Jan 31, 2017

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport




Book #5 of #50booksin2017

My theme for 2017 is “More focus, more outdoors, less screen time”. Keeping up with this theme, I picked up Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. What a fascinating read it was!  It is certainly one of the best books I have read in recent times. Many of my questions and concerns on work culture, use of social media and embracing deep, meaningful work got answered through this book.

The author takes the time to explain what deep work means and why it is valuable and rare in today’s world. With many examples and personal anecdotes from his academic career, he reinforces the concept more clearly. He states that there are two core abilities needed to thrive in the new economy
1. The ability to quickly master hard things and repeat the process again and again
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.

Context switching leads to “attention residue” which hampers the performance. The author goes on to list three trends that decrease people’s ability to pursue deep work:
1. Open office spaces
2. Rise of corporate instant messaging
3. Need to maintain a social media presence

He then talks about how the “culture of connectivity” and “busyness as a proxy for productivity” are creating depth-destroying behaviors. The first part of this book is filled with precious insights that explain how shallow work can consume your entire day and work life, leaving you with feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of meaning and purpose.

In the second part, the author puts forth 4 rules to put deep work into practice:
1. Work deeply
      - Plan your deep work schedule - where you’ll work, time periods allocated for deep work, process to follow etc
      - Set ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
      - Shut down work related thinking at the end of a set time - have a shutdown ritual, use downtime to replenish your attention
2. Embrace boredom
      - Wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Resist the urge to check smartphone whenever you have a few seconds of idle time (wait time in a queue, restaurant etc)
      - Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet
      - Practice Productive Meditation - focus your attention on a well-defined problem during times when you are occupied physically but not mentally - like walking, jogging, driving etc
3. Quit Social Media
      - Instead of adopting “any-benefit” thinking, use a craftsman approach to network tools selection. Does the use of a specific tool create substantial positive impact towards your professional/personal life?
      - Plan your leisure time. Don’t default to whatever catches your attention at that moment.
      - Include structured hobbies, exercise, enjoyment of good (in-person) company and good books
4. Drain the shallows
      - Schedule every minute of your work day. Plan the day in hourly blocks. Allow modifications/changes to the schedule but always have a plan of what you’ll do for the rest of the day
      - Treat your time with respect
      - Quantify the depth of every activity. Stick to a shallow-to-deep ratio
      - Prioritize tasks that leverage your expertise

This book needs time and attention to grab the finer details. So I wouldn’t advise a skim-through. I took the time to jot down key points that were relevant to me. I multi-task quite a bit, given the nature of my work. Upon reflection, I now realize how detrimental it has been to my productivity. I just can’t blame it on the work culture of today’s corporate environment and accept things the way they are. This book serves as a guide to get deep, meaningful work done amidst the cacophony of noise through endless communication and numerous things that demand your attention.

I would highly recommend this book to all knowledge workers of today’s economy, especially those who are extremely busy during the day, processing emails, juggling meetings and random discussions, high-speed context switching etc and at the end of the day, wondering where the time vanished.

Jan 30, 2017

The obsession with chubby kids

I might have raised this issue earlier too but it deserves a separate post. I'm just back from a Chennai trip (my home place) and as usual, the first question that's being asked by elders, even before we step into the house is related to my daughter's weight. I have heard the same question over and over again in the past 5 years and it irks me every time, when asked - "Why has the child become so thin?". By now, I should have got used to this question and should ignore their comments, but I simply couldn't put it aside in my mind. 

First of all, the father is never asked this question. Shouldn't the dad be equally responsible for his daughter's weight? Why do such questions get directed only at the mother? Many times, the question is framed in such a way that the fingers point at the mother - "How did you let her become so thin?". My temper raises a lot when being interrogated this way that I would be on the verge of blurting out - "If you are so concerned, why don't you take care of your grand-daughter for a month?". And I'm pretty sure she would be fed with loads of milk chocolates and pastries to "help" her gain weight, if they ever take up the offer.

My daughter was born under-weight. She has slowly picked up and is within the acceptable percentile. She has been making great progress with her height (my girl is a tall baby!). Her mother (yours truly) had been underweight till her 20s and now she is in the normal weight range. 

Grand-parents with such a weight-obsessed mindset don't give a hoot about how happy or healthy the child is. Neither they care about the child's better immunity nor they pay attention to her increasing height. All they care about is the number shown on the weighing scale and a rotund figure. 

Packaged health drinks manufacturers understand this obsession with many Indian parents (and grandparents). They cleverly market their malted drinks with an attractive tag-line targeted towards weight gain. They even go onto claim that babies with low weight have poor immunity. This results in young children being fed more milk and milk-based products/additives. No wonder, child obesity rates in urban Indian cities are on the rise. 

Children by nature hate the smell of cow's milk, especially babies who are fed their mother's milk. To make the cow's milk palatable, the techniques a few parents use is just appalling. Force-feeding, promising rewards / threatening with punishments, mixing high quantities of sugar, adding flavored syrups, mixing with packaged malt powders and what not. I had earlier written about why I'm okay with my child not drinking milk. Do check it out if you are interested.

