Dec 30, 2015

2015 in review

I wrote my last year's review while nursing a cold and throat infection. 2015 has been a year in which I won against the common cold virus :-) I didn't catch a cold/cough even once (touchwood!). Many reasons behind this but I think the major one has been starting my day with Yoga and being consistent with it for the past 8 months. I can't stop raving about the benefits that Yoga has brought to me - be it feeling fit, relaxed and an overall sense of peace and calmness. Hoping to continue with the same consistency next year too. I spent a lot of time outdoors this year as compared to the last 3-4 years. That could also have helped me boost my immunity levels.

The discipline towards conscious, healthy eating continued this year too. I embraced more and more of local foods and millets. I'm proud of the fact that I can walk into an ice-cream parlor and not order a scoop for myself :-) Wish I could say the same when I enter a chaats place ;-)

I had started an initiative in Facebook named "365 healthy meals project" early this year to motivate myself to eat healthy and share ideas with my friends. Though I was consistent for the first 3-4 months, I didn't hit the mark. But this little initiative spawned into multiple other mediums - increased activity in Instagram and a collection of healthy recipes in my food blog.

2015 has been a challenging as well as a relaxed year in multiple ways. There were multiple changes in the home front - getting D's admission in a school which we liked and then helping her get settled into a new routine, husband's new job which has been quite demanding on his time so far. The first half of the year vanished so quickly while I was busy working and learning new stuff in my product marketing role at MindTickle. Working for a fast-growing startup provided me ample opportunities to try new things - giving sales demos and connecting directly with customers being the most important of them.

Around the middle of the year, I hit a point where I felt like I was in cross-roads - an area of interest that I've become more passionate about (no points for guessing what it is!) and was in a dilemma in leaving my familiar territories of work in product management/marketing. The limited hours I have in hand is not helping either, thanks to D's 4 hour preschool timings and hubby's long working hours. Choosing a direction in which I have neither prior experience nor educational background makes it even tougher. But I've been taking tiny steps towards the direction my heart yearns for and I'm hoping I would have the courage to take a leap forward this coming year.

I continued with reading as a regular habit in 2015 as well. Here's the list of books I read this year:

  1. Delivering happiness by Tony Hsieh
  2. Lady, you're not a man by Apurva Purohit
  3. India on a platter by Saransh Goila
  4. There's something about you by Yashodhara Lal
  5. Nalam 360 by Dr. Sivaraman (Tamil)
  6. Suttramum suzhalum natpum by Dr. Sivaraman (Tamil)
  7. Aarusuvaiyum anjaraipettiyum by Dr. Sivaraman (Tamil)
  8. Siragai viri para by Bharathi Baskar (Tamil)
  9. Nee nadhi pola odi kondiru by Bharathi Baskar (Tamil)
  10. Present - A techie's guide to public speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Caitlin
  11. Big magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  12. Start with Why by Simon Senek
  13. Drive by Daniel Pink

I also invested significant effort in regular writing in my two blogs. Wrote close to 50 blogposts. Similar to last year, I had set a goal to speak in atleast one public forum. Managed to check this item off my list when I got the opportunity to give a guest lecture on design thinking to students of the executive MBA programme at the Institute of Product Leadership.

This year, I finally managed to "complete" courses in Coursera. I loved the two courses - "Learning how to learn" and "Design thinking for business innovation". The course titled "A life of happiness and fulfillment" is another one which I thoroughly enjoyed but haven't finished it yet.

We traveled to new places - Yercaud, McLeodganj, Agra and Pondicherry. We also did a temple run with family to Tirupathi and Guruvayoor. Traveling with D is more fun now.

Hubby dear made my birthday very special this year. He gifted me a small notebook titled "Anu's gratitude diary". He had filled with handwritten notes everyday for nearly 4 months, about the things he has been grateful for, about his wife :-) Best expression of love.

As a family, we have started a weekly ritual of going to a nearby temple every Sunday evening. D loves this temple….and the prasadam, ofcourse!

I'm taking multiple steps towards leading a minimalistic living - be it with clothes, groceries, birthday parties or eating-out expenses. This will continue with more rigor in 2016.

With 2015 being a year of transition, I look forward to 2016 for more razor-sharp focus, energy and purpose.

Wish you all a very happy and joyful new year. Invest your time and energy in what's most important to you and what makes you feel alive.

Dec 25, 2015

Book Review: Drive by Daniel Pink

I'm intrigued by the theories of motivation and behavioral psychology - what pushes us to do something, start an initiative, take it to completion, bring people together for a common cause and many more important and mundane steps we take in life. This interest has led me towards some very interesting books and the recent read has been this simple and profound book "Drive" written by Daniel Pink. I have listened to his TED talk earlier and have read about the core principles of intrinsic motivation. I finally made time this past week to really dive into the book and explore the principles in detail.

The author first talks about what's wrong with the earlier assumptions on motivation - the carrot-stick rewards/punishment practices, if-then rewards, extrinsic recognition, role of money etc. For the present knowledge economy, these practices are proving to be more detrimental in achieving individual/organization's goals. He lays down in depth the research behind intrinsic motivation and why tapping into this powerful resource can be the key differentiator for organizations towards empowerment and engagement of their employees. While I reflected back on some of the key moments of my career so far, I couldn't agree more on the author's views on the power of intrinsic motivation.

He then talks about the three basic triggers behind intrinsic motivation - autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy - how much freedom I have towards getting my work done. This can be measured in terms of 4 Ts - task, technique, time and team. The 20% time given to employees in organizations like Google and 3M, the focus on results rather than time leading to ROWE - result oriented work environment, internal hack days where you get to pick the team you want to work with etc are all examples of how organizations empower their employees through autonomy

Mastery - We all love to be experts at something that we care about. In order to tap into this trigger, we go through deliberate practice, day after day, month after month. We feel deeply motivated and inspired when we are sufficiently challenged and are in a state of "flow" where the process of engaging in an activity is more exciting than the end result/outcome. The author calls such activities as "Goldilocks tasks" where we are challenged slightly higher than our current abilities. A state where we are neither bored nor anxious. Organizations need to provide an environment where their employees can experience flow on a frequent basis that will help them reach the state of mastery. This was my most favorite chapter and I really understood the importance of getting into "flow" on a regular basis.

