What I’m working on:
Besides writing and editing on a freelance basis, I’m currently pairing up with a friend—who also happens to be one of my favorite technology and cybersecurity journalists—to pitch and launch a new podcast series. On the side, I’m working on a new narrative project with the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. I can’t spill details yet, but it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on because I get to be an interactive narrative designer, and I’m learning tons along the way as a storyteller and writer. It’s another project in which as a journalist I get to put on a new hat, and also step out of my comfort zone and work closely with developers, social researchers, and engineers to tell a story whose throughline crisscrosses many disciplines. I love experimentation and trying new writing styles on for size by collaborating on such projects.
Where I work:
I’m currently based in Cairo, Egypt, not traveling much since the pandemic took the world by storm. I’ve set up a nice little home office and workspace, like I’ve wanted to do for years, including a space for podcasting, which is making returning to any form of office life in the near future very untempting. It took time to build it up and invest in certain equipment and gadgets that make my life a little easier, but it’s certainly paying off.
I wish I could pretend to be one of those super-disciplined journalists who has a killer work routine but, unfortunately, I can’t. But I do begin my workday with a to-do list. I cannot function without those. I usually alternate between digital and paper lists. It feels good to hear that rewarding “ping” after you check something off the list, but depending on my mood, it might feel better to physically cross out a task on paper using a pen or pencil.
Something else I incorporated into my work routine during quarantine, and which I’m immensely grateful for, is relying on a virtual coworking application called Focusmate for company. It basically revolves around being paired with strangers that you can work with—virtually, of course—and get things done in 50-minute chunks via video conferencing. It’s definitely useful when I’m distracted or unable to focus. Though we work in silence, there’s a sense of community and accountability that I appreciate, and which I dearly need as a self-employed journalist. At the beginning of each session, you declare a small goal, such as, “I want to research so and so,” or, “I want to finish up a 300-word story,” and you circle back at the end to check in on progress. In this increasingly isolated world, it does help to have some company, particularly if you suffer from ADHD or mental health issues that can get in the way of being productive or focused. It certainly gets me in the zone.
Most productive part of my day:
For me, it’s early mornings or very late at night, depending on my schedule, which differs from day to day because I hop between different projects. Almost all my employers are U.S.-based, which means that on some days I prefer to wake up late and work late into the night to sync up time zones or to be available for meetings or emails.
Generally, I like the stillness of working when the world around me hasn’t woken up yet or when it’s slowing down. I’m the least productive in the afternoon (I call it “dead time”), so I usually reserve that time for meetings.
Most essential ritual or habit:
I cannot write on a blank page. Nope. Nearly 17 years as a journalist and writer, and still, a blank page thoroughly intimidates me. So a strange ritual that I follow to get over this is to copy and paste any old story into a new document, push that chunk of text to the middle of the page, and then start writing the new material up top. It’s a way to trick my mind into feeling that, hey, the page isn’t empty after all. When I have enough new text to fill, say, half a page, I delete the old stuff.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
Yes, strangely, either run-of-the-mill composition notebooks (those marble notebooks that you can get from Target in the U.S. or stationary shops in Egypt) or the more expensive Moleskines—their pens and notebooks are the best. I have no middle ground.
Digitally, I prefer Google Docs to MS Word because it allows for more collaboration, but it depends on the project—sometimes, I like writing when I feel no one is (figuratively) looking over my shoulder.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
I don’t. I hate all types of scheduled alerts and alarms. They stress me out. I do pin my digital apps, such Microsoft To Do on my PC and Todoist on my Mac, to the main doc, so they’re always in my sight while I’m working.
If I have an upcoming task that I know is important or high priority, I begrudgingly ask Google Home or Siri to remind me of it periodically (by setting multiple reminders and spreading them out). Because the software has a human voice, it feels less like an alarm and more like a friendly nudge.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
My iPad is where I think. I like doodling or jotting down random notes in Notability when I’m thinking about a new idea, preferably while listening to a podcast—it serves as white noise sometimes, but only when I’m in the thinking/research phase. For instance, I cannot listen to music or podcasts while I write. It distracts me. I like working in near silence.
For writing, a mechanical keyboard. Once I nabbed one of those, I never looked back. The writing experience is superior to regular keyboards, in my opinion, and I find the clicky typing sound very soothing. The switches on my keyboard are not the loudest (they’re the equivalent of Cherry MX Brown), but they’re audible enough to be satisfying. I recommend all writers try out mechanical keyboards at least once and see how they feel—they’re a game-changer.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
I have so many of those. I call my brand of procrastination “productive procrastination,” mainly because things often do get done, but not necessarily the things that I’d initially set out to do. So in an attempt to procrastinate, I may do laundry, or clean up after the cats, draw or paint (perhaps never finish that), meet someone in VRchat, or even learn a new skill (for real—anything to escape the actual work I need to be doing). But there are times when it’s not at all productive—such as falling down a rabbit hole of very intense Twitter threads or watching tens of gadget reviews on YouTube back to back (I often emerge an expert on one type of equipment or another, one that I’ll probably never buy or use for the rest of my life).
My reading habits:
There are books that I read for work (for instance, because I’m interviewing the author or editing a review of the book), and others that I read for pleasure (mostly it’s sci-fi these days). But when I say “read,” I’m also including audiobooks, because I can listen to those when my eyes are tired but my mind is still active and wants more out of the day. I find audiobooks less distracting too, especially that I can listen to them on my phone when it’s on flight mode, and with the lights turned off (if you have one of those overactive, overthinking, somewhat scattered brains, as I do, it does help to reduce the world around you to a single stimulus to be able to concentrate better). Right now, I’m reading two books at once (different genres): Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene, and finishing up Dune by Frank Herbert. I wanted to finish it before watching the movie, but I couldn’t wait (thankfully the film covers only the first half of the book). So much to unpack in both. I listen to audiobooks before going to bed (they help me power down), and I sometimes read in the afternoon if I don’t have any scheduled meetings (that “dead time”). I’m not a fast reader anymore, but I try not to beat myself up over it.
Messed up. Send prayers or useful tips, please. Or check in next year. Perhaps I will have figured it out by then.