What I’m Working On:
Currently, I’m trying to get back into the swing of my regular rhythm after being pregnant and going on maternity leave last fall. It was really hard for me to focus on work the last month or so of my pregnancy and then Althea was born and I took two months off. She started daycare at the beginning of January, and so now I also have a totally new family routine to arrange my work life around. But I’m getting the hang of it.
I’m a freelancer, but I have a couple of contract gigs that play a big role in my monthly and daily cycles. I’m the science editor at BoingBoing.net, a technology and culture blog with 6 million monthly readers. I also have a monthly column with The New York Times Magazine. On a daily basis, I have to browse the internet and find neat science-related stories, videos, and pictures to link to at BoingBoing. On a weekly basis, I’m usually working on one of the three feature stories I write for BoingBoing every month. Overlaid on top of that is the Times work, which I usually do over the course of two weeks every month. Then there’s deadlines for other stories that I’ve pitched, a bi-monthly column I write for Ensia magazine, and the time I take to work on my more long-term goals, like a new book project I’m in the process of writing a proposal for.
Where I Work:
I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I used to work in my office, which is in the basement of our house. I’ve got a walking desk down there and my own separate thermostat, which is lovely in winter. But since I came back after maternity leave I’ve been working at the dining room table upstairs. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, my office is in the midst of a deep clean/organizing. It’s at that stage where it’s actually almost clean, but still looks like a wreck and it’s hard for me to work in the midst of that. The other issue is pumping. Now that my daughter is in daycare, I have to use the breast pump four times a day, roughly every two hours throughout my workday. Doing that upstairs, a couple of steps from the kitchen sink and the refrigerator, makes the whole thing feel like less of a distraction to my work time. But I like breastfeeding when I’m not at work, so I figure that anything that makes pumping even a little bit less of a hassle is probably worth it.
I also do a decent amount of traveling throughout the year. I published a book in 2012 and spent 1/3 of my work days on the road that year. I don’t expect the rest of my life to involve that much travel, but once you start talking to people in public, it seems to create more opportunities to talk to people in public. Between public speaking, research trips, and conferences, I’m usually on the road at least 4-5 days a month, averaged out. I find that travel can really disrupt your work process if you aren’t careful. I used to sit in bed in hotels and work, but I had to stop doing that because I’m just not at all productive in that relaxed posture. Now, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the hotel business center or, at the very least, use the desk in the hotel room.
Now that Althea exists, my daily routine starts early, about 6:30 am. I set my alarm so I can wake up and have her fed by 7:00. Then my husband and I get out of bed and he gets ready for work while I get her ready for daycare. They leave by 7:45ish and that’s when I exercise. I bought an elliptical machine off Craigslist a few years ago, from a gym that was going out of business, and so working out just means going down to the basement.
I start work about 9:00, sometimes a little earlier. Usually, I knock out my daily blog posts for BoingBoing first thing, before I move on to other stuff. That takes about an hour and a half, most days. The rest of the day really varies a lot, depending on what I have on my plate at that given time. I have ADHD and it’s really easy for me to get distracted and be unproductive, so I have lots of little tricks I rely on to keep me focused throughout the day. I used to use a timer on my computer a lot, just to have something that, periodically, forced me to look up and think about what I was doing and what I had to do next. But I find now that the two hours between breast pump sessions actually does that job pretty well. I also jump back and forth between stuff on my to-do list, depending on what I feel motivated to do. If I just can’t get myself to write during a given two-hour block, I’m better off answering email or sending out interview requests than just sitting there, staring at a blank page.
Most Productive Part of My Day:
The baby thing has made me weirdly super productive for most of the work day. At least, that’s been the case so far. I’ve got Althea hanging over me now. I can’t just easily work late or on weekends when I don’t get what I need to get done done during the day. Working outside the 8:30-5:30 range requires coordination with my husband and it requires not spending time with my daughter. And that knowledge has just changed the way my work days flow, it seems.
