Creativity tools for academics

And how your reference management software can help

Image: Canva.com

In our last post, we looked at some strategies for being more creative from the book Creativity in Research. While you can certainly implement the suggestions from that book without any additional software, apps and other tools can sometimes help give you additional motivation to stick to your goals or make reaching them easier.

In this post, we’ll introduce you to some of the different creativity apps out there that could potentially be useful for academics. We’ll look at tools for time management, idea generation, idea capture, tools to help you get unstuck, tools for social exchange and how you can even use your reference management program as a creativity tool (yes, really!).

Tools for time management

A big part of being creative over the long term is discovering the times of day that work best for you for different tasks and then working to keep those slots of time free. It can be useful to designate separate times for idea generation and for more analytical thinking. For example, you might find that you sometimes have ideas when you first wake up. In that case, you could try to free write or brainstorm for 15 minutes in the morning before continuing to get ready. For writing, you might block out a couple hours later in the morning after your coffee has kicked in so that you’re able to get into a good flow.

It can be useful to schedule this time into your day as you would a meeting so that you stick to it and the time doesn’t inadvertently get filled with less important tasks. For scheduling you just need a calendar – either physical or digital. If using a shared calendar that your colleagues can view, make sure to set any time when you need to concentrate as “busy” so that they know not to disturb you.

In addition to a calendar, a task planning app can be useful if you have many projects going on at once or if you want to break bigger projects down into smaller chunks to make them feel less overwhelming. The Citavi team has used Asana for the past seven years and really likes it, but there are many other alternatives, such as Trello, Monday.com, and more stripped down task list apps such as Remember the milk or TeuxDeux.

Tools for idea generation

There are many apps, card decks and other tools out there designed to help with idea generation. Although many are aimed more at designers and visual artists, some can still be helpful for academics as well. Of course, there are also a number of methods that you can use that just require a pen and paper, such as brainstorming, mindmapping and morning pages, but sometimes it can be fun to try a new approach.

In a previous post, we wrote about the famous oblique strategies cards that David Bowie and his band used to try and come up with musical breakthroughs. The cards contain creative prompts designed to break you out of the more straight-ahead thinking our brains often fall into when we’re trying to solve a problem. In addition to the textual prompts found in the oblique strategies deck, there are also card decks with visual prompts, such as the physical deck Intùiti.

Mindmapping programs also help you generate ideas visually. You start with one concept and then create branches between related ideas. With many mindmapping programs you can even export to the reference management program Citavi to create your category system. Compatible programs include MindManager Pro® (versions 6 and later), FreeMind® and ConceptDraw®.

Tools for idea capture

Ideas can occur at any time, and when they do, it’s best to note them down somewhere right away rather than telling yourself you’ll remember it later on. You can of course keep track of your notes with a simple notebook and pen, but having your notes in digital format can be advantageous if you want to be able to copy them over to a Word document or another program. There are many note-taking apps available. You can use the one that came with your smartphone or a more full-featured app with advanced search features and integrations, such as Evernote.  

Tools to help you get unstuck when writing

Sometimes it’s just tough to get started on writing and you might feel like you don’t even know what to say. In these cases it can be helpful to have a tool to get you going that gives you some extrinsic motivation. Once you’ve cleared that first hurdle, it’s often easier to continue and even get into the writing flow.

There are many different apps based on the Pomodoro technique® in which you work for a short amount of time and then take a break. One tool that we like is Forest. When you work for the amount of time you specify, you’ll see a tree grow, but if you leave the app before the time is finished, your tree will die. If you complete many sessions, you will even see an entire forest in the end. In addition, an actual tree will be planted, so you have the extra motivation of doing something good for the planet. 

Over the long term, developing your mindfulness skills can help you better focus and be less at the whim of your emotions when you sit down to write. Mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm can be good choices, but you can also find free guided meditations on YouTube and other sites that are good for beginners.

