To get it done, write it down

Lessons from three “lifehackers”, 10 years on

post-it notes cover a wall

I n the early 2000s, during the heyday of blogging and before the rise of social networking, I became obsessed with a sub-genre of blogs focused on productivity, mostly aimed at people working in technology. A blogger myself, these sites—filled with elaborate rituals and systems to keep procrastination at bay—helped me get a little more out of each working day.

Years later, I wonder: Did reading those blogs help me? Did they help their millions of readers? And in a world increasingly filled with potential distractions only a tap away, which of their techniques for staying focused (and happy) have had the most lasting power?

 

A term emerges

Danny O'Brien
Danny O’Brien, writer

 

In 2004, Danny O’Brien gave a presentation called “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks.” O’Brien’s talk described patterns he noticed in hacker friends — that they’d all developed systems for getting work done, they tended to obsessively write things down in text files, and they often used simple command-line utilities instead of bloated do-everything apps. With this talk, the term “lifehack” was born and it spread through technology culture.

“In the end everything I do is just all text,” says O’Brien, “It’s not like a simple text file format is superior, but it’s ubiquitous, and flexible.”

In the years that followed, O’Brien chronicled “life hacks” in venues like a column in Make Magazine, but these days he works as the international director at the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

O’Brien says he still looks for ways to automate aspects of his life, and his favorite thing to do is browse Github looking for “half-baked but useful scripts” that mostly solve the problem he’s seeking. Many of his tools remain unchanged: his primary communication is still email, which he reads in a command-line Mutt client with plenty of custom scripts. And he continues to keep to-do lists in text files.

“In the end everything I do is just all text,” says O’Brien, “It’s not like a simple text file format is superior, but it’s ubiquitous, and flexible.”

 

Getting to inbox zero

Merlin Matt
Merlin Mann, writer and podcast host

 

Merlin Mann launched 43folders.com soon after reading about O’Brien’s talk. His site was filled with tips on the best Mac software for getting work done as well lessons learned from popular productivity books, adapted for the new digital age.

“I was a project manager at the time and was feeling overwhelmed,” Mann says. “That was causing me to seek out all of this stuff. It just kind of made sense to share it with people.”

For the next five years, Mann developed his Inbox Zero philosophy about managing time and attention, which centered on not letting distractions rule your life. He recognized that these new tools and avenues of communication could overwhelm us if we let them.

“Procrastination in a nut, is feeling terrible that you haven’t done something that in your heart you know you’re never going to do,” says Mann. “That’s no way to live.”

Today, Mann spends most of his time as a podcast host. His shows tackle similar topics, but instead of talking strictly about productivity, Back to Work explores the root causes and behaviors that lead to people feeling overwhelmed.

As technology changes, he insists it’s important to revisit your workflows, to stay loose and pliable, and consider new approaches instead of fearing change and shutting down.

“Procrastination in a nut, is feeling terrible that you haven’t done something that in your heart you know you’re never going to do,” says Mann. “That’s no way to live.”

The lifehacker

Gina Trapani
Gina Trapani, writer and engineer

Gina Trapani was a software engineer at Gawker.com, and when her boss Nick Denton mentioned he purchased “lifehacker.com” but didn’t know what to do with it, she had plenty of ideas. Instead of hiring a dedicated writer, Denton asked her to take the helm, and in January of 2005, she launched Lifehacker. To this day, the site has an audience of over 20 million daily readers.

“The combination of reading about self improvement, personal productivity, and writing 20 posts a day — I was applying the techniques I was writing about onto that job,” says Trapani.

Looking back, Trapani admits that Lifehacker’s busy publishing schedule was a bit much. She says posting four or five useful, considered posts each week instead of dozens per day would have been more respectful of readers’ time and attention — ironically allowing them to get more of their own work done — but there wasn’t a business model for fewer posts back then.

“I’m still a huge list maker” says Trapani. “The to-do lists, not to hammer that home, it’s a form of anxiety management for me.”

These days she’s back to being a software engineer, and the biggest thing that stuck with her is the process of writing everything down. Her mantra is to “capture everything, externalize, get it out of my head” and refer back to her notes constantly.

She also realized organizing her work around a to-do list was too short term and didn’t give her perspective to tackle larger issues in her life. She’s since expanded these ideas into her own three-tiered framework, where a dozen or so major life goals manifest into dozens of projects, and her daily to-dos end up as tasks in each project. Every week she takes time to review her progress on tasks, projects, and goals, and adjusts accordingly.

“I’m still a huge list maker” says Trapani. “The to-do lists, not to hammer that home, it’s a form of anxiety management for me.”

 

Matt Haughey is a born procrastinator who reads productivity blogs mostly as a spectator sport.

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