What I Learned from Reading 6,000+ Articles in the Last 52 Weeks

One year ago, I started the Sunday Reads newsletter. It’s a short email that goes out once every week (on Sunday, obviously), with “the best articles on business, strategy, entrepreneurship, and everything in between.”

Every week, I share the best articles I read that week. Sometimes they’re organized around a theme. Sometimes not. But there they are, without fail, in your inbox every Sunday.

I realized just last week that over the year, I had shared 600+ articles through that weekly email. And often, I read at least ten times as many articles during the week, to choose these best 10-12 articles.

What have I learned from these 6,000+ articles? Have they made me better at what I do?

No trees were harmed in the making of this post

No trees were harmed in the making of this post

A part of me answers almost immediately – yes, for sure! But how exactly have they helped? Can I tease out the key lessons I’ve learned from the articles? Or is it just a vague sense of achievement and hope – surely I haven’t wasted those hours?


So, over the last 7 days, I went back to those 52 emails. And pulled out the key learnings and principles that I’ve actually tried to use in my life.

Two caveats before we go on:

First, this is a long post. I’ve tried to summarize the key concepts I’ve learned, and it turns out 6,000 articles means a ton of learnings!

Second, I’ve included (several) links for further reading. Every paragraph is a rabbit hole. So, first read through the whole thing without clicking through on any link. Then, come back. Feel free to dive as deep as you want, on the subjects that interest you.

 

1. Goals don’t work. Use systems instead.

This was not a new lesson for me. But across article after article, book after book, this got reinforced. No matter the field, what seems to work is understanding the basic principles and following them. That’s it.

Success is not about choosing an ambitious goal and stretching to reach it. Whether in running your business or trying to win arguments with your spouse, hard work won’t cut it. Instead, you understand the basics, try a lot of different things, learn what works, and iterate or double down.

If you do it right, then no matter whether you succeed or fail in one specific endeavor, you’ll always come out ahead. You’ll always learn something that’ll be useful next time.

This sounds a little hackneyed at this high level, I know. But as you’ll see, it permeates all the other lessons below.

Further reading: Goals vs. Systems. I’ve read this a few times before, but I was still blown away by the simplicity when I read it just now. If you like this, you’ll love Scott Adams’ book.

 

2. Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

There are two types of people – those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, you think you are at the peak of your skills. You’re the best artist, manager, husband, wife, etc. you can be.

If, on the other hand, you have a growth mindset, then you strongly believe you can grow and improve at whatever you do. Whether in your personal life (you can always become a better husband. OK, that hit too close to home), or in your professional career. There’s always room for improvement.

Your mindset determines how successful you are to a surprising extent. People with growth mindsets are more willing to try new things, learn new skills, and take risks. And those who take risks, get the rewards. Fortune favors the brave, etc.

Further Reading: You can read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which outlines the research on the subject. Or read Maria Popova’s review of the book.

 

3. Deliberate Practice

Let’s say you have a growth mindset. Is that enough to grow and improve your skills over time?

If the goals vs. systems argument tells us anything, it’s that just believing you can improve at something isn’t enough. So, what’s the system for this?

Practice. Not just doing something for 10,000 hours. Deliberate practice. Working at the edge of your abilities, getting immediate feedback (succeeding / failing), learning, and trying again. That’s what builds skills.

If you want to learn business, start a side-business. At every stage – idea generation, building your first product, selling it to your first customer – you’ll fail the first few times. And you’ll learn immensely.

If you want to improve your writing skills, start a blog. It takes 2 minutes on Medium. Write every day, and ask your friends and colleagues for feedback. Rinse, repeat.

Further Reading: Cal Newport’s book on the subject is excellent. This article from his blog is a good summary of the six traits of deliberate practice.


 

These were the three most important learnings for me from my last year of reading.

  1. Take a systems approach to all your endeavors
  2. There’s always room to become better at what you do
  3. The “system” to become better is deliberate practice

Everything else stems from these key principles. They form the foundation for the rest of the learnings. Get these right, and everything else falls into place. How’s that for a system?

 

As I continued plowing through the articles, I saw that a lot of them were organized around skills essential to succeed in the workplace today. Communication, structured thinking and problem solving, creativity, and focus (especially focus), to name a few.

How do we build these skills?

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4. How to learn anything

Communication, structured thinking, etc. are critical skills. But there’s one skill that’s a precursor to all this – the ability to pick up new skills quickly.

As Scott Adams says in his book, every new skill you learn doubles your chances of success. To take a simple example – an MBA who knows to code is far more valuable than just an MBA. And if this person also understands, say, cinematography, then the unique opportunities available are far more lucrative.

So, you need to continually build new skills throughout your career, to take advantage of new opportunities. And ideally, you’ll build skills that are themselves useful across a diverse set of sectors (system approach again).

OK, you’re sold. Learning how to learn is key (it’s also the secret moral of Kung Fu Panda, but that’s another story).

But how do you learn? You could join a course at your local university, or hire a teacher online, and do your 10,000 hours.

Or, you could use the Pareto principle to identify the 20% of concepts that have 80% of the importance, and quickly learn and practice those.

Further Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Learning Anything Faster

 

5. How to become smarter

Don’t you want to be that guy, who always sees through to the crux of an issue? Who understands the real problem, which no one else can see? Who always sees the way out of an unresolvable predicament?

I certainly want to be that guy.

Turns out, this is a learnable skill.

a. Don’t be stupid

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner-in-crime, once said, “The best way to be smart is to not be stupid”.

We are not rational beings, as economists would have us believe. Not by a long shot. As I’ve written before, we’re not only not rational, we’re also irrational in consistent and repeatable ways.

We’re subject to several cognitive biases, which predictably warp our judgement.

Anchoring is one example of a pervasive bias. The first number thrown in a negotiation becomes an unconscious anchor to the rest of the bargaining. That’s why both parties fight to shout out the first bid.

Availability bias is another one. We overestimate the probability of an event if we can remember vivid instances of it. We pay more for earthquake insurance than for calamity insurance (even though the latter includes earthquakes!), we overestimate the possibility of winning the lottery if our neighbor just won it last week, and so on.

This site has an extensive list of such biases.

How do you avoid these biases? Here’s the thing – you can’t.

Since these operate at a subliminal level, just knowing them won’t prevent them. Next time someone makes the first offer in a negotiation, you’ll predictably bargain around that.

Instead, counteract these in your decision-making by using a two-track thinking process.

  • First, make a decision rationally (to the best of your abilities)
  • Then, try and recognize the biases you’re subject to, and adjust accordingly

Do this again and again, and you’ll soon become a natural. At not being stupid.

b. Develop a latticework of mental models

This idea also comes from Charlie Munger.

There are several different frameworks that help us understand the world. Understanding and building a repository of these frameworks in our heads can help us become much faster at comprehending the forces at play around us.