To summarize:

(1) Let the child decide whether he/she wants to drink milk. Let's not force our beliefs on them
(2) High on Weight doesn't mean High on Health
(3) Low immunity is caused by malnutrition. It is not an indicator/outcome of low weight
(4) Focus more on whether the child is happy, healthy and strong (physically and emotionally). Weight is not a growth measure to be obsessed about

Jan 23, 2017

How we limited TV habit of our child

 Before I elaborate on the “discovery”, let me first state that I’m okay if my child watches TV or computer. I don’t think we can keep them out of it completely as the deprivation would lead to more anxiety and interest towards digital devices. But what matters most is the “time spent” in front of these devices. When my daughter was around 2 years old, we decided to disconnect from DTH services. I didn’t want her to watch any of the kids' channels that play the luring TV commercials of packaged junk food targeted towards children all day long.

Instead, we started buying her the Infobells DVDs - which are age-appropriate, educational and most importantly, without any commercials. When we gave her the TV time, she would be watching one of these DVDs. As months passed, she got so addicted to these DVDs. On top of it, due to her pestering, we ended up buying more new DVDs whenever we step into a toy store. Her collection of CDs were neatly arranged in CD pouches. Sometime, last year, we noticed that she would keep changing the CDs every 5-10 minutes. By then, she had learned how to insert a disc into the DVD player and how to operate the DVD remote. No amount of coaxing, pleading or shouting helped. She continued this behavior until one day, my husband hid the CD pouches deep inside a wardrobe. When she found out that her CD pouches were not on the coffee table, she screamed and cried for 10 minutes. Then she realized that there was one CD left inside the DVD player. She switched on the TV, watched for around 15 minutes and switched it off on her own. The crying stopped and she forgot about the pouches.

After a few days, she insisted on watching a different CD. So my husband and I told her that she needs to be a good girl and follow good manners, which Santa would note down in his notebook. Only if “good is more than bad”, he would reward her with the CD she wanted. We could see a noticeable difference in her, ever since we started this practice. Since she has access to only one CD at a time, she watches it for a short time and then switches it off on her own without being coaxed. And she has also started believing that if she needs access to another CD, she has to follow certain good practices - no whining, no crying for silly reasons, taking bath, eating less junk food, eating more vegetables etc. We made the reward sent through Santa. So when she is in school, Santa would come home and place the CD of her choice next to the DVD player :-)

I have read about the scarcity principle in Dr.Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence” and also have read about its extensive use in marketing and conversion optimization. But to see its effects on an important challenge of parenting is so satisfying.

The principle states that people are highly motivated by the thought that they might lose out on something. In simple terms, if the availability of something is less or limited, we tend to value it more.

The same principle can be applied to reducing our time spent online, binge-watching TV shows or any other behaviors we want to change, where excess availability is the problem.

Jan 21, 2017

The week of Dangal and Mary Kom


The first 20 minutes, I was angry, thinking why the hell this father is forcing his dreams upon his young daughters and torturing them. But as the movie unfolds, there’s one particular scene where the two girls crib to their friend, who is about to get married at a tender age of 14. The friend replies, “Your father has a dream for you which will help you build an identity for yourself. What about the unlucky girls like us who are expected to learn to do household chores, cooking, marry someone whom we haven’t even met and then disappear?” This emotional scene changes the course of the movie. And it vanquished my initial anger too.

Dangal is certainly one of the best Bollywood movies I have seen in recent times. The spirit of the movie is so positive - hard work, persistence, determination, un-wavered focus and a pillar of strength in a father who's unrelenting and full of hope. With each wrestling match, you support Geeta wholeheartedly for a win (though you know it is a movie and she is bound to win). Alongside the seriousness, the humor brought out by the cousin brother gives the much-needed fun element and gives some lighter moments to laugh.  I’m so glad that I took the time out to watch this movie after the initial euphoria all over. If you haven’t watched it, go for it before the next change.

My interest in following sports was at its highest in my late teens. Cricket used to be my favorite sport to watch. Besides that, I also used to follow Formula-one racing and Tennis. Slowly, the interest waned out in my 20s and I stopped following any sports whatsoever. Frankly, I didn’t know about Geeta and Babita’s real life wrestling victories until I saw this movie. I knew Mary Kom won a medal in Olympics in Women’s boxing but nothing beyond that. So when I came across her autobiography in my library, I picked it up out of curiosity. I haven’t watched the movie acted by Priyanka Chopra as yet.

The book traces Mary’s journey from a remote village in Manipur - her initial struggles, her parents’ hard work and her tryst with boxing. It is a story of determination, grit and perseverance, with support from her parents. My respect for her parents grew manifold as the story unfolds. She also talks about how she met her husband and how he has been a pillar of support for her, taking care of the home and her twins. The book is a short and interesting read of a woman, hailing from a humble background, rising to great heights by following her dream and passion.

In both Dangal the movie and Mary Kom the autobiography, what struck me the most is the need for a strong support person around you at all times - who will guide, coach, encourage, set higher targets and believe in you - more than you believe in yourself. I sincerely hope to be that person for my daughter in her growing-up years.

P.S. Book #4 of #50booksin2017 
Yes, I'm on a reading spree, thanks to the social media break :-) It's been more than 10 days since I accessed FB, Twitter or Instagram and I can confidently say that life moves on just fine without them. In fact, it is even better. Will write a detailed post on that soon :-)

Jan 19, 2017

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Book #3 of #50booksin2017

My husband had read this book a few months back and highly recommended it. I had earlier read Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” that talked about the principles behind habit forming products, especially from a digital products perspective.

