Science Journalist Roxanne Khamsi on Writing and Protecting Your Attention From the Internet

Science Journalist Roxanne Khamsi on Writing and Protecting Your Attention From the Internet

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 and writers, academic researchersexplorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and efficient go-getters. We love to share their stories and advice, because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?

Meet Roxanne Khamsi.

Roxanne Khamsi is a science journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Economist, Scientific American, Slate, and The New York Times Magazine. She has received recognition for her work, including the Walter C. Alvarez Award from the American Medical Writers Association and has also received a first-place award from the Association of Health Care Journalists for her story about insurance issues plaguing medical foods. Roxanne currently oversees science coverage as the chief news editor at the journal Nature Medicine. In addition to her work as a journalist, she is a lecturer at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

This week we sat down with her to learn a little more about how she protects her time and attention from the internet in order to do writing that matters.

 

How did come to be a writer/editor and what were your first steps in making this your career – essentially, how did you get to where you are today?

I knew I wanted to be a writer in the second grade, which coincidentally was the year I started reading. I’d stumbled upon a book about Pompeii in the classroom, and for the first time it clicked that books weren’t just silly stories about dogs named Spot or Clifford. There was real information in there about life-altering natural phenomena. I was hooked.

My life was altered a second time by another book, one that I happened to stumble upon in the library in college. This bright yellow book — called Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower — contained a chapter on science writing, and as soon as I read it that I knew I’d found the career I wanted to pursue.

Once I finished school, I made it my mission to pitch science news stories to the publications I really loved, and I got my big break writing a piece for WIRED’s website (which was technically separate from the magazine back then) about a clock that told time based on the rate of decay of a prawn sandwich. From that point on I just kept pitching places pieces, and also asking all the editors I respected to meet for coffee so I could pick their brains for advice. As a writer, you always want to be digging for new and relevant story ideas and you want to learn from the gifted people in your field.

 

As a writer, how do you stay productive, motivated, and focused?

Well, the spark here — the most important thing you need to get going to write — is the motivation. And that’s easy for me (and I bet a lot of science journalists) because the work I cover is so fascinating and often can shed light on what causes an illness and how to treat it. I’m a curious person and science journalism is perfect for that. Unfortunately, curiosity can also lead me down an internet rabbit hole, which is why Freedom is so handy. It hides the rabbit holes from me.

My favorite productivity tip is to keep the to-do list short. I used to have a long running list of things to get done, but at some point, I read that it’s better to just have short lists of what you can accomplish in a day. So I just start a new Post-It every day (the 3’x5’ kind) and list what I need to finish that day. Also, when it comes to journalism and reporting, I stay organized. That means creating folders to keep research, interviews, drafts, and contacts in separate bins, and outlining the heck out of anything I write. When I can, I strive for inbox zero. But reaching inbox zero is a bit like Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, and I’m Achilles in that scenario.

How do I stay focused? The answer was usually tea, and when on deadline coffee. But it’s getting tougher. Thanks to the 24-7 news cycle and abundance of diversions online, focus is not as easy to achieve as before. This is why Freedom has been such a help. And I recently added a new trick: James Hamblin had a video suggesting folks switch their phones to grayscale. The idea traces back to the tech ethicist Tristan Harris. If you want to feel less addicted to your phone, draining the color from it is the way to go.

 

When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?

I am least productive after 10 pm. God bless the young whippersnappers and night owls who can look at a computer screen and write something of import after that hour. I’m toast.

Generally speaking, my favorite hours to work tend to be the regular old 9-5 window. Sometimes I will do interviews at 6 am, particularly if my sources are in Europe, and I will be working weekends when I’m wrapping up a longer feature. But I will say this: do the task at the moment that you feel most motivated to do. If you had set aside time to answer emails (to get to inbox zero!) but you feel inspired to write, forget the messages and use that creative fire to write. And if you’d hoped to compose heartbreakingly beautiful prose on Friday afternoon, but when the clock hits 3 pm that day all you want to do is power through emails, then brew some tea and write those messages. Don’t force your brain to do something it doesn’t want. Unless you are on deadline. Then forget everything I just said.

 

At what point did you realize that tech, apps, and sites were taking a toll on your productivity and time? Or, when did you know that you had to do something about it?

Two words. Harvey Weinstein.

I’d always known that tech was disruptive, but the whole flurry of stories about sexual harassment and sexual violence took my anxiety level up one notch and really. I feel very strongly that it’s important to engage with pressing social issues and stay informed. And I in no way want to become The Most Ignorant Man in America, but I did feel that I needed a tool to reign in my curiosity about the status of news events, at least for a part of the day.

 

What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your productivity and writing/working process?

It probably doesn’t need saying, but tools like Microsoft Word and Google Docs are the workhorse applications for writers. As a health journalist, I use PubMed daily — it’s a fantastic resource for finding science articles in research journals. There are also handy apps for reporting such as TapeACall, which allow you to record interviews from your iPhone.

I use an application called Time Out on my computer to help me remember to take short breaks to rest my eyes. And I used to use an app for what’s called the Pomodoro Technique. It sets things so you work for 25 mins and then take a short break. I liked it, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Then I happened to come across a mention of Freedom from the great science journalist Rose Eveleth, who has an awesome podcast called Flash Forward, which everyone should listen and subscribe to. Other science journalists I know, including the author of the recent and definitive book on fact-checking Brooke Borel, also use Freedom. So I think the idea is catching on that people need tools like this to stop the infiltration of the internet into their every waking moment.

 

What project are you currently most excited about? 

I’m perennially excited about the stories I edit, including the recent story about how different animals experience puberty (did you know that male arctic ground squirrels seem to go through puberty every time they re-emerge from hibernation?) and another piece about a 90-year-old scientist reviving clinical trials of his vaccine against pregnancy.

My recent pieces, including a feature for The New York Times Magazine on how labrador retrievers carry a gene for obesity that also affects some humans and a separate story about making peanuts less allergenic, both touched on the field of genetics. A lot of my current writing projects also cover genetics. I’m endlessly fascinated by DNA.

 

What are your biggest distractors?

Let’s just be honest: People.com. Also, a site that has a blue bird as its mascot… I forget the name…

There are about a dozen news sources and social media sites that I have Freedom block for long chunks of time when I need to work. It’s blocking me right now… I also have Freedom set so that it blocks Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now after a certain hour. That helps protect against binging of TV shows!

 

What piece of advice would you give your younger self in regard to writing or staying focused?

Move to the Canadian tundra where there is no internet and bring ample food and water. Just kidding. The advice I give to my students — and I suppose I would give to a younger version of myself — is to go big. Go for the projects that are the most ambitious and risky. And don’t spend time on Twitter when you should be reporting and writing — that’s a no-brainer.

 

How do you prioritize what gets your time?

I’m a big believer in schedules and routines, so I prioritize a lot based on the hour of the day. In the early morning, I’m prioritizing the gym. At 9 am, I’m prioritizing edits. If it’s 1 pm, I prioritize lunch. If it’s 3 pm, I’m prioritizing an interview with a source or writing a chunk of an article. And so on.

 

What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive and focused on the things that matter most to you? 

Make time for family, friends, sleep. I’d say Freedom has actually helped a lot with that. I remember the first time I used it I didn’t check my phone while in bed. I told everyone I knew that I hadn’t slept this great since the 1980s (as in, way before cell phones, and personal computers).

 

Where are you currently based?

New York City. I haven’t moved to the Canadian tundra yet.

 

To learn more about Roxanne and her work, visit her site at RoxanneKhamsi.com or when you’re not in a Freedom session, follow her on Twitter @rkhamsi