Saturday, April 4, 2020

Weekly Recap - First Week of Maternity Leave During Social Distancing

The past week was the first week of my maternity leave. I'm super grateful to be provided with a couple weeks' of downtime before the baby comes. Secretly, I am worried about how I would handle it - I'm so used to a fast-paced work schedule, especially after the last two years working on a highly visible project. 

Now one week into my break, I'm happy to announce it's going well so far. Reflecting on this past week a little, here's what I've done:

1. Develop and stick to a new routine. 

Now that I'm on maternity leave, I no longer have to wake up at 6am to fit in a quick 30 mins workout before heading out to work (of course, this was before social distancing and WFH kicked in). But I find it essential to develop a routine/schedule everyday and try to abide by it. It gives the day a bit of structure.

Usually I would wake up before 9am (what a luxury - trying to squeeze in the last bit of sleep before the baby comes). The morning is usually spent on taking some online courses / doing some exercises, while the afternoon is for reading newspaper, going for a walk (outside if it's a sunny day, or on the treadmill if it's not), getting baby stuff ready, and preparing dinner. 

2. Doing something mentally challenging everyday.

It's still important to keep the mind sharp even I'm not really "working". I've been taking the Stanford University's Machine Learning class on Coursera. I like it because it's wildly different from the brand management/marketing I do at work. Machine learning taps into lots of math and calculus. I've been good at Math, but haven't really studied any math since graduating from high school! That's probably why I find the class quite refreshing and interesting. Your mind needs variety and change. Plus, understanding basic machine learning algorithm will prepare myself for the new age of artificial intelligence.

In addition, I started the 6 Minute Networking course from Jordan Harbinger. One of my developmental areas is networking. I find this class very well designed and action-oriented. Most importantly, it feels genuine and authentic. It's simply about reaching out to folks I haven't spoken to in a while. I've reconnected with several people that I haven't been in touch with for a long time and it's good to catch up (especially during this unprecedented time!)

3. Keep up the exercise.

Since I'm in my 3rd trimester, I can only do some simple exercises, and not for an extended period of long time. I do three 30-mins exercise / movement every day. One in the morning - which is usually a bit more intense (though my heartrate doesn't really go over 140...), such as elliptical where I get my heart rate up slightly. Then two 30mins sessions in the afternoon and evening, usually 1-2 hours after the meal. For these sessions, I simply walk on the treadmill at a slight incline, while reading the newspaper or watch some TV shows. The walking sessions don't really count towards "exercise". They simply supplement the more sedentary lifestyle we're unfortunately reduced to while staying home all day. Of course, I feel incredibly lucky to have both the time and resources to do this (we have both elliptical and treadmill in our basement - bought them at a discount and got so much use out of it!). 

But thanks to constantly moving around, I have good energy throughout the day and am able to almost close my Move ring on my apple watch everyday! 

Will check back next week to see how things are rolling!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

#ConsumerObsessed Brands during COVID-19

As brand marketers, we talk a lot about consumer-first or consumer obsession. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all brands take a new look at their campaigns and advertising, to ensure they are still relevant. Among some of the brands I use, two of them really stand out for their efforts of customers first: ClassPass and Snoo.

I've been using ClassPass for two years. It allows me to try different studios and workout classes without getting a membership at a particular one. I like the variety and flexibility it offers, even though there are not too many options where I live. Because of my pregnancy, I've already switched to a light plan: 4 new credits per month for $10. 

Even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I knew I wouldn't risk going out to classes anymore. So I was wondering what I'm going to do with my account. Before I even take any actions or reach out to their customer service. I got this email from their CEO. The company has offered 1) roll over all unused credits instead of the standard policy of rolling over a maximum 10 credits, 2) the ability to pause the account. 

