Time Management: Time tracking and lists

Two summers ago, after constantly reaching the end of a week and wondering where my time had gone, I read Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” and I began tracking my time.  For two weeks, I wrote down everything I did and how long it took, in a grid with the day’s 24 hours broken down into 15-minute increments.  It was cumbersome, so I moved to an app which is now my addiction.  For nearly two years, I have recorded everything I do and how long it takes, every day, with the exception of vacations.  I have rough goals for how much time I want to spend on various types of activities per week (e.g., about 50 hours on sleep, about 35 – 40 hours with family, about the same for work, 3 – 5 hours on exercise), and it’s interesting to examine my pie chart for the week and see how it all shook out.  What I love most is no longer wondering how I spend my time.

Below is an image of my time tracker for yesterday and the week of June 25.  (I know this appears to border on madness but seriously, try it — it’s addictive!)


Despite having a handle on how I spend my time, something was missing.  What are my goals for what happens during those hours?  What am I seeking to accomplish during those 35 hours of time with my family per week?  Or writing time?  I have loved Laura Vanderkam’s concept of seasonal fun lists, but it wasn’t until I chatted recently with my writer and illustrator friend Erin McGill that my mind was blown by the power of lists.  

Erin has a brilliant system (The Erin McGill Method) which I just implemented for myself.  I can easily integrate her method with my time-tracking, and after just a few weeks it’s been life-changing.  

The Erin McGill Method:  Erin makes a list for each calendar year.  The list has three categories:  Work, Personal, and Home.  Within each category, she has 4 Big items, 4 Medium items, and 4 Little items: 36 items in total to accomplish over a year.  You can further break these down by season — selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Little item to do, in each category, each season.  That’s nine goals for say, a summer.  Totally doable, realistic, and satisfying.  My challenge up until now is I create monstrous, overwhelming lists in my head (like clean and decorate three rooms in our apartment during the month of July) which make me want to hide under the covers rather than start the task.  Using The Erin McGill Method has totally eliminated that feeling of gross overwhelm.  And what if you have 6 Big things on your Work list?  Well, save two of them for next year.

I sat down to make my Year List and made some modifications to Erin’s system.  First, I added two more categories:  Family and, because I’m a giant dork, Fun.  Yes, I have put Fun on a list.  But I would challenge anyone to make a Fun list, because that’s where a lot of your activities that give you a zest for life come into play.  Some items on mine? “Try rock climbing” (big) and “Get a record player” (medium).  It’s easy to forget about fun when juggling work and kids and life maintenance, but if it goes on a list, you’ll do it and it will sweeten everything else.  “Take another cocktail class” (Fun, Little) is a great foil to “Clean the hall tree” (Home, Little).

I began my year in July, so my list spans July 2018 to June 2019.  As I have five categories (60 goals in total), I’ve set out to accomplish 15 goals per quarter.  (My first quarter — July, August, September — doesn’t square exactly with a season but that’s OK.  I like how one of my quarters — January, February, March — will correspond to the beginning of a new calendar year.)  Once I made my year list, I made my “quarterly” list, selecting one Big, one Medium, and one Small goal from each category.  Next to each item on my quarterly list, I wrote down which month I’d focus on that item.  Then I made a July list, with only the things I’m focusing on for July, with specific weeks (bigger tasks) or days (smaller tasks) assigned to them.   

I’ve shared my First Quarter list below.  You’ll see I didn’t feel the need to spread 15 goals evenly across three months, as some months have more time for certain kinds of activities.  Some of these tasks are so simple — like “find that roast recipe”.  That is part of a yearly goal to cook 6 new dishes (Personal, Medium), but all I’m doing this summer is simply finding the recipe.  NBD.  This approach helps me take goals that might feel lofty and amorphous (“do more hands-on projects with the kids”) to concrete and manageable: “Do a craft with June”, which we already did two weekends ago.  Done! 

My First Quarter (July – August 2018) List

I am loving this.  I routinely used to read my ENTIRE to do list on the Notes app on my phone, emerge feeling scattered and overwhelmed, and then zone out, paralyzed, in front of an episode of Riverdale.  Now I don’t need to consider anything except for this month’s list, because I know I have budgeted time later in the year for the other things.  I’ve found myself using those hours I track in more efficient and productive ways, as my goals are smaller and more realistic than they used to be, and therefore, they are getting done!  

If you are struggling to make sense of how you use your time, or feeling like you are never making a dent in your to do list, I can’t recommend these strategies enough. 

