Why I totally trashed my productivity plan. And why you should too.

I had a pretty interesting productivity plan. Till about a year ago. This 4 step plan looked something like this.

Step 1: Get super frustrated with the mess. Both physical and mental

Step 2: Clean up the room, look at the long to-do list, and create an infallible super plan to get things done.

Step 3. Follow the infallible super plan for a few days till, almost inevitably, the infallible plan crashes like the Titanic. (Mostly within a week)

Step 4: Go back to step 1. Repeat for years and years.

And then it happened. One day, I trashed it forever.

waste basket

Picture courtesy: http://www.freeimages.com/profile/nkzs

Almost 6 months ago, I read a book called “The power of habit –  Why we do what we do in life and business” (Almost by accident. Greeshma (my partner) ordered it for herself.) The book got me started on the idea of habits, and I got hooked. I started reading up anything on habits that I could get my browser to. I read zen habits, BJ Fogg, Gretchen Rubin, and so on.

And then I realized that there was a better path to productivity.

Habits.

You see, habits are brain’s way of automating. How many times have you taken the turn towards office, when you were actually going somewhere else? Do you put in the right leg first into your trousers or the left leg? Always the same one? These are habits at work.

So, how were habits going to help me be more productive?

To answer this, let me first list out the productivity issues I tried to tackle with a productivity plan.

  1. I wasn’t getting things done.
  2. I was unhealthy – Joint pains, low energy etc
  3. My work space and home were in chaos
  4. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t find the time nor the energy.
  5. I was sleeping way too late.

With a productivity plan, what I used to do was to plan a day which will take care of all these issues. It looked like this.

Wake up at 6, exercise, then write and have breakfast. Work (finish all the tasks on the to-do list), come home, spend time with friends and family, have dinner, clean up, make a to-do list, and go to bed. (I am sure it looks similar for most of you). The problem, like I stated before, was that this was not sustainable.

With the habits plan, I had a different approach. I could build a few habits that will take care of these issues, and then my brain will automate those behaviors. For example, if I have a habit of creating a schedule for the next day (I will write later about why a schedule and not a to-do list), it would, to an extent, take care of my problems with getting things done. If I have a habit of waking up at 6 every day, I would have the time to write. If I have a habit of exercising for 30 minutes a day, it will almost take care of my health (With the bonus that I will fall asleep easier). If I have a habit of cleaning up my house every night, I would be living in a clean, peaceful place.

A habits approach requires more patience and persistence than a simple getting-things-done approach. As I have already written in the article “4 war strategies to build better habits,” you can’t build new habits all at one time. You will have to work on one at a time. So, a complete transformation of your day isn’t possible in a week, or even a month, or two. It will require persistence for a longer period. May be a year.

On the other hand, if you are willing to persist, a habit plan can be truly rewarding. If you can build 4-5 key sticky habits a year, those habits will stay with you for a life time. Imagine yourself as a person who always wakes up at 6, exercises, writes/reads, gets your things done consistently, and sleeps and wakes up on time. Motivating? What’s all the more motivating is that you will stay that way for a long long time. (Maybe even your entire life)

A habits approach is about deciding what kind of a person you want to be and building the right habits to be that person.

I want to be the kind of person who wakes up at six every day, exercises, writes, reads, spends enough time with the family and achieves most of his life goals. So, in the last 6 months, I have managed to build 2 major habits..

  1. I write a schedule every night for the next day – this has hugely improved my productivity. I have gotten more done in the last 6 months than I have in over 3 years.
  2. I wake up at 7 almost without an alarm: My target is to wake up at 6, but I have taken baby steps, and have started waking up at 7 consistently (it used to be 8:30). In the next 2-3 months, I hope to be able to wake up at 6 regularly. (There are those odd days, when I oversleep, but I don’t kill myself over them). This has given me time to write regularly.

Over the next year, I will add the other three habits (Exercise, clean, wake up at 6) to my life, and then, I would consider myself truly productive.

