HBR’s Executive Editor Sarah Green Carmichael on how to be a better writer

My guest today is Sarah Green Carmichael. Sarah is an executive editor at Harvard Business Review where she works out what to publish on the site and edits the articles that you may have read there. Sarah is also the host of HBR’s IdeaCast podcast which gets over one million downloads every month.

I was very excited to speak to Sarah as I am a voracious HBR reader and given the amount of ideas and tips she is exposed to on a daily basis given her role, I was very keen to explore what she had applied in her own life. We cover a heap of ground in this interview, including:

  • The best pieces of advice Sarah has learnt from editing HBR articles and books for six years
  • Her approach to managing emails
  • Sarah’s strategy for making work days easier to start
  • The classic productivity tips that failed for Sarah
  • Her approach to decision-making, and where she has got it wrong
  • How she prepares for her interviews on the HBR IdeaCast podcast
  • How to read a business book in under 30 minutes
  • When “winging it” can be a great productivity strategy
  • How she deals with interviewing people she doesn’t like or agree with
  • Sarah’s top tips for being a better writer and editor
  • How she wards off distractions to get focused work done
  • How to write a great rejection letter

And much, much more.

Find Sarah on Twitter (@skgreen), or check out her interviews on the HBR IdeaCast podcast and HBR’s Women at Work podcast.

And here is a full transcript of the episode:

Sarah: I think one that I use a lot when I’m trying to figure out if something’s even worth writing about at all is just to ask, this came from another editor here, Andrea [Ovins 00:00:10] whose now retired, but she said I think if I ask five smart people for advice on something and I could have collected all the advice that I received from them and put it into a piece, if that’s the piece that’s not enough for an article because that’s probably just common sense. You don’t really need to write an article if it’s just full of common sense.

I think that’s something where I kind of use that rule of thumb to judge if something’s even worth working on or even worth writing in the first place.

Amantha: Welcome to How I Work, a show about the tactics used by leading innovators to get so much out of their day. I’m your house, Dr. Amantha Imber. I’m an organizational psychologist, the CEO of Inventium and I’m obsessed with finding ways to optimize my workday. My guest today is Sarah Green Carmichael. Sarah is an executive editor at Harvard Business Review where she works out what to publish on the side and edits the articles that you may have read there. Sarah is also the host of HBR’s IdeaCast podcast, which gets over one million downloads every month. I was very excited to speak to Sarah as I am a voracious HBR reader, and given the amount of ideas and tips that she’s exposed to on a daily basis given her role, I was very keen to explore what she’s actually applied in her own life.
We cover a heap of ground in this interview ranging from some gems on how to be a better writer through to how to read a business book in under 30 minutes. Over to Sarah to find out about how she works.

Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.

Amantha: Now I’m really keen to get stuck into the things that you’re doing to improve your day, improve your productive, because in your role as executive editor at HBR and also having been an editor for six years there, you must have read literally thousands of articles offering advice. Is that fair to say?

Sarah: Yes. I think that is fair to say.

Amantha: Now I’m curious, what have been some of the best pieces of advice you’ve read on the topic of productivity. I’m particularly keen to hear about the ones that you’ve actually applied in your own life.

Sarah: Yeah. I think for me a big challenge, productivity wise, has always been email. This is something that is the life blood of my business. So many of the people I work with are not in the building. Email is really important to me, but also I never would have time to actually edit anything or do anything if I were only responding to email. One of the tips that I read in HBR actually that I have also tried to apply to my own life is to check email at certain times of day. Maybe I check at 9:00 AM and again at noon and again at 4:00, maybe it doesn’t always quite work that way, but I try to sort of have dedicated time to respond to email so it doesn’t take over the whole day, and I think it’s helped.

Amantha: What time of day do you allocate to emails?

Sarah: I have rotating blocks of time depending on my other things, but I really do put it in my calendar. I try to make an effort to spend the last 40 minutes of the day just catching up on email, and I try to do a 40 minute chunk in the morning too, just so that no one is ever waiting for too, too long.