Both of the measures give tangible, important benefits to its consumers, even before they reach out! Now that is #ConsumerObsessed!
We decided to buy a Snoo for our baby. It's the only splurge we've done so far. Snoo comes with a 30-day free trial and scheduled shipping. Originally, we asked them to ship at the end of March so we'll have time to set it up and be ready before my due date. Last week, we received an email from them:

The email notifies us that they decided to ship the Snoo one week earlier than the scheduled date, to ensure it gets delivered in time due to the current circumstances. It also clearly states that they will not count this one week towards the 30 day free trial period. Again, fantastic customer-centric decisions.

For the last months or so, I received so many emails from brands about COVID-19 updates. ClassPass and Snoo truly stands out for their customer-first approach and excellent execution. Look forward to seeing more brands deliver on their customer-focused mission.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What I am grateful for during the coronavirus pandemic

I see myself a lucky one during this unprecedented time. Here is why.

1. My family and friends are largely safe and well.
My family back in China was under lockdown for 2 months since the Chinese New Year. My grandma is 80+ years old so I was quite worried about her. My parents are almost 60. Fortunately they are all okay now it seems the worst of Coronavirus has passed for China. On the U.S. side, most of my friends and co-workers are able to work from home and hopefully they will stay safe and well.

2. I still have a job that allows me to work from home.
While millions have lost their job and filed for unemployment, I felt incredibly lucky that not only do I still have a good job, most of my work can be done remotely. Consumer healthcare sector doesn't seem to suffer much from the economic impact in the short term. My team is super supportive of everyone during this special time.

3. I have a supporting spouse to weather this through together.
Because I'm 9 months pregnant, I've taken the social distancing one step further and never really left the house, except for taking a walk outside in our community. Therefore, my husband has been doing all the grocery shopping. He's taken extra cautions when he brings back any outside items. Wiping them all down, throwing out the packaging and bags, etc. Never going out also meant no dining out or even takeout. Both of us cook a lot more (and getting better at it!).

This shall pass. All we need to remind ourselves is there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just take one day at a time.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Experimenting with Email to Boost Productivity

Last week, I decided to further improve how I handle my work emails. After trying different things and daily reflection, here's what I found:
  • To minimize distractions from emails, finish MIT #1 first thing in the morning before even looking at my emails. That fresh mind early in the morning is just too precious to waste on emails!
  • Rethink how I define email productivity. The mistake we all tend to make is using how fast you tackle your emails as the success metric. And that is wrong. Email, in its essence, is a tool. The goal is to tackle a work issue in an effective manner, not to processing email in a speedy fashion. Therefore, before hitting reply button, I ask myself, what am I trying to achieve here? Is there a better way to do it? Can I reach out via Skype? Can I walk over to that person's desk? Can I maybe batch several topics to discuss with her in our next 1:1?
  • Finally, this one takes me a few days to realize. I was so determined not to let emails take over my time, so I purposely ignore the dozens of unread emails. This creates lots of mental stress. What I could have done, is just to sit down and spend an hour or two going through them. 
After this week's little experiment, I certainly feel more in control of emails. But it's a progress. I will continue to observe what best works for me and use emails more effectively to boost work productivity.

Sunday, February 23, 2020


Today I finished "Lead Yourself First", a book I marked as "want to read" in 2018 but never got to it. 

Cal Newport mentioned it in a podcast and I'm so glad I read it. 

The main idea is, solitude, defined as being "isolated from input from other minds, working through a problem on its own", is essential for leaders to thrive. It generates clarity, analytical clarity, creativity, and help with emotional balance. 

The idea is extremely resonating. Thanks to social media and smartphone, solitude can be easily gotten rid of nowaways. You can put on podcasts for long car rides (which I do every day). Check your Instagram feed while waiting in line for your Starbucks coffee. I sometimes even play news podcast while in shower, although I can't even hear it very well. It's good to have some background noise. I rarely have moment of real solitude - alone with my thoughts.

However, I get my best ideas in solitude. The best example is plane and train ride. I used to fly quite a bit for work at my last job. I love those plane ride where I'm free from Internet and distractions. For my current job, once in a while I take the NJ transit train to New York. It's one hour ride. When I have a clear business problem to solve, this one-hour ride is my most productive time. I took a piece of paper, a pen in hand, and just start writing. What's the situation, the challenge, and what the options are. Maybe it's the rocking motion of the train, I can always make significant progress thinking through the problem. No email, no phone call, no distractions.

