Category: Productivity

ProductivityRemote Work

Reflections on working remotely while Black

By now, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts and tweets about how to effectively work from home. Especially if you’re among the thousands of folk whose workplace or school has moved to work from home in response to the coronavirus crisis.

I can’t add much to what’s already been said about how to set up your home office, or which headphones or app to use, or how to sanely put together your day. I have worked at a distributed company (everyone works away from the office) for the last four years. My colleague Lori McLeese offers a lot of helpful advice on remote working, Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg has insights, and a good friend and fellow data scientist Boris Gorelik offers lots of sage advice.

I’ll speak from my perspective. I am Black and living in the U.S. I have worked in some capacity in machine learning, data science, big data, artificial intelligence — whatever the buzzword you choose — for twenty plus years. I have worked remotely in some capacity for at least ten.

In those years I’ve encountered micro- macro- and off-the-chain aggressions courtesy of the standard work-in-the-office culture. Here’s a sampling…

Hey, I think you’re in the wrong place…


If I’m sitting in a cubicle in the R&D group wing, why wouldn’t you think I’m in the R&D group? I’m sitting in a chair, writing a paper, with a stack of machine learning papers on my desk?

We should get all the <N_WORDS> out of here

Late 1980’s

I was silent for a few days…

We should send all the Africans back…Ebola is too dangerous to tolerate those…


Whew…deep breaths and a long walk.

These comments and ensuing actions are from years of work, but I keep hearing the same things from students and other folk much younger than I who’ve had to put their minds back together from this shtuff. The point is that there’s a deep psychological, psychic impact that broken and persistent workplace cultures have on employees that come from the margins. Black folk, like LatinX people, women, transgender folk, people who are autistic. The exceptional and everyday people that make companies and institutions work. The office can be so hostile, violent, and spirt murdering (to quote Dr Bettina Love) that any benefits to in-person interaction are lost, nullified.

For me, and many others, working remotely has allowed the ability, the autonomy to carve out a truly safe and sane working environment. The autonomy to work on our own terms and in places where we are cherished, supported, nurtured.

One critique of remote work is that “it stifles creativity”. But the ability to go on walks without fear, to connect with colleagues from around the world, to think deeply while looking out the window, to talk out loud a problem to my daughter (quizzically looks are ok), to have a Black young man in a coffee shop just stroll up an ask about linear algebra — all these spur creativity and a self worth that is incalculable.

Does Automattic (or any other remote workplace) have room for growth — of course! There are issues around the assumptions of resource privilege that go along with even applying — does everyone have access to the computing, network, and other resources to successfully make an application? To the social networks needed to know about such positions? There are racial disparities in the ability to work remotely. These issues and questions have to be thought through deeply — inclusion and equity have new implications.

But the benefit of the kind of listening and reflection that comes in various modes of communication that foster thought and respect is undeniable. And that may provide enough space for us to work through some things.

The research on remote work and impact is still getting started. You might read The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences or These links were suggested by Kristen Thomas, a graduate student at University of Texas Austin who is studying remote work.

And, if you’re a data engineer or data scientist interested in making the move to remote work, please consider applying to Automattic!


Are tiny habits useful?

I spent some time reading through BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything”.

I think it’s a quick read, its format makes for an easy and effective skim. I didn’t have to work too hard to pull out useful nuggets. I think that a book has worth when you can get something useful from just a judicious browse. Check it out from your library, or you can check out some of Fogg’s Ted talks.


I’m sure that you have encountered the “habits” literature. There is a popular book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and there is blog by Leo Babauta named Zen Habits. The gist of the “habit formation” movement is that instead of trying to tackle some goal head on in one go – say getting healthy – you form a habit. You choose habits that are very easy to start and keep up. Something that incrementally moves you toward that goal. So a habit to get you to better health might be eating a vegetarian low calorie dinner every Friday night. Fogg has his own plan for habit formation and you can probably benefit without investing a lot of money in courses and such.

I don’t think there’s anything shockingly new here. My father would often say “Always from good habits”. He struggled with nicotine addiction and succumbed to cancer early. Knowing the importance of good habits is one thing, getting them going is another. There is something to getting your habits together.

What about tiny habits?

So here are a few reflections on Fogg’s book (I checked it out of the library) in no particular order.

I was first thrown off when I noticed it did not have a traditional index. I wanted to know if he had anything to say about procrastination: what tactics did he have to deal with getting into those tasks or projects that you aspire to ( a savings goal, reading a book, learning a language) but have a hard time getting to a first step. He actually talks about this in a chapter on Behavior Design – you have to make the behavior so easy to do that the factors separating you from doing it are removed.

Tackling the difficult step involves figuring out the why, what makes it difficult. He talks about a difficulty chain, but really you can just take some time to think through what makes a routine activity hard: cost? emotional effort? physical effort? Once you have an idea about what makes the behavior hard, you think through how to make it easier from that perspective. You can adjust the behavior to one that’s more in line with your current skills, read up on how to make it easier, or just reduce the complexity of the task (scale it back, find a simpler task to start with).

In lieu of an index, the book has a wealth of appendices. Flow charts in the appendix layout some of his processes for creating and sustaining habits. The “Tiny Habits for…” is nice – a collection of kinds of habits that might be good for particular aspirations (e.g. health). These aren’t earth shattering, but probably will give you some thoughts on get some of your difficult to-dos going.

I liked some of his habit formation suggestions – behavioral hacks lets call them.

  • While Waiting: Find those parts of your day while you are waiting around for stuff (he cites the example of deciding to floss while waiting for the shower to warm up).
  • His general method of looking for Prompts to cue some behavior is a good way of rethinking time and action.
  • The Behavior = Motivation Ability Prompt is a nice way of thinking through behavioral change.

How did I use it?

  • I now have figured that a can do 10 minutes of push ups or planks in the morning after or before a shower.
  • I learned that the time while the kids take their showers is a good time to get some work done on side projects – doing some more exploration of Haskell or deepening on abstractive summarization.

It’s easy to build routines around routines. If you eat dinner or go to bed at a set time, or go to work at a set time, it’s then easier to stick in a helpful routine before or after.

The other thing that seemed to address the “it’s insurmountable” feeling is finding Golden Behaviors. These are behaviors that:

  • Move you toward some aspiration or outcome.
  • Are things that you feel like doing
  • Things that you can do.

He talks through the exercise of listing behaviors that have high impact and are easy to do. Finding those behaviors that are easy to do or at least ones you can get enthusiastic about doing. This graphic captures it. The dimensions are degree of difficulty (x) and impact (y)

Try to find those actions that feel like they’re in the upper right hand — impactful and aren’t insurmountable. I guess you just experiment and tinker until you feel that you’re moving in some acceptable direction.

So I found Tiny Habits a quick and useful read. Check it out from your library, scan the appendix, do some reading around within it. Maybe there will be few points that you can make use of. Or maybe just view his Ted talk