Alexander T. George on the Print Industry, Staying Productive, and Biggest Career Mistakes
At Freedom we love our users – not just because they use our product but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, best-selling authors, editors, designers, star TV actors & writers, academic researchers and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and efficient go-getters. We love to share their stories and advice. Because who better to learn about productivity than from the productive!
Here’s one such user. Meet Alexander T. George. He’s a Columbia Journalism School alum currently working as a tech + cars editor for Popular Mechanics magazine – a publication driven by innovation and curiosity. At work, he craves novelty and adventure and uses Freedom to block distractions from getting in the way. Before starting work at Popular Mechanics, George was also a contributor to other noted publications such as Wired, The WSJ, Dwell, and Outside. Here’s what he has to say about biggest career mistakes made, why he’s excited about the print industry, how he maintains his focus, and his productivity playlist.
How did you know that you wanted to be a writer and what were your first steps in making this your career?
Same story you’ll hear from other people in the field: I wasn’t really good at anything else. The more optimistic story is that early on, I liked words and vocabulary and the effect they could have on people, either written or spoken. I realized I could write decently, then I realized how journalists could get away with a lot of shit and have adventures if they just wrote about it at the end of the day. It’s all very, very selfish, but I like to think readers get something out of the work I put into describing the things that interest me.
What advice would you offer less experienced editors or writers – especially in regard to staying productive, motivated, and focused?
Those you admire and who you think sit down at their desk and spew forth greatness — they write horrific drafts, too. The magic really comes in the editing. But it’s hard work, so I find it helpful to think of that process as almost blue collar, like a step in blacksmithing, or something else cooler than writing.
Before I found Freedom, back in college, I bought a cheap electric typewriter from Staples so I could produce a draft without constantly cycling between my word processor and YouTube. I’ve tried shortcuts and every trick you can conceive: sustained attention to text is the only way really good ideas happen. Set aside the time.
The other method I use is a Radio Shack kitchen timer. I set it for seven minutes and clip it to my laptop. During that time, I have to keep my laptop on my word processor ONLY. Seven minutes is a realistic duration for writing/editing, and once you get in that flow state or whatever, you’re on your way. The similar feature on the Apple Watch is even better because if I get up to get water or coffee, the timer isn’t ringing and bothering my colleagues.
When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?
I’ve never had this thing where my mornings are most productive, but I highly value being up early and getting routine stuff out of the way — checking the day’s news, editing my to-do list, cleaning my monitor screen, etc. I haven’t thought in-depth enough about how I pace my day, and I still occasionally stay up late writing, but I want to track that better. I believe the thing Obama subscribes to about Decision Fatigue, how you lose willpower as the day goes on.
What are your biggest distractors?
Besides PR people, YouTube and Instagram. Sometimes they’re great (like finding a cool custom motorcycle shop via Instagram’s search), but most of the time, it’s low-level endorphin releases that are much more inviting than the hard work you have to do. I sometimes need to put my phone in a locked drawer behind my desk.
Editors and writers, generally, don’t distract me much when they come to my desk. I like the human interaction, and those conversations usually bring out good ideas.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?
The writing app Scrivener, most of all. Dual-pane window setup, full-screen options, never crashes. Superior to Word or anything else I’ve ever used.
Nature sounds on Spotify. I’ve tried, but music with lyrics or even classical music and opera makes simple things take much, much longer than if I’m in silence. Rain or beach sounds are the only option I’ve found that keep me from being distracted by other people walking around without making it harder to hear sentences form in my head.
What is the biggest mistake you have learned from in your career?
Leave time for the thinking part. Letting ideas float around in your brain is how really unusual things get created. Research like crazy, then sit in silence with a notepad and write down every stupid thing that passes through your head. It feels unproductive, but every time I try to skip that step, I end up having to do it again. A lot of stories that I’ve written that could’ve been great were just decent because I didn’t take that time.
What excites you most about your industry?
I recently started thinking of print magazines (like the one I work for) like vinyl records. Records have had this completely improbable renaissance because, I hypothesize, people like a tactile and intimate experience, which contrasts the experience I get with my morning newsfeed apps. Thinking about print magazines that way has me optimistic about the near future. That, and I also think that as long as somewhere, a kid is devoting his life to the oboe or curling, I should do the same for my vocation, however anachronistic it seems.
What project are you currently most excited about?
I edit the technology and car and motorcycle sections of Popular Mechanics, and we’re working on the 2016 automotive excellence awards. We have an incredible illustrator watercoloring the winners (last I checked). It’s the type of thing that you can really only coordinate for a print magazine. It’s the result of looking at different publications and just thinking hard about how to present a similar idea differently.
More generally, I’ve only been at the magazine about a year, a bit less time than the current editor in chief. He got me to work here because he said we could make it really new, and it finally looks like what we’ve worked our asses off for. Visuals, stories, it’s the result of holding things to really high standards and pitching some really, really dumb ideas so that the good ones stick.
Do you have a productivity playlist or genre that helps keep you focused?
Nature sounds and, more embarrassingly, a genre of electronic music called Drum ’n’ Bass. It’s high-BPM video game music, but it gets you in a flow.
What are you hoping to accomplish in 2016?
Come up with more insane ideas each day.