Hello again. :wave: These are the notes that summarize my talk at Habit Summit. This post is about spending less time thinking about yourself so you have the energy to be empathetic towards your customers and coworkers. These are my tips for how to do it — a process I’m continually honing but one that has served me well.
My background, and why I care so much about habits
I was raised in this weird, very small religion where I got to see people actively create a belief system that dominated people’s every day habits. Religions are similar to all other human created systems in that it creates loyalty toward a shared, valued set of rituals. Not only that, but religions are communities that reinforce their habits through social feedback. It’s easy to go to temple, or adhere to a specific diet, or pray at the right moments every day if you’ve set up your life around doing those things.
I was raised in a New American syncretic religion called Church Universal and Triumphant: Founded in 1975 by charismatic leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who claimed to be able to channel figures from several world religions: Mother Mary, Gautama Buddha, and Hercules all featured.
This religion had norms and rituals that were so outside the mainstream American society that it was easy to watch it being made. Chief among these habits was the idea of personal transformation through repeated action. This is the basis of meditation and quite honestly, of prayer. In the midst of this science fiction universe, I was taught from a young age that consciously repeated action becomes unconscious over time. This is the difference between knowing the path, and walking it.
I became interested in these structures that human beings create among themselves and gravitated towards games and game design. Naturally, I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in high school and college. I was working on a game with friends when we got funding to start a company and move to the Bay Area. After that, I worked on more social game (like The Sims Social) and consumer and enterprise apps.
My most recent experience is working on Slack, where I’m incredibly motivated to do the best work of my life. I learned through the incredibly stressful experience of starting a venture-backed company at a young age that your habits can make or break your productivity and your product. At the same time, I’m working on a product that people use every day and that measure its pulse in simultaneously connected users.
Slack is growing quickly and it would be easy to become overwhelmed by the pace at which that many people can move. But, I’m very motivated to do the best work of my life and find ways to perform at my peak at work. I’ve put together a framework for myself and my team to work well together that I’ll be sharing with you today.
Some points of reference and that reading I promised you
Many great people have written books about what it’s like to be a human being. I’m going to describe a couple ideas and habits that can be found in these books, and I’ll link to these books below where I’ll summarize the ideas as well. The system that I’ll show you draws on these sources explicitly and implicitly.
Willpower. This book is best known for popularizing the concept of ego depletion as a muscle that can be built upon by cultivating personal habits. Each person has a more or less set level of self-control that’s measurable as early as pre-kindergarten ages. Studies have shown that young kids with more self-control grew into well-adjusted adults. I’ve incorporated a number of suggestions from this book including “Write it the fuck down” that form the basis of my suggestions for you today.
Thinking Fast and Slow. This book examines the things that we can do more or less automatically with our lizard brains (thinking fast) and the things that it takes awhile for us to reason out (thinking slow). From the concepts shared in this book, I paired the idea of ego depletion (making decisions depletes our store of willpower) with the idea that if you do something consistently it can become automatic. Your habits matter because they become your automatic reactions.
Daring Greatly. Brené Brown is a shame researcher who has a couple really outstanding talks on the important of being vulnerable and opening yourself up to others. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a very important first step in being empathetic toward others. If you cannot forgive yourself for making a mistake or shake off a bad experience with the understanding that you will learn from, it will be difficult for you to put yourself in the mind and heart of someone else. When a user doesn’t like your product, or a coworker is upset with you , you’ll be caught up in a shame spiral and less able to hear them.
When Panic Attacks. This classic work on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Teach will help you change yourself from the inside out. The techniques in this book, especially around journaling your beliefs that cause you anxiety and suffering, are vital to learning how to soothe yourself. This book has also been not only personally helpful to me, but helped me understand other people and how their set beliefs about how something is or is not ______ can totally control their lives.
How to use the lessons to do incredible work
You can consciously shape your days to allow you to focus on a few things and be more present. It’s mentally intense to be present and thoughtful at work, or to be surrounded by sweets and carbohydrates when you’re on a diet, or not get swept up in road rage on the drive home. These are the main points we’ll go over:
Stop thinking about yourself so you can
Make space for empathy that will teach you about yourself and the people around you to
Do the best work of your life without burning out from stress
The shadow side of this talk is that it is a little about shaping your so-called personal life around the work that you do. I am very focused on doing great work and making the most of my opportunity at Slack to learn and grow. Your mileage may vary: your “work” may not be something that you are paid to do, but it’s finally finishing that novel or healing from an injury.
Stop thinking about yourself — automate simple things.
Mark Zuckerberg recently shared a photo of his wardrobe, many sets of matching hoodies and gray shirts. Steve Jobs famously wore the same thing every day, and it’s become en vogue to have a “work uniform.” Men have more options for a complete work uniform, which I am semi-jealous of.
Women have capsule wardrobes. These are common on Pinterest, where it looks great and incredibly fashionable. The idea behind a capsule wardrobe is to to buy 25–35 pieces of clothing that all match each other and be worn interchangeably. This will help you reduce the burden of choosing an outfit in the morning and can help (especially for women) to reduce the complexity of other decisions.
