Date Tags work / life (9 min read)

I have a strong interest in labor: that is, the history, sociology, economics and psychology of labor.

Specifically, I think it's really interesting (and not entirely efficient) the way that we organize our work. We've inherited things like the 9-to-5 workday and two-day weekends from the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford, and factory work.

But not all work is factory work. Of course, there is some variety in the modern work day - medical residents, for example, have their own (insane!) labor culture - and there does seem to be an increasing movement towards alternative forms of work: remote work, flexible hours, and so forth. But I don't think we're there yet. And I hope to pioneer (with courage!) new, better ways to work. That is, I hope to worry less about "performing" work and worry more about pursuing actual mastery, actual efficiency, and actual productivity. I'm lucky that my employers have generally supported this.

Laboring in grad school vs. laboring at work

I remember, very vividly, my first day of "real work": I had just finished my economics MPhil at Oxford and was starting as an ODI Fellow in Fiji at the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission. At Oxford, it had been left up to me to organize my time and prepare for the final exams. In Fiji (and in nearly every job hence), there was - instead - an expectation to "perform work" between certain hours in a certain way. Here's the comparison:

In Oxford/grad school, we had an entire Trinity Term (13 weeks, iirc) to prepare for two 3-hour exams (mine were Development Economics and - surprise - Labor Economics) and one research thesis. We had no other obligation. No classes, no meetings, nothing. So we all entered our little study caves and only emerged 13 weeks later, pale and with overgrown haircuts.

Because my academic diligence spilled over into anxiety/panic, I spent the first day of Trinity Term calculating the number of waking hours in those 13 weeks, and dividing them between my exam subjects. I allocated, a priori, a higher proportion to weaker topics. I took zero weekends. Instead, I worked every day using a primitive pomodoro technique: 2-hour blocks, followed by N-minute breaks.

I would do three blocks per day, starting at 8am. I was very strict on the start time (no later than 8am!), but much more flexible on the break times (sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes an hour long). Hence, my days would sometimes end in the early afternoon (sweet, sweet release), and sometimes drag into the night (oh God).

That's 6 hours/day, or 42 hours/week, of dedicated, focused work. Which doesn't sound like a lot.

But this was, honestly, hell. This was definitely the absolute maximum focused effort I could endure and, by the end of the 13 weeks, I was a wreck. I was also doing things like reading epistemology and aesthetic philosophy for fun, so I guess I had body-built my brain. But I knew I couldn't maintain this. "How do working people do it?" I thought. "Who can possibly work for 8 hours every day, for years on end?"

At my first day of my first real job, I remember that I woke up very early, got ready very diligently, had butterflies in my stomach, and showed up some 15-20 minutes before start time. (Which, iirc, was 8am in Fiji anyway - work days are shifted earlier in the Pacific.) Naturally, they didn't have something for me to do right then, so my supervisor gave me some internal reports to read. They helped me get my computer set up. Stuff like that. And I remembered thinking: "Wait a minute... am I supposed to just sit here, obediently, and work for the full 8 hours? What about my N-minute breaks?!"

Of course, I didn't realize that very few people (I'm guessing zero people) actually put in 8 hours of dedicated, focused knowledge work for years on end. (Some random study found that people actually do three hours of "real" work per day, and that includes e-mails.) There's all sorts of interruptions: chatting with colleagues, getting lunch, futzing around on the intertoobs, the demon Multitasking and that great False Work God: E-MAIL.

Reading and writing e-mails was so much easier than bashing my head against econometric methods for determining the returns to education. So much easier than parsing academic articles, working through problem sets, all that. And - best ever - it was commonly seen as "working". Indeed, I would guess that a huge proportion of my pre-tech career was, well, DOING E-MAILS.

So that was all a bit of a culture shock.

Moving into tech: Moving into making

My first career was in international development economics. Looking back on those 9 (!) years, I would guesstimate that my aggregate time diary would have been: 40% emails, 30% managing surveys/traveling around, 10% writing reports, 10% doing data analysis, and 10% training people. Actually, remove ~1% from all those chunks for "socializing"/futzing around, let's be honest.

Then I moved into tech. A couple things really attracted me to a career in coding: I loved the creativity, the creation of something, the constant search for automation and efficiency. I loved that, every day, I had something concrete that I could build. I loved the constant puzzles, and the constant learning.

