Your Google search history probably reveals more about you (for better or worse) than anything else online. Dan Russell studies how exactly we interact with Google search: What makes us click on a result? Why do some people use search far more than others? What qualifies as a successful query?
Dan and his team also focus on education, teaching people the skills they need to be effective searchers. We caught up with the Google master to talk about reading lists, sleep routines, the art of note-taking and more.
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Current gig: Senior Research Scientist; Google Search Quality and User Happiness
Current mobile device: Nexus 4
Current computers: 15-inch MacBook Pro (day-to-day); ThinkPad T41 (home music management); Google server farm (for heavy lifting)
One word that best describes how you work: Curiously
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
In truth, there’s very little I can’t live without. That way I’m not devastated when something gets lost or broken or deprecated. My notes and work are (mostly!) backed-up in various ways and places. Any tool I use can be substituted by something else. I love my laptop and my three-ring binder and the little shirt-pocket-sized notebooks I make so I’ll always have paper for notetaking with me. But you could take everything away except a loincloth and I could reboot my work environment in just an hour or so with a decent internet connection, any laptop, and a stationary store.
What’s your workspace like?
Working at Google is a lesson in short-terming and being flexible. I’ve been there 8 years and changed office locations 10 times. You learn to not have many material possessions at work since you’ll have to move them in about 9 months time.
Pictured above: Dan’s workspace at Google.
For me, being at work in the Plex is largely about talking with people. Meetings dominate my calendar, so my work-workspace is right-sized. I spend relatively little time there, but spend the majority of my day in meeting rooms or areas.
What’s your best time-saving trick?
You’re not going to like this: I get up at 4am and get the vast majority of my work-work (writing; coding; analysis) between 4 and 7am. It’s a convenient time since it meshes with the east coast or Europe (if I need to have a call). But generally, nobody else is up then and I can work in blissful peace and quiet. It’s a hack that works well because so few people do it.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
As part of my survivalist-failure-robust working style, I keep my to-do list simple: I have today’s list on paper in my pocket, and the daily/weekly/monthly summary in my log file. The real trick of a to-do list isn’t the technology behind it, it’s making sure you look at it several times/day (and DO what it’s telling you to do). I also sync my paper to-do list with my Google Calendars (one for work, one for home) first thing in the morning, then get 5 minutes-prior reminders. Handy.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
Having lived through multiple generations of most tech, I’ve learned to not become overly reliant on one technology that might vanish tomorrow and leave me in a process lurch. I’ve learned I can MacGyver something to do what it wasn’t intended to do and fill in my need. I enjoy my iPod, but could transition to something else if need be. If I had to pick one gadget, it would be my Maglite flashlight with a bite-grip holder on the end. It’s the one gadget that’s stayed with me through decades of tech shifts and failures. Yeah, I could use my phone as a flashlight, but try gripping that in your teeth while you fix a broken bicycle spoke with both hands at night in the rain!
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Probably integrating ideas across multiple domains and finding the common threads of thought that cover radically different disciplines. I’m really not that good at any one of the tech-disciplines — maths, design, analysis, or even coding — but I read very widely and deeply. And I take notes. That interdisciplinarity and search over my notes (which go back for a decade) lets me find the unexpected connections between, say, “multiple genomes in an organism,” “microclimates,” and “percolation models.”
What do you listen to while you work?
I prefer the quiet. Since I do a lot of music (playing, composing, analysing) in my day-to-day, I find it far too distracting to have it on in the background. I do listen to various podcasts while doing mindless work when I need to occupy my mental foreground. In that case, RadioLab, Moth Radio Hour, To the Best of Our Knowledge, This American Life, 99% Invisible, and random lectures that I’ve found on the web.
What are you currently reading?
Not counting the reading I do for work (mostly technical papers in field varying from archaeology through media studies and on towards zymurgy), I pretty much alternate fiction with popular accounts of science and tech that I follow.
Currently, I’m carefully reading Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson (mostly to see how he makes these arguments), and Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman. For fiction, I happen to be reading The Lady in the Lake at the moment. Raymond Chandler is the master, and I read it for the language (since I’m not really a murder mystery fan, per se).
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
My Meyers-Briggs type is INTJ, which suggests I’m an introvert. People who know me closely would agree. But my job requires an extrovert-style, which is a part I’ve learned to play. It’s unnatural for an introvert to teach classes, but I teach an awful lot, and it helps to watch the masters at work.
Pictured above: Dan’s home office.
What’s your sleep routine like?
Sleep: 10.30 — 11pm. Awake: 4 — 4.30am. I know, that’s not enough hours for good sleep hygenie. I try to fill in with naps on the weekend, but I leave the In and Out points pretty much there. No technology needs to tell me when to go to sleep or when to wake up; when I can’t think straight anymore, it’s time to play a little guitar and head off to bed. The hangup comes when I’m travelling. Then I have a cheap but super-reliable portable LCD alarm that does only that function. (And will not magically download 1Gb of data while I sleep in Europe and cost me two arms and a leg in data fees.)
Fill in the blank. I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla, Charles Dickens for their remarkably productive lifestyles. What? You don’t have a wormhole to use for asking them questions? OK… For living people, I’d like to see John Anderson (a CMU professor who’s incredibly productive), David Weinberger, James Fallows, and Eric Schmidt.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
There was a moment when I had just turned 20 and was working the graveyard shift in a data processing facility moving punch cards from one computer to another. The shift leader told me to “Keep taking classes and stay in school as long as possible.” The implication was, “…or you’ll end up like me, managing graveyard shift workers in a dead-end data processing facility next to the oil refineries in South Central LA in a scene from Blade Runner.”
The advice was good, but the real insight was that I should actually listen to advice when it was given. Before that, I was pretty much a standard teenager who thought advice given was just irrelevant to my life. That was the moment I realised that I — personally! — could learn from history.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Even with all of the low-tech, I live a pretty quantified lifestyle. I keep three different sets of notes (all in plain text files — handy for grepping or running my analytics over). The “Worklog” is just that — a log of every minute of the day at 10 minute resolution. I wrote some code that pulls every event and compiles some stats about how my life is going. (It’s a little obsessive, but incredibly useful to spot trends that you cannot see until they surface in your data.) My “Journal” is the day-by-day events of my life. There’s some overlap with Worklog, but it’s more a record of my reactions to life events; it’s the affective part of my life. And my “Summary” is a week-by-week summary of both Worklog and Journal. I fill out the Summary each Sunday morning when I sit down to read over what happened this week, and where this next week has to go.
No fancy apps — just a couple of minutes each day writing in the text file. It takes me 5.5 minutes/day to update the Worklog. The Journal can take a bit longer (depends on the day); the Summary is around 15 minutes (but mostly because I’m switching between my work and personal Google calendars to look up individual events, and I update it only once/week). Let’s say 50 minutes of data recording and analysis time/week.
One last trick that I’ve come to rely on: I go for a run nearly every day, partly as a way to have some off-line alone time, but also partly to solve intransigent problems. If I’m stuck, a run is often the right solution to unstick good ideas and remix parts of solutions together to find something new and interesting. The big problem then is to remember the solution until I get back. (And for that, the Method of Loci is my mental notepad. With a little practice, it works remarkably well.)
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.