BQ&A: Michael Schechter of 'A Better Mess'

Who are you, what do you do, etc.?

I'm Michael Schechter of A Better Mess and various other web-based nonsense. I'm a Brooklyn, NY based writer who obsesses over the ways that those who struggle can go about doing better work (read: I'm one of those productivity people your mother warned you about). I've also spent the past 33 years, or so, learning how to manage a fairly hefty case of ADHD.

What tools do you use to get your job done?

That's an adorable question... The answer is almost certainly too many; I tend to like my tools. I've written up a comprehensive list of the tools I consider to be essential, but let me try to boil it down for you.

On the hardware front, I have a late 2010 13" MacBook Air at home, a late 2009 27" iMac at work and a 64GB Black iPhone 5 that is pretty much in my hands at all times. (I don't have a problem, you have a problem. Stop looking at me like that...) I still feel like I have at least another good year in both Macs, so I try not to tempt myself with shiny new objects (I deal with enough of those in my life). I've upgraded to every new iPhone since its introduction in 2007 as a) I use the heck out of it and b) I have a problem. I also own an iPad 2, but I don't use it all that often (long story short, I don't travel with a bag, so prefer the iPhone on the go and find that the benefits of OS X outweigh the added weight in my bag when I travel). The only other piece of hardware that I truly depend upon to make things happen is my ScanSnap S300M (which has now been replaced by the S1300i).

As for the whole GTD nerdery, I tend to use a lot of software-based tools. I worry way less about how many apps I use and far more about the workflows they create. I won't bore you with all of the details (although as I mentioned you can find them here), but these are the tools that I'd be lost without, the ones that make up my foundation:

Two problems that aren't really solved for me are email on iOS (although I'm enjoying aspects of Mailbox) and chat/IM (it's all still a bit too scattered).

I'd also be lost without Dave Seah's Emergent Task Planner for planning out my day.

Last but not least are the tools I use for writing. While nvALT and Dropbox serve as the backbone, I do most of my writing between Byword on the Mac and Notesy on my phone. More substantial posts, articles and projects begin their life as a mind map in iThoughts HD and then make their way into Scrivener. If you're interested in the nitty gritty, I wrote a detailed explanation of how I use these in concert for Gabe Weatherhead over at Macdrifter (the only thing that's changed is my shift away from Simplenote to Notesy). As for posting my nonsense, I use MarsEdit to post to A Better Mess (which lives on WordPress).

Why did you first decide to start A Better Mess?

I actually started A Better Mess halfway through the site's existence. I started posting in 2008 on the exceptionally memorable and unspellable domain, I'm not particularly proud of the work (either its frequency or quality), although I keep it on the site as a reminder of how things have progressed. The focus of the site was all over the place. It went through several iterations. At one point it was the 9,698,548th website on social media; at another it was as a personal Posterous site for posting personal pictures and internet junk.

In 2011, I decided I wanted to get my crap together, both the crap on the site and in my life. I started sharing some of the ways I was doing this. One of the first decisions I made was to primarily write for myself and to not care if anyone was reading (this was a very easy decision, as three years in I had about 30 subscribers). I have the memory of a goldfish, and the site was meant to serve as a resource as I attempted to suck less. As the year progressed, two things became clear: a) other people were actually finding these posts useful and b) while there was still the occasional stray, the posts were no longer all over the place. The theme of being "a better mess" had emerged from the work and I decided to lean in and rename the site accordingly. It was apt and was far more memorable (and spellable for that matter).

For quite some time you were putting out one full-length article a day (and you still keep that up most of the time). How did you manage to do that on top of your day job, and usual life? In terms of motivation, I suppose.

Starting is a core competency of mine. I'm really great at coming up with an idea and getting the ball rolling. Unfortunately, I also have a history of either dropping or abandoning said balls. As part of my attempt to improve, I decided I needed a tangible goal. I challenged myself to see if I could post five days a week for a year. This wasn't often five full-length posts. Usually it was two full-length pieces, two longer link-style posts and a weekly quote wrap-up of my Tumblr site, Smarter Than I Am. I kept up this pace for over a year and a half.

