Our annual How We Work roundup, where Lifehacker staffers and contributors share their favourite tips and tools for better productivity, continues. Today: Alan Henry.
The last time we did this series I was rocking Android and iOS, Windows and OS X, switching on the fly pretty much every day. No change there, but there have been some additions to my mobile family, and I’ve made some tweaks to my workspace. I’ll try to talk about what’s changed between then and now.
Location: Washington, DC
Current Gig: Writer for Lifehacker
One word that best describes how you work: Tactically
Current mobile device: Moto X (2013 model, running Android 4.4 Kit Kat). Also in the drawer: a OnePlus One (running Android 5.0 Lollipop), a Nexus 5 (running Android 5.0 Lollipop), an iPad 3 (iOS 7), a Motorola Droid Bionic, an OG Motorola Droid, 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?
My day tends to open and close with Google Drive, but while last year I was a Sparrow holdout, this year I’ve moved on to Airmail, which I enjoy very much to keep my multiple Google accounts under control (I’ve stuck with Postbox on my Windows machine). I still use Asana to keep track of my article ideas and pet projects, but I’ve moved to Todoist for day-to-day to-dos. More on that later.
On the mobile front, the biggest change is that I just have so many phones now. I picked up a Nexus 5 before an international trip last summer, and found I really loved using it, especially abroad. I kept it, used it for Lollipop testing before it came out, and still use it as a secondary device. Then I had a chance to pick up a 64GB OnePlus One, so I did, and I don’t regret that one bit either. It’s a great device — a little big for my tastes, but it’s perfect for use as a kind of portable mini-tablet. That doesn’t mean my old Moto X is obsolete though — touchless controls are amazing, and it’s still the phone that wakes me up in the morning and the last thing I plug in to charge at night.
What’s your workspace setup like?
So there have been a couple of big changes to my workspace! If you remember, last year I had my Macbook Pro sitting on a laptop stand to the right of a pair of 24″ Dell 2407WFP displays, which I still love, but I parted with them (don’t worry, they’re in good company just across the room from me) in favour of a 30″ Monoprice IPS display in the centre, and the pair of 27″ Monoprice monitors on either sides. (I know, I predicted this last year.) I shut the lid on Ganymede, my 2010 Macbook Pro, (for some reason Yosemite is hell on its GPU, so trying to run two displays slows the thing to a crawl) and put it under one of my Spacebar organisers, and have it hooked up to one of the 27″ panels.
I’m still (yes, still) proud of my lamp-plus-camera mount: It 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 and far away.
My primary Windows machine, Deneb, is much the same as it was a few years back, but with a few notable upgrades: She’s gained a pair of SSDs, one OCZ Vertex 4 256GB SSD that serves as the boot drive, and a 512GB Crucial MX100 SSD that’s pretty much just for games. There’s still a 1TB 7200RPM Western Digital in there for other files, downloads and storage as well.
As many of you know, I have a few semi-addictions in my life: headphones, mechanical keyboards, and mice. Right now, on the mechanical keyboard route, I picked up a Corsair K70 RGB over at Massdrop not too long ago for my Windows PC, and I’ve been wiling away hours building and downloading profiles for its RGB backlighting. Over on my Mac, I’ve been using a Cooler Master CM Storm Novatouch TKL, and while I’m not normally a huge fan of tenkeyless keyboards (I actually love the numpad), I’ve really enjoyed using it. Something about the feel of Cooler Master’s “Hybrid” switches makes it really quiet and easy to type on for long periods, which is perfect for writing.
On the mouse side of things, I’m still using a Logitech Performance MX on my Mac (it’s a perfect working mouse) and over on my Windows PC, I’ve been a Logitech G602 Wireless Gaming Mouse recently. I actually have a Hyperion Fury in a box next to me, and I’ve heard great things about the Proteus Core, but right now the G602 is a solid mouse with great performance, even wirelessly. It will take some tempting to get me to drape another cable across my desk again.
Of course, I say this every year, but the shots here are a touch cleaner than I normally keep my desk — I usually have a few toys and puzzles out to fiddle with while I’m thinking. Oh, and I may as well come clean – I have a whole drawer full of mice in the filing cabinet next to my desk, and a foot locker full of keyboards right by my feet, so…yeah, I have a lot of them.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
As my duties around team Lifehacker have changed (I’m doing much more editing than writing these days) I’ve found that it’s become even more important to tackle your to-dos and your own projects as fiercely as you possibly can, whenever you have the time. You will, I repeat, will, get more work to do. You’re never “done”. There will always be something else, and if there isn’t something else, something’s wrong and you need to find something else. When you have time, use it.
For some people, myself included, this is why procrastination can kill. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first person to tell you that being lazy is a powerful weapon in your productivity arsenal, but don’t let it backfire on you. Use your time now so you can laze about later.
Finally, one thing I’m going to point out again that I know I’ve said before, but time is precious. We talk a lot about productivity around here, but this is worth stressing:
Productivity isn’t about just getting more shit done. It’s about getting the shit you have to get done finished so you can spend more time doing the shit you want to do.
Whether that’s spending time with your family, working on your passion projects, talking to your spouse, playing with your kids, playing video games, reading a book, seeing the world, eating fine food and drinking nice wine — whatever it is, your time is precious. Spend it doing things that enrich, inspire, challenge and empower you. Don’t settle for anything less. Be fearless with your time and energy. It’s all we really have.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Remember that curse of me using services destined to shut down? Still going. I still use Asana as my idea bank, with different boards for article and feature ideas, pet projects and a few other secret initiatives I’m not talking about just yet.
