To make computational lab note-taking happen, make the journal into a todo-list

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Apr 13, 2018

Good lab note-taking is hard

Good note-taking is in my opinion as important for computational research as for wet lab research. For computational research it is much easier though to forget doing it, since you might not have a physical notebook lying on your desk staring at you, but rather might need to open a specific software or file, to write the notes. I think this is one reason why lab note taking seems to happen a lot less among computational scientists than among wet lab ditto.

Another factor which affects wet and "dry" researchers alike, which can hamper good note-taking, is that after you have performed a number of actions, your thoughts are already on to the next few steps you'll need to take. Thus, stepping back and reviewing what you just did and writing that down, can easily distract the flow of thought.

The solution: TODO-lists + journals

I think I've found a solution to this, which so far seems to work really well for me: Make your journal into a todo-list!

Concretely what I do is:

What does this look like in real life?

This is how it can look when using this strategy in Visual Studio Code, which is my go to editor for most things these days, besides vim:

On GitHub, this gets formatted into a nice list of checkboxes:

Benefits

I'm noticing a number of interesting benefits of this approach:

Overall, this now just seems like the obvious way to do journalling, and I can't believe I haven't seen this recommended anywhere before (although I'm sure it is somewhere).