Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

tools

The Tools I Use

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly tempted to hunt for new, exciting tools to incorporate into my work. The latest and greatest; something that will surely supercharge my productivity. The missing ingredient. I often hear from readers who want to know about the tools I use. They ask which editor is my favourite, how I edit my work, or what I use to track my to-do list.

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly tempted to hunt for new, exciting tools to incorporate into my work. The latest and greatest; something that will surely supercharge my productivity. The missing ingredient.

I often hear from readers who want to know about the tools I use. They ask which editor is my favourite, how I edit my work, or what I use to track my to-do list.

Part of my wants to shrink away from those questions. The real answer, of course, is that tools don’t matter.

Mostly.

Tools matter a great deal. But it’s far more important to make use of the tools you have available, rather than always looking for something new. In the right circumstances, a new app might make you 5% more productive. But, if you spent 10 hours — or more — looking for, finding, and learning that tool, have you gained anything?

In my experience, the problems most developers face have nothing to do with their tools.

But I keep getting questions. So, I thought it might be fun to share a few of my favourite apps. Maybe — just maybe — you’ll find something you can use in your work.

Just don’t spend too much time on it.  

Ulysses

Mission Control for everything I write, from outline to the finished article. I’m typing this sentence on it, right now. Ulysses offers more features than I can count. It provides top-notch Markdown support and more options for exporting your work than I’ve seen in any other app.  

Deckset

I use Deckset for all of my presentations. It allows you to edit a Markdown document, while it automatically produces slides for you. Stop worrying about fiddling with slide transitions, and start worrying about your content.  

Alfred

The first app I install on a  new machine. Alfred can help you launch apps, do math, search the web, and so much more. Thanks to Workflows, it also allows me to make phone call, switch my audio source, shut down my laptop, or search Giphy. All from my keyboard.  

Todoist

I’m giving this one a try, after being a fan of Omnifocus for many years. It’s working well, so far.  

Hazel

I hate organizing my files. With Hazel, I automatically delete old downloads, clean up my desktop, and moves files based on the tags I give them.  

Grammarly

As someone who writes thousands of words a month, my subscription to Grammarly is worth every penny. It checks my writing for issues with grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. I’ve also used their proofreading services, from time to time. Highly recommended.  

Trello

I publish the newsletter every Monday and the occasional article during the rest of the week. I also contribute guest posts to other sites, from time to time. I manage all of my writing tasks through Trello. My writing board has a lot of lists on it — 17 in total. They cover everything from the latest newsletter drafts, to guest posts I’m writing, to tracking where I’m publishing & promoting my work. I couldn’t keep everything straight without it.

How about you?

What are some of your favorite apps? Shoot me an email and let me know. I’ll share some of my favorite suggestions in a future edition of the newsletter.

Until next week,

-Brian


How I Write & Publish a Weekly Newsletter

I often receive questions about how I run the Monday Mailer, my weekly newsletter about shipping side projects, productivity, and doing your best work. Readers ask what my writing process is like, and which software tools I use. While I firmly believe tools aren’t all that important — you can make something great, no matter the means— I thought I’d write some of it up for anyone interested. Planning I publish my newsletter every Monday, and the occasional article during the rest of the week.

I often receive questions about how I run the Monday Mailer, my weekly newsletter about shipping side projects, productivity, and doing your best work. Readers ask what my writing process is like, and which software tools I use. While I firmly believe tools aren’t all that important — you can make something great, no matter the means— I thought I’d write some of it up for anyone interested.

Planning

I publish my newsletter every Monday, and the occasional article during the rest of the week. I also contribute guest posts to other sites, from time to time. I manage all of my writing tasks through Trello. My writing board has a lot of lists on it — 17 in total. They cover everything from the latest newsletter drafts, to guest posts I’m writing, to tracking where I’m publishing & promoting my work. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Ideas: Whenever I think of something that might make for a good article, I throw it in here. I try not to edit these thoughts too early — if it’s rattling around in my brain, it goes on the list. There’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 cards, so far.
  • On Deck: Cards from the “Ideas” list I’m hoping to work on next.
  • Process: Lists that cover every step in my writing & editing process: Outline, 1st Draft, 2nd Draft, 3rd Draft, and Edited.
  • Published: Lists for every place I regularly post my articles: Mailing List, Medium, and LinkedIn.
  • Promoted: Lists for every site I usually use for promoting my work: Hacker News, Designer News, Reddit, and more.
  • Pitched: A single list for keeping track of which publications I’ve submitted to, along with the article and current status.