The Power of Habit” dives into the underlying psychology and neuro-science of how habits are formed. It was a fascinating read where the author talks about the influence of habits from an individual, organization and society’s point of view.

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. The author talks about the habit loop which has three components:
- Cue => the trigger that reminds us to go into automatic mode
- Routine => the action which could be either physical, mental or emotional
- Reward => the outcome of performing the routine

He elaborates this habit loop by using examples of how Pepsodent and Febreze’s marketing campaign efforts have leveraged this loop. It’s not just the habit loop that will help in creating new habits but there also needs to be a craving associated with the reward.
“The cue, in addition to triggering a routine must also trigger a craving for the reward to come”.

The author then goes to explain how prevailing habits can be changed.
“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine”.

A clear understanding of the triggers and cravings towards a certain reward will help us to change the routine or habit. The probability of habit change increases when you are part of a group with a common goal ; which explains the success of de-addiction groups like “Alcoholics Anonymous”.

From an organization point of view, “keystone habits” have a ripple effect or can cause a chain reaction where a small change can catapult an organization towards multiple changes. I loved the example of Alcoa where an organization transformation was made possible using keystone habits.

The chapter on willpower is my favorite, where the author talks about how willpower can become automatic.

“Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Willpower is a muscle, that gets tired as it works harder. As the willpower muscle strengthens, good habits seemed to spill over into other parts of our lives.”

I had earlier written about willpower and how I experienced the fact that "the more you use it, it gets stronger". I had jotted down from a personal experience point of view but felt so glad to read about the research backing the same.

The subsequent chapters felt more like supplementary reading where the author elaborates in detail on
- how a crisis can help organizations understand institutional habits created through thoughtlessness/neglect and how to consciously design new habits for change
- the ethical dilemmas of predicting and manipulating habits
- the principles behind how successful movements are formed in societies - example of Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to civil rights struggle in the US
- the question on who takes ownership of our habits and the choice of exercising our free will

Though the examples were relevant, I felt a little dragging towards the last couple of chapters. Nevertheless, there were tremendous insights on habit formation and change. I took nearly 3 weeks to finish this book. Highly recommend it if you are interested in the subject. Do take the time to slowly digest it.

Jan 18, 2017

How to reduce eating junk foods?

Image Source: https://www.thehunt.com/finds/U7qmmh-no-junk-food%2521

Short answer - Eat 3 wholesome, balanced and nutritious meals in a day.

Coming to the long answer :-)

This revelation occurred to me yesterday. My usual morning routine involves Yoga, cooking breakfast and lunch, packing lunch-box for my husband and then I sit down with my breakfast. Yesterday, this whole routine went for a toss when my husband had to leave very early for work. I ate a little bit of left-over lemon rice that I had packed for my daughter’s snack box. In the afternoon, I didn’t have the time to cook a proper lunch, so it was a little rice + potatoes. Around 3PM, I felt hungry and I grabbed a cup of coffee. Around 5ish, I was terribly hungry. I stepped into the kitchen, rummaging through the various shelves (which I wouldn’t normally do). I ate a couple of dates and a banana to satisfy the “health-conscious” in me ;-) But the hunger pangs didn’t reduce. So I took my daughter along to a nearby sweets shop and grabbed a cup of rasmalai ;-)  I bought a pack of cashew pakodas too, which I would end up munching at 7PM before dinner.

You see the pattern here? Though such days are rare, I have to admit that I’m too lazy to cook for myself. So I prepare what my daughter likes to eat and end up eating little of the same. Both my breakfast and lunch were nothing but simple carbs.

Yesterday’s terrible meals taught me a valuable lesson -
Take time to cook for yourself”. 
 I have seen many women make similar mistakes. We feel cooking is not worth the time and effort if it’s just for ourselves. So we end up grabbing some snacks or a light meal and numerous amounts of tea/coffee.

On days when I eat proper, wholesome meals, I don’t feel the urge to snack. If my lunch had a good mix of grains, lentils and vegetables, then I can go on with my day, without the need to open the snack counter/fridge every hour. My grandparents ate 2 proper meals (one around 11AM and another around 7PM) and I don’t remember seeing them snacking in between their meals, except for a small cup of filter coffee.

Snacking mindlessly is the reason behind many of our health-related issues. While working on an intellectual problem - for e.g., replying to an important email, preparing a report, putting together a presentation, a mentally stimulating conversation with a colleague etc, we end up munching a few biscuits, a piece of chocolate and downing cups mugs of tea/coffee. Over time, this piles up unknowingly, resulting in obesity and various other lifestyle diseases.

Apart from mindless snacking, we also end up craving for certain foods IF our main meals aren’t nutritious. If you crave for something, it is an indication that your body is lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. For example, low magnesium levels in your body lead to chocolate cravings.  Low calcium and magnesium levels lead to sugar and salt cravings.

So the solution to cut down on junk foods is to make sure that your primary meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) are wholesome and they provide with all the adequate nutrition you need, including micro-nutrients.

