how i (don't actually) manage my time

i've heard so many people state matter-of-factly so many times that they don't have time to take a vacation and that it'll just make them anxious because they'll just be worrying about all the stuff they're missing out on anyway so why bother.

saddd. how is it that so many people genuinely believe there's no time to take a break? :/

i thought about why i seemed to be able to make time for vacation every year and (mostly) sleep 7-8 hours a night while others struggled, especially when it felt like i had just as many things on plate as the next person.

the first thing that comes to mind is that i try hard to make sure my actions mirror my values, and in this case, my physical and mental health are much more important to me than the optics of working all the time and the good feelings of a job well done. but the more concrete reason is that i changed the way i think about time. yes, time is a precious resource, but guess what? (for me) energy is far more important when it comes to being productive both in work and society -- i'm more creative, i come up with more ideas, i’m noticeably more eloquent, i'm more engaged in my conversations, i make fewer mistakes, i'm more thoughtful, and i'm less likely to accidentally overlook important details.

i've encountered a buncha resources on budgeting your money and managing your time, but i haven't come across much (usable) advice for managing your energy. i've had excellent role models when it comes to spending my time wisely and never running out of cash, but i know few people who consciously make an effort to manage their energy.

but, gail, haven’t you heard of all the stuff about self-care and preventing burnout?

we talk about the importance of preventing burnout and engaging in self-care, yes, but from what i've observed in self-described "fast-paced environments", many of us simply value the rewards of working really hard and minimizing fomo (rewards include things like status, wealth, satisfaction, helping others) over the benefits of slowing down and taking care of ourselves (rewards include--actually, i'll leave the list of benefits as an exercise for the reader*).

my issue with the advice and tips i've received from others and found on the internet is that they mostly treat self-care as if it's just another thing to slot into your schedule. clocked in a zillion hours this week? spend your next free day at the spa! been chained to your desk all day? grab dinner with some close friends! working on a big presentation for an important client? hold a different yoga pose every half hour!

if i view self-care as yet another thing to pile onto my stack of toDos, then of course it won’t help with rest, and i’ll be anxietying my brains out.

and while i've heard so many times "this is a marathon, not a sprint", i still haven't seen an up close and personal example of how this is supposed to play out in real life. so. my best attempt at managing my energy first and time second was to take a break from stuffing my calendar to the brim and start paying more attention to how various events affect my energy meter.

going from autopilot to manualpilot so that manualpilot becomes the new autopilot

when i'm on autopilot (i.e., defaulting to time-first thinking rather than energy-first thinking), here's what "managing" my energy looks like:

  • accept all the invitations and then flake when i inevitably realize i'm too tired to socialize

  • keep working on whatever i'm working on until i finish, no matter how long i've already been working or how unimportant the thing is because the dopamine rush will be worth it

  • trade sleep for time; attempt to sleep in on the weekend (but can't because circadian rhythm's too strong)

  • buy a plane ticket somewhere so i'd have a socially acceptable excuse not to socialize during a fixed time period

  • not take precautions to prevent illness during flu season so that if i got sick, i'd be physically forced to rest and not work

  • skip exercise when i'm mentally or emotionally exhausted

  • fulfill all the obligations and duties of a good employee/ coworker/ friend/ daughter/ partner so i don't have to endure hearing what a bad employee/ coworker/ friend/ daughter/ partner i am (mostly from my own inner voice, but partially from others)

  • muster up the energy to push through an activity by telling myself a shitty story, everyone else seems to be able to do ________, so i should be able to do _________, too and then pay for it later with sudden overwhelming urges to mope and wallow all day

  • binge on games/ tv/ reddit (low energy activities) to postpone processing my feelings (high energy activity)

most (some?) of these strategies don't seem so bad when i consider them individually, but the list as a whole points to a type of person i don't really want to be. so i've been experimenting and trying harder and getting better at managing my energy in ways that do line up with the type of person i want to be.

luckily, it turns out that the same heuristics i use to manage my other resources (time, money, social capital) also apply quite well to managing my energy:

  1. understand the costs before committing

  2. spend first on the things i value most

  3. don't spend more energy(/ time/ money) than i generate (/have / earn)

  4. invest in whatever gives me more of it in the future

the heuristics themselves seem obvious, but the concept of applying them to anything outside of time and money wasn't so obvious to me.

okay, gail. so… how’d you apply these heuristics to your new favorite type of resource management?

heuristic 1: understand the costs before committing.

determining the energetic cost of an event isn't as easy as checking a price tag, but you probably already have a good enough idea of what affects your energy levels. the first thing i did was pay attention to how my energy and mood would change during and after various activities and interactions. after awhile, some patterns emerged.

i noticed, for example, that these things use up non-trivial amounts of my energy:

