Productivity

I'm David McRaney, And This Is How I Work

We talk a lot about perception, reasoning and bias here at Lifehacker, so it makes sense that David McRaney is one of our favourite writers. (We’ve covered his thoughts on everything from wine to internet fights).

At his blog You Are Not So Smart — and in the book of the same title — David focuses on why humans are so “unaware of how unaware we are”. His newest book, You Are Now Less Dumb, expands on these ideas of self-delusion and offers ways to overcome the brain’s natural tendencies. We caught up with David to talk about his writing habits, favourite gadgets, secret talents and more.

Location: About an hour-and-a-half away from New Orleans in a college town in Mississippi, called Hattiesburg.
Current gig: Author of You Are Now Less Dumb, out July 30, published by Gotham. Think of it as a self-hurt book with a heart of gold. Writer and producer of things that appear at YouAreNotSoSmart.com. Digital media director, one of several, with Raycom Media. Current mobile device: iPhone 5
Current computer: 27-inch iMac; 15-inch Macbook Pro
One word that best describes how you work: Modularly

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

I write everything in Google Drive in Chrome, including this sentence, and then move it into other programs like Scrivener and Word when it comes time for for those things to be polished. I love the stripped-down interface and the security of knowing it’s saved in the cloud and will probably be accessible for as long as Google supports it.

This is probably not the best way to go about doing things, but both of my books passed through a chain of programs chapter by chapter: Drive to Scrivener to Word to Dropbox. Drive for the bulk of the writing, Scrivener to shape it into a book, and Word for coordinating with an editor through the track changes feature. I offloaded a new copy of the manuscript to Dropbox every night after each writing session too, just in case. Dropbox saved me when a tornado destroyed my house and neighbourhood during the final days of editing the new book. I was able to set up a laptop the next morning, download it, and finish the manuscript while rain poured into my office across a tree that had skewered my roof.

I toss dozens of things into Evernote every day — comments, quotes, full articles, instructions, urls — everything. I love being able to search it later when I remember reading something a while back that would go great with something recently discovered. I also have a ScanSnap S1300i that I use to scan into Evernote just about every flat thing that enters my house.

I capture interviews over Skype with Audio Hijack Pro and use Levelator, Audacity and Garage Band to make them sound nice.

Off screen, my most valuable tool is access to a university library system. I routinely depend on it to print out heaps of studies which I go through with my other favourite offline tool, a Bic four-colour pen.

I use Prezi to create my lecture presentations. It’s actually fun to use, and audiences love it.

And, of course, WordPress has changed my life.

What’s your workspace like?

It depends on what phase I’m in during a writing project. When I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do next or I’m arranging things very early on, I like to stay out of my office. I use a laptop and a legal pad on my deck or at a bar or a coffee shop in the beginning since distractions don’t matter to me at that point. In that phase I also prefer reading books on the Kindle app on an iPad so I can highlight text and get back to it later from my desktop. For most other research I print out the original documents, like studies and essays and letters, and read those at lunch or in the afternoons on a couch, circling things that I find interesting and making notes in red ink right in the margins.

Pictured above: David’s workspace.

Eventually, I’ll take all my notes, research, highlights and everything to my home office, a spare bedroom, where I’ll basically move in and hunker down. I like feeling secluded and surrounded by the work. I also have an acoustic bass and an acoustic guitar attached to the walls. I’ll take one down and play it if I can’t seem to get started. After a few minutes of that, I’m usually ready to write. There is a couch and television behind me so I can play video games when I feel like I’ve lost my flow. I set a timer for one hour, start playing a game, and then go back to the computer when it goes off.

Next to my desk I have a nice, big table with lots and lots of space all around me to stack papers and books and cups and plates. The walls in there are soundproofed, and for podcasting and voiceover work I use a Shure SM7B microphone on a boom arm plugged into a Behringer XENYX 1202FX which is piped into my computer via a Behringer UCA202 audio interface.

What’s your best time-saving trick?

My voicemail message tells people that I don’t check voicemail and asks them to please email me instead. I haven’t checked voicemail for more than five years now. Also, when I’m on-task and run across things online that seem interesting but aren’t related to what I am doing, I send those things to Pocket. Every Saturday morning I sit and read all the things I’ve saved that week, and if those things end up blowing my mind or seem like material for future projects, I send them to Evernote to be saved in the appropriate research folder.

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?

I’ve tried lots of things over the years, but for most things that must be done soon I use a reporter’s notebook or a tiny yellow legal pad. For appointments, I use Google Calendar as the backend for my Apple calendar. For deadlines I use Countdown+. I sometimes use Siri to remind to do things, but I’m pretty bad about letting reminder apps become buckets for storing things I’ll never get around to doing. I also have a waterproof notepad and pencil stuck to my shower’s wall. I rip those pages off when it gets full and put them on my desk.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

I love my Gerber Shortcut, which I keep on my keychain, and my Gerber Descent II pocket knife. (The knife is discontinued, but they have a new version that is still available.) For recording interviews away from a computer, you can’t beat the Zoom H4N.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

I’m pretty sure I make the best alfredo sauce in North America. Nutmeg, my friends, the secret is nutmeg.

What do you listen to while you work?

I have a Spotify playlist just for writing and another one for editing. I try to stick to music that either has no lyrics or lyrics in a language I can’t understand.

What are you currently reading?

I’m rereading Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex and just started Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m great at faking extroversion, but I’m absolutely excellent at slinking away into long stretches of hermitage.

Pictured above: stacks of research for David’s newest book.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I try to go to sleep by midnight, because but no matter when I go bed or what chemicals I put into my body, I will wake up without an alarm clock at 6.30am every day. It’s a terrible superpower.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _______ answer these same questions.

Jon Ronson, David Eagleman and Richard Wiseman.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t think he meant it as advice on how to live your life, but I’ve used it as such. When I was a teenager, I worked for my father who was an electrical contractor. He ran a crew of men who dug a lot of deep holes and long trenches and then put cables and pipes into those holes and trenches. I wanted to prove to him that I could earn a pay cheque and work hard, so I started out wildly attacking the ground with my shovel, leaping on the back of the blade, taking giant bites of earth and so on. He saw me working like that one day and took the shovel from me. He said “Dig smarter, not harder.” He then showed me how to go slow and steady and to take a manageable amount of dirt from the ground with each pass. If I had kept using my method, it would have looked more impressive to my peers if they had happened to see me working, but I would have tired out long before the job was finished.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Read as much as you can, and when you come across a sentence or a paragraph that stuns you for whatever reason, write it down. Save those words. Go back to them when you feel lost. Read them out loud to someone you love. Commit them to memory if you can. Make them a part of you. Here’s one of my favourites from my collection:

“The perception of truth evolves through small revelations. Old truths decay in the same way. The revelations are rarely thunderous. They are mites you can barely hear, working behind the wood. They are corns of wheat, bits of string. They piggyback our dreams, or wait in the dirt until the day we hit hit face-first. We accrete truth like silt. It hones us like wind over sandstone.” — Michael Perry from Off Main Street

We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.