‘You're living a life, not a lifehack’: Sara Wachter-Boettcher - Technical.ly Philly


‘You’re living a life, not a lifehack’: Sara Wachter-Boettcher

The editor-in-chief of online magazine A List Apart relies on Slack, Harvest and naps without guilt. For our How I Work series, Sara Wachter-Boettcher shares some productivity tips.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher, editor-in-chief of A List Apart.

(Courtesy photo)

You can optimize everything in your life down to a T or you can waste a little time when you go to the post office and be OK with it.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher chooses the latter.

“You’re living a life, not a lifehack,” she wrote in an email.

Wachter-Boettcher is the editor in chief for A List Apart, an online magazine for web designers that has several Philadelphians on staff, like Yesenia Perez-Cruz and Mica McPheeters. The South Philadelphian also runs a content strategy consultancy, whose clients include PayPal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and wrote this book about content. Read more about her work here.

We asked Wachter-Boettcher how she works. Read on to hear her biggest piece of advice for freelancers, how she’s trying to tone down the “pull-to-refresh” in her world and why she loves Slack.


What’s the first thing you do every day before doing any tech-related work?

Make coffee (or convince my husband to get up first so he can make me coffee). I like to brew a big batch of Chemex, and I can’t really do more than talk to the cats until it’s done. But honestly, I start work pretty early — usually by 7:30 or so. It’s the blessing and the curse of working from home: since I don’t spend time commuting, I can dig into email or a project pretty early.

Where do you work? 

I travel for work a lot, so when I’m home, I like to be home — which means in my office in our South Philly rowhouse, or, if I’m feeling antsy and willing to put on real pants, at Ultimo/Brew across the street. I’m a sucker for a midday cappuccino. And they have beer on tap. It’s either the best or worst idea to drag my laptop over there in the late afternoon.

I love living and working in South Philly. Our block is super quiet, but I can always pop over to East Passyunk to meet someone for lunch, and it only takes 15 minutes to get to a meeting in Center City by bike or subway. And my husband (who teaches college English) and I can each have a real office with a door. I’m on a lot of phone calls with clients and collaborators, and that would be a huge distraction in a shared space.


My workspace itself is nothing fancy: low-grade Ikea I picked up a couple years ago, when we moved from the West Coast to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a year. I didn’t want to invest in anything because I didn’t know where we’d end up moving next. When we came to Philly in 2013, I dragged that desk with me. I think 2015 is the year I drag it to the curb!

How often do you check your email, and do you use any program to get to ‘Inbox Zero’?

I’m not an Inbox Zero person. I’m an Inbox Manageable person. I like to be able to skim my email and see everything that’s there at a glance (as I write this, I’m at Inbox 19).

I archive anything I don’t need to do anything with, reply to things that are easy or need immediate attention, and then leave things in my inbox that either I don’t have time to reply to yet or that are open items for whatever reason. For example: I added this interview to my to-do list (I used Teux Deux) last week, but I left the email about it in my inbox. Once I hit send on my reply, I’ll archive the conversation.

It’s really rewarding to spend even just 30 or 40 minutes with a podcast, natural light, and cold winter air.

At the end of a busy afternoon, I’ll usually spend 10 minutes or so cleaning up whatever’s accumulated throughout the day — emails I’ve responded to and forgotten to archive, or that don’t need a reply, or that just need to be turned into a task and then archived — so there’s no clutter in the morning.

I don’t know if this method would work for anyone else, but I’ve found it helpful. I don’t obsess over getting to zero, but I also don’t really let things pile up anymore. And when I’m following up on something important, I don’t have to search for the original email — chances are, I left it in my inbox.

How do you keep track of your revenues and expenses?

I use Harvest for project-tracking and invoicing, and Quickbooks for, well, my books. Once my business went beyond “freelancing” — when I started having different types of income, lots of expenses, subcontractors to pay, and all of that — I had to start keeping real, grown-up books. Quickbooks isn’t the friendliest system, but it’s the one my accountant is comfortable with, and the one that’s easiest to sync with bank accounts. Once I got over the learning curve, it made everything much better.

