Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Review: 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam

This week's book review is on Laura Vanderkam's book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. She has written several books on time management, as well as interesting articles in venues such as Fast Company.

I read this book some weeks ago and found it eye-opening. I have even referenced it here on the blog before. While I do have a few issues with the book, it's well worth reading for its core insights.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

Rating: 4 stars

General Comments: It's an easy-to-read book, peppered with personal stories and examples - definitely a quick read. There are many insights that are surprising, while some others seem difficult to implement, or don't really apply for many people. The book also skips over the notion that lifestyle changes are difficult to implement, and just assumes its a matter of knowing what we need to do, and then plugging it into our existing schedule.

3 Insights From The Book:
1. Think in 168 Hours - The primary insight from the book is that it is more useful to think in terms of the week, rather than the day - 168 hours instead of 24/7.  This insight enables those with busy schedules who can't seem to fit it all in, to find creative ways to expand their schedules. For instance, Vanderkam gives the example of parents who can break up a working day by adding 3 hours of work after the kids have gone to bed, giving the parents time with their children, without needing to work less hours.
2. Focus on your core competencies - Focus your time on doing those things that you are good at, or those skills that you want to improve on. Which also means, you should reduce or remove altogether time spent on tasks that you are either not good at, or that aren't part of your competencies - such as doing housework. As far as possible, try to outsource those elements of your schedule that you aren't good at, to focus on what is important.
3. Plan your leisure time - This is probably one of the most interesting insights from the book - that we have more leisure time than we think, and in order to utilize it well, we must plan the time, or otherwise risk losing it in mindless TV watching or internet surfing. Vanderkam gives the example of extremely busy professionals who nevertheless find the time to train for triathlons and volunteer their time to charity by planning ahead. Even a small amount of time planning some leisure activities ahead of time (including at least 3-4 hours of exercise per week) can dramatically increase our quality of life, health and productivity at work.

Recommend For: Anyone who struggles with making time for leisure, or complains that there isn't time for everything. Especially recommended for those trying to squeeze in creative pursuits around a day job, family and other commitments - gives insights into how we can use our whole schedule.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"From Auden To Yeats" Available in Paperback and Lessons Learned

"From Auden To Yeats" is now finally available as a paperback, after weeks of struggling with formatting and cover issues.

Publishing this book is a reflection of many of the lessons I have learnt lately, and have been chronicled on this blog - the importance of perseverance, of breaking projects into smaller chunks, of iterating until it clicks into place.

For each aspect of the book, which I insisted on doing myself, I had to overcome ignorance (of the various factors involved) and frustration with all the new information that was coming at me, and my inability to keep up with it. I kept asking myself why I was doing this - in Write. Publish. Repeat, the authors argued that print publishing was a 20% activity (as in the Pareto Principle), and should only be undertaken once other 80% activities were done (which for me is writing more books). I was sure this was simply an exercise in time wasting. And yet I was convinced there was some merit in putting myself through these paces - and went ahead with it anyway.

I almost gave up a few times, putting the project aside and working on my new book projects. Something kept pulling me back into it - somehow I sensed giving up would signal something unproductive to my mind, and I decided to doggedly keep going - fixing each mistake and uploading new versions till they were accepted. I had decided to go with Createspace, and while I think they have a great system, it can be highly confusing if you don't know what you are doing, which I certainly didn't.

Nevertheless, writing this blog and reading the books and articles of the writing and productivity communities, some lessons have become embedded in me. For instance, don't give up. Keep trying, keep coming at it from different angles, because most of the time its not lack of talent or knowledge that stops us, but the fact that we gave up too soon. In this case, all I had to lose was time, and potentially my peace of mind. I was hardly risking money or even my reputation. And my writing career could only be benefitted by giving readers an option to buy a print version if they wanted.

I had a stronger motive for following through. I wanted to learn this process for future books, and I know from past experience that each time around, I learned something. The first few covers I created for instance, disastrous. But over time and several iterations, they started to suck less, and look almost professional. Thus another lesson learnt, failure is a temporary condition, made permanent by not trying again.  