For day-to-day to-dos and reminders, I’ve switched to Todoist. It’s just the best at handling recurring events, reminders, custom recurrences (every month on the 15th, every Monday/Tuesday/Friday and so on). While its design is definitely a bit spartan compared to the likes of Any.DO and Wunderlist, it has sticking power, and that’s important.
For everything else, like shopping lists, long-term checklists, packing lists, notes (like X reps/weight at the gym), and other quick notes and reminders to myself, I’m all about Google Keep, which is incredibly underrated.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
In the past year, I’ve actually invested a fair bit into my kitchen. I mean, we have three slow cookers now, and it’s not horribly uncommon for all of them to be going at once (which is horrible if you’re trying to get work done in the room just beyond the kitchen, let me tell you. I picked up a Kitchen Aid stand mixer at the end of last year, so that’s upped my baking game a good bit, and I was gifted a new burr grinder to replace my old manual one. I’ve been tweaking my coffee game a bit too lately — more on that in a future post.
Tech-wise, I could talk about my trusty iPad 3, which is a trooper that I use every day, or I could go on about how I’ve fallen back in love with my Nintendo 3DS in the past year or so. Last year I sang the praises of my Bodum Tea Press and my InginuiTEA, and I mentioned them both in my post about personal rituals. The year before I mentioned Xbox 360 (which still serves as both a media centre and essentially an arcade device, thanks to all the free games I get with XBox Live Gold) and my Sony NEX-5N.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
When I look back on all the twists and turns my career and my hobbies have taken, I’d say I’m probably one of the most adaptable people I know. From science to tech to business to writing and editing, my friends and family tell me my career has been a roller coaster, but I haven’t thought of it that way — each move has been calculated, and while some of them have been risky, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, if you’re not pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, you’re not really going anywhere, are you?
I’ve mentioned my finely tuned BS sensors before — they made me want to write about how to tell whether controversial statements are true, how to do your own research on the internet, and why there’s confusion over health and nutrition topics.
What do you listen to while you work?
I rarely work without some form of music. I still listen to Pandora regularly (and it’s still the only music subscription service I pay for). I sometimes rock out with Noon Pacific, another service I absolutely love, and Upbeat, from the folks behind Noon Pacific. I’ve also kind of fallen back in love with Relaux, which I mentioned a while ago. When I hear a song that I really like, I save it over at Whyd (you can check out my profile here), so sometimes I can just play a collection of songs that I know I’ll enjoy. I also love all of the eclectic tastes I find over at This Is My Jam (you can check out my profile here.)
Beyond that, every week I look forward to Freefall Radio, a weekly podcast by the ever-talented David Bassin. I know I’ve mentioned Freefall before, but seriously, go subscribe. You won’t be disappointed.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve been slowly but surely inching my way back into reading more offline. I got a copy of Dust and Grooves as a gift this past Christmas, and I’ve been glued to it since I got it. Maybe, because I too still love my turntables and the vinyl I’ve collected, I just identify with the people in it so much that it’s been something I flip through anytime I want to read something.
Beyond that though, I don’t have the time or the routine for much reading outside of long-form articles on the web that I find through my networks and news feeds. Even though I don’t curl up with books that often, I do still read scientific papers and journals when I can. Hey, some people like fiction. I like….non-fiction?
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I don’t think “introvert” and “extrovert” are useful labels. I know, I know, everyone wants to be in a camp, or have a label to rally under, but it’s something that people put way too much emphasis on as a way to define or reject themselves and others.
To answer the question though, I’m an introvert in that I need alone time or time with loved ones to recharge. At the same time, I live downtown for a reason. I love the atmosphere, and I love being out among people. I hate being pushed out of my comfort zone, but I’m always glad for having done it. Remember that, by the way – when you’re out meeting a bunch of new people, they’re all just as awkward and fumbly and weird and nervous as you are. It’s ok to be all of those things. Go from there.
What’s your sleep routine like?
While our schedules at Lifehacker have changed a good bit, and I’m not necessarily “the early person” anymore, I still tend to be up earlier than a lot of the team just by virtue of being on the east coast. I do get a little more sleep now than I used to though — I’m usually up and working around 7/8am, drinking my first coffee of the day, checking the feeds to see if anything interesting happened overnight, or catching up on anything the west coast team may have sent in after I’d signed off the day before.
I try to get to bed around 11pm-ish at night, and if I can sneak away during the day for a quick caffeine nap, I do. While I can definitely crank out the work earlier in the day, I tend to feel more creative later in the afternoon and evening, so I try to make sure I have time to brainstorm or work on my personal projects then.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
This answer will look familiar to readers from last year. For several years now, I’ve wanted to see how Maya Angelou works, and I still wish I could have asked her. She’s more than missed. I’d still like to know how Nikki Giovanni works (I’ve heard her speak and she’s incredible), or NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, or LeVar Burton (especially since he’s brought back Reading Rainbow) since they were all role models for me as a child.
For a second year in a row, I’ll also bemoan the fact that Alton Brown hasn’t done one of these, but we’re still crossing our fingers.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Every year I have to answer this question, and I smirk because the answer hasn’t changed. Honestly — if the best advice you’ve ever get changes every year, either you’re putting too much stock in some really crappy advice, or you’re being too fickle about what the “best” is, or maybe both. Anyway, for those who missed it:
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?
Never underestimate the power of listening. Seriously. I’ve learned that so many of us right now are in a hurry to make our own voices heard and opinions known that it helps a lot to slow down and listen to others.
Don’t discount the power of your voice, but don’t ignore the power of others’, their lived experiences, their knowledge, and what they have to offer you. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to just listen instead of react. Absorb, understand, and then speak. I think this is something we forget all too easily on the internet, and I fear it seeps into all aspects of our lives as a result.