Category Archives: Family

February’s Experiment: Call a friend or family member every day (and grow a beard).

January’s 30 Day Experiment was about drawing boundaries, living in the present, and giving my family my undivided attention. Eliminating distractions helped me really enjoy my interactions with people. So I decided to make my next experiment all about great conversations.

For February, I called a friend or family member every day. This was a daunting commitment, but I was excited to get started.

First, the data

I logged a total of 36 interactions:

  • I made 31 calls. According to my call histories, the shortest was 3 minutes, and the longest was 77.
  • I logged 3 days of in-person visits with family and friends from February 16-18. I didn’t keep time, so I conservatively estimated 60 minutes of conversation per day.
  • I had 2 in-person meetings with old friends on February 21 and 22. Those were windows between work meetings and I did log them.
  • My precisely logged conversations totaled 886 minutes. The total is 1066 minutes if you include my estimate of 3 days of in-person conversations over February 16-18

After completing each conversation, I recorded the date, person, a brief note, and time in minutes into an Evernote doc on my phone. There were a few multiple call days.


Here’s the raw data. I’ve removed the person I spoke with and the topic of our chat, since that’s private.

But what did I really learn?

I tweaked the rules a few times. First, I decided not to make calls on days when I was staying with family or friends, since I decided this would be against the spirit of the experiment. My goals was to have great, uninterrupted conversations, not make phone calls.

You might think it would be difficult to set aside 20, 30, or even 60 minutes per day to catch up. It’s really not at all. The tough part was actually finding people to fill those slots. For the first few days, I’d go through my address book and serendipitously place calls. I quickly realized that I wasn’t likely to succeed without some planning.

On February 5th, I went through Facebook contacts and dug deep into my address book that dates back to the late 1990s. I sent messages to 12 friends, laying out the experiment and asking for a 15 minute window. Here’s the note I sent.

So, I’ll cut to the chase. I just want to find out how you’ve been and share family news. I’m doing a 30 day experiment where I’ve decided to catch up with a family member or old friend every day in February. Rather than just drop in haphazardly, I’d love to schedule something. 10 or 15 minutes is fine. I certainly have a lot of family news to share, I’m sure you do too.

I’m pretty flexible during the day — lunch is free most days, and I’m usually free in the afternoon too. I’m usually knocked out 5:45 – 9pm EST with bedtime routine.

If you have any time this week or next, drop me some times and I’ll make it work.

(This is my second 30 day experiment. Last month, I limited email checking at work and did not use my mobile phone around the family. The former I will try to keep up. The latter is a permanent moratorium, and I’m happier for it.)

These were all old and dear friends, but even I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response. It was basically a form letter, but it was honest and compelling: hey, I want to talk to you. Let’s not waste small talk on email. Let’s catch up now!

My hope was 5 enthusiastic people, and maybe two booked slots. Within 24 hours, 11 of 12 had given me an enthusiastic yes and everyone wanted to talk within the next two days.

People want to Participate

One of my big takeaways is that there’s a huge potential for participation in experiments like this. My friends wanted to be part of my shared experience. There was a beautiful urgency too — only 30 days to be be involved. In most cases, we hadn’t spoken to each other in years. We weren’t going to let it go any longer. The chance to catch up, the time sensitivity, it was all as powerful and compelling as direct marketing, but it was purely in the spirit of sharing and joy. I want to keep thinking about this participatory aspect and how I can involve my friends more often.

A 5 minute call is infinitely better than no call

When you talk to someone regularly, you get to be involved in the daily aspects of their life. It’s obvious, I’d forgotten this, and rediscovered it accidentally while making a lot of late night “safety” calls to family to keep my streak alive. I learned about my brother’s new job, my sister’s dissertation, illnesses in the family, and I helped my mom make chili. These are the sort of random things you do when you see someone every week. It only takes a 5 minute call to stay up to date. It was really nice.

Listening takes practice

I did more listening than talking for possibly the first time in my life. Partly intentional, partly by accident. One consequence of doing a lot of catch-up calls was that I often repeated details — I live here, work there, married, have kid — and hence became acutely aware of how much time I spent talking versus listening. By mid-month, I’d become a stellar listener. I’m sure it can’t possibly last.