For example, knowing about the concept of virtuous cycles can help us understand the remarkable success of Uber. Understanding the power of incentives can help us predict that what gets measured will get managed. Or that what doesn’t get measured, won’t even exist.

Shane Parrish explains the concept of mental models well in this Introduction. He also shares some models from his toolkit.

c. Read actively.

Don’t just read – read actively. Make sure you’re internalizing what you read.

That’s the Buffett formula to get smarter, this time.

 

d. Keep a commonplace notebook

Whenever you read anything interesting or insightful, or see a surprising pattern, put it down in a notebook.

Over time, this will become a repository of the smartest things you’ve read. A surprisingly easy place to go back to whenever you need inspiration, or a way out of a thorny problem.

Here’s how to keep a commonplace notebook, and here’s why you should keep one. This is my commonplace notebook, and I love it!

 

6. How to become creative

Turns out creativity is a learnable skill too! Here’s how you become an Idea Machine.

[Aside: if you want to learn how to have great startup ideas, read this guide. But be warned, you’ll sometimes come up with ideas that seem to have a lot of potential, but are actually bad. Here’s how to recognize bad ideas that look good.]

 

7. How to communicate better

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a. How to write better

Just two rules: (1) Never use passive voice; and (2) Keep it simple. Don’t use two words where one will do. Don’t use a long sentence where two shorter ones will do. That’s it. Nothing more.

Further Reading: The day you became a better writer. And if you need help, check out the Hemingway app.

 

b. How to argue better

Before you even begin to argue:

(1) First, understand whether your opponent’s opinion is changeable at all. Ask: “What specific data points, if true, would convince you to change your mind?” If nothing will, you might as well not waste your time arguing. [Aside: yes, the similarity to the scientific method is not incidental].

(2) Then, as Daniel Dennett says here, first restate your opponent’s view so clearly and succinctly that they wish they could have put it that way themselves.

(3) Then, call out the specific areas on which you agree with your opponent, and what you’ve learnt from their view.

Then, and only then, should you say even one word of criticism.

 

How do you argue after that? Using the Ten Golden Rules of Argument.

And yes, remember Miller’s Law. “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”

Before you say some statement is wrong or silly, first challenge yourself to think of a scenario where that statement actually makes sense. [The same principle applies for criticizing political decisions, competitors’ moves, etc.]

 

Finally, be happy to be proven wrong, like Darwin. Remember, you only learn when you lose arguments.

c. How to give feedback better

There’s no playbook here.

Actually there is one – sandwich your feedback between two appreciative comments. It’s also known as The Shit Sandwich, and no, it doesn’t work. People see it coming a mile away. You start by saying “Your emails are always so well formatted”, and the opposite person immediately thinks, “God! How have I screwed up now?”

Instead, be authentic.

And come from the right place. Remember, you’re giving feedback so that the person succeeds going forward. And give constructive feedback frequently – don’t wait for review cycles, or the end of the week, etc.

That’s how you give feedback.

Further Reading: Making yourself a CEO, by Ben Horowitz. And Roger Fisher on How to Provide Feedback.

 

d. How to negotiate better

Nothing I say here will be as valuable as reading this excellent summary of Roger Fisher’s book, Getting to Yes.

 

In addition to all these, there’s one more important tenet to interpersonal communication. Always respond positively when someone says something to you. Negative / sarcastic reactions, or even no reaction at all, can be very damaging to relationships, as this article from Farnam Street recounts.

 

8. How to focus

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This is an important one. Between emailing all day, getting pings on Whatsapp, and checking what’s new on Twitter, it’s a wonder we get any work done.

Even as I type this, my hand continually reaches out to check my phone. Maybe there’s a new message since I last checked 2 minutes ago?

As this article from the NYT argues, focus is a critical skill. And it’s incredibly hard in this age of digital distraction. But as Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, it can be learned.

How do we learn it? By practicing it:

  1. First, use the Pareto principle. Take your to-do list, and remove the 80% of tasks that are unimportant.
  2. Then, use Parkinson’s Law (“work expands / contracts to fill the time available to it”). Give yourself slightly less time than needed for each of the 20% important tasks. This will force you to focus – if you get distracted, you won’t be able to finish in the given time.
  3. Of course, you’ll have to do the less important tasks at some point. For this, use a shallow work checklist that you tick things off when taking a break from the important tasks.

 

9. How to become a better manager

Read this FAQ from Henry Ward, CEO of eShares. Enough said.

 

10. How to get lucky

The last and final lesson I learned, and arguably the most important one. Building all those skills is great – it sets you up for success. But getting all the firewood together in one pile is not enough. Something has to light the fire. And luck is that matchstick.

Analogies apart (you can tell they’re my weak spot), you can acquire all the skills you want and work as hard as you can. But to win really big, you also need Lady Luck to favor you. And luck can be as capricious as they come.

But, like everything else above, you can engineer luck as well. You can expose yourself to positive luck, while limiting the downside from negative luck.

In the words of Nassim Taleb, you can be antifragile.

How do you do that?

a. Employ a barbell strategy – maintain a portfolio of low-risk / low-reward and high-risk / high-reward strategies.

Keep your day job, and try and build a side-business on the weekends. Quit your job only after the startup starts to scale. Even Craigslist was built in Craig’s spare time.

[Extra marks if you build your side business in a Power Law market. In such markets, if you do win, you’ll win huge.]

 

b. Build a strong network of ‘weak’ links – the best opportunities are at the edges of the status quo in every field. If you know people at the cutting edge in every industry, you’ll be better placed to spot and capitalize on big opportunities. Spend time with A+ people from other industries. [Note: This is also evidently the no. 1 predictor of career success].

 

c. Develop an “abundance mindset”. Look around and notice things. Be open to serendipity.

Nat Eliason has written a great primer on getting exposure to positive luck. You can also read this excellent book.


 

That’s it. Those were the lessons I learned from the 6,000+ articles I read in the last 52 weeks.

Oh, and I also learned that we’re living in a simulation. Probably. Quantum theory certainly seems to suggest so. Elon Musk thinks so. So do Scott Adams, Nick Bostrom, and a host of other tech leaders.

Oh well – hope someone’s writing a subroutine to guarantee success if we learn all these skills!

Related Posts:

5 remarkable ideas that transformed how I think in 2015

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Regular readers of this blog and my newsletter (subscribe here if you haven’t!) know that I’m an avid reader. 2015, for me, was a year of quantity. I read 60+ books, and at least ten times as many articles.

Some of these were bad, some good, and some changed my perspective on work and life.

I could list the top 5 books I read in the year. But instead, let me present the top 5 ideas that transformed my thinking, and the books I found them in.

[Note: You can find my 2014 list here.]