A few ways by which you can get your primary meals right:
- Plan ahead what you need to cook / eat during the day
- Make sure your meal plan includes a combination of whole grains, lentils, vegetables and fruits.
- If you need to cook only for yourself, spend a few minutes the previous night thinking about what can be prepared with less effort but more nutrition - Salads are a better choice for preparing for just 1 portion size.
- Be more conscious of what you would eat if hunger pangs strike at 5PM (danger zone!)
- Maintain a food log - a personal diary

Do share in the comments below how you plan your meals in advance.

Jan 16, 2017

Book Review: Appa Ennum Villain by Bharathi Baskar

Book #2 of #50booksin2017
 
When I read about the news that Amazon Kindle has started to list books in regional languages, I was ecstatic and happy. Being a Kindle Unlimited member, I quickly browsed through the list of books and this one titled Appa Ennum Villain by Bharathi Baskar caught my attention. Having read her previous books, I know I would like her way of writing. 

On a beautiful Monday afternoon, I finished reading this book in a couple of hours. It is a collection of 8 short stories with themes ranging from working women's issues, friendship, parenting to love for literature. In her signature style, she has crafted engaging stories with a clear message. 

My favorite of them all is the last one titled "mei thirupadham mevu". I adore Ms.Baskar's books and speeches, one of the many reasons is that she quotes a lot of examples from Tamil literature. Through this story, she emphasizes how the children of today who are brought up with the ONLY notion of winning/competing turn out in their lives. And how parenting with a good dose of literature and spirituality can help the kids to be stronger and peaceful in their lives. Amazing insight !

Loved reading this short book. Do pick it up if you get a chance. 

Why Working Lunch is bad for your health




In many corporate work environments, I see this phrase being used quite often - “let’s do a working lunch”. The scenario under which this phrase is used is when someone is extremely busy with back-to-back meetings in a day and doesn’t have time to talk to someone who’s in need of his/her time. Let’s say, A wants to talk to B about something important. B’s calendar is filled with meetings that there’s no free slot available for that day. So B would suggest “let’s do a working lunch”, which implies A and B would catch up over lunch and discuss that important issue. Sometimes, team meetings would also be scheduled in the pretext of "working lunches". And the motivating(?) factor for the team to attend such meetings would be sponsored sandwiches, pizzas and aerated drinks.

I just can’t understand why we want to multi-task during mealtime. We think of mealtime as a passive activity where our hands automatically take the food, stuff it in our mouth while our minds are idle. So the super-productive planner in us comes to the forefront and thinks we can use the mealtime to engage our minds. It could be any activity such as watching a video, reading a document, listening to a podcast or even scheduling a meeting with someone and giving a fancy name like “working lunch”.

When you talk to someone about an important issue, both you, the speaker and the listener are completely engaged in the conversation. So there’s absolutely no focus on the food that’s been eaten - no appreciation or gratefulness for the farmer who harvested the grains/vegetables OR for the person who has taken the effort to prepare the food.

Healer Baskar, who runs this organization named Anatomic Therapy says
The key reason behind today’s rise in lifestyle diseases is due to improper digestion. When we talk or open our mouth while eating, the air interrupts the digestion process that happens in our mouth using saliva

Our elders had instructed us when we were kids - Don’t talk while eating. Chew your food nicely”. 

How many of us follow this simple rule? Eating has become a mindless chore for most of us where we gobble up the food quickly and get on with our busy lives.

We don’t fuel our cars while it is running. We stop for a couple of minutes at the gas station to refuel them. Why can’t we stop for at least 10 minutes to refuel our own body?

My request to you through this post
- Avoid working lunches as much as possible
- When you are eating along with your colleagues/friends, avoid talking when the food is in your mouth. Finish chewing and swallowing and then talk.
- Chew your food nicely without opening your mouth
- Concentrate on the food and the act of eating
- Be mindful of the taste, texture and smell. Engage your senses
- Offer a token of gratitude to the farmer

Jan 14, 2017

Post Project Completion Syndrome



Have you ever felt the feeling of emptiness after a successful completion of a project? That nagging “what next” feeling.

Instead of feeling elated and accomplished after a project completion, I have experienced feelings of dullness. It may be due to the fact that we have invested so much of our attention onto that ONE particular project that our minds were consciously working towards the subsequent steps, leading up to the D-day.

For example, whenever I prepare for a talk at a public forum, my mind would be busy churning out ideas and planning the flow/structure for a couple of weeks before the talk. A few days before the talk, I would be sitting down and giving my full focus and attention in preparing the slides, looking for relevant images and finalizing the outline. On the D-day, the talk would get over and a few people would appreciate or share their comments about the talk. At the end of the day, I would feel bored and dull since the one thing that my mind was completely focused is no longer there. I have experienced this feeling multiple times after the completion of various projects. And this happens not just with big projects but also for projects as small as hosting a get-together.

I was wondering what would be the solution to avoid such “blues”. Does it require being busy all the time - with more projects lined up and more deliverables with due dates? Or do I start to appreciate the times when there are no looming deadlines? I don’t have an answer yet but will write more when I figure it out.

I googled to find a good read that outlines the feelings of “post project completion syndrome” :-) Check it out if you are interested. And do share if you have faced similar feelings of PPCS.