And yes, I am not saying that habits and habits alone make me productive. They form the foundation on which I apply other principles. I believe that should work for you too.

So, have I convinced you about habits, and how they can be great for you? If not let me invite someone else. Someone who is an undeniable expert. The Greek guru – Aristotle. In his words.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

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Long term goals – How not to let them die short term

Estimated reading time: 8 min.

I want to learn 4 new languages by December 2016. That’s my latest long term plan. I actually set this about a month ago, followed it up for the next 4 days by taking Portuguese lessons on Duolingo and then forgot all about it.

This is not the first time that a long term goal of mine has had a short term death. It has happened multiple times. And I am sure it has happened with most of you too.

So, what is it that makes long term goals more difficult to achieve than the short term ones. Actually, just the fact that it is long term. Like I had mentioned earlier in article 5 (4 War strategies to build better habits), our brains prefer the pleasure of achievement now to the pleasure of achievement a year later.

So, are there strategies to make long term goals more attainable? Of course yes. Most of you have heard of setting SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time bound goals. I am not going to talk about them here. (If you have not heard of SMART goals and would like to read more about it, you can follow this link). The SMART goals strategy works for both long term and short term goals. Instead, I am going to talk about 5 strategies that will help you specifically with long term goals.

1. Find the why?

Why do you want to lose those 10 kilos or why do you want to learn a new language?

The why is the most important part of a goal, short-term or long-term. It is much more relevant for long term goals because without a concrete emotional why, you will not be able to sustain the motivation required for any long term goal.

The why for a long term goal has to be both concrete and emotional. For eg, don’t say that you want to lose 10 Kgs to be healthy. To be healthy is a very abstract concept, and your brain won’t be able to visually store “to be healthy”. Instead, say that you want to lose 10 kgs so that you can play 4 games of badminton without huffing and puffing. Now, that’s a concrete image that your brain can store. The image of you playing badminton.

By emotional, I mean that it has relate to something close to your heart. Something that you love. If for the same example of you losing 10 kgs, you think that you want to be able to play with your kid or your nieces or nephews, the brain can connect to the emotion related to it.

goal

2. Believe in them

A couple of my long term goals have gone unattained because I didn’t believe in them completely. For eg: I wanted to open 3 branches of my institute in 3 different cities by the end of the 5th year. It didn’t happen. There were many reasons, but the major one was that I wasn’t sure about it. I wasn’t sure that it was the right path to take.

My ambivalence was even more damaging because despite the lack of complete conviction, I still tried taking the goal ahead and failed. In the process I also lost valuable time which I could have otherwise used for another goal.

Ambivalence can be a real goal killer. Long term goals demand from us complete dedication, and complete clarity and belief. Even the tiniest amount of lack of conviction can derail them.

The next time you set a long term goal, take some time to address the concerns upfront. Ask yourself if you completely believe in it. If not, you might want to rethink the goal. The chances of goal completion increase manifold with absolute belief.

3. Take an action every day till you internalize the goals.

You have definitely experienced that rush every time you set a long term goal. You were excited. You were energized. Till the end of the day, all you could think of was the exciting goal that you were going to achieve. Fast forward 30 days, or 60 days. Were you still that excited, still that energized. Most of the times no.

Most long time goals die an untimely death. Most within the first 30 or 60 days, or even less. Long term goals are like new-borns, they need constant feeding in the first month or two of their lives. Without that they will grow weak, and if ignored, will die an untimely death.

The way to nourish a long term goal in their infant hood is to act on them. Every day. Take a tiny step towards it. Even if the goal is a year away, or two years away, take a step today, and take a step every day for at least 30 days. This will help sustain it. This will plant the goal firmly in your brain and the brain will start building it a permanent home inside.

4. Set mini goals to add up to the big goal.

Like I already said, the brain prefers pleasure now, to pleasure 1 year later, and therefore it makes it easier for it to work on super short term goals than long term goals. So, set super short term goals which will ultimately lead to the long term goal. For eg: The long term goal for me for this blog is to write 100 articles in 1 year. But I very rarely think about the number 100. I don’t want to scare my brain with such a big number. Instead, I think about 2. I focus on publishing just two articles a week, and thereby reach 104 articles in 52 weeks.