  • daydreaming about being outside in the sun instead of inside a dark building throughout the day

  • talking through conflict with a partner

  • speaking up in a meeting when i disagree with someone who has more influence or power

  • events that require lots of small talk, even if i'm having a good time

  • being around passive-aggressive/ pessimistic/ angry/ quick-to-criticize people

  • navigating ugly or confusing websites

  • working on an interesting problem

  • dreading talking to my therapist

and that, in general, these are things that tend to:

  • require a lot of willpower, focus, or thinking

  • trigger my fight-or-flight response

  • annoy me

and i noticed, for example, that these things usually energize me:

  • practicing singing

  • watching well-written tv

  • journaling

  • cuddling with my cat

  • sitting by myself in a cute, quiet cafe

  • playing in the sand and water at the beach

  • lying in bed

  • talking to my therapist

in general, these are things that tend to:

  • not involve other people

  • allow me to safely express my feelings

  • feel good on my skin

once i started weighing the costs of my work and social activities, i had a much easier time saying no to energy-sucking activities and found myself padding my calendar with energy-breeding activities whenever i knew i had a draining event coming up.

heuristic 2: spend first on the things i value most.

after awhile, i started to become hyperaware of how much energy i have left my in stores and the price tag for routine activities. this helped me be more diligent about spending my energy on the things that matter.

eating my frogs.
sometimes i put off doing important things because i dread how much energy it's going to take. so i procrastinate... which means i end up spending energy on extraneous things like worrying about the thing in the back of my mind and feeling guilty later when i end up doing a subpar job on the important thing because i was too tired to do my best. so. wasteful.

to combat this, i've been trying to eat my frog (i.e., do the dreadful but important thing) early in the day when i'm almost always guaranteed to have enough energy to do it. this prevents any "i'm too tired" or "i don't have any time" excuses to be used later when energy is low.

choosing my battles.
i end up feeling guilty or ashamed whenever i realize i've used up my energy on things that don't matter and so have none left over for the important things. when someone drops by my desk to talk through an important project, i'm tempted to continue working on that important project instead of focusing on an even more important project.

if i only have enough energy to do my best work on one of them, then i have to catch myself and protest the part of my brain screaming, "but... context switching sucks, wahhhh!!!". it’s better to put energetic-gail on the most important project and not-as-energetic-gail or tired-gail on the less important ones.

friends > acquaintances.
there was a period of time when i spent a lot of my energy during the day soothing coworkers, nodding and listening to them rant only to come home feeling oversocialized and not wanting to hang out with the people that mattered more to me. the kind of friend i want to be takes energy, and it can be a bummer hanging out with tired-gail all the time. as i've become better at setting boundaries with acquaintances, i've been able to devote more of my energy to people i love. yippee.

heuristic 3: don't spend more energy(/ time/ money) than i generate (/have / earn).

before adding more things to my calendar or toDo list, i first ask myself questions like:

  • if i add this to my plate, will i have enough energy to do a good enough job on all of this?

  • will i be oversocialized if i say yes to this invitation?

  • what's my threshold for stimulation? how much previous stimulation would make me flake out on this event?

  • if i do this thing, how will it affect my mood afterward?

  • if i say yes to this thing, what are the chances i'll be grumpy during whatever's next on the schedule?

  • if i canceled my entire day, how ecstatic would i be?

  • if i could only keep one item on the docket, what would it be?

  • if i pull this all-nighter, will it be worth risking the quality of whatever i need to do the next morning?

and as a result,

  • if i know i'm drinking with friends saturday night, i'll make sure i have a block of time to recharge the next morning.

  • if i'm feeling especially excited after a fun dinner with lots of things to think about, i'll make sure i don't engage further in stimulating activities an hour before bedtime.

  • if i have a small-talky event i need to attend, i won't make plans with acquaintances during that week.

  • if i'm feeling especially anxious, i'll recharge by doing mundane things (e.g., folding laundry, organizing my goodreads shelves, watching my cat).

  • if i know i need to have a serious talk with someone, i'll do my best to schedule it after an important project deadline.

heuristic 4: invest in whatever gives me more of it in the future.

hmm, biggie taught me mo money mo problems, but seems like (at least, in my case) mo energy fewer problems. i try to be on the lookout for ways to free up more energy. for example:

  • sleep, healthy diet, and exercise are the most obvious energy boosters. i'm not the best at the healthy diet thing, but i've sorta learned to live with that tradeoff. this'll probably change as age shrinks my energy meter.

  • i have a low tolerance for doing tedious repetitive tasks if the energy i put into them doesn't match well with the reward of doing them, so even though it might take more energy to figure out how to automate the task, i do it anyway knowing that i'll be less irritated and whiney in the future.

