Changing priorities

2014 was a year of career challenges, getting swole, traveling, and changing priorities. Let’s take a look at some of the goals I mentioned at the end of 2013 and see how I did.

Staying active

Crossfit

I continued going to Crossfit all year, solidly making it my main workout. I even fundraised for, and completed, my first Crossfit competition, United for Youth 2014, for Westside Athletes Association.

Running

I got a Runkeeper Elite subscription at the beginning of the year, and ran two races: Electric Run (5K) in Sacramento, and ran/walked Bay to Breakers (12K) as Pikachu. I didn’t want to train for longer races because running bores me, even with the Zombies, Run! app or listening to music.

Yoga

I did yoga on and off with the Yoga Studio app a few times a week. In October, I started going to yoga at Giggling Lotus weekly.

One dessert per month

I planned to eat one dessert a month in 2014, with “dessert” encompassing your typical pies, cakes, ice creams, cookies, and the like. I had a solid streak of eating beautiful desserts that I photographed for about the first ten months. I reduced my dessert cravings and no longer wanted the occasional cookie or muffin, “cheap desserts,” I called them, because although they satisfied a sweet tooth, they weren’t worth the sluggishness I felt after eating them. I also realized that there were certain flavors that were consistently worth it, such as berry or apple desserts. I tried a fancy lemon tart that looked nice, but didn’t enjoy it as much as apple pie, which is one of my favorite desserts.

In November though, I started sneaking in small bites of dessert: a spoonful of ice cream, a few chocolate-covered nuts, a taste of an oreo cake. I didn’t want to miss out on trying new desserts or depriving myself of a bite of something I knew I would enjoy. I broke my streak and felt guilty, but I preferred the philosophy of having a bite of a dessert than completely depriving myself. The downside to breaking the streak was that I totally let go in December. I rationalized that, since French macarons were gluten-free and “better” than other desserts, it was okay to snack on several (um, 20 of them) over the course of a week (they were given as gifts, but that’s not an excuse). I ate ice cream when my parents came to town to visit, and ate way more mint chocolate flavored things than I should have.

Whether it was the dessert deprivation kicking in, the holidays, or hormonal cravings, overloading on desserts in December made me appreciate desserts less (and crave them more — I went on a salad binge at the end of the month to reset my system). This experiment has taught me which desserts I should be eating, if at all (the ones that I enjoy most), when to eat them (when occasions present themselves, instead of seeking them out), and how much to eat (the first bite or two is the best and won’t put me in a food coma).

No shampoo method

I tried the no ‘poo method for about three months, adjusting with apple cider vinegar and honey. I stopped because it required me to wash my hair every day, the opposite of the time saver I was hoping for. My hair stayed limp instead of full-bodied. I switched back to Organix Coconut Milk Shampoo & Conditioner and a blow dryer, and haven’t looked back since.

Learning something new every month

I was supposed to focus on DJing and creating mashups in January, but I ended up also learning some D3 for work and taking urban/street photography courses on Skillshare in the same month. I didn’t like the structure of having a month to learn something without having a clear project or goal in mind, so I changed the monthly schedule to something more fluid and on an as-needed basis.

Over the course of the year, I’ve learned a few skills this way: how to operate a photography business, I started taking advanced Chinese speaking classes, I learned violin basics from a friend, and I took up needle felting. I’ve also decided that maintaining skills were just as important, so am using Duolingo to review my Spanish and French, and have been playing the piano on and off as well.

Build design network

I went to a few meetups but found the majority of them to be of low quality. Either the socialization was in a bar, which is a suboptimal environment for having conversations because they’re so loud and crowded, or the presenters were not very insightful. The most success I’ve had was keeping in touch with existing designer friends and organizing smaller events among them or talking one-on-one about specific issues. In terms of finding a mentor, I ended up getting a lot of great advice from people at a firm that contracted with my startup. I benefited the most from having design feedback, so I sought that out specifically.

Take a photo/video every day

This habit also lasted about four months before I felt like I was forcing myself to do something I didn’t enjoy or believe in anymore. The decision to stop this habit coincided with my photography business taking off, mentioned later.

I started a San Francisco Stairway Photo Walk meetup as a way to bridge urban/street photography, building a photography network, and taking photos on a regular basis.

