“I go through to-do list programs like they’re shampoo.” It’s no surprise that someone as busy as Christina Xu has yet to find the perfect manager for her insane schedule. As global coordinator for The Awesome Foundation (which gives monthly grants to projects around the world) and core team member at Breadpig (which sells a bunch of cool stuff and donates the profits), it’s a wonder she ever finds time to sleep. We caught up with Christina to find out how she does it all.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Current gig: Midwifing crowdfunding projects at Breadpig; being the global coordinator for Awesome Foundation
Current computer: MacBook Air
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S4
One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
My most dependable tools are pretty predictable. I jot down ideas and take notes with Notational Velocity. A project is not really real to me unless I’ve started a couple of Google Spreadsheets and a Dropbox folder for it. I’ve been getting really obsessed with Trello recently, and I love that there’s an Android app for it that’s not just functional but actually looks nice too. It’s no coincidence that most of these apps have social components to them. I learned a long time ago that peer pressure is really and truly the only thing that makes me tick, so putting my work somewhere my collaborators and clients can see it keeps me accountable.
I do a lot of paperwork for my various jobs, so HelloSign has been a godsend for quickly signing forms and sending them off. I’m not sure how I’d ever keep my receipts straight if it weren’t for Expensify. TripIt keeps track of all my flights and tells me exactly everything I need to know. My favourite secret weapon for events is Proximate: it’s still in development, but it’s a really great tool that does everything from registration to community analytics.
On the boring-but-crucial front, I recently switched Breadpig’s benefits broker to MaxwellHealth and have been so thrilled with the service. It’s amazing what a nice interface and tech-savvy staff can do!
What’s your workspace like?
When I’m at home, I try to use the standing desk in my bedroom most of the time but will occasionally succumb to the laying desk (AKA my bed) nearby. When I’m travelling, I opt for well-lit coworking spaces or cafes — I really don’t need anything other than my laptop and fast Wi-Fi to do 95 per cent of my work.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that different types of tasks require different types of energy and offer different kinds of rewards. For example, repetitive work can be mindless, but it’s also a great way to ease into a workflow or sooth the nerves after stressful meetings. Making big decisions that will affect other people is particularly exhausting for me, so I only try to tackle one or two of those a day. Every Monday when I make my (mostly futile) attempt to plan out my week, I try to keep all this in mind. It kind of feels like planning a menu!
Pictured at right: A section of Christina’s standing desk.
Also, I find it incredibly helpful as a self-employed person to set hard boundaries for when (or where) work happens. I never take meetings or promise anything on weekends unless it’s a dire emergency, or I think I’ll really enjoy doing it. Otherwise, I’d always be half-working, half-slacking 100 per cent of the time, which is a terrible feeling!
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
My Zojirush water boiler which sings happy songs and holds hot water at the perfect temperature for making green tea. Analogue kettles are downright barbaric in comparison. As an old-Asian-lady-in-training, I’ve even taken to just drinking hot water straight up with nothing added, which means I’m going to shrink two feet and start wearing fannypacks any day now.
I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my hot pot, without which winter would be completely intolerable.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Translating ideas and concepts between people with different domains of knowledge and/or set of reference points. Growing up as a 1.5th generation immigrant, code-switching comes very naturally to me, and I like to put it to use as a mediator and organiser.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I go through to-do list programs like they’re shampoo — most of them lose their effectiveness after a month — but Trello shows potential. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to a system that can accommodate the many contexts I switch between every day. On particularly hectic days, I pull out a checklist memo pad and write down the big things I need to do so I can’t conveniently forget about them.
Any to-do program is only as good as your ability to stay honest and realistic with it, so I’ve found that setting aside some regular time to prune the list of long-neglected cruft is important.
Pictured above: Christina’s Trello workspace.
What do you listen to while you work?
Standing still at my desk for a long term is brutal on my knees, so I listen to dance music to keep bouncing around. I’m way too picky to use music recommendation services; instead, I rely on mixtapes and tracks from my favourite producers. This mixtape was my go-to for fall, and now this EP by Brooklyn-based producer Dubbel Dutch is my plan for surviving the winter. I wish I could listen to more podcasts, but I can’t pay attention to them to save my life!
What are you currently reading?
I absolutely tore through the Hunger Games trilogy over Thanksgiving, even though the writing is a bit cringe-worthy. On a more substantial front, I’m about halfway through Junkyard Planet, a fascinating look at the global scrap industry.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I think that most binaries are oversimplistic, and this introvert/extrovert one is no exception — there are many different types of social interactions that exist, and everyone has different tolerances for each of them. I can spend all day, every day with my closest friends and not feel drained, but five minutes at a large social function where I’m forced to make small talk can be overwhelming.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m a bit of an insomniac and I’m more likely to get stuff done extremely late than extremely early, so it’s lucky that I set my own schedule. I prefer to wake up around 9 and catch up on Twitter/Instagram in bed for a while. The two giant east-facing windows that blast my room with light usually do a pretty good job of making sure I’m awake in the morning.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Tricia Wang: anthropologist, neighbour, and post-it note ninja.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My friend Jess Goldfin once told me: “You don’t ask a fussy toddler whether she wants to put her shoes on: you ask which shoe she wants to put on first.” This is the most concise way to express something that I’ve learned the hard way so many times, and is so applicable to everything from community organising to UX design.
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.