Purpose - The world is moving from "profit maximization" to "purpose maximization" where individuals and organizations are motivated by causes larger than themselves. Associating a clear purpose motivates employees to pursue mastery and inspires them to take decisions. I was able to relate some of the principles that were discussed here with what was covered in "Start with Why" by Simon Senek that I read a few weeks back.

If you manage teams or run an organization, do give this book a read. It is filled with valuable insights that will help you to motivate your team to reach their potential.

Dec 23, 2015

A workation at McLeodganj (Dharamshala)

This post has been pending in my drafts for the past 7 months now. As the year 2015 comes to a close, it's high time I wrap this up and publish it.

Thanks to my ex-employer, my family and I got to visit one of the gorgeous places in India last April. Though I was apprehensive traveling with a 3 year old, my boss was highly encouraging and we decided to take the plunge. It was D's first time traveling in an airplane and also by train. Tickets booked, warm clothing purchased and bags packed. We were so excited and a little anxious about how we will manage. Being a workation, the plan was that I would be working with my team during the working hours (9 to 3) and hubby dear would take care of D during that time. He was fully prepared with her books, puzzles and her favorite DVDs.

The workation part is well-covered here, so I will share about what we did as a family outside the working hours in this beautiful little town near Dharamshala.

Contrary to what we thought, D was at her happiest and well-behaved during the journey. She thoroughly enjoyed her 24 hour long journey - first in cab from our home to airport, then by flight to Delhi, by cab again to Delhi railway station, by overnight train to Pathankot and by a van to McLeodganj. Seriously, we underestimated her and tried to be over-cautious in our earlier short trips but she proved that she is ready for longer trips now :-)

After a late breakfast, we checked into our cozy rooms and slept for a while. In the evening, we took a walk to Dalai Lama temple and were soaking in the sights of snow-clad mountains amidst a cool breeze. This is the first time I actually saw snow and couldn't take my eyes off those pristine mountains.

The next morning, we dressed up early and went for a one-day sight seeing trip in a cab. The driver was very friendly and he covered most of the places in and around Dharamshala - the tea gardens, HPCA cricket stadium (would be an awesome experience to watch a match there!), Norbulingka Institute (the thukpa in the cafe is the best), war memorial, St.Johns church (so beautiful), a couple of monasteries and Dal Lake. The best part was a drive to Naddi village where we trekked for a little bit. The sights of the mountains is just breath-taking. Hopefully, one day I trek to Triund and touch and feel snow :-)

I was working in the morning hours during the work week while hubby and D roamed around McLeodganj, discovering interesting places to eat and telling me stories later in the day. I stumbled upon this cute little cafe "Cafe Illiterati" when I went for lunch with my colleagues. It was exactly "MY" kind of a place, with loads of books stacked up, beautiful view of the mountains and yummy food. During my one week stay in McLeodganj, I had been there 4 times, by myself, with family and with colleagues. It was the most memorable experience when I look back - sipping hot chocolate, reading a book and soaking in the views of majestic mountains. There was a sense of slowness and relaxed times there where you can just sit and be with yourself without any thoughts.

Hubby and I took turns for early morning walks - while he walked to Bhagsunath falls and couldn't stop raving about it, I went for a walk around Dalai Lama temple. It was so peaceful and serene - many monks and elderly praying with their beads, a few of them sitting in benches and meditating, the sunrise brightening up the snow-clad mountains, the cool breeze swaying the flags, the prayer wheels and the lush greenery all around. If you are near McLeodganj, I highly recommend you to go for this morning walk. 

The other memorable experience was a campfire inside a pine forest one late evening. D still remembers it vividly. Playing in the cold flowing river, warming her feet by the fire, listening to music and eating grilled pineapple :-)

On the last day of our trip, we took a long walk around the market area, bought a couple of souvenirs and ate delicious brownies at Woeser Bakery. 

Before we headed back home, we took a short stop-over at Agra to visit TajMahal and Fatehpur Sikhri. It was a complete contrast to our slow, unhurried experience at McLeodganj.

I'm a mountain-girl and have been to many hill stations in the South and a couple of them in North-East. This was my first trip to Northern Himalayas and it was a lovely, humbling experience. Being amidst mountains makes me so happy and cheerful. One day, I hope to be a resident instead of a tourist somewhere up in the hills.

Dec 21, 2015

Why I'm okay with my child not drinking milk

I'm writing this post mainly for mothers who face the same issue as mine - "my child is not drinking milk". Don't worry, you're not alone.

To give you a little background of my motherhood journey so far,
I breast-fed my daughter for 2 years (exclusively for the first 5 months). I never gave her formula milk. When she turned a year old, I started to introduce cow's milk slowly (Nandini blue packet available in Bangalore). She hated it so much. I tried with a little sugar and also with health mix powder (sathumaavu kanji) but she wouldn't open her mouth.

I strongly believe that I will never force-feed my child and I follow it diligently. So I didn't want to force milk down her throat. I checked with my pediatrician and she wasn't too worried about this issue. She asked me to give her enough curd and continue with breastmilk. After she completed 2 years, I tried adding a little chocolate malted drink powder into a glass of milk. She was initially curious, drank for a day or two but then she refused that too.

Was I obsessed with feeding her milk? Not really….but the elders of the previous generation in my family are totally obsessed about milk and couldn't believe that a mother is not giving her child enough milk. There were a lot of comments passed, questions raised and suggestions given:
"What does she drink first thing in the morning?"
"You breastfed her for so long and now see what has happened. She's not drinking cow's milk. You should have started cow's milk from 4th month"
"Why don't you try this brand X? It helps the child to grow taller and stronger. I saw the ad on TV"
"Try this brand Y. It will help her to put on more weight"
"You didn't run behind her enough"
"Seriously, you don't give her milk? How will she get her calcium?"
"If she doesn't drink milk, give her lots of milk chocolates. Atleast, the milk goes in some form"

Though I was strong most of the time, I did question myself often if I'm doing the right thing for my daughter. Now she is 4 years old and I'm settled with this dilemma. Here are my 5 reasons why I'm okay if she hates milk:

1) I ensure she gets her calcium through other foods. She loves curd and cheese. I include ragi (finger millet) in her diet in the form of idli/dosa 2 times a week. Other good sources of calcium include oranges, custard apples, spinach, fenugreek, drumstick leaves, till seeds, chickpeas (kabuli channa), black eyed peas etc.

2) I came across an article that milk wasn't a staple diet during our great grandparents generation. It was used only for certain medicinal properties. Our country has become milk obsessed only in the last 50-60 years, thanks to the White revolution.