Other updates

Traveling

Nick and I wanted to start a family in the later part of the year, so we went on two international trips to “get it out of our system”. I’ve never been more fit in my life, and backpacking to Machu Picchu was one of the things on my bucket list, so we decided to do the 5-day Salkantay Trek. It was as grueling and painful as it was majestic, and made me appreciate nature and fitness even more. Our limiting factors were not our strength or endurance but our knees and feet. Walking downhill for 8-9 hours a day has left me with patellofemoral pain that lasted for months after the trip, and Nick’s recovering stress fractures in his feet almost made us want to quit after the first day. Thankfully, we were able to rent a horse for all of the second day, giving us a break on our weakest points of the trip.

For our second trip, we went to Japan with Nick’s startup cofounders Scott and George plus George’s wife, Becca. We were all good friends who appreciated Japanese culture and cuisine, so we took a 1.5-week trip exploring Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Unlike our unstructured Mexico/Guatemala trip in 2011, we didn’t fare so well in Japan trying to be flexible, as we missed out on a lot of things we wanted to do and places we wanted to eat at because we didn’t research or plan them out in advance. This group also had different travel styles and interests, so each of us made compromises along the trip. The time difference also meant we were up at 6am even though most breakfast places didn’t open until 10am, and we went to bed earlier, when things were just starting to get interesting in the city.

Starting a family

Our travels ended in early August, and I got pregnant a month later. Nick and I are thrilled and grateful that it’s been a low-risk, healthy pregnancy so far, and we can’t wait to welcome a new member of our family in April/May (we’re not finding out the gender until it’s born)! It’s been fun reading books on childbirth and parenting, and I am constantly in awe of how much my body knows how to do on its own. Right now, we are planning on having an unmedicated home birth, have already hired a doula, and are interviewing midwives.

Photography business

I went to a Women Entrepreneurship Retreat in April as a photographer, and it ended up helping me fully launch my photography business. I had a photoshoot almost every weekend for several months, volunteered with TechInMotion to cover their meetups, and had my first gallery showing. I made about 10x as much revenue as in 2013. A few months into my pregnancy, I decided to reduce the amount of clients I was taking, since certain longer shoots were more tiring and stressful. I still love doing engagement shoots and portraits, and still do photoshoots for my startup.

I’ve learned a few things about starting your own photography business and pricing. If you’re ever interested in starting your own, I’d love to chat!

Freelance design

One of my long-term career goals is to create a viable and remote business so that we can be location independent and travel more. I grew up in several different countries, and would like my children to have the same experience, plus, Nick and I were starting to get tired of being tourists, and wanted to immerse ourselves in a different culture. This is difficult when we are extremely comfortable living in San Francisco with our stable jobs and our networks keeping us connected to career and social opportunities.

While freelance photography makes a great side business, ultimately I want to use my design skills to make the world a better place. I started paying attention to the kind of design work I like to do and finding small opportunities to help my friends with design work to start building a portfolio. I’ve done a website audit, designed a few logos, and am working out a freelance contract for a 3-month project.

2015

Parenting, career, and maintaining habits will be my biggest trends in 2015. Before and after my maternity leave, I plan on growing as a leader at my startup, while starting a freelance project. My photography business will be here if I ever decide to return to it part time, and I imagine I’ll be feverishly documenting my newborn in the meantime. A few habits I’d like to maintain are my piano, guitar, and ukulele skills, as well as my Chinese and French (to a lesser extent). I will continue with prenatal yoga and (scaled) Crossfit for as long as I can, and will return to Crossfit as soon as I reasonably recover from childbirth.

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A time for speeding up

In my last post, I talked about slowing down, reflecting, and experimenting as a way to overcome feeling stuck. The two main insights I got from that were 1) I need to be proactive about improving the skills that are important to me, and 2) being proactive in creative ways makes me more motivated.

Since then, one area I got unstuck was physical activity. I had never been athletic, and attempts at exercising usually fail within a couple of weeks. I’ve tried taking group classes, scheduling gym time, playing games while at the gym, getting a personal trainer, training for and running a 5k, and doing at-home bodyweight workouts, but nothing stuck for more than a month. In August, I signed up for my local Crossfit gym as a last resort at finding an activity I would love. Four months later, it’s a habit, and not only do I still look forward to going (I just renewed my membership for another 3 months), but I feel restless if I don’t go.

