Category Archives: opinions

Work, Life, Balanced: 5 tips

When I wrote my most-popular post so far, Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader, I promised I’d write a future post about work-life balance. So, here are five things that work for me.

1. Do it and then forget it

One of my favorite sayings is many pebbles do a mountain make. One example is it’s hard to be productive, focused, and energized with a thousand small todos in your head. It’s hard enough having a few large things. Empty your head of the small stuff: do small things when you think of them, don’t file them away, and don’t have them hanging over you. This lowers my stress, gives me a warm feeling of having completed something, and makes life better.

A good example is an email. If you’ve read it, it needs a reply, and the reply is going to take a minute or so: just do it now. The cost of reading it, filing a todo in your head, finding it again, and replying is much higher. It’s an added stress, and it’s occupying valuable brain real estate that could be used wisely.

Where’d this idea come from? My favorite management book in the past five years is Getting Things Done by David Allen. From it I learnt this tip: if it takes less than two minutes to do, don’t defer it, do it now.

2. A work-free day

Pick Saturday or Sunday, and do no work at all. Don’t read your email. Don’t touch the computer. Don’t call anyone. Put work aside, do your best not to think about it. It’s not that hard — if something urgent comes up, someone will call you.

You’ll be surprised how good this makes you feel. You’ll have a great day, and you’ll be energized when you return to work on the next one.

3. Be consistent

Early in my career, I’d take it easy for most of a work milestone, and then crank up the all-night, weekend work to get things done towards the end. That worked for a while, but it’s not sustainable over a career.

I recommend consistency. Try and work the same hours, regardless of the deadlines and pressures. Put in a solid day, work hard from the start of a project, and keep on track all the time. If there’s less to do than usual, don’t work less: this is your chance to clean up email, documents, develop your career, or network. (This won’t always work — there are definitely times where you will need to work harder, but work to make those the exceptions.)

You’ll find being consistent burns you out less. It’s the right approach for the long haul.

4. Take a vacation

Your work wants you there for the long haul, and they give you your vacation so that you can relax, recharge, and come back energized. So do it.

Turn the email off — I actually remove the account from my smartphone. Turn on the “out of office” message on your email, and state you’re not reading email because you’re on vacation. Tell your boss your home phone number and your personal email address, and ask her to contact you there in an emergency.

Try and have one vacation per year that’s at least two weeks. It takes a week to wind down, and that second week is bliss. If you fragment it too much, you may not get the relaxation you’ve earnt.

5. Quality is more important than Quantity

Working long hours is a badge of courage. Strangely, using the hours wisely doesn’t have same status. It should.

I vote for using a sensible number of hours wisely instead of using a large number of hours poorly. Some of the most effective people I know work most days from 9 to 6, or 8 to 5, or 8 to 6. They think about what they want to achieve each day, stay focused on those things, and avoid meetings they don’t need to be in. They tend to also be the folks who are consistent in their approach — you’ll see them working to that timetable every day, most of the year.

Try relentlessly optimizing your day, give yourself a focus on quality. A good tip to get started is to write down the four things you want to achieve today before you start your day — and promise yourself you’ll do them before you leave.

Hope this helps you improve your work-life balance. Feedback very welcome.

Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader

People are surprised I lead a team of over 700 people and find time to stay in shape. For me, one isn’t possible without the other. And my advice to you is to take your physical wellbeing seriously if you want to have impact over the long haul.

I believed for a long time that my impact at work was simply the product of the quantity of time by the quality of how I used it. Quantity just means hours spent. Quality means what I spend those hours doing, that is, how effectively I use my time.  I’ve never met a successful person who doesn’t work hard and use their time effectively. And for you that means: work hard and smart, and you’ll have the basic ingredients for success.

But it turns out for me that this basic equation doesn’t work for the long haul. There are two other ingredients for me: physical and mental condition. If my physical condition is great — I am fighting fit— then I’m alert, less stressed, positive, less prone to illness, confident, balanced, and slower to burn out. Being mentally in top shape is critical too, particularly making sure I find meaning in what I’m doing, and getting the balance right between family and work time (a topic for another time). So, these days I’d argue that my impact at work is something like: quantity times quality times physical condition times mental condition (with some constants that I don’t yet understand). In this post, I’m going to tell you why you should stay fighting  fit too.

This is an entirely non-technical post from a primarily technical person. Take it with a grain of salt, and see your doctor before you take any of my advice.