  • i heed the advice of the alcoholics anonymous serenity prayer by accepting the things i can't change and using the would've-been-wasted energy to change the things i can. why squander precious energy on intense road rage, judging others, and crying over sunk costs?

  • i minimize the amount of time i spend around people who put me and/or others down, always find something to complain about, attempt to squash others' autonomy, or are otherwise unpleasant and unwilling to change.

  • i practice being mindful, paying attention to my thoughts, and observing my reactions. this is probably the most important skill i've been working on; step one for making any kind of change (i.e., breaking habits, building habits, learning) usually comes in some form of 'notice what's happening when ______'.

welp. that's about the extent of my inner workings when it comes to resource management. i hate the way blog posts end with some sort of call to action for the reader, but i sincerely wanna hear any advice you can offer on the topic or examples of people who are really good at managing their energy. hit me up.


a side note for people-pleasing introverts with questionable boundaries:
i used to have two strategies for people who would ask to make plans together and demanded an answer to their invitation on the spot: either avoid them or say yes knowing i had no intention of showing up later. i often like i'd been guilted into attending events i didn't want to attend because i couldn't come up with a good enough rebuttal to statements like, "but the party starts at 9pm -- you said your only plans were dinner at 6pm!" or "but you said you've always wanted to take a day trip down the coast; that's exactly what we'd be doing!".

i'd hear myself think "because i don't feel like it" followed by "i can't say that; that seems mean/ they might feel hurt" followed by "ugh. fine. i'll just go.". i wish i'd learned way earlier in life that "that sounds like fun, but i don't think i'll have enough energy and need some alone time" is a totally acceptable answer and that the people who respect your answer are the ones you wanna keep.

*okay, but seriously, did you think about what rewards you'll get if you choose self-care over burnout? i had a hard time coming up with major benefits that involve tangible, visible rewards. :/ no one's gonna be impressed if you present a timeline that's realistic instead of ambitious, no one's gonna give you a promotion for being happy, and no one's gonna praise you for skipping the team offsite to get in some alone time. our society is too in awe of self-sacrifice and too apathetic toward self-love for my taste. guess that means it’s time to be the change i wanna see.

how i (don’t actually) hold so much in my brain

once upon a time, some people on my team discussed their strategy for retrieving information about all sorts of things.

v: when in need, i always ask siri. and if siri doesn’t know, i ask gail.
k: seems like he’s got the order wrong.

i’d earned a reputation for being able to hold a crazy amount of stuff in my brain because whenever people came to me with a question, i almost always had an answer ready for them within 1-2 minutes.

even though it’s common practice to take notes in the workplace, i’ve noticed that most folks don’t have a reliable system for actually utilizing those notes. i don’t know how many times i’ve been asked a question that i know the other person should’ve been able to answer by themselves through their notes or email. it’s tempting to chalk it up to them being lazy or stupid, but really, it’s just because they’ve set up their fast, effortless information retrieval system to consist of just asking me instead of setting up their own fast, effortless information retrieval system that doesn’t involve asking me.

since most people don’t always have a gail’s brain they can turn to, i’ll shed some light on how to increase the storage capacity of your own brain.

the secret

so. how do i hold so much in my brain? and how can you, dear reader, hold a shit ton of information in your brain, too?

the secret is… don’t.

i’m pretty discriminating when it comes to what gets stored up here and what doesn’t. so the actual secret is… determine what information is most important to you and use your memory for only those things.

for me, that means i store information that fits in at least one of three classes:

  1. various things about people or my interactions with them
    example: sunil doesn’t seem to like it when i cry out “MAYDAY!!!!” for no real reason, so i should definitely keep doing it

  2. information i need instant access to in the near future
    example: memorizing music for a performance or studying for an exam

  3. how to access all other information i may potentially need in the future
    example: next time i’m ready to make travel plans, i should check the ideas i’ve saved in my when it’s time to travel note

in practice, i (obviously) remember much more than that. the key difference is that i consciously make an effort to hang onto the stuff above; everything else i let myself passively remember.

a very wise jk rowling/dumbledore (side note: srsly, wizard people, dear reader is great) wrote something that’s stuck with me throughout my career:

i use the pensieve. one simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. it becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.

one thing she nailed here is that taking an assortment of seemingly unrelated thoughts and allowing them to bump into each other leads to the thing that breeds strategy and creativity.

when my brain isn’t overly stuffed to the brim, it has more room to stew and process. but when i try jamming in too much info, my brain works inefficiently, darting haphazardly from one thing to the next. i waste energy trying to hold onto too many things instead of using that energy to let my brain do its crazy magical thing of connecting the dots. this is partially why i seldom believe multitasking is worth it (as ron swanson said to leslie knope: never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.)

