Productive Habits: an interview with Carla Sinclair

Terrie Schweitzer interviewed my wife, Boing Boing co-founder and Wink editor Carla Sinclair, about her daily work and fitness routine.

Are there any habits you’re trying to develop now? What motivated you to work on them?

Yes! I’ve had chronic insomnia for a couple of years now, and after trying everything from acupuncture and herbs to hormones and prescription meds, I decided to create something I call the 30-day Sleep Challenge. I made a list of habits I had to stick to for 30 days, which included the 10 minutes of sun and meditation I mentioned above, 30 minutes of exercise every day, no caffeine after breakfast (I used to drink it in the afternoon), no aspartame, no “screens” (TV, computer…) after 6:00 unless I’m wearing orange “blue light blocking” glasses, and most importantly, keep the iPhone out of my bedroom when I go to sleep (I was so tempted to read email, news, Facebook, etc whenever I woke up in the middle of the night). I just finished this challenge a few days ago, but it was so successful—my sleep isn’t perfect yet but it greatly improved—that I’m continuing it. I’m making these habits part of my regular lifestyle.

My workflow in the WSJ

I'm profiled in today's Wall Street Journal, where they asked me about the tools I use to be productive, safe and happy on the road and at home.

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Cory's HOW I WORK interview

I did a How I Work interview for Lifehacker, where I talked about the tools I use, and how I use them:

What apps/software/tools can't you live without?

Ubuntu and the suite of GNU tools in any robust Unix system. A good text editor (currently Gedit)—I keep all of my working files at .txts. A robust, highly configurable browser (Firefox/Firefox for Android). A fast RSS reader (presently Google Reader, likely to be Newsblur next). A tetherable mobile connection—I use EasyTether for Android to circumvent tether-blocking as deployed by some of the carriers I use around the world, especially Rogers in Canada. AirDroid for moving files on/off Android devices in my life. An external USB battery (currently PowerGen 5200mAh External Battery Pack).

A rugged, roomy, weatherproof backpack (currently a Bagjack Skidcat). A moneyclip. A small, six-card credit-card wallet. LibreOffice spreadsheets for bookkeeping. GPG, cryptsetup, and TrueCrypt for information security. A high-performance mailer with functional scripting engine (currently Thunderbird with a ton of rules and a huge black-listed kill file and white-listed address book). A titanium Widgy keychain prybar (pictured at right)—useful as a pocket knife but flies (heh) under TSA/BAA radar. No-name, easy to replace earbuds with integrated mic for phone. Exeze waterproof MP3 player for swimming. AquaSphere Seal swim goggles—I swim everyday for about an hour and listen to last night's CBC's As It Happens news podcast. Exeze + Aquasphere are a reasonably priced, reliable goggles/MP3 combo. GoToob silicone bottles for shampoo/soap for the pool—these have strong, reliable suction cups that stick them perfectly to the shower wall.

A no-name, cheap mini screwdriver set—I get these confiscated about six times a year by airport security, especially the jerks at Gatwick airport, but it's worth buying a new set every time. Catering-sized sachets of Tabasco—these don't show up as liquid on airport scanners, unlike the mini bottles. I put Tabasco on everything. I'd use it for contact-lens solution if I could. Aeropress—the single most versatile and reliable way of making coffee, especially on the road. Perfect when paired with a Porlex hand-grinder.

I’m Cory Doctorow, and This Is How I Work

HOWTO work at a company without a boss

NewImage

Today at Institute for the Future's conference about "Re-Aligning Human Organization" my colleague Jason Tester showed the image above in his presentation. It's from video game developer Valve Corporation's employee manual that was released online (PDF) earlier this year. It's also a good summary of how new editorial projects get done (or not) at Boing Boing!

Tempo: transformative, difficult look at advanced decision-making theory


As I’ve noted here before, Venkatesh Rao is a thought-provoking, profound thinker, and I always welcome his long, fascinating blog posts.

