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2x4: An Interview With Brett Terpstra
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.
Have you always considered yourself a creative person?
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?
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???.
Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?
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.
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