1. Keystone Habit – One Habit to Rule Them All (The Power of Habit)

I’ve written before about Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking. The former is rapid, automatic, instinctive and judgmental. The latter is slower, more considered and analytical, and more effortful.

In most situations, we tend to use the quick-and-dirty System 1. The more methodical System 2 is quite lazy.

This proclivity to use System 1 underlines the importance of habits. Such sequential, repetitive tasks are so ingrained that we do them without thinking. The essence of System 1.

For instance, do you think when you’re brushing your teeth in the morning? More likely you’re so woozy you can’t walk straight. Still, your teeth are sparkling clean by the end of it.

That’s the power of habits – you can do certain tasks without thinking.

To understand more about habits, I read two books this year – Hooked and The Power of Habit. They talk a lot about the structure of habits, how to build good habits, how to break bad habits, etc.

But the most powerful concept to me was that of the keystone habit. Keystone habits are small, narrow habits in one area of your life that impact several other areas in a significant manner.

As Charles Duhigg says in The Power of Habit:

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

A few examples of this are:

  1. Exercise. When you start exercising, even if only once a week, it triggers changes in various other areas. You start eating better. You become more productive and confident at work. You show more patience towards your family and colleagues. All because of a few push-ups once a week. That’s a keystone habit.
  2. Making your bed every morning. It’s a tiny, almost irrelevant change. But studies show that this correlates with better productivity, greater well-being, and more willpower.
  3. Willpower. This is the most important keystone habit. Studies show that willpower in children is the most accurate indicator of academic performance throughout their student lives. Even more accurate than IQ.

At an organizational level as well, keystone habits can have transformative impact. The book cites an example of how a worker safety program at Alcoa ended up not only improving safety, but also turning Alcoa into a profit machine.

How do these small, unrelated habits have such widespread impact? In Duhigg’s own words:

Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

So what are your keystone habits at life and work?

Books: The Power of Habit, Hooked

Further Reading: Pregnant mothers – the holy grail of retail; Keystone habits: why they are important, and how you can build them effortlessly

2. Rewards and their Unintended Consequences (Drive)

Incentives are strange, powerful beasts. Whether it’s pocket money we give children for doing household tasks or bonuses our bosses give us for exceeding sales targets, incentives play a key role in driving us to perform.

As Charlie Munger, legendary investor, says in his famous Psychology of Human Misjudgment speech,

I think I’ve been in the top five percent of my age cohort almost all my adult life in understanding the power of incentives, and yet I’ve always underestimated that power. Never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes a little further my appreciation of incentive superpower.

Given the immense power of incentives, it becomes all the more important to design them right. If they’re even slightly misaligned, they can “damage civilization” (Munger’s words, a tad hyperbolic).

I read Drive earlier this year – an insightful book on the powers of rewards. The book also talks about the negative influences of incentives, if not designed well.

  1. Incentives can drown out intrinsic motivation, even when you’re doing a task you enjoy. If you receive an incentive for doing something, you also receive a subliminal message that the task is not worth doing without the incentive. End result: incentives transform an interesting task into a drudge, and play into work.
  1. Incentives can only give a short-term boost. Like caffeine, they’re useful when a deadline looms. But beware the energy crash that will inevitably follow.
  2. Rewards can become addictive. As Daniel Pink, the author, says – Yes, rewards motivate people. To get more rewards.
  3. Incentives do have their uses, but only for process-oriented tasks. In fact, incentives for creative tasks can impede progress. They narrow your focus at the exact moment when you need broad thinking.

The book captures many more interesting and significant implications of an innocuous, innocent incentive.

Book: Drive

Further Reading: Yes, rewards motivate people. To get more rewards.

 

3. Your MVP can be more “minimum” than you think (Lean Startup)

Most people working in the startup ecosystem are familiar with the Minimum Viable Product. The MVP is the most basic version of your product that still delivers your core offering.

It’s an important concept to keep in mind as you build a product. You don’t want to spend too much time building the first version, before realizing customers don’t want it.

I thought I’d understood the concept well. I congratulated myself as I built my first product in three months, found that people didn’t need it, and junked it. And again when I built my next product in four months, tested it with customers for three, and then pivoted it to its current form.

Then I read Lean Startup.

I realized then that I’d taken far too long to build my MVP. What’s more – so had everyone else I know. Why do we all take so damn long to build an MVP?

The reason is that we’ve got the concept wrong. You don’t need to ‘build’ an MVP. You just need to put it together.

What does that mean?

Let’s say you want to create a website offering fashion tips. You can launch in one day or less.

  1. Buy a domain. 3 hours (the actual purchase will take 2 min. But I know you’ll agonize over names for the remaining 2 hours 58. And no, the name won’t matter.)
  2. Build a landing page with Unbounce where people can ask questions or upload photos. 1 hour.
  3. Run a small Facebook campaign publicizing the site. Or tell 10 friends, and tell them to tell 10 more each. That’s your test audience. 2 hours. 

Thus, you can be up and running tomorrow! Even if you’re slow because this is your first time.

Many popular products of today hacked together such makeshift MVPs when they started. Check out the article in Further Reading for examples.

Books: Lean Startup, Four Steps to the Epiphany (focused more on the actual process of building a company in the Lean Startup way)

Further Reading: Your Minimum Viable Product can be more “Minimum” than you think; Have a great business idea? Don’t quit your job yet.

 

4. Pareto Principle & the Minimum Effective Dose (Four Hour Work Week)

Four Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, is THE book to read on personal and business productivity. Unlike most productivity books and blogs, he eschews all the standard life-hacking methods (of the “shake your hips while you brush your teeth, to get some exercise” variety).

All he has to say about traditional time management is, “Forget all about it.”

Instead, he focuses on using the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. He uses this to introduce the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose – the smallest amount of effort for the most impact.

Whether your customers, your vendors, books you read, anything – choose the few that give you the most value, and forget about the rest.

He should know. He puts the Pareto principle on steroids. Sample this:

  1. In his nutrition products business, he “fired” the least profitable 97% (!) of his customers, to instead focus on the 3% most promising ones and double his income.
  2. He eliminated 70% of his advertising costs and almost doubled his direct sales income.
  3. He discontinued over 99% of his online affiliates.

Eliminating the least value tasks and business relationships helped him free up his time to do more productive tasks. And achieve the Holy Grail of less work but more profit. That’s how you do productivity!

Side note: In his follow up book, The Four Hour Body, Ferriss uses the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose to illustrate how to become more healthy. Check that out too.

Books: Four Hour Work Week, Four Hour Body

Further Reading: Winners don’t do things differently. They do different things., The Power of the Minimum Effective Dose

 

5. What’s your BATNA? (Getting to Yes)

One skill I tried to build last year was negotiation and persuasion. I read three great books on the subject. I’m still to have the investor conversations where I’ll use this skill, so I don’t know how much they’ve helped!

