Huh. #work #efficiency

M., who was once a new grad reporting to me and with whom I’m still in touch as an interesting person to talk to, just sent me this article:

I can still remember how mad I was, freshman year of high school, when my Spanish-class teacher wouldn’t give me an A. I’d gotten A’s on (a statistically appropriate number of) the tests, so I figured I deserved an A in the class. The teacher was adamant: no A for me. I’d skipped (a whole lot of) the homework.

Who was this teacher, I thought, to insist I do busywork that was clearly unnecessary to learn the material?! Hadn’t I proved I was right?!*

Looking back, I’m pretty sure the teacher was just young and immature, and maybe didn’t want to set himself up for dealing with a whole class full of argumentative would-be homework-skippers.

Looking back, I’m proud I went right on skipping the homework. B’s be damned. I knew I was right.

Looking back, I’m also really, really, really grateful to my parents for supporting me in this. Talk about ways to be fortunate in life – parental support in figuring the ROI on any given effort at a young age has paid off I-don’t-even-know-how-immensely in happiness. Thanks, Mom & Dad. Thanks.


* Clearly, I haven’t changed much.

Book review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Is it ironic or awesome that I’m writing this in a focused 30 minute burst?!

A few weeks ago I realized that multiple bloggers I read had read and commented on Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I’m a big believer in the value of single-tasking and focus, and last summer I had a week-long experience with shingles that convinced me I needed to get less distraction in my life – so I picked up a copy of the book myself, in hopes of a few new ideas.

The summary: it’s changing how I approach focus, and that’s a good thing.

Often I find that business and productivity books are skimmable; all too often, someone takes a three-page idea and turns it into two hundred pages of content. Happily, that’s not the case with Deep Work; I found the whole thing to be worth reading.

The premise: focus and deep work are worthwhile because, professionally and personally speaking, they are a competitive advantage.

The challenge: we (ie, modern humans with access to cellphones, power, and data plans) exist in a context very likely to erode our ability to focus and do that deep work that will help us do whatever it is we’re trying to do (including, unfortunately, figure out what we’re trying to do!).

The approach: build focus and deep work into our lives, using several of a variety of techniques adapted to our specific situations.

Okay, that said, here’s how the techniques break down, specifically as I’m using them:

  • Find a rhythm that works. Tempting as it is to carve out three straight hours every morning starting at eight a.m., I work a lot with New York and India teams, which means most of my mornings are full of meetings. I’ve also noticed I work well in 90 minute bursts.

==> I’ve scheduled one 90 minute block for myself, every work day, and labelled it “project work.” These are usually in the afternoon, at different times each day. I’ve also set them to start on the quarter hour, which gives me a built in break between the prior meeting & the project work block.

  • Build up focus muscles. Don’t check the internet every time it occurs to you to check the internet. Instead, notice that you wanted to check it, and go back to whatever you were doing. This applies both during project blocks and in general. Basically, stop using the internet to amuse yourself while waiting in line. Instead, let your brain just do whatever it wants to do. The other idea I really liked in this section is concentrated reflection on a given topic – rather than just working hard on something, spending a while intentionally thinking it through. This pairs nicely with my goal of going for more walks.

==> I’m trying this. I think I can feel my brain unwinding!

  • Make social media intentional. What are you using it for? Deep connections with friends? Self-promotion? I basically treat LinkedIn like an old-school Rolodex (useful); Instagram as a connection with people I actually care about (I value this); and Facebook annoys me but is (maybe?) good for self-promotion of a poetry reading I’m doing next week.

==> I’ve updated my profiles and I’m paying more attention to what I read and post.

  • Crowd out low-value stuff. Work, errands, and personal tasks will expand to fill every available minute. So – cap the minutes, and fill them with high-value stuff.

==> I’m learning to delegate (I could be so, so much better at this! But I’m learning); scheduled the gym; I’m using the shuttle as a way to force-schedule my workdays; and I’ve made a few more weekend plans.

So. There’s more in the book, but that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying this plus tracking all my work time for the past three weeks. So far, so good. I feel a) calmer and b) I think I’m doing more useful stuff.

If you’re working on focus… what have you tried? What’s working?

A January Experiment: Focused Deep Work

Late in November of last year, I took on some new responsibilities at work. My team grew. My role grew. The amount of stuff I’m responsible for grew.

I’m going to have to do some things differently.

So in January, I’m going to experiment.

First, I overhauled my schedule so that I can have a solid block of focused work time each day, mostly first thing in the morning. Making this happen took an amazing (to me, anyway) two hours of focused effort on overhauling my calendar – but while I was at it, I also built in three visits to the gym, two long walks, and a preset day to work from the San Francisco office. This is all weekly, so it gives me a lot more predictability, and I feel good about having that work time to look forward to.

