Carman Neustaedter on research identity, work tracking surprises, and taking perspective

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Carman Neustaedter is an Associate Professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and is also Director of the Connections Lab (cLab) research group. He talks about the importance for him of taking time to reconnect with his identity and values, and building in regular time for reflection, both on the bigger issues of where he is going and also on day to day work like writing challenges. He also discusses feeling overwhelmed and deciding to track his work time over a whole year, which led to surprising findings about how he actually spent his time and how he worked fewer hours than he thought he did. He also touches on issues around handling reviewer critique, managing his email inbox and how he structures time and prioritises family. A thread through a couple of stories is also the importance of being able to take on the perspective of others, whether these are the critical reviewers or colleagues.

“It’s really hard to figure out who you are because you’re often so focused…, you don’t stop to step back and say who am I and what is my path. But it’s so valuable to do.”

“It’s easy to slip into the habit of doing work at all sorts of hours. … It’s about choice and recognizing ahead of time what my priority is and making sure that priority is my family in the evening and at the weekend.”

“When I’m working, I’m really on and working really hard but then I purposely stop and say you know what it’s family time now, they deserve my time.”

“It’s really valuable for all walks of life just to empathise and understand others.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

2:09 Start

2:39 Current position, PhD from Calgary, experience working in Kodak Research Labs for three years before moving back to academia; how he got to the industry position as a post doc; finding it routine, and the decision to come back to academia and loving it.

5:02 Trigger for coming into academia – working with students, the agency and flexibility. Considered thinking to come back. Lucky to land something back in Canada, close to family. Obvious move back. Now in academia 8 years.

6:19 Experience of shifting back into academia – a struggle, paid far less, working way harder, so many things coming at him, hard to transition back into. Having the break allowed him to understand the situation a lot more, more reflection on own lifestyle and work-life balance. At Kodak, emails stopped coming in at 5pm on Fri and not much at weekend and as an academic getting emails from students at all hours. Had to adjust to it.

8:04 Other challenges in trying to set up as a new prof – establishing his identity and setting up a research group, what to focus on and how to present it to the world; critical to have a web page early; trying to establish identity and use that as framing for everything else he was trying to do. Finding the focus tricky but the job hunt helped as had to figure out ‘who are you, what’s your vision for the next few years’. “It’s an especially challenging task… it’s really hard to figure out who you are because you’re often so focused with your head down on your work, you don’t stop to step back and say who am I and what is my path. But it’s so valuable to do.”

9:54 How to do that practically? “It’s time. I can work on another paper or spend a half day thinking about what my identity is and how I want to project myself… it’s important to reassess that identity.” Example of using a hike or run on sabbatical last year to do this figuring out. Answer was realizing he had actually accomplished a lot and pretty proud of it and to continue on the same track, with tweaks. “Being happy with what I accomplished was really key.”; talking of being, purpose; “About what’s important and that thread weaves through the work we do, what we choose to do for [service, teaching, research] and weaves through how we balance work and family life and the personal endeavours we want.

12:09 Values as a researcher – being real, true to yourself and what you do. Talks about example of writing papers in a certain way, telling people what you did and why and not being afraid of the scrutiny. A tough profession when we have so many people critiquing us but it’s ok to show you and what you’re doing and stand up for it.

13:29 Handling the critiques – a long process but now tries to empathise with the reviewer and think about where they are coming from. Trying to connect with the reviewer, sees it as a conversation, understanding their perspective. More often than not getting critiqued rather than praised about the work we do. Probably not a lot of professions that get critiqued that much.

15:59 Other ways for helping handle this? Likes to go running, several times a week early morning, time to get out there and gives chance for reflection on what I’m doing, think up new ideas, and reconnect with myself”.

16:54 Other routines? Particular about when he works, tries hard not to work on evenings or weekends. Family and evening routines makes it easier to achieve. Weekends are family time with wife and kids. “When I’m working I’m really on and working really hard but then I purposely stop and say you know what it’s family time now, they deserve my time and so I’ll spend it with them.” Not like that before he had family. Notices he works more when he is away at conferences. “It’s easy to slip into the habit of doing work at all sorts of hours.”  “It’s about choice and recognizing ahead of time what my priority is and making sure that priority is my family in the evening and at the weekend.”

18:59 Hard when requests for stuff keep coming in.  Gives example of email on weekend with a request. Has a habit of inbox at zero 80% of the time. So if something comes in at the weekend it bothers him. Needs to handle it by getting it out of his inbox and onto a to-do then he can leave it for Monday. But if it sits in email he will think about it. Didn’t always do this but helps to keep his weekend to himself. Other email strategies – touching email only once;

21:49 Talks about tracking his work for a year. 2014, approaching tenure time, felt he was working tons of hours, feeling overwhelmed. Decided to figure out where he spent his time. Used a spreadsheet and recorded in 15 min time blocks. Tracked tasks, time of day, weekend. Tracked for a year. What time of day, who it was spent on, and how the numbers came out.

23:19 How tracking for a year was a pain but why he kept doing and the slivers of insight he got on the way.