Drugging the “undruggable”

In conventional medicine, a small molecule, known as a drug, will bind to the protein responsible for disease and, if all goes right, alter the undesirable behavior of that protein.  You might remember the “lock-and-key” pictures from high school biology, where the drug is the key and the protein is the lock.  The “lock-and-key” concept has grown more complex since coined in 1894, but the basic principle remains:  A protein needs a drug that can fit tightly within it.  The problem?  Up to 85% of proteins in the human body are deemed “undruggable”, according to a recent episode of the podcast “Stereo Chemistry”, produced by Chemical & Engineering News.  I was moved by the advances in chemistry, biology, and drug discovery presented on this podcast and am excited to share a summary here.

What makes a protein “undruggable?” A lack of clear pockets, indentations, or other topographic features a small molecule can fit into.  According to the podcast, emblematic of an undruggable protein is the protein KRas, which tops people’s lists for what to attack.  Why? It is one of the most commonly mutated proteins in cancer. 

The KRas protein
The protein KRas. Credit: C&E News; Kevan Shokat

On the challenges posed by KRas, the podcast interviewed one of my old chemistry professors, Kevan Shokat.  (Hi, Professor Shokat!)  Professor Shokat talked about how significant it would be to attack KRas with a standard small molecule drug, versus newer forms of medicine, like gene therapy for example, that are not as well understood or as easily executable.  

Here are some strategies being used to approach “undruggable” targets:

1.  Keep the undruggable protein from ever being made.   messenger RNA (mRNA) contains instructions for making proteins, but before doing so, exists in a variety of shapes as the molecule twists and turns.  If a target could be designed to “trap” the mRNA in one of these pre-instruction shapes, the mRNA couldn’t go on to direct protein synthesis.  

2.  Catching transcription factors in action.  A transcription factor is a protein that controls the rate of passage of information from DNA to RNA, and thus along to making proteins.  They are like regulators of protein synthesis.  Sometimes, the transcription factor cMyc becomes stuck in the “on” position, promoting genes that allow cancer cells to multiply.  Traditional structural analysis has shown cMyc devoid of any nice pockets to which a small molecule can bind.  In the words of Angela Koehler directing the MIT group working on this, the cMyc proteins “lack shape”.  However, in the cell when they are working, they do not.  Dr. Koehler’s group has found a way to take the proteins as they behave inside the cell and explore them against a library of potential drugs to test for binding.  This approach catches the proteins in action, rather than as static structures outside of their typical surroundings.  

3.  Harnessing the power of mass spectrometry.  Unlike conventional approaches, no structural information about a protein is needed beforehand.  A protein is thrown in with potential drugs, and the output analyzed by mass spectrometry.  Mass spec can determine what stuck on the protein and where.  According to Dan Nomura of UC Berkeley, this method has identified 100,000 “druggable hotspots” across 20,000 protein targets.  One potential problem: do the druggable hotspots actually influence protein behavior, and therefore, affect disease? That’s where the next idea comes into play.

4.  Using the new “druggable hotspots” to simply destroy the protein.  If the new hotspot does not affect protein activity, you attach a complex of molecules that will go on to destroy the protein.  Once the protein is destroyed, that same complex can perform the task again.  This approach is called “Protein Degradation”.  

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 11.13.29 PM
Schematic of protein degradation. Credit: Novartis.com

In sum, scientists are taking creative and bold approaches to attacking this huge swath of formerly elusive proteins.  I’m excited to see where this goes.  

Fact-Checking Fairytales


“One book”

BRK recently created a new, nested, hybrid book — Sleeping Beauty stuffed inside Pete’s Dragon stuffed inside Cinderella.  This gives new meaning to reading “one book”, as one book now contains three.

She takes great care to stuff them inside each other at exactly the same spot, so that we read up to the mean step-sisters tearing apart Cinderella’s version 1.0 ball gown, then on to Nora buying Pete a new set of clothes while Elliot the Dragon looks on approvingly, and then the entirety of Sleeping Beauty before continuing back to Pete and Elliot, and concluding with Cinderella.

Throughout this adventure in reading, BRK has lots of questions.  I oscillate from delighting in her curiosity to cringing at yet another pause on our march through 68 pages before The Battle of Tooth Brushing.

Here’s a sample, with my reactions underneath:

(Sleeping Beauty): How did the three fairies rush to rescue Prince Phillip?

Great question.  Did they run? Fly? But since they are fairies can’t they just dissolve and then reappear anyplace they want? 