Amantha: That’s interesting because I imagine a lot of advice that you’ve read about email would also say don’t check email first thing in the morning. Is that something that you’ve ever tried to apply or is it just the nature of the work that you do that that’s just an impossibility?

Sarah: I would say I typically do at least look at it in the morning, but I don’t always respond. I look at it to see is anything on fire. Then if nothing is actually on fire, then I will take an hour or an hour and a half and actually do some heads down important work. I do like to at least look at the inbox to make sure that there’s really nothing urgent or pressing that really needs to be addressed. I typically don’t check email after 6:30 or 7:00 at night. That’s something where I check in the morning to make up for the fact that I try to have a hard stop at the end of the day when I just unplug.

Amantha: Wow, that’s very disciplined. Have you always been that way in terms of unplugging I guess in the evenings or when you go home at night?

Sarah: I have not been that way. That is something that I really had to learn because I think especially when you work in digital media, you do expect to be always on. I had to realize I work in publishing, I’m not saving lives here. The work I do matters to me, but nothing too terrible will happen if I just don’t check email at night. I checked with my boss. I said, “Is this okay?” She said, “Yeah, I think so.” I said, “If anything really important comes up, people can always call me. We do have this thing called the phone that people use in emergencies.” I think thinking of it that way really helped.

Amantha: Was that a hard habit for you to break? I’m just looking at the addictive nature of email.

Sarah: The email habit was relatively easy to break compared to the social media habit that I’m still struggling to break. That is the current project is becoming un-addicted to social media.

Amantha: Ah. Tell me about that.

Sarah: Oh I just think that all those platforms are optimized to hook us in, and they really work. It’s something where especially if I’m traveling for work, I’m away from my family, I can easily find myself wasting an hour on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or something. That’s not really how you want to spend your precious moments. I don’t have advice on that one yet, but if anyone listening has advice, I would love to know. You could probably Tweet it at me, because I’ll probably be checking.

Amantha: Absolutely. Cool. I love it. What else? What have been some other gems of advice that you’ve read and applied successfully?

Sarah: One of the things that really just helped me with what I think of as my real work, my work-work, as opposed to managing email, was trying to stop … When I come to a stopping point at the end of the day, stopping when I’m on a role on a project and not stopping when I’m stuck. I think a lot of us have a tendency to want to see something through to the end and that’s what makes us good employees, but I find it much easier to pick back up where I left off the next day if I have stopped in the middle instead of at a natural stopping point. That’s something that I actually picked up from reading about the daily routines of artists.

This is something that Hemingway did, this is something that Arthur Miller did. It’s something where you never drain the reservoir. You always leave a little bit of something left in the tank so that when you pick it back up it’s really to just get going again.

Amantha: Yeah, that’s interesting. Hemingway used to stop mid-sentence or mid-paragraph, didn’t he?

Sarah: Yes. I think what he said was you write until you come to a place where you still have the juice, and you don’t ever want to run out of juice. That’s something I remind myself because I think a lot of us will kind of just keep going until we’re totally burnt out. Actually, ultimately that’s pretty counterproductive.

Amantha: Absolutely. How do you know when you’ve reached that point at the end of the day? What does that feel like?

Sarah: Well for me what has really worked is to have specific times. Otherwise, it’s too easy for me just to keep working. I have an enormous capacity for work, so I will probably always find work to do. I just try to know am I stopping at 4:00, at 5:00, at 6:00? What is my stopping point today? Then if I come to that point and I have thoughts that I don’t want to forget because I’m in the middle of a project, I just jot them down and I put them on a Post-It note, I leave them on my desk and I go home.

Amantha: Now on the flip side, because this sounds like great pieces of advice that you’ve learned and applied, I’m curious as to are there things that you’ve read in the research or advice that you’ve heard or read that you did try to apply that absolutely didn’t work for you?

Sarah: Yeah. The only touch it once rule is a classic one. That doesn’t work for me. The idea is that something comes across your desk, something comes into your email, and you immediately decide what to do with it. You only touch it once. That has just never worked for me. A lot of the decisions I have to make at work are pretty complex. I have to get input from other people. I have to do additional research. I can’t just make decisions on the fly, although I often do make a bunch of decisions on the fly, I can’t follow that kind of rule. That was one that just to me felt overly simplistic and not something that was going to work for me.