3) In earlier days, milk was directly procured from milkmen who raised Indian breeds of cows. I still remember when I was a child, a lady who resided in the same street as us would milk her cows and deliver fresh milk to our door step twice a day. Our grandpa would complain sometimes - "she has added water today. Milk doesn't look thick". This was about 25 years back. The primary concern at that time was diluting milk with water. But now, the commercial milk we get is loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, urea and what not! If that's not enough, many malt based milk additive drinks lined up in the super-market shelves are full of ingredients that we cannot easily identify. No wonder, we hear news about children reaching their puberty age very early.

4) Milk increases mucus formation in children. In Ayurveda, it is called "kapha" dosha. According to my pediatrician, milk and milk based products are to be avoided if the child has a cold/cough.

5) Milk fills up the tiny tummy of kids and if a malt-based powder is added to it, the appetite totally goes for a toss. There is no way for a child to have a glass of flavored milk based drink and a wholesome breakfast in the early-morning rush hours. The same is applicable for the evenings too. I would rather let my daughter have a bowl of assorted fruits and veggies as a snack than fill up her appetite with milk.

This is my personal opinion about this issue. I'm not suggesting that you stop giving milk to your children. That's completely your call. My main intention is that if your child doesn't drink milk, don't make it a big issue and worry about it. Find other ways by which you can get calcium in his/her diet. Focus on feeding a healthy, wholesome meal.  There's no need to buy expensive milk-additive powders if your child hates plain milk. Spend that money on organic fruits and veggies if you can get access to good quality produce.

Dec 14, 2015

A simple framework to increase your SaaS free trial conversions

In my earlier work, I was driving the efforts to optimize the free trial experience of a SaaS product. The key objective was to increase the free trial conversion rate. We first tried to fix the low hanging fruits by evaluating the first-time customer experience with the product. We came up with a structured onboarding flow, video tutorials, relevant lifecycle communications and a clear call-to-action to experience early wins. We also evaluated if there are any friction points in the prospect's first run with the product and fixed those as well. These worked well for prospects who were willing to take the time out to evaluate the product.

If we map this to BJ Fogg's behavior model B=MAT, the prospects were high on motivation (M) ; we increased their ability (A) by fixing the above mentioned product gaps and sent appropriate triggers (T) through lifecycle communication strategy. So the expected behavior (B) of "going through product free trial and experiencing value" occurred, resulting in a positive impact on conversion rates.

But there was a good pipeline of prospects who weren't so keen to try out in the first place, even though they liked the product demo. When we analyzed the not-so-apparent behavior of such prospects, it was clear that their motivation levels to try out and make a decision were very low. It would be extremely helpful to get a sense of prospects' motivations before-hand, so that we can come up with a reliable model to predict the free trial experience and expected conversion rates.

In order to understand their "motivations", we took the help of the popular task prioritization framework devised by Stephen Covey in his book "First Things First". It comprises of a simple 2*2 matrix with Urgency on the X-Axis and Importance on the Y-Axis.

These 2 parameters have a direct correlation with a prospect's behavior during free trial.

Prospect has a need/problem/issue/opportunity in hand (Bundling all these together as N) and he is looking for a possible solution.
Importance - How important is N in the context of the annual business goals of the prospects' organization AND the prospect's own KRAs
Urgency - How urgent is N in the prospect's organization/business unit

Only when both these parameters are HIGH, we found that the prospect's motivation to pursue the free trial is high.

Adapted from Stephen Covey's Task Prioritization framework
To apply this framework for your product's free trial strategy, I suggest that you get enough context on both these parameters before you decide on whether a prospect is a suitable candidate for free trial. As part of the lead qualification process, define and get answers to relevant questions which will help you understand these 2 parameters from the prospect's point of view. Once you have the required insights, you can then map the prospect into one of the 3 segments as below.

1) Importance - HIGH ; Urgency - HIGH (Quadrant 1)
When both these parameters were HIGH, the probability that the prospect will be interested in progressing through the free trial is also high. So make sure you give the highest priority to such prospects in this quadrant. The main action items here are to provide a seamless experience and to showcase the perceived value relevant to "their" requirements.

2) Importance - HIGH ; Urgency - LOW (Quadrant 2)
Many of the prospects in the free trial pipeline understand the importance of the problem to be solved. They also have some idea on the impact of this problem in their business unit / organization. But they are busy with other immediate priorities and don't have the required bandwidth. So they end up procrastinating / delaying the solution evaluation to next month (or next quarter). For such prospects, the best way to get them to experience value from your product is to make the free trial evaluation process so easy and simple that they get to experience quick wins without much effort. If the prospect comes with a perception that the evaluation will be time consuming, try to see if you can share their workload. Manual configurations, data uploads, data syncing, code integration, content creation etc - basically any effort they need to put from their side in order to evaluate your product.

There could also be an alternate scenario where the head/leader of a certain business unit wants to start looking for a solution before the need hits them hard. But the leader delegates the solution evaluation to their team who don't seem to have the bandwidth to commit time or effort (however little the required might be). For such prospects, keep in touch with the leader to be on top-of-mind recall, share case studies on impact you have made in other customers' business outcomes, share contacts of reference customers from similar businesses/industries with whom the prospect could relate to.

The key objective here is to move the prospect from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 1, without creating any "artificial" urgency. Rather, it makes sense to give an alternate perspective on how the need if fulfilled now rather than later can lead to better business outcomes. More on the lines of creating "hope" than "fear".

3) Importance - LOW ; Urgency - HIGH (Quadrant 3)
At first glance, this quadrant may not make sense. But this is quite possible in cases where your prospects are looking to sort out compliance or quality audits. Also in some cases, the initiator persona understands that the problem to be solved is urgent but the other stakeholders (especially those up in the hierarchy) don't seem to give that much of an importance, given their other priorities. In such a scenario, ensure you get full buy-in of the initiator persona and make him/her a champion within the organization. Help him/her build a crisp business case that he can present to the leaders of his organization.

The key objective here is to move the prospect from Quadrant 3 to Quadrant 1. Understanding the prospects'  business model, their present challenges, industry dynamics and presenting a big-scale impact and ROI will certainly be more helpful. I find this exercise challenging but I have also seen how much of an impact and value it could create for your prospect.