Jan 11, 2017

Break from social media



 A few days back, I was sitting on my couch, feeling extremely cold. It was a winter afternoon, with the sun shining brightly but the heat couldn't be felt. I noticed my cat who was happily stretching herself and basking in the sunshine in my balcony. I took the book I started reading recently and sat down on the swing, close to her. The next 90 minutes felt so blissful - reading an interesting book, soaking in the sunshine and admiring my beautiful feline friend. I didn't check my phone during this 1.5 hour time period. That's exactly what I wanted in 2017 - less screen time, more focused work, more outdoors.

I hadn't set this goal in the last day of Dec on a whim. Rather, this has been lingering in my mind for a while. The hypothesis was that I had been checking my phone a little too much. To validate this hypothesis, I installed an app called Checky. I had monitored my usage for a period of 3 months, so the data is statistically significant. The results weren’t surprising. On an average, I was checking my phone around 35-45 times on a weekday, whereas on a weekend, the range was between 15-25 times. Based on my usual activity hours between 7AM - 10PM (15 hours), this amounts to checking my phone 3 times every hour.

On 31st Dec, I spoke to a friend from school after a long time. She casually remarked that I seem to be spending a lot of time on Facebook. I knew that too and didn’t defend myself. On Jan 1st, I un-installed FB app from my phone. So much peace, I should say!

Cal Newport in his TEDx talk says,
“Social media is a source of entertainment. These companies offer you shiny treats for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold. Many of the major social media companies hire individuals called “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to try to make these products as addictive as possible"

He also talks about “the constant background hum of anxiety".

I didn’t post anything on my FB account since Jan 1st while I continued to share food pictures in my EthnicPalate FB page. Yesterday (10th Jan), I shared a blogpost link that I wrote with so much passion on something I believe in. The background hum of anxiety kicked in and I felt the need to constantly check for likes/comments from my desktop. At the end of the day, I decided that this anxiety is detrimental to my productivity and focus.

I argued with myself that I’ve only been sharing informative posts on healthy eating, fitness and productivity, and also that I haven't been posting much of photos/personal updates/jokes/memes/fwds etc. But it also hit me that I don't want to be constantly distracted and would rather stay away from any anxiety related to likes/comments. If I’m sharing something, then I’m contributing a teeny tiny bit to the reason behind someone’s social media addiction. Imagine if everyone stops adding updates to our timeline, then there won't be any reason for us to visit social media sites, right?

Why not moderation? one might ask. I believe moderation will not work in the case of digital addictive products, where we don’t really “feel” the limit. Even if you LOVE donuts so much, you can’t eat more than say 2 or 3 pieces. Your tongue would signal you, saying “Enough” :-) But in the case of social media, you might think you’d casually browse for a couple of minutes. But you would end up scrolling through the timeline for 15 minutes and also end up with 10 new tabs open. And the worse part is that this would happen EVERY single day.

So long story short, I have decided to take a break from social media (FB, twitter, Instagram) and regain my attention and focus. 

I will continue to pursue my passions more rigorously - writing, cooking, reading, productivity hacking, fitness etc. I have a long list of books to read, topics to write about, recipes to try and new projects to kickstart. I will be writing more frequently in both my websites - this one for all blogposts and EthnicPalate for all food related (ideas, recipes, pictures). But I don’t want to share them through addictive channels like FB/twitter/instagram on a daily basis.

Here’s a little time management tip - off late, I have started scheduling 15-min time slots once a week/fortnight to go through blogs/work of people whom I like to follow. This helps me to be more aware of my time and the outcome is also more focused. Do try this tip. Also, if you find my posts valuable, I recommend that you schedule a 15-min slot once a fortnight in your calendar to check my blogs. That way, it would be a focused conscious activity and not a random update on social media on a daily basis. Thanks for your understanding. If you would like to connect, drop me an email at anuradha.sridharan at gmail dot com.

Hopefully, with the distraction-free times, I’ll be able to increase my productivity and accomplish more in 2017.

If you’re serious about making an impact in the world, power down your smartphone, close your browser tabs, roll up your sleeves and get to work. - Cal Newport

BTW, the book that kept me hooked for 90-min that afternoon is "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. Fascinating read so far. It talks about how habits are formed and how we can break them. Will post a detailed review once I finish it.

Jan 10, 2017

No oats for breakfast, please


In my social media timeline, for the past few days, I’m noticing many people embracing oats for breakfast as though it’s a super food and going to the extent of eating 5 times a week. Brands are also promoting it aggressively by partnering with popular food bloggers in accordance with the New Year resolution healthy eating/fitness/well-being themes.

As humans, we seek instant solutions. And this behaviour is well in tune with what the brands expect from us. Take a few spoons of oats, add water/milk, MW it, add some fruits and nuts and you are done with breakfast. And many people don’t mind following the same routine on all 5 days of the work week, as it is convenient, less time to prepare and can be eaten hassle-free with a spoon in one hand and a smart phone in the other.

Traditional breakfasts are being put under the back-burner for special occasions or for weekends. If dosas/idlis have to be made for breakfast, the batter has to be available and the preparation of chutney/sambhar as an accompaniment is an additional overhead. Why take the extra effort - “let me whip up some pancakes and drizzle some ready-to-use sugar-laden maple syrup” is the attitude these days.

Sorry for the digression. Why am I against oats?

