Every week, we share the shortcuts, workspaces and productivity tips of our favourite experts and internet personalities in our How I Work series. Throughout this week, we’re giving readers a glimpse into how we work. Today, Lifehacker US’s Melanie Pinola runs through her favourite gadgetry, apps, hacks and tricks for staying productive and in the zone.
The last time we did this series, I still had my blogging training wheels on. Now they’re off, and I’m sharing my somewhat-more-refined workflow with you.
Location: Long Island, NY
Current gig: Writer for hire
One word that best describes how you work: Fluidly. This is partly a nod to the concept of flow, as detailed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, because my best work usually happens in those occasional moments when I’m in that fully-immersed, transcending-time state of mind. But I also work in phases, deliberately procrastinating most of the time and working in fits when I have to. As a freelancer, I juggle several projects for multiple publications; my work is usually pretty steady, but every so often I’ll have big assignments all due around the same time. It’s like running a long distance race: Pacing yourself for the most part, and then sprinting when you need to or when the wind is at your back.
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S II, iPad (2nd Gen), Nexus 7. I used to be such a gadget geek, always getting the latest and greatest mobile device as soon as it came out. But most devices these days do all I need (and more), so I’m just content to have a light and powerful gadget that simply works for most of the day. That said, I’m kind of craving the Galaxy Note 2. (The Nexus 7 is new. I’m not quite sure how it fits into my workflow yet, but I like that I can carry it around in my purse.)
Current computer: Not much has changed since the last time we took stock, unfortunately: iMac (2010), Dell XPS 15, Toshiba M700 tablet PC. I’m waiting impatiently for a Windows 8 tablet PC w/stylus — probably the ThinkPad Helix (due next month) or the ThinkPad Tablet 2 (trading performance for battery life and half the cost of the Helix). I’ll probably give the Surface Pro a whirl too (yes, I know).
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
For productivity: I wouldn’t be able to do my job well without Google Reader and some sort of social media client (I use TweetDeck). Pocket helps me keep track of articles to write about, while Evernote is my second brain (where I stuff everything for future reference). I scribble ideas, though, in a Moleskine notebook, but hope to make that digital with OneNote once I get my next PC. Also, I absolutely love automating as much as I can with If This Then That. (Yes, I geek out on setting up systems, as the image at right shows.)
For peace of mind: Crashplan and GoodSync keep my files backed up online and to a local NAS. And a bunch of apps have saved my bacon more than once; above all, I would go crazy without form-recovering extension Lazarus (for Firefox and Chrome).
What’s your workspace setup like?
My old desk used to belong to my father, so when I recently transitioned to a standing desk, I didn’t want to get a whole new desk. Instead, I screwed IKEA cabinet legs to an old dining table insert, which happened to match the wood of the desk. To raise the keyboard and mouse, I used another piece of wood on top of a toddler stool. If I was any shorter or taller than 5′ 2″ this setup wouldn’t work ergonomically for me, but luckily it fits just right. I do sometimes still sit on that exercise ball chair, particularly when I’m in idea-bouncing mode, but not as often.
The rest of my office is lined with bookcases and I have a separate desk for working without a screen in front of me.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
Work your best hours and, related to that, consolidate your most important work hours into distinct periods. This goes with the “fluid” work approach above. We all think better at certain times of the day than others (and even days of the week or month). Being attuned to your energy level and mental state is the key to working more efficiently. I know that when it’s taking me an hour just to get one sentence out, it’s time to give up and do something else.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Pen and paper. I’ve given up on listing every single next action I can think of, because my Achilles heel is being good at planning things but not following through on them. I used to make detailed, elaborate lists but never checked them — or if I did look at them, I’d ignore the entries because I like acting spontaneously.
Now I use a weekly planner and just write the two or three things I really need to get done the next day. Anything that’s time-sensitive goes on Google Calendar so it can bug me as needed.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
An electric kettle. There are lots of ways to boil water, but this makes coffee, tea, and ramen noodles that much easier and quicker to make. Of course I could live without this, but not as happily. I love both coffee and tea. (I used to have a Zojirushi water boiler for always-warm water for tea, but cleaning the thing was a pain and I prefer freshly boiled water.)
Also, a tablet-plus-treadmill. I used to spend hours with the iPad on the couch or in bed looking for stories. It was a Very Good Day when I realised I should just hang the iPad on our treadmill and get some walking time in while reading.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Bonding with children and animals. Maybe it’s because they sense I’m completely harmless or maybe I’m a curiosity to them, but for some reason random young children and animals tend to come up to me (for example, if I’m sitting on a bench at the park) and just stare at me or want to play. Since becoming a mum, I also carry around a Mary Poppins-like bag of kids’ activities and snacks, so I’m pretty good at entertaining little ones too. Oh, and I make a mean apple pie. Hmm, maybe I just smell like apple pie to kids and animals.
What do you listen to while you work?
Ice cream truck jingles and children squealing at the playground across the street. Otherwise, sweet, sweet silence.
What’s your sleep routine like?
It’s terrible, but terrific at the same time. After long days working, I often fall asleep with (or even before) my daughter while trying to put her to sleep. Then I wake up around 3 am and crawl into my own bed, struggling to fall back asleep for seemingly hours. On days when I go to sleep normally, I’m usually in bed around 11 and wake up naturally a little before 7, but somewhere in between that, a little 7-year-old climbs over me yelling “Mommmmmeeee!!! Snuuuugggglllle!” and throws a bunch of stuffed animals on my head. I know it’s only a matter of time before she no longer wants my arms around her all night, so I don’t really mind. But, man, a whole night of uninterrupted sleep sounds like a dream.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
One of my favourite essays is Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch, and I recently received as a gift Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. That is to say, hands down, I think of myself as an introvert. However, given the right mood or too much alcohol, I’ll happily talk all night or burst into song with a group. (A friend of a friend once remarked, maybe rightly so, that I might look all shy and demure, but deep down inside I’m someone who would dance on the table.)
Is there anyone you’d kill to see answer these same questions?
A few years ago, I would have said J.D. Salinger, because he was so inaccessible (now that he’s passed away, he’s even more so). While I wouldn’t kill for it, I’d like to hear Margaret Atwood’s answers. She’s one of the most prolific and honoured writers in a number of genres, and probably my favourite author.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Follow your bliss.” Joseph Campbell never told me that personally, but I find that phrase inspirational. I’m a serial career-changer, having started in a med school program, then teaching, then doing IT and desktop publishing. Finally, what I’m doing now feels right, and, yes, blissful.
Tied with that is “First things first.” It’s something my dad always says and I never really understood it as a kid. Of course first things come first. But, duh, Mel, he was just saying: Get your priorities in order. Now I find myself saying “First things first” to my daughter.
Oh, and one more: “You can eat anything for breakfast. Just crack an egg over it and call it breakfast.” ~ Gail Simmons of Food & Wine magazine.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers?
I’ve been through a bunch of common crises and have been very fortunate to land on my feet each time. A big part of that is having support from friends and family, as well as just plum luck. But I also think cultivating a positive mindset, practicing gratitude, and working on happiness (it can be hard work! even if you’re familiar with the Tetris Effect) have contributed to that.
In that vein, I also want to say that I usually read all the comments on our posts and I appreciate everyone who takes the time to contribute positively to the discussion or just say something nice. For all the other kinds of comments, I’m learning to take this liberating advice about not giving a f*ck. (Some of the best advice we’ve heard is phrased with expletives. And that’s okay.)