30 day challenge for March: no external email

In January, my 30 day challenge was to limit my social media. That was a productive month.

In February, my 30 day challenge was to eat more slowly. I did that by counting to ten between chewing bites of my food. I tend to wolf down my food, which doesn’t give my stomach time to say “Hey, I’m full enough to stop.” I was also raised to finish everything on my plate, but sometimes it’s better to stop eating and leave leftovers on the plate. It’s actually been a really great challenge, and one I hope to keep doing in some form.

For March, my 30 day challenge will be not to reply to external emails. Email continues to be my nemesis. It’s so hard to prioritize important things over the pelting of lots of emails that claim to be urgent. Answering emails provides the illusion of progress, but it’s one of the least scalable ways to communicate. When you answer an external email, you’re usually helping one person in private, as opposed to helping many people at once like with a video. And of course when you’re answering emails, you’re usually reacting rather than plotting an active course forward.

Last night I got the chance to hear Fred Brooks talk about different aspects of software engineering and management. He told a story about the IBM System/360. Apparently a few months before the public launch, a smart manager concluded that the team need to focus on work with no distractions. So the manager decreed: no meetings with sales people or other non-related internal staff. What the team needed was to “just be mean” and buckle down and focus on the most important goal, which was meeting their launch deadline.

March is a great month to do some deep thinking about the future and various work and personal projects. So I’m going to try to do more of that and less answering email. Sorry in advance if you write but don’t get a reply from me.

30 day challenge update: stretching!

I like to set myself different challenges every 30 days. In October 2013, I tried to eat better and exercise more. I did alright on that, but without a specific daily goal, I had a hard time deciding how well I did. I mostly got back into the habit of exercising daily, so that was helpful.

For November 2013, I tried to do a “no work November.” I had enough vacation days built up that I was hitting the upper limit for work, so I took a bunch of vacation in November. My in-laws visited one week, then it was a family member’s birthday, so we took some time off at a resort in Arizona. Then it was back home for a week before spending the week before Thanksgiving in Kentucky with my family.

I learned a few things in my month off:
- I still enjoy reading tech and Google news for fun. It’s amazing (or problematic?) how much time you can spend just surfing the web each day and reading what other people are writing.
- My initial goal was to not read work email at all, but I had to give up on that. There were a few urgent things I genuinely had to weigh in on. I eventually settled for reading work email but trying really hard not to reply unless it was an emergency. I probably ended up writing 20-30 replies over the month, along with passing on spam reports that people emailed to me.
- I realized that I’d gotten in the bad habit of giving friends my work email address, as well as forwarding my personal email address to my work email. Takeaway: keep your work email separate from your personal email. Seems like common sense, but after almost 14 years at Google, things had gotten tangled together.
- A couple good pieces of advice that I failed to heed: 1) remove your work account from your phone, so you can’t check work email or docs on your phone. 2) if you have an “email tab” that you keep pinned on your browser, unpin and close that tab. I didn’t take either of those steps, but I should have.
- I didn’t feel the need to start any big projects, or write any Android apps, or blog a lot. I have a newer Linux computer that has configuration issues; I didn’t tackle that. Mostly I enjoyed reading a few books.
- I’m incredibly proud of the whole webspam team at Google. Things ran like clockwork while I was gone. I’m really grateful to the phenomenal people that fight spam for Google’s users every day.

Which brings us to December 2013. Back in September, I threw my back out. I can still move around fine, but it sometimes hurts if I bend in various ways. So my goal for December 2013 is to do 15-20 minutes of stretching–things like cat and camel–each day to help my back recuperate.

How about you? Are you doing any 30 day challenges?

30 day challenge: better email handling

Some relatives were visiting this past week, so my inbox has a triple digit backlog. That’s after aggressive pruning of mailing lists and so on. Nearly all of those emails mention me in a “to:” or “cc:” line and request a response. Some observations:

- roughly 40% of those emails are from the outside world (that is, not from colleagues at Google).
- only 5% of my emails are from people who are actually on my team.
- 3% of my current emails are about internal legal matters.
- 1% are from public relations folks.
- about 10-12% of those emails are about a couple recent internal projects that aren’t related to webspam but that I’m helping with.

My 30 day goal this month is to get to a better place with email. Heck, I might make “better email habits” an ongoing 30 day challenge until things are in a better place. Could I get to a healthier place in three months? Four months? I have no idea how long it will take, but email represents my largest source of work stress. When I’ve tracked my time in the past, it takes me about three hours a day to keep from falling behind on email. If my whole day is full of meetings, then I’m spending several hours at night to keep my head above water. Does anybody else tackle email on their vacation so it’s not as bad when they get back? Some of you do, right?