5. Track:

I like seeing those numbers. I bet everyone does. 10 push ups yesterday. 15 today. 30 clients last month, 45 this month.

Tracking is an extremely effective strategy that will help you achieve long term goals. They act the same way mini goals do. They give you concrete evidence of progress or even regress. They are visual representations of your goals.

I prefer tracking week to week. You might like it month to month or day to day. Whatever the frequency, make sure you track. By tracking you automatically increase the chances of achieving the goal.

So, go ahead. Set the next long term goal. Try these strategies and let me know if they work for you.

Can’t find your passion? Here’s one thing that will help.

Estimated reading time: 3.5 minutes.

I am a language trainer. I love training. I can say that training is my passion. It fires me up.

But I didn’t plan on being a trainer. Actually I was against being one. It happened by an accident. And I am happy it did.

So, is there a trick? can you also make the accident happen?

I would say yes.

Before we come back to that question, let me ask you another one.

How will you know that playing a guitar is your passion if you have never played one? Or clay painting, or cricket commentary, or writing?

Or from another angle, what are the chances of finding your perfect partner if you have never met or spoken to him or her. And what are the chances of finding him/her if you only know only a dozen people your entire life? I would say ‘very low’

Finding your passion is also a little like that.

If all you do are 3 or 4 things that you keep repeating day after day, month after month, and year after year, you might just end up never finding that one thing you love to your core.

And if you are one of those who think it is worth finding your passion, you have to be ready to do one thing.

Explore new things.

This is exactly what worked in my case. As a 22 year old, I was something like the character of Jim Carrey in the movie Yes Man. Say yes to everything. University politics – Yes. New language – Yes. Part-time projects – Yes. I kept saying yes to anything that came my way. It is one of those Yeses that first took me in front of a group of students as a trainer. There was no looking back from there.

I am not asking you to be a Yes Man. I am asking another thing.

Explore new things.

I found my passion because I was open to new things. If I hadn’t taken up that project, I would have never realized that I was a good trainer. I would have never realized that I love being in front of an audience.

If you are serious about finding your passion, this is one things you have to do. Explore new things.

Make it a habit to explore/ do new things. Join that guitar class you have been thinking of. Or start learning the new language you always wanted to, or take that trip you have always wanted to take. If one doesn’t work, try another, if not, yet another. Keep going at it.

Keep exploring. Discover new paths. You might just meet your passion at the next turn.

And it’s worth it.

NB: If you already know what your passion is, then you might also know that you can have more than one passion.

1 not-so-secret tip that will save you 1000s in credit card interest.

I used to be the king of credit. Credit card used to be my best friend. A slightly expensive friend to hang out with though. I used to feed it 1000s of rupees in interest every year and it used to be happy.

I can’t say it didn’t help. It helped me fund two honeymoons and to an extent, a wedding. It helped me survive in a business where cash flow was very unpredictable.

The banks were happy with me and they offered me EMIs after EMIs and I took them all.

Till one day I discovered something.

Part of the discovery came when I started using YNAB, a software which tracks and helps you manage your finances. They had a simple idea. Anticipate your regular expenses and save for them.

It was quite simple. For eg: I knew that every year, I had to pay the insurance for my car. It was unavoidable and would come at the same time every year. It came to about 12000 every year.

Earlier, I would have simply swiped my card and paid it off in three or six EMIs. But now, with this new idea, I went on a different path.

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I started a recurring deposit. I started an RD of Rs. 1000 per month as soon as I paid off my first insurance. In 12 months, by the time the next insurance premium came knocking, I had more money than necessary. I had almost Rs. 12580 including the RD interest I had accrued over the year. Add to this the interest of at least Rs. 1000 I would have paid on my credit card EMI, I have easily saved a good Rs. 1500.

