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Freewriting – Review of the Accidental Genius book

Semi-regularly, I’ve been doing something I called “Paper Therapy.” The idea was simple: “Write on paper till your brain has nothing left in it.”

This stupidly simple idea has often been miraculous in helping me clear my mind and think of ideas or options that I was unable to just “think in my head.”

And I observed many others felt this way as well, for example:

Writing is a miraculous process. You find things you never knew were inside your own head.

— @littlecalculist

and:

I write with my hands on paper as much as I can to get my eyes off of the monitor and my hands off the keyboard. Yes taking notes on something like evernote is more useful down the road, but for me there is something more free about jotting notes on paper. It gives me a mental break, a physical break, and if I come up with something really useful, I’ll type it in a note program. As an added bonus, the retyping of it usually lets me come up with something new to add.

— http://gorban.org/post/14162629940/thinking-time

When I was going through the PersonalMBA Reading List, I came across a book called Accidental Genius by Mark Levy, and I immediately wanted to read the book because it talked about a concept called freewriting which sounded eerily similar to what I used to call “paper therapy”. So I bought the book from the Kindle store and read the entire book on my iPhone with the Kindle app.

One of the revelations as I was reading the book was that freewriting has been used as a technique for ages, especially by prose writers.

So what is freewriting? As Mark Levy says:

As expansive and impressive as the mind is, it’s also lazy. Left to its own devices, it recycles tired thoughts, takes rutted paths, and steers clear of unfamiliar and  uncomfortable territory. You could say that one of its primary jobs is to shut off, even when there’s important thinking to be done.

Freewriting prevents that from happening. It pushes the brain to think longer, deeper, and more unconventionally than it normally would. By giving yourself a handful of liberating freewriting rules to follow, you back your mind into a corner where it can’t help but come up with new thoughts. You could call freewriting a form of forced creativity.

Freewriting is a fast method of thinking onto paper that enables you to reach a level of thinking that’s often difficult to attain during the course of a normal business day.

 

As I mentioned earlier, freewriting is nothing but writing profusely on paper. It doesn’t matter what grammar you use, it doesn’t matter what you write because nobody else is going to read it, it doesn’t even matter whether you even read what you wrote! What’s important is to get the thoughts flowing and externalizing it by doing the physical action of writing fast on paper. If you can’t think of what to write, write gibberish. If you get distracted by other thoughts, write down those thoughts! The idea is to not filter anything out, these are your real thoughts and you need to externalize them.

The point is to extrapolate to write continuously. If you wrote about a problem, what are the causes and possible solutions? If you wrote about a dream, write about how and whether you are following those dreams. If you had a nightmare, write about the possible subconscious meanings of the nightmare. If you suddenly remembered some random quote from a book you read ages ago and forgotten about it, then write about that and what it means to you. If you had an altercation, write about whether it occurs frequently or whether there is a pattern. Try to explore your mind and try to explore the facts as much as possible.

The result of this exercise can only be felt, it’s hard to explain. The liberation you feel and the sudden “lightness” you feel is amazing.

Accidental Genius book cover

Mark goes on to explain six secrets of freewriting:

1. Try Easy

Trying easy will help you in any area of your life. Conventional Wisdom tells us that we have to give no less than 110 percent to keep ahread. Yet conversely, I have found that giving 90 percent is usually more effective.

It’s like the first day of gym – they make you do so much exercise and you’re so sore the next day that you never go back. Don’t do that! Instead work till you reach the edge of your current capacity and then stop. Repeat it the next day, and so on. So, if you feel you can only write 500 words, do only that much, don’t push yourself beyond that. If someday, you feel you can write more, go right ahead.

2. Write Fast and Continuously

By writing fast, you invite your mind to operate at a pace that’s closer to its normal rate of thought, rather than the lethargic crawl you usually subject it to when you write sluggishly.

Imagine you’re attending a talk and the speaker talks very slowly. Your mind races ahead and you tune out eventually in a few minutes and either doze off or walk out. Same thing applies here, if you write slowly, your mind races ahead. Instead, write as fast as your brain thinks. Remember, nobody is going to read this but you. So it’s perfectly okay to WRITE SLOPPY. Use bad handwriting, use shortcuts, use phrases that only you understand, do whatever it takes to keep your writing at the pace of your thoughts. That’s when the magic happens.

By writing continuously, you force the edit-crazy part of your mind into a subordinate position, so the idea-producing part can keep spitting out words.

If you don’t write continuously, it’ll break your flow of thoughts as well as you start to “edit” what you wrote in your head. That’s not good. So write non-stop and keep the pen moving.

The plan is to move fast and don’t stop writing, with the understanding that the more words you pile onto the page, even if they’re lousy words, the better your chance at finding a usable idea. In the freewriting game, think quantity before quality.

3. Work Against a Limit

Use a time limit, say 10 min, to practice non-stop, fast and easy freewriting. And then take a break. The reasons for this are obvious if you have read my review of the Pomodoro Technique book.