1) Oats is not a native grain of India. It is imported from Australia, New Zealand and a few other countries in Europe.
2) The packaged oats that we get in India is processed to the extent that there is very little fibre in it. Oats grains are de-husked, boiled at very high temperatures, dried and broken down to "oats flakes". These are named “quick cooking oats” that gets cooked under 3 minutes. To ensure the packaging is dry, lump-free and free-flowing, many chemicals are also being sprayed. After so much processing, will there be any protein, beta-D-glucan or fibre in the pack of oats flakes? A question all of us need to ask the brands (and the actors and the social media influencers). (Processing info reference - Page 145 from the Tamil book “Nalam 360” by Dr.K Sivaraman)
3) Quick cooking Oats taken as a porridge doesn’t fill you up. You’ll start to feel hungry within an hour or so. I’m speaking from my experience. I had tried taking quick cooking oats regularly for breakfast 6 years back and by the time I reach my office, I would feel hungry and I would end up grabbing some biscuits and tea.

Why do we NEED oats when we have so much nutrition in our local grains like millets? With a little planning and a 20-minute effort every morning, you can have fresh, home-cooked traditional breakfast. Sharing a few ideas that I follow:
1) I stock up on millet grains, rice flakes (poha), ragi vermicelli and wheat rava
2) During Sundays, I make millet idli/dosa batter. Soaking the grains takes hardly 5 minutes. Grinding the batter takes 10-15 minutes. That’s it - with an investment of 20 minutes from my Sunday, my breakfast is sorted for 3 days. I make batters with all types of millets, ragi, bajra, jowar and regular rice, alternating each week.
3) On Mondays, I make idlis with fresh fermented batter. I keep stock of home-made idli chutney podis (regular chutney podi, flaxseed podi and horsegram podi) which I would serve as accompaniment. Sometimes, I would make sambhar which I would use for both breakfast and lunch.
4) On Tuesdays, I make crisp dosas and on Wednesdays, the same batter would be used for veg oothappams.
5) The easiest and wholesome breakfast has to be poha. I keep roasted peanuts ready and so it hardly takes 15 minutes to make a delicious poha
6) Varieties of upma can be made using regular sooji, wheat rava (samba rava), broken wheat (lapsi) and millets. Add a handful of veggies, ginger and lemon juice. More nutrition, freshly prepared and you don’t need to make a side-dish. A little pickle and curd would do.

It is appalling that well-educated people fall into the trap of endless promotions by brands endorsed by film actors and actresses. My request to you is to not blindly accept these tall-claims, looking for instant solutions and results. If you are looking for weight loss, it requires a LOT of effort. Eating a bowl of quick cooking oats or Kelloggs-K will not magically melt away the excess fat from your body.

P.S. If you still want to eat oats, then please ask your friends abroad to send you a pack of rolled oats, which is high in fibre as compared to quick cooking ones. Maybe, it is also available in gourmet stores that sells imported foods.

Jan 9, 2017

Experiences of Oxytocin effect


A few days back, a video clip titled “What’s wrong with this generation?” was shared by a few friends in my FB timeline. It was a 15 min talk by Simon Senek on millennials - the passion with which he spoke and the way he listed down the reasons was just awesome. I then googled to get the full video and listened to his 1 hour talk on leadership. An absolute must-watch, I should say.

Though I have read his book “Start with Why”, I haven't listened to many of his talks. 2 days later, after listening to his thought-provoking talk on leadership, Youtube recommended me this conversation between Simon and Marie Forleo. The focus of the talk was on his latest book “Leaders eat last” - very powerful and insightful talk yet again. I have added this book to my reading list.




In this video, at 26th min, he talks about why we humans are designed to take care of each other.

“There is a chemical called oxytocin which is the chemical responsible for our feelings of love, friendship and trust. The person who does the act of generosity, giving of time or energy without expectation of anything in return, gets a shot of Oxytocin. The person on the receiving end gets a shot of Oxytocin. And even witnessing an act of generosity or kindness releases Oxytocin. It feels good to see somebody do something nice”.

While I was hearing this, I just paused the video to absorb what I heard. What an absolute truth it was! I have experienced all the three scenarios and started recollecting the moments from my recent past.

When I made a cup of dry ginger coffee and offered it to a friend who was sick, when I asked my daughter on her birthday to give a small token of thanks to my maid - these moments not only brought joy to the receiving person, but also to me - those positive vibes and feelings cheered up my mood for the entire day. These tiny acts are nothing when you look at the big picture. But as a firm believer in the phrase that “tiny drops maketh an ocean”, I persist at it in whatever way I can.

There were multiple moments when I was at the receiving end of kindness by friends and strangers. I had written a blogpost on one such experience recently. Last Friday, I received unexpected gifts of kindness from three different people. My mood was upbeat and I felt so energetic and grateful that evening. Multiple Oxytocin shots, I believe! :-)

I had indeed experienced similar feelings while witnessing the act of kindness. A friend and I had put up a food stall last January. There were two kids who didn’t have the money to pay for food but were interested in the muffins my friend had displayed. They didn’t ask her but were walking close to her table. She called out the two kids and offered them a muffin each. Seeing the joy on their faces brought a big smile on mine. I was neither the giver nor the receiver but a spectator of a kind act. It's been almost a year now and I still remember this incident vividly.

The world needs more kind acts - whether we are the giver, receiver or spectator, kindness will impact our happiness and others, causing a ripple effect.