All it took was a little bit of planning ahead.

I have become an RD zen now. Here are some of the RDs I have opened in the last two years.

  1. A pregnancy RD: I just became a dad. (Just 2 days before this post), and this RD has helped me build a nice little saving for the post-delivery expenses.
  2. Car maintenance: Rs. 1000/- per month for 12 months – Rs 12580 on maturity
  3. Vacation fund: Rs. 5000/- per month for 12 months – Rs. 62902 on maturity (I can travel almost anywhere reasonable with that amount, and all it takes is Rs.5000/- per month)
  4. Gifting fund for anniversaries and birthdays.

You can be an RD zen too. Here’s how.

Start with a list. Make a list of all expenses you know that will come at fixed times – insurance premiums, annual gym membership, annual vacations etc. Look at how much you need each month to achieve the goal. Start an RD for that amount. Place a standing instruction. That will make it easier for you to keep depositing.

And yes, they are super easy to start. Just log in to your banks site and create an RD in less than five minutes.

This might look like too simplistic an idea, but I guarantee. Try it once and you will see how simpler your financial life becomes.

So, what are you waiting for?

Go ahead, start an RD now. Or two, or even three.

Happy RDying.

Top 10 reasons why you procrastinate, and what you can do about them – Part 2.

Estimated reading time: 6 min

In part 1 of the article , you read about the top 5 reasons why you procrastinate and what you can do about them. Here are the next 5.

6. You do not want to really do it: What if you really don’t want to do it? What if you are procrastinating because of that?What do you do then?

Two things. One. If it is delegateable, delegate it. You might find someone out there who is more interested in doing it. You could even delegate it to virtual assistants.

Two. Visualize the task as a gate. If you manage to open the gate, you will get to do things that you really love to do. For eg: I run a Spanish training institute. I love training. When I started the company, all I wanted to do was to train, and I hated the normal business chores like printing pamphlets, updating the website, and making cold calls. I did these chores nevertheless because I realized that I would only get enough clients if I kept doing these and that thought made it easier for me to do them.

Also, when the business grew, I had money and I hired assistants to do these tasks.

7. You can’t decide: Indecisiveness costs a lot of time, money and mental energy. A lot of times you are stuck in a rut because you can’t decide on which path to take. Should you choose the white background or the black for the PowerPoint slide, or should you present the data for this quarter or for the whole year? There will be compelling arguments for both the sides, but you can’t do both and ultimately you fall into what is called analysis paralysis.

choice 2

 There is a simple trick to free yourself from analysis paralysis. Set a deadline for the decision. “In the next ten minutes, I will decide on the color”, or the next 30 minutes, or 1 hour, or even a day. But stick to it. If needed, use a timer. This will save you precious time.

8. You are distracted: There is no limit to the number of distractions you have around. You love your distractions. Instead of doing that task you know you should be doing, you read endless articles (exactly what you are doing now 🙂 ), watch YouTube videos, play candy crush etc. This is because your brain prefers instant gratification. It wants that pleasure now. Not after one day when you finish the task you are supposed to.

There are two ways you can tackle this. One, set tiny goals. Those you can finish in 30 minutes or one hour. When you achieve them, you get a dopamine rush and fulfil the brain’s need for instant gratification.

Two, use the distractions as rewards. Finish 50 minutes of focussed work, and you get to watch 10 minutes of YouTube videos, or 10 minutes of candy crush. This also helps you relax.

9. You are planning too much: I used to be one of those guys who would start anything only once I planned it to the last detail. This is counterproductive. No plan is complete till you start implementing it. Plan the essentials of the project. Start implementing them, and the details will follow.

10. You are obsessed with perfection: One of the reasons why I delayed publishing this blog is that I kept thinking it should be perfect. I kept thinking I have to be an excellent writer before I start the blog. My articles had to be perfect.

