Our annual How We Work roundup, where Lifehacker staffers and contributors share their favourite tips and tools for better productivity, continues. Today: Melanie Pinola.
Many things have stayed the same for me since writing the previous years’ How We Work posts, so I’m going to try to be brief in those parts and add in some new questions and details for the sake of novelty and perhaps a deeper dive.
Location: Long Island, NY (about a stone’s throw from the border of NYC, in a neighbourhood Claritas says is mostly filled with the “American Dream” household type. Apparently, that means lots of SUVs and absurd property taxes.)
Current Gig: Writer for hire
One word that best describes how you work: Serendipitously. Also, fluidly. (It’s a tie.)
Current mobile device: Phones:Nexus 5 and iPhone 5. Tablets: Nexus 7 and iPad 2. I think you can detect a pattern here.
Current computer: ThinkPad Helix laptop (I love using the
pen stylus in Windows 8) and iMac (2010), whose hard drive and graphics card are going to keel on me any day now. For flinging into a backpack before a trip, an ASUS C300 Chromebook.
This year I’m going to buy a new computer, depending on the results of my tax return (which I’m not that optimistic about, though). But which one?…
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
I still rely on my Pocket, Evernote, Trello and OneNote workflow. Since I mentioned that in detail last year, I won’t bore you with the same explanation. It’s essentially the same system Jamie Todd Rubin is using (that’s his illustration above), with the addition of Trello for planning my weekly posts (and everything else) and OneNote for brainstorming/mind-mapping and actual writing.
I have some notes, though, after using this system for more than a year, for anyone who might be interested:
The best thing about using Pocket as a dumping ground for everything I need to write or think about is that Pocket integrates with just about every app — Feedly newsreader, mobile Chrome, IFTTT, and everything else — so it’s just a quick click or tap or two to save articles. When you’re amassing lots of possible sources and trying to nimbly run through your feeds, this is a godsend. It takes just a second to archive articles — and checking them off as done is very gratifying.
But Pocket’s search is far from the best. If you want to save articles for more permanent reference, it’s better to move the article from Pocket to another app. (I use an IFTTT recipe to send starred articles in Pocket to Evernote.)
- Evernote can easily get unwieldy, though. Its search is light years better than Pocket’s and most other apps (doing a regular Google search brings up your Evernote notes if you have the setting enabled), but filing all your notes and saved articles can be a pain. It’s one of those apps you have to set up optimally before you can use it to its potential. So my next project is to reduce the number of notebooks I have and rely on a better tagging system, like this five-notebook system Thomas Honeyman describes on Medium.
- I’ve just started this neat thing in OneNote, pasting in reference materials, such as quotes and links, in separate text boxes next to my main draft text box. That’s one of the nicest things about OneNote — you can add text boxes or a drawing or anything else just about anywhere on the page. It’s like writing as scrapbooking.
Besides these apps, I use TweetDeck to distract myself with Twitter and 1Password for password management. (However, I’m thinking of switching to Dashlane because it added the one feature I feel every password manager should have — bulk changing of passwords — and 1Password still has not. Nudge nudge, AgileBits.)
Oh, and Quicken for managing my gazillion bank and investment accounts. Back when I was primarily using OS X, Quicken was the main reason I installed Parallels or used Boot Camp. I will do OS workarounds for you, Quicken.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I’m still using my DIYed standing desk, but I’ve moved the dying iMac to another desk in my office so I can sometimes give my poor ankles a break and sit (while I wait forever for the rainbow wheel to stop spinning).
I’m almost sorry to say my setup is so obviously far from minimalist, but the truth is I like surrounding myself with things that inspire me — books and quotes and pictures of polar bears. I get an absurd amount of joy from everyday objects. It might look terribly cluttered, but the desk is actually organised with a system in mind, and while I’m working, I’m pretty good at focusing, trance-like, on just the main screen.
My best new workspace addition is the Coolermaster Quickfire TK mechanical keyboard. The joy of tactile click click clacks and blue backlighting all day long!
I’ve also added a stick-on whiteboard to my desk’s pull-out insert, because I got tired of wasting paper writing down temporary bits of information. Sometimes I find my daughter has written/drawn something there for me, though. It must be some kind of Zen training that I have to erase what she’s left there in order to record something more fleeting yet necessary in that moment.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
The best thing I ever did for my productivity is map out my ideal day, based on my “good hours” and the kinds of tasks I have to work on. It’s only recently that I’ve mapped out an ideal schedule for myself, every hour (or ideal 90 minutes of focused work time) accounted for. I’m saying this as someone who has always hated schedules and even just thinking about time.
Even though I can’t always follow the schedule, just the act of blocking out my days has made me more relaxed and, I think, more efficient. I always know what I’m doing or, at least, should be doing next. It’s a framework.
(I ran out of index cards! Otherwise I would have rewritten this.)
I also try hard to start my day off on the right foot. By that I don’t mean getting up early, exercising, and writing before the rest of the world is up (I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing you have to be a morning person to be successful), but, rather, getting into the right mindset before I get out of bed. I hit the snooze button a lot, which is terrible if you’re trying to sneak in more sleep, but I use those few minutes to try to practice gratitude — while my daughter is still snuggling against me, her little arm wrapped warmly around my neck — and maybe even meditate.
