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. This time round, weekend editor Logan Booker is sharing his tips.
Location: Melbourne, Australia Current gig: Weekend Editor, Technology Network, Allure Media / Game Developer, Screwfly Studios One word that best describes how you work: Eventually Current mobile device: Apple iPhone 4 (jailbroken, iOS 5.0.1) Current computer: Notebook: ASUS UX32VD (i7 model) / Desktop: Core i5 750 (overclocked), 8GB RAM, GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 2x LCDs (1920 x 1080 and 1680 x 1050)
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Visual C# Express 2010. That’s about it.
I’m permanently dissatisfied with the off-the-shelf applications available for Windows so, in the end, I just code up my own flavour of tool. You’ll also have unique requirements that only a custom-made program can satisfy and when this situation occurs, knowing a programming language will take you far.
The best example I can provided and one I’ve mentioned before, is a small application I wrote to help me with my weekend editing work. It just sits in the background, monitoring the clipboard using regular expressions for certain arrangements of HTML tags. When a match is found after a Cut or Copy operation, the program converts the HTML into a form compatible with our content management system’s (CMS) tagging system, so when I hit Paste (or Ctrl+V), I get a properly formatted piece of text that requires little to no massaging.
The tool also has several modes for special situations, say, converting a bunch of raw “img” tags into a gallery or extracting the title of a page from a URL via .NET’s WebClient.
As you can see, there’s nothing I could download from the internet that would provide these specific services, at least, no single tool and if I ever need additional functionality, or something changes with the CMS, I can apply a fix immediately.
Coding in general is a valuable skill. To the right is a flexible, custom online to-do list I wrote for my development studio. I couldn’t find a straightforward off-the-shelf option for PHP that just let you add, tick and delete tasks and so, I just made one myself.
Best advice I can give? Everyone serious about productivity should learn to code.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Fairly ordered, mostly so I can find my notepad when I need it! This setup is a recent development, as my brother just moved into the second bedroom (formerly the study). I took the opportunity to purchase a new desk, which, in hindsight, is probably a bit small to contain my kit. There’s a whiteboard to the left (which I’ll talk about later) and I do use the odd Post-It note, though it’s a rare occurrence.
You’ll notice I have two monitors — pretty much a requirement when you’re coding. One monitor houses the development environment, while the other hosts the running application. It’s also handy for web development (browser on one, IDE on the other) or playing a movie or TV show episode when you need a bit of background noise / imagery.
It’s not visible in the photo, but I keep an assorted array of pens, pencils and highlighters in a small box so there’s always a writing implement when I need it. (Running out of ink evokes a unique kind of frustration).
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
As a programmer, caffeine is a nutritional requirement. I’ve always depended on energy drinks to get my hit when I need it, but for the last three weeks I’ve been cold-brewing coffee and holy heck, is it good stuff. I love iced coffee, but being lactose intolerant, I can’t just pick up a 2L bottle from the supermarket without mentally scarring the porcelain.
So, cold-brewed coffee plus lactose-free milk equals my caffeine shot, without the need for an energy drink. Why is it a shortcut? Because you can cold-brew a massive jug of coffee overnight and then store the resulting filtered liquid in the fridge for a week. When I need to make an iced coffee, I pour one part coffee to one part milk and stir. Saves me having to boil the kettle, brew the coffee in my French press for four minutes and pour… and then wait for it to cool down. Seeing as Melbourne has been sweltering of late, who wants a piping hot coffee in the morning anyway?
On a more literal note, I’ve also come to depend on Windows key + M, which you’ll recognise as the “Minimise all” shortcut. I tend to have a lot of applications open at once — programming IDEs for various languages, a browser to reference resources such as MSDN and Stack Exchange (or to test the odd web page), Photoshop and a bunch of miscellaneous, usually hand-coded tools. Being able to get to my desktop or “reorder” my windows is very helpful.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
An old-fashioned notepad and pen. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as finishing a task, grabbing a pen and scratching it off with several brisk, horizontal strokes. It’s a feeling I’ve yet to replicate with an online tool or application. For me, this relatively primitive motion is a core part of marking said to-do as “to-done”.