Second, over time I’ve gradually reduced my own multitasking. If I’m in a meeting, I don’t take my laptop, just a notebook and pen. This reduces the temptation to check email, especially because…

Third, I’ve turned off all email and chat notifications on my phone. I’ve also decided not to check email until after my daily focused work time.

So that’s January! I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes. I’m hoping that in combination, these changes will lead me to get more thoughtful work done, at a greater level of depth, while feeling less scattered.

What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

Small-town election notes

The election is coming up on Tuesday. In the small town where I live, there are five candidates for city council. Three are men, two are women. I didn’t know much about any of them going into the election, so this morning I spent a while reading about them online. I care about this town; I’d like to vote for people who will make good choices for it!

And here’s the thing: as far as opinions about any of the candidates goes, I’m starting from a blank slate. I’d like to give each of them an equivalent chance to get my vote. But two of the three don’t have “policy” pages on their websites, so by definition I have less of a sense of what they’re about.

Those two are the women.

Dammit.

Come on, feminism, shouldn’t you be able to do better than this?! I need to know what you’re about in order to know whether I want to vote for you! You’re just undercutting yourself here.

As a side note, this is much the same way I feel about Gavin Newsom not including a candidate statement in the voter information pamphlet. Really?! Come on. I know you have a track record but really?! Don’t just dial it in. Do better than this!

Also, back on the city council side, one candidate has a whole page on his website about what his two small dogs have taught him about life and how this informs his policy positions and approach. This is either completely awesome, or a total red flag. I’m still deciding which.

What would you replace?

Three hours before my flight was due to leave for Jakarta, my car was broken into and the carry-on bag I’d packed for the flight was stolen. I lost my laptop, work badge, e-reader, paper notebook and pen, favorite headphones, makeup, phone charger, international plug adapter, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, toothbrush, hairspray, scarf, eye mask for sleeping on the plane, extra socks, and antibiotics in case I got sick while traveling.

For a moment I thought, am I still going? But I still had my wallet and passport and phone, and because my suitcase was too big to fit through the car window the thieves had broken, I still had most of my clothes. I’m a big believer in momentum and at this point, the momentum of things said go. I called the security office at work to deal with the work side of things; my husband called the car insurance company to deal with that. And then we headed for the airport. My husband dropped me off – this was a work trip, not vacation – and I headed inside to check in for my flight.

This was when things got interesting. I’d expected that I could replace anything I really needed once I was inside the airport and past security – but the shops at SFO close at midnight, and by now it was 12:05 a.m. No paperback book or phone charger for me.

This was an odd feeling. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to having a large handbag with me most of the time, and I kept double-checking my wallet to make sure I still had it. It was attached to a loop handle around my wrist, so the odds I’d lose it were low, but still. I wondered if I was more shaken up by the theft than I realized. Maybe?

I sent my husband a text message saying everything was fine, then settled in to wait for the flight. Thirteen hours and I’d be changing planes in Taipei. In Taipei, surely there would be a place I could at least buy a phone charger.

I tried to figure out the odd feeling. Was it the lack of a backpack slung over my shoulder? (I’d liked my backpack!) The inability to write anything down, to think through what had happened or what to do next the way I do it best, on paper? The lack of anything to read? I’d turned my phone off to save battery; just in case I couldn’t get a charger in Taipei, I wanted to make sure I still had power when I landed in Jakarta. Supposedly someone would meet me at the airport to take me to the hotel, and I’d be meeting up with work colleagues once I was there, but still. The ability to look something up or call someone if something went off-kilter seemed worth maintaining.

What do you do on a plane flight with no book, no music, and nothing to write with? I don’t usually watch in-flight movies, but this time I did: I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2.. Meh. Then I slept.

Taipei: the flight landed so early that the shops weren’t open yet. I paced up and down the hallways, stretching out my ankles. The layover was nearly three hours. There was plenty of time.

Taipei airport is interesting and to me, uncomfortable-feeling. The ceilings on most of the concourses are relatively low; most of the places to walk feel very closed-in. There’s a central area with the airline lounges and food court that’s much taller, two stories, but the lighting is dim and as you look up at the ceiling, everything fades to darkness and girders. I saw almost no exterior windows. The whole thing feels post-industrial, or like a setting for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. On the other hand, there’s an orchid display and a Hello Kitty store and a small lounge with hand-carved wooden furniture and potted plants.

By now the stores were open, and I had to decide: what am I actually going to need? I don’t love shopping, and airports are pretty expensive places to buy most things. I wanted to keep my purchases minimal – but I also knew our agenda in Jakarta was packed full, and I didn’t want to count on having time to shop for anything specific while there. If I was going to need it during the trip, this was my chance.