4. Write the Way You Think

Freewriting isn’t writing, per se; it’s a means of watching yourself think. Since you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need to polish your raw thoughts to please others. All that matters is that you yourself understand your logic, references, word choices, and idiosyncratic ideas.

If you really do end up showing your freewriting to someone else (without polishing it), they probably can’t make sense of it! Because you are free to use your own idioms, your own phrases, your own language, basically, the way YOU think. That’s probably a sign of “good” freewriting.

5. Go with the Thought

The whole time I was scribbling, I would say to myself something like “Go with the thought. Agree with what you just wrote, and logically extend it… Be whimsical if you like, but make sure the whimsy naturally follows what preceded it… Based on this new thought that just appeared on the page, what might happen next?

This intoxicating game of “agreeing and extending,” during which I effortlessly fleshed out scenarios, took up pages of my writing until my hand grew tired, my timer went off, or even more important, I had discovered some provisional methods for tackling a problem.

The whole point of freewriting is to extend your thoughts beyond what your mind usually is used to. Even if you have a recurring thought in your mind, you usually stop thinking about it at the same logical point, either you give up, or your brain just shuts down and doesn’t want to think about something so uncomfortable. That’s exactly where freewriting helps you to keep flowing and “free”ly continue thinking about the same topic and externalize the thoughts, and hopefully have a breakthrough on that topic.

6. Redirect Your Attention

Whatever the situation, you’re on the freewriting bus, motoring along, when suddenly you hit the brakes. The road ahead is washed out, and you don’t know how to proceed.

Quickly, you consult your checklist of freewriting rules: Try easy, check. Writing fast and continuously, check. Inoffensive kitchen timer counting down ten-minute intervals, check. Now you’ve run out of ideas. You’ve reached the end of your thoughts, or so you believe.

Time to use a focus-changer.

Focus-changers are questions like:

  • What was I thinking there?
  • How else can I say that?
Those are two of my favorites. They push me to see again what I’ve done and think I already know. They also challenge me into generating fresh thought, even after I believe I’ve run out of road. But those aren’t the only focus-changers you can use.
Focus-challengers have endless numbers or forms. Here’s a partial list of some helpful ones:
  • How can I make this exciting?
  • How can I add value?
  • What else can I say about this subject?
  • Why am I stuck at this particular point?
  • How can I get unstuck?
  • What am I missing here?
  • What am I wrong about here?
  • Why?
  • How can I prove that?
  • How can I disprove that?
  • What do I think about that?
  • If I continue to think that way, what might happen?
  • What solutions can I borrow from past problems that can be applied to this current one?
  • What does this remind me of?
  • What’s the best-case scenario?
  • What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • What am I doing right?
  • What am I doing brilliantly?
  • How can I jump the track?
  • What strengths of mine (or my company’s) can I apply?
  • What weaknesses need to be compensated for?
  • What’s the proof that that statement is true?
  • How am I the wrong person for this project?
  • How am I the right person for this project?
  • How would an arbitrator judge that?
  • If I wanted to make a big mistake here, what would I do?
  • What data do I need that I don’t yet have?
  • How would I describe the situation to the CEO?
  • How would I describe it to my mother?
  • How would I describe it to my most supportive friend?
  • How would I describe it to a disinterested stranger?
Focus-changers are simple questions to ask yourself, in writing, that help you redirect your mind toward the unexplored parts of a situation.

A good sword for Freewriting

It’s because of my indulgence of freewriting why I was asking tweeps about a good pen to write with, I got suggestions for:

I’m grateful for the suggestions by my twitter followers, and quite surprised that I’m not the only one who’s holding on to pen and paper! I’m yet to go out to a store and buy any of them, but it’s great to know the recommendations so that I don’t have to do the trial and error :)

I finally bought the Pelikan cartridge ink pen and loving it! Having such a good pen makes me more indulgent in the freewriting process.

One of the tweeps, Fayad Fami, also pointed to this ad that I agree with – “The more you write, the better you remember”:

Final Thoughts

The book goes on to explain many different aspects of freewriting – why it is useful to write, how to prompt it, using facts, letting loose, substituting concepts from other areas to solve problems, importance of quantity in freewriting, importance of lying about a situation to widen your view of a situation, holding a paper conversation with yourself or someone else, concept of sometimes doing a marathon rather than a sprint of writing, importance of being honest, importance of detailing, how to extract usefulness from a business book (like I do with my blogging about what I learned from each book!), how to use freewriting to keep your focus on what you want to make of your life, how to use freewriting to write for a public audience (a colleague, a boss, a blog, a book, etc.), helping others to freewriting, noticing things around you, and so on. It is best to learn about these by reading the book.

To sum up, as Josh Kaufman says in his review of the book:

Daily externalization and self-elicitation are heavy-duty creativity tools that will do wonders for your productivity. Give it a try: the results will surprise you.