Amantha: How do you make your best decisions at work then?

Sarah: Let me think about that. I think what I try to keep in mind is that my job is making decisions. That is my job. Deciding whether or not we publish something, deciding what the headline should be on a piece, deciding what feedback to give to someone. I think the worst thing you can do if your job is to make decisions is to not make decisions. When I am stuck, I try to make a decision but knowing that even a bad decision is better than no decision at all. That’s just something that helps me keep moving forward. I think one struggle, especially for women and there is some research on this, we’re supposed to be much more consensus drive, that’s the behavior that’s expected of us.

I think at some point, yes, fact finding and building buy-in and all that stuff can be helpful, but at some point you just have to decide. I think that’s something too where over time kind of learning what decisions can I just make without going through this whole process of consensus building and does it really matter to get a lot of feedback from other people. That’s something you just kind of learn overtime.

Amantha: Is that a confidence thing or trusting your intuition more? What’s that about, do you think?

Sarah: I think it’s about just trying some things and making mistakes and learning from them. I have not always made the right decisions, and so for once, for an example, this 2016 presidential election in the U.S. was pretty hotly contested and is still being controversial and re-litigated in some ways. HBR doesn’t often publish on political issues, but we did publish a couple pieces tied to some of the leadership and economic issues that were brought up by the campaign. Ultimately we decided that there has to be an extra layer of editorial review on those articles because I have published a couple pieces that I just felt like, yeah, well we’re a platform for debates. People can have debates.

I think I was a little too quick to pull the trigger on those pieces and say, “Yeah, let’s just publish them and see where the chips land.” I think that’s just one where sort of learned like, oops, that’s not really what readers want from us or are expecting from us. At least it’s helpful in the organization to have somewhere people read the piece and know that it’s going live before we just publish it and say, “Oh well people on the internet just say things.” That’s just one where I made a call, I made a mistake and I learned.

Amantha: That must be quite stressful given how public the work that you do is. How do you deal with stresses like that? Do you have go-to strategies?

Sarah: Yeah. I think for me one of the things that I love about digital media is that you are constantly publishing new things and it’s like playing baseball and that you play every day and you have multiple at bats every day. What you’re trying to do is improve your average over time. Very few of the decisions I make are hugely consequential in and of themselves, but over time they will add up to something that amounts to a lot. I think keeping that in mind takes some of the stress away because it’s like any individual decision is not going to be a make or break decision. What we’re hoping to do is have a winning average by the end of the year.

Amantha: I like that. I saw back in 2003 you wrote your honors thesis on Jane Austen. You also won the essay contest of the Jane Austen Society of North America, so congratulations.

Sarah: Thank you.

Amantha: What advice would Jane Austen have for the modern woman?

Sarah: Oh my gosh, so much advice. Her advice is still so relevant, and in fact, part of me thinks that if she were alive and well today she would have written her version of Lean In or something that would also have been a bestseller. One of the things that I’ve always liked about Jane Austen is that she definitely believes in following your heart. All of her heroines do that, but they also have a strong practical streak to all of them where it’s like, “Listen, is this going to work in the real world or not?” I think her advice to the modern woman would be a little bit of yeah, have your head in the clouds but keep your feet on the ground. Know when you can hold out for a better deal, but also don’t let a good thing pass by because you’re just waiting for something that’s perfect because perfection doesn’t exist.

Amantha: That’s nice. I like that. I want to shift into one of the other parts of your role, which is hosting the HBR IdeaCast podcast, which I believe has over one million downloads each month, is that correct?

Sarah: Yes.

Amantha: I’m curious, how do you prepare for a podcast? I got to say, I love your interviews. I always learn so much from that particular podcast, and I want to know what goes into preparing for an interview?