The book inspires a few actions to create more solitude, and use them for a more fulfilling work/personal life:

  • Create a list of deep work worthy personal/business problems to think through during solitude: I already started capturing some big challenges at work/in personal time that need more clarity/creative solution. So next time for a long car ride, instead of turning on my podcast, I'll devote that hour to just thinking through the problem. To quote the book, it's an important leadership skill:"Among the most valuable functions a leader can perform is hard thinking about complex problems: identifying the problem precisely, making the premises of his thought explicit, and then examining each link in his logical chain—ideally all done on a notepad." 

  • Create solitude especially for big decisions, or when emotional stake is high: for me, especially the latter one. When something upsetting happens (at work), the emotion I feel seems overwhelming. I tend to imagine the worst case scenario and ruminate. A good step is to step away from the situation, take a walk alone, meditate, and focus your mind on something else. It's better to come back after some quiet time, instead of getting caught up in the emotion. Another good tactic I learned from this book, is to write a letter to the person you're upset with, and never send it - a tactic Abraham Lincoln deployed. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

What Makes a Productive Day for Me?

Overall, I'm a very productive person. For the last two years, I've been working on a highly visible project at work. It's super fast-paced, high pressure, and my responsibilities expand and evolve as I demonstrated my competencies in handling them. 

With that, I constantly think about time management, productivity, how to focus, how to strike work/life balance, etc. I noticed there are days that feel more right than the others: I can focus on the most important tasks, think clearly, juggle multiple deadlines, yet don't feel very stressed. 

On the other hand, I've had days when everything seem urgent, my to-do list is too long, I have a hard time focusing on one tasks, keep getting interrupted. As a result, stress level is super high. So I decided to pay even closer attention to how I work and figure out what makes a productive day FOR ME.

Here's a couple things I uncover:
  • I start the day knowing my MIT (most important task): So instead of jumping into performing a task, I spent a few minutes (no longer than 10) either reviewing what I had planned the day before, or just jotting down what I must accomplish that day, in terms of priority. And be honest with myself. Don't be too ambitious. Know the difference between urgent and important.
  • Open as few applications and website tabs as possible: I do best focused work when I'm in a shutdown mode. Turn off emails (or switch to "work offline" mode) so the notifications don't interrupt my thoughts. Only open applications/website that you work on. Normally it's a PPT/word, plus one website if I need to research. 
  • Set a timer for a focused period (40-45 mins), stop when time is up, take a break. If timer is up and you're in the middle of a thought, finish it. But definitely stand up and take a short break. One of the mistakes I tend to make is to ignore the timer and carry on. 99% of the time, I don't produce any value after that 45 minutes. The brain needs a short break.
  • Train yourself to ignore distractions. Be it a Skype message, a text message, a notifications on your phone. It's much harder to focus back your attention after that 1 minute distraction answering a question on Skype. Better yet, turn them all off!
  • Practice. Hold myself accountable to these principles above. It's easy to slip back to old way of doing things. Like any habits, it takes mental muscle to stick to these habits before they stick.
I expect to uncover more rules by observing myself. One thing I yet to figure out is the right cadence to check emails. More on that later.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Exploring Deliberate Practice

The word "focus" has been on my mind for a few days. Sometimes I find myself distracted by Apple Watch notifications, iPhone alerts, or any novel distractions while trying to focus on the task at hand. As I think deeper though, this only happens under two circumstances:

1) I became bored with what I was doing. I simply don't find it interesting.
2) I was challenged by what I was doing.

We'll tackle the second scenario at a later time. But getting bored with a task signals I probably wasn't spending my time on the right task - things that add true value and align to my strengths/passion.