A few more highlights:

  • I caught up with my freshman year college roommate. We hadn’t spoken in almost seven years.
  • I spoke with a high school friend I hadn’t spoken with in almost 20 years.
  • I spoke with a college housemate I hadn’t seen in 3 years and my Atlanta housemate that I hadn’t seen in 5. Because of the calls, I was able to meet up with both of them in-person during a business trip to NYC.
  • My siblings and I really talked at Christmas, and February gave us a chance to keep it going. We discussed what we believed were the most pivotal times of growing up and why our family turned out like it did.
  • I spoke with a few new dads. One friend was recently engaged. Another newly pregnant.
  • One friend left his company and is moving his family cross-country to start his own firm.
  • I Skyped with my parents while reading bedtime stories to my daughter.
  • I caught an old friend at JFK, as he was about to board an overseas flight.
  • We stayed with old friends who recently moved to the mid-Atlantic and are new parents. We introduced them to another friend who has a child of similar age.

This was a very demanding experiment, but also a very rewarding one. Having family in the Eastern, Central, and Pacific time zones gave me some flexibility to make early morning and late night calls. I can see myself repeating it once a year or so. In the meantime, there are a dozen or so folks I wasn’t able to connect with, and I’ll be reaching out to them before I lose my momentum.

Oh yeah. There is one more thing…

I grew my first-ever beard. How is that related to calls? It’s not. I was a few days into February when a boisterous conversation on beards erupted on a Google Group I follow. Not having shaved yet for the month, I decided that a beard would be my backup in case I couldn’t stick with calls. Like a friendship, beards take time to cultivate. The best advice I heard when getting started was “Don’t shave.” BEHOLD!


I’m completely hooked on 30 day challenges. They are, as Matt says, life-changing. 30 days is short enough to commit to something difficult and ambitious, but long enough to experience real self-discovery. Both in January and February, where I ended up was different than where I began. Both months have been full of wonderful surprises.

So what’s next for March? I do want to build on the themes of changing the way I interact with people. January was reclaiming time and learning to “be there”. February was use that reclaimed time for deep conversations. After catching a glimpse of what it’s like to be a good listener and deliberate on my own words, I really wanted to try an experiment in introversion, with constraints on how much I communicate. The more pressing deficiency in my life, however, is my physical health and happiness. I used to be much more active and I ate better and slept more. So that’s March. I’ll see you back here in 30 days.

30 days to tame email, mobile distractions, and live in the present

I ended up working a lot over my winter vacation. I was already planning to implement Inbox Zero when I returned to the office on January 2, but one incident crystallized it for me. While I clacked away on my laptop on Christmas Eve night, my daughter walked up to me and said “I have a computer too”. She held up a small laptop she’d made with paper and crayon. It was both adorable and sad. I snapped a quick photo with my phone and *then* put away electronics for the evening.

I decided to undertake a 30 Day Experiment for the month of January. I would restrict email checking to a few times a day and avoid all mobile phone usage while with my family. My goal was to “be there when I’m there” and enjoy myself. Our periodic Serendipity Day hackathon was starting on January 2, and I used that time to kickoff my experiment.

How it went down

I started with a haircut, since that always makes me feel more organized. When I returned, I nuked my inbox. There were 2,619 emails in my main folder (That’s after archiving 6,000 messages just a few weeks prior). I moved everything older than 30 days into an “Inbox Zero” folder, which took me down to 214 emails. I then set an email away message:

Happy New Year! As part of a productivity experiment, I will only be checking email late morning and early afternoon. If you have an urgent matter, call me (gasp!) or walk over.

(Note: for several years my voice mail greeting has stated that I never check my phone, therefore you should email me. So if you tried to reach me in January 2013, I effectively dumped you into an infinite loop.)

I wrote out the ground rules of my 30 day experiment and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing:

  • Inbox Zero and limited email checking at work
  • No mobile usage around my family
  • Find little ways to have fun at work, since I’d blown my vacation and the next is a long way off

I’m exceedingly lucky to be able to do something like this. I’m not the one they call at 4 AM when a server crashes. It’s a luxury.

The next morning, I committed to not check email before 11. This was insanely difficult. I met a friend for coffee, rolled in late, and then I baked a loaf of bread in my cubicle, because 1.) bread smells delicious, and 2.) I didn’t give up carbs.

Cubicle bread! This machine was my alarm clock when I lived in Chicago.

Cubicle bread!

What I Learned

My first email check was 11:15 AM and I was ruthless: DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. MOVE TO ACTIONS FOLDER… When I hit my stopping point I closed Mail and didn’t check it again for several hours, and that made my day lovely.

