Andy Ko on being reflectively self-aware, deliberately structured, & amazingly productive

Andy Ko is an Associate Professor in the Information School at University of Washington. Building on Andy’s blog post, “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance”, we explore lots of different perspectives about how he works at being structured and productive. The conversation ranges from his experiences doing a start up, learning planning skills from his mother, putting them to work at college, and adapting priorities while working in industry. Now back in academia, he shares his very deliberate practices around things like managing his PhD supervision, co-writing papers, running efficient meetings, quantifying time and tasks, managing to-do lists and the like. A common theme is that these are ‘simply’ skills and habits that are developed through repeated practice, discipline and self-awareness, and working to your strengths.

“That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time… never enough time to do all the things we want to do… so there has to be flexibility… The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

“We all have different skills…and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined …most of this is practice… For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and... how to build practices around them… slowly incrementally over time… Much more about a process of learning and being reflective…and less about borrowing a particular strategy.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

1:54 Andy’s background and research area, and taking time in sabbatical to read deeply about learning science to support current research

4:04 Sabbatical just after tenure, and its relation to taking two year’s leave to do a start-up, “a good stressor on my productivity skills”, clear trajectory from career grant to start-up

6:14 The start-up process story – wanting to apply research in practice, and different goals of co-founder, resolving conflict of interests, getting in touch with potential customers, raising venture capital, building team and product, market plan; support of faculty important

09:44 Lessons learnt? Biggest mistake, not doing enough user research, forgetting enterprise customers were also users

11:54 Coming back to academia, hiring replacement CEO, CTO, and ongoing involvement as chief scientist (patent work and strategic R&D), now 1 day a week for the company

13:14 Previously working 60 hours a week, conversations with families/kids and getting consent from them re not being so available and ok with it, becoming talented at productivity, needing to be ruthless aboutprotecting time and using it wisely

15:24 Fundamental idea of having to invest time, economic model of how much time committed to different parties, “doing the most I can within that time” and then context switching

17:05 Compromises? Being present in the company 8-6 every day, then needing to be flexible eg meeting with students in evenings or at lunch; accepting research having to go slower, with result of sometimes helping eg student having to grow, and sometimes not; becoming more reflective about how much he gave and how much was needed

19:25 For supporting students with publications: “What’s the thing that they need to me, it’s not so much about how much time they need from me but what they need from me”; explicit discussion, developing more self awareness for self and students, and other downstream effects; confounded by getting or having tenure (how critical it is to get a publication done now)

21:24 New skills for managing different projects, keeping track of people’s state – capturing information 5 mins after a meeting about to remember for next meeting, and scheduling 5 mins before next meeting to catch up – using Apple’s notes app and document for each student as log of interactions, progress, challenges etc; also helps with context switching and shorter meetings

24:22 Shortened meeting times, there’s something about a 30 min meeting, more focused, forcing function of having to reflect on the purpose of the meeting sometimes even solves issue before the meeting; scaffold meeting by defining purpose, build prep/reading into the meeting time, more efficient use of time; value of physical documents, can’t hold smart phone, nudges towards engagement

28:15 Attribute most learning to deliberate practice … being organized, impact of watching mum being organized

30:39 At college, being obsessive around to-do lists because he was bad at remembering things; still do to-do lists, tools better now, task capture easier; helps a lot with faculty life with multiple responsibilities; using Omnifocus, 4000 open to-do items spanning 3 yrs, the discipline around future planning … “because that little tiny commitment muscle is practiced enough every time I remember... I capture it too”

36:12 Story of professor and research of prospective memory, learning about memory and opportunity to reflect on practice, capturing metadata around tasks, being very deliberate about what can fit in the time, and the value of having data to support that, and requiring discipline to capture that data in the first place; hard to begin those practices, because hard to judge what the future value will be

39:34 Setting a quota for types of work, being rational about commitments, we say numbers (50% research 30% teaching, 20% service) but ignore them entirely so tries to be committed to those numbers and to reciprocity principle eg with reviewing

41:54 “That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time, that’s just the nature of the work we do. As researchers and scholars, we have this great privilege of all of this time in which to pursue our curiosity and do things that are valuable to the world and yet there is never enough time to do all the things we want to do so we are constantly balancing what we want to do and what we have time to do and trying to fit things into the time we have so there has to be that flexibility in balancing that structure as we don’t have predictable paths that we follow in the work we do. … The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

42:55 Usually does an 8-5 or 6 day – knows that when he burns out, thinking isn’t as clear, forgets to do things, stares at email longer than he should; using self awareness around own cognition that is valuable, doing things that are appropriate for level of consciousness and energy at the time

44:55 Most common reaction/question since the blog post – could never do what you do or how do I get started;

“we all have different skills we have developed over our lifetimes and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined and I do believe that most of this is practice, I’m really not much of an innate talent mindset… but the reality is that I have had a lot of practice at a lot of these things ... that allowed me to develop a certain set of practices that are very structured and mature. For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and how to build upon them, how to build practices around them. … build slowly incrementally over time … Much more about a process of learning and being reflective about that process and less about borrowing a particular strategy. … Very personal processes very tied to our ability to self regulate and discipline our behavior.”

47:24 Now researching software developers and their self-regulation skills – even teaching novice students self regulation skills increase their productivity, self-efficacy and their growth mindset because of awareness

50:52 End

Related Links

Andy's blog post: “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance” -

Jacob Wobbrock -

Start-up: AnswerDash -

Tool: Omnifocus -

Yunan Chen on getting tenure, the two-body experience & negotiating motherhood

Yunan Chen is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (ICTS) at the University of California, Irvine.  Yunan shares her experiences moving from a medical degree in China to a PhD at the intersection of medical informatics and human computer interaction in the US. She also speaks out about her tenure experiences, being part of a long distance relationship, and the struggles negotiating academia and becoming a new mother.  

“We don’t talk about our stress publicly.” “Give yourself a break after the baby.” “It’s ok to be lost [after getting tenure]”

She talks about (times approximate) …

01:35 Moving from medical school in China to a PhD in the US

09:00 Applying for faculty positions, getting applications rejected, moving to Irvine

12:41 Challenges being a new faculty member, learning paper and grant writing

17:20 Having great mentors

19:30 Having a baby, learning about life beyond work

21:10 Having a long distance relationship with a partner who is also an academic, working hard

22:10 No longer being able to count on evenings/weekends for working

24:00 Having a baby puts in a boundary on time, and using time more wisely

25:30 The first year with the baby, after tenure

27:08 Making the mistake of thinking it was still possible to be on a Program Committee, “if others can do it, maybe I can … but it turns out to be very difficult” … “First time I realised my life is forever different” … “My time is not as flexible as before”

30:20 Posting to Facebook that she “just feel very tired doing this”, one lesson, “I didn’t have to do it”; Her advice “give yourself a break” and “no-one talks about the challenges”

33:00 Trying to build a work-life balance and family life little by little, and moving to a bigger house and lowering expectations lower (ok if home not perfect, a bit messy) to achieve a better and happier life

38:48 Experiences of a mother support group, struggling with being a good mum and being a good researcher and quitting the support group, and stopping feeling guilty

41:38 Final thoughts: talk to a lot of people, we don’t talk about our stress publicly, don’t be afraid of approaching others, don’t be too harsh on yourself, things get easier

43:58 Being on academic mamas Facebook group and learning from other people’s experiences

48:00 Being lost after having a baby and after getting tenure, and finding what to do next, but it’s ok to be lost

51:45 End