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Book Review : Focus Manifesto

I was struggling with focus in the past week, and I needed a refresher of the basics. So I was looking for reading a new book that I haven’t read before, and luckily there was a free one – the Focus Manifesto by Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.com fame.

The whole book boils down to few things for me:

  • Shut down or shut out all distractions, including email, twitter, phones, internet access, noise from outside, etc.
  • Start with one thing that is important today and do only that, which is called the MIT (Most Important Task for today)
  • Follow the Pomodoro technique, at least in concept – focus in a mindful manner in intense periods with short breaks in between

Nice and simple. And very hard to do. But it was surprisingly easy to do today after I read the book last night and today morning and was strongly reminded about the basics. Sometimes, all you need is to step back and revise the basics.

In particular, I am intrigued by the “Disconnect and Connect Working Routine”:

Consider a routine such as the following:

  1. Disconnect for a day (or two). No Internet connection — perhaps no computer at all if using your computer is too much of a temptation to connect. Use an actual paper notepad and pen, writing and brainstorming and making pages of notes or sketches. Make phone calls instead of connecting via email or IM. Meet with people in real life, and get outside. Get a ton of important work done. No mobile devices except for actual phone calls.
  2. Then connect for a day (or two). Take all the notes and work you did during your disconnect, and type them up and email them and post them online and so forth. Answer emails and get other routine tasks done, and then prepare for your next day of disconnect.
  3. Repeat. You can vary the number of days you’re disconnected or connected, finding the balance that works for you.

While some may feel this will limit the work they can do, I think it’ll actually do the opposite: you’ll get more done, or at least more important tasks done, because you won’t be distracted.

You’ll also find it a calming change from the always-connected. It’s a peaceful routine.

What I find interesting is a “mostly offline” mindset as opposed to a “mostly online” mindset I had – I (mostly) used to switch off WiFi for the first two hours of the day. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I was more productive in Goa where I had severe Internet connectivity issues. Hmmm.

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Talk on Productivity at Barcamp Bangalore 10

At Barcamp Bangalore 10 on Saturday, I talked about GTD, Pomodoro and Productivity:

NOTE: If you have trouble viewing the web version, there is also a PDF version of my slides.

I was nervous when preparing for this talk because it is not a concrete topic, it’s something abstract and perhaps even illusive for many people, so when I started off my session, I asked people to set aside their cynicism for half an hour, I then established some source credibility, explained my view of how I look at productivity, success and happiness, and how GTD and Pomodoro tie into all this. The presentation above is quite self-explanatory, so I’ll not repeat that again, except for the demo-on-whiteboard part where I did a live session about how to do Pomodoro.


(photo by @the100rabh)

The session went surprisingly well, and most people grokked what I was explaining, which I’m still very surprised about. I guess part of it is because (1) the audience was so interactive and asked questions and (2) most people in the audience have already tried experimenting with todo lists and GTD, so it is a problem they were already facing, so they assimilated what I was saying very quickly.


(photo by @anenth)

The best part about Barcamp is that I got to talk about a personal obsession of mine and I would have otherwise probably never gotten a chance to discuss such a topic in-person with other people who are interested in this topic.

Some of the feedback on my session:

It was even more fun to hear from people when days after the conference, they were actually trying out the Pomodoro technique:

There were many other good sessions in Barcamp that I liked, I especially loved the sessions about the Namma Cycle project and about ShreeKumar’s adventures and how to survive while doing a yatra across the country, talking the locals, etc.

And I really do hope that the Namma Cycle project takes off – Murali who effused passion when talking about it has shown a lot of progress already – got sponsorship, got government buy-in, and is starting off at Bangalore University and has big dreams about turning Bangalore into a cycling city. That seems to be already under way, with the new cycle stand near M G Road.

Overall, even my non-techie wife thoroughly enjoyed the day and was inspired by the people she met at Barcamp. And that really says it all for me on how much I enjoyed going to Barcamp again.

Special thanks to SAP Labs India for hosting the Barcamp in their beautiful campus and the great lunch as well. And not to forget, all the organizers of BCB10, kudos to you guys for making it happen!

P.S. Regarding the Quantified Self phenomenon, I highly recommend reading the New York Times article by Gary Wolf on The Data Driven Life.

Update: Just remembered a related old article of mine – Creativity and Organization is Impact”.

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Book Review : Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

  1. Have a list of things to do.
  2. Pick one thing to work on. Start clock.
  3. When tired, stop clock. Take a break.

It worked because of two reasons:

  1. Observing yourself led to the Hawthorne Effect
  2. Time spent per day was a quantifiable measure of productivity.

Simple.

It worked quite well for more than six months, but it just fizzled out for me. I couldn’t explain why at that time.

