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The Project Log

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I was recently asked by a student for some advice on keeping a project log. That started me thinking about the subject in general and lead to this post as I thought it may be of more general interest.

Why a Project Log?

From a strictly TM470 perspective a project log helps remind you what you done, provides evidence of tracking and monitoring and can be a source of material for reflection, so it can address several of the learning objectives. Beyond that a project log is a useful tool in itself - I work on several "hobby projects" and keep a project log for my own use, of which more later…

What Form Should it Take?

We have lots of options here:

Audio / Video recording - this seems to be a staple of science fiction shows ("Captain's log, stardate 2345.1, the Enterprise is delivering urgent supplies…") however I think in reality this is more of a plot exposition device than a useful medium - it is hard to search (and to incorporate into your TM470 report…)

Note taking apps: these vary from free (Apple Notes) to actually quite expensive (£80 / year for Evernote) but for great extensibility and flexibility I would recommend Obsidian which is available for free on all platforms. Obviously text notes can be easily incorporated into your reports, quickly searched and you can copy and paste in URLs, code samples or whatever. They may not be ideal for the slow typist, or someone who likes lots of diagrams.

Note taking devices: Things like the "Remarkable tablet" appear to be a good compromise between hand written and electronic notes but the device itself is expensive (£379 minimum) and you may need to pay an ongoing subscription to make full use of it but it is well reviewed and a good size. I do have an Amazon Kindle Scribe which provides a surprisingly good writing experience, little to no lag and matt surface that feels like paper but the smaller size of the writeable area (just a bit bigger than A5) I find a bit restrictive.

Physical notebooks: My preferred medium. Available in a huge range of formats, my favoured choice is a ring-bound, hard-backed A4 book with wide ruled lines. Hardback so you can rest it on your knees, and ring bound so it can lie flat for writing on both sides of the page. The obvious advantages here are that you can be completely free format and write in pencil, ink, add colours, stick things in and generally make it your own. I'm a bit of a pen fetishist and prefer a fountain pen for handwriting (A Kaweco Sport in solid brass, with Monte Grappa ink) and a technical fine-liner for diagrams (Uni-pin Fine-liners 0.1 to 0.5 for diagrams that are *so* deep black, and Staedtler 308 pigment liners for colour). Clearly the problems  with hand-written notes are searchability and incorporating them into your TM470 report, again more on this below. For long-term archiving purposes (and insurance against my notebook getting lost or stolen) every so often I photograph each page using the Microsoft Lens app on my phone and store the resulting PDF on a cloud storage service.

What Should I Write in my Log?

This is up to you. Some logs are strictly formal, adhering to a rigid format - my own have expanded somewhat to include reflections on the day, thumbnail reviews of books and TV shows and doodles, all of which is fine, it is your log! Indeed, lots of diagrams, sketches and colours can actually make your notes easier to search, rather than flicking through turgid pages of identical text.

Restricting myself to just project notes, here are the things that I try to include when logging:

  • What I'm intending to do each day
  • What I did do each day
  • How I felt about that
  • Any lessons learnt, good or bad
  • Useful commands / websites, especially if was something that I used to solve a particular problem
  • Rough drafts of planning or design diagrams
  • Things I still need to do (Marked with a big TODO, so that I can both find them, and cross them out when they are done)

What Should I include the final report?

Probably NOT the whole project log, it will not be read and just adds unnecessary pages. You can obviously use the log as the source for your reflection, even quoting yourself if you want to (so with a hand-written log you are only typing up small fragments) and by all means include photographs or extracts of interesting pages, with annotations or further discussion if you want. Extracts in the main body of the document, included as evidence of your project logging activities are more likely to be read (and appreciated) than 50 pages of appendix F…

Over to You

These are just my thoughts, what do you think? Any suggestions, hints or tips? What is your project logging approach?

Photograph of a project notebook with pens and ruler

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How Many Tomatoes is That?

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I was vaguely aware of the Pomodoro technique before starting to teach on TM112, but since we are encouraging students to use it I thought I should "eat my own dogfood" as the saying has it and give it go, especially I often have difficulty staying on task…

I didn't actually buy a tomato timer, I have several devices that I can talk to that can set up timers so that was easy. I had been keeping an informal task list in Outlook, but decided that it should be much more formal and that almost everything I needed to should be an Outlook task. (I even wrote a Python program that takes as input all my tutorials and TMA submission dates and generates as output a CSV file that has every activity I need to do for them! - But that's a subject for a different blog post).

This pomodoro technique also suggests that you make some estimate of the  size of a task - some will take at least one pomodoro, some can be grouped together and others are "fill-in" tasks that you can use to do something productive if you have some time left over. Unfortunately Outlook doesn't really have a convenient "size" field. I know I could create a custom field but I wanted something that I could populate quickly and easily with the existing task forms. I settled on the "Priority" field, which I don't really use but is easily set on every task view and on the CSV import. In my world the meanings are:

 "High Priority" (shown with a red exclamation mark) - this task will take at least one pomodoro (i.e. >= 25 mins)

 "Low Priority" (Shown with a blue downward arrow) - this is a quick task, I can fit several of these into one pomodoro

 "Normal Priority" (shown with no marker) - this is a substantial, but not time critical "fill-in" task (like reading up on the next block, or reading the user manual for some software or programming language - yes, I am that sad!)

 So we are all set - timers, tasks, lets go!

 ~~~ some weeks  pass ~~~

 Okay, so here are my conclusions (in no particular order)

  1.  Once you start counting them, the number of interruptions is quite surprising - I work from home so my interruptions included:
    1.  The family -  "what do we want for lunch?", "where did you put the scissors?", "can you help move the sofa for a video call…"
    2. Deliveries - in one 5 minute period 2 separate deliveries and the postman wanting to know whether I'd found the delivery he'd left in the box that morning… 
    3. The cat - "tickle me"; "feed me", "no, not that food, the other food", "I've been out for a pee, can I tell you about it?..."
    4. Email and discord notifications - This was the only one under my control so I turned them off!
  2. Accepting that it is OK to take regular, short breaks is a good thing, setting a timer for them is even better
  3. Understanding the size of tasks and listing *everything* that I needed to do was really, really helpful
    1. Even if I only had a few minutes there was usually something useful I could find to do, and complete
    2. Knowing that I was making progress on the big tasks was good, even if I didn’t manage the full tomato
    3. Crossing completed tasks off the list gives you a warm feeling!

So, in summary, I think that trying to strictly follow the Pomodoro technique only really works if you are fully in control of your time for substantial parts of the day; but understanding the size of the tasks facing you, and being able to make progress against them in small increments is really helpful.

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