To continue exploring and having fun with health-related pursuits, I’m doing the following this year:

  • Add yoga to my routine. Yoga is an excellent way to recover from an intense Crossfit workout. I attended yoga classes a few times after finding the relaxing and beautifully-designed Giggling Lotus studio where a college friend happened to teach, and for the first time, I felt a need to do yoga on a regular basis. I’m currently using the Yoga Studio iPad app at home, which affords me a flexible schedule without having to think about a commute.
  • Start running again. I stopped running after completing a 5K in the fall of 2012 because running for 30 minutes while listening to music was boring. I went for a run with Nick last Sunday to take advantage of living near the Embarcadero and use the Zombies, Run! app. My Crossfit training increased my endurance to the point where Nick was panting behind me, saying “When did you get in such good shape?” I enjoyed the run because I was fitter than I had been in years. I will experiment with a running schedule on the days I don’t go to Crossfit.
  • Eat dessert just once a month. When Nick did his one-dessert-in-2013 stunt, I thought he was crazy. I would get bummed when he wouldn’t share a dessert with me. But it obliterated his dessert cravings, which became my main reason for trying this. Eating it once a month will still give me some of that sugary enjoyment (but sparingly) without feeling like I’m quitting it altogether. Plus, I’ll use the opportunity to carefully select and photo the crap out of a beautiful dessert-of-the-month.
  • Experiment with the no shampoo method. Since high school, I’ve had a wide part line and thinning hair that made me feel like I had some nutritional deficiency, with occasional dandruff. This led me to cut my hair shorter and use more natural products in the last couple of years. I heard about the “no ‘poo method” then, but didn’t have the courage to try it until now. So far, it’s been a week with only one wash with baking soda and one wash with just water, and my hair hasn’t clogged the shower drain or fallen out while brushing.

Seeing how experimenting with new habits ripple out to other positive changes, I decided to take a similar approach to furthering my design career. The two main stagnating areas I want to improve are 1) having a strong design network and mentors, and 2) furthering self-directed learning of new and existing creative skills. Here’s what I decided to do this year:

  • Learn something new every month. I get bursts of inspiration to try new things sometimes, such as learning how to play accordion or creating my own mashups of songs. So far, I have the following activities on my list: DJing, hand-lettering, creating generative art, learning Italian, and photographing urban scenes. There is a separate list for advancing skills related to work: typography, data visualization, and interaction design. For each of these skills, I will follow a curriculum, such as watching related videos on Skillshare, an online class, or progressing through an app (e.g., Duolingo for learning Italian). Success is determined by both input and output—studying once a week or more, depending on the skill, and publishing results online at the end of each month.
  • Build a design network. Having mentors and peers you can turn to when you’re stuck helps you move forward faster. Inspired by a conversation with a fellow UX friend, I joined 7 design-related meetups in the Bay Area (attending 3 meetups in January so far). I also signed up for (and am still searching for) various tech or design talks hosted by companies such as Airbnb. I also started the Visualized Self blog to build a network with those interested in my specific field of data visualization in Quantified Self tools.
  • Take a photo (and video) everyday. It took me 3 years of amateur photography before I made a breakthrough and starting producing much better photography. To practice daily, I’m posting one photo per day on my VSCO cam blog (VSCO is like Instagram but hipsterer). To piggyback on the daily photography habit, I’ll be recording one second of video every day for the whole year. The 1 Second Everyday app recently released for Android—it creates a sweet compilation of those daily video snapshots.

I’d love to hear more about your recent pursuits and how you’re planning on furthering them this year!

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A time for slowing down

Last May, I decided to take a year off my PhD after months of struggling to find a research niche, finally finding it, then realizing (with some panic) that I could create a bigger impact in the industry. A summer internship at Google kickstarted the year, justified the expensive move to the Bay Area, and gave me time to become a kickass designer who could land any job she wanted.

I said yes to my dream job when the internship ended, and since then, I rode in the fast lane, swapped research skills for a place in the industry, learned what it’s like to be a designer at a fast-paced startup, said yes to every invitation for a month, got engaged and married (not because of the previous experiment!), and traveled to Paris and China.