In retrospect, I think it was because of a few problems:

  1. It did not solve procrastination. When I knew it was a big task, I would just delay getting started because I had put pressure on myself to not pause the clock early once it was started.
  2. It did not help me stay focused for long. I would lose enthusiasm every few days because I would feel drained.
  3. It was easy to lose track that I was doing time tracking! For example, I would be focusing on an action item, and when something urgent came up, I would just switch to that and would have forgotten about the running clock.
  4. After a few months, it was not satisfactory enough to just look at a number at the end of the day and say “I’ve been productive today.” It just wasn’t doing the trick any more.
  5. If a task was big and could not get completed that day, I would often feel demotivated and frustrated rather than happy about having put effort on the task.

Many people had commented on that article suggesting that I try out the Pomodoro technique. After six months, I did visit that website, but reading “Work in units of 25 minutes, with 5 minutes break in-between” did not stir up my enthusiasm. Same goes for reading the official book.

Then I happened to notice on the Pragmatic Programmers website that they had a book out on the same topic called “Pomodoro Technique Illustrated” by Staffan Nöteberg.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated book

I have a high degree of trust in the quality of the PragProg books, so I blindly bought the ebook, downloaded and read it. It turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read.

There are plenty of reasons why I loved the book, and having written a couple of books myself, I wish I could write a book like this one – it has a fabulous approach of one page per topic which forced the author to be concise yet insightful, it is backed by extensive research as indicated by the references to other books in the footnotes, it has an engaging experience via the usage of sketches which presents the topic at hand in a fun spunky manner, and generally speaking, I really liked it’s whole “no fluff, just stuff” approach to topics.

And I have not even mentioned the content of the book itself. The second chapter “Context” alone is worth reading this book for. It explains a lot of the psychology on why the Pomodoro technique is designed the way it is. It was a powerful motivator for me to try out the technique and consequently experience the benefits.

First, let’s explain the name “Pomodoro”, it’s the Italian word for “tomato.” This name was used because Francesco Cirillo, the creator of this technique, used his kitchen timer which was in the shape of a tomato.

Now back to the book… let’s take what’s wrong with the simple ‘time tracking’ approach mentioned at the start of this article and add a few extra steps that the Pomodoro technique has and show how it provides benefits.

The first problem with simple time tracking is fizzling out of energy because of pressure on oneself to work for long uninterrupted hours. Our lizard brain just cannot keep doing that for long, so you split time into units of 25 minutes with breaks:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet).
  2. Pick one to work on. Start clock.
  3. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind, for 5 minutes (break).
  4. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan notes in the book (Page 56):

During your breaks, you’re not allowed to think about the previous Pomodoro or about the next Pomodoro. Don’t make important phone calls or start writing important emails. Your brain needs to absorb the last 25 minutes of challenging thinking.

If your stress system is never neutralized by mental recreation, you’ll notice a number of symptoms. The thinking system in the brain stem is affected, as well as the senses of the limbic system and in the end your biological rhythms. For example, your sleep might be affected.

At chronic stress levels, the capacity of your working memory and your ability to concentrate will fall. The joy of working will be transformed into anxiety – inspiration is altered to irritation.

This rhythm of 25 minute units leads to a sustainable pace (Page 74):

Sustainable Pace

Overview and control are the opposite of flow and deep creative-thinking processes. You can’t see the big picture and focus on details at the same time. Your focus will benefit from a process where you minimize the points where you have to sort and allocate priorities. But you need to do both. And you also need recreation time on a regular basis in order to absorb and recharge. So, you have three mental states to switch between. You alternate between them, but what triggers the mental state change?

I use three hats: the recreation hat, which is a jester’s hat; the working hat, which transforms me into the lion who is 100 percent focused on hunting the antelope; and the strategy hat, which makes me feel like a king when I’m sorting and deciding what to do during the next work iteration.

I come to work wearing the recreation hat. I put on the strategy hat and choose what activity to focus on. Then I put on the work hat, wind up the clock, and begin to focus. The clock rings after 25 minutes, which reminds me to put on the recreation hat. After a short break, I put on the strategy hat, and so on.

This timebox schedule that interleaves to focus, to prioritize, and to rest gives me a sustainable pace.

The second problem is that this a bit too lax in that there is no race to finish something, there is no goals. So let’s start every day with a subset of the todo list and make a commitment to oneself to finish that subset on that day with the caveat that it is okay if we don’t accomplish it:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet).
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 51):

Pomodoro to do today sheet

Distinguishing between the Activity Inventory (a traditional to-do list) and the To Do Today (an extracted commitment) is a compulsory strategy for doing the right thing, getting started now, and putting optimum effort into your work. It gives you clear goals and personal control.

The third problem is that there is frustration when a task is not finished on a given day because the task is so big. So we break down how long the task will take and focus on that as well as finishing the task:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

This gives the physical pleasure of marking a X on successful completion of a pomodoro. This also means it can help measure our progress on whether we are on track to finish the task in the estimated number of pomodori.

