30 day challenge for June: treadmill desk!

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Let me tell you about the 30 day challenges I’ve been doing and what I learned:

- March 2014: I went back to doing no external email, and I learned this one weird, simple trick that helped. In previous “no email” challenges, I relied on sheer force of will not to reply to email. That didn’t work so well. In March, I tried something different: I used Gmail filters to take outside email, add the label “march2014″, and then made the outside emails skip my inbox.

It turns out that getting those emails out of my default view was critical. A while ago when I was losing some weight, I noticed that small nudges could make things easier. Instead of leaving chips or snacks lying in plain sight, I tucked them away where I wouldn’t see them. The principle of “out of sight, out of mind” can really work for you! Even better was to skip buying certain snacks. In theory, I could get in the car and drive somewhere if I really wanted a treat, but in practice I rarely did.

Archiving email out of your inbox has the same effect. Now if I’m done with my internal work-related email, I might click through to check out the outside email at the end of the day, but it doesn’t sit right in front of me begging for a reply like it did before. I’ve kept up this practice after March.

- April 2014: This is going to sound crazy, but I wanted to figure out how to make quirky eyebrow expressions (watch what Emilia Clarke can do with her eyebrows–it’s crazy!). Unfortunately, I only practiced in front of a mirror once or twice, so April was a total crash and burn. But so what? I still tried a couple times, and not every 30 day challenge has to be deep or meaningful. Fun is fine! Maybe I’ll circle back around to this one again down the road.

- May 2014: My challenge for May was to get eight hours of sleep a night. I only hit that goal about half the nights. But I became much more aware of when I was trading off sleep for a meaningful activity, like getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to Vallejo for a triathlon. Or more often, I realized that I was trading off sleep to answer emails or surf the web. As a bonus 30 day challenge, I biked into work almost every day in May.

Which brings me to my 30 day challenge for June! In previous months, it would take me about three hours a day to battle email to a standstill, and I’ve also noticed that I end up surfing the web for at least a couple hours a day. All told, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, which might not be the best for my health.

For June 2014, I’m going to try to convert some of that computer time to at least an hour a day with a treadmill desk. I have a treadmill at home and I slapped a couple plastic risers and a piece of plywood across it–instant treadmill desk! So the incremental cost was only like $20. I set the treadmill speed to one mile an hour, which is fast enough that my Fitbit can detect I’m walking, but slow enough that I can still think and work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Is there any new habit or experiment you’d like to try for the next 30 days?

30 day challenge for March: no external email

In January 2014, my 30 day challenge was to limit my social media. That was a productive month.

In February 2014, 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 2014, 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.

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