Anyway, I did manage to jump through all the hoops and put the book together. More importantly however, I learnt yet another application of these principles - that productivity and creativity aren't so much an inevitable consequence of talent, but of the right mind-set.

From Auden To Yeats: available in Kindle and Paperback.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big

Starting today, every Friday I will feature a book that has made an impact on me recently, and whose ideas I am trying to incorporate and apply in my life.

I will keep these reviews short - the idea being to convey the gist of why I like this book succinctly, so that you can decide whether to pick it up and peruse over the weekend*.

The first book to kick off this new feature: Scott Adams' excellent new book How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big: Kind of The Story of My Life.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

Rating: 4.5 stars

Other books by this author I have read: Read and thoroughly enjoyed The Dilbert Future.

General Comments: It's humorously written, laugh-out-loud funny, and decidedly a very different tone than usual business books. Adams' book is a cross between business and motivational, and although the tone doesn't correspond to either, he gives some very astute insights. I have enumerated 3 of these below, but the book has far more interesting ideas that are definitely worth a read.
3 Insights From The Book:
1. Focus on systems not goals - Adams' believes that instead of pursuing goals, we should focus on systems, something you do regularly, that leads to success. For writers for instance, a system would be to write daily, while a goal might be to hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
2. Simplify rather than optimize - many of us have a tendency to optimize on decisions and tasks, leading to additional stress. Adams' stresses that simplifying rather than optimizing can remove a lot of stress and make certain things more likely to happen. For instance, simplify your exercise routine, and do something active everyday, rather than try to optimize various factors such as the proper nutrition before exercise, and the optimum number of sets of weight training.
3. Focus on maximizing your personal energy - Adams' devotes a number of chapters to various aspects of optimizing one's personal energy - such as eating right, exercising daily, getting enough sleep etc. His belief is that when you have enough energy, you will be able to tackle the truly important items that will advance your career and personal goals.
Recommend For: Everyone, especially those who like to read books on business, self-help, creativity, productivity. There were insights on topics that affect all of us - everyone would find something useful.
 Book links are affiliate links, which means I would make a small commission if you decide to buy it. This doesn't affect the decision of which books I review or the content of the review.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Overcoming The Ego: Creating a Body of Work

As a writer we would like to believe that each book we work on is a "heartbreaking work of staggering genius", but even if that is the case, it isn't always easy to convince others of that fact. There are so many choices for readers, plus competing sources such as TV, movies and games for their leisure time, which makes it hard to ensure that your wonderful book will get the attention it deserves.

Perhaps as an artist, one should ignore the facts of readership and focus simply on writing. Perhaps one believes that luck is all that is required to get the sales going. Perhaps like me, you obsess over your sales stats, letting your mood get affected by whether the sales are up or down.

I have been reading about this idea instead of just doing your work, putting it out there, and going on to the next idea in the queue. It's a pragmatic, workerly approach to work. When I think of this concept, the idea of a carpenter comes to mind - one who starts work daily on a piece, finishes it, and starts the next one. Whether the first few pieces sold well doesn't deter him from creating the next one, and being sold out, probably would just spur him on to work harder.

This is a very different idea from the myth of the tortured artist, working when the mood strikes, keeping the world at bay. I have to admit I bought into this myth for a long time, and I still find it hard to fully brush it off. Sometimes I find myself sitting down to work by the clock, and some days, when my mind is foggy, and the work isn't coming together, I want to buy into the notion that the muse isn't visiting today, and maybe I'm just not in the mood.

I have noticed this coincides with times when my ego is more intensely involved in my work than usual. Perhaps I'm getting closer to the completion point - when soon I will be potentially judged on the work, and I am not sure about the reaction. Sometimes it happens when my books are selling well, and I want to bask in the myth of being a genius who works when the mood strikes, and not a worker who watches the clock and puts in the hours. Often it happens when I have started to overthink the work, what it might achieve, how it might be perceived. Days when I put all that behind me, and just focus on editing this chapter, this page, this paragraph, and shut out the rest of the world, the muse is whispering in my ear and the work flies along. Those are the days I have managed to quiet the ego.

