If you ever happen to catch me on my lunch break, besides munching on some tasty sourdough pretzels, you will most likely find me laboring to get to whatever the RSS equivalent of "Inbox Zero" is on this ever-expanding feed of mine. I, of course, have an elaborate system for how I make my way through the many blogs, tech journals and "what's new" sites that I like to keep up on.
One such ritual requires that I always save my two favorite technology-centered blogs for dead last, Gizmodo and Lifehacker. They are both excellently curated and seem to always feature articles that pique my interest on a daily basis.
One of their more recent features revolves around interviewing various movers & shakers within the tech industry to see what their work setup is like and what keeps them staying productive. I eat this kind of stuff up, like those aforementioned pretzels I suppose, since I'm always looking for ways to become more efficient or keep on task. I'm easily distracted, so sometimes it's nice to do what I can to eliminate those interruptions or keep them to a minimum. And the great news is, there are A TON of great apps/techniques/what-have-you hitting the interwebs every day that are armed and ready to help fight those distractions right along side me.
So, since Lifehacker isn't going to be interviewing lowly ol' me any time soon, I went ahead and decided to interview myself and share some of the tips and tricks I use to keep me pointed in the right direction both at work and at home.
Name: Ryan Straits
Occupation: Product Line (Mechanical) Engineer, Marlen International, Overland Park, KS
Location: Kansas City, MO
Current computer: Lenovo W530 Thinkpad w/ Docking Station & dual 24" displays (Work), 24" iMac (Home)
Current mobile device: iPhone 5
What apps/software/tools can't you live without?
Excel. I do just about everything in it and it's my lifesaver. From budgets to listing out objectives & action items for managing projects, I don't go a day without using it. I also just started using a pretty great website/app called Workflowy to stay organized. It's helped me get all my thoughts in one place. On the days I'm feeling particularly unfocused, I resort to using Focus Booster, which is one of the slickest Pomodoro technique apps that I've come across.
For hardware, since Autodesk Inventor is the main program I'm working in all day, my Space Navigator is essential. It's any 3D modeler's best friend. I'm also a big fan of using trackball mice. I have one at home and at work. They're annoying for the uninitiated but once you start using one, you'll never go back to traditional mice.
What's your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
I became a much more efficient person the day I discovered that apps like Pocket exist. I used to get stuck feeling forced to rush through reading articles or websites that I didn't have time to check out. Pocket allows me to save that stuff for later when I really have the time to dive into them.
In a more general sense, I am a very big systems guy. I'm fairly forgetful, so I've learned to structure menial tasks so that I don't forget to do them. Ask my wife, I have pretty much the same routine every day. It may seem boring, but it allows my mind to think about all the other things I need to do rather than worry about whether I forgot to brush my teeth or not.
What's your favorite to-do list manager?
I tried to give Apple's Reminders it's best shot since it's integrated into iOS and OSX so heavily. But it's annoying sync glitches eventually forced me to start auditioning replacements. I tried several popular choices including Cheddar, Wunderlist and Astrid but found them all lacking in different ways. I also didn't want to lay down hard-earned cash for top-rated apps like Clear when I knew I could find a decent free one out there.
I eventually settled on Any.DO. It's got a pretty slick iOS app and a full-featured Chrome extension to go with it. Since I usually always have Chrome open during the day, Any.DO's integration with it is priceless. I also like that I can plan out projects using Workflowy and then just select a line item, right-click and add it right to a to-do list in Any.DO.
What's your workspace like?
I like to think I keep a pretty clutter-free workspace but I often don't have as much time as I'd like to keep things in their proper place. If I get done with a certain task near the end of the day and don't have time to start another I'll usually use the remaining part of the work day to tidy up.
I'm a big fan of natural lighting and an ergonomic environment and believe that humans are their most productive when they have ample amounts of both. As you can see from the picture below, I don't get much of either in my current broom closet of an office. However, I am thankful for the 4 walls and door that I do have, though. Since 2005, I have been to 3 different jobs and all 3 were in cubicles. This was my first job back in an office since then.
It will be short-lived, however, as my company is relocating to a new facility in Riverside, MO next month. It's brand new and filled with, you guessed it, cubicles. I'm sure the newness of the office will be great, but I'll miss the brief year or so that I got to spend in a closed off space.
What do you listen to while you work?
You can usually always find me with at least one earbud in at work. They were (and will be) my only walls in Cubeville. I have a few podcasts I keep up on (mostly sports in nature like Fantasy Focus Football & The BS Report). Music-wise, I used to have just a few of my favorite new albums stashed on my iPhone or put up with Spotify's infernal ads. Recently though, I discovered the wonder that is Subsonic. It takes some networking know-how but I now have my entire music collection (all 200GB worth) available to me on my phone and my work PC. For free. It's revolutionized my music-listening world.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without?
Right now, my wife and I can't live without the Foscam security camera that we set up as a baby monitor. I again used a little network trickery to set it up so that we can view it anywhere we're at, either on our phones or the web. It's been great for keeping an eye on Audrey and my wife loves it. It was an all together cheap solution compared to many of the over-priced baby monitor systems out there. We spent less than $100 for the camera and the apps for our phones/iPad.
What's your sleep routine like?
I try to get at least 6 hours a night. 7 is optimal. I'm usually in bed by 11:30 and up by 6am. I'm going to start experimenting with some of these "sleep cycle" alarm apps to see if they're worth the hype.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I'm pretty good at creating efficient systems of getting things done and then sticking with that system. I'll also continue to prove it out to make sure it's the best solution possible. I do this with my daily commute. I'm constantly looking for the quickest way there and back. I'm never content to just stick with one route. There's always got to be a faster way.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Energy creates energy. Potential is only realized when it becomes kinetic. It's simple and it's cyclical. I'm very momentum-driven and I sometimes struggle with initiation and getting things started, so this is huge for me. If I can just push past that initial opposing force of procrastination/laziness/whatever, then I can't be stopped.
Is there anything else you want to share with readers?
I'm a serial archivist. I love archiving and organizing. For Christmas this year, my father-in-law got me a Doxie document scanner. Coupled with Evernote, I'm using it to digitize my entire filing cabinet at some point in 2013. And I couldn't be more excited about it. I have it all mapped out in Workflowy. And I'll be getting to it right after I finish reorganizing my entire music collection (to better work with Subsonic) and then my entire media collection. Priorities, of course.
Thanks for reading!