If I am wearing a certain dress on Tuesday I know that I’ll wash my hair on Tuesday morning because I want to wear it down. (Because the idea of a capsule wardrobe is also kind of a bourgeois white woman thing to do, they often recommend “investment” pieces that cost a lot of money. I’m choosing to ignore that part of the capsule wardrobe idea.)
I do both a capsule wardrobe and I set out clothes for myself on Sunday evenings. I’ll check the weather and then pick my outfits. I started dressing much more fashionably and have even gotten it together to occasionally accessorize. I always thought that my maternal grandmother, who was a very well put-together woman, would be proud of me for doing this. In fact, my mother recently found a note from my grandmother with just a couple lines on it: “Monday, pink dress; Tuesday, white slacks.” Mom didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew exactly what it is: Grammy’s planning for the week of outfits.
Ego energy depletes through the day and needs to be refilled by food: another mindless task that you can automate for yourself.
I’ve automated feeding myself in many different ways over the years as I tried to develop this system for myself. I’m very sensitive to blood sugar and will go from okay to hangry in the matter of 20 minutes, so I’m a little obsessed with eating on time. Some ways to do this for yourself are:
— Eat the same thing every day. This is probably the easiest thing to do, and something that many people do unconsciously.
— Cook on Sundays and put together a meal plan for the week. This is especially good if you are trying to save money by not eating out, or adhering to a particular diet like Paleo.
— Order food from services like Thistle or Methodology. This can be expensive but ensures that you know what you’re doing for lunch (or dinner) every day.
Make space for empathy: Structure your tasks and work day to make the best use of your mental energy
Teach yourself to chill out, and begin your day with a practice in mindfulness, gratitude, and presence. I like to hike with my dog, Pixels Wigglebottom in the morning. She’s very engaged with the world around her and playing with her reminds me to be present. I also like to walk and recite out loud the things I’m grateful for.
Since your ego (or willpower, or self control) gets steadily depleted as you’re making a series of decisions for yourself, you’re likely to have capacity to make better and more difficult decisions in the morning. By the end of the day your willpower will be drained. (Anyone who finds themselves with a habit of coming home from work, turning on the TV, and drinking a beer can confirm this.)
I have blocked out my calendar to work on writing product specs, planning roadmaps, listening to user feedback, and making a bunch of decisions in the morning. Other people often want to meet with you in the morning. Do not submit to this unless the meeting is for making decisions together.
Another simple rubric: Decline any meeting that contains the words “sync” “chat” or “catch up.” These are terrible meetings that will drain your willpower. Save your face-to-face time for people who need to connect with you or talk through an idea.
I bought an Apple Watch and use it to help me be present in the few meetings that I agree to attend. I’ll be at meetings with only my watch and a notebook to write down ideas or take notes. I’m able to make eye contact and give my full attention to the person I’m meeting with, and using a notebook disambiguates for them whether the note I’m taking is related to our work together. (I’ve also adopted the habit of looking at my watch to time check while I am speaking, so that I’m not sending them a signal that what they are saying is not important.
After a meeting, I’ll take my notes and segment them into different lists in my to do app. I use Wunderlist, but many products provide the same functionality. These lists function in a couple different ways: I can see at a glance whether I owe my boss something (a list called Leadership), or whether it’s something that I can assign to someone else (a list called Delegate).
Write down the first step you need to take on a project, not the overarching problem itself. In my work, this means writing down “Watch user research videos on team creation flow” rather than something less helpful like “Finish user research project.” By doing that, I’ve created a list of pretty mindless tasks that I can tackle later in the day when my decision-making ability and willpower are at their lowest.
Finally, clearing out a list of to-dos makes you feel really great!
Do the best work of your life: Break the work habits that are holding back you and your team
I will just list these out as truths. These are things that are hard to do because they require us to leave ourselves behind and focus on other people. Now that you’ve fed and clothed yourself, and made actual space in your day to do this, you have the energy to:
Stop using your giant ass monitor. Normal people are not wholly focused on your product. Give your product the same level of scattered attention that your users will.
Break the template habit. We’ll often just fill out forms that are in front of us without ever questioning why. Our users do this, but we should resist the urge to do this. Is that email template getting in the way of the message you are sending? (Yes, it is.)
Beware your processes, for they are your team’s habits. Question every meeting, stop writing specs the same way over and over. You will get the same results you have before. Challenge your team to give up recurring meetings.
Pretend you’re a human being. Most people do not work in the clean, sterile, Pinterest-worthy environments that startups like to show in our product videos. To understand whether you are seeing something from someone else’s perspective, pretend to be them.
Close your eyes. Choose someone specific. I like to pretend to be Juan, who had a fight with his wife Maria last night. Traffic was terrible, I was late to work, and now my boss is on my ass about finding the McLaren project in the next 2 minutes. When I open my eyes and I look at the screen I’m reviewing again, I can plainly see that it’s not clear to me how I should that.
It’s exhausting to be empathetic
I hope this system will be helpful to you as you design and manage your own products (and lives!). It’s incredibly tiring to see the world from someone else’s perspective, but it’s vital to doing great work or working in a high functioning capacity in a challenging environment. You need to reduce the decisions that are about you, so you can make space for other people, and free up your time and mental energy for doing incredible work.