If you’ve been reading Lifehacker for long, then you’re probably also familiar with How-To Geek. Lowell Heddings started sharing his own technology advice and how-to guides years ago after being frustrated with the lacklustre information found elsewhere, and we often reference his work.
How-To Geek is now a tidy business with Lowell at the helm, and I think we’re long due to learn a little about how he works.
Location: Oakton, Virginia Current Gig: Founder of How-To Geek. I’m also the editor-in-chief, programmer, system administrator, and CEO. One word that best describes how you work: Deliberate Current mobile device: iPhone 6 Current computer (and what OS is it running?): MacBook Pro (2015) and OS X Yosemite
First, tell us a little about How-To Geek and your role there.
Most of Lifehacker’s readers have at least a passing familiarity with How-To Geek, but to understand what I do, you might need a little more information.
I started the site at the end of 2006 after reading a support article on Microsoft’s website. Their help information was so incredibly bad that I decided it was time to start my own site. Why couldn’t they just show me a picture to help me understand what I was looking at? My timing was fortuitous because by the time Windows Vista was released, How-To Geek had more articles about how to fix its annoyances than anybody else — and our articles had pictures to make it easy to understand. And of course, Vista was so annoying that our traffic skyrocketed overnight. Once again their failings helped me.
After years of working on the site as a part-time gig, How-To Geek became big enough for me to embark on my own about five years ago.
Since then we’ve turned into one of the largest non-news technology sites on the internet with 14 million unique visitors a month, 100,000 daily email subscribers, and 10 employees.
I’m the editor-in-chief, which means that I set the tone for what we publish, approve specific topics pitched by our writers, and generally make sure that articles meet our standards before they are published — or more importantly, before they are even written.
But I’m also the system administrator for our many servers, and since I was a programmer for 10 years before How-To Geek, I’m also the person that writes all the code for our complicated setup. And that doesn’t include my duties as CEO of the company dealing with business deals and strategy, trying to balance making money with always being ethical in the terrible world of internet advertising.
What apps, software and tools can’t you live without? Why?
The most important thing that I can’t live without is Slack. I use it every single day to communicate with my team of writers and assistants, no matter where I am — at least 50 per cent of the time that I’m communicating with my team, I’m doing it from my iPhone.
The second most important thing that I use is Trello, which is largely used for storing ideas, brainstorming notes, and keeping track of projects. Most people think of Trello as a to-do list, but that’s a very simplistic view of things. It’s better than any other tool for capturing ideas, including Evernote, because you can organise things into boards, lists, and cards, and then even drill down further into checklists and comments and more.
Everything else that I use is replaceable — I’ve switched back and forth between Chrome and Safari a few times, text editors and note-taking tools are a dime a dozen, and even the operating system I use is irrelevant — though I prefer OS X and iOS and plan to never switch back to Windows or Android.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have an IKEA Galant desk, a comfortable chair from somewhere… and a MacBook. But my workspace is often the kitchen table, or the couch, or a hotel room.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
The most important time-saving thing I’ve learned for my job is to hire really good people that I trust, make sure that they are getting paid well doing work that they love, and let them do what they do best. This makes my job much simpler — all I need to do is steer them in the right direction, approve the things they are working on, and give them constructive criticism when needed.
On the personal level, I wake up in the morning and work on the things that I feel like working on. If I don’t feel like working, I don’t work… but that’s rare because I’m doing things that I love doing. So I want to do them, and I’m excited to start working in the morning and motivated to accomplish things. And that’s the trick — doing what you love for a living is the ultimate life hack.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Trello, although I rarely use it as a to-do list, and more as a list of ideas that I should probably get around to whenever I feel like it. When I have specific items that need to be done on a particular day, the iPhone Reminders app is usually what I go for.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
I have an iPad that I use at night in front of the TV, or when I’m travelling, and at this point it’s my only other gadget — though I should have received my Apple Watch by the time this article publishes, so we’ll see if that changes.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
This is a tough question to answer, so I decided to ask my wife. According to her, my secret talent is finding time for my wife and baby son every day and still getting the job done.
I try to stop working every day around 1pm and we get out of the house and spend time as a family for the rest of the day. I stay in contact with my team using Slack on the iPhone, which conveniently notifies me any time somebody sends me a direct message. And then at night I catch up on email or anything else before bed.
Because what’s the point of wasting the best part of the day on work? We should flip that around and spend the best part of our days enjoying our family instead.
Working arbitrary hours during the day because society is stuck in a factory mindset makes no sense, and by the time most people get home from work there are only a few hours before bed to spend with family, and they are tired. We’re “information workers” after all, and we don’t require the sunshine to do our work.
What do you listen to while you work?
Most of the time, I don’t listen to anything while I work, because I just don’t have the time or energy to deal with music. My preferred white noise is watching Netflix marathons on TV while working, which seems insane, but it really works for me. If I’m very focused, I won’t even pay attention to what’s playing most of the time. Who doesn’t love Futurama on repeat?
What are you currently reading?
Every day, I check and read Ars Technica and the Food Lab column on Serious Eats, and I’m currently reading The Art of the Start 2.0, a great business book by Guy Kawasaki. The bulk of my reading, however, is articles found via Twitter and saved in Pocket for reading on my iPhone.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m probably more of an introvert, but really I’m just quiet unless I really know you or have a reason to talk.
When I was a kid, I was taught that you should never speak unless you are absolutely sure that what you are saying is correct, because to say something inaccurate makes a smart person look like a fool, but keeping your mouth shut makes even a fool look wise.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’ll have to talk to my sleep coordinator… whenever he learns how to talk. He does know how to say “da da”, but I’m afraid one year olds are very demanding task masters. I usually wake up with him in the morning at around 6:30, and believe it or not, it’s the best time of the day because he’s always smiling when he sees me in the morning.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Most of the people that I’d love to see answer these questions are dead.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Many years ago, a very smart man named Matt Tabrizi told me “It’s always better to just get started because it’s easier to change directions once you’re already moving.” This is very similar to the advice written by the very smart cofounder of StackExchange, Jeff Atwood, who wrote “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way… turn.” Over the years, I’ve found this advice to be indispensable and accurate.
Stop talking. Stop focusing on planning every detail. Stop pretending that you are being productive by organising your to-do list and reading self-help books. Just shut up and get something done.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
If there’s one person I’d really love to publicly thank, it’s Gina Trapani, the founding editor of Lifehacker. Without her support and frequently featuring How-To Geek on Lifehacker in the early days, it would have been much more difficult to get to where we are now.
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.