Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Take a break, and examine Jaime Teevan’s Microsoft analysis on working much less

Jaime Teevan
Jaime Teevan is a technical advisor to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Dan DeLong Photo)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is famous for creating a culture of workaholics in the early days of the software giant. He tracked the comings and goings of employees by memorizing people’s license plates, for instance.

Jaime Teevan is an acclaimed principal researcher at the company, and in her latest role, she’s serving as technical advisor to the current CEO, Satya Nadella.

Since you’re possibly avoiding work while reading this, you should know Teevan — our latest Geek of the Week — is also an advocate for finding smarter ways to make the most of a worker’s time, and she believes in the positive impact that breaks and recovery have on productivity.

Teevan led the productivity team at Microsoft Research AI and has published hundreds of award-winning research papers, technical articles, books, and patents, and given keynotes around the world. Her research earned her the Technology Review TR35 Young Innovator, Borg Early Career, Karen Spärck Jones, and SIGIR Test of Time awards.

She holds a Ph.D. from MIT and a B.S. from Yale, and is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

But enough about work!

“My favorite breaks are social  — chatting in the hallway with a colleague, texting my husband, and checking in with friends on Facebook,” Teevan said. “Of course, while Facebook makes for an awesome quick break, it carries with it the risk that I will get sucked in and never return to work. We did some research on this recently, and found that if we insert microtasks into a person’s Facebook feed it can actually help ‘distract’ them back to work. For example, I might see a microtask asking me to edit a sentence in a document I’m writing in between Conor’s baby update and a picture of what Brooks had for dinner last night. After I edit a few sentences within the context of my Facebook feed it’s very likely I’ll just open the document and start editing there.”

As for that famous Gates work ethic at her company, Teevan said disengaging from work improves our quality of life, makes us less stressed, and helps us feel happier.

“It’s not that hard to convince yourself to do something that feels good,” she said.

And if the perception where you work is that working all the time is encouraged, recognize that the “permeable boundary between work and life” can go both ways, she said.

“Bring your work home if you need to, but also bring the space to recharge into your work day without feeling guilty about it.”

Check out a recent article and a recent podcast, and read ahead to learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jaime Teevan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I am passionate about using technology to help people work less but accomplish more. As a researcher at Microsoft Research I did this by studying how people get things done, developing new algorithms to make them more productive, and publishing the impact of these algorithms in academic articles. My research showed that it is possible to break many common tasks down into smaller pieces and use AI to automate the repetitive parts so that people can focus on the pieces where their unique insights matter most. I recently moved from Microsoft Research to the Office of the CEO, where I now serve as Technical Advisor to Satya Nadella. I look forward to furthering this work in my new role, but expanding upon it in the broader context of all of the ways that Microsoft can impact the world.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Breaks are an important part of being productive, and we all have an intrinsic need for rest, recovery, and balance. Research shows we are more productive at work when we prioritize small breaks in our day and successfully detach from work in the evening, especially when we are stressed, have a high workload, or are overloaded.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “Scientists learn about the world through observation; as a computer scientist, I learn by observing people interact with computers. I find inspiration when people behave unexpectedly, because it means there is something new to discover there. For example, many years ago when analyzing our search query logs I was surprised to see that people often issue the same query over and over again rather than searching for new information. This led me to spend several years studying repeat search behavior, and I was able to eventually build on this unexpected behavior to create our very first personalized search experiences.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “A search engine. The petabytes of information available online is useless without a way to make sense of it. And our ability to intelligently sift through all of this information will become increasingly natural (via new interaction modalities like natural language, speech, and augmented reality) and actionable (via the ability to make intelligent inferences and integrate with the real world) as computing transforms around us.”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Probably the most unique aspect of my office is that I have a treadmill instead of a chair at my desk. Everyone who visits asks if it is hard to walk and work at the same time, but I find it very natural. We know sitting all day can be bad for you, and I’ve read research studies that show that you are more creative when you walk, but, honestly, I use the treadmill because it is easier to walk than stand. I still have a nice place to sit by the window when I’m tired of walking, though.”

