2×4 With Mike Vardy

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.

I’m afraid. I usually start these interviews out by trying to tell you a little bit about what the person I’m about to interview does and tell you why I was interested in having them in the series. It’s a great way to get the ball rolling and hopefully it sets the tone for what you will read below. My particular fear here is how to achieve this succinctly for our latest victim, Mike Vardy, without writing a thousand words. Mike does a lot. A lot, a lot. He is the Managing editor at Stepcase Lifehack, a frequent speaker on the subject of productivity, a podcaster, a prolific blogger, and, oh yeah, and he is a stay-at-home dad. It would take a lot of words and a lot of links to sum up everything the guy does, but thankfully Mike’s bio-page delivers all of this information in a far more concise manner than I could ever manage.

Mike’s a seriously nice guy and a solid, often humorous writer; despite a fairly daunting workload, he is exceedingly generous with his time1. He also scares the crap out of me. Mike forces me to face what you can do with a day if you chose to use it wisely. Since I tend to be an unsympathetic human, I took one look at Mike’s workload and immediately asked him to participate in the series. Thankfully, he added another paper to the pile (or more likely, another task into Omnifocus) and gave some especially excellent answers to some already excellently answered questions.

Before I shut up and let Mike take center stage, I also wanted to let you know that this series is getting ready to move. In addition to participating, Mike asked if I would consider bringing future 2×4 interviews to Stepcase Lifehack. Now, like any good aspiring productivity geek, I’m fairly skeptic of Lifehack style websites. They tend to churn out crap that seeks to amuse rather than help. Mike and the team at Stepcase Lifehack seem dedicated to go in the opposite direction. They aim to take a site that has a great domain and great traffic and make great content that matters. I not only like the guy, I trust him, so with that in mind, I’m going to roll the dice and bring a series I that love (and hope helps people) to a larger audience. I suggest you give the site a shot and keep an eye out for future 2×4 interviews!

And now, without further ado, Mike Vardy:

Creativity

Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

Yes, I’ve always been involved in the creative arts in one form or another. Whether it was singing, performing sketch comedy or writing, I’ve always had it in me. There was a period of time where I wasn’t creating much of what I wanted to — I had gotten caught up in the “rat race”, I suppose — and once I got a taste of it again (my roommate convinced me to go to an improv troupe workout with him) I was back in the saddle. Ever since then, I was determined to make a go of it in a creative field.

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

I really do enjoy performing — and I find that I’ve been able to do that in almost any medium. Even when I’m writing, I’m delivering a performance of sorts. I’m being myself, but I’m putting it all out there in front of an audience. That, to me, is just as much a performance as being up on stage (which I’ve done countless times as well). The only difference is that the reaction isn’t immediate.

But I’ve found that the lack of immediacy has worked in my favor. I don’t get hampered by a joke that didn’t land or a piece that didn’t work; I simply go on creating. Some would say that professional performers don’t get hung up on a bad experience on stage, but I find that hard to swallow. Sure, you get back out there and do your job… but we’re human. There’s an impact. How you deal with it is what counts.

I think that through my writing I’ve been able to go on stage and not get hindered or hampered as much. Because if they don’t like what they see, I’ve got a lot of people online who do.

As for my inspirations, I tend to look inward more and more. I find inspiration in what’s important to me. I want my kids to see that you can do what you love to do and earn a living at it, and that it’s worth taking the risks involved to do what you love for work. I do look to others, especially Merlin Mann, as inspirational touchstones. What Merlin does is really inspiring — and the fact that he tells it like it is and is as fallible as the rest of us makes him all the more endearing to me.

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

I’m really proud of some of the posts where I’ve broken loose a bit, things like my recent piece on Lifehacker and an ode to my late father-in-law. I went outside of my comfort zone with those — albeit in very different ways — and it felt really good to get them out my head and into something more permanent.

While I’m also proud of a lot of my work at Eventualism — as that is what “brought me to the dance,” so to speak — I think I need to spend more time developing the accessibility of the work I’m trying to offer there. It’s something I’m struggling with as my time is at a premium these days, but I know I’ll get to it… eventually.

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

Make time for the space to let it come to you. Schedule out that time. You have to. You can’t force this kind of thing out of you, it’ll come. But you need to give it a window or door to go through. By cramming your day with other things you leave little to no opportunity for that lightning to strike.

And once it comes to you, capture it. Start writing, painting, singing, whatever it is that you’re feeling. By taking action when the moment hits, you’ll invite creativity back sooner rather than later.