The blog did not materialize until I realized one day that I won’t become that excellent writer I want to be if I don’t start somewhere. So, I started the blog, and decided that probably by the 100th article, I will be close to the excellence I am aspiring for. So, start off with what you have. Perfection is the continuous improvement of good.

There you have. The top 10.

So, the next time you realize that you are procrastinating, do not forget to ask why. Tackle the why. It will be far more effective.

So, what are you procrastinating on right now? At this moment. And why? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you have a friend who would find this useful, please share it. Hit one of the share buttons below.

NB: You can read a bit more about some of the things discussed here in article 1 (The art of the start). You might want to read it too.

Top 10 reasons why you procrastinate, and what you can do about them – Part 1.  

Estimated reading time: 6 min

Do you procrastinate?

Obviously. I can hear you say. What kind of a question is that? Everyone procrastinates. Procrastinating is human. And don’t you proudly announce it to anyone who cares to ask. “I do everything at the last minute”, “I am a specialist at doing things at the last second.” “The last minute brings the best out of me.”time

But despite all apparent pride when you call yourself procrastinators, you have hated that feeling of rush, or having inadequate time to finish that important project, or that feeling that you could have done it better if you had more time.

You have always thought about it. Resolved never to procrastinate. Made grand plans. “I am never going to be late ever again. “, or “I am going to finish that project by Sunday morning, and then relax the whole day before I submit it on Monday” but you still go back to the familiar feeling of struggling to finish it on Monday morning.

Then how do you stop procrastinating?

The first step to stop procrastinating is to understand that procrastinating is only the symptom. It’s not the disease. It’s the outward sign that something is wrong inside. Fear, insecurity, indecisiveness etc. So, the right way to stop procrastinating is not to deal just with procrastination, but to look under it, find the real reason, and tackle it.

So, here are the top 10 reasons why you procrastinate, and what you can do about them.

1. You wait for motivation: This is by a distance, the biggest reason why you normally procrastinate. You keep waiting for motivation to hit you, and put you in the right frame of mind. In reality, however, it does not happen till there is way little time left to do the task, and panic takes over instead of motivation.

So, what you do?

The next time you realize that you are waiting for inspiration, look at the task. Look at the smallest component of the task. Start with that. For eg: If you are making a presentation. Start with making a bullet list of ideas that you want to include. Even if it is an incomplete list, it will get the motivation flowing, and it will set the mood.

2. You are not sure where to start: I have already spoken about the art of the start in article 1. Not knowing where to start is a big productivity killer. So, what do you do? Super simple. Start anywhere. Remember that almost any project has different components. You can finish them in any order and organize them later.

3. You wait for the perfect moment: I will start at 10:00 a.m., or I will start on Monday, or even better, I will start on the 1st of January. This does more damage than you think. The perfect moments come and go, and you still don’t get things done. The next time you catch yourself doing this, remember that there is no better moment than this moment.

4. You are afraid of failure: When I wanted to write this blog, I was shit scared. I kept thinking. “ What if I am so bad at writing?” “What if I fail miserably?” Can you imagine how long I procrastinated because of this? 4 years. I know that I am not alone. All of you out there have at least a couple of projects you have procrastinated on indefinitely because you are afraid of failure.

So, what do you do?

Do a worst case scenario check. This worked brilliantly for me when I started my first company. I wasn’t in a great financial state. I had a big debt already, and many advised me that it was not the right time to start a company. But I thought about the worst case scenario, and realized that if I fail, all I will have to do was to look for a job. I had a degree and I believed that I was good at what I do, and I was sure of finding a job if I fail at entrepreneurship. That was a situation I could handle.

So, what is your worst case scenario? Can you handle it? Then, you don’t have to worry about failure.

5. You are overwhelmed by the complexity of the task: It happens quite often that you look at a task and are overwhelmed by how complex it is. You delay it forever so that you do not have to do it.

To overcome this, you just have to realize that every task, even the construction of the large hadron collider, can be broken down into simpler manageable tasks. Also, remember that the more time you lose being overwhelmed, the more complex it becomes.

