Every week, we share the shortcuts, workspaces, and productivity tips of our favourite experts. This week, we’re going behind the scenes at Lifehacker. And “we” is “I”, current editor of this series. I’m Nick Douglas, and this is how I work.
Location: Brooklyn and Manhattan Current Gig: Staff writer at Lifehacker Current mobile device: iPhone 8 Current computer: Used MacBook Pro at home, new MacBook Pro (with the infuriating touch bar and actually excellent fingerprint reader) at work One word that best describes how you work: Frantic
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
When I was in college, I was weirdly obsessed with bloggers — my dream was to attend meetups with Cory Doctorow and Anil Dash. I wrote about bloggers including the whole Gawker team. At the time, Gawker publisher Nick Denton loved hiring college students and Gawker obsessives, so he made me the first editor of Valleywag, Gawker Media’s gossip site about Silicon Valley. I lasted less than a year.
I went freelance, mostly covering the “internet culture” beat on sites including Gawker and Valleywag. I published a Twitter joke book, and I wrote and edited for Urlesque, a site about internet culture that was stupidly shuttered by AOL just as founder Kelly Reeves’s work was paying off. I spent three years running the comedy site/YouTube channel Slacktory for My Damn Channel, then did some work writing in-character social media accounts for TV shows.
I was surprised to get a job at Lifehacker. I’m productive, but I’m a mess! But it turns out writing for Lifehacker isn’t about knowing all the answers yourself, but about being curious, ready to learn, and interested in helping others do the same.
Take us through a recent workday.
I wake up at 7:15 and put off my day with ten minutes of phone-checking in bed. I dawdle like that all morning. I aim to head out at 8:15, so usually I leave at 8:30–8:45. My arrival time is entirely up to whether the subway system works that day.
The first hour of my workday is talking to the team on Slack, trading story ideas, checking my inbox, putting off replies (I have said “sorry for the delay” in 71 work emails), and figuring out what I’m writing today. About half my stories are planned on our Trello board ahead of time; the other half is something timely we just thought of that day. At 10, a bot pings all the writers to list what they’re working on. If it weren’t for Trello and that bot, I’d be a lot less focused the rest of the day. I need constant deadlines, even if I constantly miss them. This How I Work was supposed to go up Wednesday morning.
The rest of the day is researching and writing. This week I’ve mostly been editing How I Work pieces from the rest of the Lifehacker team. That means bugging everyone for their answers and photos, making jokey little threats, and realising how hard Lifehacker’s editors work to get us to hand in our damn stories.
I’m very bad at quitting a process, so lunch is at 3 sometimes, and I often end up being the last to leave, around 6:30. Great for optics.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I like music in the shower, so I love my hardy Ecoxgear waterproof speaker. It’s too loud, but my shower drenches this thing twice each morning, so I’m content. I hate every pair of headphones, but my wireless BeatsX (hey, Beats is good now sometimes) are the least objectionable pair I’ve had so far. I put my keys on a Swiss Army Manager knife, with a ballpoint pen that can really save the day.
I use gaming mice, usually from Logitech, for all the extra buttons. My current mouse, the G502 Proteus Spectrum, requires a driver to fully function, and I have to load that driver every time I plug my mouse back into my laptop, which is stupid. But I need my 11 buttons.
Apps! I love 1Password so much. I use Yoink to drag files around, Vanilla to hide my less-used menu bar items behind a click. Fantastical is like if Google Calendar worked well. Instapaper saves me from Twitter. Overcast is the most functional podcast player. Amazon is evil but the Kindle app is the best in class. I’m always trying new apps — I really want to like the social podcast app Breaker — but I really only adopt a long-term favourite once or twice a year.
I stuff Chrome full of extensions. Must-haves include uBlock Origin, 1Password again, Instapaper again, Blank New Tab Page (I am VERY DISTRACTIBLE), and my new favourite, Workona, which manages multi-tab Chrome windows.
Chrome. If you do all your work in a browser, you can end up with dozens of tabs in one window. You could open new windows for different projects and shove tabs around, or develop the monk-like discipline to stop opening tabs. Or you could manage them practically by treating your browser like an operating system.
The Chrome extension Workona organises your tabs into named windows, which you can easily switch between and save for later. It’s like a sophisticated version of Chrome’s bookmark and tab-sorting features. And it rescues you from tab overload without punishing you for it.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I plug my laptop into a screen and keyboard for some breathing room. My back has started hurting whenever I sit at an “ergonomic” desktop setup than when I hunch over a laptop. Probably because I get too comfortable and forget to move around. I am in fact unplugging and walking to another room right now, where I will stand awkwardly at a counter and my back will feel better. Yes I have a standing desk; no it is not as comfortable as leaning over a laptop. Nature is amazing.