Hope this framework helps you to segment your free trial prospects and also gives you some clarity on your plan-of-action for each of these segments. Do share your comments and questions if any.

Dec 11, 2015

Book Review: Start with Why by Simon Senek

Simon Senek's Start with Why is one of the best books I have read in 2015. The underlying message by the author is very simple but we often overlook it, given the noise around us.
"People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it"
Inspiring leaders and organizations are so clear about their WHY - their purpose, cause or belief. WHAT they do serves as a tangible proof of their WHY. The author has covered relevant examples throughout the book to reinforce this concept - be it Apple, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines or Walmart. The vision of their founders clearly demonstrate their WHY.

Apart from an organization's context, the author has also talked about why this concept is relevant for any leader who inspires others. The examples of Wright Brothers and Dr.Martin Luther King showcase how an individual can inspire a group of people by being clear about their WHY.

I found the concept of "Golden circle" to be extremely relevant for today's startups as the main issue they face is how to communicate the value of their product/service to their customers.

At the core of the golden circle lies WHY. Why do you exist as a company? what is your purpose, cause or belief? Why should anyone care? Can you clearly articulate why you do what you do?
The second layer is the HOW. How are you different or better? What is your core value proposition?
The third layer is the WHAT. What do you do? What products or services do you offer?

Your WHY should influence any decision you take related to HOW or WHAT you do.

Most companies talk about their WHAT and HOW but only great companies are able to articulate their WHY. Too much focus on HOW results in "manipulations", as the author claims. Manipulations are short term tactics to gain customers but they will never be loyal. Discounts, promotions and playing on emotions like fear and peer pressure are all examples of manipulative tactics. Few leaders and organizations choose to inspire rather than manipulate in order to influence behavior. They are clear about their WHY so well that they are able to inspire "early adopters" who believe in their cause.

As organizations grow, they face a "split" stage where their WHAT is no longer in sync with their WHY. This happens typically when the founder leaves, new leaders take over and change the direction of the company.

Though the message is repetitive, the examples made for a very interesting read and I was able to relate to most of the author's arguments. I highly recommend this book to all startup founders and leaders of organizations. If you are short on time, do listen to his TED talk on the same topic.

Dec 1, 2015

10 ways to deal with junk food consumption in children

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Last night, I had prepared noodles for dinner after a very long time. Not the instant noodles that you think :-) Plain noodles boiled and mixed with sautéed veggies and paneer. My 4 year old got so excited that she was jumping in joy when I told her that I'm making noodles. She doesn't have much exposure to noodles since I don't make it at home often, she hasn't seen that many ads in TV and she wouldn't have observed noodles being eaten by other kids in school, given the strict lunch box restrictions.

Yet, her excitement got me thinking deeply about how times have changed. As parents of today's generation, we have to deal with the onslaught of junk food everywhere - be it the attractive ads, colorful packaging, the add-on plastic toys/goodies that come with each pack and peer pressure from other kids. Here are 10 ways by which I manage junk food consumption at home.

1) Be aware of ingredients
Check the labeling for transfats, sugars, sodium and overall calories. If the pack has very high quantities for a serving size, then try to avoid them as much as you can. Give some random excuses to kids like "shop uncle will not let us buy this", "this is very spicy" etc. Older children may not buy into such silly excuses and so put on your thinking caps and whip up some believable excuses :-)

2) Do not deprive junk food completely
This makes them crave for such foods and they start to pounce on them the minute they see them elsewhere (birthday parties, family outings etc). Make them understand that these are not good for their health if eaten often. Kids as young as 2-3 years old can understand this message, believe me!

3) Try making it from scratch from home
Instead of instant noodles or instant pasta, buy the plain ones and make the dish from scratch. Instead of ordering expensive pizza, make it at home, including the pizza base. Add some colorful veggies, paneer or cheese to increase the nutritive quotient. You can also flavor them with pepper, ginger and garlic, which would help the kids fight common viral infections prevalent in winter. It doesn't take a lot of time and this could be a nice family activity for the weekends.

4) Set shopping quota
Whenever we take D with us for weekly grocery shopping, I used to be worried of the fact that she is going to load the shopping cart with cookies, chocolates and packaged juices. But a couple of months back, I tried a new strategy. She can only take 1 item of her choice. So if she brings say, a packet of cream biscuits and a tetra pack juice, I ask her "Which one she wants?" and let her take the item of her choice. Through this method, we let her experience control and decision making.

5) Allow one cheat per day
Children being children love lollypops, candies and other colorful stuff. While we as adults don't have any attraction towards them anymore. So it's okay if they enjoy a piece of candy. We don't have to be so hard on them or on ourselves. This is a lesson I learnt in the past 2 years. Be aware of their daily diet and allow one cheat in a day. If they had already munched on say, a couple of biscuits, then tell them that they can enjoy the candy tomorrow. Delayed gratification is something all of us need to become better at, including our children. If they throw tantrums, try not to give in easily :-)

6) Do not hand over the whole packet
Eating directly from the packet is a strict no-no. I always cut open a pack of biscuits/chips and give her a few pieces in a small bowl. This way, I can monitor the intake and ensure she doesn't gobble up the entire pack.

7) No junk when unwell
This is a strict rule we follow at home and D also understands that well. When she has cold/cough, we don't let her eat any candies, chocolates, pastries or ice creams. We tell her that she will get to eat them once her cold stops. She advises the same to her toys during her pretend-play sessions ;-)

8) Talk to your extended family members / Control the onslaught
Gone are the grandparents who will pamper the grandkids with homemade healthy laddoos and snacks. With easy availability and variety of packaged food, children end up with a lot of gifts from grandparents and other relatives whenever they visit us (or we visit them).  It's no more a single bar of chocolate but 5 big bars of different variety :-) I used to get so angry and irritated earlier when the bounty of these packs arrive as gift for D. No amount of convincing grandparents with logic or reasoning would help when the comments were as below:
"All her milk teeth are going to fall anyway. So why bother about tooth decay?"
"She will put on good bit of weight if she eats a lot of milk chocolates and pastries. Give her chocolates everyday"

Nowadays, I promptly collect the packs from D's hands and hide them in a "secret" cupboard which D doesn't have access yet (dreading the day when she figures out this spot ;-) ). I let her eat only one or half a bar of chocolate in a day.