Finally, I cannot stress this enough: if you work for yourself, even just on the side, get thee a separate account! I use my business checking account or credit card (I have the US Airways Business Mastercard) for business purchases religiously, so I’m never staring at a list of line items trying to piece together where I was going on a random Tuesday in November to determine whether a $23.42 taxi charge was business or personal.

When you need to take a break, what are you turning to?

Like a lot of people, I drifted more and more into this pull-to-refresh world during the past few years: Oh, I’m waiting in line for 45 seconds? Better see what’s on Twitter! That used to be amazing, because it was such a novelty. Now I feel like it’s taking up headspace more than anything. I’m not even tweeting much. I’m just sort of staring at the stream. So, I’m trying to stop doing that reflexively every time I want to take a break (or procrastinate), and instead do something completely different.

I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly weighing tasks against my hourly rate to determine whether or not I should bother.

Since it’s winter now and dark in the mornings and evenings, I’ve been taking a lot of midday breaks to exercise — to pop out for a run through the city (the new extension of the Schuylkill Banks path down to South Street has been awesome, when I’m up for a longer route), or to jog over to the gym and lift. It’s hard for me to break out of work-mode in the middle of the day, but it’s really rewarding to spend even just 30 or 40 minutes with a podcast, natural light, and cold winter air.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I read tons of industry publications and I love attending conferences, but more and more, I turn to the people in my field — to human, personal conversations and friendships — to keep me inspired.

You might have heard of Slack — the team-chat app. I’ve used it on most of my projects in the past year, and we use it all the time at A List Apart. But you can set up free accounts for basically anything, and I have a couple now that are for work-friends. I’m also part of a recurring Google hangout with a few fellow women in tech. What I love about these groups is that they’re organic — they were created by different sets of colleague-friends who wanted to talk about things more deeply and more often than we could at a conference afterparty or on Twitter.

Sure, there are conversations about tools or projects or mundane business questions, but we spend a lot more of our time being honest with one another about what’s really going on in our lives — we talk about getting depressed and about getting new clients, about anxiousness over a new talk and anger over sexism, about our families and our meal-planning tips and, well, everything.

I’m struck by how passionate and empathetic and ambitious and, most of all, kind my professional circle is. When I’m stressed about a client, or having a flash of impostor syndrome, or feeling generally burnt out, these are the people who’ll listen and understand. They’re the ones who remind me why I’m in this field in the first place. Knowing I have that space has been incredibly inspiring for me, and I’d encourage anyone — especially anyone who works for themselves — to find a similar circle, and build a community around it.

What’s one time-saving tip you have?

A little over a year ago, I was considering hiring a housecleaner. I’d never done something like that before — I mean, I didn’t even know anyone who had a housekeeper when I was a kid. It sounded like this huge luxury. I asked some friends and they said things like, “Multiply your hourly rate by the number of hours you spend cleaning! It’s simply not worth your time!” They meant well, but to be honest, I really balked at that suggestion. I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly weighing tasks against my hourly rate to determine whether or not I should bother.

So, instead, I started thinking about outsourcing and offloading tasks based on how much they stress me out, compared to what I get out of them. What I realized is that not only did cleaning take a lot of time, but when I was traveling, my husband would end up doing it all himself. He felt overworked, I felt unable to keep up, and the whole thing was making us both frustrated. Now I have people come in and do a good cleaning every three weeks.

But my time-saving tip isn’t necessarily to get a housekeeper, and not everyone can afford one, anyway. Instead, it’s this: Find ways to delegate the tasks that make you crazy or stressed, but don’t obsess about your hourly rate when you’re doing the laundry or going to the post office. You’re living a life, not a lifehack. You can obsess over optimizing every minute of your day, or you can make peace with the little mundane details. I’ve chosen the latter. It might not shave minutes from my schedule, but it’s certainly made me happier with how I spend my days.

What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been? Is there something you do now (or don’t do) that you didn’t do before (or did) that has made a big difference?

I sleep! And I don’t feel guilty about it.

I used to feel bad if I got up after 7:00 a.m. on a workday or succumbed to a power nap in the mid-afternoon. But who cares if someone I admire is up at 5:00 a.m. every day for spin class, or brags about thriving on four hours of sleep? That has literally nothing to do with my life.

I’ve realized that when I’m rested, I’m more productive. More importantly, I’m happier. So now, when I need extra sleep, I take it.

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