(Cinderella): Where’s the hush? (in reference to “Suddenly, a hush fell over the garden, and a cloud of lights began to twinkle and glow around Cinderella’s head.”)

How do you explain “a hush fell” to a 3 year-old? 

(Pete’s Dragon): Is the teacher nice?

Hmm, I want her to think of teachers as nice.  But this illustrator seems to have not.  

(Pete’s Dragon): How is the Gogan family mean to Pete?

Because they make him do all the work and yell at him.  Oh no, sometimes I yell.  

And then the questions take a turn toward fact-checking, toward identifying inconsistencies.

(Cinderella): Why did she have the glass slipper?

GREAT QUESTION.  YES.  Why, when the spell broke at midnight,  did everything turn back to its sorry state except for the glass slippers? I have no good answer, but something smells fishy.

(Cinderella, again):  Why did the spell break at midnight?

YES.  WHY?  If you are a fairy godmother, and you can turn a pumpkin into a coach, mice into horses, and a dog into a footman, why on earth does your spell expire at midnight?  

If you have the power to perform magical spells, why do you have random limitations like the spell breaks at midnight?  Or in the case of Sleeping Beauty, a deep sleep instead of a nonfatal spindle prick?   It would make of an incredibly boring story, but still . . . BRK is onto something here. 

Appreciating Life’s Annoying Minutiae

IMG_6140The other day, I was showing my freshman Physics students how to calculate the instantaneous velocity of an accelerating object  . . .  an object that is speeding up, or slowing down.  In this case, the object we were discussing was speeding up.  The object was the NYC L train leaving the station at 3rd Ave and 14th street.  We had gone down to the subway station as a class (there’s an adrenaline inducer) and collected distance-time data using stopwatches and a measuring wheel.  We received odd looks from commuters, and collected some fairly useful data.

Back in the classroom, the students first calculated the average velocity of the train for each time interval.  Then, using the concept that the average velocity is the sum of velocities at the beginning and end of the time interval divided by two, they began to calculating the instantaneous velocities.  So, they had to do a lot of multiplying the average velocities by two, as the subway train started from rest.

And the following conversation ensued:

Student: “I did it.  I multiplied the average velocity by two.”

Me: “Great.  Now keep doing it.”

Student, with alarm in his eyes: “Until when?”

Me: “Until you’ve done it for the whole data set.  For both trains.” (We did two trials!)

Student, with more alarm: “You mean ALL the data points?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student, after a long sigh: “That’s annoying.”

Me: “I know.  Welcome to life.”

A few students gasped.  I continued.  I told them I was completely serious.  And that life has some magical, fantastic, beautiful parts, and some incredibly annoying, mind-numbing, tedious parts.  And they are all important.  And the mind-numbing tedious parts typically lead to some kind of reward.

I like how becoming a parent has drastically increased my tolerance for the annoying mind-numbing parts of life, and has enhanced my appreciation of the magical parts.  And of course, given me more of each kind of moment.

But I feel like it’s essential to truly be able to sink into and appreciate the annoying parts.  Just get’em done, with minimal drama.  Multiply that column of numbers by two.  Scrub a surface until it’s clean.  Edit 100 pages for typos.  Make 5,893 sawing motions into a pumpkin.  To embark on a task that is repetitive and annoying and just do it.  And then reap the fruits of your labor.

I like that we had that conversation that day in class.  When I think about what they will take away from freshman Physics, it’s hard to imagine more than a few of them will remember the details of analyzing the acceleration and velocity of a moving object.  But I’m hoping the class will help them appreciate the ubiquity of annoying minutiae in life, the importance of doing them, and the rewards you reap when are you through.

Post-Script:  This is the same class in which a few weeks prior, I paced around the room, hands cupped over my mouth, repeating “MAKING A GRAPH IS NOT A HARDSHIP”.  No one complains about making graphs anymore.  Progress.

Maybe I Should Stop Eating Candy Corn


From today’s WSJ piece on the LD50 of sugar

As an older generation might say, this fall has been a doozy over here.  One unexpected twist was that since September 28, one month ago today, I’ve been to the dentist seven times.  Yes, that’s right.  Seven.

A routine cleaning on September 28th revealed a back upper molar missing part of an old filling.  This led to the placement of a temporary crown on October 2.  On October 9th, the temporary crown was re-positioned with sedative cement due to intense pain I’d been feeling the prior three days.  On October 10th, after taking one bite of a delicious dinner I made — an occurrence almost as rare as a total solar eclipse — I found myself crunching on the temporary crown.  So, on October 11th I went in to get the temporary crown reset, but luckily the permanent crown was ready! Happy Day!