I also find myself sketching out problems to visualise them better, or simply doodling to mentally unwind and having a notepad and writing implement on hand means instantaneous feedback. I don’t have a stylus and using a mouse just isn’t the same, so I’ll be keeping the stationery section of my local newsagents turning a profit for the foreseeable future.
That said, I do have the awful habit of firing up Notepad to jot down, well, notes and other points and then using that to track my activities. Analysing this behaviour, I tend to do it for tasks that I find actually have sub-tasks and need to be broken up, but aren’t so vital I need to commit them somewhere permanent.
One recent experiment I’m conducting is the use of a small whiteboard mounted near my desk. I reserve the board for high priority tasks so they’re never out of sight. This includes pinning bills and other important documents to its surface with magnets. From time to time I misplace my notepad or it gets hidden under other odds and bobs. The whiteboard, however, is always visible.
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What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Predicting the time, as long as I’ve seen a clock at least once during that day. Daylight savings has the tendency to throw my chrono-ESP off, but after a month I’ve usually adjusted.
I also have the ability to summon intense levels of focus. I can code for six hours straight and never miss a beat, which is awesome, disturbing and a little unhealthy.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I’m programming or performing a task that requires structured thought or problem-solving, I usually work in complete silence as I’ve found lyrics completely mess up my ability to code. On the other hand, when I embark on a creative endeavour — writing, art, 3D modelling, etc — I like to throw on some music.
Having nearly crushed the life out of my current tunes, I’ve started investigating Pandora and Spotify for fresh musical meat. I’ve yet to unearth any gems, but I did stumble across The 1975 while randomly browsing SoundCloud.
What’s your sleep routine like?
For the last couple of months, it’s been fairly regular, but for the past week or so it’s been all over the place. This is partially because we’ve started ramping up development on our next game and because my partner is off in Jordan for six months working for the UN. So I have a little more flexibility when it comes to working hours.
Having occupied a number of 9-to-5 jobs, one constant has always been clear — I’m not built for a 9-to-5 job. I’m far more productive working to my own schedule and my body’s rhythms and it means I can better schedule exercise, meals and errands around what I need to do.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
Introvert, definitely, when I was younger, but I once I hit about 19 and developed a bit of confidence I found it easier to socialise, make friends and further my goals. When I made the decision to quit my job in 2011 and become an independent developer, that was confidence also — in my abilities, experience and knowledge.
However, working from home constantly and sitting in front of a PC most of my days has made me retreat into my shell. I still see friends and participate in regular gaming nights, but time spent socialising has plummeted. This is something I’m working on, as there’s nothing worse for creativity and personal development than isolation.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’m going to paraphrase here and say: “Don’t work on two things at once, or they’ll both suffer.”
This isn’t a micro thing — go ahead and multitask if you can. This is coming from a project/macro view. Using games development as an example, when you’re designing gameplay for a new title there’s a desire to do everything or, better put, too much. If you’re making a shooter, then make a shooter, not a shooter where you can also zoom out and control units from a super-advanced tactical view.
When you have limited resources, always make one excellent thing, not two mediocre ones. Even if you somehow make two perfect parts, you’re going to find that people gravitate to one part and not the other and they’ll think the whole experience is average as a result.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
There’s one concept I learned as a developer that I apply to a great many things — prototyping. When a game enters pre-production, the lead designer is required to produce some sort of document describing the gameplay in detail. While I am a writer, I hated putting these together because a) nobody ever reads them, instead, you’ll just get asked questions b) it becomes outdated on a weekly basis and c) what looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily work in reality.
I’m a big fan of rapid prototyping — essentially diving in and getting on with it. The benefits are that you literally learn by doing, you get results near instantly and it’s far more enjoyable than typing a 50-100 page document. The disadvantages are that it doesn’t work for projects where planning is an absolute must, you’ll often throw out work again and again — which can be demoralising — and if you stick with prototyping as your primary methodology, you’ll end up with a solution that feels hacked together.
So there’s definitely a balance to be found. While I’m explaining this from the point of view of a programmer, it can apply to writing as well. If you’re having trouble planning an essay or report, just start typing a draft instead — but not from the beginning. Jump to the middle or end of the document. You may end up rewriting what you produce, but at the very least you’ll have something down. It’s a good way to perform a “brain dump”, so to speak.