Jaime Teevan
Forget walking to work. Try walking at work, like Jaime Teevan. (Microsoft Photo)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Be intentional about transitions. People tend to focus only on the tasks at hand and ignore what they need to do to get started or wrap up – and, as a result, often fail to actually start or to successfully move on to the next task. There are tricks you can use to make your transitions easier. For example, you can make it easier to return to work after a break by leaving yourself a note outlining a specific simple starter task (e.g., re-word one bullet point in one slide). Our research shows that these starter tasks will often draw you into the larger task (e.g., editing the slide deck’s flow) in a way that just trying to start the task wouldn’t. You can also develop habits to help yourself disengage from work when you want to focus on other things. For example, our research shows that if you spend time reflecting on your priorities during your commute home you’ll do less work at home — and be more productive at work the next day.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows, of course.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard (although I’m more into fantasy).”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time Machine. Given the power to reverse causality, I can’t imagine choosing anything else.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Politely decline. I wouldn’t want to give up the opportunity I have where I am right now to help Microsoft have a positive impact on the world.”

I once waited in line for … “Molly Moon’s ice cream. Salted caramel with hot fudge, yumm … ”

Your role models (And why?): “Researchers who push the boundaries of artificial intelligence and use it to make human intelligence shine, including: Susan Dumais, Eric Horvitz, Mary Czerwinski, Lili Cheng, Jennifer Chayes.”

Greatest game in history: “Charades.”

Best gadget ever: My electric foot warmer, because nothing is better than crawling into a warm bed at night.

First computer: “Apple IIe.”

Current phone: “Samsung Galaxy S7.”

Jaime Teevan
Jaime Teevan, away from work. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Teevan)

Favorite app: “The SwiftKey keyboard, which uses AI to make text entry easier. SwiftKey makes it possible for me to get a lot more done from my phone than you might expect.”

Favorite cause: “Diversity and inclusion in tech. To push the boundaries of what is possible we need to draw inspiration from every possible source, and diverse teams are fundamentally smarter and more creative. Selfishly, I also just want to work with an interesting range of people. As a mother to four young children, I am particularly passionate about helping researchers integrate parenthood into their academic careers. I have written several articles about conference travel with children and worked with conference organizational committees to implement better support for attendees with families.”

Most important technology from last year: “The cloud. Yeah, I know I seem late to the game with this answer, but this past year was the first year where I truly broke away from my desktop computer. Suddenly it became possible to seamlessly access the information I needed to be productive irrespective of the device I was on.”

Most important technology of the coming year: “I think we’re going to see microproductivity take off in the coming year. Most of the chunks of time we have in a day are just too short to even bother trying to get anything done. Think of the time you spend waiting for a meeting to start, riding in an elevator, or standing in line. We try to defrag our time by booking meetings with ourselves, turning off our phones, and taking email vacations. But rather than fighting fragmentation by changing how we work, we can embrace it by changing our tasks to fit the way we actually do work.

“The science behind actively managing our fragmented attention has gotten quite sophisticated, but at the moment it is primarily used to manipulate us; the casual gaming industry and social media thrive on drawing us in and keeping our attention. But intelligent attention management can be used to our advantage to help us focus on the things we care about.

“With microproductivity, our tools algorithmically break small microtasks off from our larger productivity tasks and surface them in the right context so we can complete them when we would otherwise just be killing time. What’s more, as we do these microtasks the system can learn from the data we provide to start assisting us or even automating the microtask entirely. The transformation of work into microwork will change when and how people work, and enable individuals and artificial intelligence to work together to efficiently and easily complete complex tasks.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Every now and then step back and look broadly at what you do. New technology will almost always impact people and society in unexpected ways, because we operate in a messy, nuanced, social world. A broad perspective is necessary to understand how technology can be applied to make the world a better place.”


Twitter: @jteevan 

LinkedIn: Jaime Teevan 

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