But one concept that has stuck is that of the BATNA – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. In simple terms, the BATNA is your fall-back option in case talks fall through.

Your BATNA is tantamount to your leverage in the negotiation. It works in two ways.

1. The better your BATNA, the more leverage you have.

Let’s say you’re negotiating the sale of your house with a prospective buyer. Your alternative to this is to (a) rent it out; (b) sell it to a land developer to make a parking lot, and (c) live there yourself. If option (b), say, is the most attractive of these, then that’s your BATNA. The value the land developer offers you should form the baseline for the negotiation.

As long as the buyer’s offer is higher than this, you can reduce your price (after making a big deal of it, of course).

Far more important though, is that if the buyer pushes you below this BATNA, you can and should refuse. This is difficult. We tend to over-invest emotionally in a long negotiation. But with this hard stop in mind, you can overrule your emotions and walk away.

2. The worse you make your opponent’s BATNA, the more leverage you have.

Improving your BATNA gives you leverage. Straightforward. But there’s a more interesting insight here. You can improve your leverage by worsening your opponent’s BATNA.

Let’s say you’re the prospective buyer in the above transaction. You know that your seller is holding out because of the safety net of the land developer.

So, you remove that safety net. For example, you could sell one of your own other properties to the land developer, so he’s no longer making an offer to your seller.

By removing the most promising alternative your seller has, you’re weakening his leverage. And strengthening your own considerably.

Books: Getting to Yes, Influence, Bargaining for Advantage

 

6. [BONUS] Focus on strengths, not lack of weaknesses (The Hard Thing about Hard Things)

By default, we are all risk averse. In fact, Loss Aversion is one of the strongest, most deep-rooted cognitive biases there is, squirming deep inside our brain’s reptilian core.

This loss aversion manifests itself in several ways. Holding on to bad-performing stocks in the hope of a turnaround. Not making bets because of high risk, even if the reward is much higher.

In the corporate environment, this results in a preference for well-rounded candidates. We tend to choose such people over others who are spiky in some areas, but middling in others. We choose average programmers with great communication skills over 10x programmers who are introverts. We reject uber-salesmen just because they don’t know much about tech.

As Ben Horowitz says in this book, that’s the exact wrong approach. That’s not how great organizations work. Instead, such organizations look for excellent candidates, who are in the top 1 percentile of their roles. Never mind that they’re not good at other things.

“Identify the strengths you want, and the weaknesses you’re willing to tolerate.”

Your Product team should have the best programmers. Even if their communication skills could be better. For sales, hire the best salesmen out there, even if they’ve not worked in your industry before.

We also tend to paper over the weaknesses and focus on repairing them. Again, not the most optimal approach. Instead, focus on honing your employees’ strengths. Plug the weaknesses (If they’re important. They often aren’t.) by hiring superstars in those areas.

Books: The Hard Thing about Hard Things


So, those were the books and ideas that captivated my thinking in the last year. Here’s to many more brilliant ideas and books in the new year. Of course, you’ll be the first to know of any great books I find (sign up here to receive regular updates!).

Related Posts:

Winners don’t do things differently. They do different things.

No, I haven’t made a typo in the title. The age old saying “Winners don’t do different things. They do things differently.”, made famous by Shiv Khera in his book You Can Win, is wrong.

I remember when the book came out, everyone quoted it as gospel. Every individual can be great. All you need to do is work hard, and work smart. And they would all nod knowingly at the last clause. So that’s what I did – studied hard, went to a good B-School, got a great job and worked hard (and smart) there.

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But unfortunately, this saying isn’t true. And it’s becoming more false as technology eats the world (to co-opt Marc Andreessen’s pet phrase).

 

This mentality of doing things smarter now pervades all aspects of our life. But it suffers from one fallacy – what I call ‘focusing on the numerator’.

It’s like a company that focuses only on improving its profit margin. It brings in cutting-edge efficient machines, implements Just-in-time production techniques, and what have you. But with all these productivity improvements, how much could the profit margin increase? From 15% to 20%? 40%? 100%??

Even in the best (and impossible) scenario, the upside is capped at 100% of revenue. What if you focused, instead, on the denominator? What if you looked for ways to achieve a step jump in revenue? Suddenly, there’s far more value to capture, even if you are inefficient.

 

What you work on matters, and matters far, far more than how hard you work. This is an example of a Power law, which I’ve written about before.  In the early 1900s in England, there was a profession of people called ‘knocker-uppers’ (no, it’s not what you think). Their task was to wake people up every morning. They would walk the streets with a long stick, and tap on windows till people woke up. Many of them worked hard. I’m sure they worked smart too – with well-balanced, aerodynamic and sonorous sticks. Still, they lost their livelihoods in a jiffy when alarm clocks came into the market.

Moral of the story: Do more valuable tasks, instead of doing less valuable tasks efficiently or smartly. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.

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This is how the world is today – it’s the new normal. The companies that win are the ones that innovate 10X and ‘change the game’. Not the ones who innovate incrementally. As Peter Thiel says in his book, don’t move an industry to greater efficiencies (i.e., from 1 to 1.1). Focus instead on moving something from zero to one.

Look at the biggest companies around us – Google (search advertising), Apple (iPhone), Amazon (e-commerce, e-books, etc.). They didn’t just improve search algorithms, build a better phone, or sell books through a simpler distribution chain. They revolutionized their respective industries. Not by doing things differently or more efficiently, but by doing different things.

And it’s not just companies – it’s visible in every aspect of life. No longer can you say, “Karm kar, phal ki chinta na kar” (“Work hard, don’t worry about the result”) in all honesty. If the recipe sucks, it doesn’t matter how good a cook you are.

This may be bad news. But it’s good news as well. Once you start looking for this ‘focus on the numerator’ behavior everywhere, you can make more valuable decisions about your company, your products, and your time.

A few examples of the implications, off the top of my head:

  1. Product Management: Instead of A/B testing and optimizing your nth new feature, focus on getting more people to use your product. Andrew Chen puts this well in a recent article.
  2. HR: Instead of trying to getting the best out of your team, learn how to build a better team. [This is more important in technology businesses, and less so in traditional brick-and-mortar companies.]
  3. Health: You can try to manage your cholesterol by eating french fries cooked in refined oil or unsaturated oil or whatever the flavor of the season is. Or, you can just stop eating french fries!
  4. Personal Finance: Focus on earning more, not spending less. A direct corollary of the revenue-profit point I made earlier. It’s ironic, but I’m the prime target for this lesson. As a Tam-Brahm, I started expense budgeting almost before I could walk. I’ve spent countless hours balancing my expenses, tracking my receipts, and strategizing lower spends, when I could have instead focused on doing more valuable things. Which means anything else, basically.
  5. Personal Productivity: Be effective, not efficient, as Tim Ferriss says in The Four Hour Work Week. Do two important things, instead of 10 unimportant ones. Again, a slap on my face – so far, I was firmly in the ‘get more out of your day‘ brigade.