Phew! My Trello board is probably getting a bit out of hand. But I have so much going on every week; I need an external brain to keep everything organized. Okay, let’s dive into my writing process.

Writing

Like many writers, I take an iterative approach. Each round builds on the last. Here’s what it looks like, roughly:

  1. Fire up Ulysses and write a quick and dirty outline. I spew my thoughts onto the page. Every little thought that pops into my head gets written down. I don’t edit or change anything at this stage — it’s all about getting my brain warmed up. If there’s something I need to research, I jot it down as well. Then, I walk away for a while.
  2. Come back, throw the outline on the left side of my screen, and open a new document on the right. I start by expanding on the bullet points in the outline. Again, I’m not too worried about details at this point. I write until I have something mostly resembling sentences and paragraphs. Then, I walk away for a bit.
  3. Put the last draft on the left side of the screen, and a new document on the right. Noticing a pattern, yet? Now it’s time for the real work. On this pass, I work on refining my ideas. I ask myself a few questions: Are things coming across clearly? Am I writing in a way that feels authentic to my personality? Are there any obvious problems? I fix anything I find and then — you guessed it — walk away for a bit.
  4. For this last pass, I run the article through Grammarly. I shell out for the Premium plan every month. It isn’t perfect, but it usually catches a few things I missed in the last draft. Worth every penny, considering the amount of writing I do each month.

I try to dedicate a couple hours to writing every morning. Some articles take a few days — or weeks — to complete; others I can knock off in a few hours. Doing a little bit every day means I always have something I can publish. It also means I’m sometimes a week or two ahead of schedule, which is useful for those moments life throws a curveball my way.

Publishing

The Monday Mailer has 1,168 subscribers as of this writing. I use Mailchimp’s Send Time Optimization tool to send new articles at an ideal time for the majority of my readers. It usually lands somewhere between 9–10am EST.

After I schedule the week’s newsletter, I add the article to my blog. I used to enjoy fiddling around with hosting my website, but I use Squarespace and enjoy the simplicity it offers. Again, worth every penny. I schedule the blog post to publish two weeks after it goes out to the mailing list. I do the same for the Medium version.

Squarespace automatically tweets a link to the post, once it’s live.

A few people have suggested LinkedIn as a good place to share new articles, so I’ve been giving that a try, as well.

Interacting

My favorite social network is my mailing list. I set time aside all week to respond to emails from my readers. I’m lucky — they’re never short on feedback and suggestions.

Since the public version of the article is scheduled ahead of time, I can mostly forget about it until it goes live. Once it does, I spend a good chunk of time monitoring the comments, as well as social media, for comments and reaction. I make sure to thank everyone who shares my work. Everyone I can find, at least.

Fin

That’s it! It’s a relatively simple process. But it’s one I can repeat consistently, week over week. And that’s the most important part.


Lose the Crutch

For the longest time I thought I needed caffeine to be productive. I needed a lot of things, actually. I needed the perfect time, with no distractions. I needed my favourite chair, at my favourite desk. I needed my coding playlist. I needed my giant monitor. I needed the right motivation or inspiration. I needed that jolt of caffeine. With everything in place, I could finally get to work. Conditions were perfect.

For the longest time I thought I needed caffeine to be productive. I needed a lot of things, actually.

I needed the perfect time, with no distractions.

I needed my favourite chair, at my favourite desk.

I needed my coding playlist.

I needed my giant monitor.

needed the right motivation or inspiration.

I needed that jolt of caffeine.

With everything in place, I could finally get to work. Conditions were perfect.

Except they weren’t, most of the time.

I didn’t need any of those things. Each one was a crutch. A tiny, perfect excuse to procrastinate.

Waiting for inspiration, motivation, or a “perfect moment” is for amateurs. A true professional knows the best way to accomplish anything is to sit down, shut up, and put in the damn work. Each and every day.

Want to get better at programming? Come up with a side project and work on it every day.

Wish you could improve your writing? Write 500 words every day.

Want to get better at cooking? Cook one meal – you guessed it – every day.

Doing great work is, in many ways, a numbers game. The more time you spend honing your craft and putting the work in, the better your odds of creating something great. You may not be the best in your field, but you can certainly work harder than everyone else.

So what’s holding you back? What excuses are you using to procrastinate? If any device, tool, setting, mood, or beverage becomes necessary to work, it needs to be jettisoned. Right quick.

Until next time,

–Brian