Here are some of the things that worked for me:

  • I set an arbitrary cap of 30 minutes per email session, which I rarely exceed.
  • Checking email was really intense for the first few days, but the sooner I got through it, the sooner I quit my email application and then the bliss set in.
  • I challenged myself to unsubscribe to at least one email subscription a day for the first week.
  • Many emails only need a simple one or two sentence response such as “I didn’t work on that project, try asking [NAME].”
  • I close short emails with “Thanks!” or something similar so I’m not misinterpreted as a grouch.
  • I use Mac Mail and iCal instead of Outlook, which means I can have my calendar open without having email open.
  • I informed my colleagues that I’d nuked my inbox and asked them to remind me of any outstanding items
  • I already had several inbox routing rules. I added more until things became manageable.
  • Semi-related: I switched to a standing desk a few months ago and find it much easier to focus on single tasks. I also use Getting Things Done and Evernote to stay organized.

Some tactics I didn’t have to use, but you might find useful:

  • Creating templates for commonly sent emails.
  • Telling someone their email was too long and asking them to summarize it.

In the past, I never let email stress me out, nor did I ever try to use it as a to-do list (that is a bad idea, by the way. ) I viewed email volume as something I had no control over, therefore I didn’t try.

I now see that while email wasn’t stressing me out, I was wasting a ton of time re-reading messages. It wasn’t until I got my inbox under control that I realized how many important messages were falling through the cracks. I still haven’t hit Inbox Zero, I fell off the wagon a few times, but overall feel better and am more productive every day.

Unplugging at home is much more difficult because it’s about a mental state. The technique I chose was prohibition: I kept my phone in my pocket, or on my desk in the charger. That’s it.

I still zoned out and thought about work, though it was more difficult for my daughter to notice without my phone in my hand. Fake it until you make it. The email twice a day rule made it easier to not pick up my phone. Once the phone is out of the pocket for an email or weather check, it’s on to social media, and the death spiral begins. My social media interaction was so much lower this month that I’m sure I did miss some timely news and conversations — though I missed even more boondoggle time.

I’ve had some really genuine, awesome moments with my family this month. We listen to music, make art, and have conversations. We play together at the playground while other parents are on their phone. I walk her to school or head to the grocery store without my phone. I’m very glad to have the capabilities of mobile Internet technology but also delighted to be able to walk away from it.

I’m going to continue to tweak and refine my restricted work email and mobile abstinence experiments. They weren’t meant to end after 30 days.

Over a dozen friends and colleagues reached out after seeing my away message. Many were already grappling with email. One had hired a personal productivity coach. We’re leaning on each other for ongoing support.

I got a lot of free advice from Brian Fitzpatrick, Vanessa Fox, and all of the other attendees at an unconference session on unplugging. Many of my the ideas and tactics above came from that session or followup conversations.

If you’re thinking about something similar, my advice is to start sooner than later. The 30 Day Experiment is a low-commitment way to jump in. Start with Matt Cutts’ three minute TED Talk below.

Finally, my second 30 Day Experiment (28 days, really) is underway! I’m calling a family member or old friend every day in February. This is tough and it helps that most of my family is at least one time zone behind me. I’m excited to see where this one goes.

Update 2/5/2013

I’ve heard a lot of great feedback on this post. I’m going to make the mobile moratorium around my family permanent. That was mentally difficult but I can sustain it. Limited email checks at work is more difficult. An aggressive goal works over a short period of time, but over the long run, it’ll only motivate me if I can hit it more often than not.

There are days when two email checks isn’t feasible. Sometimes my most important tasks involve email correspondence. Sometimes task details are buried in an email. I try to mitigate those situations as best I can: stop the email thread and call a meeting. Or open up email quickly, grab the note I need, and shut it down immediately. In the case of January 16th (referenced in my tweet above), I spent half the day on email. That’s really, really rare. I often work after my family goes to sleep, and that can also mean an extra email check at night. Right now, two checks is working. I’ll continue as is and reevaluate each week.

Yesterday was terrible, but I managed with two checks. Today, it’s been a breeze and this happened:

Email and mobile use both are intertwined, and both invade my mental space when I don’t clamp down. I’m glad I limited both at the same time.

Some related reading:

Matt did a far more ambitious unplugging experiment this month: 30 days without news or social media.

My three minute presentation at Serendipity Day

A Card Game to Teach Kids Computer Science and Math

Last week I was thinking (procrastinating, really) about how kids in other countries start learning computer science and programming as early as six. Scratch is great, but my kid is still too young. I’m also trying to keep her away from screens for a few more years. What I wanted was a basic card game like Memory that instead teaches basic boolean and set logic. I couldn’t find one, so I took a first pass at creating one. The goal: something easy and engaging enough for toddlers but with enough incremental complexity to entertain ages 7-10.


