How Amazon Echo reduced my work disruptions and preserved family harmony

With everyone's time so valuable, it's important to develop work systems that can give you an extra boost or help you maintain your flow. In this article, David Gewirtz shares an unusual system he uses to minimize interruptions and distractions.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I'll admit it. This is going to seem quite silly. But good systems sometimes seem outlandish until you understand why they're needed and how they work.

Sit on back, because I'm going to tell you about the problem that led to installing voice-controlled signal lights in my living room.

The work I do from home

About one in five Americans work from home at least once a week. About 67 percent of employers allow some working from home, which is an astonishingly large number. I work from home exclusively -- even to the point of buying a house that is as ideally suited for work as it is for home life. I've even built a broadcast studio into the house, complete with green screen and professional lighting.

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But I have a relatively unusual job. It's even hard to describe. Basically, I'm a professional expert specializing in national security, competitive strategy, and technology. My work consists of a lot of phone meetings, a lot of writing with tight deadlines, the occasional national or international radio or TV appearance, university teaching, and coding to keep my chops up.

While a lot of my work is scheduled and on my calendar, I'm also on call and often find myself pulled into meetings, sudden deadlines, and on-the-air appearances with almost no notice. For the record, you haven't lived until you've been on TV for Fox News or CNN with bare feet, pajama bottoms, and a jacket and tie.

It's also not uncommon for me to suddenly have to be on the phone with a couple of generals or someone from the White House or a very cranky billionaire (you'd think with that much money, they wouldn't be so cranky). Shortly after we got married, my wife answered the phone and looked at me with a very confused expression. It was someone from the CIA (who, as it turned out, needed a copy of something I'd written and wasn't allowed to use email).

Clearly, she wasn't in Kansas anymore. Actually, I'm not sure she's ever been in Kansas. I have an odd life, but I love it.

A work-from-home challenge

Here's where it gets interesting. While my wife and I can coordinate my calendar-scheduled events, she often has no way of knowing whether or not I'm just doing some background research or I'm involved in a time-sensitive project of great importance.

This has proven to be a matter of some stress here at Camp David. At five after the hour it might be all happy chat and fun, and then at 20 after the hour, when my wife walks back into our great room, I might be deeply embroiled in something incredibly stressful and with a hair-trigger deadline.

We have lived with this problem for a few years. Originally, we set up separate offices, so that when we were working, we were able to close our doors and not be interrupted.

But since we work very long hours, often seven days a week, we found that we abandoned our offices and spent all our time in the TV room. In fact, in the old house, we realized we'd actually duplicated our offices in the TV room, because we liked being together (and we also interact constantly on work issues).

When it came time to buy the new house, we decided to build the great room as a living/working space. Half of our open floor plan great room is full-on office space (with about 10 monitors) and the other half is media space (where we also work). I have a side monitor so I can work on the couch and she has her laptop. Plus we have a powerful PC that drives the 65-inch HDTV and we use that both as a working screen and a conference white board.

I do have a private office in the back of the house, but I rarely use it because... it's in the back of the house. It's just a lot more pleasant to work from the great room.

The only gotcha is that my mode of working changes on a dime, and it's not easy for my wife to know or be able to tell what sort of support I need based on that work mode.

The operating room analog

After giving it some thought, we realized that I really had three work modes, which we decided to call Green, Yellow, and Red.

My wife is an RN and we realized that my work modes are roughly analogous to how surgeons are protected by their teams. When they're deep in an operation, nothing can disturb them. That's what we call Red mode. Other times, they're working and concentrating, but operational issues and emergencies are valid interruptions. That's Yellow mode. And then there's Green mode, where everything is fair game.


We decided to adopt that model for my work. When in Red mode, I'm not to be interrupted, any domestic emergency has to be managed without my involvement, and it's as if I'm in the OR. Yellow mode (which is my productive mode -- like now) is more about keeping interruptions to a minimum. And Green mode is the way most homes are -- family time and anything goes.

Enter Amazon Echo and Hue bulbs

The question was, how could I telegraph these modes easily (and as geekily as possible)? We had already dabbled with the On Air signal you often see outside studios, but didn't want to populate the main room with ugly signs. Alexa (the Amazon Echo) had just entered our life, and we had already grown accustomed to having her control our lights, so linking Alexa to a signal light seemed like a heck of an idea.

We hit on the idea of using a light tower, with red, green, and blue. We wanted Hue bulbs because being able to say "Alexa, turn on Yellow Mode" is easy (and cool).

But while Hue bulbs can be turned on and off and dimmed by Alexa, she's not able to set color. That meant we would have pre-program colors (and we tested that out by appropriating some bulbs from other lamps), but a power failure would knock the colors back to their norm.

It was also expensive. A single Hue bulb (the one that shifts color and can be remote controlled) is sixty bucks. Three of them, plus a light fixture, would set us back nearly $250.

Instead, we decided to use three $20 Hue Lux bulbs, which have all the features of the original Hue bulbs, except the ability to change hue. Sixty bucks for three was better than sixty bucks each.

We chose an inexpensive three-shade fixture for about fifty dollars. And then we bought some photo gels (about $15 after shipping). All told, we spent about $125 instead of $250.

My wife did a masterful job of cutting the gels and taping them inside the translucent lamp fixtures.
It was a bit of work, but the nice thing is that when the lamps aren't in Red, Yellow, or Green mode, the light fixture just looks like a regular light fixture.

Of course, when it's time to work, I can easily turn on one of the modes. Here's a picture showing all three colored lamps, but we only use one at a time.


It's very easy to switch modes, and in the morning when I get up and start my coffee, I say, "Alexa, turn on Green mode." At some point after the coffee starts doing its job, and I'm actually working, I'll tell Alexa, "turn on Yellow mode."

Throughout most days, I switch between Green and Yellow mode and never use Red mode.

It's important to note that I use Red mode as sparingly as possible. Our agreement is that when in Red mode, my wife provides any support I need, keeps all interruptions out, and it's okay for me to pull her out of her own productive work. As you might imagine, doing that too often without good reason would result in resentment and the system would eventually fail. So I save Red mode for real situations of urgency and import.

Choosing your own systems

I've spoken previously about how I manage my day, and my work is going to be different from yours. The idea behind building customized systems like our signal light system isn't that you should emulate me.

Each of us needs systems and if you take the time to figure out what you need, and create and optimize your systems for the work, work style, and lifestyle you live, you may see substantial benefits.

I'm often asked how I get so much done and work on and complete so many projects. A big part of my answer is the systems I've developed and refined over the years. Without the full set of systems and productivity patterns I use, I'd never get as much work done and certainly not on time.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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