Intrinsic motivation, sparks of joy, and time management
How I sustain and approach work-life balance
This is a version of a note I wrote at work as part of a series on Sustainability and Work-Life Balance.
In writing this note, I thought about two things
How do I sustain?
How do I approach work-life balance?
How do I sustain?
It might be an English-as-a-second-language thing, but “sustain” to me sounds a bit like “survive”. And that feels like a low bar to be shooting for; I optimize for thriving :).
Five themes emerged as I thought about “How do I sustain/thrive?”. A meta-theme that emerged is that I leverage the autonomy my employers provide a LOT.
1. I work on things I am intrinsically motivated by.
I work on things I am intrinsically excited about -- things I can’t not work on! These can be questions I am curious about (what would happen if we had humans go through the same processing pipeline we put machines through?), activities I can’t wait to go back to (macrame, origami, generative art), outcomes I want to be a reality (a machine that you can ask questions to about images and it answers, a model that can generate fantastical depictions of creatures), projects I think would be fun to work on (e.g., semantic understanding of clipart scenes), etc.
External validation certainly feels (really) good! But I am not happy when I am optimizing for that. So I don’t. A good number of things I find intrinsically motivating have gotten external validation, so things have worked out (in terms of career trajectory). A lot of things I have worked on haven’t gotten external validation (in research, in generative art, in side-projects), and that’s fine. Partly because I was happy while I was working on them and that’s what I am optimizing for. Partly because those things gave me some new skills, built some muscles, and gave me updated world models -- which is all valuable. And partly because many of those projects created connections with communities I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise (e.g., generative art), or created long-term relationships and collaborations with individuals that I value. So overall, while I am very grateful for the external validation when I got it, I don’t regret doing the things that didn’t get external validation. I did them because I couldn’t not do them!
2. I minimize drag.
I minimize things that don’t bring me joy -- where I am not bringing any value and it is not bringing any value to me. I ruthlessly optimize for this. If I find myself in a meeting where I zone out and think “what am I doing here?”, that’s a trigger for me to take a very careful look at my involvement. Depending on what role I am playing in the effort, it could mean reconsidering the format or cadence of meetings or reconsidering my involvement altogether.
For me, minimizing drag often involves saying no to things that I think would be good for external validation, but I know I am not going to enjoy doing. A recent example: I was invited to be on a panel at a high-visibility event, but I knew I wouldn’t particularly enjoy it, so I said “no”.
On the flip side, I’ll often say yes to things that are somewhat “random” and won’t bring external validation, but I think would be fun to do (e.g., I agreed to do a brief interview with an effort organized by a small Indian publication for Engineer’s Day (I didn’t know that was a thing :)) or where I think I bring value (e.g., I often agree to chat with folks I don’t know who reach out to me looking for advice or perspectives on something). A lot of community-building activities pass this “minimize drag” threshold (with flying colors!) -- because I get joy from bringing value.
I came across this quote by Adam Grant recently that resonated with me. "Saying no frees you up to say yes when it matters most." This brings me to the next theme.
3. I maximize sparks of joy.
In addition to minimizing drag, I also maximize sparks of joy!
On a day-to-day or weekly basis, this includes
No meetings on at least one day of the week
No alarms on weekends and days I don’t have meetings
When I must, setting an alarm no earlier than an hour before my first meeting (yes, this results in >8 hours of sleep on average :), and yes, I have chosen to not have kids :))
Going for a walk with my spouse (Dhruv Batra) in the middle of the day and maybe picking up a coffee (there is high variance, but on average, we manage to do this ~once a week)
Working with Dhruv from a coffee shop on no-meeting days
Long brunches on weekends with a couple of friends with no planned end-time
Dinner with a friend every Thursday
Watching various online art workshops
... I could go on for a while :)
4. I work efficiently, and am intentional about how I spend my time.
I am fairly particular about my calendar. I am a big believer in “how you spend your time is how you spend your life”. I’ve written before about how I manage my time.
I am very cautious about adding meetings to my calendar. For any recurring meetings, can they be one-off with additional instances being as-needed? For one-offs, do we need a meeting or can we connect async? If it is a meeting where most folks are going to be listening, can the presentation be pre-recorded and posted so everyone can watch async, and then answer questions or discuss in comments? If it is clear that the meeting will be valuable, I am more than happy to do it (including recurring ones). I just carefully assess that for each meeting.
On Sunday evenings, if I am not hanging out with friends, I like to look ahead in the week to see if I can spot things I can get done now. Getting them done ahead of time opens the possibility for me to work on art (say) during the week -- and just that possibility sparks joy! It also provides a buffer for any unexpected things that might come up on short notice, which helps keep stress down.