As Staffan says (Page 95):

Planning based on estimates makes your commitment for the day more realistic, and as a result, your motivation will improve. Recording the number of completed Pomodoro every day gives you a good understanding of your Pomodoro velocity.

So far so good, but how do I know whether I’m improving myself day over day? Now we shall add tracking to the technique:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock. Mark every internal interruption with an apostrophe next to the task name and mark every external interruption with a dash.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
  6. At the end of each day, note down statistics that you are interested in w.r.t. your performance for today in the Records sheet.

Of course, this tracking only works if you make sure that each pomodoro is atomic (Page 61):

Never switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. If you finish an activity halfway through a Pomodoro, spend the rest of the time over-learning. For example, if I finish early, I review what I have done, I repeat what I have learned, I see whether I can enhance my work, or I note new conclusions on paper—until the kitchen timer rings.

So, you’re not allowed to impulsively switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. In fact, just having the option to switch in the middle is a recurring disturbance. You can’t just stop in the middle of a Pomodoro and take a break either. Then you will lose the rhythm. And since the stopped Pomodoro was shorter, it will not be compatible – in terms of tracking – with other Pomodori.

Examples of statistics include basic things like number of pomodori you committed to at the start of day versus the actual number of pomodori spent.

It can go as comprehensive as you wish, for example take interruptions we tracked during each pomodoro – we can track the average number of internal interruptions (your mind wanders) per pomodoro, the average number of external interruptions (somebody at work asks you something or you get a call) per pomodoro, what time of the day you get most interruptions, how long into each pomodoro you get your first distraction, and so on.

Pomodoro interruptions tracking

The point is to keep it simple and measurable. And something that motivates you to be productive each day. You should have a little ceremony but not too much otherwise it becomes self-defeating.

There is a LOT more to this than meets the eye and this is where Staffan’s book makes a difference. I would highly recommend reading this book. I’m making a mental note to myself to make this book one of the most important books that I will make my kids read and practice when they are in school. It is a valuable life survival tool that I feel they must learn at an early age (the next generation is going to be even more competitive!).

The best part is that I can fit GTD and Pomodoro techniques together. I remember reading a comment somewhere which said “GTD helps you answer what to do. Pomodoro helps you answer how to do it.”

Last, but not the least, the important thing to keep in mind is that Pomodoro technique forces you to adopt good habits. In more technical terms, “conditioned reflexes are key.” The act of marking X against an action, the act of crossing an action item when it is done, the act of making your brain instantly focused at the start of a Pomodoro (as well as the ticking sound of the clock, if you’re inclined), etc. they all help you adopt good habits. And I personally believe that good habits are the secret behind most successful people.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 48):

First prioritizing and then focusing on the most important activity will make you feel safe and sound. Otherwise, your focus will constantly be disturbed by questions like “Am I really doing the most important thing now?” At the start of my day, for instance, I first look at the whole backlog and pick the most important activity. Then I stick to it for a short timebox, before I reevaluate whether it’s still the most important one. In my mind I replace “I must finish” with “Where can I start?” and I replace “This project is so big and important” with “I can take one small step.”

Without the Pomodoro technique, figuring out how to start each workday can be hard. You might feel like you have a billion things and you can’t possibly do everything simultaneously. So, you never really start, and suddenly it’s lunch time.

Pomodoro itinerary

On a related note, there are variants to this technique, they can be called Kanban or they can be called GTCD but I hope you get the gist of why this technique works.

If you’re looking for tools, I would suggest these two:

  • For Linux and Windows – Focus Booster app
  • For Mac – The Pomodoro tray item – I like this one because it uses the Mac’s built-in voice feature to make announcements of the start and end of a Pomodoro.

Just in case you were curious, I revised the book this time in 5 pomodori, and wrote this blog post in 5 pomodori :-)

So what are you waiting for, go read the book now! And do write in about how the Pomodoro technique has helped you.

Update : “We believe what we want to believe, so it’s better to get data” — B J Fogg in an interview with Ramit Sethi – I guess this is the most succinct answer to when people ask me why use the Pomodoro technique :-)

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Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto

I recently read the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande – a respected surgeon, noted author, MacArthur fellow, New Yorker staff writer, and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

The premise of the entire book is the author’s dive into the concept of a checklist and how they have dramatically improved the efficiency and reliability of professionals in the medical profession, the aeronautical industry, the architecture industry and even the venture capital industry.

So what is a checklist? It is the minimum set of critical steps for any task to be achieved.

Why are they useful? Because checklists protect against many kinds of dangers. For example:

  1. “Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes – if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all (whether it is buying ingredients for a cake or preparing an airplane for takeoff).”
  2. “People can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. Especially in busy and stressed workplaces (such as hospitals). In complex processes, certain steps don’t always matter, may be it affects only 1 out of 50 times. But when it does, it can be catastrophic.”

One of my favorite passages in the book is as follows (it’s a longer excerpt than I would have liked, but all the parts were really important, so please read the whole passage to understand what’s going on):

Checklists remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance. Which is precisely what happened with vital signs – thought it was not doctors who deserved the credit.

