Power to the User: Interview with David Sparks

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 10: Habits & Rituals

David, can you introduce yourself to the AlphaEfficiency audience and share with us how your interest in productivity and time management started?

Hi everybody! My name is David Sparks and I’m a geek. My particular productivity fetish is using technology to get things done faster and more efficiently. As part of that, I produce a podcast Mac Power Users, write a blog MacSparky.com, and publish books The MacSparky Field Guide. I also practice law, which gives me an excellent laboratory to work on getting better at all of this.

I was a kid when computers first started showing up so it has been a fun journey for me. For most of my life, that has involved using Apple technology. These days I’m using a Mac, iPad, and iPhone for work and play. I’d like to say that I’m ultra-efficient myself but the truth is I’m always getting sucked into little geeky diversions where I try to figure out the best way to track a project or send an email. I spend way too much time on those little trips but it’s fun and I do share the results of these experiments on the blog, podcast, and books.

What propelled you to start Mac Power Users?

My podcast partner, Katie Floyd, and I started the show to scratch our own itch. Specifically, we both wanted a podcast that doesn’t talk about news and rumors but instead concrete app recommendations, workflows and suggestions for being productive with your Apple gizmos. When we first started, we wondered if anyone would care to listen. Now, five years in, we’ve got this wonderful audience of smart people that not only listen in but also send in their own great ideas for us to share. I love the Internet.

This issue is about Habit and Rituals, and you strike me as a guy that could talk a lot about this topic. When we refer to habits and rituals, we refer to those productive habits that we have, that make us do things incredibly faster. I am sure you have plenty of shortcuts up your sleeve that you don’t even think about anymore. Can you tell us about some of them?

What a great topic! I have so many rituals I use to help keep myself on track. For example, I sit down with my task manager, OmniFocus, every evening with a beverage and plan out my work for the next day. It lets me wake up and just start running.

In terms of little keyboard shortcuts and hacks, I have more than I can count. For example, when I set a conference call, I use an online service to schedule it (so I don’t have to deal with those endless scheduling emails) and then I use a TextExpander keyboard shortcut to send out the invitations and provide participants call in information, an agenda, and the expected call length. Using technology, all of this just takes seconds.

Another thing I do often is save documents to PDF. I’m manic about keeping copies of records and getting emails, documents, and other electronic bits into PDF format can be time-consuming, especially when I’m doing it multiple times a day. As such, I’ve got several tricks including this one to help me pull off that particular trick faster.

What’s your approach to recognizing habits and rituals that you encode into your lifestyle in order to become more productive in a digital world?

The trick for me is to look for friction points. When I catch myself doing something mindless repeatedly, I think about whether or not there is a way to automate that. My “friction radar” is always running.

Just be careful. It is a slippery slope. You can very easily go from being slow at getting your work done to ignoring your work entirely in favor of geeking out. You need to consider whether stopping to automate tasks where the time involved to create the automation does not exceed the total amount of time saved having it automated in the future. This isn’t always so easy to figure out but you will just know when you’ve had enough of some mindless task and need to start working your automation muscles. Also, you’d be surprised at how often someone out there (like me) has already figured out a solution to a repeating problem and shown you the way with a blog post.

Even if you avoid the geek-trap in getting more productive, there is a second snare, piling on. Once you get more productive, you may be inclined to just do more. Then you work on getting more productive at that work and, in turn, pile on more. Before you know it you’re chasing your own tail. Don’t let yourself get caught in that trap.

If you are going to get into this stuff, set some limits for yourself and set some rewards. Getting hyper-efficient so you can go to the park with your children is pretty awesome.

When I catch myself doing something mindless repeatedly, I think about whether or not there is a way to automate that.

David, I know that you are using a tremendous amount of keyboard shortcuts, which are the keyboard shortcuts you couldn’t imagine yourself without?

Picking keyboard shortcuts is really application dependent. I think it depends where you spend most of your time. If you are a video editor and use Final Cut every day, the keyboard shortcut you rely on will be entirely different than those you rely upon if you’re a writer.

I think the best keyboard shortcut tip is to roll your own. The Macintosh has a system preference for the keyboard. From there, you can Set up a keyboard shortcut that will activate virtually command in virtually any application. It doesn’t take long to figure out how to do this and once you’ve got that trick under your hat, you’re going to find all sorts of excuses to create keyboard shortcuts for those applications that you love.

I create keyboard shortcuts in nearly all of the applications I spend any time working in this way. The funny thing is that after awhile I don’t even remember what the keyboard shortcuts are. Instead, it’s just a question of muscle memory. I think about something, my fingers go to certain keys, and stuff happens on my Mac. This creeps people out when they watch me use my Mac this way. That always makes me smile.

I think about something, my fingers go to certain keys, and stuff happens on my Mac. This creeps people out when they watch me use my Mac this way. That always makes me smile.

How about iOS?

As I write this, the iOS 8 release for the iPhone and iPad is fresh into the wild and I’m more excited about automation and productivity on these devices than I have ever been in the past. Apple has dramatically increased the ability for developers and iPhone and iPad users to become more productive on their devices with widgets, extensions, and other inter-application operability that we only dreamed of last year. We are in early days of this new order and we are already seeing some amazing new applications. I think six months from now, we will all be using our iPhones and iPads more productively than we are today as a result.

You’ve covered a lot of technological ground in your time on the Mac Power Users podcast. What’s your favorite episode and why?

While there is no doubt I’m very proud of all of the work we’ve done with now over 200 episodes, I think I’m most proud of those where we have dealt with that sticky point between productivity and wasting time. I’m also proud of some of the interview shows we’ve done with some really smart people.

If I had to pick just one episode as my favorite, it would probably be the cooking ideas episode where we talked about my own personal workflow for developing ideas and planning projects in a way that makes sense for me and an essential step for me to ultimately ship something.

Collaboration’s an important part of what we do here at Alpha Efficiency and I guess it must be important when working with your co-host, Katie Floyd. Do you have any tips for our readers who are collaborating with others?

Collaboration is so much easier now than it was even just a few years ago. Now, with shared Internet storage like iCloud and Dropbox and all of the big companies now competing for our usage of their collaboration tools, it is easier than ever to get work done within a group. While these tools are great, I still think one of the best ways to collaborate is a sit down in a room with someone or get them on the telephone. There are limits to electronic communication and I am much more likely to pick up the telephone and talk To someone then have an extended text message exchange.

You’ve seen a lot of home screens at macsparky.com (including my own) – have you noticed any interesting trends in the app choices of your guests?

When the App store first showed up, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not the best source for Internet-based data was individual applications or in the web browser.

Specifically, people thought that we shouldn’t have apps but instead just access everything through the browser. This was very much an open question but now having seen the explosion of apps, I am more convinced than ever that specialized applications to handle Internet data and other little problems in our lives is absolutely the way to go. They are quick, responsive on our relatively low powered pocket devices. The most interesting lesson from all of the home screen posts I’ve posted is how different they all are. Everybody has unique needs and, using a modern mobile operating system, everybody gets devices to work exactly how they want them to.

Could you share us your iPhone or iPad home screen?

You bet. I’ve just got a fancy new iPhone 6 and I’m still figuring out what to do with that extra row.

Thank you for taking the time out of your day to participate in AlphaEfficiency magazine! It’s been a great honor to have you!