Sarah: Oh thank you. I think this kind of harps back to something we talked about earlier, which is the question of productivity and how do you know when you’ve done enough. What I try to do for the podcast, whether it’s the HBR IdeaCast, which I’ve been hosting for about 10 years now, or our Women In Work podcast, which is still less than a year old, I try to read a bunch of articles. If the interview is going to be based on a book, I try to read parts of the book. I don’t always read the whole book, but I read the introduction and I speed read a bunch of the chapters and then figure out where I’m going to focus, and then I focus in depth on those.

I do think it’s that kind of thing where it’s really important to prioritize that way because I don’t have time to deeply read the entire book and do a bunch of extra research. I really am relying on the ability to quickly figure out what is going to be the most interesting to the people who are listening to the show, and how can I spend my time there knowing that I just don’t have time to cover everything. I do try to be selective. I do prepare. I do write down a bunch of questions. I write a bunch more questions than I think I’ll need because sometimes people talk a lot. Sometimes people are very concise. You just never know which way it’s going to go.

Then I also prepare to listen. I think sometimes people say things, and if you’re not listening you kind of zone out and miss it and then you’ve missed a good opportunity to go down an interesting rabbit hole. I don’t know, those are just some of the things I try to keep in mind.

Amantha: I’m curious around how you speed read a book. You say you read the introduction and then you’ll skim over the different parts. What does that look like practically? How long does that take you? I just want to get a sense, how would you apply that?

Sarah: Yeah, so this is where I’m almost embarrassed to say, but I will say. I try to spend five or ten minutes is usually enough time to read the introduction I would say. Maybe closer to five. Then I’m looking at the table of contents. I flip to the beginning of each chapter. I flip through to see what it’s about. The good thing about business books is there tend to be very straightforward chapter titles and subheadings, so it’s actually really easy to find the information that you might want to find. Then I don’t know, I think it helps that I read so much for my job anyway. So much of what I do is evaluating peoples articles or pitches, and quickly just looking at them to see is there an idea here or not.

I sort of am applying the same skill that I use in the other parts of my job to this part. I would say there are times when I don’t spend probably more than 30 minutes preparing for an interview, which I’m sure someone like Terry Gross would be appalled. I’m not Terry Gross. I’m not doing this as my full time job for National Public Radio. It is the kind of thing where I decide how much time I have and then I spend that amount of time. I think that’s just a general productivity tip that I just try to apply to all my work. It’s like how much time do I have? Okay, that’s the amount of time I’ll spend.

Amantha: I’m curious though, how do you know when you’ve done enough preparation? Is it a feeling that you get? Do you just intuitively think, “Okay, I feel prepared enough”? Is it literally this is how much time I’ve got and I’ll feel prepared as I can at the end of this amount of time?

Sarah: I think it depends a lot on the topic too because there are some interviews where if it’s a topic I know a lot about or I know the author’s work already, then it takes much less time to prepare and I can feel super prepared in half an hour easily. I should also say we often do a pre-interview with the person, which is maybe only 15 or 20 minutes, but it gives you a chance to run through some of the ideas you’re thinking about and I get a sense of how they sound. I have producers who help out on the show too, so I can kind of bounce my ideas off of them, which is helpful and they can give their ideas to me.

I think in terms of knowing when you’re prepared, I think that’s something that I think is just, I don’t know, like there’s definitely times when you feel confident and like, “Okay, I’ve got this,” but that’s not always proportional to the amount of time that I’ve spent. I think one of the times that is challenging, I see sometimes younger people in the office, any office, over-preparing so that they feel really confident and prepared, and I think, yes, especially when you’re earlier in your career it’s good to over-prepare because it often pays off. I think as you move up the ladder, you kind of have to get more comfortable feeling unprepared and just knowing that you’re going to have to be comfortable improvising and just winging it anyway.

I think, yeah, I don’t know, that’s a really muddled answer to what was a really good question, but it’s just one of those things that I think you kind of have to both know how to prepare quickly but also how to proceed even if you feel totally unprepared.

Amantha: I think that makes sense. I want to come back to what you said about the pre-interview because I want to know what role does the pre-interview play for you?