Except two days later, on my birthday, I began to feel intense pain.  So, I went back to the dentist on October 19.  And on October 20, I was sitting in the endodontist’s chair, having a root canal.  On October 24, while eating a protein bar at my desk, I bit into what felt like a rock.  So I was back at the dentist today, thinking I’d lost part of a filling in another tooth.  The good news is the filling is intact.

The bad news is I’m terrified of eating any Halloween candy this year.  An non-candied apple is kind of as far I’m willing to go with my mouth full of time bomb silver fillings from the early 90s.  So maybe it was a blessing-not-in-disguise to see today’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the LD50 of various popular Halloween candies, a chilling reminder of sugar’s murderous behavior.

The LD50 is the dose of a substance lethal to half of a test population, typically rats.  Every substance has an LD50, even water!  Sucrose, the main sugar in candy, has an LD50 of 13.5 grams per pound of body weight.  For a 125-pound person, this translates to about 200 fun-size candy bars, 250 gummy worms, and just over 1,000 pieces of candy corn.  I LOVE candy corn — I know, it’s disgusting, but I love it — though don’t think I’d ever eat 1,000 pieces in one sitting.  Gummy worms on the other hand?  I kind of could picture mindlessly munching 250 of them, if I were watching a gripping enough movie.  For now however, I will sit longingly staring at the bin of candy corn, wondering if I’ll be brave enough to take a handful and possibly end up at the dentist again next week.

My favorite part of this article?  The personalized equation they offer:

(Your weight * 13.5)/9.3 = the number of fun-size candy bars that would kill you

This equation takes the LD50 of sucrose (13.5), multiples it by your weight, and then divides it by 9.3, which is the number of grams of sugar in an average fun-size candy bar.  Go ahead, give it a whirl.  Maybe this can inspire the next blockbuster murder mystery — was it death by fun-size Milky Way or Three Musketeers?

On Comedy

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of comedy, of humor.  Last week, a math teacher and I sat with our freshmen advisees, and we drew up a list of community norms we’d like to adhere to in our advisory sessions.  Things like, “help others” and “don’t interrupt” were added one by one to the list.  And then the math teacher suggested we add, “have a sense of humor”, which I found completely brilliant and frankly so damn easy to forget in the midst of regular daily life stresses and the uh, bigger ones, like, hurricanes and nuclear bombs.

The next night Eric and I went out to see stand-up comedy — truly a gem of a date activity.  We saw 6 or 7 comedians, and 3 were legitimately funny.  But it was so worth it to sit through the awkward, inappropriate, way-too-raunchy ones for the side-splitting perfection delivered by the truly funny people.  One of my favorite moments was when someone let out a gasp of shock at what the comedian said.  The comedian looked at the person and said, “seriously? this is comedy, not a TED talk! Not everything I’m saying actually happened!”  In other words, lighten up!

I had a moment to re-appreciate the art of lightening up during a walk to school two weeks ago.  It was the first day back after the summer and behind me I pulled a “granny cart”, as another teacher later affectionately called it, stuffed with papers and files and all of the things I worked on this summer.  Ahead of me on the sidewalk was a hunched-over elderly man pushing a walker, and a few feet behind him, a hunched over elderly woman also pushing a walker.  They made slow but steady progress up the sidewalk.  I was closing in.  As I approached, I said, cheerfully, “Excuse me!” and maneuvered around the woman, and then the man.

The scene of the “Ya flippin’ moron!” incident.

Once I successfully passed them, I heard the man call out, “Excuse ME!”.  I figured he was being polite and hadn’t heard my initial “Excuse me”.  So then I turned around to give him a smile, and he shouted back at me, loudly, “YA FLIPPIN’ MORON!”.  Except it wasn’t “flippin’ “, it was the real thing.

It was SUCH a quintessential NYC moment.  This frail little old elderly person’s got enough spite to flatten the neighborhood.  I kind of chuckled to myself.  I mean, the guy had to be 90, curled up like the letter C, with the stride length of an inch.  I had to admire his spunk.  But then, actually, more profanity and insults came my way.  “Screw you!” he yelled.  And there was more.  And I began to lose sight of the humor in it.  I was almost ready to turn around and get into it with him.  Like, really dude? Who’s the moron?  You are assaulting me with profanity for oh, politely saying excuse me and walking around you.