Anne Lamott called this looking at a "one-inch picture frame". You just focus on the tiniest bit of the patchwork, forgetting the pattern of the quilt. When I'm thinking about my work as a whole, I find the anxieties and worries about the work overtake my creativity and I become stuck. When I focus on just that one-inch, I can shut all that out. I can shut the ego out.

I am struggling right now to complete a bunch of projects that I have started at various times and not finished. It's hard, because my ego wants every project to be perfect, wants me to think about every project as if its the only one I will ever write. How will it be perceived? What will people say about it? Will it be talked about on social media?

When I manage to quiet down the ego I realise, what I am after is a body of work, not one perfect limb. I want to wait for reactions after I have completed what is in front of me, in fact, worrying about reactions will prevent me from completing it. The work should be the key, not how it is perceived. Not right now, while I still have a lot to learn, and each project is helping me grow hugely as a writer. I can't afford to stop that learning while I posture and preen for the audience, if there is even one at the moment.

This daily struggle between the ego and the heart reminds me that the difficulty of being a writer is not in learning to string words together, it is doing it despite your environment, consistently.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why I Think Talent is Overrated

A couple of years ago I read two books that really made me question many things I thought I knew, but even so, a big part of me continued to believe that innate talent was at least a primary ingredient in achieving success. Those two books were Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated.

The main premise of both the books was arguing, through the presentation of scientific studies and numerous anecdotes, that what we think of as talent is far less important to achievement in most fields than other variables - such as deliberate practice - which creates neural pathways in the brain and allow us to build skill. They argued that ultimately success is related to the development of our skill level, and this was as a result of hard work. This argument is related to the famous 10,000 hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

Despite this assertion, I believed that it was only possible to become really good at one or very few skills, and it wasn't wise to try to acquire too many skills lest one become mediocre at all.

This thinking led me to believe that there were natural ceilings to my ability in many areas, and that I shouldn't even attempt new pastures before I had devoted more time to polishing my existing skills, and even then, there ought to be some evidence of talent before pursuing these new areas.

This worldview as you may imagine is limiting. Either by choice or circumstance, it becomes necessary to acquire new skills, but if you believe you don't have talent and therefore shouldn't even bother, then that is a pretty large obstacle. I think my subconscious beliefs led me to reject many opportunities or put forth less effort, rationalising that there really wasn't much point.

Lately, many different data points have started to make me question my innate assumptions. The latest example has been my experience with designing my own book covers. I read lots of advice about hiring a good cover designer, and that no one should be foolish enough to attempt to do this oneself. While I understood the merits of this argument, I had no clue how to go about finding a designer, how to determine if they were good, and I had no budget for it - reasoning that my books were niche enough to perhaps not sell enough copies to justify the expense.

I created competent but not great covers and uploaded them. The first version of the cover for my first self-published book was actually created some years ago, and I simply updated it. After creating the cover for the second book, I used some of the techniques I learnt to improve the cover of the first one, and then on a whim, I tried a redesign. I was actually quote happy with it - I kept the same colour palette, but removed the image, which I thought was cluttering up the cover. The new cover was much cleaner and easier to read, which I thought was enough of an improvement to be the final version.

Recently, I started working on a print edition of my book, and since I changed the subtitle of my book, I had to update the cover to reflect that change. I somehow managed to actually make it a little worse, and that was worrying me for the past few days, and I started to think I might need to get a graphic designer after all.

Today, while procrastinating on my current WIP, I had an idea for a complete redesign, and decided to try it, and abandon the attempt if it took too long. I combined elements from both the first and second versions, and after experimenting with several colours, decided on a simple teal and white colour palette - and the results were actually quite startling to me. I'm sure a professional could have done a better job, but given that I don't have the budget for it yet, I'm pretty happy with my final results.