  • 1 standard card deck
  • Index cards or a blank deck for the operations cards
  • One standard die for the toddler version
  • (A second standard deck is needed for set logic expansion)

I found it helpful to have different colored decks for the game play cards and the operation cards.

Game Summary (Ages 3+)

The game is really quite simple. Using Ace – 10 in the standard deck, shuffle and deal cards face down into four equal piles. Ace is 1, all other cards are face value. Turn the top card up on each pile. The first pile is the “test card” pile, and it sits above the other piles. The last three piles sit in a row below the test condition and they’re the game play array.

Test card pile, game play card array, and discard pile.

Test card pile, game play card array, and discard pile.

Players take turns playing an “operation” with the test card and creating a test condition. The basic operations are > (greater than), < (less than), and equal (==).  If the test card is 6 and the game play pile is 2, 3, and 8, playing < (less than) would mean “less than 6” and the player picks up 2 and 3.

Game 1 Variation. Play until all three game play piles are gone. Whoever picked up the most cards wins.

Game 2 Variation (more strategy): Players display the cards they pick up in a sequence Ace to 10. The first player to pick up all cards in the sequence A-10 (any combination of suits) wins. Multiples of any single card don’t count except to the extent they prevent your opponent from completing the sequence.

Either version can be played solitaire or with two or more players.


Ages 3-5 roll a die to choose their operation. I’ve used a die with two sides each for >, < and == and use the labels “BIG”, “small”, and equal or “same”.


10 clubs is our test. Our play cards are 3, 8, 10. Shhh… your kid is looping over an array.

After graduating from the die roll, all players are dealt three operation cards at the beginning of the game.  Players draw new operation cards at the end of their turn to replenish their hand to three.

I again start with the three simple operation cards for >, <, and ==. The added complexity here is that kids must choose which is the optimal play. (You can start your kids by playing operation cards face up and talk them through their decisions. After that, players keep their operation cards secret from other players.)

Once kids get comfortable with those three operations, I allow them to use == in tandem with > or <. If two cards are played, the player draws two more cards at the end of a turn.

There’s two more basic operation cards to work in as player skill increases:

  • ! (not) is used in tandem with any other operation card and creates the opposite condition. Not > equates to <=, for example. It’s most powerful when combined with == to make != (not equal) to the test card value.
  • * (wildcard) can become any single basic operation card. I’ll need * for multiplication so I should think of something else…
Player on the right should play > and == operation cards in tandem to pick up all three play cards.

6 of spades is our test. Player on the right should play < and == operation cards in tandem to pick up all three play cards.

Here’s the quantity of operation cards I’ve tried in my deck:

  • > (x7) greater than
  • < (x7) less than
  • == (x2) used alone or in tandem with >, <, !
  • ! (x4) not. must be used in tandem with >,<, == or set expansion cards
  • * (x1) wildcard. Can be any single basic operator: !, <, >, ==.

Right now I’m only allowing two operation cards to be played at a time.


Set Expansion Pack

This introduces basic set logic for added complexity. With the blank deck I created cards for set A, B, C, D, E. You’ll also need another standard deck with cards A – 10 in a single suit to populate our random sets.


You can introduce from one to five sets into the game during the initial deal. For each set A-E, add those cards to the operation cards and shuffle. Next, create a line of expansion sets that sit above the test card pile. From the standard deck A-10 cards, deal out two cards at random for each expansion set.

A set contains the two random cards it was dealt at the beginning of the game plus the value of the  test card at the time at which the set card is played. In this case, the set contains 5 and 10 (initial values) plus the test card 9. If set B is played now, the player can pick up any game play cards that are in the set (5, 9, 10). Sets cards can also be played with ! (not) and any game play cards not in the set are picked up. If the test card is already contained in the set — too bad. Sets contain only distinct values.


I’m thinking in the future that addition/subtraction(+/-), multiplication, and modulus division cards ( % 2) could be used to change the value of either the test or the gameplay cards.

Game Play

If the first player can successfully play an operation, they make their play and pick up whatever game play cards they earn. If they’ve picked up game play cards, the test card is turned down into the discard pile. A new test card is turned up and new game play cards are turned up wherever cards were picked up. Play proceeds to the left. Anytime a player can’t make a play, it skips to the next player and the test card is not discarded. (An option I’m playing with here: if you can’t make a play, you may discard one operations card face down and draw a new one.) Players discard operation cards after playing them and replenish their hand to three cards at the end of their turn.

