When journalist Clive Thompson tweeted that he was "kind of slow" in terms of productivity, I had serious doubts. For a writer with so much on his plate (including gigs at Wired and The New York Times Magazine, as well as a book coming out this fall), he must have a few tricks up his sleeve, right?
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Turns out, Clive's version of "slow" is anything but. I caught up with him to find out what gadgets, apps and inspirations keep him cruising along.
Location: Brooklyn, NY Current gig: contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired; author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better, coming out with Penguin in September Current mobile device: iPhone 4S Current computer: MacBook Pro primarily, although I also have an old Dell runing Ubuntu, and another old Dell running XP. One word that best describes how you work: "bursty"
What apps/software/tools can't you live without?
I'm a pack rat when it comes to research. I like to save everything, because you never know when it'll be useful. I write primarily long-form magazine pieces and books, each of which takes months to report and sometimes years to gestate, so I often find myself realising an interview or study I encountered three years earlier is suddently useful now. So I lean heavily on tools for finding and saving everything.
For face-to-face interviews, I use a Livescribe pen, which is invaluable even though the software is kind of creaky. I use Skype out for most of my phone interviews, and Call Recorder to save those files. I have a Scrivener database for my research — whenever I read anything interesting, I make a note about it and paste in any relevant passages. The note-writing is a crucial part of the task for me, because it requires me to slow down and make sense of what I’m reading, instead of just blindly clipping and saving everything. I also use DEVONthink to mirror a lot of my Scrivener notes and store the full text of the thousands of scientific papers and articles I’ve read and found worth saving.
When I’m reading, I write lots of marginalia — again as much for sense-making as for retrieval. When reading in PDF format, I either use Acrobat Professional on my desktop or iAnnotate PDF on my iPad. My book reading is split probably 50/50 between paper and digital books. For digital books, I mostly read in Kindle or Stanza on my iPad or phone and export the notes and highlights locally. I use Project Gutenberg and Google Books a ton for reading out-of-copyright digital books; indeed, my reading probably has a huge pre-1923 bias because so much amazing stuff is so easily available before copyright laws tightened up.
For paper notes and marginalia, I’m addicted to Palomino Blackwing pencils — the lead is gorgeous and almost as dark as ink! I’m also shamelessly addicted to Blackwing Long Point Sharpeners. When I’m writing, I do much of my organising on paper, but almost any paper will do; I don’t have much of a preference.
Pictured above: Some of Clive's favourite tools.
For books, I also rely heavily on the Brooklyn Public Library system. My local branch is only a few blocks away, and the main branch — a bike ride away — has JSTOR and other academic databases, a godsend for science research.
For collaborating with other people — editors, researchers, other writers — I often use Google Docs and Dropbox. That’s just for stuff that isn’t sensitive or where the privacy of interviewees isn't an issue. If privacy and security are an issue, I keep all the files local and stored in TrueCrypt volumes.
I text like a maniac, particularly with my wife, and probably two-thirds of my texts are written with Siri, particularly if I’m walking around the neighbourhood. I wish there were a better voice-transcription tool, because I’m unsettled by Apple’s long-term storage of my Siri utterances. I also frequently use it to dictate notes and ideas that occur to me while I’m away from my desk. When I’m at my computer I sometimes use Dragon Dictate to dictate notes or passages from paper books.
For keeping abreast of news and the people I’m interested in, I use Bloglovin for RSS, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (a bit). I’m old-school with daily news. I still read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in paper every day, though I read a gazillion odd niche blogs and sites online too.
I rely on Youtube heavily when I’m making things or fixing things. I’d probably have cut off every finger I have with high-powered tools if I hadn’t first watched maker and fixer videos to learn safe techniques.
I use Google Translate amazingly often, sometimes daily, because it’s baked into Chrome for autotranslating when I’m surfing foreign-language web sites. It’s terrible for many languages (like Mandarin) but shockingly good with the European romance ones.