This takes me to exploring "deliberate practice" - the concept I discovered from Cal Newport's blog. A few important posts to make note of:

  • Cal Newport introduces the idea of "deliberate practice" in this post. The idea starts with observing the chess experts and how they become grandmasters.
Two big questions on my mind:
  1. In knowledge work field such as marketing and brand management, where no clear structure or success metric exist, how do you deliberate practice, and on what skills? 
  2. The same goes for even soft skills like interpersonal relationship, management skills, and networking skills. How should one approach deliberately practice those, daily?
I took a break from writing this post when a thought crossed my mind. 

At work, I have this digital marketing director that I really admired. She might be a really inspiration for "deliberate practice". She has worked in digital marketing for decades. Since she joined the company a couple years ago, she no doubt has contributed significantly to the digital acceleration of the organization. Her expertise in digital marketing is impressive. Everyday, she will share great articles of digital marketing topics on Workplace. I mean EVERYDAY. It's clear even at her level, she continues to build her marketing knowledge every single day. 

A good role model for deliberate practice in knowledge work field like marketing. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

What My Morning Routine For Work Looks Like

I've set into a good morning routine for a while. I wanted to share it and what I like about it, to help inspire you develop a morning routine that works for you. 
  • 5:45am - 6:00am - Wake up. Put on gym clothes and head downstairs for the morning workout. On my way to the basement, I'll feed my cat his breakfast:)
  • 6:00am to 6:30am - I work out for 30mins on my elliptical at a very casual pace. My heart rate is usually 120-130 bpm, which is significantly lower than what it was during my pre-pregnancy workout. During workout, I either watch Netflix, or read a book on my iPad (It's doable because I'm on elliptical. I tried reading while running on treadmill before. It's also feasible if you make the fonts super big. I would not recommend it as it strains your eyes.)
  • 6:30am - 7am: shower and get dressed for work. Before I shower, I put my breakfast on to heat it up.
  • 7:00 - 7:30am: breakfast and clean up after it. I like to quickly wash dishes from breakfast and clean up the sink. It usually takes only 5-6 minutes, but sets a completely different tone than leaving them in the sink. Fresh start!
  • 7:30am: leave for work (my commute is more than 1 hour).
I've stick to this morning routine for weekdays for almost 7 months now. Two main reasons I like about this routine:
  1. It makes my workout more consistent: Surprisingly, making workout first thing in the morning, and keeping it 30mins long actually allow me to work out much more consistently. In the months of December and January, I exercised 47 out of the 52 days. And this is the winter time, when I'm usually less motivated to get up early thanks to the cold weather and sun rising later.
  2. I'm able to sit down and eat a more nutritious breakfast: A good breakfast helps energize you for the day. Sitting down and enjoying the breakfast is a luxury I could still afford at this life stage. I'm fully prepared to give it up once the baby comes.
It's important to be flexible too. I'm fully prepared to tweak this routine to fit into lifestyle. There is no one-size-fits-all routine. The important thing is knowing your priorities and getting ready to make decisions. You could always develop the best morning routine for YOU. 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Time Tracking

I started tracking my time again after the holiday. The last time I tracked my time consistently was in 2018. At the time, work was very demanding. I found myself constantly struggling to prioritize and get everything done. Time tracking really helped me get a good sense of how much time I spent on each task / category, and if the allocation made sense at all. Some of the findings from 2018 were:
  • I work most productively in the morning between 8am - 11am.
  • I work in burst of energy: I can work for 20-25mins extremely focused. After that burst, I need to switch to a different task, or take a few mins break before turning my attention back to what I was working on. If I keep going at it without a break, it's wasted time after that sweet 20-25mins with no increase in output.
  • I didn't work 50-60 hours' week as much as I thought. As mentioned, the reason prompting me to track my time is I feel my workload is piling up at work. However, after I track my time, I didn't work that much as I thought. Yes there are 50-60 hours' week for sure. But there are 40-45 hours weeks in between as well. Lots of the anxiety came from mental stress, not the actual amount spending doing work. It helps put things into perspective. 
Based on these learnings about myself, I was able to re-organize my schedule to be more productive while "working less" - maximizing my burst of energy, taking mini breaks before diving back to tasks, focusing on things that really matter, eating the frog first thing (doing the most important, less urgent task) in the morning, etc. All these adjustments helped me achieve greater success and more happiness at work.

