The Economist is one of the leading international newspapers today, bringing precisely-crafted news and commentary to its weekly pages and website. Serving as deputy editor for the paper and also heading its digital strategy is Tom Standage.
Tom is the author of a variety of history books, including Writing on the Wall, which posits that the exchange of information throughout history, whether it be written on papyrus in ancient Rome or printed by hand in during the Reformation, isn’t really any different from modern social media.
He previously served as the editor-in-chief of Economist.com, and even plays in a band when time allows. We spoke with Tom to learn a bit about how he works.
Location: London, England
Current gig: Deputy editor and head of digital strategy, The Economist
One word that best describes how you work: Intensively
Current mobile device: iPhone 6 Plus
Current computer: MacBook Air 11″, from 2010. It’s old but still fast enough for me, even with lots of apps and tabs open. I have my eye on the new MacBook. They say it’s comparable to a MacBook from 2011. For me, that’s an upgrade! At work I have a generic Dell PC with two monitors.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
The sign of a mature technology is that it’s invisible and you only notice when it doesn’t work. The big example of that for me is cloud storage. I was an early adopter of Dropbox and rely on it to ensure all my stuff is on all my devices. When you have multiple computers, I used to say, the thing you want is always on another one. Well, not any more. I love not having to email stuff to myself or carry USB sticks around, which I did for years. Or back things up.
The other tool I couldn’t live without is Slack. When I put the Espresso [The Economist’s iOS and Android app] team on it last summer, everyone took to it within four hours; I’ve never seen something adopted so quickly. And we all have much emptier in-boxes as a result. Espresso is assembled by global team with people in London, DC and Singapore, and Slack means we can all see what everyone else is doing. It’s brilliant.
Finally, in the offline world I am a big fan of Moleskine reporter’s notebooks. They are just the perfect size. I always said I wanted an iPhone the size of a Moleskine notebook, and that’s what the iPhone 6 Plus is.
What’s your workspace setup like?
At work I have what we call a “slip office”, which is a polite Economist way of saying “large cupboard”. We don’t have a newsroom at The Economist; instead we all have offices, and the whole place has an academic kind of vibe. I like to keep my desk pretty tidy. It’s particularly tidy at the moment because we just had the office network redone so we all had to pack our stuff into crates one weekend so they could tear up the floor. We all threw a lot away. In general I’m good at avoiding or throwing away paper. But I cannot throw away books, so I have rather a lot of them piled on the shelves. I have a phone on my desk but rarely use it.
The best thing about my office is the view over leafy St James’s Park. I once read somewhere that offices should ideally have long sight lines and a view of greenery. I am lucky to have both. At home I have a rather Victorian-looking book-lined study, with a maroon chaise lounge and an antique rotating bookcase. I like to switch between sitting at my desk and sitting on the chaise with a laptop. Does that count as exercise?
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
The best way to reduce email volume, in my experience, is to move as much stuff as possible to Slack. I get jumpy if I have more than 30 messages in my inbox so I like to stay on top of my email and kill things off throughout the day. I am a big fan of canned responses in Gmail. The main thing, though, is not to multitask. Task switching is a huge waste of time, and if you aren’t focused on a single task then you can’t get into a flow state, which is when the real work gets done, whether as a writer or a coder or whatever. So the best life hack is to engineer your environment to ensure that you can get into a flow state when necessary.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
In most respects I’m a digital man, but when it comes to to-do lists, I stick with pen and paper. I’ve tried apps and Google docs, but it’s just not the same, for some reason. I think crossing things out or checking them off is something I prefer to do on paper.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
My Nespresso machine, which gets me going in the morning. I like my Kindle Paperwhite, too.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Making pizza. I think pizza should be very thin and crisp: crisp enough that a slice doesn’t flop when you pick it up, and thin enough that you can then fold it in half to eat it. I have a 10kg Baking Steel that goes in the oven to ensure that this is the case.
