Lifehacker was one of the first blogs I ever read. Its tag line echoes the sentiments of most digital workers:
“Computers make us more productive. Yeah, right. Lifehacker recommends the software downloads and web sites that actually save time. Don’t live to geek; geek to live.”
Gina Trapani, the founding editor at Lifehacker and author of the brand-new book, Upgrade Your Life, which comes out today, is largely responsible for the popularity of the term “lifehacks.” I figured I’d ask her to share a few of her favorites. From morning routine to top downloads and more, we were able to cover a lot of topics in just 8 questions.
1. What is the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night? In other words, what are your daily start and stop rituals?
I make a cup of jasmine green tea first thing in the morning, before I sit down to write. The process of boiling the kettle of water and steeping the tea helps me wake up, and the hot cup takes the morning chill off. My evening ritual isn’t anything special–I try to turn off the TV and computer screen an hour or so before bed to give my eyeballs a rest and start unwinding. Sometimes I think about a problem I have or a decision I’ve got to make before I fall asleep so I can let my unconscious work on it throughout the night.
2. Which some small life hacks–little changes–have had the biggest impact on your working life?
One simple but powerful habit is this: To act immediately on things as they come up.
For example, if I have an idea while I’m on line at the grocery store, instead of thinking “oh, I’ll write that down as soon as I get home,” I force myself to take out my phone and send myself an email or jot it down on a piece of paper in my pocket. If I get an email that requires a quick response, instead of moving onto the next one, firing off that response immediately and archiving the message. If I see a web page that looks like it might be a good Lifehacker post at some point, instead of just bookmarking it for later, creating a draft post in Lifehacker’s publishing system on the spot. This practice requires some discipline to develop, especially when you’re feeling lazy or distracted, but it can make a huge difference.
Mostly, it’s about putting things in the right place as soon as you possibly can, to avoid having random stuff hanging around your mind and space.
3. Thoughts on the ability to keep work from consuming life?
Being a work-at-homer, I do struggle with this, since the lines between work and life are blurred. One thing I do is set aside at least one weekend day, if not both, as a computer-free day. No email, no writing, no book-pimping, nothing beyond checking movie times and getting directions to places I’ve got to go. While I do work on the road when traveling to conferences and such, I’m also a big believer and practicer of work-free vacations and holidays. Hooray for “out of the office” auto-responders!
4. What are some common “time management” tactics or approaches that you disagree with or don’t follow, and why?
To some degree, I reject the super-structured, old school of time management thought, the type of rigid planning where you say “from 10AM till 10:45 I’m going to work on TPS reports. From 10:45 to 11:15 check email,” etc. As a “web worker,” by nature I embrace serendipity and tangents, and like to keep myself open to working on unexpected things that excite me, even if they’re not in the plan. For example, a few years back, during some web surfing, I happened upon a tutorial on how to build Firefox extensions. I let myself go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and now extension development is a big part of what I do. [Note from Tim: Neither Governor Schwarzenegger nor investor Warren Buffett have set workday calendars. There could be something to it.]
At the same time, I think a lot of web workers like me can take this to the extreme, and need a dose of structure and limits in their day–or else we’d all while away eight hours just clicking hyperlinks and opening tabs and letting our monkey minds swing from branch to branch all day long.
As in most things in life, the key is balance. I try to stay open to tangents while limiting how far and for how long I let myself follow them. Anne Zelenka’s book, Connect!, summarizes this shift from routine, structure, and planning to serendipitous tangents really well.
5. How do you keep on task and ensure you are focused on the most important to-do’s?
I keep a to-do list that I update and review daily and weekly. It’s my map. At the top, there are 3-4 things that are most important, that I need to get done outside my regular daily writing deadlines.
At any given time I should be working on one of those things on my list or one of my “daily duty”-type tasks. If I’m not, I’m either letting myself go off in tangent mode (which is fine, as long as that’s a conscious decision), or something’s out of sync and it’s time to regroup and rework my priorities.
Basically I’ve got two modes of work: loose/open, and focused/closed. When I’m in “open” mode, my instant messenger status is set to available, I’m surfing, writing, checking email, coding, listening to music with lyrics–getting things done, but in a multitasking way, open to interruptions and tangents. When I’m in focused/closed mode,
I shut down IM, stop checking email, close any windows I’m not using, switch to my ambient music playlist, set a timer, and plow through whatever I’ve got to get done. Typically I go into closed mode when I’m on deadline, or feel like too much time has passed since I checked off something really important on my list.
6. As a new Mac convert, I have to ask: what are your top 10 must-install applications for the Mac besides Quicksilver? Top not-to-install applications, if any?
Good question! Right after Leopard was released, I made a list of 20 useful downloads for your Mac.
7. If an overwhelmed person could only read 3-5 posts from Lifehacker, which would you recommend?
My goal at Lifehacker is to constantly improve, and if we’re succeeding, our newest stuff is our best stuff. If you have time for 3-5 posts per day, use our Top stories page. If you only have time for 1 post a weekday, go for our feature stories tag page. For one post a week summing up our best stuff from that week? You want our Friday afternoon Highlights post. All of these post listings are also available as RSS feeds.
8. What do you personally still have trouble with, and how will you tackle these challenges in 2008?
Writing and thinking about productivity and efficiency every day of the week for the past three years has made me more than a little neurotic and anal about getting things done. My goal in 2008 is to relax more, and remember that the reason why anyone wants to get more done in less time and with less effort is to have more time to experience life. So in 2008, my plans include more vacations, more time with my family and friends, and less worrying!
At the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in San Diego, Gina gave a presentation called “Personal Productivity is Personal,” and it is. Just remember that, while there is no single path to productivity that works for everyone, there is one path to total lack of productivity: trying to please everyone.
Do you have a routine — or simple productivity hacks — that have stood the test of time for you?
Posted on: March 17, 2008.