26:00 Results surprising. Thought he did way more service and teaching than research but not the case. Research time was actually 67% over the year. Teaching was only 15% and only 18% was service. “So it was way different than what I thought. I was spending most of the doing the research stuff I really loved and not a lot time doing the teaching things that I thought was taking up a lot of my time.” On average worked about 39 hours a week. Felt over 50 hours. “It felt like I was completely overwhelmed and working all the time.” Didn’t realise how many hours he was actually working.

26:50 Flexible way of handling his day, on campus between 4-8 hours, will work from home when he can. Works early morning time. Helps kids. Finish up in the afternoon. Email in the evening. Some days only 4 hours. Flexibility of the job to let him do this lifestyle structure. Balances out with 10 hr day.

28:22 What contributes to it feeling so much more? Asked himself some tough questions about why feeling overwhelmed, exhausted. Maybe a lot of it comes down to choice.  So many demands on attention can be overwhelming, A lot of contact points. So many things coming at him overwhelming. The sense of responsibility and loving helping people. Feeling obligated and wanting to help.  Lack of getting to what he wants to do, don’t feel he has as much as choice as he wants to. Teaching feels a little more like work, less control over it. Loves teaching, reinvigorates but freedom of choice issue.

32:09 How does it feel now with requests? Looking through time makes it easy to recognize this is happening and use it to leverage different choices, and also figuring out when he works best and how to adjust his schedule. Talks about how he structures his work now. Also gives example of writing the discussion section that he finds hard, and timing it before a run or a break (drive into work) so he can then think back on what he just wrote and see if new insights come up.  Works well except for keeping notes. Wouldn’t have tracked that as work time. 34:54 “Work is on my brain a lot of the time. It’s hard to get it off my brain.” Think best ideas come when he is not working. Never know what you are going to see that is going to spawn a great idea. Fluid work and locations makes it even muddier. Even though ideas flow in non-work time, easy enough to separate them and not linger. Gets a note down and then get back to the personal stuff.

38:19 Not managed so well … when family visiting, guests, etc. But also forces you to engage with family and friends more.

39:09 Criteria for making choices, saying no? “Doing what I know I love to do”. Gives example of telepresence chair service role. “It’s stuff I love doing so it’s not really like work.”

40:34 Sabbatical experience. Three months recognized missed his normal job and couldn’t do research full on. Needed the breaks. Realised how much he valued them when gone. Feeling of guilt for not working. Tension of should and wants. Wanting to get away from the job but then realizing he really loved it. His choice to re-engage with some teaching and service while on sabbatical. Still mental turmoil, would he wish he stepped back more. But felt good at the end of the year. Accomplished more than planned. Happy with what he did because he was making choices, saying no and also saying yes to things he really loved.

44:54 “It was a turning point, and I realized moving forward - get back that choice. Really think about what I want to do and don’t be afraid to do that.”

45:29 Seeing career moving forward. Knows research direction, more admin work in department coming up, understanding internal politics. Talks about getting to know people more now and seeing where they are coming from. Tries hard to understand people from their perspective. Easiest way of getting policies through is understanding people’s perspectives and incorporating them. Talks a lot with people, prep work, understanding people. Came out of empathy training some years ago (in context of running a study) but “it’s really valuable for all walks of life just to empathise and understand others.”. Created less butting heads, faster to get on same page, accomplish more. But takes time/work.

50:51 Gives other examples of other situations where empathy helps, from family/kids to co-author/grad student and teasing out what is going on. Involves a lot of listening. Aim to get the best work, mutual goals.

52:59 Tries to foster a lab culture, about being dependent on each other, helping each other. Learnt from advisor Saul Greenberg. Shared responsibility in helping people out, a team, a family.

54:49 Final thoughts – “I think so much of our time is spent with our heads down and trying to get things done. I still really struggle with lifting my head up and getting that broader perspective. But I really think scheduling in even a little bit of time every once in a while to get that perspective back is super important.”. Advice from Joanna McGrenere – schedule time on sabbatical for personal reflection. Applicable beyond sabbatical. Schedule that time block eg for a run, walk, or silent drive. Making it a point of your regular routine is so incredibly invaluable. Recognise you are doing good stuff and how to keep that path going forward and how to have time for yourself.

57:35 My reflections on harmonious passion.

59:55 End

Related Links

Saul Greenberg podcast – on supervising, building a lab, creating good work life balance  

Sheelagh Carpendale - http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~sheelagh/wiki/pmwiki.php

Joanna McGrenere - http://www.cs.ubc.ca/~joanna/

Jolanta Burke podcast – on burnout, harmonious passion, positive workplaces & helping others

Some articles on passion, obsessive passion and harmonious passion:

Kia Höök on challenges of success & value of slowing down and re-connecting

Kia Höök is a professor in Interaction Design at KTH in Stockholm Sweden, director of the Mobile Life Centre and an ACM Distinguished Scientist. We talk about her early research career, and her experiences securing a large amount of research funding with some colleagues then co-leading a large research centre, building a culture, and managing relationships with industry partners. She also talks about how her year-long sabbatical gave her time and space to reflect on the challenges of success and to reconnect to what is important, to re-set her own rules and to re-think how she wants to engage as an academic.