But I stopped myself.  “Don’t do it,” I thought.  “He’s 90 and parts of his life probably suck and be thankful you can walk at a quick clip and there are a lot of good things in your life,” I told myself, or something along those lines.  But in order to stay in that place of calm, I needed to appreciate the humor of the whole interaction.

I’m reading a book called Younger Next Year, inspired partly by my impending 40th birthday.  The authors recommend lots of things to do to be “younger next year”, namely exercise everyday and quit eating garbage.  But they also point out the importance of a calm, open, happy mindset.  In Chapter 12, the authors say one of the worst things about getting old is “getting grumpy”.  One author shares how about 5 years prior to the book’s publication, he began to just get grumpy — snapping at his wife, giving the finger to cab drivers, etc.  And he wondered if the world was actually becoming more irritating or if he was “getting weird”.  And he decided it was the latter, and that he needed to put a stop to it.  He writes that sure, every now and then we all need to vent, but that “endless anger, terminal petulance, is not so hot.  It doesn’t do any good, and it can do a lot of harm.”  I think the antidote to this anger may just be humor.  By the third comment by my 90-year-old friend, I felt the anger and the irritation bubbling up.  Thinking about how hard my friend would laugh once I arrived at school and recounted the story squashed those hostile feelings.

I challenge you to do something this weekend that makes you laugh.  Really laugh, like out loud, possibly causing your stomach to hurt.  Find a 5-minute video of a comedian you love.  Watch a few minutes of Odd Mom Out or Broad City (note: these are not just chick shows, as my husband can attest).  Or pick up some David Sedaris.  Watch how the  laughter can be a game-changer.

To Sit Or Not to Sit . . . Or to Sit.

The online science publication Ars Technica came out with a piece today entitled, “The new study suggesting sitting will kill you is kind of a raging dumpster fire.”  The title alone fills me with glee!  Debunking science!  Using “kind of” in the title!  And, it’s OK to sit again!!!!

In truth, the study today’s article alludes to completely freaked me out.  It had me googling “treadmill desks” and envisioning doing squats during nighttime TV watching.  But the sun has come out today — the Ars Technica authors poke enough holes in this study to put me back on good terms with our couch.

The particulars on the beef the authors have with the original study, which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

  1. The study was funded in part by Coca-Cola.  The authors find fault with this saying that rather than focus on unhealthy consumption, Coca-Cola funds studies like these to shift the conversation to focusing on unhealthy behaviors.  Personally, this doesn’t bother me that much.  I feel like most people interested in heath — i.e., the people who are interested in these studies — already know drinking sugared sodas isn’t a great choice.  The “conversation shift” certainly won’t lead me to begin chugging sugared soda after a workout.
  2. The study didn’t actually measure sitting.  OK, getting warmer.  Researchers did not rely on subjects’ reports of sitting times, as these are notoriously error prone.  So, they used something called an Actical accelerometer, mounted to one’s hip, which tracks the amount of oxygen a person uses in various activities.  Unfortunately, it cannot distinguish between sitting and standing.  Or lying down and light movement.  So, in this study, working at a standup desk is lumped into regular old sitting.  As the authors point out, nuance is severely lacking here.
  3. The study demographics are problematic.  A bunch of people dropped out early, leaving the more sedentary participants to complete the study which lasted a week only.  Also, the more sedentary groups in the study were on average ten years older than the least sedentary groups.
  4. Statistical challenges.  Once the data were in, the researchers broke the participants into four groups, those who:
    1. rarely “sat” (or did something else of low intensity), and when they did, “sat” in short bursts
    2. rarely “sat”, and when they did, “sat” for long durations
    3. “sat” frequently, in short bursts
    4. “sat” frequently, for long durations

The numbers of participants in the middle groups, as well as mortality rates, were      not high enough to permit any statistically significant conclusions on the effects of sitting in short or long bouts.  The researchers themselves cap off the study with a statement on the difficulty of drawing any conclusions due to issues with statistical significance.

The problem is that while this disclaimer appears in the actual research paper, how many of us read that?  Rather, we tend to read the news summaries, which are often based off of summaries like this, which appears in Science Daily.  And according to this summary,

“A new study founds that sitting around for 12 or more hours per day, particularly if accumulated during 60- to 90-minute periods, increased the risk of early death — even in those who exercised.”

With no mention of the above limitations.  So a big thank you to Ars Technica for probing deeper!

No really, have a seat.