Jan 6, 2017

10 Hindi songs of Rahman that you might have missed


Today is the 50th birthday of Isaipuyal AR Rahman. His music is an integral part of my day and has been like a dear friend to me in the past 25 years. Around the same time last year, I had listed down 10 beautiful Tamil songs of ARR that didn’t get the attention they deserve. This year, I went through his Bollywood tracks. Here’s a list of 10 songs that you might not have heard (unless you are a Rahmaniac like me!)

(1) Zindagi from Yuvvraaj
This is a beautiful song sung by Srinivas - melancholic, soothing and soft. It’s a shame that this song didn’t get the credit it deserves. My 5-year-old plays it often on our iPod. I couldn’t find the full song on youtube, except for a short clip from the movie. Do check it out in iTunes. It’s a perfect melody to listen to at the end of a tiring day.

(2) Hawa Sun Hawa from Ada
Sonu Nigam and Alka Yagnik’s soothing voices, brilliant flute interludes and a soft beat throughout the song make it one of my most favorite Rahman’s compositions. I have no idea about the movie, actors or director, except that this song has been on my playlist for many years.

(3) Tum ho meri nigahon from Kabhi Na Kabhi
I discovered this song quite recently. It gives a feel of early vintage Rahman, aptly supported by Hariharan’s superb voice and limited instruments. Sujatha’s hums in between feel like the perfect icing on the cake.

(4) Kissa Hum Likhenge from Doli Saja Ke Rakhna
Though this song was reused in the Tamil film Jodi, I prefer the original Hindi version. Anuradha Paudwal’s voice feels so soft and right for this tune whereas Janaki’s voice felt a little louder.

(5) Dheemi Dheemi from 1947 Earth
This song used to be a lullaby for my daughter when she was an infant. I would hold her and walk for 5-10 minutes and she would happily doze off. Only Hariharan could create such magic in a song with minimal background instruments.

(6) Yeh Rishta from Meenaxi: A tale of three cities
The foot-tapping beat, the effortless singing by Reena Bharadwaj and the beautiful Tabu elevate this mellifluous song. But the soul of it was killed by reusing the same tune in a dud movie like “Sakkarakatti” (ARR, why?)

(7) Hum Hain Iss Pal Yahaan from Kisna
I watched this movie in a theater, just for this song. The movie was so boring and we made so much fun of it while watching together with friends. Yet another song wasted but what a magical voice Madhushree has. The instrumental version is also amazing.

(8) Shauk Hai from Guru
I remember that this song wasn’t there when the album was released. There was a Rahman collection CD that was released a few months later. I purchased it, only to get hold of this lovely song. This comes as a background score when Madhavan proposes to Vidya Balan. This song not to be missed by any music lover.

(9) Jaare Udd Jaare from Raavan
Again, yet another song that didn’t get released with the album. This comes at the end credits of the movie, sung by Rahman himself. He released it as a single recently.

(10) Call me Dil from Jhoota Hi Sahi
There’s very little chance that someone would have heard of this movie or this song in particular. It’s a feel-good, peppy number sung by Rashid Ali.

Are there any favorites of yours among these 10 songs? Share in the comments below.

Jan 5, 2017

6 questions to evaluate new opportunities



 A couple of weeks back, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. He is happy in his current role, earns well and settled in his organization for 5+ years. But he wants to try out something different - a new opportunity that is quite different from what he has been doing so far, a complete shift towards a new career path.

Our hour-long conversation was mainly around me asking him a few questions and let him talk and share his perspectives. Sometimes, we need to articulate to ourselves on why we are keen on certain decisions/life-changing opportunities.

So if you are in a similar situation where you need to decide on a new opportunity / new direction in your career, sit down with a pen and paper and answer the following questions. Or if you don’t like to write it down, talk to someone whom you trust and can open up freely, without the fear of being judged/ridiculed.

1) Why are you interested in this opportunity? What are the goals of yours that this opportunity will help you to achieve?
2) Can the same goals be achieved through other means? Have you evaluated them?
3) Do you plan to go all out towards this new opportunity? Or would you mind trying it out as a side-project and see where it takes you?
4) What is the opportunity cost if you say Yes to this new initiative/idea? What would you gain by going after this new idea? What would you lose out by moving away from your existing career path?
5) Are there any ways by which you can balance it out? Say, by steadying the ship in your current role and conducting focused experiments to evaluate the new opportunity for a few months?
6) What’s going well in your current role/path? What’s missing that makes you want to shift or try something new?

We all have the same time in our hands. When we say Yes to a new opportunity, it also means we are saying No to many others. Years ago, in microeconomics, I had learned about this concept of opportunity cost. Not only for businesses, it is equally applicable to individual decision making, Cost should be measured not just in monetary terms, but we also need to consider the time required, physical effort, mental energy, impact on our relationships etc.

Whatever decision we take, one necessary condition is that we shouldn’t regret it down the line. The way to prevent regret from creeping in is to take the time out and write down clearly why we are pursuing a new opportunity (or otherwise) - the reasons, criteria used and our process of evaluation.

What’s your approach when you had to evaluate a new opportunity/idea in the recent past? Please share in the comments below.