my pensieve-inspired system

obviously i don’t have a wand that can siphon things from my head nor a pensieve in which to swirl them, but i do use a pensieve-inspired system that works quite well for me.

the ultimate goal here is to focus my attention on what really matters to me, avoid getting sidetracked, and spend less time asking myself, “what am i doing again?”. in other words, my pensieve allows me to free up cognitive resources and minimize context switching.

the rest of this post assumes you already know how to take effective notes (i can address this topic in a separate post). i’d also like to emphasize that this system wasn’t built in a day; it’s the result of regularly reflecting on what’s been working/ not working and then adjusting accordingly over the course of several years. it’ll probably look pretty different in a few more years as i continue reflecting and tuning it. while my exact pensieve might not work perfectly for you, it’ll hopefully inspire the beginnings of (or improvement of) your own pensieve.

step zero: figure out how you best break/ build habits.

as with any kind of change, the biggest prerequisite here is the ability to break old habits and build new ones. i can throw all sorts of productivity and efficiency tips at you all day errday, but it’s not going to make a difference unless you understand yourself and how to make changes stick (i can address this topic in a different post). for now, i’ll assume you’re the kind of person who’s already adept at this sorta thing.

step one: if it doesn’t warrant your immediate attention, put it in your brain dump.

i do my best to pay full attention to whatever i’m working on or whoever i’m talking to at the time. like dumbledore, i defend against distractions by siphoning those excess thoughts and pouring them into my brain dump.

my brain dump is the one place i jot down things i want to revisit later. some people call this a ‘single capture device’ because it’s the one, single place you go to when you need to remember some piece of information or action item. one place. one.

i can’t emphasize this enough: using ONE dumping ground is crucial!!11!1!

the point of the pensieve is to minimize the amount of stuff cluttering up your mind. you don’t want to drain your brain on silly things like trying to remember where you wrote down the thing you wanted to remember. if you use one precious place to hold your thoughts, you’re less likely to lose track of them. and if you know you have one trusted place to go to when you’re ready to get back to those thoughts, you’ll feel safer letting them go while you attend to something else.

my brain dump is so important and useful to me that it’s the second thing i open up the most on a daily basis (if you’re curious, my calendar is number one).

so what do non-gails use for their brain dump?

i’ve seen people use a file or note within sublime text, google docs, evernote, quiver, bear, or a section in a physical notebook. any of these will work; i chose not to use them for various reasons (see step three). what works best for you will depend on what tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

what do non-(non-gails) use for their brain dump?

my favoritestestestest tool for my brain dump (and extended brain in general) is simplenote. more specifically, i use a note within simplenote titled brain dump for my brain dump.

what gail dumps

here’s a screenshot of my current brain dump:

a screenshot of my current brain dump

this dump contains all sorts of stuff: a video to watch, articles to read, things to research, ideas to execute on later, and a bathroom code. each item happens to be one line right now, but i’ll often have several sentences or even a whole set of impromptu meeting notes in this space.

when gail dumps

if i’m in the middle of doing something else or just don’t want to devote a bunch of attention to the thing right now, i’ll move it to my brain dump. for example:

  • when i’m talking to someone and they tell me about something i want to check out later (simplenote’s speed minimizes the amount of time i spend with my eyes on a screen instead of on the other person’s face. because it’s so fast, i don’t feel super rude saying, “hang on, let me write this down real quick” because i know it’ll actually be real quick)

  • when i hear a song in a lyft and want to listen to it later

  • when i have an idea but am not ready to flesh it out at the moment

  • when i eat something super delicious at a restaurant and want to order it again in the future

  • when i’m walking around the city and see an ad for a service i want to check out later

  • when i need to pick up a few specific groceries

  • when someone asks me a question that i want to make sure i answer later

how gail dumps

let go of perfectionism.
knowing that my brain dump is for my eyes only, i don’t bother correcting typos or format my notes in a specific way. when i’m in a rush, i usually write the minimum number of words for me to remember whatever it is i want to remember. when i go back and read it later and think, what is this nonsense?, i’ll just google it and most times will be like, ohhh yeahhhhhh. that’s why i wrote that down.

add new items to the top.
in some cases, i’ll find that chronology is helpful, so i generally add new items to the top of the note. (there’s nothing wrong with adding them to the bottom if you want; i just prefer the top because i’m already in the habit of scanning for new items at the top of my email.)

step two: commit to triaging your brain dump on a regular basis.

a long list of unrelated thoughts isn’t really useful until you do something with it. schedule time on your calendar for triaging your brain dump and commit to doing it at least once a week.

looking at my brain dump pretty frequently (multiple times a day) prompts me to take action, so the important stuff ends up clearing out on its own anyway. this means that the lower priority notes are the only ones that start piling up.