Unless I see the need to be thoughtful about it, I try to get bureaucratic things done as quickly as possible to “get it over with”.
I’ve also written about how I manage email. I apply the same zero-inbox strategy to all communication -- Chat messages and notifications at work, WhatsApp messages, Messenger messages, etc. It annoys me that Twitter and Instagram DMs don’t have an “archive” option :). This plays a big role in keeping communication channels “clean” and uncluttered.
I am a huge fan of bots that let me send delayed messages on chat or email at work. To be honest, I wish there wasn’t this need for folks who like working “odd hours” to find ways to be “quiet” and tiptoe around via these bots. It would be ideal if everyone changed their settings so they don’t get pings in certain hours of their choice. That way everyone can work (or not) freely whenever they like. Both as a matter of principle, but also practically, given that many of the organizations we work at are global. It is not uncommon to have people on the team who have 0 overlap in work hours (e.g., west coast in the US with some countries in Europe). Does that mean all communication on the team needs to be via these bots? (I understand that power dynamics complicate these things, and so "just set your settings as you like" is easier said than done. There is also a good chance I am missing other perspectives here. So I plan to continue tiptoeing when I am working outside of “normal” hours :)).
5. I approach sustainability with a problem-solving mentality.
I keep an eye out for when I feel stressed or am generally not as happy as I’d like to be. I think about it analytically (to the extent that I can) to identify what the source of discomfort is. And I try to think of what I can do to make it better.
When a lot of pings are coming my way -- I pause to think whether they all need to be addressed right away. Can some wait till tomorrow? Can some things planned for tomorrow be done later in the week? I have found this to be highly effective in not feeling overwhelmed.
If something worrisome comes up (e.g., interpersonal conflicts, or a critical approval running into roadblocks), I pause to notice the discomfort. I explicitly assess whether there is something I can do about it in the moment, or if I need to think about it before doing anything. If I can do something about it, I do it and try not to dwell on it till there is an update in the situation. If I need to think about it, I mark my calendar for later in the day or the next day with “think about X” and move on with the rest of my day. “Moving on” doesn’t come naturally to me and is something I have to explicitly remind myself to do. But I’ve been able to build this muscle faster than I expected -- once I did it a couple of times and found that it helped quite a bit, it made it easier to do it in future instances.
I often experiment with different systems and structures. For instance, I have experimented with spreading out meetings across days of the week and packing a couple of days in the week with meetings to see what works well for me.
A “failure” story: I moved to a different part of FAIR in July this year. Over the summer, I still had all my earlier responsibilities and also had a lot going on in terms of setting up a new team and project. Dhruv and I had moved from Menlo Park to San Francisco for a few months. We have several friends who live in SF, and we met quite a few new people. So our social lives were unusually active too. All in all, it was the first time in my life I remember feeling like I was approaching my capacity (for transparency: it hurts my ego a bit to acknowledge that :)). I approached it as “This doesn’t feel right. I don’t like this stress. Let me pause and take a step back. What is going on? Why am I overwhelmed? Why does it feel like I am running out of time before I’ve had a chance to do everything I want in the day? Is it really just too many things? Or am I making things more urgent than they need to be? Am I really running out of time, or does it just feel like it? Am I reacting to situations with stress in ways that are not helpful? Etc.”. I found it very useful to reflect on this every time I felt overwhelmed, and then make tweaks to make it better.
How do I approach work-life balance?
This post is already a bit long. So I’ll keep this second part short.
To be honest, I don't get the phrase “work-life” balance. To me, all of it is life! Life is a portfolio, and work is one part of the portfolio. Why don’t we talk about work-family-friends-hobbies-health-etc balance? Why do we pull just work out, and almost think of it as “anti-life”? I understand that I am privileged to have a job that I do out of interest. In contexts where one works primarily to support the rest of their life, the work-life divide makes sense. But I believe most people I interact with who discuss work-life balance are not doing their job just as a way to support the rest of life. I suppose the reasoning behind the work-life "split" is that studies show we run the risk of burnout by working too much, and we don’t run the risk of burning out by hanging out with friends too much :) I imagine that’s why work gets pulled out? Shellye Archambeau's take on work-life integration (as opposed to work-life balance) resonated with me.
I approach life holistically. Everything I described above applies to all of life. I optimize for thriving in life (not just work). I optimize for being happy in life (not just at work). The proportion of time I spend on work has varied (non-monotonically) over the years. At each point though, it was what it was because it made me happy.
Approaching life in this holistic way has led to it being overall an interesting, rewarding, and fun journey so far! We’ll see how it goes in the future :)
Wow, candid as always! Thanks, Devi, for writing this!
A joyful read. Thanks for sharing your experiences.