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Hidden cognitive costs of doing stuff

Sebastian Marshall's Lifehacker post on the cognitive cost of "doing things" is a really interesting look at all the hidden "costs" that keep you from doing stuff, and that you pay when you make stuff happen. I'm especially interested in "activation energy" -- "starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it," particularly this: "Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started." I get a lot email asking me to help out with stuff, and I certainly notice that the more nebulous the request is, the more likely the email is to sit in my inbox for days or weeks as I try to figure out what to do about it. I'm certainly going to keep this in mind the next time I try to get someone else to do a favor for me.
Ego/willpower depletion - The Wikipedia article on ego depletion is pretty good. Basically, a lot of recent research shows that by doing something that takes significant willpower your "battery" of willpower gets drained some, and it becomes harder to do other high-will-required tasks. From Wikipedia: " In an illustrative experiment on ego depletion, participants who controlled themselves by trying not to laugh while watching a comedian did worse on a later task that required self-control compared to participants who did not have to control their laughter while watching the video." I'd strongly recommend you do some reading on this topic if you haven't - Roy Baumeister has written some excellent papers on it. The pattern holds pretty firm - when someone resists, say, eating a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to focus and persist doing rote work later.
The Cognitive Cost of Doing Things

Godin's Poke the Box: manifesto demands that you go do something now!

Seth Godin’s Poke the Box is a breezy, short manifesto that extols the virtue of taking initiative and doing stuff, even though you might fail or annoy the people you work with.

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HOWTO make money

Sage advice from 37 Signals' Jason Fried on how to get good at making money through low-risk iteration and practice:
So here's a great way to practice making money: Buy and sell the same thing over and over on Craigslist or eBay. Seriously.

Go buy something on Craigslist or eBay. Find something that's a bit of a commodity, so you know there's always plenty of supply and demand. An iPod is a good test. Buy it, and then immediately resell it. Then buy it again. Each time, try selling it for more than you paid for it. See how far you can push it. See how much profit you can make off 10 transactions.

Start tweaking the headline. Then start fiddling with the product description. Vary the photographs. Take some pictures of the thing for sale; use other photos with other items, or people, in them. Shoot really high-quality shots, and also post crappy ones from your cell-phone camera. Try every variation you can think of.

I love doing this, because there's no real risk involved. If you already have a business, you don't need to dream up a new product line or rock the boat with crazy experiments. If you don't have a business, it's a perfect way to work on your chops.

How to Make Money in 6 Easy Steps (via Kottke)

Captain Beefheart's "10 Commandments of Guitar Playing"

I haven't played a stringed instrument since high school, but "Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing" sounds like damned good advice for whatever you're passionate about.
...2. Your guitar is not really a guitar
Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush
Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread...

7. Always carry a church key
That's your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He's one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song "I Need a Hundred Dollars" is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty -- making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.

8. Don't wipe the sweat off your instrument
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing (via Making Light)

(Image: Trout Mask Replica, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from seventime's photostream)

Overcome information overload by trusting redundancy

My latest Guardian column, "Information overload? Time to relax then," describes a technique for overcoming "information overload" by letting go of the idea that if you overlook something in your inbox, RSS reader, or other feed that it'll disappear forever. The faster your feeds get, the more the good stuff gets repeated -- trust the redundancy and embrace non-deterministic information consumption!

This was a real struggle at first. There is a world of difference between reading every word uttered in a community and reading just a few choice ones. But soon the anxiety gave way to contentment and even delight: it turned out that "overload" has a wonderful corollary: redundancy.

Anything really worth seeing wouldn't just appear once and vanish. The really interesting stuff would find its way into other discussions, and early conferencing systems made it easy enough to back my way through the forums I was ignoring or skimming to find the important thing I'd missed.

This pattern went on to repeat itself again and again. Once, I could read all the Usenet discussion groups my ISP carried, then only a selection, and then only one or two plus a longer list of groups I'd dip into now and again when time allowed.

Information overload? Time to relax then

(Image: LOGO2.0 part I and II, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Ludwig Gatzke's photostream. More.)

XKCD's productivity tip: reboot your computer every time you get bored

In the punchline of the most recent XKCD, creator Randall Munroe says that he avoids falling into a procrastinatory clicktrance by setting "simple 30-second delay I had to wait through, in which I couldn't do anything else, before any new page or chat client would load (and only allowed one to run at once). The urge to check all those sites magically vanished--and my 'productive' computer use was unaffected."