I settled on:

  • A charger, cord, and portable battery for my phone. This was a work trip; I had to have some way to make my phone work.
  • A scarf. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and I might need to cover my hair.
  • A notebook and pen. I just feel too weird if I don’t have something to write with.
  • A small, professional-looking backpack. The trip would involve being out all day, and that meant being able to carry bottled water, the scarf, and so on with me.

It took me an hour and a half to track it all down, partly because while there were a lot of electronics stores, they all had slightly different options and the plugs in Taipei are different from the plugs in Jakarta, so I had to find an adapter, and then I balked at how much it cost. Happily a store clerk helped me figure out a cheaper option that still worked, based mostly on knowing which items had cables included vs needing to buy them separately. I am also pretty picky about backpacks. It needed to be a backpack for comfort, but again, I wasn’t up for spending a ton of money, I wanted it to be lightweight, and it needed to look more work-appropriate than hiking-appropriate. I would have bought a book, but the only English-language books I found were travel guides for places I wasn’t going.

At the end, I settled into one of the lounge chairs next to the potted plants and used my phone’s data roaming plan to purchase and download a couple of e-books. Now that I had a battery and charging cord, I could use my phone as something to read.

And then it was time to board the flight.

Jakarta was great – maybe a topic for another post – but the whole experience of first losing things I’d carefully chosen to taken with me, and then needing to quickly replace just the items that were most critical, based on a limited selection of things available, was also interesting. It’s easy to get pretty meta about minimalism, and do we really need all the things we carry, and at first I wondered if maybe this wasn’t some great life lesson about needing less. Did I really need a backpack, for example, or was the wallet I already had enough?

Then I thought a little harder about my role – professional woman on a business trip, intentionally going to learn about this part of the world – and what I was hoping for from the trip, and what would make that easier. And I realized that most of what I’d packed in the first place really was likely to be useful.

Maybe the lesson is more that sometimes, we’re already doing just fine.

One week different

For the past week I’ve done almost everything differently. I haven’t been online. I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t cooked dinner. I haven’t seen friends. I haven’t worked in the garden. I expected to go to New York, but didn’t. I’ve driven out to the beach twice in the afternoon, and once to the nearby Japanese garden. I’ve read two books, one on paper and another on my ereader. I’ve gone to four doctor appointments. I’ve taken half a dozen naps. I haven’t checked the news.

One of the books I read was Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore in the beach town I’d driven out to. Reader offered the only accurate description I’ve ever come across of how it feels to me to really read, deeply, all-in, surroundingly. I used to say that good reading wasn’t about seeing or thinking individual words; I was there, watching, present. The description the author gave in this book was the first and only thing I’ve read that made me think someone else would know exactly what I meant by that.

So that pulled me in. And I had time: not a lot of mental energy, true, but time. I’d set my email autoreply to indicate that I wouldn’t be answering email. I’d declined meetings. It seemed pointless to check much of anything online, and since the whole point of the week was recuperating, there was nothing much else I was trying to do. I read the book. I read it on paper, page by page, and because the author had me hooked with that description, I trusted what else she might have to say: after all, this is a person who gets it.

Summary: we read differently when we read to skim, to summarize, to hunt for information than when we read deeply. We read differently on a screen than we do on paper. We read differently when we read in volume rather than when we read to read. These differences aren’t subjective or maybe; they’re measurable and visible in everything from brain scans to how we move our eyes across text.

Maybe because this was a week of different, maybe because I was primed to pay attention, maybe because I’ve felt my own reading brain slipping, the ideas in the book hit home. I tried what Wolf said she’d tried: focused, forced attention. I read and re-read until I got it. I fought my way through long sentences without letting nuance slip past (I found a couple of places I think Wolf’s editor could have improved things, but that’s meaningful too). A couple of chapters were less personally meaningful to me than others, but I read them deeply anyway. I held internal arguments with myself about what might be missing: this is a recipe for reading more deeply as taught to children, but what about the rest of us? are we sure that children are more distractable than adults? how do we handle the volume of things we might read, or feel we’re expected to read, professionally or personally? if one reasonable goal is a bilateral approach to reading modes, when does truly lightweight skimming make sense? (And as I write this, I remember: being taught to skim, as a skill, sometime in middle school. There’s a certain irony to that, but maybe also a certain hope: can we learn to choose how we read? And I remember my mother telling me about how her reading changed in law school, and how it changed again after that.)

As the week went on, I started experimenting more specifically. I aimed for less rapidity, fewer things, and more depth. I aimed for stillness, for letting my mind do nothing much at all. I checked email less often, and when I did, I wrote back to the friends who’d sent messages asking if I were okay. I uninstalled a couple of apps from my phone. In the doctor’s office while waiting for the optometrist to come in, I simply sat.

