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 correct...it'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.




Saturday, January 11, 2020

Approach Time Management in 7 Days, Not Just Monday to Friday

I'm a huge fan of Laura Vanderkam, the time management writer and speaker. She has two podcasts - Before Breakfast and Best of Both Worlds - that I faithfully subscribed and listened to on my commute.

One key takeaway from her book "168 Hours - You Have More Time Than You Think" changed my approach to time management significantly. In this book, she argues you should look at the entire week in totally, not just the weekdays. Here's how this perspective help me solve a time management issue recently.

I have a daily two-hour commute to work. I have a fulfilling job with good company culture, flexible work-from-home policy, smart co-workers, and upward mobility. So I'm not likely changing jobs in the near future. So I spend a lot of time strategising how to maximize my time during commute.

Eventually, I landed on the habit of listening to audiobooks and various news/educational podcasts. Thanks to this habit, I easily logged almost 3 hours' of reading time everyday. In 2019 I finished 52 books. Of course, some of them are actually books I read outside of commute.

The only downside I perceived is I didn't have enough time to reflect and write down my learning from these books. So on the one hand I read a lot, on the other hand I don't feel like I get as much out of them as I should.

Going into 2020, my new goal is to balancing out my input (reading), and output (reflecting on what I learned and writing them down). So I started tracking my time again (another useful tip from Laura). Here's what I found:

When I look my time-log this past week (Monday 1/6/2020 to Friday 1/10/2020), I logged 17 hours of reading/audiobook time! That's average 3.4 hours per day - basically my daily commute. However, the time I spent on writing and reflecting on what I learned? Merely 2 hours.

I have been trying to squeeze some time after dinner to write. But the truth is I am pretty beat when I got home from home so I didn't have the discipline to do it. And this past week wasn't even a busy week at work.

This situation has troubled me for some time until I thought of the 168 hours philosophy from Laura. What about the weekends? Don't I have big chunks of time to write? The answer is absolutely yes. Weekend mornings are the best time to sit down, reflect on what I learned this past week!

Also, the 2 hours I logged during weekdays aren't that bad either. It's a little over 20 minutes a day. If I could keep it up, I could jot down a few quick thoughts during weekdays and write out more organized articles on weekends.

It's amazing how a mindset shifts help put everything in a completely different perspective.

Ta-da problem solved! Well... let me give it a try for a few weeks and report back how it really works.

I would love to hear any suggestions you might have as well!




Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Thoughts Inspired by Barre Class

Over the winter holiday, I had the time to take several Pure Barre class. For folks who aren't familiar with Barre exercise, it uses the ballet barre and incorporates movement from ballet. It's a low-impact exercise combing elements from Yoga and Pilates.

Barre is a perfect exercise for me - being 6 months pregnant. Doing it in a group class is fun and more motivating than exercising by yourself.

You'll learn all kinds of jargon at Pure Barre. A popular one is "hold it", meaning staying still in one position (usually with the muscle tighten in certain position). This is usually after you've repeated the same isometric movement multiple times almost to the point of  muscle failure. "Holding it" at this point, is really challenging. But that's when you really strengthen and tone.

This thought came to me while at one of my barre class. In life, similar to barre, "holding" - persevering in something and not changing it up - is so much more difficult, and sometimes downright boring. However, often times that's when real changes and progresses are happening. You just need to focus and hold on a little longer.

Sometimes, we just need to hold on a bit longer.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

2019 Winter Holiday Activities - Getting Ready for the New Decade

My husband and I got almost 3 weeks off for winter holiday this year. We decided not to travel far. Instead, I planned out some fun local activities. We were able to accomplish almost all of them and had a fun relaxing time.

1. Visiting Philadelphia Museum of Art

Every Wednesday after 5pm, the museum is pay what you wish. We took advantage of this on a chilly Wednesday night after eating a nice dinner in a nearby Chinatown restaurant.

I haven't been to the museum in several years. It's great to be back. Impressionist Exhibition remains my favorite.

2. Weekend Babymoon in NYC and Meet up With A Friend

My college roommate is attending Columbia. We visited her the week before Christmas and decided to make a weekend out of it in NYC as our babymoon vacation.

We all met in Koreantown in 32nd street and ate at my go-to Korean restaurant: BCD Tofu. Nothing beats hot delicious soup full of flavor on a chilly day. In the afternoon, we walked off the meal by going to the American Museum of Natural History. It's quite packed, probably because it's the holiday season. I'm a huge fan of Friends the TV show so it's great to finally visit Ross' workplace!

The dinosaur exhibition is a must-see. They even have a dinosaur-shaped tree at the front door.

A pleasant surprise during this trip is the hotel we stayed at. I've been on business trip in NY several times. All the hotels I've stayed at are either quite old, or quite small. But the Crown Plaza HY36 in Midtown Manhattan exceeded my expectation. The room is newly renovated, beautifully decorated, so very modern-looking. Staff is friendly. The location is a few minutes walk from Penn Station, yet it's not noisy at night. Overall, a very pleasant stay.

