I’m Maria Popova, And This Is How I Work

I’m Maria Popova, And This Is How I Work

Maria Popova is the mind behind Brain Pickings, a highly influential and addictive curation of the best content from the web and beyond. Maria reads hundreds of things a day (yes, a day!) and posts the best to her blog and constantly-updating Twitter feed. Though Brain Pickings takes over 450 hours of work each month, it’s not all Maria does — she’s also an editorial director at Lore, a social network for higher education. We talked to Maria about how she manages it all — from the playlists that keep her inspired to the apps that keep her organised.

Name: Maria Popova

Occupation: Curiosity Architect

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Current computer: 13″ MacBook Air

Current mobile device: iPhone 4

I work: Obsessively

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

I live and die by Evernote. As a notorious note-taker, marginalian and quote-collector, I save between 10 and 100 snippets of text a day from articles that I’m reading. Everything is meticulously tagged and organised, so I can search and cite it later in articles and talks.

I’ve also recently switched to Pocket for all my time-shifted reading needs. It’s exquisite, very visual, and much more conducive to making materials organised and manageable than Instapaper, which I used to use.

Then, of course, Google Reader is a staple. I’d say at least two-thirds of my web reading is done via RSS.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut?

Since my day is incredibly structured — it has to be, in order to fit everything in and maintain some semblance of balance — I pre-schedule most of my tweets. (I do my reading in the morning and night.) I’ve recently switched to Buffer, which is an enormous time-saver and altogether fantastic, not to mention run by good people.

I also wouldn’t survive without all my Gmail filters. (Though whether or not I’m actually surviving the email barrage remains an open question!)

What’s your workspace setup like?

I work barefoot, standing on a wobble board. It might sound crazy, but it actually helps you balance your posture much more evenly than just standing on your feet, in which case you inevitably shift your weight to one leg or the other, subtly twisting your spine. With the wobble board, so long as you have a single touchpoint — like a finger on the keyboard — it becomes incredibly easy to balance, and you’re forced by gravity into perfect alignment.

I always have headphones on, unless someone is (or I am) DJing on Geneva, our shared speaker at Studiomates, a space I share with some of the most interesting, stimulating people I know.

Lately, I’ve been working from home quite a bit, since much of what I write about comes from books, reading which requires more concentration than a shared space is conducive to. Susan Sontag said, “One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.” Susan Sontag got a lot of things right.


What do you listen to while you work?

Music is incredibly important in my life. I practically live with headphones glued to my ears — when I work, when I bike (don’t tell my mum), when I work out. So much so that I have various music modalities for different purposes — for reading books mostly classical, lots of Vivaldi; for light reading All Songs Considered, KEXP’s Song of the Day; for writing longer pieces, lots of jazz; and many, many more.

Lately my talented friend Debbie Millman has been sending me some wonderful custom playlists, so I’ve been working to those a lot.

I listen to podcasts quite a bit — mostly Radiolab, Design Matters, Science Times, 99% Invisible, and Philosophy Bites — but I like to give those my full attention, so I don’t listen to them while writing. I do it on the subway, on my bike, at the gym, during flights. They do, however, often give me story ideas, so I supposed they still fall within the spectrum of work listening. Then again, the line between “work” and “life” is virtually nonexistent for me, so practically everything I listen to (or see, or do) feeds into my “work” one way or another.

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

Bike. Headphones. iPad (for ebook purposes only). In that order.


What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I’m of the philosophy that there will always be someone who can do it better than you do — what hope for humanity is there, otherwise? But I do brew excellent kombucha and can do more pushups in a minute than most people. The secret, of these and of any life skill, I believe, is practice and stubbornness.

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

Go the fuck to sleep.

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.


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