Since 2004, Jason Pontin has been the editor in chief of MIT Technology Review, and its publisher since 2005. With dual titles, Jason oversees everything from editorial direction to business strategy. Under his guidance, the more than 100-year-old publication has grown into an international digital media company. How does he get it all done?
In October 2012, Jason led a complete overhaul, flipping the Review's publishing strategy to digital-first. As he explains it: "Print needs to support digital rather than vice-versa now." The switch has been praised as a "roadmap for legacy media's transition to digital". We caught up with Jason to talk about organisation, sleep habits, and so much more.
Name: Jason Pontin
Location: Cambridge, MA
Current mobile device: I have two, which I use equally often. An iPhone 4S, with a badly cracked back, and a sticker that reads "Smashed"; and a somewhat less trashed iPad 2.
Current computer: Again, I have two — in this case, so that I remain familiar with both desktop environments. The first is a very beautiful and beloved MacBook Pro with a 15" Retina display, a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7, and 8 GBs of memory, running Mountain Lion. The other is some kind of Wintel PC tower. Who the hell knows?
I work: Delightedly
What apps/software/tools can't you live without?
Well, the most boring but truthful answer is: MIT Technology Review's content management systems, where I write and edit; and Google's Chrome browser, where I do so much of my reading and research.
But there are a number of other tools, important to my job, that I use less frequently. One is Trello, which our digital development team uses to track projects. And because we are a very data-driven organisation, I pay a lot of attention to software that measures our audience's size and behaviour, such as Google Analytics and DoubleClick, or Omniture.
A self-quantification app that I rely upon for personal health is My Fitness Pal. It counts calories eaten against calories expended, and, although a little crude (particularly about fruit sugars), it's convenient. I'm also interested in tracking my blood oxygen levels and pulse rate as a proxy for general fitness, but I've not found something I really love. There are a number of apps that track blood oxygen using a dongle that sits on the end of your finger, but I'm still experimenting.
What's your workspace like?
My office at MIT Technology Review is the greatest office I have ever had or am likely to have. It's on the corner of the top floor of an office-building at the end of the Longfellow Bridge in Cambridge. From my desk, I can see all the way up the Charles River to Boston University; swiveling my chair, I look out over the Museum of Science to Boston Harbor. At my back is the golden dome of the State House, atop Beacon Hill. From my desk, I watch the changes of the day on the water.
The desk is an old, curved wooden thing that belonged James Killian, who edited Technology Review and founded what became the MIT Press, and who went on to become the President of MIT from 1948 to ‘59. I face two or three computer screens. Beyond my desk is a little seating area with a leather couch, a glass coffee table piled with books and a Neanderthal skull, and two Wassily chairs. Beyond that is a white board, where I scribble down ideas for future stories or issues. There are books everywhere, including a tower of books piled to the ceiling. With so many glass walls, there's little space for pictures, but I borrowed two portraits of Andy Warhol from MIT's List Visual Arts Center.
At home, I've nothing so formal. I just flip open my MacBook Pro on the desk in the drawing room of the townhouse in Charlestown, built in 1835, where I live.
What do you listen to while you work?
I absolutely cannot read or write with music playing. I'm suspicious of those who say they can.
What's your best time-saving trick/life hack?
I remember that after one of my very first interviews in Silicon Valley, Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, complained about the photo-session: "You've just stolen my time, which is the only thing that is truly mine." I've always remembered that, and try to treat my own time and the time of my colleagues with respect.
The two largest sucks upon my time (perhaps of everyone who works in an office?) are email and meetings. For the former, I try to be disciplined and neither send or answer time-wasting email. My colleagues will probably disagree about my claims to email discipline, since I like to send memos that summarise what has been agreed upon or what I want — but I find the record helpful. The memos encourage accountability. For the latter, I just won't attend a meeting that lasts longer than hour, has no agenda, and doesn't end with a clear series of action items.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
Dave Allen, the author of Getting Things Done (known simply as "GTD" to happy members of his cult) says that the simpler the task-collection system the better. So, I just use a Moleskine notebook and a pen. But how you process tasks is a skill that has to be learnt — or, rather, relearned — if you wish to achieve that state of blissful efficiency and transparent openness to new ideas that he calls "a mind like water". For many years, I had his original flow-chart pinned to my wall. I see that Allen has recently updated it with a less elegant iteration.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without?
My Garmin Forerunner 6. It displays distance and pace run, and captures the data so that one can track one's progress (or falling off). I run every day, or nearly every day. Running both calms and energises me. My most creative solutions — to some compositional problem in an essay I am writing, or to a business problem we face — often occur to me as I pace up the river to Harvard.
What's your sleep routine like?
I read late, late into the night, as wife sleeps at my side and dog snores at the foot of our bed. In the mornings, far too early, my four year old wakes me by tickling me — and I regret my indulgence of the night before, like any addict.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Oh, I don't know. That's a very shy-making question. I suppose my mind is both logical and orderly, but also creative. More, my parents paid for a very expensive classical education, so that I know something about the arts and literature, history and economics, and science and technology. That combination of talents and knowledge isn't very common.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I've read that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that "no matter what happened in the world, nothing bad could happen to [him — he] was independent of fate and circumstance." Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, says this thought sustained the philosopher when he was a forward artillery observer on the Eastern Front during the First World War, rewriting his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a trench — which is an extraordinary fact, if true. I've remembered Wittgenstein's dictum when challenged by far less trying circumstances. No matter what happens in the world, nothing bad can happen to me. It's a recipe for courage and perseverance, don't you think?
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.