Why blog?

When I started this blog, blogs were dead exciting. They were the Future. They were New Media, and I was a new journalist, and I desperately loved working online. I wanted to throw myself into the exciting new future of online journalism as hard as I possibly could, so I did the best thing I could think of: I started writing about online journalism, as a sort of add-on to my day job, writing in the cracks. I read everything I could find. I used to get home after 10-hour days writing and demand my brain to produce something else, another few hundred words of analysis or a quick pointer to something else interesting on the internet that someone had said, because I thought it was hugely important.

It was. Honestly, it was. I treated it with such seriousness, and I’m pretty sure that without it I wouldn’t have moved on in the way that I have. Blogging made me, in some ways more than newsrooms did: blogging made me think about reaching specific audiences, it honed my research and collaboration skills, it made me capable of synthesising an argument in 500 words for humans (rather than 2,000 words for academics), it stopped me being scared of speaking my mind in public. What it did for me has been invaluable.

Then I moved on. I started work at the Guardian, and that has a certain chilling effect on writing: for one thing, I can’t use this blog to kvetch about minor work frustrations, because Private Eye exists. There’s a tendency for some people to think that if a journalist works for a national or international news organisation, their words in a personal space reflect back on that organisation. And there’s also the fact that a great many of the things I worked on at the Guardian have been the things I couldn’t work on back when I started out. There’s no need to come home and get fired up about online journalism when I can put that fire to action at work. That’s a very satisfying place to be.

But blogging matters. Late last year, inspired by Adam Tinworth, I tried to blow the dust off this place and pick up the pace a little: I forced myself to write about something every day for ten days. Sometimes games, sometimes journalism, sometimes politics, sometimes creative work, sometimes criticism, sometimes just notes – a broader palette than the one I started with, and perhaps a more mature one. (Perhaps a more confusing one; I’ve stopped trying to separate those parts of my life, because each of them informs all of the others, but if you’re looking for a single-subject blog I can imagine the combination can be strange.)

Since then I’ve slacked off somewhat, but since the new year started I’ve been trying to write posts with ideas in them, thoughts or analysis or at least contextualising a link to something else. One a week at least, on top of the weekly Pocket Lint email. In fact, that Pocket Lint links post every Saturday is a deliberate strategy to force myself to write more: I don’t want my blog to only consist of links posts, like the Delicious-powered graveyards that scattered the web a few years back, when everyone stopped writing and just auto-posted links instead.

Adam’s currently doing another challenge: one month of 500-word posts, substantive things, every day. He linked to this post on writing yourself into existence:

Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” “What do I want to say?” “What will people’s reaction be?”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get! You end up in the wonderful collective web of “Oooh that’s interesting” which I now wouldn’t ever want to be without.

That’s right. When I wasn’t blogging, I wasn’t thinking about what I read in the same way. Now, finding myself falling out of the habit after a couple of months, that’s a useful reminder to keep writing, to keep sharing what I find interesting, as much for the process of finding, thinking, synthesising and creating as for publishing the end result. Blogging’s been very good for me. I should be doing it more.

The Guardian has a new URL

We’re now over at theguardian.com. There’s a handy explanatory blog post over here, which also contains a very happy-making phrase including the words ‘10% uplift’ about the work we’ve been doing over in Australia.

I’ve been involved in this project at various stages over the months – involved enough to be acutely aware of the complexity and scope of what’s happened today. Massive congratulations and kudos to all involved.

Hopefully now Australians will stop asking me why we have .co.uk in the link…

Back to blogging: 10 days on

back to blogging11 days ago I decided to blog every day for 10 days, in an attempt to kickstart myself into writing more online for lots of sensible reasons. It’s gone… OK, I think. The quality has been dramatically variable, which is to be expected: I said at the start I was rusty, and that’s still true. I can hear bits of me creaking when I write. And without the luxury of time to let my writing sit and then come back to edit it, a lot of what’s gone up here has been rough and ready.

Despite that, the world has not ended, and my crazy perfectionist brain hasn’t given me too much grief about what I’ve posted. I’ve put something vaguely readable out every day. Some of it’s obviously been interesting – I had more than a thousand views in a day for the IGN piece, which for this blog is a significant number. Some of it’s just me thinking out loud, which is also fine. One of the reasons for doing this was to get better at thinking, after all.