At the same time, I realized (with some horror) that a career centered around programming brought a new, harsh light to things: either my code ran or it didn't. Either it broke, days later, or it didn't. Either I wrote 10 lines or 1000 lines. Everything was plain as day. No more hiding in well-written e-mails that danced with diplomacy!

At the same time, given the great clarity with which we could observe each other's actual productivity, there was an accompanying culture of lax-ness on the "performance" of work. (Yeah, yeah, I know - there are other ways tech people "perform" their "genius"/competence, and I can complain about those in another blog post.) There seems to be a general understanding that we're all intrinsically motivated. The office culture is more casual. There's a general tolerance towards remote work and strange hair (I had lavender hair for a while!).

In a way, this is very, very freeing. I no longer have to expend so much energy on the performance of work. If I hate rush hour traffic, I can come in later and leave later or not come in at all. If I feel like I'm not getting anything done at the office, I can go home and work from there. Of course, a lot of this hangs on the trust of the employer but - well - GitHub commit histories can't lie!

How I organize my days

That said, it's been very hard for me to break certain "performing work" habits (like feeling guilty about taking breaks). And then there are some "performing work" habits that are beneficial (like being good at writing professional e-mails!).

Lately, though, I've found some very freeing ways to be more productive and effective, FOR REAL, and less concerned with "performing work":

Time tracking

I use a time tracker to track my actual productive time every day. There are a bunch of different ones out there, but I wanted one that kept my data local (i.e. no sending it to some server). I use Qbserve, which is not free but I highly recommend.


You need to customize your time tracking software to understand what's "productive", "neutral" or "distracting". Obvious things (like Twitter) are already set as "distracting", but I've also been intentional about correctly labelling stuff that, for example, might be productive for some people, but is just a compulsive and pointless time-sink for me (like LinkedIn!).

I've also waffled a lot on Slack: I consider Slack an enormous attention-killer and hence productivity-killer. But it's also where I've had some very useful and informative conversations; for example, working with a colleague to debug some code.

Anyway, what's nice about time tracking is that it makes you aware of where your time is going - and it makes you think mindfully about how you want to spend your time. I think learning is an integral part of both my happiness and my productivity, so I've put all online learning resources (like Udacity, Coursera, Stanford, etc) into the green bucket. Similarly, Qbserve has helped me notice when I've worked quite hard on one day (which, for me, means 5-6 hours of focused, dedicated work), that I'll likely need to take it easier on the next day (say, 3-4 hours of focused work).

Finding my schedule

I'm very front-loaded: as soon as I wake up, I'm starving and full of energy. If it's sunny and 10am, I can basically conquer the world. I progressively lose steam throughout the day until, by the late afternoon/evening, I'm very done.

One thing I noticed recently is that, if I work from home, I strongly prefer starting at 7:30am and working until, say, 3pm or so. (Again, I try not to worry about the exact number of hours between my first productive moment and my last - I use Qbserve to see how much I've actually accomplished).

When I first tried this out, it was a revelation: I got more done, felt more well-rested/energetic, and seemed to have more time! Just because I started earlier and followed my natural (circadian?) rhythm.

A focus on outputs

This is the hardest thing for me, and something I'm still working on (as is obvious by all my hours-counting above): I have a very strong impulse to focus on inputs - that is, the number of hours I put in. Obviously, though, what matters is what I end up producing at the end of the day. If it takes me 1 hour to write a good data ETL job, or if it takes me 10 hours, the virtue is in the former (duh).

So I try to seek automation and get more efficient and be results-focused. And I try, as much as possible, to have concrete (and brief! and measurable!) TODOs at the start of every day. I use Evernote for this:


This TODO list used to be a loooot longer, dozens of items long. Which was absurd. So now I intentionally try to keep it to <5 items.

Finally, an important note about mortality

I read a Guardian article in 2008 that was deeply affecting: Life Before Death, The Guardian, Mar 31 2008. In particular, this quote stayed with me:

"Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me."

This struck me. A lot of people, on their death beds, have only one regret: working too much, at the expense of other things in their lives. I think this is important even if you love your work (as I do!). We don't have infinite tomorrows, neither do our loved ones, and so it's good to be intentional about working enough and working well, but not sacrificing everything for it.