Productivity

Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

Well, I’m one of the editors at Stepcase Lifehack — perhaps better known as Lifehack.org — that’s my main ongoing gig. I also write for my personal sites, Vardy.me and Eventualism, and produce the ProductiVardy podcast, which gives me the opportunity to speak with some the best and brightest “productivityists” and creatives on the web. I also co-host a couple of other podcasts, Dyscultured, which is an irreverent podcast that looks at news, technology and pop culture with a Canadian slant, and Talking is Dead, more of a conversational podcast that I do with Anthony Marco.

Oh, and I do all of that while being a stay-at-home parent. We have childcare three days a week, so I do my best to get everything in on those days (and on Sundays when my wife is home) so that I can spend the rest of my time with my kids and family.

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

A carefully crafted schedule. And the discipline to stick to it. I do my major writing on the days we have childcare and do the less intense stuff (email follow-ups, etc.) on the days when we don’t. I tend to work later at night during the week — I’ve tried to be an early riser but I’m just not wired that way. I stay up until around midnight most nights and am up at 7 during the week and 9 am on weekends.

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

I like to test stuff; that’s how Eventualism was born. But I’ve become far more disciplined in this realm since then.

I am currently using a combination of tools, mainly relying on OmniFocus for much of my task and project management. I like the ability to easily review my week and set up “Perspectives,” which OmniFocus offers, and I always seem to go back to it after trying anything else for a bit. The Omni Group has developed an application that is both as simple as you want it to be and as powerful as you need it to be.

I don’t schedule time-specific in OmniFocus; I use Fantastical on my Mac or Agenda Calendar on my iPad and iPhone for that.

For my writing, I use Byword for online writing and Scrivener for the heavy-duty stuff, such as the books I’m working on (a fiction book for NaNoWriMo and a non-fiction book that discusses productivity and mindfulness). On the iPad I use Writing Kit for online work because it is the most robust Markdown-centric app I’ve found to date, and I’m starting to use Textkraft for longer form writing that may wind up in any of the books. (Again, I like to test stuff.)

Speaking of testing, I am looking at Mindbloom (and its companion Bloom app for the iPhone) as part of my arsenal; these apps have a mindful approach to productivity that I haven’t seen before. Same with Asana — this app could very well be a game-changer for collaborative (and individual) task and project management. Orchestra also looks promising. I’m wading my toe into these right now — although my other foot is still firmly planted in OmniFocus.

Other apps I still use: Evernote to keep tabs on notes, recipes and ideas; Instapaper for the things I either loved reading or look forward to reading; Reeder for my RSS reading; AwayFind to help me manage email; Sparrow as my email client; TextExpander to take care of the repetitive things I have to type (I’m playing with Keyboard Maestro as well); LaunchBar for quick-launching and Billings for… well… billing.

And I do write things down on my Helvetindex Cards, which are bundled up like a Hipster PDA. They go with me (along with either my Uniball Kuru Toga pencil or my trusty Pilot Hi-Tec pen) wherever I go. Because technology can fail sometimes.

My devices? 11″ MacBook Air (higher-end model), 32GB iPhone 4S and 32GB first-generation iPad. I have a ZaggMate for my iPad so that I can write with an actual keyboard from time to time, and a DODOcase for when I don’t need to type for lengthy periods and want my iPad to look like a Moleskine.

In terms of techniques, as a rule I don’t check email until 10 am each day. This is partly due to necessity (my 1-year-old doesn’t go down for a nap until at least 9:30 am) and partly out of the need to get some of the more important work done first. I head straight into my task management app once I’ve got my coffee ready (yes, an Aeropressed coffee is a ritual I keep every morning, without fail). That sets me up for the day. Before I go to bed, I review what I’ve got on the go, make adjustments so that I can start the next day off without delay and I hit the sack.

In between that stuff? I write, I edit and I parent. A lot.

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

You need to find a system that will work for you and put it in place. Today. You need to try it for at least 30 days without interruption. You need to set up whatever system works best for you as the foundation for your success. Without a productivity system in place, be it paper-based or digital, you will not be able to get to a place where you want to be. You need to make the system second nature to you so that the reason you put the system in place can once again rise to the forefront. This is where mindfulness and productivity intersect, and once you’re there you will no longer be looking at to-do lists — you’ll be looking at to-be lists.

By putting a productivity system in place that you can trust, you’ll go from doing productive to being productive. And that’s when you’ll get to go places.

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  1. Trust me, I’m testing the theory… []
  • http://twitter.com/yuvizalkow Yuvi Zalkow

    Great discussion, Mike & Michael. I particularly loved this insight: “You can’t force this kind of thing out of you, it’ll come. But you need to give it a window or door to go through.” I think this perfectly bridges the perceived gap between the Artist and the Organizer… (I just made up those roles… and capitalized them to make it seem more official…) Thank you!

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