I’ve also been reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan, on my ereader, and up to about three quarters of the way through I hadn’t really seen the point of it. It’s violent and gruesome and yes the early penal colony days in Australia were awful, but. I haven’t been able to see it, to see the story in the book the way I sometimes (and in the past, nearly always) see the stories in books.

Then sometime around Thursday evening, a switch flipped, and I was there. Twopenny Sal was dancing around a fire, ochre painted on her face, shadows leaping too against the night sky – and that image is as vivid as anything I can imagine. I finished reading Book of Fish this morning, and everything through to the end – I was there. (It’s still never going to be my favorite book, but that’s fine, and a different story.)

Last night I picked up The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. I’d gone to see Kingsnorth give a talk, a few months back, and the whole idea of this book just pulls me in. The surreality of it; the slip into a new language; the sense of a landscape I both know and don’t. Every few months I’ve picked it up and thought, is this what I’m going to read next? and every few months I’ve put it back on the shelf.

This time, I took it down to the couch and dove in. It’s beautiful and misty and wonderful and even in this, my week of how-is-it-possible-to-feel-this-tired, the scenes and the place and the people are clear. I am so glad I waited to read it.

So where does all this leave me?

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, my brain started feeling more clear.

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, I started feeling like I could think again, in a way I haven’t felt like I could think in quite some time.

I don’t quite know what’s next, but I am unwilling to give this up. I’m planning a few things to keep it going: less lightweight information, and if that means I use the gaps between things for exactly nothing specific, that’s fine; more breaks between meetings; more paper, both for thinking through projects and for reading; fewer apps; less checking the news; more one thing at a time; more choosiness and more depth in reading. If this forces me to do fewer things overall – okay. It feels like a really good trade.

It also feels like the best side effect I can imagine of coming down with shingles. A year from now, I think and hope this is what I’ll remember when I look back at this time.

Fifteen Years

Disclaimer: I work at Google; the opinions expressed here are my own, not Google’s.

I just passed the fifteen year mark for working at Google. This seems crazy to me – how can it have been that long? That’s longer than I’ve done just about anything.

When people I’m interviewing ask me what I like about Google, why I’m still there (although admittedly not many interviewees think to ask about how long that actually is), my usual answer has two parts:

1. The people
2. The variety

Google has grown immensely since I started working there, and with that growth has come a bunch of new projects. When I started, Google had about five total products (Search, Ads, AdSense, News, the Toolbar, Images, and maybe one or two others I’m forgetting). Now it has… I have no idea how many. Lots. Hardware & software. Cloud stuff. Enterprise stuff and small-business stuff. Consumer stuff. Video stuff. Mapping stuff. Lots of stuff!

And with that variety has come the ability to move around, to change projects, to experiment and try things. My estimate is that I usually spend about two to three years in any given role (sometimes it’s hard to define what a role change really is; some shifts are more obvious than others). I’ve worked on sales tax systems and enterprise administration systems and mapping and search and news and partnership stuff and abuse and payments and for a brief moment while I was trying to figure out what to do next, hardware. In addition to projects, I’ve changed job roles. I’ve taken two leaves of absence and been part of I-don’t-know-how-many teams.

There are areas I haven’t worked in – most noticeably, ads & core search (the big ones!).

Some of my favorite people from the early days are still around. Some aren’t. That’s okay – I’ve learned that the people I most want to stay in touch with, I mostly stay in touch with, and some of the brand-new-hires turn out to become some of my favorite people too. I’m pleased that some of the people I first met on a difficult project over ten years ago are people I work with on a completely different project today.

I’ve always been officially based in Mountain View, but I’ve travelled to offices in Australia, India, Israel, Japan, and in the US, New York. Later this year I expect to travel to Indonesia.

Every so often somebody asks me, “what was it like when…?” and I find that my answers are mostly lightweight. Most recently, somebody asked “was that in your Noogler orientation?” and I replied, “we didn’t have Noogler orientation,” without realizing initially what a big shift that really represents. We didn’t have orientation, or videoconferences, or a homegrown Calendar app, or multiple cafes serving three meals a day, or Android. We didn’t always have enough desks.

But overall, we were held together then, as we are now, by the threads connecting each of us to each other. (Also an enthusiasm for food. We used to have lobster pasta at lunch sometimes. And donuts, dammit!) We are in my experience an opinionated, vocal bunch of well-intentioned people trying to build and do interesting things. We argue, we debate, we try hard to get it right. We put in effort and time and intention. We care.

And I think that’s why, when somebody asks me, “how was it different then?” that I always come up short on an answer. In a lot of ways, of course, it’s very different. The company is something like sixty times bigger than it was when I started. Of course it’s different.

But in a lot of ways, it’s very much the same. And I suppose that’s why I’m still there.

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