The routine recording of the four vital signs did not become the norm in Western hospitals until the 1960s, when nurses embraced the idea. They designed their patient charts and forms to include the signs, especially creating a checklist for themselves.

With all the things nurses had to do for their patients over the course of a day or night – dispense their medications, dress their wounds, troubleshoot problems – the “vitals chart” provided a way of ensuring that every six hours, or more often when nurses judged necessary, they didn’t forget to check their patient’s pulse, blood pressure, temperature and respiration and assess exactly how the patient was doing.

In most hospitals, nurses have since added a fifth vital sign: pain, as rated by patients on a scale of one to ten. And nurses have developed yet further such bedside innovations – for example, medication timing charts and brief written care plans for every patient. No one calls these checklists but, really, that’s what they are. They have been welcomed by nursing but haven’t quite carried over into doctoring.

Charts and checlists, that’s nursing stuff — boring stuff. They are nothing that we doctors, withour extra years of training and specialization, would ever need or use.

In 2001, though, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give a doctor checklist a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist encompass everything ICU teams might need to do in a day. He designed it to tackle just one of their hundreds of potential tasks, the one that nearly killed Anthony DeFilippo: central line infections.

On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting in a central line. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his ICU to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients and record how often they carried out each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the Johns Hopkins Hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask the doctors each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. This was revolutionary. Nurses have always had their ways of nudging a doctor into doing the right thing, ranging from the gentle reminder (“Um, did you forget to put on your mask, doctor?”) to more forceful methods (I’ve had a nurse bodycheck me when she thought I hadn’t put enough drapes on a patient). But many nurses aren’t sure whether this is their place or whether a given measure is worth a confrontation. (Does it really matter whether a patient’s legs are draped for a line going into the chest?”) The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

For a year afterward, Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from 11 percent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths and saved two million dollars in costs.

If that, my friends, does not explain the power of a simple checklist, I don’t know what can.

And yet, despite these results, people were reluctant to adopt checklists. In fact, I know you are dismissing the idea right now. Try writing down 5 reasons why checklists are stupid and won’t work for you. Now write 5 reasons why it will work. Think over it. I bet most people find the 5 reasons against checklists, easier to write, but will be convinced about it after writing the 5 reasons for it.

[Read more…]

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Creativity x Organization = Impact

81 people have asked me about “Innovation – ways to make people innovate.”

That’s a hard question. Especially because I’m always wary of using such an ambiguous term. And more so, when there are far more qualified people to answer out there.

Since I have been asked the question, I am jotting down my thoughts on the subject here (the usual disclaimers apply):

I think the question really is about how impactful can a person be, rather than this nebulous word called “innovative.” In fact, I hate the word “innovation”, because the focus should be about problem solving.

Innovation (regardless of its definition) is almost always the by-product of a successfully executed product. You don’t start by wanting to be innovative. You start by looking at interesting hard problems. You only end up being innovative. So, Solve the Problem first.

For example, I always find it amusing to see the feedback on isbn.net.in – people have said “It’s awesome! It’s wonderful!” I replied “It’s just a bunch of regexes!” … But it just goes to show that what matters is how much the user values it, not how it is implemented.

Now, back to topic: If you want to be able to attack interesting hard problems, then my honest opinion is that you need to keep this equation in mind:

Creativity x Organization = Impact

Scott Belsky at the 99% Conference

Regarding Creativity / Ideas:

  1. “If you think you don’t have any good ideas, that’s because you don’t really have bad ideas. You get one good idea only after you get a hundred bad ideas.” — paraphrasing Seth Godin in his latest book Linchpin.
  2. Frequent Inspiration helps. A lot. Keep reading Springwise, Yanko Design, Quirky everyday and you’ll be inspired to “innovate” as well.
  3. Observe. “If you’re looking for problems to solve, you’re better off to be around real people whose problems can be solved via your trade (such as software).” — RWW article
  4. Follow the Trends, such as Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Consumer Mobile Applications for 2012 and 10 Tech Trends for 2010 — Time , and more importantly the kinds of technology and products that are being created, follow those “cutting edge” technologies that we love to adore and wonder “Wow, how did they come up with this stuff?

