Why This Ex-Googler Wants Us To Focus on Mindful Productivity
For people who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health
Anne-Laure Le Cunff is the founder of Ness Labs — an award-winning product studio focused on mindful productivity; “building neuroscience-based tools to support makers who care.” [I’m a huge fan of its blog where Anne-Laure shares lots of useful articles.]
She is also editor of Maker Mag — a magazine for indie makers and solo entrepreneurs, Scout at Backed VC, author of Make and Shine and, if that wasn’t enough, Anne-Laure is studying for an MSc in Neuroscience.
Prior to starting Ness Labs, Anne-Laure worked on the digital health team at Google HQ before setting up her first startup — Lysa — a smart health assistant.
In this interview, we discuss how she got interested in neuroscience, what excites her at the intersection of tech and science, some of her daily habits and advice she’d give her younger self.
Newnham: What was your childhood like and how did it shape you?
Le Cunff: I have a very big family. I’m half French, half Algerian, and last time we counted there are over a hundred people on the Algerian side of my family, all descended from my grandma. This made me very comfortable with messy, noisy, unpredictable environments. It also made me quite a functional introvert — you get to learn some communication tricks when you have so many cousins!
Another part of my childhood that I think shaped me is the fact that I grew up in a city (near Paris). We didn’t have many parks or places to play outside, so we got extra creative with my brothers and sister, building fortresses under tables, writing, drawing. We also spent a lot of time reading.
Newnham: What got you interested in neuroscience?
Le Cunff: The brain is what allows us to dream, feel, and think. Ultimately, it’s what makes us human. I have personally suffered from burnout, and encountered many people suffering from depression, stress, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. While modern medicine has made great progress decoding the human body, there is still much to learn about the inner workings of the mind. Health and happiness are so intertwined that I set my mind to empower others to take control of their well-being both inside and out. I’m currently an MSc of Applied Neuroscience candidate at King’s College London, and couldn’t be more excited about everything I learned there.
Newnham: You worked at Google then started Lysa — what was your career journey like and what lessons did you take from both to starting Ness Labs?
Le Cunff: I joined Google in London full-time after two internships there. I then moved to San Francisco to join the digital health team, which was looking after products such as Google’s smartwatches and Google Fit. My role was to work with partners such as Runkeeper, Strava, etc. to promote their products which integrated with Google’s solutions. Through my work there, I realised there was a need to help people beyond fitness.
I started Lysa to empower people to eat better. It was a personalised nutrition assistant that would answer questions, help people track their diet, and recommend custom recipes. It was incredibly exciting to work on this product and we received amazing feedback, but ultimately we didn’t feel aligned with my co-founder and ended up breaking up.
The months after we closed down the company were pretty rough. I decided to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I wanted to work on. I’ve always wanted to help people be happier and healthier, but I felt like I lacked the qualifications to create science-based solutions. So I decided to go back to school to study neuroscience, and to write about my journey on my website. This is Ness Labs, and it has now because a business in and for itself.
Newnham: And what’s the mission for Ness Labs?
Le Cunff: Ness Labs is a product studio focused on mindful productivity. I provide content, coaching, and a community for people who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. Some of the products include Teeny Breaks, a Chrome extension reminding people to take breaks. There’s also a library of eBooks about mindful productivity, all based on my neuroscience studies. Finally, the cornerstone of Ness Labs is Maker Mind, a free weekly newsletter sponsored by companies in the mindful productivity space. It now has more than 7,000 subscribers, and is the main channel I use to promote my products.
Some future additions to the product line up I’m currently working on are a mindful productivity course, walking people through all I have learned about the topic in an actionable way, and a mindful productivity app. I’m currently taking a refresher coding course and learning React so I can hopefully build it this year.
Newnham: What area within tech are you most interested in right now and why?
Le Cunff: Anything at the intersection of science and technology is fascinating to me. For instance, take neuralink, a project led by Elon Musk, which promises to take brain-computer interfaces to the next level. It’s both scary and exciting. So much potential, but so many ethical implications.
Newnham: You are a prolific writer. What research — from the 100 articles you wrote last year — was most fascinating to you and why?
Le Cunff: All the research I read as part of my article about neuromyths was eye-opening. There’s an alarming rise in “fake science” and what many people think are facts about the brain are actually wrong. For example, there is no such thing as being “left-brained” or “right brained”, and it’s not true we’re only using 10% of our brain. Some books about unproven theories are bestsellers, such as one that argues we have multiple intelligences. All of these have been debunked by thorough research.
Related to that article about neuromyths, I’m currently reading 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. I’m only half-way through, but I already consider it a must-read for anyone who is interested in how the mind works. It’s witty, well explained, scientifically accurate, and does a great job overall at debunking these myths.
Newnham: If you had to recommend one article of yours which best summed up what you do — what would it be?
Le Cunff: My annual review is probably the best place to read about what I’m up to. I go through the ups and downs, my progress, and my objectives for the coming year. It’s a good exercise I would recommend anyone to take — and you don’t have to wait until the end of the year, I know some people who do it on a quarterly basis!
Newnham: Daily habits — what are yours and how do they help your productivity?
Le Cunff: I design my daily habits around my priorities. I use time blocking for my most important objectives, such as writing and taking care of my health. This is probably my most effective productivity technique. Every morning, I write for one hour, sometimes a bit longer. Then, I study for my neuroscience degree. And every day at lunch time, I go to the gym. The rest of my day is spent working on consulting projects, coaching people, or personal growth projects such as learning how to code. I also make sure to have enough time left to spend with my loved ones.
Newnham: If you could go back in time to a younger Anne-Laure, what advice would you offer her?
Le Cunff: As I suffer from time anxiety, there are many things I didn’t start or didn’t do because I felt like it was too late. If I could go back in time, I would tell a younger Anne-Laure that it’s never too late to get started. The best time is now.