This is part 1 of the article.Here’s part 2 with the next 5 reasons.

4 war strategies to build better habits

Estimated reading time: 6 min.

“I will wake up at 6 a.m. exercise, eat breakfast, do X amount of work. Spend enough time with my family, read and go to sleep early.”

At one point or the other in life, all of us have made these affirmations. We get so tired of the haphazardness of our lives that we decide one day to become disciplined. The next day, we wake up on time, do some exercise, and stick to the ideal disciplined life. Most of the times we do this just for a day. Sometimes we manage to stick with it for a couple of days. Sometimes, a little more. But ultimately, we fall back.

Why?

It’s simple. Our brains resist change. They are designed to. To understand this, let me introduce you to our protector. The limbic system.

The limbic system is the part of our brain that controls emotions, memories and habits. It is partly responsible for our survival. It was the limbic system that helped the early man notice the difference in the noise of the birds around him and alerted him of the possible presence of a predator.

Unfortunately, the limbic system uses the same reason to resist change. To protect us from unfamiliar surroundings and actions. Wake up at 6 instead of the regular 8, and like an uncle or a grandpa, it raises its eyebrows (the reverse is also true. If you are used to waking up at 6 and then wake up at 8, it will still have problems). If with one small change, it raises an eyebrow, you can very well imagine what kind of havoc it wrecks when we plan a complete transformation.

The other side of the limbic system is the pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. It tell us that it is good to exercise, convinces us, but unfortunately can’t do much to make sure that we do it (That is the job of the limbic system). A major change is always a war between the limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex, and most of the times, the limbic system wins.

So, does it mean that we cannot make or break habits? Of course not. We can break or make habits easily with a little guile.

Habit creation is essentially moving a set of actions from our pre-frontal cortex to the limbic system, and with a little help, a habit can sneak in to the limbic system without alarming it.

Like I said, the pre-frontal cortex is at war with the limbic system to infiltrate habits into it. So, we need a few war strategies to help it win. Imagine that the limbic system is a big fort, and that pre-frontal cortex (which is our side) is trying to infiltrate it. What are the strategies we can use?

chess

  1. Send in one at a time:Remember that you are trying to infiltrate. Not wage a big war. Send in one habit at a time. This won’t set off the alarms. If you want to get up early, read at night, exercise, and all that, just focus on one. Once you successfully infiltrate one, it can help the others too. For example, if you start exercising regularly, it will be easier for you to fall asleep on time, and consequently get up early.
  2. Start with the easy ones: Do not send in the elephant first. Send in the foot soldier. It’s easier for him to sneak in, and it gives us a small win. A small win motivates the army (Physiologically, a small win makes dopamine flow into the pleasure centres of the brain, and this motivates you further), lifts its spirits, and motivates it for more infiltration. Start with a habit of reading ten pages a day, or doing 10 push ups when you wake up. These are easy, and will give you a sense of achievement.
  3. Camouflage: Like in any war, camouflaging is a very important tactic in beating the limbic system. Build your new habit on top of an existing one. Send in a soldier behind an elephant. They won’t notice. For eg: If you already have a habit of watching TV at night, read during the ad breaks. Then slowly as it gets accepted as a habit, replace more of TV with reading.
  4. Persist:I love battering rams. They are great at attacking forts. They keep attacking and persist at it. These rams have to continuously attack the fort to break it. If it pauses, or takes a break, the enemy would reinforce the walls. It’s the same with the limbic system. You need to keep going at it. If you want to build a lifelong habit of reading,Read every day for at least 30 days (Most researchers talk about 21 days to set a habit.  That’s actually the minimum. Some habits take longer).  Once you infiltrate it completely, the limbic system will protect the habit with all its might. It will remain there forever, unless you take the effort to break it once again.

So, do not wait now. Start the war. Use these strategies, and start the infiltration. Infiltrate till you have enough of your habit soldiers in the limbic fort, and you will keep winning.

Let me know about your infiltration. Let me know in the comments. I love reading about war.