But you have to be careful when ideating, because it is very easy to get into “analysis paralysis”:

Another important thing is to not get so carried away by the shiny new things that you forget the basics:

Regarding Organization / Discipline

  1. There is this guy in Adobe Bangalore office who is a “patent machine.” He files for a patent every two weeks. No kidding. And these weren’t only trivial ones either.
    What was his trick? He spent a dedicated half hour every single day on thinking up new ideas or solving problems. It’s as simple as that. This is called the Seinfeld “Unbroken Chain” philosophy.
  2. Body and Mind need a predictable routine and that’s when it’s optimal. And once it has a routine, it is hard for the body and mind to accept any other way.
    That’s why smokers find it so hard to get out of their addiction, because body and mind is used to it and is craving for it. Same goes for coffee, same goes for writing code, same goes for creating new ideas. It is so ironic that discipline breeds creativity. It’s a truth that we don’t want to accept, because it makes us sound less “human”.
  3. Don’t judge an idea to be good or bad until you have tried to manually solve it yourself once or prototyped it. After your first attempt at solving the problem, if you still feel good about it and feel that some pain point has been relieved, then it is a good idea.
    Take Jack Dorsey’s simple approach to creating as an example: draw out the idea, gauge the right timing, and iterate like mad.

To summarize:

  1. Focus on the problem, not the solution. As Dave McClure says: “problem, not solution. customer, not technology. UX, not code. distribution, not PR. acq cost, not revenue projections.”
  2. As Seth Godin would say, “Artists who ship” have the most impact. Read Linchpin to internalize it.
  3. What is your impact? Can you qualify it? Can you quantify it? Measure it every month – Within 6 months, you will know whether you are “innovative.”

Update #1: Related Reading, as pointed out by Srikanth in the comments: The Discipline of Innovation by Peter Drucker. Looks like I keep reinventing what Drucker has already said.

Update #2: See 10 Laws of Productivity by Behance team.

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About Deep Procrastination

Cal Newport, one of my favorite bloggers ever, wrote about the upside of deep procrastination last week. I had a few thoughts on the subject.

So what is deep procrastination? You know you’re in it when “No matter how dire the stakes, starting work becomes an insurmountable prospect.”

I remember this starkly happen to me when I transitioned from 2nd PUC to B.E.

I had the fortune of studying in a school which exposed us to computers very early. I remember playing a lot with Logo and fascinated that you can draw circles and rectangles on a screen. I knew back then that I wanted to study computers.

So in PUC, I had chosen to study computer science (PCMCs) and not choose biology at all, compared to most of my peers who wanted to “keep their options open”. No sirree, computers was for me.

I couldn’t wait to get to “B.E. in Computer Science” so that all I would do was learn about computers.

Uh oh.

I found myself studying about “strength of materials”, about the different materials used in construction of a building, about the calculation of the weight that a pillar has to support, blah blah. WTF.

I was disgusted. I was very demotivated. I was in deep procrastination. I had stopped studying. And I didn’t care.

I have usually stood in the top 2-3 ranks of my class throughout my school and pre-university days (well, geeky was the word used to describe me…). In engineering days, I was given a rap for having attendance shortage.

But something happened. I soon started to enjoy it.

I explored a lot in those days – from lots of trekking (which meant travelling outside the city with friends! Whoa!) to reading tons about technology.

Because I studied well in PUC and got a good rank in CET (463, out of lakhs of people), my grandpa surprised me with a gift of 5000 rupees (don’t remember the exact amount). I had never seen so much money in my life (back then).

I blew it all up by sitting in a cybercafe. I used to download web pages, put it in floppy disks, come back home and read them on the home computer. I fondly remember reading about a lot of open source projects and a lot of Tim O’Reilly’s essays.

Those were amazing days. And legend has it, that it all began with a few good seniors who taught us Linux and open source, and I eventually ended up writing a book (stop yawning alright!).

Fast forward by 5 years… As a good friend likes to say: “There are only two times you innovate in your life – 1. when you’re in college 2. when you retire.” True enough, I don’t think I have ever read deep tech stuff since then. Nowadays, reading the LLVM Blog makes my brain hurt. Sigh.

The point of my story is this: Since I stopped focusing on studies in college, I let my curiosity guide me. All that curiosity has led me places and I’m forever grateful for that.

My Advice: The key to get out of deep procrastination is to have a constant balancing act between hard focus and curiosity. Leaning towards either for an extended period of time can be completely demotivating.

I believe that working on projects that will have long-lasting impact and simultaneously priming your curiosity, and engaging with the unlimited number of topics to explore out there, will keep you on an even keel and a good frame of mind. Maybe even a happy frame of mind.


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An experiment to be Google-Free

Update on 5 Oct, 2012 : Still on Mac applications, but now using the free email mailbox option of my domain registrar Gandi.net + local Thunderbird email folders instead of Rackspace Email. Desktop apps are better for frequently used stuff. No matter how many times web apps lure me into “available everywhere” + “mobile syncing” feature. For example, the Brief addon for Firefox is so much more responsive and pleasant to use than Google Reader, although Google Reader’s advantage is that it works on mobile as well. I spend too much time with my mobile phone anyway, so it’s a good way to dis-incentivize me from using that screen.

 Update on 13 Jan, 2012: Most of my online services has been replaced by good Mac applications + Dropbox. I have moved away from Zoho services because their UI tended to be quite buggy, and using the browser’s “live bookmarks” feature as the RSS reader. The main things I’m still dependent on Google for is Feedburner (because it is the standard for RSS reader count) and Google Analytics (again, the standard for analytics).