I use Time Machine religiously to back up my data, which also saved me when my Mac’s hard drive suddenly failed a few months ago.
What's your workspace like?
My work is split into research and writing. I do a lot of interviews, which are either face-to-face out in the field, or on Skype using a headset at home. My “office” is a desk crammed into the corner of my bedroom. It’s nothing fancy — just a regular office chair and an IKEA desk. When my back starts to ache, I’ll carry my laptop downstairs and work standing up on the counter in my kitchen. If my research involves a lot of reading I’ll go to a cafe or the library too. For writing, I do short pieces at my desk, but for long ones I need to be in a cafe: The extra background noise seems to help!
What's your best time-saving trick?
I don’t know if you’d call it “time saving” so much as “time generating", but I go mostly offline on the weekends. I generally don’t check email from Friday night until Monday morning. I still text like a freak, because that’s how my social life is organised! But by staying off email I also find I tend to not engage in social media much either. This leaves my weekends free for a lot of slower thinking and reading that’s a nice break from the zingy pace of being at a screen all the work week.
I also tend to engage in social media in periodic massive dives, instead of darting over every few minutes and distracting myself all day long. Instead of checking Twitter a few times an hour, I check it only a few times a day, and if I get busy I might just forget to check it for days at a time. I’ll ignore a useful blog for weeks and weeks, then sit down and spend a few hours reading everything that happened in the last two months. Fortunately, while my work requires me to pay attention to the news, my writing and research goes very, very slowly — so for the purpose of my research, it doesn’t really matter if I follow a breaking news story hours, days, or even weeks later. Basically I try to decouple myself from the daily news cycle as much as possible. I turn off the alerts for every single piece of social media I use.
That said, I still manage to spend way too much time online.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
My to-do lists are all just plain-text — a single text file on whatever computer I’m using, and sometimes a piece of paper if I’m out in the field. I’ve tried endless to-do apps and none of them ever worked for me!
For timed events and meetings, I rely heavily on Google Calendar. This is one time when alerts are very useful for me: I have Google Calendar set up to email me 12 hours before a meeting, then text me one hour before. I space out easily, so this is life-saving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve totally forgotten about a meeting until I get a text message reminding me I’m supposed to be in the city in an hour!
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without?
Those Palomino Blackwing pencils. They're so delightful they make me want to write more often by hand, which is useful in its own way. My thinking moves in slightly different modes when I write by hand versus writing on a keyboard, so it's like a form of cognitive diversity.
Pictured above: Clive's workspace.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I doubt I'm better at any single thing than anyone else. I read a lot of poetry, and while that's a pleasant/obnoxious enough thing to brag about, I doubt it's a habit people wish they were "better" at.
What do you listen to while you work?
Silence! I almost never listen to music while working. Vocals utterly distract me. I very occasionally listen to classical while doing research. Recently I've been loving Zoe Keating's Into the Trees.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I'm 80 per cent extrovert, 20 per cent introvert.
What's your sleep routine like?
I am a night owl all the way. I can’t get a single blessed piece of work done before 11am, except for drinking coffee and reading the news and dorking around online. If I didn’t have children to get to school in the morning I’d probably stay up until 2am or 3am every day and sleep until 10am. My best work hours are often from 8.30pm, after my kids are in bed, until 1am.
Fill in the blank. I'd kill to see _______ answer these same questions.
E.E. Cummings. I've been reading his Complete Poems from 1904 to 1962, and his productivity is completely insane and stunningly high quality. How the hell did he do it? A lot of authors' complete-works editions include plenty of filler, but not here. Cummings takes pretty much every single poem and knocks it flaming out of the park.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
“If you want to understand what’s going on in the world, get out from behind your desk.” This is advice specific to reporters, but it extends to a lot of other fields too. Early on in my career a lot of long-time, old-school reporters told me this. They were right. These days it’s easier than ever to feel you know how the world works from sitting at your desk, because there’s such a welter of knowledge on tap. But there’s no substitute for seeing things and talking to people.
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.