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Improving your productivity could be wrecking your life

November 23, 2020, 3:04 PM UTC

The top pick for weekend reads in Friday’s newsletter was Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport’s essay about the pitfalls of personal productivity. Knowledge workers have the freedom to decide how to get their daily work done, but that means tasks get assigned in a disorganized way and the day gets interrupted by the haphazard arrival of emails and scheduling of meetings, Newport observes.

“We must, in other words, acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done,” he concludes.

It’s a challenge in many industries and journalism is no exception. We deal with assignments large and small, meetings, conferences, interviews, and emails, oh so many emails. Just over the weekend, I received 62 emails that made it past the spam filter and are awaiting my review right now.

But one message was more helpful than others. It’s from Microsoft’s MyAnalytics app, a new-ish piece of the company’s Office suite designed to address the exact problems that Newport and others have uncovered.

The app monitors my activities and makes suggestions to improve my focus and wellbeing, some of which can be put into practice automatically within Microsoft’s apps. For example, one report tracks the number of days that I had significant activity outside of my regular working hours (18 out of 28 last month—not great). A metrics dashboard explains: “Research shows people who disconnect daily from work report lower levels of stress and higher wellbeing.”

A different section helps me set aside time on my calendar for work that requires deep concentration. Within Outlook, I get suggestions, or nudges, to carve out time for focus. Other sections promote better meeting habits and more collaboration with colleagues through nudges in other apps.

Of course, the features work better the more you use Microsoft’s apps at work. We use Slack, not Teams, at Fortune, and I track some of my meetings in Google Calendar, not Outlook. My wife’s company is more fully enmeshed in Microsoft’s ecosystem, and her MyAnalytics report and related app tweaks are even more useful than mine.

I wanted to learn more about MyAnalytics, so I jumped on a video call (via Teams, of course) with Kamal Janardhan, a longtime Microsoft engineer who’s general manager of a unit called Microsoft 365 Insights. The technology behind MyAnalytics goes back to a small acquisition Microsoft made in 2015 of VoloMetrix, a startup that was trying to solve the productivity challenge, Janardhan explained.

“After years of helping people completing tasks, being on from anywhere, we needed to help them actually manage the human and help companies manage the organizations,” she said. She was bursting with passion as she spoke from a home office converted from her daughter’s old bedroom. “Are you your best self, not just managing your time but managing your energy? Do you feel good about work, do you have good relationships?”

Remote work has increased some of the worst habits of workers, such as doing email after hours and scheduling too many meetings, Microsoft’s data shows. Janardhan said they’ll also try to help by prompting people to take a virtual commute at the beginning and end of the work day.

“We don’t have that space in our brains where it resets, where you think, you prioritize, you clean up your thoughts,” she said. I’m ready for it.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Getting up to speed. Don't forget that Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference is coming up on December 1 and 2. Among the hot topics we will cover is the SPAC and IPO boom with Ashley MacNeill, co-head of technology equity capital markets at Morgan Stanley, and Paul Ryan, former Republican leader and now SPAC board member. Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer at Walmart, will discuss climate change, while Apple senior VP Deirdre O’Brien will fill us in on her company's COVID experiences. We'll also hear from Oded Gal, chief product officer at Zoom, Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, and Jennifer Tejada, PagerDuty's CEO. If you're interested in attending the virtual show this year, apply at this registration link.

Teach a man how to phish. Hackers gained control of the Internet addresses of some digital currency exchanges by fooling employees at Internet domain name registrar GoDaddy into transferring control of the addresses, security reporter Brian Krebs reports. GoDaddy says "a limited number" of its employees were socially engineered, adding, "We are constantly educating employees about new tactics that might be used against them and adopting new security measures to prevent future attacks.”

Spigot status: open. Pandemic or no, venture capital firms appear to be doing quite well. The VC industry raised $69 billion so far, breaking the prior record of $67.8 billion set in 2018, after Andreessen Horowitz announced $4.5 billion in commitments on Friday. More than a couple of startups backed by the famed firm are in line to go public soon, including Airbnb, Affirm, and Roblox, which may explain the desire to keep giving them more money.

Home is where the data is. A big data merger in the world of real estate: CoStar Group, a leader in commercial real estate analysis, is paying $250 million for Homesnap, which tracks data in the residential real estate market. CoStar is also in on the bidding war for a much larger residential data play, CoreLogic. It's trading at a value of over $6 billion as it sought to fend off a hostile takeover and find a friendlier acquirer. In other merger news, AvePoint, the cloud management helper, is going public via combining with Apex Technology, the SPAC started by former Oracle exec Jeff Epstein and former Goldman Sachs tech banker Brad Koenig. (This item was updated on Nov. 25 to correct which company Epstein and Koenig started.)

The men at the factory are old and cunning. Bad news for fans of cloud gaming and 4K movie streaming. Comcast is extending its 1.2 TB per month data cap to all of its customers nationwide (previously, the cable giant's service in northeast states was uncapped). It's $10 per 50 GB over the cap.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Despite an effort to ban TikTok, the teen sensation lives on. For a piece in The Atlantic, Rachel Monroe chronicles the rise of TikTok stars like Charli and Dixie D’Amelio who live together in a house in Beverly Hills.

The sisters avoid lip-synching profanities, for the most part, and don’t participate in trends that strike them as questionable, like last spring’s “mugshot challenge.” The week of my visit, TikTok (and the world) was obsessed with “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s delightfully profane song about, well, vaginal lubrication. The most popular dance to the song, which was created by Brian Esperon, a dancer and choreographer from Guam, involved “lots of twerking,” according to Charli, and her mother had declared it off-limits.

“The whole internet wants Charli to do it,” Dixie said.

“I mean, I can do it. I’m just not allowed to … show the people,” Charli said. She looked down and away, and for a minute she seemed like any other teenager teetering between obedience and rebellion.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Who’s liable when a self-driving car collides with another vehicle? By David Z. Morris

Facebook’s latest efforts to combat hate speech aren’t enough, ADL says By Danielle Abril

Robinhood co-founder steps down as co-CEO, leaving Vlad Tenev as sole chief ahead of a rumored IPO By Jeff John Roberts

She’s pushing a green, digital, diverse future. And this CEO doesn’t care who the president is By Katherine Dunn

Flee the city, keep your salary? Not so fast say more employers By Lee Clifford

Meet the sisters self-funding a sustainable footwear brand, creating shoes that ‘celebrate every woman’s step’ By Rachel King

How Trek Bicycles has kept a great culture rolling in a fast-moving 2020 By Ed Frauenheim and Great Place to Work

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BEFORE YOU GO

When star architect Zaha Hadid died almost five years ago, few could have imagined the controversy and scandal that engulfed her estate, now valued at about $134 million. A court battle over the estate surfaced whistleblower complaints against Hadid's longtime collaborator Patrik Schumacher, who is also one of four executors of her will. The Guardian has a run down of the somewhat sordid machinations.

A judge last week finally brought the case to a close, limiting Schumacher's authority and freeing most of Hadid's fortune to fund a charitable foundation with a focus on helping Arab women enter the architecture field. That's news we can be thankful for heading into the week before Thanksgiving.