My Most Essential Ritual or Habit:
In winter I measure my life in giant mugs of hot water. I think I’ve almost gotten myself psychologically addicted to having a big, ceramic mug of something warm right in front of me. It makes me feel more refreshed and awake. It gives me something to hold, like a security blanket, while I work through a sentence in my head. When it gets cold or I finish it, I have to go get a new one.
iPhone, the blue one.
MacBook Air. I finally upgraded after lugging around the same white MacBook for seven years. I was really excited about going to conferences with it, because it’s so much lighter. I had all these fantasies about walking away from AAAS without a neck cramp. Then I remembered that I have to take the breast pump.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
For phone interviews: Skype, Call Recorder, and Stickies. I can type fast enough to get down pretty much everything from an interview as it’s happening and I type it directly into the Sticky note on the desktop. As I finish stories, the contents of the Stickies are transferred to archived Word docs and/or Evernote.
For in-person interviews: I swear by the Livescribe pen. The Livescribe allows me to record audio and take notes, with the audio linked up to the notes, so that later I can find exactly the audio quotes and information I want quickly, just by tapping on the note that corresponds to what I’m looking for. It’s great. Plus my pen and recorder are one object, which means less stuff to juggle around. It’s also a great ice-breaker with sources. Everybody wants to poke at it for a couple of minutes. Then they seem to forget it’s even there.
Google Calendar keeps my life in order and helps me coordinate with my husband’s life and the lives of our friends. Without it, I’d never get to anything on time and I wouldn’t have a social life.
I’m experimenting with a new organizational system that I’m calling Just Put Everything in Evernote. All my research notes, papers, Livescribe notes and audio, everything … it all goes into Evernote, organized by story, and I can find it easily on my phone or my computer, even when I’m offline. The new Livescribe pen I got even uploads the audio and notes to Evernote automatically, whenever it has access to wifi.
I increasingly do my writing in Google Docs. Or Drive, or whatever they call it now. It’s been worth it for the couple of times I’ve already needed to access stuff when I’m away from my computer. And it helps with the nagging fear that I’m going to lose, damage, or destroy the laptop at some point, halfway through writing a story. On the same lines, I periodically save everything to Dropbox.
When I was working on my book, I used DEVONthink to organize and store papers, interview transcripts, etc. For a writing project that spanned months, it was great to have a system that allowed me to do an easy keyword search of everything. Otherwise, I’d forget what important stuff was where or said by whom. I also like that I could turn the entire project into a single compressed file. I did that monthly and saved it to Dropbox, so that, if something happened to the computer, it wouldn’t take my whole book with it.
I love EasyCrop for quickly adjusting images for use on my BoingBoing posts. It just makes life easier.
I bought a scanner a couple of years ago, and it’s been damn near life changing. It saves me tons of time that I used to spend walking down to the UPS store to fax out contracts or photocopy pages from books.
Unless absolutely forbidden to use it, I do all my presentations in Prezi. Preparing for my book tour, I found that it was easier for me to conceptualize the flow of a presentation in that program, where you start with this big white space and can just throw everything onto the page and then start to move it around into the proper order. Thinking one slide at a time in PowerPoint was a lot harder for me. I also love the convenience. I build a presentation, download it onto a thumb drive, and then I can just run it anywhere, on any computer. I don’t have to have a Mac. I don’t have to have a PC. I just show up with my thumb drive, pop it in whatever they’ve got, and it just works. It’s great.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Twitter and Facebook are both necessary for my work and a huge time suck, if I’m not careful. The same thing is true, I think, of the several lovely email listserv groups I’m a part of. There have been times where I’ve just had to let myself feel a little rude and/or left out of something interesting so that I could separate myself from the conversation and get work done.
My reading habits:
Since I came back to work, I’ve been reading fiction in my down time, and really enjoying it. I spent so many years reading almost nothing but work-related stuff. The responsibility of parenting was, apparently, what I needed to “allow” myself to just go out and read for fun, instead of only reading stuff I was trying to review or learn from. It’s been nice. I forgot how fast I can read fiction. It’s really different from reading non-fiction.
Check back with me in 6-10 months.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, science editor of BoingBoing.net, and the author of two books, most recently Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us. Follow her on Twitter @maggiekb1.