At 40% of my overall load, it’s clear to me that I have to do something different for emails from the outside world. For years I tried to answer everyone who emailed me. I’m going to have to go “lossy” and just let some of those emails drop.

I need to think about whether it makes sense to write a blog post like Chris Sacca did (which
Rick Klau recently surfaced) that tries to address the common things that people email about. Then again, Rand Fishkin did something like that at http://moz.com/rand/making-email-more-scalable/ and he reported that he ended up with “a bunch of very angry people” when he pointed them to a blog post.

So I’m not sure whether it’s better not to reply, or to write up a canned response or maybe a blog post or a flowchart that I can point people to. If you have tips that have worked for you to make email more manageable, let me know in the comments below.

Added, 9/25/2013: This has been a tough challenge. One tactic that has worked well for me is to put email away from Friday evening until Sunday evening. Then (since I’m a workaholic), I ask myself “If someone else were trying to relax this weekend, what would I recommend for them to do?” and I try to do that. As a result, I’ve read more books this month, which has been nice.

The other tactic is to allow myself to go lossy, which means not answering every email. A lot of emails require 5-15 minutes at a minimum to respond, so email becomes a todo list in which anyone can keep adding to the list. Treating any non-trivial email as if it’s a request for 10-15 minutes of my time has helped me figure out which emails I should respond to vs. not replying.

30 day challenge: record a second of video every day

For June 2013, my 30 day challenge was to record a second of video every day. I was inspired by Cesar Kuriyama’s wonderful TED talk about how he records a second of video every day. There’s a couple things Cesar said in his talk that really resonated with me:

- “[A]s the days and weeks and months go by, time just seems to start blurring and blending into each other and, you know, I hated that“. Totally agree. One of the reasons I started doing 30 day challenges was that I was alarmed at how quickly time was passing and I wanted to make my time more memorable.
- “This has really invigorated me day-to-day, when I wake up, to try and do something interesting with my day“. Recording a second of video a day has definitely made me keep my eyes peeled for noticeable sights. That also happened when I took a picture every day for a different 30 day challenge.

Okay, enough talk. Why don’t I show you my video montage for June 2013? (I missed three days, so I added three seconds from May to make it a full 30 days.) Here’s my video:

To make this video, I used Cesar’s 1 Second EveryDay app. The app is available for iPhone and iOS devices now, and Cesar let me beta test the Android app. The Android version of the app just went live, so you can give it a try.

I really enjoyed this challenge. I definitely did more interesting things, and the video is like a diary of travel and events from June 2013. Even on boring days, there’s probably at least one fun second you can save. The video makes my life look more exciting than it actually is, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

If you’re new to 30 day challenges, recording a second of video every day is a great way to start.

30 day challenge: Chromebook Pixel

For May 2013 I decided to try making a Chromebook Pixel my primary laptop. So how did it go? Well, the short version is that I’m still a happy Pixel user, almost three months after my one month challenge started.

Previously, I was using a Thinkpad 420s running Goobuntu. In fact, I’ve been using Thinkpads since 1998, when I got my first one in grad school. Before I talk about the Pixel, here’s what I like about Thinkpads:
- Thinkpad keyboards have been the best in the industry. Great depth and just-right resistance. I especially liked the Thinkpad’s dedicated back/forward buttons for web browsing, located right near the arrow keys. Unfortunately, Lenovo has moved to “chiclet” style keyboards and dropped the back/forward buttons in newer Thinkpads.
- Thinkpads have a red rubber TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard. TrackPoint pointers are faster and more precise than trackpads or even mice for me, since you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard. I didn’t think I could use a laptop without a TrackPoint.
- Thinkpads have a consistent power connector that doesn’t change very often. Most Google conference rooms have Thinkpad and Mac power connectors, so you don’t have to haul a power cord around with you.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a black magnesium case that’s not as cold on your lap when it wakes up as aluminum.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a 1600 x 900 widescreen. Until retina-type displays came out, that was one of the highest-resolution laptops you could get.

Okay, Thinkpads are great machines. But what’s not to like?
- Battery life. When I kept my screen pretty bright, I only got 2-3 hours of battery life.
- Heavy. I didn’t notice until I started using the Pixel, but my Thinkpad 420s was 5.2 pounds. That’s pretty darn hefty for a laptop these days.

Overall though, I was very pleased with my Thinkpad and expected to return to it after the 30 day challenge was up. After all, I’ve been using Thinkpads for 15 years.