It hasn’t been particularly easy to fit around a standard day. That’s partly because right now there are no standard days – the one real constant is that I’m very busy with work – and partly because I’ve not set aside a set block of time to blog. Days when I spot something first thing in the morning, or when I’ve got something brewing in the back of my head, have been relatively easy – I can knock something into shape over lunch. Days when I’m struggling for a subject or when I can’t get words to flow quite right have been much harder. And if I hadn’t written almost all of this post yesterday, there’s no way I could have gotten it up today.

But that will change as I get back into the groove, and as my magpie habits return. I’m finding myself squirrelling away interesting links for analysis, not just tweeting them and leaving them. I’m reading more deeply, forcing myself to articulate what’s relevant in more depth than 140 characters minus a link. I’m also realising there are lots of things I want to write that need a bit more care and attention than the average day can provide. I’ve not talked about my work, or written that piece about movement in Morrowind and the problem of fast travel, or gotten really snarky about Snowfall-related news commentary. Yet.

So the experiment will continue for a while. I’m not going to commit 100% to posting every day, but when Grant recovers from PAX I am going to ask him to join me in doing this again. If it takes 60 days to build a habit, then perhaps that should be the goal: in 60 days time, I’d like to be blogging more days than not. I’d like to be posting better quality pieces, too, but it’s more important that something exists than that it’s perfect.

Procrastiworking and the joy of side projects

A team of explorers fighting a zombie
The sort of thing that happens when side projects get seriously out of hand.

Between Zombie, games like The Trial, random charity projects, writing and other miscellaneous activities, on average I get a great deal done, outside of work, despite having the sort of work life that normally means it consumes everything else you do.

Side projects are some of my favourite things. I like to have as many as possible on the go at once, ideally some complicated ones with multiple moving parts as well as a few really simple ones that I can get sorted quickly. Some of the latter expand into the former. Most of them never get finished at all. They’re great.

Part of the reason I do this, when I’m really honest, is about mental health. I’ve dealt with crippling depression for my whole life; sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It was worst when I was in my late teens, but it still fluctuates periodically, and in the late autumn and winter when the nights draw in so do my energy levels and capacity to do things. Any things. At all. In the summer, when energy is boundless and I have relatively few fears of over-stretching myself, I do as much as I can in the time available. Sometimes in overcompensating I push extremely hard. When I am well I want to do everything, as hard as I can, because I am terrified that next time the depression claims that part of me it will be permanent and I will not get it back. It lends great joy to simply doing.

But there are plenty of other factors too. Like everyone in the world, I am not just one set of interests or hobbies; I contain multitudes. I like to explore and to create. I am lucky that work gives me space and money to do so in some areas, but – again, like most of the world – there are plenty of impulses that work can’t satisfy. So I get stuff done around the edges, through the application of a slightly http://www.besttramadolonlinestore.com unusual technique.

The system here is to get so busy that literally everything you are doing is procrastinating from something else. I jokingly called it “procrastiworking” once, and the name has sort of stuck. It consists of having a list of tasks that are interesting and engaging on their own merits, but also sorta kinda count as work. Productive tasks, rather than consumptive ones. Things that are sort of working towards something else. Examples: write a short short story every day for two weeks. Organise a live game. Blog for ten days straight. Make a Twine game that teaches you how to use Twine. Learn HTML. Make a website. Clear your Steam unplayed list before the next sale.

Once you have slightly too many of these, many of them interlinked, most of them satisfying to complete even if they’re tricky or annoying to actually do (partnership tax return, I am looking at you here) you can successfully procrastiwork by doing one of them, in the knowledge you are not doing any of the others. This is a blatant psychological trick, but for me it works rather well. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you’re not doing something else even more pressing.

The down side – and there is definitely a down side – is that you start to feel guilty for doing things that aren’t productive. You have to be able to put everything aside and focus on your friends, on activities that relax you and do not carry expectations of a finished product. If you’re not careful you begin over-emphasising the results, rather than the process. But really, the vast majority of side projects aren’t about what you end up with. They’re about broadening you out, exploring things you can’t do at work, learning new skills, discovering things you’re good (and bad!) at, creating for the sake of the joy of being creative. They’re about failing, not finishing and being half-assed without fear. They let you play. And being able to play well, as an adult, is a skill no one should be without.