Sarah: To me, the pre-interview is about two things. It’s really about making sure that the guest feels comfortable because even if I am winging it I don’t want them to feel like they have no idea what’s going on. It’s also about giving me a sense of will this person talk for uninterrupted chunks of time? Am I going to have to interrupt them more to help them stay on track? It’s about if there’s two ways I could ask a question, sometimes in a pre-interview we’ll ask them each way to see which way they respond to more, or it’s about saying, “We’d love to get some of your stories out. Are there stories that you tell about this topic,” so that maybe during the pre-interview we have them tell two or three or four stories, but then in a podcast I know the exact one I want to ask them about so we don’t spend that extra time.

Amantha: I like that. That’s nice. I imagine that you must interview people that you either dislike or disagree with. How do you deal with managing yourself in those situations?

Sarah: That is such a great question. I have a little bit of a cop out answer, which is if I really disagree with something, I don’t have that person on one of the shows that I host. If I think someone’s idea is just dumb or stupid, I’m not going to give them the platform that HBR has to offer them. Now that said, there are times when in the course of an interview, someone says something that I think is not backed up by the data or I’m not quite sure or I’m kind of skeptical. In that case, I try to interject and say, “Well a skeptic might hear what you’ve just said there and wonder about this other thing,” and say, “Well some of our listeners might be wondering … ”

In some of those cases, the listener who was wondering is me, but I think just remembering that you were really there to serve the listeners and ask the questions that they would want to ask, I try to do that. I don’t often get super flustered or angry during an interview I’m doing because usually the people who would make me super angry aren’t even on the show to begin with.

Amantha: Fair enough. That’s a perfectly good strategy. I want to shift into writing, and I think it was a couple of weeks ago you tweeted your top writing tips on Twitter, which I think was a good use of social media time.

Sarah: Thank you.

Amantha: I want to read out some of them, and then I want to delve into how did you learn to write because I think in this day and age, and my mom’s a writer and she’s always lamenting the fact that they don’t teach grammar at school like they used to and so forth, but I want to read out some of your pieces of advice. The first one, read your draft aloud. If you stumble over parts of it, readers will too. Love that. Have fun. If you’re not having fun, readers won’t either. Never end an article with some version of time will tell. It’s a cop out. Three great pieces of advice there. I want to know how did you learn to write?

Sarah: Well I have to say my mother really shaped me early on. She also was an editor, and from the very first things that I wrote as a little, little kid and in my very first essays for school, she really walked me through the editing process. I think that’s such a gift because editing is really about taking what you have and making it better. It’s not about rewriting. It’s not about starting over, and I think especially at a young age, that’s what a lot of budding writers do. They don’t really know what editing is. They just start again and write a different version.

I was really lucky to have my mom there to teach me about that. Then I think one of my formative experiences was in college I worked at the Writing Center where peer students give feedback to other students, so working as a peer tutor to others really taught me a lot about how to coach someone in the writing process and specific editing tips that I still use in my job today, and that’s for example where I worked that you should read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound good read aloud, it doesn’t quite work on the page either. A lot of that stuff I actually learned in a college tutoring class.

Then I’ve had really good mentors in the professional world, so Amy Bernstein the editor of HBR has said something that’s really stuck with me, which is when you’re editing something, you really have to ask yourself am I making this different or am I making this better? If you’re just making it different, maybe you don’t make that change. It’s the kind of thing that you can really spend a lifetime honing, and I think I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of people guide me along the way.

Amantha: I love that piece of advice you just mentioned there. What have been some of the other great pieces of advice that you’ve maybe received about your own writing to make your own writing back or to make your own editing process better?

Sarah: I think one that I use a lot when I’m trying to figure out if something’s even worth writing about at all is just to ask. This came from another editor here, Andrea Ovins who’s now retired, but she said I think if I ask five smart people for advice on something and I collected all the advice that I received from them and put it into a piece, if that’s the piece, that’s like not enough for an article because that’s probably just common sense. You don’t really need to write an article if it’s just full of common sense. I think that’s something where I use that rule of thumb to judge if something’s even worth working or even worth writing in the first place.