9) Stock up on healthier alternatives
Children's appetite are small and they do like to munch on something in between meals. Have plenty of healthy alternatives stocked up such as dry fruits, nuts, chikki bars, roasted peanuts and fruits. Always have cucumbers and carrots handy so you can quickly cut some sticks and serve.

10) Set an example
Last but not the least, be the example for your child. Stop eating packaged food yourself or if you MUST, eat them when they are not around :-)

Hope this helps. Is there anything more that you'd like to add? Please share in the comments below.

Nov 25, 2015

An ode to sunshine

Bright sunshine after more than 2 weeks and I feel so happy and cheerful. The rains, the wind and the dark skies were so depressing to me. I was feeling sad, dull and irritated. The effects on the mind had an impact on the body too, with severe stomach cramps and loss of appetite. And not to forget the excruciating migraine and the nausea. I felt so sick that I didn't have the enthusiasm and the motivation to do anything. Dull and dragging days. The slight sight of the sunshine and I would feel exhilarated, only to find minutes later the dark skies and the rains again. The wet clothes that are hanging forever to get dried; wearing sweaters, socks and thermal wears all the time - Nope, not my kind of weather at all.

I completely understand that my plight is nothing compared to those who suffered so much in Tamilnadu with floods entering their homes, lack of food and proper sanitation. The videos shared on FB are so scary that I prayed for the water logging to be cleared soon and people return to their homes safely and resume their normal lives.

Finally to see the sunshine today, I feel like I have regained my mojo and back to my form now. I opened all the curtains and let my rooms experience the bright light. I cleared up a pile of clothes, put 2 rounds of laundry, picked up all the books and papers lying around and made my home a lot more presentable. I played my favorite songs in my iPod after a while….And the irony is that the album I chose to listen is "kadal" :-) One of my all-time favorite albums of ARR. I bet one of the best pick-me-up songs is "elay keechan". Don't you agree?

Nov 20, 2015

Why customers value your product?

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One of the important lessons I learnt in product marketing is - Emphasizing on benefits (and not features) is extremely important when it comes to marketing collaterals and product messaging. Most of the times, we don't give much thought into the benefits our product offers to your customers. We get obsessed about the cool features of our product and our messaging would proudly list them out. Even if we do talk about the benefits, it's more superficial and biased by our own assumptions and experiences. But if we dig deeper, we can figure out the actual value our product can bring into the lives of customers. I call it the "benefits discovery" exercise. This can be done before launch - either as part of your customer development interviews, MVP validation or usability testing feedback.

Ask this one question repeatedly to atleast 12-15 target customers:

 "How does that help you?"

To illustrate the power of this simple question, let me take you through an app that I adore. It's a maps-based mobile app that helps me to track where my daughter's school bus is. Simple information but tremendous value it brings to my morning rush.

How does this tracking information help me?

It helps me to know exactly how far the bus is from my home.

How does that help me?

So I can decide when I need to step out of my apartment with my daughter
So I don't have to go to the front gate early and wait for the bus
So I don't have to cross the road and let my daughter inhale the vehicle polluted air
So I don't have to look at the piled up traffic and get frustrated with the number of single-person self-driven sedans and SUVs

A simple location-tracking app is helping a little bit towards my health and my daughter's health, helping us manage time and catch the bus without any issues.

I can't imagine how I managed earlier when I didn't have this app. On those days (like today), when the app didn't work for some reason, I find it extremely difficult to manage.

If your product/app provides certain information, try to understand deeper on why this information is important to your customers and how does that impact their lives, their routine etc. Interviewing with open-ended, unbiased and empathetic questions can help you figure out the benefits in more depth and can give a lot of clarity. This can eventually empower you to create powerful and compelling messaging for your marketing campaigns.

Try it out and let me know if it works for you.

Nov 17, 2015

How to incorporate exercise as a habit

The last 10 days have been raining heavily and Bangalore is at a freezing cold temperature in the mornings. It would be nice and comforting to snuggle inside a cozy blanket and get some more sleep. But my body clock wakes me up on time for my Yoga class.

It's been 6 months now since I started doing Yoga and it has become a part of my routine now. On days when there is no Yoga class, I feel something is missing and my body also feels the same. It has taken me so many years to incorporate a regular exercise regime in my day. I find keeping my eating habits under check relatively easier than doing regular exercise. I had struggled, been lazy, gave myself enough excuses over and again but Yoga has finally helped me to break all the obstacles that I had built for myself. If you are like me who is struggling to get some exercise into your routine, the following 6 tips might be helpful.

(1) Try multiple forms of exercise and pick the one that you like the most
For years, I have tried hitting the gym, jogging at the nearby park or a lake, at-home aerobics, brisk walking and even tried to learn swimming. But I hadn't been consistent at any of these. I had tried Yoga for a few weeks at home by myself after my awesome Swaswara trip. But the motivation didn't last long. This time, I found a Yoga class being organized in my apartment and it has clicked for me. Don't give up if you find a form of an exercise boring. Keep trying new ways until you figure out the one that you enjoy.

(2) Choose the one that offers low resistance to get started
By low resistance, I mean the one that doesn't provide you many excuses to quit early. When I started jogging at a nearby lake, I enjoyed it for a few days. But the walk from my home to the lake is taxing and I would eventually end up using this distance as an excuse to quit. The same problem happened when I was enquiring about Yoga classes in a center which was around a km from my home. I'm sticking to my present Yoga classes because it happens within my apartment complex and at a convenient time of 7 AM. Make a list of common excuses that your mind throws when you begin an exercise routine. Don't resist but be aware of them. See if you can appease some of these excuses, particularly those with respect to time, distance, schedule etc.

(3) Try to compete with yourself, not others
If you are amidst other people either in a gym or a class, do not compare yourself with others. You would come across people who are better than you, can jog for a longer duration, can stretch a lot more, have more stamina etc. But don't let that demotivate you so much that you end up quitting. Set targets for yourself and make minor improvements everyday. If I'm stretching for a Yoga pose and my instructor counts upto 10, I would see how much longer I can hold. If I was able to hold for 5 counts, I set a target for 6 counts the next day. I have no idea how others in the class are progressing. I'm focused on myself and see how I can improve a little better today. It's like a game I play in my mind where I set achievable targets.

(4) Focus on the work, not on the outcome
I know it's easier said than done, in a results-oriented world we live in. But this really seems to be working for me. In my "Weekly goals" plan, I set a goal that I should go for atleast 4 Yoga classes every week. The goal is not about weight loss or inches loss which I may or may not be able to influence completely. If I keep being regular at my exercise routine, I believe the outcomes would eventually fall in place. So instead of checking if the weighing scale is showing any improvements every week, try setting measurable goals that are focused on the work to be done.