It was not easy. I have a full-time job, a wife and our second child was born that year. The time spent writing didn't affect my day job, but by embracing my iPhone, the 80 minutes a day I spend commuting opened an ideal creative window. As for my usual life… well, when you have a young child, you have less of one. You find yourself at home a lot more and you tend to sleep a lot less (not that I'm a great sleeper to begin with).

To be completely honest, lack of time wasn't the issue; it was just the lack of choosing to invest my time in better pursuits. You'd be amazed what you can accomplish when you decide to turn off the TV. The entire experience is still one of the best choices I've ever made. Beyond the pride that comes with keeping that kind of a commitment to yourself, I became a far better writer for the experience (although I still have a ways to go).

How have things grown or changed since you first started?

This may sound like hyperbole (and probably is), but I'm a different person for this experience. Or at least a far better version. I know myself better; I do more to mitigate my many, many shortcomings; I have a far better sense of what I want from the world and have developed a few of the skills needed to actualize those ambitions.

I always thought my issue was a need to figure out what I wanted to do. The work I've done over the past few years has helped me realize that what I really needed was to cultivate skills, actually do something with them and then see where that lead. While I'm still not exactly sure where that is, I'm a fan of where things are heading.

Don't get me wrong, I still have a ways to go. There are far too many days where I tip more towards the "mess" than the "better," but more than any other time in my life, I feel as if my life is moving in the right direction.

Tell me a little bit about your podcast Mikes on Mics.

Over the past few years, I've grown into a massive podcast listener. I may or may not have a problem. As I continued listening, I felt a yen to do one of my own. Much as I enjoy the site, writing happens in a vacuum. Much as I'm one of the few writers on the Internet who still loves blog comments, it's still not the kind of rigorous back and forth I enjoy. In fact in writing, they tend to go rather poorly.

I started talking about the desire on Twitter and found myself in a conversation with my co-host, Mike Vardy. We were familiar with each other's work and had only ever exchanged a few words through Twitter. One bad joke about a show called Mikes on Mics and a Skype call later, we were doing a podcast together. In fact, Episode 0 was only the second time we'd ever spoken to one another.

It was a risk, but the pairing has paid off (or at least I think it has). We both care and think a lot (read: too much) about the way we work. We share several of the same core beliefs on the subject, but also fundamentally differ on a fair amount (which yields the occasional squabble).

At its core, it's a podcast on productivity. One that tries not to take itself too seriously (I mean we start almost every episode by sharing what booze we're drinking), while working hard to ensure that the bulk of every episode is meat and not filler. It's my first foray into audio, so I still have a lot to learn, but I'm enjoying the experience and am encouraged by the feedback we continue to receive (even the ones that tell us how to improve).

Any plans for the future that you'd be willing to divulge here?

At the beginning of this year, I talked about alignment. There's a large gap that lives between the work that pays my bills and what I'm putting out personally on the web. While I'm still not quite sure where it's all leading or if I even want my personal projects to be the way that I make my living, I'm working towards figuring that out.

Between A Better Mess, Mikes on Mikes and Mike Techniques, my joint newsletter with Mike Vardy, I'm spread a bit thin on the web. That's in addition to being spread thin in general. I've been talking with Vardy about how we can align more of what we do and should have some news on that front soon. (Editor's Note: This project has now been released. It's called Workflowing and you can read about it here.)

I'm also working on my first larger writing project. A first draft has been submitted to my publisher, but I've yet to hear if it's anywhere close to being ready for human consumption. It's very in-line with the ideas and the process I've been honing and sharing over the last few years.

If you could only install one third party app on your iPhone, what would it be? Mac?

That's not a fair question to ask someone like me. At the end of the day, both of these devices are conduits to making words, so I'd have to go with Notesy on the phone and nvALT on the Mac. Apple may have its built-in notes application, but I am so comfortable capturing and expanding my ideas in these apps. By the way, I'm cheating and assuming Dropbox is a given because I sure as hell don't trust iCloud with my words.

If you could have any super power, what would it be? (Keep in mind that there are wrong answers here.)

As someone who tends to struggle, I'm a big fan of persistence. I don't know what the super power equivalent of that would be, but I'd take a superhuman dose of it if you're offering ...