Back to blogging: 10 reasons for 10 days

Starting my first Livejournal was not the only questionable decision I made in 2004.
Starting my first Livejournal was not the only questionable decision I made in 2004.
  1. This is all @adders’s fault.
  2. I used to blog all the time. I used to have a serious writing work ethic. I’ve blogged in many formats under multiple names since 2004, or thereabouts, which makes me a bit of a youthful whippersnapper in terms of some of the internet. But it’s nearly a decade now, and that’s too much waffling on the internet to throw away just because I’m busy.
  3. I’m out of practise. I’m rusty. I used to write for a living; now I’m more on the production side, and my writing is suffering for lack of daily use. This is not a muscle I should allow to atrophy.
  4. Side projects are brilliant, and I like to have at least six on the go at the same time, because there is something wrong with me. My blog hasn’t been on that list for far too long.
  5. Writing things through is a superb way to refine an argument, distill an insight or open a debate. Writing makes me better at thinking.
  6. I used to yammer on about how important it was for a digitally-savvy journalist to have a blog and get themselves out there on the wide wide interwebs. Just because I’m happy with where I’m at, and pouring a great deal of energy and inspiration and activity into my day job, doesn’t mean that advice doesn’t still hold true.
  7. I know a whole bunch of stuff about some extremely esoteric internet subjects now. Maybe some people might find some of that useful. I should share.
  8. I have a whole bunch of opinions and knowledge about games and other culture, about storytelling more broadly, about politics and events. I have a lot of experience of making game things in liminal spaces. Maybe some people might find some of that interesting. It can all share space together with the media stuff here and cross-pollinate, the way it does in my brain.
  9. One of the things making Detritus has viscerally re-taught me (more on that in a coming blog post!) is that what actually matters in my personal work is making things. If they’re well received and widely read, that’s absolutely brilliant. But what matters more is that they exist at all.
  10. I didn’t want to do ten days of blogging every day on my own, so I sort of challenged Grant. He’s a far, far better and more entertaining writer than I am, and I really enjoy reading what he writes. I’m basically just doing this so that he writes more. It’s entirely selfish.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast

London’s doing its absolute best to make me happy to leave right now – it’s raining sideways. We’ve consolidated our lives into five suitcases (plus a lot of boxes in storage), and the taxi gets here in an hour and a half. This time tomorrow – well, for me it won’t be this time tomorrow, for one thing, and for another we’ll still be flying – but pretty soon after that we’ll be in Sydney.

There should be a new word – I bet there’s one in German – for this mixture of sadness, excitement, fear and joy that comes with this kind of move. I’m astonishingly lucky to be going to such an exciting job in such an exciting place. I’m astonishingly lucky to have so much to leave behind. I’m astonishingly lucky to be living in a time when I can still live in the internet, and keep track of where all my friends are and what’s happening in their worlds, while being as far away as it’s really possible to be without actually being in space.

We’ve come a long way. We’re off a bit further. We’ll be back soon.

Upping sticks: moving to Sydney with Guardian Australia

I’m moving: not away from the Guardian, but with it. I’m going to be moving to Sydney for a secondment with the Guardian’s new Australian team. My role is editorial audience development, and will encompass SEO, analytics, community coordination, social media, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know about yet. It’s a small, brilliant team full of interesting folks, with lots of exciting opportunities ahead; I can’t wait to get started.

It’s also literally half a world away. I’m lucky – we’re lucky – to be in a position where Grant can come with me, and can hopefully work and live alongside me, rather than having to be apart for what’s likely to be at least 9 months. We’re at a time in both our lives where upping sticks to somewhere with wombats and wallabies is not just possible but sounds like it could be bloody good fun. It will be hugely sad to be so far away from friends and families, but it will also be a very big adventure.

It turns out I own an awful lot of things I don’t need. And an astounding number of Nerf guns, which I clearly need to keep somewhere till we get back, along with the fire axes and the smoke machine and all of the books. If I owe you a coffee, a beer, an email or a chat, now’s a very good time to cash it in, while I’m still hunting for paperwork and trying to get our lives stowed away before we leave. Also if you’ve seen my birth certificate, I need that back.

And, in unrelated news, I’m hosting The Story conference next Friday. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

#jcarn: Workflow hacking

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, we’ve been challenged to write about life hacks, tips, tools and techniques that help us work smarter and more effectively.

It’s been an interesting one, because it’s forced me to quantify the things I do to try and work efficiently. The things I’m sharing here make me sound like some sort of uber robot journalist geek, which I’m not, really, but trying to follow these principles helps me pretend.