Now Randall reveals the simple tactic he uses to insert this productivity-saving delay:

I made it a rule that as soon as I finished any task, or got bored with it, I had to power off my computer.

I could turn it back on right away--this wasn't about trying to use the computer less. The rule was just that the moment I finished (or lost interest in) the thing I was doing, and felt like checking Google News et. al., before I had time to think too much, I'd start the shutdown process. There was no struggle of willpower; I knew that after I hit the button, I could decide to do anything I wanted. But if I decided to look at a website, I'd have to wait through the startup, and once I was done, I'd have to turn it off again before doing anything else. (This works best if your ongoing activities are persistent online--for example, all my IRC chat is through irssi running in screen, so turning off my laptop doesn't make me sign out.)

Distraction Affliction Correction Extension

Video anthology of time-saving tips

Yes, it's one of those icky, deliberately "viral" videos from a big, stupid telco, but this five-minute video is a seriously interesting anthology of time-saving tips, some of which have been shamelessly nicked from existing video hits (I've been a big fan of high-speed t-shirt folding since we featured it here 7 or 8 years ago), others are new to me, and collectively, they represent substantial relief from the pitiless drudgery imposed by stupid physics.

Time Saver of the Day

HOWTO avoid writer's block

Great advice from Roald Dahl (via Lifehacker) on keeping your momentum going on big projects: leave the last task you're working on before putting the project away unfinished. I always do this when working on long writing projects, like novels: I stop mid-sentence at the end of each session. That way, the next time I sit down to work, I can type several words without having to be "creative," and by the time I've done that, I'm back in the groove.
"When you are going good, stop writing." And that means that if everything's going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter's going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don't go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next?
Leave Your Tasks Unfinished to Maintain Momentum and Avoid Mental Blocks

GeekDesk

geekdesk.jpeg The GeekDesk is the best and most versatile desk I have found for my home office. It uses an electric motor to switch from sitting to standing position, and after nearly a year of using other standing desks I can say that it is one of the best investments anyone can make if they are interested in an adjustable desk. My foray into standing desks began when I started working from home more often. I found that when I was sitting at work I would easily become distracted and more often than not lethargic. After reading several articles about the perils of sitting around all day I decided it was probably in my best interest to get a standing desk. My first standing desk was a lectern I found on craigslist for $10. It was not adjustable, had an angled surface, and wasn't the best solution. But for the cost, it served me well. I learned how to stand all day, and the small footprint of the podium meant that I could keep my regular desk without sacrificing too much space. The difference between sitting and standing was immediately noticeable. I was much more likely to walk away from my desk and do something that needed to get done, I found that I didn't tire as much, and that my back no longer hurt from long days in a soft cushy chair. I was a standing desk convert.

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HOWTO Run a meeting like Google

BusinessWeek has a nice feature on Google's vice-president of search products, Marissa Mayer, who holds 70+ (apparently productive) meetings a week. I loathe meetings, to an entirely dysfunctional extent (as those who've worked with me can attest), but even I would consider attending one of Mayer's meetings. But not 70 of them.
1. Set a firm agenda.
Mayer requests a meeting agenda ahead of time that outlines what the participants want to discuss and the best way of using the allotted time. Agendas need to have flexibility, of course, but Mayer finds that agendas act as tools that force individuals to think about what they want to accomplish in meetings. It helps all those involved to focus on what they are really trying to achieve and how best to reach that goal.

2. Assign a note-taker.
A Google meeting features a lot of displays. On one wall, a projector displays the presentation, while right next to it, another projector shows the transcription of the meeting. (Yet another displays a 4-foot image of a ticking stopwatch.) Google executives are big believers in capturing an official set of notes, so inaccuracies and inconsistencies can be caught immediately.

Those who missed the meetings receive a copy of the notes. When people are trying to remember what decisions were made, in what direction the team is going, and what actions need to be taken, they can simply review the notes.

How to Run a Meeting Like Google (via O'Reilly Radar)