When the test pile or operation piles deplete, shuffle the discard pile for either and start fresh.

Anyway, that’s my first draft, it’s still rough. The easiest iteration is definitely simple enough for a four year old, I’m more concerned that it’s not fun enough for… well, anyone. I welcome contributions. One caveat: if we’re doing this in the open, it’s open. Let’s say Creative Commons (or would that be GPL?) so don’t go calling Hasbro if we think of something clever.

Minivans Will Make a Comeback (and not because of the advertising)

My coworker Sara Sarasohn tipped me off to Toyota’s hilarious and self-deprecating commercial for the Sienna minivan. Shot in the style of a hip-hop video, two late-30’s parents rap about bake sales and tea parties.

I think the minivan is poised to reemerge — but first a bit of history.

Minivans became the vehicle-of-choice among suburban families beginning in the late 1980s, when they unseated the then dominant family vehicle, the station wagon. (If you’re too young to remember family wagons, you may have seen them in movies). The minivan’s layout provided more passenger and cargo room in a shorter length vehicle. They were easier to park, load and unload, were often safer, and had better gas mileage than their large engine predecessors.

The emergence of the SUV or “sport” utility vehicle precipitated the end of the minivan era. At some point in the late 90’s, a minivan dad was stopped at a redlight. He peered at the SUV in the adjacent lane and wondered “can you put a carseat in one of those?”.

Ironically, a lot of used minivans were snapped up by outdoor enthusiasts seeking a practical vehicle. Paddlers, mountain bikers, and climbers found they offered tons of room for gear and you could even live out of them.

Minivans will come back into the mainstream because my generation is having kids and that’s what we remember riding in.  I expect to see a lot more modern amenities added to minivans, but they’ll be more modest and design-conscious than the ginormous-everything features of SUVs.

We Gen-Xers have hung on to our cynicism but have also become more pragmatic. Even if — like every generation — we’re becoming everything we said we wouldn’t, we’ll appreciate that Toyota is keeping us honest about it. We mocked our nuclear-family origins and the minivans we grew up riding in. But we’ve seen the alternative, and we’re not going there.

Cat Puke Dispersal: Statistical Aberration or Malicious Intent?

For the record, I have traditionally been a dog person, but have grown to love many cats, including my friend Kiki’s late Kitty Roo and Poo, and also Revvy, who came into the family when I married Jen.

I submit Exhibit A:

I came home today to find that Revvy had thrown up on our kitchen mat. There are a mere three (3) rugs in our apartment that comprise less than 5% of the total floor space, and Revvy has now completed the Trifecta, having puked on all three. I haven’t formally quantified it, but my ballpark guess would be that about 40-50% of the total cat barf falls within that <5% of surface area.

Can one of the long-time cat aficianados out there please explain this to me? Is this a statistical abberation, or is her aim that good? Is she trying to tell me that she owns me?

Science: Oldest sibling found to have higher IQ. Really? Are you sure?

On Friday, Science published a study conducted by Norwegian doctors on 250,000 military conscripts. The study found that eldest children enjoyed an IQ boost of nearly 3 points.

The study’s finding that psychological factors — interaction of parents and children — and not biological ones account for the IQ discrepancy is fueling a raging debate this week. It will no doubt rile existing sibling rivalries and cause conscientious parents like mine to second guess every interaction they had with us growing up. Did they give us all equal attention? Did they show favorites? Did they ignore someone’s hidden talents? 

Let’s explore. I am the oldest of 4 children. My parents took twice as many photos of me and saddled me with all of the responsiblity and expectation you expect of a first born. I attended a presitigious public university and graduated with a humanities degree. My younger brother, more introverted and more modest, graduated with a BS in electrical engineering from one of the nation’s top programs and is currently finishing his Masters degree in mathematics. The older of my two sisters received her Bachelors and Masters degree from one of the nation’s best accounting programs and was also captain of her NCAA Division I gymnastics team. My youngest sibling, also a gymnast, who by the study’s method should probably be the least intelligent, is about to start her PhD program in biomedical engineering. (Disclaimer: neither I nor any of my siblings are Norwegian military conscripts.)

On paper at least, you can see why I would be reluctant to test the doctors’ findings with an IQ test. I know none of my siblings would care. The only persistent rivalry is a bet my brother and I made a long time ago: whoever has the most hair and whoever is the tallest at age 35 wins. Height and hair seem to be far more substantial than 3 IQ points.