Jan 4, 2017

Book Review: I am Malala


Book #1 of #50booksin2017

I picked up this book from the library a few days back, mainly due to the fact that I want to read something other than my usual picks. It was such a riveting read, that I managed to finish it in the last 3 days. Malala’s story is that of courage, grit, belief and perseverance amidst the hard realities and uncertainties of her life in Pakistan. Her fight for her education as well as that of other girls in her country is inspirational and at the same time, thought provoking. It also helped me feel grateful and blessed that I was able to get a good education and feel a little more empowered to voice my opinions.

The initial few chapters talk about her parents’ life and her early childhood in Swat valley. The way she describes the simple life and beauty of the valley and mountains is captivating. The book also details out the political turmoil and the history of Pakistan since the separation.

It felt heart-warming to read about the support from her family, especially her father. Their conversations show how encouraging her father had been in her growing-up years. Without any financial or political backing, taking a stance on something you believe in and being courageous enough to spread the message is something truly extraordinary.

Simon Senek says,
“Courage isn’t internal which you find deep inside. Rather, courage is external when you trust that there are others who will support you and hold your back”.  

True to these words, Malala’s courage stems from the fact that she has a father who believed in her, pushed her and didn’t force her to accept the status-quo.

Malala’s autobiography is an inspirational read for everyone. Do check it out if you get a chance.

Jan 3, 2017

Inexhaustible source of magic


One of my favorite food bloggers, Nandita (saffrontrail) has shared her experiences, attending a women-only conference named Festivelle. At the end of her post, she has listed down her learnings from this conference. While going through this list, I was nodding my head at each point. I highly recommend you take a look at her post.

One of her points is "Be kind- in person, in thought and on social media."

Given that we have numerous channels to express ourselves through words, it is highly imperative that we use these forums wisely. Before posting something on social media, let’s take a moment to think if we would say the same thing to someone on their face. If not, then let’s refrain from posting.

JK Rowling in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” conveys it beautifully -

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”

A few weeks back, I had shared this post on FB after a bitter incident:

----------
Sometimes, a stranger whom you haven't met in person can be so kind and offer encouraging words
And a person who you thought of as a friend can turn his/her back all of a sudden and reveal his/her true nature.

More so, in the age of social media
where typing something harsh is so easy
Offering kind words in person is a difficult task

The power of words
Can uplift someone
Can also try to pull us down
Let's use them wisely 

-----------

Can our words uplift someone? Give direction and guidance? Inspire a handful to take positive action? Can they provide solace? Comfort in a difficult situation?

I’m grateful to the numerous blogs and forums that offered me so much help and advice in the initial years when I became a mother. Phrases such as “hang in there”, “nothing to worry”, “things will be alright”, “We’ve all gone through that”, “you’re not alone” sound simple but when conveyed at the right moment, can be so comforting.

Though I have been fairly active on social media, I consciously try not to get into any arguments or unproductive discussions. I rarely rant about anything personal or crib about things that aren’t right. Social media as a channel gives me the space to express my beliefs and share my ideas/thoughts on health, nutrition, fitness and well-being. Most of my posts are around these topics and I hope atleast a few people can resonate with these ideas. In this big advertising world where there are billions spent in promoting processed/packaged/junk food, my posts on local/traditional/home-made food are like a speck of dust in the vast universe. But I’m sure, over time, these posts would help more people to ask deeper questions about food and health.

Jan 1, 2017

Focus, the scarcest resource



It was a beautiful evening - the clear sky, the bright sun setting in the backdrop behind the concrete high-rise buildings, a pristine lake reflecting the sun rays, 100s of chirping birds of all varieties perched atop the trees, a paradise for an ornithologist, active residents from the neighboring localities - some jogging, some brisk walking and the rest casually taking a stroll with their loved ones. It was such a happy sight everywhere as I took a walk around the lake.

I prefer not to put on any earphones and listen to music. There’s enough music around, thanks to the birds, ducks and voices of other people. And yes, there’s my inner voice too, for which I need to keep my ears open. My thoughts wandered back to the past - similar evenings during my school days where I would sit on the terrace studying hard and occasionally taking a break to listen to the birds returning home in the evening, admire the shades and hues of sunset creating a collage of colours in the sky and listen to the hymns and ringing bells from the nearby temple. They weren’t really distractions but perfect company to focus on the chapters to read and concepts to grasp. Focusing for 2 hours at a stretch was a normal thing those days.

And now I couldn’t recall the last time when I focused on ONE task for 2 hours. Maybe, a few times back in 2009 when I was winding up my MBA. After that, zilch, zero. Cooking gives me that flow but it is not really an intellectually stimulating activity per se. Given the nature of my software product management work, I always tend (or expected) to be distracted with emails, chat messages, calls, umpteen number of tabs open in my browser etc.

I crave for that focus, that unhindered productivity, that complete concentration on the task at hand without any distractions. Sometimes I feel the urge to get back to studies to bring back the focus. It’s been nearly 7 years since I graduated from IIMB. Whether I want to pursue more formal education or not, I’m not sure. But I clearly need more focused sessions of reading, writing, coding and similar intellectual pursuits. I need to get into that flow, to be “in the zone”.

One of my themes for 2017 is “More outdoors, less screen time”. I hope the “less screen time” will rekindle my focus and bring back my attention. It is not lost, it’s hidden somewhere inside my consciousness after the onslaught of social media and smart phones in the last 5-6 years. I’ll diligently put the required effort to bring back the scarcest resource in today’s world.

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