Ryan North says he has “basically the best job ever,” and we can’t help but agree. As the creator of Dinosaur Comics, Ryan has been churning out the beloved webcomic nearly every weekday since 2003. He’s also the guy behind the Adventure Time comic series and To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-path version of Hamlet that recently became Kickstarter’s most funded publishing project ever.
When he’s not comic-ing, Ryan uses his professional programming skills to build stuff like Project Wonderful, an online ad service, and Oh No Robot, a searchable text database for comics. We stole a few minutes of Ryan’s busy schedule to chat about apps, gadgets, Patrick Stewart and more.
Current gig: Writer and programmer! Writing projects include Dinosaur Comics, the Adventure Time comics, and To Be or Not To Be. I’m also a computer programmer, and Project Wonderful is the advertising network I wrote after wishing there was one out there that didn’t suck.
Location: Sunny, unseasonably warm Toronto, Canada
Current mobile device: I’ve got a Samsung Galaxy S III which is the first phone I don’t hate. My previous phone was a Motorola abomination and before that an iPhone 3G. I don’t really upgrade phones that often, but the past two died and I took the opportunity to upgrade.
Current computer: I have a Lenovo ThinkPad, mainly because they’re one of the few laptops that support three monitors via a dock. My other machine is one that I built myself, parts being swapped out and upgraded over the years. It used to have a floppy drive in it that went way back to when I was six, but it never got use and eventually the motherboards didn’t have connectors for it anyway.
One word that best describes how you work: Distractedly
What’s apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
There are a few things that have changed how I work. Dropbox is great both for painless, automatic backup but also for keeping data in sync on different machines. I do most of my writing (both words and code) in Textpad — it’s a pretty great text editor that supports regular expressions. I’d include my phone as one of the tools — I use it to jot down ideas wherever I have them. I used to email them to myself, but Evernote solved that problem nicely too.
I’ve been using Winamp for music for years and years, mainly because it supports global hotkeys, so I can pause, skip, rewind and so on by pressing, say, CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+PAGEDOWN in whatever program I’m in. That sounds dumb but it’s great — it means I can control the music without losing focus on what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll skip songs without even noticing it: it’s like second nature. I’m all about efficiency. I have the task bar at the top of the screen on my Windows machine, because I mapped it out and if my hand is on the mouse, odds are it will be closer to the top of the screen than the bottom, so by having the task bar at the top too I save valuable milliseconds.
Basically put me alone in a room with a computer and internet access and I can be happy for days. Weeks? I guess I’d need food and water at some point.
What’s your workspace like?
I work mainly from home in my office, where I’ve got a desk (I’d love to get a standing desk just so I can move around more) and a fancy office chair that I spent a lot of money on. After my bed, it’s the piece of furniture I spend the most time in, so I figured it was worth it. Sometimes I’ll go into the Project Wonderful offices — there’s a similar desk there, but there’s other people too, if I’m craving social interaction. I am the #1 fan of multiple monitors: two is odd because it means you’re always turning your head to the side the monitor is on, and three is a really nice sweet spot. Centre screen for work, left screen for research/status stuff, and right screen for email and Twitter. If I’m really focused, I’ll minimise the email.
I usually work to music, but if something’s not working, I’ll turn the music off. I’ve tried coffee shops once or twice but it’s not exactly productive times for me. I work best alone, with distractions that I can manage and control.
What do you listen to while you work?
Music! Tons and tons of music. Here’s the thing: anything with words or actual content will be distracting, so NPR/CBC/Savage Love podcasts are out if I’m trying to be productive. And music that is super awesome is out too, because it will be distracting how good it is. I generally listen to “just okay” music when I have to focus, and save the awesome stuff where I don’t have to be as productive. I really love mashups because I really love listening to more than one song at the same time I guess!
What’s your best time-saving trick?
Multitasking. I have a dog which means at least one to two hours a day is spent outside walking, or standing around at the dog park. I used to think “Oh no, wasted time!” but now I use the time to work out plots, figure out jokes, that sort of thing. It’s lower-intensity work and lets me recharge, but I also get to be productive while I’m recharging and playing with all the dogs at the park. I’ll talk to myself while I’m walking too, because I like dialogue to sound natural, and saying it out loud helps with that. It makes me look a little crazy, but whatever. Really I guess my greatest life hack is to not care what strangers think about you!
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I’ve tried a few, but I always come back to my tried-and-true “todo.txt” that lives on my desktop.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
Glasses! Otherwise I can’t easily see my phone and computer and it’s so sad.
What’s everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I believe I can state with authority that I have spent more time thinking about the novelisation of Back To The Future than any other alive human. My page-by-page review is my proof of this. I know you wanted an “everyday thing” but who among us can truly say they don’t think about Back to the Future at least once per day?
What’s your sleep routine like?
When I was a kid I had to get up at 6 to catch a 7 AM bus into school, and once I started grad school I relaxed that to 7 AM. So I’m usually up at 7 sharp (alarm set so I can hear the news) and then in bed when I start to get sleepy, which is normally between 11 and midnight. I really value my sleep. And I wish it were somehow super awesome to say “I really value my sleep”.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
Oh, total introvert. But I love pals and that slides me more towards extrovert, I guess? I just want all my friends and I to live in a giant house which I call “Pal Mansion.” Is that so wrong?
Fill in the blank: I’d kill to see ________ answer these same questions.
Patrick Stewart, but only if I’m the one asking the questions. And he invites me over to his place for the interview. And we start talking and he asks me in his stentorian voice about my hopes and dreams and we talk about our lives and loves and fears, and it’s just — it’s just so real.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Never stop learning.” Also “if you find a job you like it won’t feel like work”. So let’s assume at some point in the past my father pulled me aside and said “Never stop learning, also, on another topic, if you find a job you like then it won’t feel like work. Randy out, yo.”
Anything else you want to add for readers/fans?
I love getting email, but there’s only so much time in the day to write back to it, so please don’t hate me if I never do. I have such good intentions!
We’ve asked 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.