Update on 30 Jul, 2011: I have switched to another paid option now – Rackspace Email.

Update on 24 Apr, 2011: I was using Zoho Mail exclusively for a long time, but I got tired of my email landing in spam folders of Yahoo! Mail and Gmail users. Going back to Yahoo! Mail was not an option (IMAP support is only in an expensive paid option and I don’t like the Yahoo! Mail UI any more), so the Hobson’s choice was to get back to Gmail. Sigh.


100% Google Free!A series of incidents and thoughts led me to try an experiment – to be “100% Google Free”. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and ended up admiring Google a lot, and at the same time, worried and curious about what they do with all that data they have.

First things first, since I no longer use Google’s Feedburner, please kindly update your RSS readers to use http://www.swaroopch.com/feed/ instead of the earlier Feedburner link. For those 140+ people who are subscribed via email, I have migrated to MailChimp (emails were also being sent by Feedburner earlier), so emails will continue to be delivered to you from this post onwards. You can subscribe or unsubscribe for email delivery on this page.

Back to the main topic… there were a few reasons that led me to this experiment:

Phew. I think those were enough reasons to move away from Google, at least for a while.

And, boy, it has been tough. Let’s face it, it’s hard for companies to beat Google when Google makes slick products and gives it away for free.

Here is what my transition looks like:

  1. Search – The funny thing is I used Google Search only in 2004-2005, started using Yahoo! Search since 2006, and have moved to Bing exclusively since the past 6 months. (free)
  2. Analytics – Moved to Mint ($30) + Piwik (open source)
  3. Reader – Moved to Tiny Tiny RSS (open source)
  4. Feedburner – Moved to the default WordPress feed link + MailChimp for emails (freemium)
  5. Google Apps – Moved to Zoho for Business ($5 per month)
  6. Docs – Moved to Zoho Docs which turned out to be way more powerful (free)
  7. GTalk – Stopped using IM, it was a distraction anyway. (zero)
  8. Contacts – Exported from Google, stored only on iPhone (free)
  9. Calendar – Zoho Calendar (free)
  10. Google Groups – subscribe to RSS feeds of the group (free)
  11. Maps – Since the map application on iPhone uses Google Maps, no alternative
  12. Google Alerts – no alternative
  13. Google Adsense – This is still a todo item, haven’t looked into it yet. I have heard about Komli, Chitika, etc. but yet to investigate.
  14. Phone – My next phone is probably going to be an Android phone, looks like there is no alternative (I’m tired of having to use Windows just for iTunes, only because I have an iPhone)

As I’m sure you have deciphered, this took some installation of server-side software and some money to make this transition. These were the best alternatives that I came across that suited me.

So far I’ve been very happy about this experiment, because I got to discover and try out new tools and realized that there is so much more cool functionality available out there that I would have never discovered otherwise!

And at the same time, I admire Google even more now (from a startupper’s perspective) because they discovered a business model because of which they are able to give away so much functionality for free, and hence brought more people online.

Update: Thanks to Helen (in the comments below), got to know that Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) wrote about the exact same topic just 2 days ago. Good to know that I’m not alone in my concern!

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The point of being Done

Listening to Seth Godin say “What you do for a living is not be creative, what you do is ship” reminded me of the The Cult of Done manifesto:

The Cult of Done Manifesto

If you find the image inconvenient to read, here’s the text:

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

My favorite is Point 6.

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Musings on 2009

– Work –

Resolutions

Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. I got sidetracked by struggling to make a business. But don’t regret it for even a moment. Learned a lot about the real world. Changed from being a meek guy who liked to hide behind email to someone who has now learned to “work the room.”

Business

Reinforced, the hard way, that “you’re not here to write code; you’re here to ship products.” — JWZ

Job

Ironically, after a startup experience, I think I will be a far more cooperative person in a corporate environment, because now I realize the problems and hardships faced in each role in a company.

Psychology

Realizing that it all boils down to psychology. Understand the other person’s psychology and only then you can navigate through life.

Rationality

My new law: “Never ever assume that people have made their decisions rationally.”. People take decisions for all sorts of reasons, just don’t assume that the reason was rationale.

Confidence

Realizing that self-confidence comes from within. Everybody has their own talents. So what if I can’t code like geniuses? When I work with intensity, I can get the job done. Good enough, I think.

– Life –

Decisions

You don’t make decisions, decisions make you.

What Matters

What matters to me is force and family.

Friends

Good times don't last. Bad times don't last.

(Drawing by Jessica Hagy)

Realizing how often you lose friends that you care about. Good friendships last ~2 years only.

Real Troubles

Don’t worry about the future.
Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective
as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.
The real troubles in your life
are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind,
the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.

Baz Luhrmann

Pursuit

As humans, we will always be in the pursuit of something.

At the end of the day, all we want is to be missed and to know that we have made a difference.