In 2020, I have several goals that I'd like to accomplish. One of them is generating more output. Output includes activities such as writing blog articles, reflecting on work/personal life, writing in daily gratitude journal, etc. In my definition, output is the opposite of input - which refers to reading, listening to audiobooks, podcasts, generally any activities where I absorb information. Last year, I took StrengthFinder 2.0 and my #1 strength is Input. I like to absorb a large amount of information. This manifests itself in the fact I read 52 books in 2019. However, I would like to make an effort to translate my input to output - reflecting on what I learned and share that knowledge out to help others. 

Thus, I started time tracking again to find time to generate more output. 

Below is a screenshot of my first working week of the year. This is a breakdown of my free time outside of work. A few observations:
  • No surprise sleep takes up the largest amount of time, average 8.8 hours a day. This includes regular 8 hours a night, plus a short nap on weekends. I'm about 6 months right now with my first child so make sure I get enough sleep every day. 
  • Workout took 5.5 hours. I do 30mins elliptical first thing in the morning and took a 50mins barre class on the weekend. Light exercise everyday energizes me. It's also good for the health of myself and the baby. So I'll continue to prioritize that throughout the pregnancy.
  • Audiobook/reading: almost 20 hours! Just shy of 3 hours a day. Most of them are listening to audiobooks and podcasts on my commute.
  • Rest: 16 hours. Shockingly large amount of time. "Rest" is a catch-all bucket when no specific activities are identified. Lots of the 16 hours went to weekend trips to Philly, when we shopped for groceries and ate lunch there. Two hours were spent to and from there. Some hours were just simply idling and giving my brain a break, which is much needed. A few of these hours, in my opinion, could be harvested to generating output by advanced planning.
  • Output: 3.5hours. Not a bad beginning. When I look at 20hours input vs. 3.5 hours, the ratio isn't too far off. 

The year started well overall. The thing I like about time tracking is the clarity it provides. No more guesswork about how much time you spent on each task. It's all laid out right there.

Will check back in a few weeks with a trend report!

Monday, January 20, 2020

An Unexpected Lesson from Steve Jobs - What to Do When Cons Outweigh the Pros in Making a Decision

Recently I was troubled by a personal matter. I need to make a tough decision. As usual, I took out a piece of paper and started listing Pros and Cons. A few minutes later, I've got an abundant of Cons, and the Pros are meager. However, something just didn't feel right about deciding against this matter. The matter lingered on my mind for the past few days, till today I recalled a story I recently read from "The Ride of a Lifetime" that might shed some light on this situation:

When Bob Iger first brought up the idea of Disney buying Pixar to Steve Jobs, they did a whiteboard exercise listing pros and cons of this potential deal.

Steve first launched into many cons. For example:

  • Disney's culture will destroy Pixar!
  • Fixing Disney Animation will take too long and will burn John and Ed out in the process.
  • There's too much ill will and the healing will take years.
  • Wall Street will hate it.
  • Disney's board will never let you do it.
  • Pixar will reject Disney as an owner, as a body rejects a donated organ.
There were many more including one in all cap letters: "DISTRACTION WILL PIXAR'S CREATIVITY."

Well, let's look at the pro list:
  • Disney will be saved by Pixar and we'll all live happily ever after.

Two hours into this exercise, the pros are extremely short and cons are plenty. 

When Bob Iger felt dispirited and said: "well, it was a nice idea. But I don't see how we do this."

To this, Steve replied:

"A few solid pros are more powerful than dozens of cons." - Steve Jobs

To Iger, that's a powerful quality of Steve Job's. The ability to weigh all sides of an issue and not allowing negatives to outweigh the positives, particularly for things he wanted to accomplish. 

Upon recalling this story, I re-examined my pros and cons lists. Yes the number of cons surpasses the pros. But it all comes down to one pro that I should really pay attention to, which renders the decision a "yes". It's what I need to accomplish that's aligned to my value. 