We have an open office and that sucks. Not enough privacy, which ironically makes us talk less and shut ourselves out with headphones. But we work around it as best we can. And because a third of our team works remotely, it’s actually good to have more of our conversations on Slack.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I have a bad Twitter habit; my wife was getting frustrated at how often I’d just disappear into my phone out of nowhere. So I deleted the app and went desktop-only. I sometimes load Twitter in mobile Safari to tweet or check DMs, but their mobile web interface is so janky it can’t pull me in like the app does.
The general principle is, if you have a metaphorical “sometimes food” that’s threatening to take over, and you can’t or won’t ban it altogether, take one step down. A step that’s annoying but tolerable. Feel the healthy ache of learning to be slightly more disciplined. I think this is what exercise is, but I don’t know, I’ve never exercised.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
The back end of Kinja, the platform Lifehacker and its sister blogs run on, is not entirely reliable. The current dev team is making huge improvements, but at the moment a lot of writers avoid drafting their work in it. But if I write in Notes or (ugh) Google Docs, I worry about introducing errors when I copy-paste everything in. So I write in Kinja anyway. So far I’ve never lost a post oh god oh god I’m saving right now.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My editors are very gracious about my bad habits, but they also help me know the margins of error, and what’s actually a problem vs. what’s just my neurosis.
As we got to know each other better, the whole Lifehacker team has gotten great at sharing story ideas. Some of my best work came from someone else writing in Slack, “This feels like a Nick story...” And I love that when I’m busy to do any additional posts, I can still throw a timely idea into Slack and someone else will grab it. It’s probably the biggest thing that makes us feel like a team, not just several writers who happen to appear on the same site.
Almost every time I consider a new job, or reach my first obstacle at said job, I start to panic, and my wife has to walk me through why it’s a great opportunity. She and I are each other’s career counselors.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I cannot get myself to actually pay attention to my to-do apps. I’ve gone through Todoist, Habitica, a notepad, Todoist again. Even when I set notifications in Reminders, I still snooze the non-urgent tasks for weeks. If I can’t turn it into a realtime commitment to someone else, then it doesn’t get done on time. All my to-do apps are filled with unfulfilled aspirations.
I get a lot done, I’m actually a super-productive person! I just have too many ideas — creative, practical, even tedious errand ideas—and I love them too much to accept that I can only execute a small amount of them. Which sometimes means I spend time on the wrong ones.
How do you recharge or take a break?
Books, TV, walks in the park, long conversations with my wife, and SIDE PROJECTS OH BOY
What’s your favourite side project?
I currently co-run Roommate From Hell, a scripted comedy podcast about a demon and a human who live in Brooklyn. We have an amazing team — the demon is played by internet-famous Natalie Walker, the human by Serena Berman, whose voiceover work includes Lucy van Pelt. Every moment of writing, recording, and editing (well, sitting over the shoulder of engineer/editor Levi Sharpe) is fulfilling and energizing.
We compare the show to The Good Place, Rick & Morty, Broad City, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Welcome to Night Vale, and it can be challenging to take some similar premises and concepts and find our own direction. We’re also still finding the show’s voice — I’m used to writing more distanced, sketch-like stuff, and we’re just starting to explore the real depth of these characters. Part of that is recognising what the actors have breathed into the characters, and writing for that.
In audio fiction, if your actors and your editor are good, you can create fantastical worlds and mythical beasts for the price of a Soundsnap subscription and some Audition plug-ins. My co-writer Tim and I originally intended to make a web series, but we fell in love with these nutty ideas that wouldn’t work on camera, especially without a budget. It’s still a ton of work, but now we don’t have to turn down a good idea because it’s too hard to shoot.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
My current subway book is Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbour, but my bedtime book is Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I’m only reading two books at once because I was sure I’d give up the Eco after ten pages, but no such luck; it’s brainy but it’s a page-turner.
My wife and I read to each other during our evening bathroom routine; we recently enjoyed Nicole Rivas’s A Bright and Pleading Dagger, a chapbook of flash fiction.
Before that we liked Little Labors, a short literary essay-memoir about having a baby, reminiscent of Dept. of Speculation. I keep reading people the Kafkaesque story about trying to get a passport for an infant.
And I always recommend the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Start with the hits but then try the deep cuts. He does a great bit on why Judas Iscariot made a bigger sacrifice than Jesus. But he writes it as a response to a religious essay that doesn’t actually exist. Crazy and, to a former Christian, compelling.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Anyone got a contact?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Your poor planning is not my emergency.” I might sound like a nightmare to work with, and sometimes I feel like a nightmare to work with, but reports indicate I am not! [Editor’s note: He is not.] I think it’s because I’m trying, always, not to be the pain in someone else’s arse. When my poor planning becomes my emergency, I can live with that. When it becomes someone else’s, that’s when I know I’ve fucked up.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Well, all of ... that. Also when my wife and I have our first kid I’ll have to find a new joke for my bio.