What I’m working on:
Right now I’m working on two stories I reported last month in Nigeria for Nature. I traveled around a handful of states in Nigeria for three weeks, and talked with everyone I could at every waking hour. On these trips I’m trying to learn the context of a place as rapidly and accurately as possible—and talking with just a handful of people might lead me to overgeneralize. But now it’s quite painful to carve this mountain of information into a succinct story that’s less than 2,500 words.
At the same time, I’m taking phone calls from researchers in the U.S. who are feeling the effects of the government shutdown. This is for a collaborative piece that someone else on our team will write up. And I’m setting up interviews surrounding the upcoming J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco and planning a visit to a fancy aging-research institute north of San Francisco. As Nature’s West Coast reporter and occasional Africa correspondent, I get to bounce around between scientists solving problems for the richest and the poorest people in the world.
Where I work:
Most of the time I’m in my one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, California. My editors at Nature are in Washington, DC, New York, and London, so we stay in touch by email, phone, and Slack. I like my home office because I have a wide monitor, a Herman Miller Aeron chair, high ceilings, huge windows, my tchotchkes, and snacks. Sometimes I am dog-sitting a quirky Pomeranian named Peaches. Sometimes I ride my motorcycle to an office that I rent in Oakland. I share the space with several other writers who I find inspiring. Occasionally, I commute across the Bay Bridge to Nature’s San Francisco office to catch up with colleagues.
When I’m lucky enough to leave the desk to report, I’m in labs, conference halls, or national parks in California. Or I’m covering science in a middle- or low-income country. Over the past few years, I’ve reported from Myanmar, Cambodia, Jordan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and South Africa. I’m in a constant state of plotting a return to Africa.
By 7:00 a.m., I’m drinking coffee in front of my computer and reading about what the world has done while California was dark. If no news requires me to act fast, I stop polluting my morning hours with the Internet. This switch involves eating oatmeal or eggs and diving into work (i.e., writing, outlining, reading reports, or calling scientists on the phone.)
If I’m working on a feature, I’ll launch into it by starting my soundtrack. I pick a musician for each big story, and I’ll play them on repeat until the story is done. (My Nigeria feature will be accompanied by Osita Osadebe and Fela Kuti; the feature before that was written to Agnes Obel.)
I eat lunch at my desk. By 2:30 p.m. the rest of the world is done for the day and my brain is tired, so I’ll either go for a short hike, head to the gym, or walk around the neighborhood with an old friend who works at a dog-collar shop kitty corner from my place.
After that, I’ll catch up on emails, contact scientists to set up interviews for upcoming stories, look into story ideas, or write any simple, brief pieces that Nature regularly needs. At the end of my day, I’ll glance at my daily planner and see if there’s something urgent I’ve forgotten. Then I’ll move all the many things I did not do onto the next day. “Figure out iCloud” has been moved to the next day for about six months.
Although it happens, I don’t like working after 6:30 p.m. By then I want to get dressed, have a glass of wine, and be social.
Most productive part of my day:
7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. I think anyone reporting from the West Coast needs to become a morning person. It’s the price Californians pay for unparalleled beauty and sunshine.
Most essential ritual or habit:
Coffee, walks, and sleep. Riding my motorcycle—even if just commuting—helps too. It feels like it deep cleans my mind since it requires me to pay attention to the moment.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
Black Pilot .7mm pens. Sony IC recorder. Small Five Star notebooks. I shoot photos with my iPhone and a Sony a7 mirrorless digital camera. But the most essential must-have for traveling in places without reliable health systems is a first aid kit. Mine is from REI.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
Old-fashioned daily planner. I use Google Calendar for deadlines, phone interviews, conferences, and reminders to check in with various researchers at later points in time.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
iPhone (for photos to recall what I’ve seen, notes when it’s impossible to write or type, and the flashlight—a must-have for far-flung reporting). Scanner Pro app to turn pages of my notebook into PDFs. Freedom, a free website blocker to limit social media traps while writing. I record details on ideas for future stories on Trello. When I was freelance, I relied heavily on Wave, free software to keep track of invoices and payments. I use the RSS reader Feedly for news. I use Instapaper to send long articles to my Kindle. I use the 7 Minute Workout app for days when I don’t get enough exercise. I use the meditation app Insight Timer, to calm my anxiety. My Nature team communicates on Slack, and my editor has set up a GIF channel that makes me very happy. Nothing says hello quite like a GIF of corgis running through a field of daisies.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Walking to the bodega for gummies. Gabbing on the phone. Looking for weird GIFs. I enjoy Instagram because I can share all the beautiful stuff I see while traveling that isn’t related to a story. I’ve gotten story ideas and sources by keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook, but to quote a friend of mine: It feels like looking for an apple in a dumpster.
My reading habits:
During work hours, I read scientific journal articles. Outside of work, I try to keep up with feature stories related to my beat by sending them to my Kindle. I also attempt to keep up with The New Yorker.
I have a bunch of award-winning science books that I have failed to finish. At the end of the day, I really just want to read fiction, or short nonfiction pieces that aren’t science-y. But I tend to choose books that relate to what I’m thinking about for work. For instance, because I’m Nature’s West Coast correspondent, I’m trying to understand the culture out west, so I’ve read a lot from authors like T.C. Boyle and Joan Didion over the past year. When I went to Nigeria, I loaded my Kindle up with Elnathan John, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Alexis Okeowo.
Ideally I’m in bed 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Sometimes I’ll quiet the nocturnal hamsters in my brain by listening to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast or woowoo meditations on Insight Timer.