TL:DR: In work as in life, we should strive hard by all means. But we must think hard first – is what I’m doing the most valuable thing I could do? Let’s build more important things, instead of optimizing our lives away.

Pic00002


What do you think? Are there any other examples of ‘focus on the numerator’ behavior? Drop me an email at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com, comment here, or tweet at @jithamithra.

[Note: This article first appeard in Yourstory.]

 

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Your brain is a muscle. Here’s how you give it a workout.

Exercise

I asked this question on Facebook last week, and got a lot of suggestions (thanks a lot, folks!). There were several great ideas for exercising the brain, but I also got one saying, “The brain is not a muscle. It’s an organ!”. So let me be the first one to say it here – of course the brain is an organ. But it does have some properties of a muscle – for instance, it can be trained and made more powerful, more agile, and sharper.

So, assuming you’re with me on the muscle metaphor, how can you exercise your brain every day?

 

Before we go on, let’s talk about the different facets of the brain – the different skills that you can hone. Now, scientifically, there are many different ways to look at this. One article lists five different brain-skills, and Wikipedia’s page on Cognitive Development lists seven! But for all practical purposes, I think of three distinct skills to exercise:

  1. Agility – the speed and nimbleness of your brain. I’m sure you have those days, every once in a while, when it feels like your brain is fogged up, and you’re sleepwalking through your day. On those days, your brain is the opposite of agile. And you can fix that (unless it’s due to a hangover; everything has limits).
  2. Creativity – The thinking brain, at its most basic, is a pattern recognition device (I’m really going with the metaphors here). Even its primary function of building and retrieving memories is built on pattern recognition – that’s why, when you’re thinking of something and you let your mind wander, you find you’ve reached quite somewhere else. Most of the time, these seemingly random connections happen at the subliminal level, and you suddenly realize you’ve answered the very question you’re grappling with – that’s what Eureka moments are. This kind of creativity can be manufactured as well. You can train your brain to see patterns where others don’t, and come up with insightful ideas – which is what creativity really is.
  3. Memory: This is the biggest bugbear for our overburdened minds today. In this age of hyper-information, how do we remember everything of consequence, and extract it from our brains at the right time?

 

Let’s take these three areas one by one:

1. Agility:

Agility

The adage “Healthy mind in a healthy body” rings perfectly true. If you’re not sleeping well and exercising regularly, then that’s what you should do first to make your mind more agile. Nevertheless, the different exercises below help quite significantly.

a. Learn a new skill

Whenever you learn a new skill, you create new neural pathways in your brain – making it fresher and more active. That’s why you feel more energetic whenever you learn something new. When you learn to play a musical instrument or dance, you are learning physical skills; but they have an impact on your brain as well. You’re learning a new way to use your limbs, so to speak, and that creates new routines in your brain.

I started learning Krav Maga, a self-defense technique, last year. For a pacifist like me, this is as new a skill as one can imagine. And over the last 15 months, whether or not I’ve become better at protecting myself (I still get beaten up by the wife), I definitely feel a lot more energetic, both physically and mentally.

b. Use Elevate

If you use an iPhone / Android smartphone, you must try Elevate. It’s an app that gives you a few brain exercises every day, across several areas – math, reading comprehension and agility, speaking precision, listening, etc. It takes just 5 minutes every day, and you’ll feel the difference in a matter of days.

I’ve been using Elevate for a few months now, and swear by it. Doing such thinking exercises every day sharpens your brain – builds a muscle memory, as it were (yes, I know the brain is not a muscle). And the best thing about the app is that it always challenges you. As you get better at these exercises, so do they get harder. And this constant effort at the boundary of your abilities is what makes you stronger – again, just like building muscles at a gym (OK, I’ll try to stop with the analogies now).

In summary, this is an excellent app to use. If there’s one thing you do after reading this post (apart from sleeping well and exercising) – download Elevate.

c. Meditate / Practise Mindfulness:

In our rush to get the most out of life, we tend to optimize away our time (I know I do). Do this for too long, and you face burnout.

Sometimes, you need to simplify, slow down, and clear your head. And meditation is a great way to recapture your energy. But you don’t have to sit in one place in padmasana and try and blank your mind. Rather, meditation is more about concentrating – concentrating on your breath, your limbs, etc. And meditation is closely related to mindfulness, or paying close attention to what you’re doing and thinking. And you don’t have to sit down to be mindful – focus when you’re doing even mundane tasks (like folding clothes). You’ll find that by the time you’re done (unless you’re doing laundry after a very long time), you’re the fresher for it.

I try this sometimes when I’m stuck in traffic on the way home – I keep my phone aside, and pay attention to what’s going on around me. That way, when I get home, I’m rested rather than frustrated, and rearing to get to work again. As they say, when life deals you lemons…

As an aside, if you want to learn meditation, Headspace and Calm come highly recommended. I’ve never tried them, but do give them a spin. And tell me whether you like them.

d. Daily writing:

I strongly recommend this as well. Every day, maybe just before going to sleep, write 500 words. You can write about anything – your day, a funny incident, an observation, anything. Putting your thoughts down helps you structure them and clear your head. And there’s nothing like a clear mind to dump more thoughts and information into.

Incidentally, this is why I started this blog – as an outlet for all my thoughts. Writing forces me to make sense of them, and draw out coherent implications. It also forces me to be rational – if I write about the different ways of being more productive, I HAVE to practise them myself. Can’t just keep giving gyaan (if the wife were to read my blog, she would roll her eyes here).

 

2. Creativity

Creativity

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve heard people talk about the left brain-right brain framework. People who are more analytical, logical and deductive are “left-brained”, and those who are more intuitive, subjective and creative are “right-brained”. I was always “left-brained” – good at math, computer engineer. People with liberal arts backgrounds are considered more creative, and “right-brained”.

However, not only is this left brain-right brain belief a myth, creativity is also something that can be learnt and cultivated. How do you do it? By strengthening the pattern recognition machine in your head. And how do you do that?

a. Creativity exercises:

A number of exercises help you train your brain’s creativity and improve your ability to come up with ideas. These may or may not have any real-world application, but each of them make you focus your mind on a particular problem and work at the boundary of your creative ability – thereby extending those boundaries too.