Top 10 Tips for being Fighting Fit ™

Let me just cut to the chase, and tell you the top ten things that you can use to be fighting fit:

  1. Don’t eat wheat. Better still, don’t eat grains
  2. Avoid high sugar foods. If it has more than 10g of sugar per 100g of product, don’t eat it
  3. Drink lots of water. Aim for at least 96oz or 3 litres per day
  4. Get a decent night’s sleep. It feels to me like 8+ hours is the sweet spot
  5. Have a big breakfast
  6. Have a small dinner
  7. Work the big muscles with resistance training three times per week
  8. Stretch
  9. Do cardiovascular exercise
  10. Ignore the above nine items for just one day each week (and be perfect the other six)

That’s in priority order. The top six are all about nourishment, the next three are about fitness, and the last one is a rule that governs how to apply the others.

To be fighting fit, it’s 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. I’ve worked incredibly hard at exercise and weighed 15 pounds more than I do today. These days, I’m pretty much at my high school weight, stronger than I’ve ever been, and the difference is nutrition (and perhaps more focus on strength or resistance training).

Nutrition

Do you want to be 15 pounds lighter? Follow rule #1 and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t eat grains because they’re full of carbohydrates, and that causes insulin to spike, and the body to enthusiastically store carbohydrates as body fat. Same with high sugar foods like sodas. Instead, eat more protein, and healthy fats. I’m big on egg whites, nuts, avocado, meats, and so on. Try a salad for lunch, with plenty of chicken, turkey, or tuna.

Fats don’t make you fat. Fats are just an intense source of energy, and you need to avoid eating too much. Eat nuts, avocado, egg yolks, and other healthy fats in moderation. Carbohydrates are the bad news problem.

Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated, and your metabolism running efficiently. Everything I read says drinking lots of water is a good idea.

I eat a massive breakfast, and try and go easy at dinner (though I struggle to do that effectively). The rationale is that in the morning, I need energy to get through the day. In the evening, I’m going to bed, so there’s no sense in consuming a ton of calories. Try and tilt your plan in that direction.

If that’s all too hard, follow rule#1: don’t eat wheat. You’ll get somewhere, trust me.

Exercise

Exercising is my passion. I hit the gym four or five days a week, run a couple of times per week, do yoga once a week, and add in some exercise at home (like mountain biking, boxing, jump rope, or agility work) on the weekends. It just plain makes me feel great, lowers my stress, and gives me space and time to think about ideas and problems that are important in life and work.

How do I fit all that in? Pretty simply, really: I just make it my number one priority. When I was at Microsoft, my motto was “I’m not canceling the gym for anyone except Bill Gates”. And I stuck to it and still do. My rationale is that the company needs me to be effective for the long haul, and this is what makes me effective. I’m happy to be at work any time I’m not in the gym.

I’ve learnt that to be fighting fit, you need to do more strength training and less cardiovascular exercise. The nice thing about strength training is you burn some calories while you’re in the gym, and then a lot more afterwards: your body is busy repairing and growing the muscles you’ve worked. Most cardio burns more per minute in the gym than strength training while you’re doing it, but then the burn stops afterwards. Focus on your big muscles: leg and butt, chest, core, and muscles that help you maintain a reasonable posture (given you likely sit around a lot in front of computers). Working those muscles burns more calories than the ones you see in the mirror (you can skip the biceps). Get a personal trainer, ask them to put together a strength training routine, and do it 2 or 3 times per week. The results will amaze you.

It turns out that exercising hard requires maintenance. Maintenance for me is stretching, and I use yoga as the key way to do that. Yoga is seriously hard work: it requires core strength, balance, and flexibility. I’m not good at it, but it’s helping me be flexible and loose, and that helps me stay fighting fit.

I like cardio, I love going for a run (that’s something I’ve been doing regularly since 1995). I also love riding my bike. So, I get out and do some. But strength training is the key: if you don’t have much time, skip the cardio and go do some strength training.

Cheating

I try hard to be good for six days in every seven. I have no trouble doing that with exercise. But with food it’s harder. One day a week, I let loose. I do whatever I want, and that gives me willpower for the rest of the week.

This is really important for you: cheat every day and you will get nowhere. If you want to be fighting fit, be disciplined six days out of seven.

Final Thoughts

Personal training is a great investment. I’d recommend to you that you get a personal trainer: it makes strength training safe and challenging, and helps you learn about how to make yourself fighting fit. Getting some nutritional advice from a nutritionist is a great idea too; diets are the worst thing in the world, it’s far smarter to eat to a plan and enjoy the results.

