How I Got My Time Back by Suffering through a Half Marathon

All dolled up for the Tinkerbell Half Marathon, Disneyland

Before I joined this crazy team of mine called MyAnalytics at Microsoft, I set a half-birthday goal to run a marathon before my 28th birthday. This was in response to my healthy, calm, and rational reaction to the fact I am aging — which of course happens every six months . (Yes, I am obnoxious and celebrate half-birthdays. It really has to do with cake. I will never turn down an opportunity to have cake).

The biggest inside joke is that I work hard developing a product that has the tagline: “get your time back” and my profession consumes nearly all my waking time, hours, and energy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job but do recognize the irony. I, like many of us, are faced all too often with conflicting emotions about work — we love the adrenaline rush of completing major projects all the while dreading the tax of being constantly on email and IM.

Now let’s get back to my forcing functions — to improve my work-life balance and to build a product that helps others do the same — and how the marathon provided a catalyst for both.

To incentivize myself I first found a way to increase accountability. I recruited my college roommate to run with me since she lives nearby, is super fit, is my friend, and is one of the people who shares my love of both hating and loving work. I also motivated myself by thinking I could always drop out if I had looming embarrassment of not being able to finish and a non-stranger to remember it. (Side note: she roped me into doing Tough Mudder and another half marathon so… maybe she was not the best choice now that I look back at it)?

Second, I upped the reward. I decided to run one of the Disneyland marathons as motivation since how could I possibly be disappointed with a trip to the happiest place on earth? © etc. etc. Seeing Mickey Mouse in the felt, has always been a motivator for me. Third, I added a deadline to my deliverable. I had a terrible case of procrastination along with a case of bronchitis so I started training — a.k.a. panicking — 6 weeks before the race. I really, really, really would not recommend procrastinating in this way.

So what happened in those last 6 weeks?

1. I Created a Positive Feedback Loop. The loop looked something like this:

a. Run -> Get endorphin boost -> Feel better -> Think about work -> Get stressed about work ->Want to run again 
This loop kept me on track to run 4–5 each week even though I really, really hate running.

2. I Started Building Time Capacity.

I have a 3-year-old son. I needed time to run and spend quality time with him every night. The only way to really do this was to stop checking email for a couple hours. (Read this article!)I then saw evidence in a reduction in my after-hours email in the product I was building called MyAnalytics, and as an added bonus, a couple of hours of screen-free time.

Figure 1. Sustained reduction in after-hour email activity during my family time 3 months after I started building time capacity

3. I Assessed Progress at Regular Intervals. The biggest source of anxiety from my email addiction was that I would fall behind on email. Guess what? I am still behind — but at least I feel better about being behind. Just kidding! As I prioritized my time over constantly being on email, I found a greater sense of control over my time and workload. Good thing I have this awesome dashboard (in MyAnalytics) to keep me honest on my choices, especially in my after hours.

Figure 2. Look at all of those lovely green bars and that amazing amount of focus time
Figure 3. Look at that. When I started my after-hours time was consistently over 5 hours (80% improvement)!

4. I Formed Better Habits. When I started to prioritize running, other pieces had to start falling into place:

a. I left at a reasonable time to eat

b. I ate better and slept better

c. I slept better to run

d. I stopped checking email to sleep at a reasonable hour

e. Lastly, to nobody’s surprise but myself, I achieved more during the day. It must have been something about taking the time to recharge + sleep + endorphins — funny how that works.

My learnings and why I wrote this half-satirical, half-serious article:

Our Product is Motivational. I know that I am extremely biased since I helped build MyAnalytics, but I think about things like personal focus time and limiting screen-time and try to apply it to my real life. So it works. I’ve experienced personal growth and behavioral changes by using this product.

I am Extremely Reluctant to Change Without Social Pressure and Support. We needed to build social motivation into our product. This inspired us to include sharing features. While the social aspect doesn’t work for everybody, it helped me with accountability. It’s also nice to have someone to commiserate with.

The Product Can Do More. I am in a unique position where I have some sway in what gets built into MyAnalytics and the things I listed above that helped me keep on track? It’s a long journey but we’re on our way to bringing these to reality:

o Recommendations based on my natural working patterns

o Remind me when I’m making a short-term decision that goes against my long-term goals (checking email when I usually run, scheduling dedicated time to catch-up on important email)

o Remind me to reflect, retune and celebrate

From my marathon experience, here are a couple things I learned along the way. Running, turns out, is not actually for me. But staying off email when I get home has stuck and the habit has spread to a some of my coworkers. Mine is more of an extreme case, but those were the steps I took to get where I wanted to be, now how will you get to your finish line?

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