  1. Make lists: I first read about this on James Altucher’s Blog. In a post with the most over the top title ever (The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine), Altucher lays out a simple thesis for becoming more creative. Make lists of 10 ideas every day. But ideas for what? Whatever you want – 10 books that changed your life, 10 startup ideas in education, 10 blog posts to write, 10 knock-knock jokes, anything. This sounds random, but it works. Let’s say you try and make a list of 10 things you learnt from the last book you read – you’d probably be able to think of 3-4 very quickly. The next 2-3 will make you sweat a little. And the last 3 will tax your brain – the proverbial heavy lifting where muscles get made. Make these lists every day, and your idea muscle will, slowly but surely, grow stronger.
    And every once in a while, you’ll come across a great idea that you cannot but follow through on. Starting my blog, creating the Startup Weekly newsletter, many of my blog posts (including this one!) are all, in one way or another, the result of this simple exercise that I do every morning on my train ride to work.
  2. Logical Puzzles: Logical puzzles, or lateral thinking problems, are a great way to practise thinking ‘out-of-the-box’. Doing such puzzles every so often, whether you get them right or you peek at the solution (I am an inveterate peeker), introduces you to different mental models or approaches to problem-solving, which will definitely stand you in good stead in real life (if only to amaze job interviewers who give you a puzzle you’ve seen before). There is a reason that ‘thinking out of the box’ has become such a cliché – it works, and while it can’t be taught, it can certainly be cultivated.
    As a sample, try out this exam question that has taken the Internet by storm. And you can find many more online – just search for ‘logical thinking puzzles’ on Google.

b. Read books:

Books are a great way to expand your horizons, broaden your thinking, and build new patterns in your brain. Everyone should read. Whether you read 10, 20 or 50 books a year, you should read. They say experience is the best teacher, but you can only experience one life. Why not learn vicariously from the experiences of others – stand on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s words?

Some people I know read only fiction, and others can’t bring themselves to read anything other than non-fiction. I read both. Fiction, especially science fiction, helps expand your idea of the possible. And non-fiction grounds you, so you can apply these patterns to the real world. That sounds either way too abstruse or too fluffy, but you hopefully get the idea.

 

3. Memory

Memory

Memory is strongly related to Agility – the same things you do to improve your agility also improve your memory. So, sleeping well, exercising, clearing your mind from time to time, using Elevate – all help improve your attention and your memory. In addition:

a. Take notes. And review them:

I’ve written before about the advantages of making notes. Using a software like OneNote or Evernote to capture your thoughts helps you remove the open loops from your brain and free your mind to make more memories. I also use these to capture notes from books I read, interesting articles, etc.

But taking notes actually takes stuff OUT of your memory. How then is it strengthening it? For that, you need to review your notes from time to time. What we hear / read goes into our short-term memories. Reviewing these periodically gradually puts them into long-term memory (I’m sure the real process is far more complicated, but this is a simple working understanding).

I do this for every book I read, and I go through my notes from time to time. Done right, this is as good as re-reading the book – you refresh your memory of the key learnings from the book. Of course, making notes is slightly tedious. But think of it as just taking 10% longer to read a book.

b. Learn a new language:

Learning a new language has many advantages. A key one is that it helps you improve your memory. As you try and establish new patterns in your head to remember the new words you’ve learnt, you also evidently reengage old patterns. I strongly recommend Duolingo and Memrise for this. While Duolingo is the more popular one, Memrise helps you build more sticky memories – it encourages you to associate an image with every word, so that you can leverage not just your memory, but your brain’s pattern recognition machine as well (if there’s one term I’ve overused in this blog post apart from the muscle metaphor, it’s pattern recognition).


So there you are. To summarize (TL:DR): To strengthen your brain – sleep well, exercise, learn new skills, read a lot, write a lot, and use Elevate. And yes, take a break and clear your mind once in a while.

I was hoping this post would be shorter than my usual fare, but well, I hope that every time. Maybe next week. In the meantime, would love your thoughts on this post. Do especially tell me if there are any other things you do to exercise your brain. Comment here, email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com, or tweet at @jithamithra.

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How to conquer your inbox and reclaim your life

Your inbox. Your life.

Shilpa (the wife): So, what did you do at work today?
Me: Quite busy today. You know, emailing.

A standard exchange for me at the end of a workday, till recently. And I’m sure it’s commonplace – the average professional today sends or receives over 120 emails a day. At even 2 minutes an email (assuming you don’t take breaks), that’s four hours of your workday! Vanished, lost, gone, hacking away at your keyboard fighting the insidious email monster, while the rest of the world moves on. Wait, scratch that. Everyone is hacking away at their keyboards, emailing each other.

Hacking away

But email is not really work, at least for most of us. And if something that isn’t work is taking up such a large part of your workday, guess what – you’ll have to work longer hours.

 

Over the last few months, I’ve made a number of changes that have helped me manage my inbox better (rather than the other way round). If you’re like I was before – where work equals emailing – here are 7 things you can do to reclaim your life.

1. Email only at specific times

Back in the days of snail mail, did you hang out near your mailbox and wait for the postman? Then why check your inbox all the time? People aren’t expecting you to respond 5 seconds after they email you.

So here’s a plan:

  1. Check your inbox first thing in the morning when you wake up (not good, but I know you’re going to do it, so why stop you). Decide which emails you’re going to respond to, when. If there’s work required to respond to any of it, fit it into your schedule.
  2. Don’t check again till about 11 am. Spend half an hour if necessary, clearing a bunch of emails.
  3. After that, check again at 2pm, and then once more at 5pm to triage any pending emails

At all other times, don’t check your inbox. And no cheating – log out and close your browser, close Outlook / Thunderbird, and turn off email notifications on your phone as well (got you! I’m nothing if not meticulous).

2. Schedule less time for email than you need

If you read my previous post on productivity and are trying some of my tips, you would see the merit in actually scheduling time for email, rather than checking it whenever you’re bored.

The other little hack is to schedule less time for email than you need. Email, like work and play, balloons to take up the time you give it. There’s nothing like some urgency to plow through your inbox – your emails can get done in less time than you think.

3. When you’re done with an email, archive it

Using the mailbox analogy again, once you’ve read a letter, do you put it back in the mailbox? Similarly, when you’re done with an email, don’t keep it in the inbox. Archive it  (or better still, delete it. If you dare).

Archiving takes emails out of your face once you’re done with them. Your inbox now includes only the emails that you have to work on – much simpler to decide what to do. Otherwise, it can become difficult to find emails that you have to act on, amidst the barrage of less-important emails, newsletters you don’t remember ever signing up for, promotions and spam. Not to mention how a full inbox tires you each time you look at it.

Sure, you can change your Inbox settings to keep unread emails on top. But those other emails that you see will continue to distract you.

Avoid all these complications – archive emails that you’re done with (if you use Gmail, it’s the first button that comes up in the header when you select an email). If an email is in your Inbox, it means you have to act on it. And you can always go back to your Archive (it’s the All Mail folder in Gmail) whenever you want to access an old email, and search works too.

 

But this is not enough. Which brings me to the 4th hack.