How does this tie in with the discussion on talent? Well, if you accept that my eventual cover version is quite good (which you may not of course), then what explains the marked improvement in quality in the past few months? I have absolutely no talent as a designer, no training, and no special equipment ( I used free software that I already own). I went from a pretty obviously amateurish product to something that is almost professional in just a few attempts.

My argument is that each time I tinkered with either of my books' covers, I learnt something that I implemented in the next round. I also did some research, looking at the covers of other books in the same genres, and made mental notes on what appealed to me. None of this required anything other than effort. Over time.

This is a very small example, and many of you reading may not even consider it a very persuasive one. However, since my objective was to design something that I wouldn't be ashamed to put my name on, I achieved my objective. I am not planning anytime soon to do this for a living, but that's not the point. Even if we assume we need talent for success in the arena of our primary field, there are many other skills we need in today's age to complement our primary areas of expertise.

If you believe that talent is the sole determining factor to enable improvement, then you may not even attempt to acquire these skills, and thus hold yourself and your career back. Thus I would argue that in many arenas of life, talent is really overrated, and you can achieve pretty good results simply through perseverance, research and hard work.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Perils of Optimizing

I recently read the latest book from Scott Adams, How To Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend reading it - I got a lot of insights from it. In today’s post though, I want to focus on only one insight - to simplify rather than optimize.

Adams states that people generally fall into these two categories - those who like to simplify and those who like to optimize - and I realized instantly that I fell into the latter category. The problem with optimizing though, can be that not only do you complicate something, you reduce the likelihood of doing it. He gives the example of exercise - and how in our tendency to optimize the various aspects of exercise - duration, intensity, time of day, what nutrition we consumed before and after - we find it hard to maintain a consistent rhythm of regular activity.

It’s a simple, and perhaps obvious point. However, those of us reading the latest studies and theories related to any aspect of improving ourselves - our health, our productivity, our relationships - are trained to find ways to optimize in every area. This is all very well and good, but we also know that humans have a limited store of will-power, and using it up in one area depletes it in others. This is why if you have to force yourself to work 10 hours at an unpleasant job, you don’t have the willpower to exercise after wards.
In some areas of our life, we have to optimize - at our work we must give our best, with our families we try to create optimal experiences. While Adams doesn’t specifically demarcate in which areas of our life we should and should not optimize, I suggest the following rule for determining in what instances simplicity might be a better approach:

Whenever by simplifying something, you increase the likelihood of getting it done and lower your stress significantly.

For occasions where simplifying doesn’t affect the outcome in a lasting manner, it should be a no-brainer - for example your social plans for tonight, what to cook for dinner, whether to get one more errand done or go home while you still have energy - these are examples of actions that can benefit from the lens of simplification without losing much in the long-term, but providing reduced stress and thereby greater enjoyment in the short-term.

I would next extend it to projects that by trying to optimize you are having trouble completing - such as a thesis, or a book, or a report. Many people see these projects as crucial to their career success, and try to optimize by writing the best possible thesis / book / report they can. This proves difficult for some reason, possibly they have many other competing demands for their time, maybe the project is ill-conceived, and then they stall and fail to complete the project.

When I was working towards my Masters degree, I heard many horror stories of former students failing to get their degree because they didn’t complete their thesis. I too made the mistake of trying to find the perfect topic and wasted months. Nearing the deadline, I panicked, and in order to ensure I did get to graduate, I chose the simplest topic I thought I would be able to complete, and managed to hand in the bound copy of my dissertation on time.

I would argue that in cases like this, if simplifying your project allows you to complete it, it’s a good thing. In fact, Hilary Rettig, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific goes so far as to say that you should simplify each project, in order to complete it faster and get to the next one.

I have started to apply this myself in the last few weeks, and started to get more done with far less stress, leaving more energy to devote to my friends and family and myself.

What can you simplify today?

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