(5) Make friends, form a group, find a partner
Being amongst a group of people with a common objective really helps you to be regular at your exercise routine. If not a group, atleast find one other person - a friend, a colleague or a neighbor so you can motivate each other. I think this is one of the important reasons why I have been consistent with Yoga but got so bored in a quiet and lonely gym. There's more people to talk to, have fun and crib about "sore pains" :-)

(6) Find an instructor or a mentor who will push you
When I used to do Yoga on my own, I never pushed myself to stretch a little more or hold for few more seconds in an asana pose. As humans, we love comfort and our minds wouldn't want us to step out of our cozy comfort zone on a normal day. But eventually our bodies would get used to any exercise routine, unless we keep increasing the stretch limit. I'm so grateful to have found a Yoga instructor who pushes me every single day and helps me to understand how much I'm capable of. I have improved step by step in getting many asanas right in the last 6 months.

Sitting is the new smoking for our current generation. So keep moving, be physically active and try to get some exercise into your day, however busy your schedule might be. Hope these 6 tips were helpful to you. Would love to hear your comments.

Nov 3, 2015

Buying clothes with a clear intent

 It's clearly etched in my mind. When I was a kid, we had a Godrej steel wardrobe in our home that had 4 shelves with a locker. The top-most shelf was used to keep unstitched dress materials, dhotis and other rarely used stuff. The second one was for my dad's clothes, the third one for my mom's and the bottom most shelf had mine and my brother's. These clothes were the ones we used to wear when we go out. The daily-wear clothes were kept separately outside in a trunk.

I remember we used to buy new clothes for two occasions - one for our birthday and the other for Diwali. The birthday purchase was done only for us, the kids. Our parents never bought anything for their respective birthdays. If there was a wedding or any other family function, new clothes would be purchased. Other than that, Diwali shopping was the only time when we buy new clothes for the entire family. And it used to be an exciting trip, going all the way to T.Nagar and hopping from one shop to the next. Rains would visit the city of Chennai exactly a week before Diwali but it wouldn't hamper our shopping plans.

20 years later, this is how the story of my wardrobe unfolds. I must tell you this in advance. I hate to shop for clothes and I don't buy that often. I'm a price-conscious consumer and so I don't shop at expensive places like M&S, Lifestyle etc. I also admit that I have made the mistake of buying less expensive clothes which eventually faded or shrunk after two washes.

I have a whole wardrobe to myself - with Western outfits, ethnic wear and sarees arranged neatly. Pregnancy and motherhood brought some changes to my size in the last 4 years, which the wardrobe accommodated gracefully. Thanks to Yoga and my food habits, I have brought myself back to my pre-pregnancy size.

Sometime in the end of Apr-2015, I took a pledge that I would only buy clothes with a clear intent or purpose. No random shopping anymore when I see something nice or when there is a sale. It's been 6 months now and I have stayed true to my pledge.

I got myself a top and a skirt for my birthday. There were a couple of unstitched salwar materials that were occupying space in my wardrobe. I got them stitched which I would be wearing for Diwali. I got a Shoppers Stop gift voucher which I redeemed to buy two simple kurtas (ensured that I didn't exceed the voucher limit).

Since the "inflow" of new clothes has almost stopped, it gives me enough space to think about the existing clothes. I gave away a few old salwar sets in good condition which I don't wear anymore. I started to wear sarees more often - for my weekly visit to a nearby temple or at home on special occasions.

There were a couple of close calls though. I did get tempted by some nice cotton kurtas when I visited Dastkar Nature Bazaar and Bhoomi Utsav but thankfully I didn't give in :-)

Being aware of what's inside your wardrobe, retaining the clothes that fit you well (and that you like to wear) and disposing off the remaining ones will give you the space and time to think through what you need and purchase only those whenever there's a sale or when you go shopping.

I plan to continue this habit in my journey towards leading a minimalistic lifestyle and hopefully, reach the one-shelf practice which my parents followed years ago.

There are three reasons why I'm going down this route:

(1) I'm fascinated by the idea of minimalistic living. For me, minimalism is not only about keeping the expenditure in control, but towards leading a simple living and cutting down on non-essentials.

(2) When choices are too many, it clutters our mind and hampers the decision making. I definitely don't want to spend a lot of time thinking "what to wear today?". Research has shown that too many decisions to be made in a day affects our cognitive abilities.

"decision-making is very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones."

(3) Clutter causes stress and anxiety. Over-crowded shelves, heaps and heaps of clothes piled up till the point it collapses are all possible sources of adding more stress into your lives.

If you are looking at reducing your wardrobe clutter, take a pledge
that you will not make random purchases
that you will buy only with a clear intent or purpose
that you will take stock of what's already inside your wardrobe.

Would love to hear your comments.

Nov 2, 2015

Book Review: Present - A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking

 I love public speaking. The preparation, topic selection, putting together a structure and coming up with a seamless flow of thoughts/ideas, delivering the presentation in front of an audience, taking questions - the entire process excites me.

Though I have participated in a couple of speech and debate contests at school, I wasn't naturally good at it from my childhood. I wanted to become a good speaker and have been investing time and effort over many years. Thanks to my first job at Oracle where there was an active Toastmasters club, I started to work and refine my public speaking skills. Whenever there's any presentation to be given at work either to an internal audience or to customers, I look forward to it. I also love to speak at lectures/sessions at public events and I have managed to speak at 4 such sessions so far (would love to do more!). Although I have good experience in public speaking, I still believe there are certain areas that I need to improve upon. I listen to prominent TED speakers and observe their style and presentation during my free time.

This interest towards public speaking led me to stumble upon Poornima Vijayashankar's works. I have listened to some of her talks in her Femgineer youtube channel. She is very natural in her flow of words, very confident and has a good style of coherently presenting a concept/idea. When she announced that she is looking for peer reviewers for her new book "Present: A techie's guide to public speaking" which she has co-authored with Karen Catlin, I jumped at the opportunity immediately.

Expressing and articulating your ideas clearly and to-the-point is a valuable skill in today's knowledge economy. Unfortunately, this skill doesn't get enough attention in our schools and colleges. When young talented grads enter the workforce, they find it really challenging as they lack the confidence to speak up.