during weekly triage time, my goal is to take my mishmash of thoughts and organize them. by the end of the triage session, my brain dump is back to a clean slate. in practice, i look at each item and:

  • if it’s an action and

    • it’ll take less than two minutes —> i’ll do it right now

    • it needs to be done soon-ish —> i’ll schedule it on my calendar

    • it should be done upon some sort of trigger (e.g., next time i need to order glasses) —> i’ll move it to my list of triggers within my extended brain

    • i’m not sure when i want to do it —> i’ll move it to my toDo list within my extended brain

  • if i can’t imagine realistically doing anything with it in the future —> i’ll delete it

  • if it’s information i want to hold onto for later —> i’ll move it to my extended brain

step three: set up your extended brain.

choosing simplenote (or some other information-storing/ note-taking app)
my brain consists not only of my squishy grey and white bits but also all the places i’ve tucked away information to be retrieved at a later time. one of the coolest things about our brains is that we can recall a bunch of unrelated things really quickly without thinking too much about it. for example, try answering these questions:

  • when were you born?

  • what’s the capital of the united states?

  • what are the colors of the rainbow?

  • what fruit is wine typically made out of?

none of the answers have anything to do with each other, but you were probably able to answer them relatively quickly. neat! when developing my extended brain, i wanted to mimic this phenomenon as closely as possible. so when searching for an app to help store most of my knowledge, i evaluated each on:

  1. speed

  2. search and/or filters

  3. tags/labels (versus folders)

simplenote scored top marks on all three categories and knocked it out of the park with its speed and super clean minimal interface alone.

there’s virtually zero loading time when i need to jot something down on my phone, and there’s maybe a two-second delay for the time it takes for a note i typed on my phone to sync and appear on my laptop. search results load instantly, and finding what you’re looking for becomes even faster when using tags.

the interface isn’t littered with a buncha words and icons and photos and colors and formatting and other distractions. this means simplenote helps limit my attention to what’s important -- taking notes, organizing them, and accessing them.

i love love love simplenote, but this doesn’t mean everyone should necessarily use it. figure out what’s most important to you and evaluate a few different tools based on that criteria. will an ugly tool discourage you from using it? then find something aesthetically pleasing. will a super slow tool discourage you from using it? then find something lightning quick. does a wall of plain text without images hurt your soul? first off, i’m surprised you made it this far in this post, and second, you should find something that allows you to insert images or mess with the fonts.

so how do you use simplenote to store your mumbo jumbo?

one of the beautiful things about simplenote is that i can use it like one gigantic list of lists where some of those lists are actually just lists of more lists.

before i explain further, here’s what you need to know about simplenote:

  • the most basic thing you can do with simplenote is create a note.

  • by default, the first line of each note becomes its title.

  • you can assign zero or more tags to each note.

  • there are three panes within simplenote; from left to right:

    • a list of tags

    • a list of notes associated with the current tag

    • a note

if all the raindrops were lemondrops and gumdrops, oh what a rain that would be!

i use tags as broad categories that help me group together various combinations of notes in meaningful ways. for example:

  • i use the MASTER tag for any notes that i update on a frequent basis. this tag is attached to notes like my brain dump, a list of questions i use to help me prep for meeting with new people, a dump for work-related thoughts/ notes, or a list of favorite quotes.

  • i use the books tag for all notes or quotes associated with books i’ve read.

  • i use the ideas tag for notes dedicated to (durh) ideas.

  • i use the weeklyReview tag for notes containing my weekly review notes.

  • i use the toDo tag for any notes containing stuff i might potentially want to do in the future.

since you can apply multiple tags to a single note, tags are an easy way to quickly view a list of notes that are related to each other. for example, i have a note called toArt that contains ideas for potential art projects. this note is tagged with both toDo and art so that it shows up whenever i open up the toDo or art tags. you can create as many tags as you want, and you can attach as many tags to a single note as you want.

multiple people have jokingly asked me whether i keep a list of lists. in fact, i do.

beyond simplenote

while i use simplenote to store most things, there are other places that just make much more sense in specific situations. i think of organizing information the way i organize my home: whenever possible, i try to minimize the distance between where the information lives and where i would actually use that information. i don’t store my toilet paper in the kitchen, nor do i store my list of books to read in simplenote.

for example, i listen to music using spotify. when i’m ready to explore new music, i won’t pull up a list of songs i wrote down in simplenote and enter them one at a time in spotify; i just start playing my toListen playlist. my workflow looks like this:

  • someone recommends a song to me but i’m not ready to listen just yet.

  • if i’m in a hurry, i’ll add it to my brain dump. when it’s triage time, i’ll move the song to a playlist in spotify called toListen (instead of moving it to another place within simplenote).

  • if i’m not in a hurry, i’ll take the time to open up spotify and add the song directly to my toListen playlist.

