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, US writer Alan Henry running through his favourite gear and tips for productivity and fun.
The last time we did this series I was very much a cross-platform guy. Most of my hardware choices remain the same, but I’ve been making some small changes here and there as I get more comfortable with my flow.
Location: Washington, DC
Current Gig: Writer, Lifehacker
One word that best describes how you work: Efficient
Current mobile device: Motorola Droid Bionic, running Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich.) Also in the drawer: an iPad 3 (iOS 6.1), a Motorola Droid (Original), running MIUI (Gingerbread), and a rooted Nook Simple Touch.
Current computer: Ganymede, my 15″ MacBook Pro (2010), Deneb, my custom-built Windows PC (Win 7), and when I’m really bored, Europa, my 15″ MacBook Pro (2008) running Ubuntu.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
On the desktop side, it would be a pretty bad day if I couldn’t use Google Docs/Drive, or fire up Sparrow (Postbox on my Windows machine) to keep my multiple Gmail accounts under control. Luckily, all it’s taken up to this point is an itchy delete finger and effective Gmail filters. It would also be a pretty bad day if I couldn’t use Dashlane to manage my passwords and logins. I gave it a trial run not too long ago, and really fell in love with it. I still like LastPass, but I’ve been loving Dashlane’s secure checkout options lately, and it’s free.
Reeder keeps me up to date on the news both on my Mac and on my iPad, and if I have a choice, I tend to read my feeds on my iPad. On the Android side, I don’t know where I’d be without Camera ZOOM FX, since I use it far more often than I carry my beloved Sony Alpha NEX-5N around with me. Oh, and of course Pandora, since I plug my phone into my head unit in the car anyway — Pandora has all but replaced the radio at home and on the road for me. Yay for unlimited data!
What’s your workspace setup like?
It’s a little cleaned up for this photo (I usually keep a few toys on my desk just to fiddle with when I’m thinking) but I try to keep it as tidy as possible. The lamp there pulls double duty as a light source and a webcam stand — my Loigtech HD C920 is mounted there using a Joby Gorillapod, so when I do Google Hangouts or Skype calls the camera is close to my face instead of on top of my monitor.
The core of my setup hasn’t changed, but I added a couple of Space Bar organisers (when they were much cheaper and still in stock) to get a little extra space for keyboards to slide under when I’m not testing a new one. On my Mac, I swapped out my Apple Wired Keyboard for a Logitech Illuminated Keyboard and rather like it. Still rocking the Performance Mouse MX though.
On the Windows side, I upgraded to a 256GB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD last year, and can vouch for how much of a performance improvement an SSD brings. My Logitech G9x has taken a backseat to the wireless Razer Mamba, and my old Logitech G19 finally died, so I opted for a more modest Logitech G510 instead (although here you see the Moshi Luna I’ve been testing, which is a really nice keyboard if you like scissor keys — it’s not even bad for gaming, which surprised me.)
Out of frame is my home server/HTPC. I got into the nitty gritty there last year, but I’ve been meaning to rebuild it or buy a NAS instead. Also out of frame is my Herman Miller Embody office chair — probably the most expensive purchase I’ve made for my workspace. When for work and play, you need a good chair.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
Being fearless with the delete key. Seriously, I was pretty good at keeping my inboxes trim and responding when I needed to, but when I joined the team at Lifehacker those skills were really put to the test. I still try to reply whenever I can, but if I didn’t have such an itchy delete finger, I’d be drowning in email. My biggest time-saver though, one I suggest everyone use: Chill out, relax and do your thing. Angry at something, or someone on the internet is wrong? Resist the urge to engage and think instead about how much time you’d waste on it. Then move on and do awesome stuff instead. It’s a better use of our limited time.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I’m currently using Astrid on my Android phone and iPad (Astrid notifications are pretty much the only ones I allow, and I’ve gotten accustomed to calling a line of tiny Astrid icons in my notification bar a “squid attack”). I even keep it open as a pinned tab. I continue to use Wunderkit as my personal idea bank, even though it’s going away soon. I’m still looking for a new idea bank — considering Asana or even Wunderlist, since many of Wunderkit’s features are in Wunderlist 2, but I’m always on the lookout for a better to-do app.
