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2×4: An Interview With Brett Terpstra

2×4: An Interview With Brett Terpstra

    2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.

    There is a day in every Apple geek’s life that leaves a permanent mark; it’s a day we all remember. It’s a moment in time where things change, and get better. Tasks that once seemed complicated become easier. You discover new tools that make your work on and for the web more efficient.

    That day is the day you discover Brett Terpstra.

    To discover Brett is to want to learn more about what you can make for your Mac. You start going down rabbit holes that you never imagined yourself going down. For the uninitiated, Brett is the developer of Marked, the Senior Dev at AOL, he is a frequent blogger on both his own site and TUAW and as Brett it himself said, “I create elegant solutions to complex problems.” He also creates exceptionally useful tools such as nvALT and helpful resources such as his library of TextExpander tools. Brett is generous with his time and his creations and even though those of us who are not deeply technical will occasionally find ourselves in over our heads, his creations are useful for all levels of geek, including all of us productivity and “lifehack types.

    Without any further ado, here’s an inside look at how Brett Terpstra manages to do in a week what many of us would find to be impossible in a lifetime.

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

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    Not really, but not for lack of desire.

    My younger brother is an amazing artist; even his toddler scribbles were always fridge-worthy. In my single-digit years, I was a bit competitive and constantly assured myself I was just as creative as he was. It wasn’t true, at least not in the fine arts disciplines, but I maintained a shaky confidence for a while.

    In a parallel story, my father brought home a PC Jr. when I was six. I started experimenting in Logo and BASIC and solving Kings Quest games. I didn’t realize at the time that these were creative pursuits.

    After coming to terms with the fact that drawing and painting were not my fortes, I pursued my technical interests. I built my own PCs, started a BBS and continued programming. I also acquired a used Tascam 4-track, a keyboard and an acoustic guitar and began piling up cassettes full of compositions. Once again, I didn’t really piece together the connection between all of these things.

    I went to college at the University of Minnesota for Computer Science, failed Calc 2 and–for some reason– decided to try art school. I went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for a BA in Interactive Multimedia. It was there that I finally came to understand that my technical and creative sides were tightly intertwined; I realized I’d been creative all along.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

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    Computers. My peers often espouse starting on paper, but my creative flow is much smoother when I have a keyboard and trackpad in front of me. I brainstorm in digital mind maps, record in DAWs, outline and build solutions in text editors and design in vector and photo-editing applications. I know that more analog mediums are better for some people, but they don’t click for me the way that digital solutions do.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    I think an app I wrote in 2006 called MoodBlast would be my pride and joy. MoodBlast was a way to update 6 of the most popular micro-blogging services simultaneously from a HUD you could pop up with a keyboard shortcut. Everyone’s forgotten about it by now, but it was the attention that it received that made me start thinking that some things that came easily to me were less obvious to others. It may not have been the best work of my life, but it was a turning point in my awareness of my own capabilities (and limitations, but that’s another story).

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

    I think the takeaway from my own story is that you might not be creative in the areas you initially want to be, but by examining the things you are good at (or at least drawn to), you might find that you’re already creative— and exceptional. Embrace those talents and constantly explore and develop them. All creativity comes back to solving a problem, whether it’s putting ideas on paper or canvas, making physical objects do something useful or beautiful or making bits and bytes ease a workflow???.

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

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    I head up the team of developers behind tech blogs including Engadget, The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Joystiq. I work mostly on front-end code and design, and provide a communication bridge between the platform developers and my team. I also develop and support Marked and other Mac applications in my “spare” time.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    I ran my own business for a few years, freelanced for a bit and have worked from home for quite a while now. The one thing I’ve learned is that areas of responsibility need clear time divisions. I won’t say I’m the best at it, or that I always honor the time slots I set for myself, but when there’s no geographic division between home, work and play, I need specific times–and often physical spaces–to keep things separate. Failing to do so typically leads to an imbalance for me. I’m good at quitting my day job around five, but when it comes to the rest of the day I tend to be less precise. I have a very obsessive personality; I’ll stay up all night working on a project that I’ll often discard by morning. That was a waste of time I could (should) have spent with my family (my wife, our two dogs, three cats and a parrot) and a lack of sleep that will affect my productivity for at least the next 24 hours.

    Creating obligations is sometimes the only way I enforce those separations. I hate flaking on promises, so making plans to be somewhere with someone is usually the motivation I need to stop what I’m doing and switch modes. Even if it’s just a plan to watch a movie in the living room with my wife, it’s usually enough to force that division.

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    I use plain text for a lot of what I do, from writing to note-taking to programming. I even use plain text for certain task management purposes (TaskPaper), but I rely on OmniFocus to handle my overall daily todos. My text editor is the tool that gets the most use on any given day. That’s always been TextMate, but I’m really starting to love Sublime Text 2 as well. When writing, I usually use Byword and always work in Markdown.

    My own applications are often designed to fill a specific need in my own workflow, so a good portion of my toolset is of my own design. nvALT (a fork of the incredible Notational Velocity) is in constant use and all of my projects rely on notes and lists stored within it. Marked is a major part of my writing workflow. Launchbar and FastScripts, along with a slew of my own AppleScripts and shell scripts, fill in the missing holes. Working without these tools is slow and tedious for me.

    As far as techniques go, I’m a fan of the Pomodoro technique. I find it works well with my need for allotted times for specific tasks, and it provides the structure I find important in my time management. A grid to work within. I don’t use it religiously, but whenever I sense the need for it, I pull up a Pomodoro timer (usually on my iPhone).

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

    Outlining and planning is important, but it doesn’t really produce anything. I always think it’s going to be the best way to get rolling on a large project, but it’s a “fiddling” stage. I’m not advising against it, just don’t depend on it to help you actually begin accomplishing the work part. The most important step for me is writing the first paragraph, coding that first function, drawing the first lines on a blank page. Then things start to fall into place. For me, outlining and mapping can eventually become an avoidance of actual work.

    I’d attribute most of my own productivity to being fortunate enough to get paid for doing what I love, and often having the flexibility to work on what I’m in the mood for at any given moment. That’s a luxury that I don’t think many people have. If you have the option, though, allow yourself to work on what you feel most motivated to accomplish right now. It’s far easier than concentrating on a task while thinking about another project entirely.

    More by this author

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

    More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

     

    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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