Thursday, January 03, 2019

The Evolution of What I Call Work: A Google Calendar Memoir

“I never do real work anymore,” a fellow professor used to complain to me.

“People have to be ready to work,” someone once told me about startup hiring.

For better or for worse, conversations often revolve around it. What do you do for work? How did you come to do the work you do? How much do you work? Are you working on anything interesting? Oh, please don’t ask me what I do for work. Excuse me, I have to go do some work.

Work has also been a major subject of conversation as I have been recruiting. Many of the people I talk to are at a life crossroads, deciding what work identity to take on next. They ask what it was like for me--to be a PhD student, to be a professor, and then to start a company. The questions range from the philosophical (“are you glad you did it?”) to the logistical (“how often did you exercise?”).

In these conversations I often struggle, as work means such wildly different things to different people. This is all well and good when people are trying to find common ground at a cocktail party, but it can be problematic when people are using metrics taken in different contexts to make important life decisions. The nature of my work has completely transformed between when I was an undergraduate and now--and that is something important to acknowledge when people are asking questions, especially ones around “how much.”

This post, then, is an attempt to establish context about what I mean when I talk about work. In 2007, I started using Google Calendar not just for scheduling, but also for documenting what I did with my time. What this means is that I’m able to give you a rough overview of how I spent most of my days from 2007 until now. I show representative time blocks from representative weeks, chosen to give you the most accurate picture of my life without overwhelming you with data. What’s important is not so much the precise number of hours, but the evolution of the content of those hours over the years. Here we go.

Late Undergrad/PhD: Back When I Used to do "Real Work"

Fall 2007, first semester of my senior year of college.
Here I show a week from fall of my senior year of college. Before I continue, I should explain how I’ve chosen to display my week. I’ve divided up my time into three categories: work, recovery, and life upkeep. From college until fairly recently, I did not consider meetings or talks to be work: my labeling of “work” on these calendars reflects this early misconception. I chose 7am to 10pm on weekdays only not because work only happened during these periods of time, but because they are the most representative and well-documented. I like to keep late nights and weekends unstructured.

This was one of my easier semesters: I was taking three courses (computational linguistics, randomized algorithms, and an art class) and working on an honors thesis. I had just handed over leadership of the Harvard College Engineering Society, which I had help start my freshman year. I was not TAing that semester. All this gave me the freedom to spend a lot of time working on two things I was excited about: my senior thesis and projects for my studio art class. This is a representative week from late undergrad and when work was going well during my PhD: relatively little structured time and lots of time to produce output.

Mid-PhD: I Learn to Make Good Use of Recovery Time

Fall 2012, mid-PhD.
When work was not going as well, the previous schedule turned out to be completely wrong. Here is a week from fall of 2012, when I was in between the first and second major projects of my PhD thesis and was coming off a three-month sprint of an internship. I was tired and lost, so I spent my time making progress in ways outside of my main output-producing work. During this week, my periods of work are heavily broken up and interspersed with meetings. Some are research meetings: with my advisor, with existing collaborators, and with potential collaborators. Some of the meetings were outside of research: Tuesday afternoon I had a “Positivity@MIT” that I organized to combat bias on campus; Thursday evening I had a Graduate Women at MIT social. (I had started Graduate Women at MIT with a couple of fellow students in 2009.) Around this time, I also became more deliberate about working on my writing skills, often scheduling at least one evening a week to write (as I do the Wednesday of this week). I did not see most of these activities as “work” at the time, but they turned out to be valuable work, both towards recovery and towards building my career.

Learning to Find Time for "Real Work" as an Assistant Professor

Spring 2017, second semester as an Assistant Professor at CMU.
It turns out that scheduling lots of meetings during the recovery periods of my PhD prepared me for being a professor, which mostly consists of meetings and very little time for what I would call “work.” Here is a week from the spring of my first year at Carnegie Mellon. That week I had two visitors I hosted for talks, one on Monday and one on Friday. I taught Tuesday and Thursdays. That week I was working on producing a video with fellow computer scientist James Mickens about my research, so I blocked on Wednesday morning to work with him on that. (It turns out James has very high artistic standards, so I worked on the video for most of that weekend too. You know your life is not so bad when you tell people you’ve been losing sleep looking for the right clips of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” for your research talk video.) Here, I’m doing much less of the output-producing work I consider to be “real work” and spending much more time enabling others to do that kind of work, with what I hope will be higher impact.

Starting a Company: Even More Meetings

Fall 2018, a few months into starting my company.
People say that being a professor is like running a small business. This has proven to be somewhat true as I’ve been setting up my actual company. The main difference is that there is even less of what I would call actual work. Here I show a particularly meeting-intensive (but not particularly anomalous) week from this past fall. During this week, I went up to the city from Palo Alto/Menlo Park three times (Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday). Some of it was for recruiting, some of it was for meetings with potential customers, and some of it was for networking (coffees or meals with people I had been introduced to; actual networking events). That Friday, two of the remote part-time people I work with were in town, so I spent most of Friday through the weekend working with them. This week was during a period of heavy recruiting, so I had many recruiting/interview calls. The work that week consisted mostly of emails to schedule and follow up with meetings. I was also developing the ideas for our initial product, both in terms of use cases and the underlying technology. Most of my work now involves meetings that potentially enable other people to work.

Closing Thoughts

It turns out that I, too, don’t do very much of what I used to consider real work anymore, but I spend more of my time working. I thought I had maxed out on my capacity for work as an undergraduate. In some ways this was true, but as the nature of my work changed this turned out not to be true. What I remember my work life to be (for instance, similar to the first week I showed you throughout my PhD) is not always accurate. My capacity for output-producing work has probably diminished, but my capacity for meetings and total overall work has increased. My entire life is meetings now. I should spend less time in transit.

So there we have it. I’m quite voyeuristic about how other people spend their time, so I’d love to see yours.

With thanks to Kayvon Fatahalian, Aliza Aufrichtig, and Dean Hachamovitch for comments.