  • when i’m ready to listen to new music, i start playing toListen on spotify.

where else do i store things?

  • instapaper for articles i want to read later

  • the save for later section of my amazon cart for stuff i might want to buy in the future from amazon

  • goodreads for books i might want to read later

  • google maps for specific places i want to visit

  • a single google spreadsheet for any kind of thing that works better in spreadsheet format. for example, within that spreadsheet, i have tabs/sheets called:

    • 32char, which i used to use to track food items i ate at various restaurants

    • wage modeling, which i used to compare total compensation from different job offers

    • krav, which i use to track which parts of the krav maga curriculum i’ve learned

    • llama sessions, which i used to help organize a no small talk party

    • croatia cycling, which i used to calculate my biking distance and time in croatia

  • calendar event descriptions for anything relevant to the event

    • if it’s a meeting, then agenda items or links to meeting notes

    • if it’s at a place i’ve never been to before, then arrival instructions (e.g., “turn left at the green gate and text 555.555.5555 when you arrive”)

    • if it’s an airbnb, then the check-in/check-out info, lock box codes, and wifi info

    • if it’s a performance, then the venue, set list, and dress code

step four: search your extended brain.

all the hard work you put into developing your brain extension will go to waste if you don’t actually use it (much like your biological brain). at the beginning of this post, i listed three types of information i actively try to store in my brain. the third item, how to access all other information i may potentially need in the future, is what enables me to answer questions and get things done faster than i normally would.

google, but for gail
i think of my extended brain as a deeply personalized version of google. when i need objective facts and information, i’ll google it. i don’t really think about where to look; i automatically start entering keywords into chrome’s address/ search bar and go.

i’ve developed the same habit with my extended brain. when i need information dependent on my particular desires, tastes, opinions, etc., i open up simplenote and start searching.

welp. practice makes perfect.

setting up my extended brain took a lot of time and energy, but it’s also enabled me to track and work on a zillion projects simultaneously, minimized the amount of time i spend looking for stuff, and lowered my stress levels.

one awesome side effect is that i reduce the amount of work i repeat. sometimes it’s easy to accidentally repeat work i’ve already done because i either lost the results the previous time or don’t remember that i already did it. for example, sometimes i’ll be in the mood to do some writing, but then i’ll start to feel demotivated as i start thinking ionno what to write about. as soon as i open up my toWrite note containing a list of gail-curated ideas, i pat past-gail on the back for saving present-gail from having to go through the exercise of generating ideas again.

like all skills, the more you practice using your pensieve/ extended brain, the easier (and faster) it becomes.

tidy up your browser tabs with OneTab

i have a habit of opening up many more browser tabs than i can handle in one sitting, especially when i’m comparison shopping or researching a topic. when i can’t see the title of each page at the top of my window, i end up playing an annoying game of guess-and-click that leaves me feeling irritated, disorganized, and overwhelmed.


my quick fix for the last several years has been OneTab.

OneTab is a browser extension that lives to the right of the address bar.


clicking the OneTab button immediately vacuums up all unpinned tabs, resulting in a clean browser, a faster experience, and a happy gail. ahhhh. so nice and tidy.

but, gail, are you crazy? i can’t just close all my tabs!!!! i’ll lose all my cat video links!!!!!!!

yes, i am crazy, and yes, you CAN close all your tabs unless you’re some sort of dumb.

OneTab will save all your cat video links and whatever else in a single page. wowowow. so good.


things i love about OneTab:

  1. speed. i don’t have to take the time and cognitive effort to manually inspect each tab before deciding whether or not to close it; i just click one button and trust that everything will be saved.

  2. organization. OneTab groups your open tabs by session (e.g., if i open up a zillion tabs about oysters today and a mole of tabs about rosé tomorrow, my oyster tabs will show up in one group and my rosé tabs will show up in another).

  3. access. (if i’m insane) i can immediately reopen all zillion oyster tabs with one click of the Restore All link.

  4. easy triage. if i only want to open up a couple oyster tabs, i can click on their links directly and they’ll disappear from my OneTab page. if opening up those couple of oyster tabs gives me the info i need and the rest of the zillion tabs are now irrelevant, i can immediately delete all of them with one click of the Delete All link. or if i decide only a couple of links are now irrelevant, i can easily delete them one at a time by x-ing them out.

reasons i suspect people don’t use OneTab:

  1. aversion to change (can’t help you there)

  2. aversion to learning new things (dude, this is so easy my cat can use it)

  3. they use internet explorer LOL (i got 99 problems and ie ain’t one)

but srsly this is so freakin’ fast and easy to use. do it already.

my favorite managers

disclaimer: the opinions and views expressed here are entirely my own and do not express the opinions nor views of my employer.

