UPDATE 03/18: Looks like this post got featured on Lifehacker! Check it out. :)
Using Lifehacker’s “How I Work” framework, here’s a peek into my approach to productivity and work:
Location: Boston, MA
Current gig: Digital Product Manager at Pearson Education (Higher Ed)
Current mobile device: iPhone 4S
Current computer: 13” Macbook Air (home), 15” Macbook Pro with a 27” Apple Thunderbolt Display (work)
One word that best describes how you work: Temperament-aware.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Balsamiq & Adobe Photoshop (for early stage prototyping), Text Edit & Google Docs (for brainstorming and the latter for collaborating on and keeping meetings on track on conference calls), moleskin notebook (for focused note-taking on meetings and conference calls to resist email distractions), TripIt for iOS (for staying organized with work travel), and both Dropbox and Spotify are a dream when you’re working across multiple devices and need to be ready to go, whether working from home or from the office.
What’s your workspace like?
I’m very conscious about space, energy levels, and task types, so I try to mix and match the kinds of tasks I have to get done with my energy level and where I can best optimize different kinds of thinking. For example, at the office, if I need to get a good chunk of writing done, I try to carve out about two hours and move down to the 8th floor lounge area and park myself at a desk by the large windows overlooking the city–there’s something about lots of light and the coffee shop buzz of activity around me that I’ve found inspires focused writing.
Alternatively, if my day requires me to be more desk-bound, I mentally set aside one side of my cubicle desk area for email, scheduling, and down-to-the-details type work and the opposite side for big-picture ideas and brainstorming type work.
Finally, as I work from home about once a week, I try to employ that same principle of different spaces for different kinds of thinking–yes, even within the constraints of my tiny studio.
What’s your best time-saving trick?
Rather than spending precious high energy level time for dealing with email overload, I turn to The Email Game at around 2pm, when I’m feeling the afternoon slump hit, to slam through several hundred emails in one shot and feel like a productive ninja, rather than a post-lunch zombie.
What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
A combination of Workflowy (for long-term, large-scale project/task management) and my Moleskin notebook (for day-to-day “what do I need to accomplish today?” lists) is currently what I use. I’ve tried a variety of mobile and desktop tools, and Workflowy seems to strike that balance of simple and lightweight enough to get a quick snapshot of where you stand and what needs to get done, but also robust enough to capture the complexity and nested dependencies of projects in many cases. I do also like that you can capture deadlines and due dates by adding hashtags to tasks, letting you file away some items as #somedayeventually and #todaynoreallyTODAY.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
My wireless phone headset–given the amount of time I spend on the phone with my coworkers who are spread across the country, it really helps to be able to walk up and down the floor while on a call to get some energy and mobility injected into my work day. It also anticipates the problem of getting tangled up in your phone cord as you spin around in your desk chair–just sayin’.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Reorganizing & redecorating a room, given its existing furniture, art, and appliances. Having moved around a lot as a kid and having always loved putting together puzzles, I very quickly mastered the real life puzzle-piece challenge of reconfiguring furniture in a new space for optimum living comfort. I’m also a pro at alphabetizing things.
What are you currently reading?
I find that I devour non-fiction books (particularly the behavioral economics/psych-meets-econ variety) with the same intensity that I used to reserve for fiction when I was younger. My most recent pick is “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” by Cathy Davidson, which has been just great so far.
I am trying to read more fiction these days and I recently read (and loved) “When We Wake” by Karen Healy and am excited to begin “Adaptation” by Malinda Lo. Both fall into my fiction genre of choice, science fiction and fantasy YA, that I’ve found really has gotten better as a genre, as I’ve grown older.
What do you listen to while you work?
Depends on the kind of work I’m trying to get done. It ranges from acoustic instrumentals (The Piano Guys or The Goat Rodeo Sessions), to a capella covers (Pentatonix or Straight No Chaser), to soundtracks from musical TV shows (Nashville or SMASH).
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m a self-described introvert, and using Susan Cain’s framework for understanding introversion and extroversion, I get my energy from solitude and time to myself to recharge. As my work (and corporate America, more generally) does call for a lot of many-to-many people-facing interactions, I’ve developed a couple strategies that work well for me: 1) at big group gatherings and networking events, I try to avoid the large group conversations but instead seek out one person at a time to have a meaningful conversation with one-on-one; if I can do this with two to three people over the course of the event, I consider myself successful 2) for meetings, presentations, and big-group conference calls I need to facilitate, I make sure to write down several phrases, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs of key points I want to make sure get communicated by the end of the call, key conversation guiders to ensure that the group stays on task, and key phrases to open and close the meeting. As lack of preparation for these big group meetings tends to be what stresses me out the most, I over-prepare and save myself social anxiety.
What’s your sleep routine like?
Bed time: midnight. Wake up time: 7:30am. Without ~7 hours of sleep, I get cranky, end of story.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.
Sarah Rees Brennan.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Find your voice and what you stand for early on, and let that sound loud and proud. What makes you special, in your youth, is that energy, passion, and clarity of voice–not your ability to parrot everyone else’s tired and tried ideas and lackluster vision.
At the end of the day, the key to productive work is to love what you do. Amidst so much advice about which software and tool will make your work most productive, I worry that we forget the crux of what makes focus, and drive, and good work happen. For that reason, this one piece of advice really resonated with me.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I certainly am victim to the “track ALL the data!” epidemic, but I have found that using tools like RescueTime, at the end of the day, tells me what I already know. While it can be helpful to get a diagnostic of how your time is being spent, particularly, if you’re struggling with figuring out how to optimize your productivity, I would caution against overdoing it. Does it help to quantify this information? Sure. Should apps like this run your life? Most definitely not!