distracting you. There are multiple channels since different people find different levels and types of sound more helpful than others.
More recently, I have been using brown noise at home when reading and writing because that seems to help me focus as well.
I have not needed anything at the office, likely because when we renovated of I installed a white noise system, so even when everything else is quiet, there is still a low level of sound that it turns out in addition to its sound – canceling characteristics, helps me focus as well. Of course all types of background noise are available on the Internet in the form of YouTube videos, so you can see which work for you.