On the same day, two similar friends shared two very different articles on Facebook. One talks about how you should embrace your inner workaholic by working more and the other one talks about how you should chill out more and rest more. Though at first these might appear contradictory, it’s interesting that both of these articles are trying to get me to do MORE of something.
Wait? So, if I do more work, I need to do more life to balance the scales?
This kind of made me think about an insight from the Michael Pollan book In Defense of Food. He made the point that government food guidelines always tell Americans to eat more of stuff rather than less of anything (e.g., instead of “eat less red meat,” it was “choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake”). As a result, we are the least healthy country, but one that worries about health the most. Work-life balance might be heading in this direction too: we are told to work MORE, relax MORE, exercise MORE, spend MORE time with family, cook MORE, etc. Even the most common metaphor used to convey work-life balance, the scale, suggests that if we do MORE of one thing, the way to become balanced is to do MORE of another thing. Are we going to become the most stressed country that worries the most about work-life balance? (Are we already?)
I think it might make more sense to think of work-life balance as a diversified portfolio or a balanced meal. Sure, work is good for you, like vegetables! If you’re not doing any at all, you’re probably in trouble. But if all you’re eating is asparagus, that’s probably some sort of a fad diet and it’s not gonna work out either. Bodies can thrive under different diets, but everybody also has to make trade offs — you can’t just eat MORE of everything. In that spirit, I will share the things that I will do less:
Sitting with my computer in my lap — it’s too comfy and somehow gets me to the weirdest corners of the Internet at the oddest hours of the night, which leads to the next thing…
Hitting snooze — not actually restful, just delays the inevitable
Thinking about email — I spend more time NOT answering email (you know, reading it, thinking about it, checking it while out and about) then I do answering it. I’m going to try to the “touch each email once” approach for a bit and see how it goes.
Maybe the old tradition of giving up something for Lent is more on the money than the new tradition of doing more of everything? If you did LESS of something in your life, what would it be?
The ShareTable was my Ph.D. thesis project and the paper about its deployment will be presented at CSCW 2013. Since everything is officially accepted, I thought that I’d give y’all a preview of the paper and summarize a few of our findings. I’m also going to give an overview of our process, which may be helpful to other students who are in the same boat.
A diagram of the system components and photos of the ShareTable in the homes of participants.
We wanted to address two common issues in remote parent-child communication that we discovered through interviews with divorced families: (1) children don’t feel empowered to initiate the interaction and (2) its hard to have a longer interaction because just talking is boring for the child. To address these challenges, we designed and deployed the ShareTable — a system that provides easy-to-initiate videochat and a shared tabletop task space — in four divorced households. We compared the families’ previous communication practices (from a 2-3 week diary baseline study) with their use of the ShareTable system. Throughout the month of its use, the families employed the ShareTable to participate in shared activities, share emotional moments, and communicate closeness through metaphorical touch. The amount of parent-child communication more than doubled for both families because doing activities together was more compelling than just talking. Additionally, children initiated a much greater proportion of conversations over the ShareTable than they had previously done with the phone. However, the ShareTable did also introduce new concerns over privacy and new sources of conflict about appropriate calling practices between the parents. Overall, our experience showed that the combination of videochat and an activity space provided a compelling medium for communication with young children. A similar approach may be useful with other types of geographically-separated families, as well as in supporting children in remote play and learning.
I also wanted to reflect a bit on the whole process. While I was working on this project, I frequently felt frustrated and like things weren’t moving along fast enough. Indeed, there were a lot of times that I ended up backtracking on ideas, rewriting the code (twice completely ), and reconsidering the best way to approach the whole idea. However, reflecting back on it, that’s a kind of progress as well and perhaps that’s what research is all about. Indeed, even in the slowest of years, I made some progress on the overall idea. Sketches (while they almost seemed a waste of time while I was doing them) turned out to be a great way of getting early feedback on my ideas, considering alternatives, and most importantly attracting good people to this project. The design would not have been possible without Stephen Cuzzort, Hina Shah, Hendrik Mueller, Brian Di Rito, and Berke Atasoy. The implementation would not have happened without Stephen Cuzzort, Jee Yeon Hwang, Sanika Mokashi, Shashank Raval, Duane Rollins, Jasjit Singh, and Anthony Tang (even if not everybody’s code ended up in the final system). And there was no way I could have deployed it in the homes without Sanika Mokashi, Yi Han, Eugene Medynskiy, Kurt Luther, David Quigley, Caleb Southern, and Jay Summet (there was a lot of truck driving and furniture-moving involved!). And, of course, my advisor Gregory Abowd was there every step of the way.
The process of developing this system took several years, granted with a lot of side projects and learning along the way.
So, if you are currently a Ph.D. student and you’re feeling like you’re climbing a never-ending mountain, keep at it, you’ll feel great when you reach the top! In the meantime, try to find good people to help. Even though it’s only my name on the thesis, the giant list of names above shows that I couldn’t have done it alone. Ask for help when you need it!