One  app that takes an interesting mindfulness-based approach but promises to help right away is the aptly named Unstuck. This coaching app for the iPad and iPhone gives you questions that you can either use on your own or with a friend and that should guide you to reflect on or think differently about the challenges you’re facing.

Tools for social exchange

Being in contact with others is one of the best ways to encounter new ideas you might otherwise never have thought of. During the pandemic, one of the best ways to do that is to follow academics whose work interests you on social media. We’ve written previously about some of the academic social media sites that are available. Of course, to take full advantage of the creativity potential on social media sites, it’s important not to stay within your own bubble. Follow academics in very different fields or follow news, magazine or other sites where you’ll get exposed to different ideas. Who knows – you might just be able to apply a method from another field to your own in an innovative way.

Reference management software as a creativity

It may seem strange at first to think of reference management software as a creativity tool, but it can indeed be one. One of my favorite testimonials from one of our customers is “Citavi sets my mind free to think and be creative”. That actually is our goal: by removing some of the busy work associated with academic research, you should be able to focus more on the parts of your research that require the most thought. We’ll focus on Citavi below, but other reference management tools can be used in some cases or combined with one or two additional apps to get the same results.

How can Citavi help with creativity? First, it gives you a task planner directly in the program. Here you can keep track of tasks and schedule research and writing sessions. Because you don’t need to switch to another app while working in Citavi, you’re not in danger of getting distracted when you open up your browser or the calendar program associated with your email account. To get input from peers on your project, invite someone to your project then assign them tasks. For example, have them evaluate a specific idea or give you feedback on whether your interpretation of an article is on the right track.

While the reference editor in Citavi may not seem like a space for creativity, it all comes down to the sources you have in your project. Since ideas outside of your field may be applicable to problems in your discipline, reading widely can be a great source of creativity. Instead of tracking only the literature related to your project, use Citavi to keep track of literature outside of your field that you find interesting, or even popular writing, newspaper articles, podcasts, or videos you consume online. Assign these sources to a group “Idea generation” and then save some thoughts about what interested you about the piece in the “Evaluation” field or as a comment. If you don’t want these references distracting you when you do need to focus on the literature that pertains more to your current writing project, just filter them out.

Beyond giving you a way to curate inspiring references, Citavi also serves as an “idea collector” – not only of your own ideas but also the ideas of others that you encounter in your reading. When reading a text, you have many options: you can comment on it, evaluate it, paraphrase certain parts or summarize it. While this work may not seem especially creative, it is a way to go from reading passively to more actively interacting with the text. Even creating a core statement for a direct quotation forces you to think about the ideas you’ve read and boil them down to their essence.

It’s in the knowledge organizer that Citavi really comes into its own as a tool for creativity. Here you can start sorting the ideas and information you’ve gathered from your reading into the outline for your future paper. You’ll use your convergent thinking skills to consider how ideas fit together and the order in which you might present them in your paper. Compare multiple items in the preview pane – juxtaposing ideas in this way can lead to new insights, which you can capture with the “thought” button. If you want to get an overview of where you have gaps in your research, generate a compilation of your outline and of all the items you’ve gathered. Seeing everything laid out on the page might even give you additional ideas for new research avenues you might want to explore.

Finally, when it’s time to write, you can add your outline and knowledge items to a Word document. Because you’ve already done a lot of your thinking in Citavi, the Word Add-In can help you keep from feeling stuck when you sit down to write. Because you have all of the ideas you’ve gathered and come up with at your fingertips, you can just focus on connecting them. Using the chapter view can help you stay focused in large projects, so that you don’t get distracted or overwhelmed by the large number of sources you have.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at how you can use new tools – and the ones you already have – to help you be more creative in your academic work.

This is the second part of a three-part series on creativity. Our first post looked at strategies you can use to become more creative. In our third post Jana and I will share our process of coming up with ideas for the blog and then developing them through the research and writing stages.

Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 3/23/2021
Tags: Creativity Good to know


About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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