The newspaper has obviously changed quite drastically from when you first began your career, but what in recent years has been the biggest change in your day to day work?
The switch from a weekly to a daily cycle. When I started at The Economist in 1998 we were all on a weekly cycle: Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were very busy, we went to press on Thursday, and then started again on Friday. In retrospect we had what I call “the catharsis of publication” every week. Now we publish every day on the web, we have our Espresso daily edition, we have podcasts and videos. I love it, but it’s a very different shape to the working week, with less variation from one day to the next. I’m on a daily cycle, but not everyone is, so the challenge now is to integrate the daily and weekly cycles as efficiently as possible.
I was just watching your TedX talk where you discussed how social media has historical predecessors. I wonder, what do you think about the degree to which we now rely upon platforms (like Twitter and Facebook) that are potentially out of control of the users? That is, Twitter could fail as a business, Facebook can change their algorithms, etc. Do other “coffee houses” simply spring up in their place?
What’s striking about today’s social-media environment is that we have all these platforms that allow sharing of information, but there are a few really big ones, which means there’s a high degree of concentration of control and ownership. When Romans exchanged papyrus rolls, or pamphlets passed between coffee houses, there wasn’t this level of centralization. But I wonder whether this state of affairs is here to stay. If you look at the 1990s, it seemed that Compuserve and AOL had an unbreakable grip on consumer internet access. It turned out that they didn’t, and those proprietary walled gardens gave way to the open web. Both email and web publishing operate on open, distributed standards that allow you to set up and plug in your own servers if you want to, so it seems anomalous that social media and social networking don’t work that way too. So far attempts to build open, distributed social platforms haven’t got very far, but I think they’re worth watching.
What do you listen to while you work?
I can’t listen to music with lyrics while writing or editing. My favourite writing music is anything by the Keith Jarrett Trio.
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds, one of my favourite sci-fi authors. He’s very good on transhumanism and augmented reality. On the non-fiction front I’m reading Why the West Rules (For Now) by Ian Morris. Sci-fi and megahistories are two tools I use to try to see the future: the imagined futures of sci-fi on the one hand, and seeing the future in the past by considering historical analogies on the other. That’s essentially what I do in my own books. The third place to look for the future, incidentally, is in the present: as William Gibson says, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. That means looking for edge cases — new technologies that are fringe now but could be ubiquitous in future, like self-driving cars. That’s what I do at work. You could say I spend my whole life trying to figure out what the future will look like.
Speaking of reading, do you read ebooks or do you prefer paper?
I’m happy either way, but I prefer ebooks because they are more compact when I’m travelling, and I can read in the dark without disturbing my wife.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both.
Yes, both. I’m terrible at small talk but very happy talking to a large crowd.
How do you recharge?
Going to the coast and walking on the beach. Playing video games with my kids. Drinking wine with my wife. Playing the drums. Here’s my band on Spotify.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I’m a night owl and always have been. I rely on coffee to wake myself up.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
Elon Musk or Neal Stephenson.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I have a connection with life-hacking that goes back quite a long way, and I’ve internalised some of its earliest and most effective nostrums. I’ve known Danny O’Brien, who coined the term, since the 1990s when we were both covering the emergence of the Internet. Then in 2006 Cory Doctorow was telling me about how Danny and Merlin Mann had been asked to write a book on life-hacking to improve productivity but had hilariously not managed to get around to it. So I asked Cory to write a piece for The Economist on life-hacking and we did a box with a few of the best hacks. My favourites: parking on a downhill slope; declaring vertical days dedicated to a single project; use a “dash” to make a task seem more approachable. I’ve been using all of those hacks ever since. My son, who is nine, loves watching life-hacking videos on YouTube, but they are all useless things like how to open packets of Doritos more efficiently, as far as I can tell. I think the life-hacking movement identified the easy wins early on. It’s now become an industry that helps people put off doing real work, but in a way that convinces them that they will be much more productive when they get back to doing real work, which is kind of ironic. The old life-hacks are the best, it would seem.
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