4. Triage your email with Google Inbox / Mailbox

The freedom that you feel when you first archive your inbox is great. But it won’t last – it still doesn’t solve the problem of your pending emails, which can quickly pile up. Let’s say there’s an email task that you need to get to two days later. It’ll sit in your inbox till then, serving as a constant reminder (and distractor), till you actually do it and archive it with a victorious flourish (before flopping down in your chair in sheer exhaustion).

People solve this problem by ‘starring’ emails they need to take care of, but can’t or don’t need to do today. If you’ve tried this, you’ll know (and if you’re going to, you’ll find out) that this can quickly get out of hand. Very soon, you’ll visibly cringe whenever you hear the word ‘star’ – a painful reminder of the toxic underbelly of your inbox that the Starred folder has become. But you’ll have to go back there soon, with full knowledge of the tsunami of to-reads that will deluge you.

Waxing poetic aside, there’s an easier way. What if emails show up in your inbox only when you need to act on them, and not a moment sooner? Don’t have time to respond to a data request today – wouldn’t it be nice if it came tomorrow after your big presentation, instead of staring at your face till then? If you use Gmail, you can do just this with Google Inbox / Mailbox. Using these, whenever you check email (hint: do this at specific time slots only), you can first triage all your new email:

  1. Respond if it will take 2 min or less. Once it’s done, click on Archive / Done.
  2. If it’ll take longer, schedule the email for whenever you’ll work on it (make sure you block time for it!). The email will disappear from your inbox, and automagically reappear when you’re ready for it.
  3. Similarly, if it needs to be done later (like an email follow-up), schedule it to reappear on the day and time when you’ll act on it.

With these tools, your inbox will be nice and sparse at all times, easy to navigate. And hey, if you’re lucky, you may even read the much-fabled Inbox Zero at end-of-day. Enjoy it while it lasts, my friend. The battle may have been won, but the war will rage again tomorrow.

Quick note – If you work out of Gmail and want to try Google Inbox, let me know in the comments / over email. I have a bunch of invites. But if you use Outlook, such plugins aren’t available yet. You can try this Getting Things Done method though.

 

5. Manage your subscriptions better with Unroll.me

You know that ‘Quirky News of the Day’ newsletter you thought was fun and subscribed to yesterday? In two months, your inbox is going to drown in unread editions of the newsletter. And this is saying nothing about the newsletter you subscribed to a year ago that you find useless today. But you won’t unsubscribe because who knows, you might need it again next year.

Unroll.me is one of those miracle services you don’t realize you need till you hear about it. When you first register, it scans your inbox and lists all the emails you’re subscribed to. You can then unsubscribe with one click. And Unroll.me retains a record of these, so you can re-subscribe anytime.

But you don’t have to unsubscribe from everything (especially my newsletter. Please?). The service removes newsletter emails from your inbox automatically, and puts them in a separate Unroll.me folder. So you can check them whenever you want to do some leisure reading.

6. Make less email

Stop Emailing

The reason you receive so much email is because someone else is writing them. So be a dear and stop contributing. No need to brightly respond, “Welcome”, whenever someone sends you a thank you email. And please, please – don’t acknowledge receipt. Reply when you have a response / answer / update ready. This is important enough to be a Golden Rule of Emailing:

7. But, be nice and manage expectations

At the same time, it is good form to reply and manage expectations. If you’re going to respond to an email today or tomorrow, it’s fine. But if you’ll need more time to get to it, dropping a short email saying when you’ll look at it is a nice touch. And people don’t mind nice guys writing in (nudge nudge).

 

That’s it! Do some or all of these, and you’ll be well on your way to email nirvana. I actually had 3 more tips, but I’ve got to run. Got some… err… emails to write.

I would love your feedback in the comments – do these work for you, are there any other ways you manage email, etc. And if I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to comment here / email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com / tweet at @jithamithra.

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How to Supercharge your Productivity – Part 2

Hey! I’m back with Part 2 of my post on productivity.

 

I’d given three tips in my previous post:

  1. Lose your TV, and minimize distractions
  2. Create a schedule, and stick to it
  3. Establish a routine

I’ve found all three of these incredibly useful, and I’m sure you will too. However, there are a few other things that you can do, to boost your productivity without using too much of your will power.

 

4. Save your will power – Make it hard to do the things you shouldn’t

According to B J Fogg’s Behavioral Model, ‘ability’ is a key driver of behaviors. How easy it is to do something affects how frequently or consistently you do it. Conversely, if you make a task hard to do, would that reduce your proclivity to do it?

From time to time, I get into a habit of checking Facebook regularly. On the hour, every hour. Sometimes even more frequently. I know it’s often just a waste of time, but I can’t stop myself. So I decided to test this theory a few weeks ago. All I did was uncheck the “Keep me logged in” box while logging into Facebook. And the effect was immediate – adding just one step to my Facebook checking routine made it much less likely to occur! Now, unless there’s a specific reason for me to go to Facebook, I open the browser, realize I’ll have to type in a password, and change my mind – why bother with the hassle? Here’s another example: Nir Eyal controlled his urges to check email regularly by just removing the app icon from his home screen! Note to self: I should try that too.

Such small changes to increase the no. of steps involved can help control a bad habit tremendously well.

 

5. Don’t multi-task. It’s a myth.

Throughout our studying and working lives, we’ve been trying to multi-task. And we’ve all found it difficult to be productive while multi-tasking for one simple reason – we’re all doing it wrong. Except for my wife Shilpa – she’s a multi-task-master.

The best way to multi-task is to single-task on different tasks – focus on the task at hand, excluding everything else. If you’re writing a blog post, don’t look at your emails till you’re taking a break / moving to your next task. Accept only interruptions that are 2 min or less.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I try to schedule email for a few time slots, and try not to look at it when I’m working on other things. Establishing a schedule / routine helps here – you can make sure that your tasks don’t overlap with each other, so you can focus better.

 

6. Stop relying on your memory. Use a note-taking software.

Your brain capacity, while incredibly large, is still finite. And given the information explosion that’s currently underway, there’s only so many new things you can put in your brain without pushing something out.

In such a scenario, I’ve found note taking software incredibly useful. Whenever you think of something interesting or see a great article (say with tips to supercharge your productivity), just jot it down somewhere so you can refer to it later. Just like using a calendar instead of remembering meetings or using a task manager to plan your day, not having to remember every brainwave you had for later is a huge relief – capturing all the open loops in your head somewhere frees your mind to concentrate on the now.

I am a OneNote junkie – it has a deep organizing structure, which is particularly useful in compartmentalizing the different types of notes you want to take. I have been using it for over 2 years now, and I love it. If you use Microsoft Office, you should definitely give it a try. The only problem with OneNote is that its apps for tablets, phones, etc. are not great. So, for notes that I want to take while traveling, I use Google Keep (simplistic, but adequate for short bursts) or an even simpler, good old notepad (the physical version). It’s a complicated system, I know, but hey, I’m worth it!

