Practicing Essentialism in the Tech Industry

8 minute read


Hello readers! It’s been a long time since I posted on this blog. Years, actually. During that time, I finished my PhD at UC Berkeley and started working at Pinterest. It was an adjustment, to say the least. I traded my 10 minute walk to campus for an hourlong bus ride across the Bay Bridge; freedom to work from anywhere with Wifi for butt-in-chair from nine to five; the pursuit of knowledge for the pursuit of measurable business impact.

At the beginning, it still felt like academic work in some ways. I did data analyses on my own, munging tables in Jupyter notebooks for hours. That feeling dissipated as I gained more responsibilities. Today, I am the tech lead of a group with 2 other data scientists. My time is split 50/50 between my own work and “tech lead” work, overseeing our group’s progress towards goals and unblocking the others so they can do their best work. With more responsibility comes more meetings, more interruptions, and more work infringing on the 50% of time I’m supposed to spend on my own projects.

A few months into tech leading, my mental health was in the trash. I was perpetually stressed and felt like no matter how much I worked, it was never enough. It bled into my personal life: I wanted to “turn off” and just veg out every night instead of doing other things that normally spark joy. I had a difficult time being present and listening attentively to things not work-related. For the first time in my life, I experienced the Sunday Scaries, which sometimes started as early as Saturday night. I knew something had to change.

I started working with a coach to manage my anxiety and she hit me with a difficult truth: it isn’t the work that’s making you stressed, it’s how you’re thinking about it. I had let my inner perfectionist off her leash and she was dragging me through the mud, leading with the belief that I had to do it all, perfectly, or else people would think I’m incompetent. Anyone would feel stressed out about work if that were their mental model of the world!

Around the same time, I read Essentialism_ by Greg McKeown. The premise is that in order to accomplish the most essential tasks in our lives, we have to say no to everything else. By saying no to all the extra things, we actually give a resounding yes to the most meaningful ones: spending quality time with loved ones, devoting time to our hobbies, and delivering the most impactful projects at work.

Do less, but better. I was sold on this approach to reign in my inner perfectionist, tamp down my stress, and ultimately do better at my job.

Here are 5 ways that I’ve started practicing Essentialism at my job in 2021.

Stop being connected all the time, pt 1: minimize Slack and email distractions

Tech companies have built their products to give us intermittent rewards, in the form of notifications. These intermittent rewards keep us coming back for more, making us hooked on our devices. I hate to admit I’m guilty of this: I feel excited when I pull up Gmail and find a new email.

Without even realizing it, I find myself checking every platform where I might get a notification, on repeat throughout the day. It’s distracting, and 95% of the time, no message I get requires immediate action. If there’s a small question from someone, I feel like I should respond right away “while I remember.” It detracts from what is essential.

Here are a few steps I’ve taken to minimize distracting notifications and my proclivity to check them:

  • I deleted Slack from my phone. It was convenient when we worked in the office, but now I find that I have no need for it anywhere besides on my work computer.
  • I have a 10 minute limit on email on my phone, using Screen Time for iPhone. I usually spend most of those 10 minutes reading newsletters in the morning, and after that I have to manually override a “Time’s Up” blocker in order to check my email. I still check sometimes, but the blocker forces me to pause and be deliberate.
  • I turned off as many Slack nudges as possible. Here’s a good guide on ways you can reduce notifications from Slack. When I’m focused on something, I try to remember to pause alerts for DMs.
  • I simply close the Gmail tab in my browser. If I see there’s a little (1) in the tab name, I feel compelled to check it immediately. But when I don’t have the tab open, I forget about email altogether for hours. Out of sight, out of mind.

Stop being connected all the time, pt 2: quit checking your email at night

I almost never intend to work after hours. When I do, this doesn’t apply. Otherwise, there’s literally no point in checking emails at night except to ruminate about what you need to do in the morning. Just don’t bother.

Optimize your calendar for focus blocks.

I struggle to start on something if I know I only have a short amount of time to work on it, which presents a problem on days when I have meetings interspersed with 30 minute breaks. I get nothing done besides little tasks, and I don’t touch the essential ones. By deliberately optimizing my calendar for blocks of 2+ uninterrupted work hours, I’ve reclaimed focus time for essential projects.

I signed up for Clockwise, a Chrome extension that optimizes your calendar for focus blocks. You can turn certain meetings on “autopilot” and it will optimize the time of that meeting for all attendees. It’s helpful for 30-minute one-on-one meetings, which can usually be moved to a better time slot.

To protect my time even further, I have blocked off Wednesdays on my calendar and request that people check with me before scheduling Wednesday meetings. There are also org-wide focus blocks during the week on our shared calendar. If someone schedules a meeting during these blocks, I suggest we move it.

Use the Pomodoro method and practice meticulous attention

As I was thinking about ways to reduce my mental clutter, I found this Zen Habits blog post where the author talks about the practice of meticulous attention, an application of mindfulness to work: notice each thing you’re doing as a distinct task, then commit to giving that task your full attention.

To implement a meticulous attention practice for myself, I’ve been using a Pomodoro timer. It divides time into 25-minute focus blocks, with 5 minute breaks in between them. The idea is stupidly simple, but effective: knowing there’s a designated break coming up soon when I can indulge in every distraction that I want motivates me to stay on track during those 25 minutes. I downloaded the Marinara Chrome extension, which pops up a tab when your focus time or break is up.

Set more small goals and checkpoints towards bigger goals

During 2020, my team ran a monthly planning meeting to assign everyone projects for the month ahead. It was difficult to estimate how long tasks would take and to assign an appropriate amount of work for one month. Instead, we often ended up assigning far too much work, with no midpoint milestones and little guidance on how to prioritize.

In 2021, I’ve moved my team to a bi-weekly planning cycle. So far, it seems to be helping us focus on fewer tasks at a given time, while giving us the agility to evaluate progress and strategy more often. Having a smaller number of milestones at any given time is good motivation for me and helps cut down on the perfectionist voice in my head that wants me to do more, now.