when friends are looking for a new job and are about to sign an offer, i find myself routinely dispensing the same advice: interview your future manager before you commit.

i remember when one of my managers announced he had too many reports and would be sweeping me under some other manager who’d never managed anyone before. “any concerns?”

young and naive 23-year-old me shrugged, “i don’t really know what would be changing or how it affects me, so… nope! seems reasonable.” 

new manager turned out to be my worst. manager. ever. 

welp, lesson learned.

after leaving that team, i miraculously landed my favorite manager ever. they taught me the importance of working for an excellent manager, and i’ve (unfairly?) held every subsequent manager to their standard.

it recently occurred to me that my experience working for/with a zillion managers is unusual. i’ve run into a buncha folks who don’t really know what a good (or bad) manager looks like because they’re either new grads, have stuck to the same 1-2 managers their entire career, or are typical silicon valley young executives who’ve always been at the top of the food chain and have never been managed by anyone before. 

in the startup world, you don’t need stellar management skills to survive through seed stage and series A. after all, there are very few employees to manage, and company goals are (ideally) very focused. but as the company grows, so, too, does product complexity, and a need for organizational structure/ hierarchy emerges. management skills suddenly become important, as things that weren’t as much of a thing before (like employee retention) suddenly become a thing. 

i’ve worked directly with and been managed by more managers than most people (the result of somewhat frequent job switching and working in support roles for execs (…and sometimes the job switching was motivated by escaping bad managers who showed no signs of improving at an acceptable rate)). i’ve observed what works and what doesn’t work. i’ve played therapist to colleagues who can’t stand their managers. i’ve talked extensively to friends who are unhappy and burned out but are fiercely loyal to their managers. 

so. maybe my observations will be useful to new managers and to people who’ve never experienced being managed by an awesome manager. i tend to skim and roll my eyes at articles that focus on generic traits (“three surprising traits of successful leaderslololol) as i’ve never seen ambiguous actually help anyone change their behavior, so instead i’ll focus on concrete specific examples. whee.

my favorite managers…

were accessible. 

they responded to my IMs and emails within a reasonable timeframe and were always willing to chat in person whenever i needed it (not that i needed it very often). this meant that 1) they never blocked my progress for very long, 2) i always felt supported by them like some sort of psychological security net.

set up regular 1:1s and were happy to chat as long as i needed.

we never used my regular 1:1s to primarily talk strategy or execution — those were scheduled as separate meetings. instead, 1:1s were used to understand the things that can be easily overlooked. am i overworked? do i have any concerns about the team? am i bored? are my projects aligned with my ideal career trajectory? do i have any feedback for them? employee retention is much easier when warning signs are spotted early on and you can have a dialogue about how to get things back on track.

proactively discussed my career development.

they cared from the get go about my career goals. they’d point out where i was doing well and where my work/ behavior differed from their expectations. they’d look ahead to where i wanted to be in 6-12 months and would continuously present or create opportunities to help me get there. 

cared about me as a person.

they convinced me that my health and my happiness genuinely mattered to them and that they wanted the best for me. this started by getting to know me as more than just an employee and investing the time and energy to understand me as a gail as well. who are the important people in my life? what do i like doing outside of work? what values drive my decisions? what would cheer me up after a stressful day?

removed as many obstacles as they could for me.

common obstacles included other higher ups, pending decisions, money, and incomplete knowledge.

always coupled action items with timeframes.

me: i’m blocked on x until you do y.
awesome manager: ah yes, i’ll do y by end of day tomorrow.


awesome manager: i need your help with x. it’s not urgent, so anytime in the next two weeks is fine by me.
me: got it. x will be done within two weeks.

did what they said they’d do when they said they’d do it.

if my awesome manager promised they’d do something by end of day, 90% of the time, i knew i could count on them to do it by end of day. the other 10% of the time, they wouldn’t actually do it, but would at least communicate to me their new timeline by end of day.

okay managers might not have as awesome a ratio as 9:1, but were consistent enough in their behavior to be predictable. if you always complete something in double the time you say you’ll complete it, then i can mentally adjust for your lag in an accurate fashion. in other words, if you say you’ll do something by end of day, i’ll plan around you having it done in two days.

shielded me from politics so i could focus on my work.

for example, if i was assigned a project that another team wasn’t necessarily happy about, my manager would do a few things: reassure me i was working on the right thing, remind me i have their support, and would go deal with the unhappy outsiders who were trying to squash the project.

they’d say things like:

  • “feel free to blame me if they get upset”
  • “point them to me if they have questions about why we’re doing this”
  • “make me the bad guy”

made me feel heard.