The second day, we went to a Chinese dry hot pot place for lunch - Mala Project. Dry pot is a very popular way of cooking in China. You pick your meat and vegetables, and they sauteed everything in a special spicy sauce. You can choose the level of spiciness to your liking. This type of cooking started getting popular in 2010 right before I came to the U.S. So eating this is reminiscing and reminded me of college time a lot!

3. Christmas Light at Longwood Garden

Our last adventure is visiting Longwood Garden to see the Christmas lights. Even though we happened to visit on a rainy day, it was still very beautiful after dark.

We ate dinner in the cafe and headed outside to enjoy the various lights. A highly recommended activity for the holiday season.

4. Watch Little Women the Movie

I just finished reading Little Women right before the holiday, so excited to hear a new movie came out. The movie turns out to be very good. We're trying to do more things couple could do before the baby comes. And new parents keep telling me:"I haven't been to the movie theater for so long! You have to get a sitter just go out for a movie..." So we're trying to squeeze some movie time before the baby arrives!



Friday, January 3, 2020

Reading Recap and Recommendation for 2019: What Books to Read to Start 2020

According to Goodreads, I read 52 books in 2019, thanks to audible books, a 2.5-hour daily commute, and just prioritizing reading as a leisure activity. My selection of books are fairly eclectic: anything from murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, to career development, to autobiography of Russian spies. Generally any writing that helps take my mind off work.

Out of the 52 books, below are a handful that I find worth recommending. They happen to score at least 4 out of 5 star ratings on Goodreads. I do reference a book's star rating on Goodreads when researching whether to read it or not. Most of time, I find the rating fairly on point.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. I'm building my 2020 reading list, and welcome any recommendations you have!

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky

I learned about this book from the Podcast The Jordan Harbinger Show. Jack Barsky was a Russian spy who posed as an average American in the U.S. for 10 years. If you like the show The Americans, I think you'll enjoy this book. The story started with Jack (not his birth name)'s childhood in East Germany, his college life in Jena, East Germany where he obtained an advanced degree in Chemistry before getting recruited by KGB, subsequently starting his training as a spy and eventually came to the U.S. under a false identity - Jack Barsky. 
The narration is very personable, interlaced with subtle humor. Even though he arrived in America with a totally different purpose, I find myself relate to some of his experience such as the ideological difference between two political systems, value of its people, etc. It's a great story so a page-turner and a quick read.

Another great page turner about a North Korean defector and how/why she escaped North Korea. This is the first book I read about North Korean defectors. In my assumption, people who decided to escape North Korea are driven by desperation: hunger, poverty, or prosecution. The story of Hyoenseo is slightly different: she lived a fairly comfortable life growing up (in North Korean's standard) - she didn't starve, has plenty to keep warm, and even has exposure to some western culture. Her family lived on the China-North Korea border. Then right before her 18th birthday, she decided to cross the border to visit her relatives in China, just to see what life was like on the other side, with intention to go back home after a short visit. Little did she know that was her forever goodbye to North Korea. She couldn't go back home because someone reported her missing and suspected she crossed the border. The story unfolds from there: she was forced to stay in China as an illegal, learning Mandarin, almost married a Chinese guy to get real citizenship, faking as a ethnic Chinese during police interrogation, working as a waitress in restaurants, etc. The story has a good ending when she eventually rescued her mother and brother out of North Korea. They now all live in South Korea.

It's a fascinating story. I had to stop a few times and googled if this is indeed a true story. What this girl has gone through at such a young age is incredible and hard to imagine.

The War that Saved My Life. By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

This books is the Winner of the 2016 Schneider Family Book Award. Ten-year-old girl Ada was locked up in her London apartment by her mother because she has a twisted foot. Then World War II came, and all kids are to be shipped out of London to escape the war. Ada wasted no time sneaking out of the apartment with her little brother Jaime. There begins the adventure for Ada and Jaime, as well as Susan Smith, the woman who was forced to take the two kids in. First time in Ada's life, she experienced the motherhood love that's been lacking all her life. She learned to ride a copy, catch spies, and really lived the innocent life of a 10-year-old.
It's a well-written lovely story. Even though it's meant to be a children's story, some Amazon reviews mention, and I agree, is probably for adult readers.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. By Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

You learn a great deal of leadership lessons from the military, and this book is no exception. I happen to read this book while transitioning from an individual contributor to a first-line manager. This book helps shape the mindset needed to be a successful manager: you're no longer only responsible for what you deliver individually, you are accountable for the collective contribution of your TEAM. Their success is your success, so is the failure.
This might sound very simple, yet not easy to live it. There's no more excuses when things go wry, as the leader, you OWN it 100% and it's up to you to figure out a way to deliver.

The Simple Path to Wealth: Your road map to financial independence and a rich, free life. By J.L. Collins

As the title suggests, the path to wealth, or rather a rich, fulfilling life, is very simple. This is probably hands down the best financial book out there and the only one you need to read.
I've been following the FIRE community, including Mr. Money Mustache's blog, for a while, so the content in this book adds nothing new to me. But it's good to read all the principles and how-tos systematically in one place. Read this book, read it early, and start taking action now. 

Rethink Screen Time In Terms of 3Cs: Consumption, Creation and Connection

Yesterday I was listening to the latest podcast episode of The Happiness Lab: good screens and bad screens . This episode features guest Cat...