That’s one that I come back to a lot. Another kind of piece of advice that I got was to always make sure that the examples in the article actually show the idea working. It’s amazing how many times you read an article and it has this interesting theory and then it has this example, but if you really stop and think about it, the example doesn’t always show the idea in action. That’s something that I kind of am always kicking the tires on a little bit. I think another thing I just have noticed on my own as I’ve been editing now for a number of years is most of us spend a good bit of time throat clearing as we’re getting into writing a draft.

Almost all the time in my own writing and when I’m editing other peoples writing, those first two paragraphs probably can be deleted. They served the purpose of helping you start writing the thing, like that is what they are for, but then when you’re revising, probably your third of fourth paragraph is where actually your article starts.

Amantha: I like that one a lot. That’s really interesting. That’s such great advice. I want to delve into the editing part of your role a bit more because I would imagine the editing requires such intense focus and we obviously started this interview talking about things that are distracting, like email, like social media. What are your strategies for staying on task and staying focused and warding off those digital distractions when you do have an intense focused task to do?

Sarah: I think the best thing I do actually is I just work from home one day a week. I am really lucky to have a boss who’s totally on board with that. To me being in a space that has minimal distractions, a space that I can control, we have an open office here which is really great for collaborating, but it’s not so great when you just need to focus. To me, I get more done in that one day a week at home than I do probably in all the other days combined when it comes to actually editing.

The other thing that I have just learned about myself is that I get a ton of editing done on trains and planes because you’re strapped into the seat, you don’t have WiFi. I try as much as possible if I’m traveling for work, I try to take day flights so that I can have that time on the airplane to work. If I have to go down from Boston to New York, I always take the train so that I have the four hours on the train to work. That time becomes disproportionately precious to me. Really it’s about physically removing myself from the distraction of the internet and the distraction of other people to really be able to sit down and focus.

Amantha: I like that. I think it was Oscar Wilde that said, “We can resist everything except temptation.” I guess that’s what you’re doing.

Sarah: Yes.

Amantha: Nice. Do you ever procrastinate?

Sarah: Oh yes. Oh all the time. I will say if I notice I’m procrastinating, I try to ask myself why. Is it because the task is hard? I’m not sure if I know how to do it? Is it because it’s unpleasant? Is it because I’m in a guilt spiral because I’ve already put it off for so long that now the thought of starting just reminds me of how much time I’ve wasted? I try to just be a little bit mindful of that because that usually helps me get over it. If it’s an email that I need to respond to and I just keep putting it off, I just say to myself, “It’s only going to get worse the longer you wait.”

I think we all procrastinate. I think even those of us who have a bias to action and get a lot done, there’s certain things that we just for some reason keep putting off, and I think that’s just human nature.

Amantha: I like that strategy though of doing that check-in with yourself. Does that almost happen automatically now for you or is that on a good day that’s what you’ll do, but on a bad day something else will happen?

Sarah: It’s kind of easier over time to do that. That took a long time for me to learn because it used to just be that the certain emails or certain projects would just linger in the bottom of my inbox until suddenly my whole inbox was the stuff I had been putting off, which then meant that it was too daunting. I think that’s something, and the other thing that has really helped me avoid procrastinating is blocking out time on my calendar for certain things. One of the things that I often procrastinate is evaluating new pitches of new ideas for HBR because any time I’m evaluating new pitches it means I will have to sit down and write rejections, and writing rejections is my least favorite thing to do.

I just have an hour on my calendar every week that’s just for writing rejections so that I can just sit down and just get it done and make myself do it and just move on.

Amantha: Have you mastered the art of writing a polite or nice rejection letter?

Sarah: I try. I try. I try to always be brief, clear and to give a reason because I think you don’t really need to belabor it most of the time. People are just looking for a yes or no answer. I always try to say, “Thank you for sharing this idea with me. I’m so glad you thought of HBR,” and then “This isn’t going to work. We’ve already covered it, or this just isn’t quite the right fit for our audience.” I try to give some reason, even if it’s not detailed feedback and then just thank them again. I always try to keep in mind that people can forward these emails to anyone. Once I send that email, it’s like out there in the world.