During my honeymoon in Yangshuo, my husband and I were drifting peacefully in a bamboo raft down the Yulong River, talking about what it would be like to be a digital nomad and work from anywhere in the world. I realized that I had not lost my wanderlust, and that I would very much like to live in some unknown town while being a freelance designer or photographer, but I was at a loss about how I could make it happen.

Yulong River bamboo rafting

Yulong River bamboo rafting

Part of it was loving my startup. Part of it was not being confident in my skills. It dawned on me that while I was on my career highway, most of what I was doing was reinforcing skills I was already good at. I was not learning new skills as quickly as I wanted, nor was I making big breakthroughs in solving problems in my area of expertise.* When I came back to work, this nagging thought, coupled with a few slow work days, left me feeling uncertain about how to further my career.

For a few days, it felt like there was heavy traffic on my highway. I felt bored with reading about the latest design trends and paralyzed by the choices for self-directed learning. I took breaks by experimenting with new smoothie and ice cream recipes with our wedding gifts, which made me realize that I could not remember the last time that I enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. I was not giving myself permission to slow down, enjoy, and reflect. Likewise, I needed a fresh way of solving design problems. I gave myself permission to take a step back, slow down, and relearn what it meant to be a designer.

I started reading through my blog feeds slowly, instead of scrolling through them all so they would be marked as read. I noticed and appreciated clever, creative solutions to common problems on Co.Design and Kickstarter. I talked to the creative director at work about what he thought I should do. I discovered two new websites, Sketchplanations and 52 Weeks Of UX, that re-opened my eyes to design and sketching, which I had taken for granted and stopped doing. I started sketching and writing again with my favorite pen and notebook instead of Evernote.

Rather than feel frustrated that I hadn’t made breakthroughs and wait for my next break, I recognized that I needed to push through out of the valley of doubt before I could get better at what I did.

Sketchplanation: Get good ideas (getting beyond the getting stuck)

Sketchplanation by Jono Hey: Get good ideas (getting beyond the getting stuck)

I am still working on becoming unstuck, but I blog about this now because we often hear advice from people when they are already successful, not when they are still struggling but learning the most. We hear what worked for them in the end, but not how they dealt with being stuck. This is my reminder that progress doesn’t always come by speeding down the highway to your destination. Sometimes, there will be traffic, but you can still appreciate the slower pace and enjoy the scenery around you.

*I want to create compelling data visualizations that drive behavior change.

Other relevant reading:
IDEO’s project mood chart (skip to the IDEO section)
[Book] So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

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Month of Yes

As part of my goals for the summer, I decided to say yes to every invitation for a month starting May 19th, a few days after I moved to the Bay Area. I wanted to try new things I never thought of trying before, open myself up to serendipity, and satisfy my curiosity about what’s the worst that could happen. I also wanted to practice at least thinking about an invitation positively, rather than auto-responding with ‘no’ just because I might be busy, or didn’t feel like it. The only rule I had was that I couldn’t schedule overlapping events unless it was reasonable to attend both of them within the same timeframe.

The first two invitations were easy (hiking and a pillow fight–not at the same time), but I was surprised at how much more I looked forward to doing them when I deliberately said yes in an effort to welcome new opportunities in my life. Instead of an automatic response or a response meant to appease the invitee, I felt like I was saying yes 100% for me. This is easy, I thought, feeling like I was going to coast along this challenge because my friends have similar interests to me, and so I would never have to do anything terrifying.

WRONG. On the 2nd day after deciding to do this, “what’s the worst that can happen?” manifested itself in the form of a good friend (who didn’t know about my decision) forwarding along a Groupon for skydiving. I’m the kind of person who goes to theme parks to take photos rather than go on roller coasters because I’m such a wimp with heights and speed. I stared at the invitation for probably 20 minutes, silently cursing myself for having made the pact, and changing my mind every 10 seconds about whether I should try skydiving or not.

However, there was a nagging feeling that if I said ‘no’, I would regret it later, or that saying ‘no’ was letting myself off too easy from a goal that was supposedly very important to me. I couldn’t do that to myself, and I didn’t want to make it easier for me to weasel out of future commitments in self-improvement. It’s one of those things that scares you to death, but you know you’ll be fine afterwards. So I took the jump (ha) and bought the Groupon. After a few more days of panicky deliberation.