So that’s my Fighting Fit plan to make you an effective leader for the long haul. Remember the basics: don’t eat wheat, avoid high sugar foods, get in some strength training 2 or 3 times per week, and cheat once per week. You will be a fighting fit machine in no time (and I look forward to hearing about your results).

Please don’t blindly copy my plan. Please talk to your doctor, fitness professional, or nutritionist. And remember that I am a computer scientist, so you should Read My Disclaimer.

An Afterword of Thanks

My trainer is David Macchi in the eBay gym. Dave’s awesome: he’s taught me hundreds of exercises, and got me working on muscles that help posture and keep me balanced. He’s also good on the nutrition tips, and pushes me that little bit harder than I’d push myself. We’ve also partnered together on programs to help get our technology team at eBay more active, and help charity at the same time. I’m working hard to spread the fighting fit message.

Cheat day, and focusing harder on nutrition, is a strategy I learnt by participating in a “12 week challenge” with the I Choose Awesome guys in Inverloch, Australia. Great guys, and I owe them a bunch of thanks for helping me explore more about being fighting fit. They also taught me some sayings:  “Nothing tastes as good as lean feels” and “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. You might need those sayings.

My trainer when I lived in Redmond, Washington, and worked at Microsoft, was Dirk Huebner. Dirk got me excited about agility drills, Fartlek training, and medicine balls. Another great guy to know.

An opportunity that Facebook is missing

Facebook is building an amazing, enduring business based on data. Data about
people, and the connections between people. And it is about real people – unlike
(say) Twitter, Facebook has maintained a razor-sharp focus on ensuring it has real
people with known identities.

Facebook. Data that's meaningful, but it's unstructured.

Facebook is my favorite web entry point. But there’s something important they’re not doing that is about me and my connections. (And I should say at this point that I’m happy to share my personal data with Facebook.)

We create and manage structured data, and we care about manipulating it.
Facebook isn’t a great place to manage that data. Here’s an example:
I’ve been a runner for nearly 20 years. For the first 10, I used my Palm Pilot or some
other device with a spreadsheet to track my runs: time, distance, how I felt. I then
had it compute total time for the year, number of runs, total distance for the year,
average time per kilometer, and so on. It was pretty motivational — can I beat the number of runs I did last year? Am I slowing down? Am I running enough miles? It’s the kind of foundation that companies such as fitbit are based on.

There’s lots of other structure in life: calendars, weather, budgets, exercise, television schedules, sporting calendars, airline travel, and so on. Facebook isn’t a great place to store that data as it applies to you, your friends, or to manipulate it. How much did I spend last month? How many miles did I fly last year? Where did I travel in 2011? How many baseball games did I attend in the past 5 years? What time on average do my friends go to bed? Do I eat more or less calories than my average friend in the eBay list? What are the top ten songs my friends from school listen to?

Fitbit. The power of structured data -- my steps, active minutes, and more.

Structured data is inherently easier to manipulate, understand, and monetize with ads. It’s easier to find patterns (Hugh seems to travel to Australia every Christmas). It’s easier to predict from (Hugh has run nearly 200 miles in the past few months, it’s time for new sneakers). It’s easier to sell a substitution (Hugh, did you know that Virgin also flies that route, and they do it cheaper?).

You could argue they’re edging in that direction: the recent changes to the profile page have been working toward more structure. Not that they’ve made this transition well (and I’m not denying it is hard). A couple of years ago they massacred my unstructured text about favorite movies, music, TV shows, and so on by trying to force it into a structured schema. They completely destroyed my profile page – the music was too obscure, I’d made a few
jokes in my hobbies, and so on, and it didn’t map into any neat schema. Perhaps they should have started with a little more structure in the beginning.

But it was a move towards more structure. The timeline is moving in that direction too – though I am not sure that’s the fundamental reason for it, it’s probably about trying to simply get more data of any type. Sure, they’ve always had birth dates for the purpose of birthday reminders — a good example of what can be done with structured data. And there’s some other basic structured data too – I’m not arguing they have none.

Adding structured data, and ways to manipulate it, is something Facebook needs. And it’s a hole in the online social world. The challenge is how to do it right: blending a structured experience into an inherently simple, unstructured stream of text and media is probably not easy. Particularly when you want to provide search over it all — maybe a topic for another time…

That’s my opinion. What do you think?