Interview with Andreea Mihalcea, techie and quantified self practitioner

Our interview series asks developers, designers, and other knowledge workers to share their favorite productivity tools and techniques, and how they overcome struggles like procrastination and distraction. Read all our interview posts here.

First up, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I’m Andreea Mihalcea, a techie and a quantified self practitioner working on becoming a data scientist. 5 years ago, I started working with startups on the marketing / growth side but transitioned to user research, analytics and data analysis. I also co-founded a startup but moved on since.

At the moment I’m between jobs – I left a people search startup and I’m now looking for a role at a tech company in Amsterdam or Barcelona. Remote work would also be a great option.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It starts around 7 – 8 am. I don’t like to get out of bed immediately after waking up, so in the first 10 – 15 min I check my sleep and resting heart rate in the Fitbit app, I check social media and then my calendar for the day. After that, I prepare coffee and have breakfast with my boyfriend.

Before starting to work, I meditate for 15 minutes (I’m using Headspace and I love it!) and do yoga or run on a treadmill. This gives me energy and helps me focus during the entire day.

At around 10 am I start working until 7 – 9 pm: I first make the plan for the day and then I single-task through it. Being between jobs means I now work just on personal projects and I take some online courses. As Paul Graham puts it, I’m on the maker’s schedule: I like to have large time blocks for focused and uninterrupted work. This goes hand in hand with choosing just 3 – 5 tasks to do in a day, and batching smaller ones.

In the evening, I either go for a walk, meet friends, watch documentaries and series, or stay in to read a book – I read almost every night before bed.

What does “meaningful work” look like for you? How do you determine what’s meaningful work and what’s not?

For me (and I think I’m not the only one), meaningful work equals flow – “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (excerpt from Mihaly). It’s that work that has a realistic purpose and that represents a challenge for my skills – it helps me grow as a person and as a professional. It’s work that can’t be automated.

How do you make sure you’re always making time for meaningful work vs. everything else that needs to be done?

I learned to say no. I’m known for asking a lot of questions and this is because, before doing anything, I want to make sure that the problem is well understood, expectations are clear and make sense, the piece of work fits the bigger vision / higher purpose and it’s the best way to address the problem. By doing this, I’m trying to be mindful about the work I do and always prioritise meaningful work and say no to tasks that just feel like they need to be done.

What are your favorite tools or methods for organizing your work?

Over time, I tried many tools and methods to find out that, for me, simplicity works best. I use the Reminders app, Evernote, a notebook and a paper planner. It’s a combination of paper and online tools because writing on paper helps me think and better visualise and internalise what needs to be done, while having the plan available online allows me to search, access it faster and easier, add reminders, collaborate with others, edit it etc.

How do you balance collaborative work with focused solo work periods?

What worked for me was to have a clear structure and goal for the meeting / session and to prepare my part beforehand e.g. write down my ideas before a brainstorming, prepare a framework to guide the discussion, prepare a document to sum up what we know, or what happened etc.

I also used to try to either have just one per day in the morning or towards the end of the day or to schedule several sessions one after the other – this way I was left big chunks of time for focused and uninterrupted work.

What’s the best change you’ve ever made to the way you work?

Being more mindful about the work I do – prioritising meaningful work over work that “needs” to be done, eliminating distractions, focusing on only one task at a time, making it clear why I do something, what I expect out of it, how it fits the bigger picture.

How do you avoid distractions and stay focused?

With a few exceptions, I have all notifications turned off and my phone is always on silent. If I really want no distraction, I activate the Do Not Disturb Mode on my phone and laptop. Then, I try to take breaks every 50 – 90 mins and move around a bit. If I have access to a garden or a balcony, I go out. When working in an office, I wear headphones almost all the time.

How do you overcome procrastination?

I start writing on paper – I structure the work, I break it in in smaller tasks, I brainstorm, I write down my fears (and most of the times I realise that they’re just in my mind), I re-phrase the problem. In a way, I make myself think about the problem, visualise it so that the problem-solver in me gets hooked and forgets about procrastination. I also know that once started, the work will just flow.

What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that (if not already covered)?

Doing things I’m not familiar with – my inner director gets very loud, it becomes an energy drain and, in those moments, I tend to procrastinate. To deal with it, I just start writing and doing the work.

What do you do outside work to wind down and recover?

I read a lot – everything related to human behaviour, psychology  and thought process fascinates me. I spend time with my family and friends, I play board games and watch series and documentaries. I also love to travel – discovering new places and experiences is one of the best energisers.Taking long walks and spending time in nature help as well. So does yoga and meditation.

If you could work any job in the world for a day, which job would you choose, and why?

I’d like to be an astronaut on a launch day. Seeing Earth from above would be fascinating and would probably give me perspective. It’s a transformative experience reserved to very few people.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

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