I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

How I write and time-manage

I was asked a few times by some very nice people at WWDC this week how I manage my time between Instapaper and Tumblr, and how I write essays here that occasionally make sense. If you’ll forgive my auto-back-patting, here’s the answer I gave, and I think it’s worth sharing with you because you can do the same sort of thing for your benefit.

At SXSW 2009, John Gruber and Merlin Mann gave a spectacular talk about producing high-quality creative work. Listen to it. Really. Stop here and read this later after you’ve listened.

Ready? OK.

In this talk, Gruber says that when he’s writing Daring Fireball, he’s picturing his ideal reader — a copy of himself — and conceptually writing just for him. With everything he writes, he’s writing to and for that one ideal reader, not trying to boost his SEO for target phrases or appeal to an ever broadening demographic.

Well, I do the same thing, except that my ideal reader is John Gruber. That works pretty well, in the sense that I try to reach a high enough quality standard to match my perception of his.

This really does work to improve my writing. Imagine if every PC manufacturer pretended like Steve Jobs was going to look at their new laptop case design before it went to market. I think they’d try a bit harder.

Managing my time is trickier. The short answer is that I cherry-pick: Instapaper is a collection of fairly simple things. I don’t do anything for it that requires massive amounts of time, because I simply don’t have enough time to do that. It usually ends up taking 4-8 hours per week, which fits easily into a few evenings or a single weekend day.

This is where Merlin’s influence comes in. He’s great at reminding me, via his excellent talks and interviews, that it’s easier to be highly productive when you only have a limited time window in which to do so. It’s easier to perform an amazing, in-the-zone, four-hour block of work on a Friday night if I’m leaving town the next day and I know that it’s is the only chance I’ll get all week to work on Instapaper.

And, similar to the way I envision writing to Gruber, it’s useful to picture Merlin looking over my shoulder when I’m slacking off and browsing the internet instead of working.

Merlin voice in my head: “Is that really a good use of your time? What did you make today?”

And that’s about it. It’s remarkably effective.

(Hi, John and Merlin. I hope this isn’t creepy.)