I also use Springpad to keep track of things around the web that I want to make note of — recipes, gadgets to look into, products to save up for, things like that. The only list I tend not to use something digital for is my shopping list — I’ve tried, but for some reason I just can’t get into it. For that it’s pen and paper, every time.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
Even though I have a (sorely underpowered) XBMC HTPC, I use my Xbox 360 to stream various media sources. I’m more of a PC gamer, but when I need to get away from the keys, my consoles are there for me. I have an Apple TV in the bedroom, but it sees less use. Other than that, my newly-acquired Fitbit has been instrumental to getting me off my butt more often, which I definitely need to do. Oh, and I can’t leave out my Sony Alpha NEX-5N, one of the best purchases I’ve made in a long time. I love that camera.
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What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I don’t know if I’m better than everyone else, but I’m a pretty mean typist. I mean, I type really fast, and touch-type at that. I can hold entire conversations with people, making eye contact, and my fingers fly across the keyboard at the same time. It’s fairly handy.
I’m also kind of a clean freak — I clean as I go along when I’m cooking, I’m a little obsessive about mise en place, and I’m pretty well known for having all of the dishes in the dishwasher and ready to clean by the time I’m finished plating dinner. The same is true for everything else: I try to do things when they occur to me and as quickly as possible so I can get them off my plate, and that’s how I tend to approach everything: life, work, play. That way I can free up my mind to think about something else.
What do you listen to while you work?
Pandora fills the quiet gaps for me, and I happily pay for a Pandora One subscription. When I’m not listening to one of my 15 or so Pandora stations, I head over to the previously mentioned Noon Pacific (if you don’t get his weekly playlists every week, you’re missing out) or another favorite, This Is My Jam. I also really dig Relaux‘s curated playlists, which I’ve also praised before. If I’m head-down writing, I’ve probably saved a two-hour Freefall Radio podcast or two to help get the words flowing. Give it a try and subscribe — you won’t be disappointed.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I have the early shift at Lifehacker, so I’m up every morning around 6am so we can start our broadcast day at 7am. For that reason I try to be in bed around 11pm or so the night before, just to get a decent amount of sleep. That will probably surprise my old coworkers considering how I hated being in the office early — I’m something of a night owl, and definitely stay up late on the weekends. I tend to feel more creative and connected after dark, so I tackle most of my personal projects in the wee hours.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m the most talkative introvert you may ever meet. I used to think I was an extrovert because I enjoyed being around people so much, but even though I love it, I need to retreat to a private space to recharge, not the other way around. When I plan trips to visit friends or go to a party with people I don’t know, I’m usually stressed out beforehand, even if I actually really want to go. You wouldn’t know it once I’m there, but I probably agonised over it before I left. That’s not to say I don’t love it once I’m there — I just need a kick in the pants to get out the door and have a good time sometimes.
Is there anyone you’d kill to see answer these same questions?
We’ve had some really incredible people do How I Work, but I’d love to see how Maya Angelou or Nikki Giovanni stay productive, or maybe current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, since all three of them are people of note that I’ve looked up to since I was a child. Speaking of science, I’ve been following Brian Greene’s work since I was an undergrad. I’m curious how he gets things done, and if it’s anything like the offices of other physicists I know.
I’d also love to see how Alton Brown works, partially because I hope he’d answer our questions on Post It notes like he does on Twitter. Oh, and just for kicks? I’d love to know how Hayao Miyazaki gets things done. He’s extremely prolific and very busy, but also makes time to recharge and nurture his creativity, even when he has a billion things to do and projects to work on.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Back in 2006, I was struggling with living a kind of double life. On the one hand, I was working in tech and going to grad school, trying to decide if I wanted to work in an office with enterprise technology for a living. On the other hand, I was already writing on my own, and really wanted to that into a career. I reached out to Xeni Jardin, founding partner and co-editor of Boing Boing (still one of my favourite sites), on a whim for advice as a fledgling writer looking for tips from someone more experienced. She replied:
Find untold stories, things that fascinate you, and do your best to tell them honestly. There’s so little truth in the world these days, any small morsel of it is a precious thing that will be appreciated, and find a grateful audience.
Don’t look for “big” stories, just look for ones that matter to you. The more you work at it, the better your work will be, and the more people will see it.
I’m still working on it, but every day I appreciate her words. I’d also share a quote from the 8th century father of Zen, Shitou Xiqian: “The vast sky is not hindered by the floating clouds.” Something else I try to remember, especially in this line of work.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
I’ve often been accused of being a robot. Mostly it’s because I have a nasty habit of responding to emails in the middle of the night, staying up late working, writing dozens of articles on multiple sites, and in general looking like I never sleep. I have no comment on these baseless accusations.