Also, I love making lists. Don’t laugh, but I have been known to make lists of lists.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
After professing my love of the Bonavita coffee brewer and my electric tea kettle in the earlier posts, I’m running out of beverage-related gadgets to share. This Oster electric wine opener might be the last such recommendation. No more screwing with wine corks!
My favourite new gadget, though, is the Kindle Paperwhite, which replaced my first-generation Kindle after the screen died. I love that I can read at night in bed without disturbing my husband’s sleep and that the battery lasts for days. So far the Kindle Unlimited subscription is justifying the purchase. (Pro tip: When you’re arguing with Amazon customer care about replacing a dead Kindle, it’s easier to pull the “can’t you give me a better deal since I’m your #1 customer” card over IM.)
What has changed over the years since you started and what do you do differently now?
When I first started writing for Lifehacker four (!) years ago, I was relatively green when it came to blogging. I was used to writing for business clients, things like marketing presentations and IT proposals, and so I hardly ever used the personal “I”.
Some months in, I turned a corner. I remember Adam Pash, editor-in-chief at the time, remarking that I had found a new flow to my writing. I told him, “yeah, I decided to stop writing like a robot.” It really was a conscious decision.
More recently, I think as a whole the team has expanded our ideas of what we can tackle here and how — we’ve expanded so much. Some of my favourite and, perhaps, best pieces are the ones where I’m painfully honest and most vulnerable, trying to do as Hemingway advised: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” (I’m working up to that.) Not for the sake of being touchy-feely, but because I’m trying to write like I’m talking to a good friend and hopefully in the process be helpful, my work be meaningful if even in a small way. What else is there?
That’s not to say the deeper posts are the only kinds I want to write — and these get exhausting and less effective if done too often too. I could spend every day writing about egg hacks and hard drives and be happy as well. I just don’t keep the words at arm’s length away anymore, if you know what I mean.
What do you listen to while you work?
On school holidays, My Little Pony or (someone save me) odd British-sounding guys describing Minecraft mods on YouTube in the background. On days when my husband is off from work, NBA 2k15 or (please help) Rush documentaries in the background. Every other day, just my noisy laptop fan.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to have at least one nonfiction and one fiction book in progress at the same time. I just finished The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising by Marie Kondo. It is quirky and over the top even for someone like me, who’s got more “how to get organised” books than I care to admit. But it’s also helped release some of the hold that objects in my house have over me — even bookcases of books that have followed me everywhere. I’ve also just finished Cary Elwes’ As You Wish. If you’re as fond of The Princess Bride movie and book as I am, I think you’ll enjoy this nostalgic, heart-warming mini-memoir.
So now in addition to reading another William Goldman book, Marathon Man, I’m also dipping my toes in Mark Strand’s Collected Poems and started James Altucher’s Choose Yourself. The basic message in the latter, as I’ve read so far, is that the world of work has radically changed and we all have to be entrepreneurs now. I’m mulling that one over.
What’s your sleep routine like?
One day I would like to be able to answer this with “perfect”, but that day probably won’t come until I’m able to wake up whenever I want to wake up. I’m a night owl, so I feel more naturally energised and alive at two in the morning. Sometimes I sabotage myself and procrastinate about sleep, knowing full well I’ll pay for it in the morning, when I have to get my equally groggy daughter to school.
I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching her to get herself ready and walk herself to school (it’s literally a three-minute walk), but I’m not yet ready to let go of those hand-holding three minutes.
How do you balance personal life and work?
I’ve learned to accept that there’s no such thing as complete balance at any one point in time. Last month, for example, was a whirlwind for me, with the holidays (during which my family was knocked out by the flu), a non-stop Disney World trip, an already-pushed-back deadline for my second book, a sudden weekend visit from relatives, and four substantial new freelance assignments. (The hardest thing for a freelancer is saying no to work.)
This month, however, has been much more relaxed. I’m actually now doing things solely for sheer selfish pleasure, like painting and writing bad poetry. Doing something just for yourself can feel like a guilty pleasure when you have many responsibilities, but it’s the most rejuvenating thing possible, I think. I get easily lost in both work and my family, so even considering a personal project is like hitting the reset button.
This is all to say that I believe on the whole it all balances out — as long as we don’t neglect one area for too long. I’m trying to savour every moment and keep myself from biting off more than I can chew. So far I’ve managed to not burn out by setting aside about 20% of my time for new work or new pastimes — and constantly asking myself “Why the F*** would I do that?“.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
Of the current crew of writers, I’ve been here the second longest, after Whitson, but it still hasn’t gotten stale for me. Part of it is the potpourri of posts we can write about (so I guess my advice to anyone in any field is to look for jobs that let you stretch a variety of muscles). Another big part of it is also the quality of the comments.
Please don’t think I’m sucking up by saying this, but Lifehacker has the best commenters on the web. (Except for the ones who snarkily start their comments with “Or, you know, you could just…” or say “There, I fixed it for you.” I know comments could be much, much worse, but rudeness just makes my eyes glaze over.) All you non-rude commenters, though, seriously, thanks. You make my day, even if I don’t get around to responding to every comment to show it.
Lastly, to finish the other questions I didn’t answer, I am a highly sensitive introvert who: uses both Trello and pen and paper for to do lists, would like to see Neil Gaiman and Jon Stewart answer these questions, and is very good at constantly switching gears.
The best piece of advice I ever got (not personally, however): The Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann back in 1927. That pretty much says it all.