"You end up in a situation where everything you do you do in order to be able to work more…and that is not a good life.”

“All of that stuff that you get worked up about, is it really that important, or even if it is important, can I have a different attitude.”

“It is about finding your core, knowing yourself, slowing down, and being more empathic with other people.”

She talks about (times approximate) …

 [Research background]

1:57 Evolving research foci from information searching to social navigation to affective computing – carving out new research areas

8:57 Developing the proposal for 10 years funding for the Mobile Life research centre

[Shaping and running a research centre]

11:27 Learning how to interact with industry to win their funding support, what are their drivers, who to speak to

15:57 Learning how to manage a large research centre, learning the hard way – IPR, growing a research group, sharing the funds among the four leaders, the challenges of cross-fertilisation across the four groups

19:07 Reflections on wishing they had shared research methods across the groups more and thoughts on what they could have done instead

23:17 Strong culture based on seminars, the Swedish Fika – the ‘enforced socializing’ every week -, joint trips

25:07 The challenges when some of the four leaders leave and the changes in dynamics

27:28 The challenges when some of the key company partners are no longer there and contributing matched funding; now knowing what to look for to see something going on with industry; being able to shape relevant research agendas

29:32 Practical suggestions for how to work with industry partners, e.g., needing to communicate what the research means, connecting the dots for them (“what are we seeing that they should care about, translating that”), making everyone work for 3 months with a partner and having people from the partner sit in the research centre, joint workshops

34:12 Lessons on managing people, building a culture – the challenges of having researchers from different disciplines, putting together teams based on competences and personality and creating safe creative spaces

36:40 Moving from being a researcher who can control the research to being the vision person - scaling up the vision, seeing the connections, … but then losing contact with the reality of the research

[The sabbatical experience – reconnecting with what is important]

40:34 The amazing invigorating sabbatical experience, time for reading, writing, connecting with the passion, sitting under a tree talking philosophy – “reconnecting with why we are doing this”, why it is important

44:22 Not only reconnecting with research, reading etc but reconnecting with herself; time alone, being lonely, unraveling strong personal ‘survival’ rules that were about being productive and efficient to function managing a household and work

46:35 “You end up in a situation where everything you do you do in order to be able to work more”

47:09 “And that is not a good life, you don’t live to constrain yourself in this way. It is not helping your creativity.” But taking time to get down from this, crash landing in Florida

48:27 “I actually do believe that one can change” - now recognising the emotional state and what might be an alternative emotional state she could transfer herself into … feeling collected, slowing down, listening to very small signals in your body, the benefit of Feldenkrais at work

51: 27 “What you have to remember is that all of that stuff that you get worked up about, is it really that important, or even if it is important, can I have a different attitude”

52:00 Being leader, the worked-up Kia did not spread a good work environment around herself – strong bodily signals you give off – so trying to listen to the alternative self that is more collected

54:21 Being flattered as an academic with invitations, awards etc but not being able to do all of it, needing to make choices, have new rules now about what to say yes and no to

56:39 “You have to know why you are doing it so if you do it because you are flattered and because it’s a notch on your belt or are you doing it because you are actually learning something important or you are communicating your research or whatever. So I have to think about that.” Making people email her so that she think first before replying/agreeing or not

57:42 Other changes – putting effort into the book she is writing, accompanied with the kind of exercises that connects her to what she is writing about, trying to do things she enjoys

59:00 Conflict of caring for students, keeping promises and looking after her needs, needing to promise less

1:00:21 Also needing to think about what the organization tells us we need to do to be a success and taking a stance about what is important, and what is enough funding

1:03:19 Risk of being flattered by recognition for your work, by prizes, “but if you don’t have a core, if you don’t know why am I doing this research, what is it that I am changing in the world that I actually believe is good” … “it is about finding your core, knowing yourself, slowing down, and being more empathic with other people ... it is a much slower way to success but one I do believe in … If you don't have your core, then it doesn’t matter if you get to be the ACM distinguished whatever, that is just shallow”

1:06:02 Hard to get recognized internationally when you are in Sweden, longing for that recognition, now not taking that so seriously

1:07:27 The struggle that comes along with the success, the sick leave because of stress, the colleagues who aren’t always supportive or happy for successes, the gender aspects

1:12:28 End

Related Links

Mobile Life Centre http://www.mobilelifecentre.org

The first iphone was released June 29 2007.

Fika: https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/fika/

Lars Erik Holmquist http://blog.siggraph.org/2012/07/qa-with-siggraph-2012-mobile-chair-lars-erik-holmquist.html/

Oskar Juhlin http://www.mobilelifecentre.org/people#oskar-juhlin-

Annika Waern https://katalog.uu.se/empinfo/?id=N13-228

Barry Brown http://www.mobilelifecentre.org/people#barry-brown