Evernote is another great (and far simpler) option, for people who spend more time on Mobile, or use a Mac.

So what are you waiting for – download your brain today!

 

7. Keep a time diary – track it till you crack it.

Studies have shown that one of the best things you can do to instill a habit is to track it. If you want to eat better, start tracking your food habits. Want to get more exercise into your day – get a step-counter. In the same vein, if you want to become more productive, start tracking how you spend your time.

And again, you don’t have to do this in a physical notebook or excel file – that’s too inefficient a way to track, of all things, your efficiency. There are two tools that I use, which are incredibly useful.

Rescuetime is a desktop tool / browser plugin that automatically tracks where you spend your time. At the end of the week, you get a nice email saying you used your computer for XX hours, and only 55% of your time was spent on productive work (hey!). It also tells you how much time you spent on different websites, so you know the exact behavior that needs changing.

Toggl is also a good option to track your time. Its only disadvantage (esp. vs. Rescuetime) is that you have to track your activities manually.

 

That’s it! Those are the seven ways in which I have been able to get more done every day. Again, would love your thoughts – have any other things worked for you? Please comment / email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com / tweet at me (@jithamithra). And yes, do sign up for email updates – you’ll get a new blog post approximately once a week.


Bonus: Check out A Life of Productivity, for many more tips on managing your time, energy and attention better. I’ve tried many of the techniques discussed here to manage time better, but the 7 above have had the most impact for me.

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How to Supercharge your Productivity – Part 1

Do you feel like you’re doing too much? Working 7 days a week, and still scrambling to catch up? Finding it difficult to cope with the multiple things you’re doing, while maintaining a semblance of work-life balance?

Over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of things – running my startup, doing a few experiments on the side, etc. It’s not been easy, of course. But the worst is when some of the things you’re doing are time-sensitive, and others are open-ended. It’s very difficult, when faced with a barrage of urgent tasks, to look at other important tasks before they become urgent.

The result – Earliest Deadline First scheduling, which will start like this:

maniac-typing

But soon become this:

drinking-from-a-firehose-300x198

Let’s face it – I’m sure there are better ways to journey through life.

Here are seven things that have worked for me. Start doing them today, to supercharge your productivity. (OK, that’s a little aggressive. But I’m sure they’ll help). My plan was to discuss all of them here, but then the post would become too long and dampen your productivity! So I’ve discussed three of them below, and will cover the rest in a separate post.

 

1. Lose your TV. And your TV Shows.

Essentially, minimize distractions. Whatever’s your poison – be it television, Facebook, Twitter or Cricinfo (see point 3 below). This is especially important if you work from home, like I occasionally do. I don’t have a TV at home. I also don’t watch TV shows – I love movies and I know there’s a lot of very good TV programming out there, but I don’t want to watch one episode of Breaking Bad and commit myself to watching 5 seasons. That’s way too much of a time sink that you’d lock yourself into right at the beginning.

Of course, there’s a downside to this. Whenever I go to my parents’ house and the TV is on, I’m like this. Even during ads.

kids-tv-300x183

 

2. Create a schedule, and stick to it

This is obvious at one level – I’m sure you keep a to-do list (if you don’t, start now!) or compile one every morning. Of course it’s incredibly useful to see what needs to be done when you get to work, but it’s only half the story. Personally, I’ve found it far more useful to schedule the tasks as well, i.e., put a time to them. Every day at the end of my workday, I take 15 minutes to review my tasks for the next day, and schedule them – I block time slots on my calendar for specific tasks through the day.

This way, you don’t come in to work in the morning wondering what to do, and then make a list. Scheduling your workday is a cognitively intensive task – trust me, you’ll want to check Facebook after that! The other advantage of this approach is that when you complete one task, you don’t spend time choosing what to do next – you already know what to do! Studies have shown that will power is a finite resource and any decision making drains it – reduce the no. of decisions you have to make on your schedule, and the more will power you can devote to getting your tasks done!

There are many task manager tools out there for organizing your schedule. I’ve tried a bunch of them, and I’ve found Todoist very useful – the free version is nearly full-feature, and they have apps for everything so you’re synced on all your devices.

A couple of other things you should do:

  1. Every evening, while planning the next day, jot down the three high-priority tasks you absolutely NEED to complete the next day – that’s your definition of victory. Thus, even when some task takes longer than anticipated and your schedule is thrown off, you know what tasks you cannot postpone – another decision saved (and another earned).
  2. Another important thing is to stick to the schedule, but reduce scope if required. Let’s say you plan to exercise in the evening from 7-8 pm, but a meeting runs to 7:30 pm. Now, you have two choices: (i) cancel the exercise plan; and (ii) do a shorter stint at the gym. It’s always better to stick to plan and start your task – even if you can’t complete it and have to revisit it the next day. You don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.

 

3. Establish a routine

Apart from planning your day, try to establish a daily routine. Man is a creature of habit – if you do something at a certain time every day, then you don’t waste any precious brain cycles in making decisions.

Yes, I know. Your job / business / startup is way too unpredictable, and you don’t know where you’ll be during the day. And yes, that’s why it’s all the more important that you bring some predictability in, especially in more mundane tasks.

Mark Zuckerberg has, of course, taken this to another level, with a wardrobe of only grey T-shirts, so he can concentrate on running Facebook (brilliantly parodied by Scott Adams in this series of strips). But the more fashion-conscious of us (and those who don’t run Facebook) can do a little of this too.

For example, I have been experimenting with a new routine since Diwali (about 3 months). I get up at 5 every day, and do my best to maintain a fixed schedule – read for an hour in the morning, do a few remote tasks, then a little exercise. So when I get to work at 9am, I’ve already done at least 1 of my high-priority tasks for the day (see point 2). I also try and check my email only at a few pre-determined slots in the day – much easier than forcing myself to react every time there’s a ping on my phone. I’m now trying to do the same with phone calls – let’s see how it goes.

An important part of being able to stick to a routine is to have something to look forward to. Reading some articles / a book in the peace and quiet of the wee hours is something I genuinely look forward to, and, as I’m sure you agree, every small motivation helps in getting out of bed, especially in the winter months!

 

That’s it for now – I was planning to talk about all 7 of the productivity themes that have worked for me, but then this post would become too long. So, now to just add ‘Part 1’ in the title.

Would love your thoughts on the above – have any other things worked for you? Please comment / tweet at me (@jithamithra) / email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com. And yes, do sign up for email updates – you’ll get a new blog post approximately once a week.

Update: Part 2 of this post is now up, here.


PS. I just signed up for an email course on ‘How to Become a Morning Person’. I’m already pretty much a morning person (can’t wake up much earlier than 5!), but seems like it’ll be useful to see the process that has worked for others as well. Expect a post on that soon!

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