After reading the book, my instant reaction was "Wish I read this book 13 years ago". The ideas and principles that Poornima and Karen have put together are very easy to understand, with interesting personal anecdotes and experiences that we can easily relate to. Right from tackling stage fright, picking the right topic, developing the outline and preparing an engaging talk, Poornima and Karen have covered it all. The exercises give enough direction and guidance to practice the principles that make you feel more confident.

The five key take-aways for me from this book are the following:

1. "You don't have to be an expert" - Keep the topic within the scope of your knowledge and experience. Set the expectations clear.
2. "Evoke an emotional response from the audience". Share personal stories, interesting and frustrating moments, humor, suspense etc. This is applicable even if the topic is a serious one.
3. Build up an audience focused proposal. Identify their persona and their motivations. List down the take-aways that would be relevant for them.
4. Leverage the power of stories. Stories make abstract ideas concrete, they are relatable and captivating.
5. Develop an outline and practice your talk before you start preparing your slides. This came as a surprise to me. I usually prepare with ideas and thoughts jotted down in an Evernote note, translate them to a rough outline in Powerpoint, nail down the flow while working on the slides and then practice a few times using the slides. The authors however present a different view though, which I now believe makes more sense. Slides should only help accent your presentation and shouldn't become a crutch.

I loved reading this book and I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in public speaking - whether you are a new or a seasoned speaker, I'm sure you'll find a lot of take-aways.

Oct 24, 2015

Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book couldn't have come into my hands at a better time. Many of the passages felt like the author had visited me, knew my creative dilemmas and wrote those responses exclusively for me. As I was reading "Big Magic", I could feel nodding my head vigorously at multiple places.

The author talks about our creative genius, the process of feeling inspired, the fear and excuses that hold us back and most importantly, falling in love with the process and keeping the outcome aside. Bhagavat Gita has conveyed the same principle but it has to be retold again and again, given the pressure that we (and our society) place on outcome. Elizabeth's personal anecdotes and her easy-to-read flow of writing make this very interesting non-fiction book a page turner. Perhaps, call it the self-help book on creativity.

She starts off brilliantly by posing a thought-provoking question.

 "Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?"

The process of uncovering these treasures is what she refers to as "creative living". She quickly clarifies that it's not just about arts but any activity that elevates us, that makes us feel alive. Many of us feel scared to go down this path, as we doubt ourselves and fear that we don't have talent, resources, time, blah-blah….Fear actually makes our lives boring and she suggests that we acknowledge the presence of fear but not be driven by it.

Once we give the rightful place to our fears, inspiration finds a way towards us. I just loved the way how she describes an idea as a living entity in the cosmos and it's sole purpose is to get manifested by the right human being. Many times, we get inspired or drawn towards certain ideas and they keep coming back to us at many different places in our life, trying to grab our attention. It's all about how much we are ready to pay attention towards these interventions.

"Be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day…."

She hits the nail on the head when she argues about why creativity is for all and not for the selected exclusive few. "If you're alive, you're a creative person". Period.

Her sincere advice to those who have found their creative calling is to be persistent and disciplined and enjoy the work you're drawn to, without worrying about the outcomes. There will be times when you are frustrated but frustration is not an outcome but it's part of the creative process itself.

Do you burden your creativity with paying your bills? She suggests not to and I agree with her reasons. The other issue that prevents us from staying in the game is the fantasy of perfection. Done is better than good. Enjoy the smallest progress, Be actively creating something.

"Big Magic" is filled with these little nuggets of inspiration, the common myths that engulf the creative process and actionable insights towards a creative, fulfilling life.

I wish she had also talked about a few examples of creative process in the corporate world across various domains. It would have helped me to tie together these different ideas on creativity, given my background.

Relevant and hard-hitting, I highly recommend "Big Magic" to anyone who is curious about creativity.

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback of the book.

Oct 6, 2015

2 lessons I learnt on behavior change

Last night, I had prepared white rice for my 4 year old and broken wheat for myself for dinner. The accompaniments were rasam and carrot curry. D had little rice and was curious to know what's inside the pressure cooker. She has a fascination of pressure cookers just like me :-) I said "that's broken wheat for amma". She said she wanted to taste it and so I offered her a spoonful of it. She loved it and then finished almost the entire cup with rasam and curd. After finishing her dinner, she said, "mumma, this is yummy. Tomorrow, I want buckwheat". Don't be surprised yet.

During the weekend, I had prepared ragi idlis and regular rice idlis for breakfast. While I was feeding her ragi idlis, she asked "mumma, are these kambu idlis?". (Kambu means pearl millet / bajra)

This is the effect of our reading ritual. Every night before going to bed, we go through pictures in the book "aaraam thinai" and that's how she knows the names of other grains.

My in-laws were visiting me last week and I had offered them a choice of ragi idlis and regular idlis. Without a second thought, they replied, "we are fine with regular idlis". The fact they are both diabetic and have hypertension didn't motivate them to choose the healthier option. Given that they are used to eating rice idlis for so many years, they are scared to do the switch at this age. They didn't even want to try a piece while my 4 year old was happily eating her ragi idlis. It's a different story that they got hungry soon and were munching on bread toast with diabetic jam (sugar-free jam).

On reflecting upon these incidents, I learnt a few lessons on behavior creation and behavior change. Nothing earth shattering here, but plain old common-sense.

1) It's much easier to create a new behavior in children. Whether you want them to eat healthy, be responsible towards nature, care for others etc, start as early as you can. On a related note, children like to emulate what their parents do. So if you exhibit positive qualities in front of them, they will reflect the same.  My motivation to eat healthy and remain fitter has become stronger now, as I see how my daughter is trying to follow me.
2) It's a tougher ask to change deep-rooted behavior. Even if there is a genuine reason to change a not-so-good behavior, the resistance is high and people prefer status-quo. As the years pass by, the beliefs get so strong that even if there is a scientific proof about a belief being wrong, people do not want to change them. For instance, a strong belief that's no longer true => Cow's milk being the "only healthy" food for a child for getting calcium and protein.

If there are certain behaviors in yourself that you want to change, start NOW. Don't wait for the right moment / right time / right place / right situation. As time passes by, the resistance to change will be so high that you wouldn't want to take even a small step towards it.

Oct 1, 2015

Why we don't want to throw lavish birthday parties?