Then the Chromebook Pixel surprised me. The main thing you need to know about the Chromebook Pixel is that the screen is phenomenal. The resolution is 2560 x 1700 and 239 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 227 ppi for a Macbook Pro with retina display. To demonstrate the screen, the Pixel comes with an app called TimeScapes which is drop dead gorgeous. The screen is also a 3:2 aspect ratio, which seems weird for a few days but is actually much better for web browsing than a widescreen display because more of a web page fits on the screen.

The Pixel also comes with a terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free Gogo wifi passes for airplane trips. And if you’re worried about the Chrome-only, cloud-only aspect of a Pixel, you can install Linux on it. Even Linus Torvalds likes it.

Okay, but how did it work over 30 days? Better than I expected. I was 12 days in when I realized I’d probably keep using the Pixel after the challenge was over. Let’s run down what’s good and bad:

Good:
- The screen. So nice. Although I don’t understand why they made it so glossy. Screens should be matte, in my opinion.
- Incredibly easy to set up. I use Chrome Sync to sign into Chrome, so basically I just logged in and all my settings, bookmarks, and extensions showed up like magic.
- No configuration. I spent most of this past January reconfiguring several new computers, so “no muss, no fuss” is a big plus.
- The battery life is better. More like five hours, so I’m not constantly looking for a power adapter. If Google puts a Haswell chip in the Pixel, the sucker should go practically all day.
- The trackpad works great. The physical texture of it is silky-smooth, and I never saw any of the glitches that affected the CR-48. Sometimes I do accidentally click when I’m touching the trackpad just to move the cursor, but that’s hard to get right.

There were a few times I missed a regular laptop though:
- John Dvorak’s blog got hacked, and I wanted to send Dvorak a snippet of code that I fetched from his server, but the Pixel doesn’t have wget installed of course. You can do SSH, so I could have SSH’ed into another computer to fetch the page, but I didn’t bother.
- At one point I was trying to download a list of my books from Good Reads in comma separated value (CSV) form so I could upload the file to My Library on Google Books. The Pixel didn’t know what to do with a .csv file, which surprised me since Gmail and Google Drive seem to handle them fine. I suspect that this is a temporary “slip between the cracks” sort of thing, since it looks like Google is working on editing Office docs on Chrome OS. There have been a few times that I’ve downloaded a file and just wanted a simple text editor to tweak 2-3 characters in the file though.
- When you have a ton of tabs open using a lot of memory, clicking back on a tab that had been unused for a long time could cause the tab to reload. If you had unsaved work in the tab, you might lose it. This got better (but not perfect) over time. I’m not sure if Chrome OS got better, or I just got more careful with my tab management though.

One thing that annoyed me (selecting large blocks of text was slow when you had to scroll) was fixed when Chrome OS updated to a newer version. I have faith that other tiny annoyances–scrolling a page with two fingers doesn’t work for some reason when your cursor is over a tab instead of a web page, for example–will also be fixed. At the same time, I haven’t fully adapted to the touch screen and dedicated search button and don’t use either as much I could. But in general, the Pixel seems like it will just continue to get faster and better over time, not slower and cruftier like most machines.

So is the Pixel perfect? Not completely, but most of that (glossy screen vs. matte, trackpad vs. TrackPoint, chiclet vs. regular laptop keyboard) is a matter of personal preference. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, I understand the decision to get a MacBook Pro with Retina display so you can run native apps. But I’m not in the Apple ecosystem, and I actually like a machine that discourages me from keeping too much data locally.

A lot of people poke fun at Chromebooks saying that they’re not much use without a WiFi connection. Personally, I believe that practically any computer is not much use without a network connection. Chromebooks are getting better at working well offline, but I have to say: the Pixel I’m using has an LTE option for when WiFi isn’t available, and I didn’t need to use the LTE connection on the Pixel any time in the last three months. Especially when you take the Google Drive storage and 12 internet passes into account, the Pixel is quite a good deal for a premium laptop. I’m going to keep using it.

This is getting long, so I’ll close with an anecdote. My Dad visited earlier this month. I gave him a Samsung Chromebook as a loaner for his visit and he’s been using it happily. He logged into his Gmail account in Chrome and his bookmarks and other Chrome settings just showed up. Dad’s laptop back home is about 5 years old, so we stopped by the Apple store. I was going to outfit him with a top-of-the-line MacBook; since he goes for years between upgrades, I wanted him to have a laptop that would last as long as possible. But after noticing the price, he balked. “Matt, we can buy ten Chromebooks for that much money,” he told me. We’re still discussing it, but the $250 Samsung Chromebook does everything he needs. I think more and more people will discover that’s true for them as well. I’ve been surprised how well the Chromebook Pixel works for me.

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