Not only do I want the people reading it to have an okay experience, given that they’re being rejected, I also try to keep in mind even if there are times when I might be tempted to send a kind of scrappy email or flaming kind of, “Ugh, I can’t believe you sent this to me,” because we all have bad days. We’re all tempted sometimes to do that. I think do I want this to end on Buzzfeed? No, I don’t. I want to treat people kindly and with compassion.

Amantha: How easy it to make those decisions with people pitching ideas to HBR whether they be for an article or a book? How easy is it for you to decide, yes, this is absolutely suited to HBR or no it’s not? Is that quite a quick decision now given the length of time that you’ve been making those decisions?

Sarah: I think it’s usually pretty clear. I think what is tough is that there is a small percentage of articles that I’m really on the fence about. Even though that’s a very small percentage of articles because it’s usually like this is great or no, this just isn’t going to work, it’s that percentage in the middle that causes me the most angst because that’s the one where it’s like with enough time and work this could really work. Then it’s like, but is it really worth investing that time in this as opposed to some other thing. Those are the ones that really keep me up at night.

Amantha: how do you go about making those decisions?

Sarah: Well I think it’s a question of priorities. I think it’s like is this an author I’m really excited about? Do I think they have more in them and this could be a learning experience? Usually if it’s a brand new offer, I’m more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because I think, well let’s try it and see if their next submission is better. If it’s someone who’s submitted five good pieces and then they send one that’s not so good, I’m probably just going to say, “You missed the mark with this one. I’ll catch you next time.”

There’s different priorities that kind of go into it, and it’s based on the topic. If it’s a topic I love or that we need more content on, I’m more likely to spend more time on it, but it’s really tough. I’ll be honest, anyone who works in journalism knows that there is certain times of year that are more quiet than other times of year, and if you are sending me something in the last week of December when I am the only one in the office and we really need stuff to publish, you have a better chance of being published than if you send it on January 1st when everyone’s like, “My New Year’s Resolution is to be a published author, and here’s a draft.”

Amantha: Oh gosh. That’s funny.

Sarah: I know, sometimes it’s just luck of the draw.

Amantha: Awesome. Look, your work life is all about reading, writing, editing and consuming nonfiction. What role does fiction play in your life?

Sarah: I love fiction, and I majored in English in college, literature, and I have a book club now. Every time my book club picks a nonfiction book, I’m just like no, that’s what I do for work. I love reading fiction. There is even some research I read that shows that when you read fiction, it activates a part of your brain that helps you empathize more with other people and imagine new things. It shapes that part of your brain that’s really about imagining the world as it could be, not just seeing the world as it is. To me, fiction is really important, both for managing stress but also for flexing those other parts of the brain that are just really important parts that are about inventing new things and not just maximizing efficiency.

Amantha: I love that. Now I want to finish with a few questions around what you’re consuming right now because I think it’s so hard for the average listener to know what are the best things to be reading, listening to and so forth. To start with, given we’re just talking about books, what have been a couple of great books, nonfiction or fiction that you’ve read in the last few months?

Sarah: I should have known that question was coming. Now it’s like the test to see can I actually remember any of the things that I read. Well I will say having given kind of a highfalutin answer about fiction and the importance of fiction, I read a ton of mysteries. There’s a ton of murder mysteries, cozy style mysteries that I have read that I loved. I’ve been a real Agatha Christie binge. I read a lot of the Louise Penny mysteries, if anyone out there likes them. She’s a Canadian author I really like.

I’ve been reading a lot of those. I also have been reading, I just finished Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I really like her books. One of my authors actually recommended her stuff to me, and I really enjoyed those. Just really powerful stories about I think I would describe them as the bond between mother and child and how that can be just that bond and all its complexity I think is interesting. Then I read a wonderful book last year, it’s been out for a while, but Commonwealth by Ann Patchett I also really liked. It was from a more literary end of the spectrum. Those are just a couple.

Amantha: Fantastic. How about podcasts? What podcasts are you loving right now?