they’d practice active listening and could repeat what i’d said in their own words. if i expressed concerns or frustration about something, they’d acknowledge my input and—depending on the situation—would tell me what actions they’d take to address it (even if that action was “i need to think about it more carefully and come up with something”), would explain why things are the way they are, or help me think through how to solve my problem. 

practiced radical candor.

they were direct in their feedback but delivered it in a compassionate way; think brutal honesty, except replace the brutality with tact.

the worst managers would passive aggressively phrase commands as questions without context. “is <stuff> enough?” really meant “i disagree with you and don’t think <stuff> is enough. i have my reasons, but instead of being straightforward about them, i’m instead going to make you think i don’t trust you and test you and see if you know what my reasons are. the right answer i’m looking for is so obvious that only an idiot could miss it: <stuff> is not enough.” 

a much more effective form of communication is to be direct with curiosity and without judgment: “i’m not sure <stuff> is enough. here’s why. if i’m missing something, can you help me understand your reasoning for <stuff> this time?”

left their ego at the door.

great managers have little trouble admitting when they’re wrong or aren’t 100% sure of the right answer. awesome managers do this in a way that doesn’t shake anyone’s confidence in their leadership.

bad managers let their insecurities erode their relationships with their team. they’re preoccupied with their pride and image and don’t understand that people don’t care if you make mistakes (as long as you learn from them). this compromises trust and allows nub-stimulaters (more commonly known as brownnosers) to get ahead.

never asked me to do specific tasks. 

here’s the gist of problem-solving:

  1. identify problem
  2. generate solutions
  3. evaluate solutions and pick one
  4. execute on solution

the bestestestest managers looped me in at step two (generate solutions) and expected me to engage in step one (identify problem) alongside them. they’d present me with problems, ask me to solve them, and then trust me to go and do it. or they’d have me sit in meetings as an extra brain to look out for problems they might’ve missed. this meant i always had the agency to get things done in whatever way i deemed fit so long as i produced a solution that fit the bill. this also meant i always knew why i was doing what i was doing and allowed me to build a better mental model of the kinds of things my manager cared about.

my not-so-favorite managers looped me in at step four (execute on solution). “put the names from this document into this spreadsheet.” no context. just do it. there’s no way i can evaluate whether this task is worth my time because i have no idea why i’m doing it. this is pretty much the definition of micromanagement, but at least if i keep my mouth shut and just do the task, they can’t fault me for obeying their direct order.

the worst managers didn’t know wtf they were doing and would loop me in at step three (evaluate solutions and pick one). this was confusing as fuck. “gail, i want you to do this. or, actually, this other way might work, too. or even this third way. well, whatever you want.” how am i supposed to evaluate the tradeoffs for each solution if you haven’t even given me context on the problem i’m supposed to solve or the goal we’re trying to achieve? these managers expected me to execute on every solution and present them the results for each. if i executed on one solution only, they’d pause and think and ask, “what does it look like if you do it the other way i mentioned?” … cue table flip. don’t make me do more work because you’re not decisive enough to pick a solution and too paranoid to give me full context on the problem.

shared their priorities with me and trusted me to prioritize my own work accordingly.

if i’m working on four projects but can only make progress on two of them this week, then i’m going to work on what i believe are the two most important projects. if my idea of what’s most important doesn’t line up with my team’s or company’s priorities, then that means i’ve prioritized my work incorrectly and have just set my team and company back.

the more visibility i have into my manager’s priorities, the better i can prioritize and plan my own work. the best managers have their shit together: they’ve set their priorities and communicate them to their underlings.

up next: interviewing your potential future manager

(would that be useful?)

new norms

i've been thinking a lot lately about:

  • how often i silently forgive others for being inconsiderate or thoughtless or abrasive because i know it's not their intention
  • whether i should care that people seem to expect a low level of competency from me by default and whether i should do anything about it
  • how i now flinch when i hear the words 'passionate' and 'ambition' and 'impact'

wouldn't it be lovely if we...

  • answered 'what do you do?' with what we love to do instead of what we do to pay the bills?
  • complimented girls by praising their character instead of their looks or their obedience?
  • asked each other 'how are you?' and meant it?
  • were (system 1) impressed by those who are kind and generous instead of those with power and status?
  • defined the success of a relationship by what we learned and how we grew from it rather than whether it ended?
  • humanized those who are different from us by default instead of only when we're called out on it?
  • stopped perpetuating the notion of finding our other halves / finding someone who completes us? (thank you, alanis morissette, for inspiring eleven-year-old me with the lyric: i don't wanna be your other half; i believe that one and one make two.)
  • put as much effort into nurturing our friendships as we do into our careers?
  • had kids because we want to populate the earth with compassionate and loving humans and not because it's a thing we're expected to do?
  • saved the world by improving our interactions with other people rather than enslaving each other to solve problems with much lower impact?