Cheers to an unexpected lesson thanks to Steve Jobs.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

5 Leadership/Business/Marketing Lessons from Disney CEO Bob Iger - Takeaway from "The Ride of a Lifetime"

"The Ride of a Lifetime" is the memoir of Walt Disney's CEO Bob Iger. He shared what he learned in the last 45 years, including 15 years at Disney where he orchestrated several large-scale successful acquisitions: Pixar, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox.

I was impressed by how candid he chose to be in this book. It's very personal and engaging. Besides many success stories, he's not afraid to share some of his failure and what he learned from each one of them. 

If you're looking for a good book to kick off 2020, it's worth your time. The book offers a plethora of fantastic business, career and life advice. 

Today I want to share the top 5 lessons I learned from his story. They're a mixture of leadership, business and life lessons.

1. Thoughtfulness

A rarely discussed quality of good leadership.

According to Iger, thoughtfulness is "the process of gaining knowledge, so an opinion rendered or decision made is more credible and more likely to be's simply about taking the time to develop informed opinions".

I agree with Iger that thoughtfulness is "one of the most underrated elements of good leadership". You don't hear that often in leadership lectures. Yet, it's extremely important to gather the correct information before rendering an opinion or decision.  Have you ever sat in a meeting where it's clear the leaders aren't prepared for the meeting? For example, they ask questions that are answered in materials given to them days ago. As a leader, if you don't do the work, the people around you are going to know, and you'll lose their respect fast.

2. The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection
This doesn't mean the pursuit of perfection at all cost. Instead, it's about "creating an environment in which you refuse to accept mediocrity". Sometimes we try to convince ourselves that "good enough" is "good enough" because "there aren't enough time", or "this requires a difficult conversation I don't want to have". But great things happen when you push beyond your comfort zone and aim a bit higher.

In my opinion, the implication of this principle at work, is to build out a solid feedback cadence. It's important for team members to solicit feedback from their leaders early in the process, and keep them in the loop along the way. Feedback could be given along the way. So we could all avoid the 11th hour do-over, which adds unnecessary stress and could tank the team's morale.

3. Managing Creativity is an Art, not a Science
Brand marketers' favorite question: how to give creative feedback? Iger shared his perspective after having to work with numerous creators to fuel the Disney content pipeline.

First, he starts with empathy:"When I am asked to provide insights and offer critiques, I'm exceedingly mindful of how much the creators have poured themselves into the project and how much is at stake for them." As he put it himself:"empathy is a prerequisite to the sound management of creativity, and respect is critical."

When it comes to actually giving feedback, this is what he does:"I never start out negatively, and unless we're in the late stages of a production, I never start small. I've found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is mess, then the small things don't matter anyway, and you shouldn't spend time focusing on them."

WELL SAID. This is consistent from what I learned a long time ago from a seasoned marketer about giving feedback - You acknowledge what works well, and always START with how this creative work achieve the desired objective, before diving into any details.

4. Avoid Getting into the Business of Manufacturing Trombone Oil
Iger learned this lesson from his former Boss, Dan Burke, the President of ABC till 1994. Burke is telling us not to invest in small projects that would drain your and the company's energy without giving much back. "You may become the greatest trombone oil in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!", Burke said.

For me, this is about identifying the right opportunity, and invest your energy behind the correct priority.

5. Convey Your Priorities Clearly and Repeatedly
Once you identify your priority (and hopefully not trombone oil), it's a leader's job to set the communicate the priority to his/her team, and do so REPEATEDLY. People are busy. The big picture and strategic direction could get lost when one is buried in the day-to-day nuances of the business. Articulating your priorities clearly, and often, help people around you know what their own priorities are.

These five lessons are only a snapshot of many great ideas from this book. The last chapter "lessons to lead by" does a great job summarizing various themes and what he learned in his 45 years in business. Hope you give it a read and let me know what you think.

Weekly Recap - First Week of Maternity Leave During Social Distancing

The past week was the first week of my maternity leave. I'm super grateful to be provided with a couple weeks' of downtime before th...