It was the best scariest decision of my life.

I had my eyes closed for all of free fall >_<

I said yes to several invitations that month, including:

  • Going to an interaction design social meetup. This made me realize that although it was a great networking opportunity, it wasn’t worth the 1.5 hour commute both ways for 30-60 minutes of socialization and starvation. Complex logistics for a recurring event makes it not worth it to go regularly, and that’s okay.
  • Going for drinks with friends visiting town. I almost backed out because timing was wonky, there were going to be a bunch of other people there anyway, and I felt tired that day. But I went anyway, partially motivated by my pact. Serendipity hit and it turns out the place also sold delicious European dark chocolate, and I had a great time catching up and meeting new people. Double score!
  • Playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. I actually liked it and got my own D20.
  • Going to the SF Gay Pride Parade, which was a rockin’ day spent with new friends.
  • Going on an ice cream tour. Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

I had so much fun with this experiment that I continued it for most of the summer. It also inspired me to invite friends to try out new things I’d never done before, such as signing up for a color 5k, and going to a music festival. We even reached a point where we were too busy and couldn’t cram any more fun activities into our weekends, so had to decline a few, which will no doubt make its way into a Month of Yes, Fall Edition.

Coincidentally, my project at Google this summer was working on Schemer, a site that lets you keep track of your bucket list, or things to do before you die (see my list). Working on Schemer and this experiment (especially the skydiving) inspired me to pick a date each year to do something that scares me. Next year: scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Considering that I can’t swim and get minor panic attacks in any large body of water bigger than a kiddie pool, this is a challenge that I reluctantly but excitedly look forward to.

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How I cut my morning routine time in half

Recently, I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, an engaging book on how changing behavior should be done through understanding and tweaking the very basic habits that drive our daily routine. The book talks about identifying one keystone habit that, when built correctly, can ripple out to other changes in our lives.

I decided to take a look at one thing in my daily routine that seems to influence how the rest of my day goes: my morning routine. Normally, I wake up, lie in bed for 15 minutes checking my email on my phone, head over to my desk and grab a tissue while I wake my computer and start responding to emails or checking other things online. Then depending on whether or not I have a morning meeting, I’ll trudge downstairs and make breakfast (the current diet I’m trying calls for eggs, milk, and orange juice), or stay on my computer for another 30 minutes until hunger takes over. It takes me 45 minutes to make breakfast, then another 15 to get dressed and brush my teeth. This means that when I naturally wake up at 8:30am, it takes me about an hour and 15 minutes to get ready in the morning. If I have a 10am meeting, I’m usually rushing to get out the door by 9:30 and barely making it on time to my meeting. On days when I don’t have meetings, I’m ready to start working at 10am.

Now, when I dissected that morning routine, I saw several sub-routines that could be shortened. 1) Checking my email on my phone first thing I wake up. 2) Turning on my computer before breakfast, delaying food intake, which sometimes gives me a headache. 3) Taking 45 minutes to cook, eat, and clean up for breakfast, which is way too long to be spending on 2 fried eggs and 2 drinks.

One thing that stood out to me was how much of a time sink it was to go to my desk right after I wake up. So, I decided to start with a small behavior to change, keeping the same cue that precedes the behavior, and the same reward that follows it: moving my tissue box to the side of the bed instead of on the desk. Now, instead of gravitating towards my desk in the morning, the tissue box takes me a step closer to my clothes drawers.

The tissue box next to the bed, leading to the clothes drawer

Changing that one small behavior for a few days made me feel so accomplished that I started to lay out my clothes the night before, 2 steps from the tissue box. Yesterday morning, I tried to finish (cook, eat, and clean) breakfast in 20 minutes, timing myself. Watching the clock, I wasted no time idling, multitasked, and finished in 16 minutes.

This morning, I had to wake at 7am and be out the door by 8. I spent 5 minutes checking email on my phone, finished breakfast in 15 minutes, and got ready in 15 minutes. I spent some extra time taking care of some household things, and was out the door by 7:45am. Success!

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