Sarah: Yes, well as you may have guessed from my love of murder mysteries, I do have a real weakness for true crime podcasts. That’s just something, I have a really long commute. I don’t have a ton of downtime in my life between being maximally productive at work and other stuff. Listening to true crime podcasts on my commute is my me time. That’s just something that I do.

Amantha: What are your go-to ones? What are the best ones?

Sarah: One of the ones I really love is In the Dark. They’ve done two seasons, investigative reporting. I think both seasons are really, really good. I find out about new crime podcasts to listen to from a show called Crime Writers On where they review other shows, and that’s a great way for me to figure out other new podcasts I might want to listen to. I will tell you a really random one that I have really been into that’s not about crime but it’s about gardening, which is another one of my hobbies, it’s called Let’s Argue About Plants. It is literally two people arguing about plants.

Amantha: I love the name of that podcast.

Sarah: One I’ve been really into lately is Radiolab did a show called More Perfect that’s all about the U.S. Supreme Court that I found really interesting. I try to use the podcasts. I like business and leadership podcasts I listen to as well, but mostly what I try to do with podcasts is really say, okay, this is my time to learn about other things that are not business, and so much of my work life is management and leadership and business stuff like that.

Amantha: Fantastic. How about A newsletters? Are there any A newsletters that you actually look forward to reading and receiving?

Sarah: That’s a good question. I have not gotten as into the newsletter thing as some other people. Is there a newsletter that you really like that you think that I should listen to?

Amantha: Oh, I quite like Morning Brew.

Sarah: You read them, you don’t listen to them.

Amantha: Yeah.

Sarah: Morning Brew, okay.

Amantha: Morning Brew, and I’ll link to all these in the show notes. It’s just a really nice summary and done in a really funny kind of way, funny as in hilarious, not odd about the news that has just been over the last 24 hours. Yeah, I quite like that one.

Sarah: Okay, cool. I will check that one out.

Amantha: How about, I know this is probably asking you to pick your favorite child, but what’s been your favorite or maybe one of your favorite articles that’s appeared on HBR this year?

Sarah: Oh, this year, okay. Well there’s one article that we published relatively recently that I think would be of interest given some of the things we’ve been talking about today. It is by a researcher whose name is [Reese Besterland 00:40:12], and it’s all about why people but especially women volunteer for tasks that don’t lead to promotions. In fact, the title of the article is Why Women Volunteer for Tasks that Don’t Lead to Promotions.
I think it’s the kind of thing where if you were the person who when your boss or someone in a meeting says, “Oh does anyone want to take notes, oh will anyone be available to help clean up after this meeting,” if you’re the person who always does that stuff or who volunteers to be on the most boring committee because no one else will do it, I strongly recommend you check it out because it’s the kind of thing that we were saying earlier we only have 24 hours in a day. Everything in life involves some kind of trade-off. If you spend time on X, you won’t have time to spend time on Y. If you’re spending your time on these low value tasks, your colleagues might be grateful that you don’t have to do that, but you will not get promoted for doing that stuff.

For people who want to advance in their career but feel bogged down by these things, I think that’s really one that’s worth checking out.

Amantha: I love the sound of that. Finally, how can people find you and the work that you’re doing?

Sarah: Yes, so I think, if they want to that would be awesome. They can find me on Twitter, @SKGreen. I would love it if they would be interested in subscribing to a couple of the podcasts I host. I host the HBR IdeaCast and also Women At Work, which is also from HBR. People want to follow those, that would be great.

Amantha: Fantastic. Well look, I’ve loved our chat, and I’ve learned so much. Thank you so much Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you for having me. I really had a fun time talking with you.

Amantha: Hello there. That’s it for today’s episode. If you liked it, there are plenty of others that you might enjoy such as my chat with Nancy Duarte, the global expert on presentations where we talk about how she prepares for her own presentations, or you might enjoy one of my mini episodes where I share some simple science backed productivity tips that I’ve discovered in the research. Finally, it’s great getting feedback from listeners such as yourself. I’d love it if you’d give this podcast a review in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like this episode, make sure you hit the subscribe button so that you can be alerted whenever new episodes are released.

See you next time.