Your job is not your admin

  • Every job has a tedious admin phase you have to deal with every day. But that’s not your real job – it takes time away from doing what you need to do.
  • The most basic ways you can be more awesome involve cutting down on admin time and increasing the time you spend actually working.
  • I keep track of what I do to work out which tasks take up time without contributing anything meaningful. I’ve used Rescue Time, Remember The Milk, Epic Win and custom Google Docs to track this in the past.
  • Once I’ve worked out where there’s time to be saved, I start working out how to save it. This is useful admin time.
  • It’s always worth learning keyboard shortcuts for any program I use daily. It saves small chunks of time over and over again.
  • I use a To Do list for big stuff that needs it rather than day-to-day routine things – I’m using Remember The Milk at the moment, but I tend to rotate list apps every few months because otherwise the novelty wears off and I stop using them. I’ve used 2Do, Google Tasks, Outlook Tasks, Doomi, enormous spreadsheets and Epic Win in the past.

Repeated tasks can be automated

  • It’s worth a day of my effort to automate something that takes me more than about 20 minutes a day to do. If it’s an interruption or a flow-breaking task or something I will have to do every day for a year, it’s probably worth more.
  • I think of certain tasks – finding sources on Twitter, for instance, or researching a topic for a story – as building a re-usable resource, not a one-off event. It takes much less effort to build a Twitter list or filter and aggregate a few RSS feeds the first time around, so you can go straight back to your sources if you’re doing a follow-up.
  • I use a lot of dashboards. The new Google Analytics beta lets me customise and keep half a dozen ways of slicing web data at my fingertips, so I can answer common business questions in seconds not hours. iGoogle combined with custom alerts by RSS lets me filter the entire web for certain subjects. Hootsuite and Tweetdeck let me monitor social networks in similar ways.
  • I use macros to automate tasks in Excel and Word. I use Google Docs with various APIs to build a few regular reports, occasionally combined with ScraperWiki. I build a lot of very specific spreadsheets where I can plug in data in a certain format and get back insights very quickly. I try to build things that can be re-used or re-purposed.
  • If there’s a boring repetitive task, there’s almost certainly a plugin or a script somewhere on the internet that’ll help you make it faster or easier. Sometimes those are more work to rewrite/implement than it would be just to get on with it. Other times they’re lifesaving.
  • Greasemonkey can be astonishingly helpful in saving little annoyances (and big ones, sometimes). For instance, I love this script that automatically pushes the “access analytics” button in Google Analytics. It saves one click – but it saves it three or four times every single day.
  • After all that – I do very little coding. I mostly borrow other people’s code and put it to use in new situations.

All information can be filtered

  • Twitter lists, search operators and even individual users if they’re focussed on a specific topic of interest. The -RT search operator is fantastic. Topsy‘s advanced search is also amazing powerful. And it has an API, which I haven’t yet worked out how to use to best advantage.
  • RSS folders in Google Reader (or a similar reader service) and combinations and filters using Yahoo Pipes. Postrank is an awesome service that helps you filter popular and engaging content from feeds. Combining Postrank with Pipes gives you neat automatic filters.
  • Google alerts, especially using advanced search terms – you can use site:youtube.com with keywords to build a video alert service, for instance.
  • Google custom search – great for checking whether anyone’s covered a particular story, or for working out who on your beat is talking about a certain subject – just give it a list of links.

Interruptions can be limited

  • I use rules in Outlook to limit the number of times I see email alerts – I have several set up to filter out various levels of noise, including a white-list for emails most likely to need urgent responses. It was well worth the time spent setting these up – if every pop-up on-screen is only 5 seconds of attention, I’ve still saved more than 5 minutes a day.
  • I use rules in Gmail to sort incoming mail by priority, and use the email game to deal with it all in small bursts, quickly and efficiently, when it’s convenient rather than when a mail comes in.
  • I turn off email notifications for sites I visit every day anyway. I set up as much as possible to come via RSS (where I can filter it using Yahoo Pipes and categorise it in a sensible folder) or via Twitter (where its immediate impact is limited to 140 characters).
  • When I need to focus, I stay away from Tweetdeck completely. I have a 2-column view in Hootsuite with nothing but mentions and direct messages, so I can see anything requiring urgent responses at a glance. I turn my iPhone off.

Waiting kills productivity

  • If a task I do regularly is governed by a set of rules and involves waiting for something to happen, I do my best to automate it away. I win twice.
  • If I’ve got to do something that involves waiting, I plan for the wait: go take a break, stretch, do a simple time-limited task.
  • I have a  folder of RSS feeds from folks who write short, and I read a couple while Iwait. And I have Reeder on my iPhone, for long out-of-the-office waits (some people call them “commutes”).
  • I save up several stop-start tasks and use them as a “distraction loop” – taking each one in turn and switching when a wait starts.

What do you do to hack your workflow? What tools do you use to simplify the stuff that doesn’t matter and help you spend more time on the stuff that does?