D turned 4 a few days back. From the beginning of 2015, hubby and I decided to keep the birthday party simple. The main influencing factor was how the previous birthday (3rd) turned out. We had decided to host a birthday party. Booked the small party hall in our apartment, invited a few common friends, apartment neighbors and kids that D usually meets in the play area. Ordered birthday cake, snacks (pizza and soft drinks), bought personalized return gifts and other party goodies. Took a lot of our time, energy and effort to get things arranged.

On the D-day (it was a Sunday), friends kept dropping out one after another through messages/SMS. During the party, very few invited kids turned up. Many of their parents didn't even bother informing us that they wouldn't be able to come. With the few kids who turned up, we conducted the party. After the party got over, we requested the security guards to take the remaining cake and other food items (which were quite a lot).

Hubby and I had a long discussion about this whole party - the wastage of food, expenditure and most importantly, the callous attitude of certain people who didn't even have the courtesy to inform that they are dropping out / won't be able to make it.

This year, the party was very simple. We arranged a simple cake cutting celebration in the evening at home, with D's grandparents and her close friends. The food was cake, chips and home baked muffins. Hubby and my dad decorated our living room with some balloons and a couple of birthday banners. It was a simple and cozy event. As a family, we felt happy and D also had her share of fun.

After eating the cake, a 6 year old kid asked "Aunty, I'm going home. Give me my return gift". I replied, "There's no return gift, dear. This is a different kind of a party". I could sense her disappointment but I'm not going to feel guilty about it.

The expectation of kids around these birthday parties is seriously a cause of concern. The party has to be in a hall/playarea/mall/pizza outlet and there needs to be some events, games, a caricaturist / a tattoo maker, chocolates, lots of snacks (read: junk food) and return gifts.

It's becoming like a transaction oriented event where the kids compare the return gifts they got from different parties. There's no innocence or fun anymore. Introducing such materialistic expectations at such a young age will certainly do more harm in the future.

We have decided to continue the same kind of birthday party for D unless she demands something else. And for the few parties that she's been invited to, we give the gift to the child and politely excuse ourselves.

Sep 29, 2015

உனக்கென்று சில மணித்துளிகள்

பயம் என்னும் திரையை விலக்கலாம்
ஓடுதலின் வேகத்தை குறைக்கலாம்

பூக்களின் வாசத்தை நுகர
அணில்களின் செல்ல சிணுங்களை ரசிக்க
தூரத்தில் ஒலிக்கும் கோவில் மணியை எண்ண
மழைத்தூறலின் தாளத்தை கேட்க
உன் மூச்சின் ஏற்ற இறக்கங்களை உணர  
நேரத்தை கொஞ்சம் ஒத்திவைக்க

கைபேசியின் கூவல்கள் காத்திருக்கட்டும்
முகநூலின் தகவல் ரேகைகள் ஓடிக்கொண்டிருக்கட்டும்
வாழ்க்கை ஓட்டம் ஆமையாக சில மணித்துளிகள் மாறட்டும்

கண்கள் நோக்கி முழுமையாக உள்வாங்கும்
உரையாடல்கள் வேண்டும்
காதுகள் கவனமாக கேட்கும்
பொறுமைகள் வேண்டும்

எதுவும் உன்னை விட்டு போய்விடாது
உனக்கென்று சில மணித்துளிகள் ஒதுக்கினால்

Sep 21, 2015

Review: Bharathi Baskar's books

I should thank YouTube for introducing me to Mrs.Bharathi Baskar's works. On one of the bored Saturday afternoons, I stumbled upon her talks given at an Engineering college orientation programme as part of my YouTube recommendations. If you can understand Tamil, I highly recommend the two videos. My hubby who doesn't watch much of Tamil programmes loved them too.

Later I realized that she is one of the prominent speakers in various pattimandrams (debate shows). For me, pattimandrams remind me of my childhood when TV channels would play them on festival days at 10 AM. The elders in my family would be glued to them while we (kids) would be happily munching on some sweets or taking a nap. I was never a fan of such debates in growing-up years.

Anyway, coming to the topic, Mrs.Bharathi's speeches are multi-dimensional - humorous, contemporary, thought-provoking, passionate and most importantly, she knows exactly how to connect well with an audience. I have been listening to many of her talks and I've become a big fan of her. During my last trip to Chennai, I made a visit to Vikatan publisher's office and picked up a bunch of books written by Dr.Sivaraman, Nammalvar and Bharathi Baskar.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading her two books - Nee Nathi Pola Odikondiru and Siragai Viri!Para ; both have the same characteristics as that of her powerful speeches.

Nee nadhi pola odikkondiru is a collection of essays focused on women-centric issues at home, work and society. Her examples and anecdotes from her personal life make this book an interesting page-turner. She touches upon various issues such as lost friendships in women's lives, expectations from family, lack of appreciation, importance of personal care, taking ownership of finances etc. My most favorite example in this book is where she compares fridge and a ladies handbag and how we stuff so much into each of them :-) She applies the same logic to the various thoughts we dump into our minds and how they spoil our health, relationships and well-being.

It's a pleasure to read how she links each issue to that of a flowing river. So poetic and mesmerizing! Reminds me of the beautiful song - nadhiye, nadhiye from the movie rhythm.

Siragai viri para is a one-of-a-kind book where the author connects present challenges of the society with examples from mythology, literature, spirituality, religion and history. I felt like I was going back in time to my Tamil and History lessons from school. In one of the chapters, she talks about the story of Manuneedhi Chozhan and the cow and stresses on the leadership qualities and fair justice. It felt so good to rehear this story after a long time that I have started to narrate it to my 3-year old. The author's interest and knowledge across various subjects and her knack of beautifully stringing them together is very inspiring.

I'm so grateful to YouTube for a good recommendation that led me to hear, learn and get inspired by Bharathi Baskar and her works.

Sep 15, 2015

Why I decided not to be a Pavlov's dog

I came across this concept in my Science textbook in 9th or 10th grade. And for some reason I still remember it even after so many years. Ivan Pavlov observed how his dog would salivate when he would ring a bell and bring food for the dog. As days passed by, the dog would salivate just by hearing the sound of the bell in anticipation of the food. This observation led to his research on classical conditioning theory.  It gives good insights into how a conditioned stimulus can lead to a conditioned response.

We all experience this often in our day-to-day lives. Our smartphones have transformed us into Pavlov's dog. You hear a notification, vibration or even a blinking LED, your hands automatically reach out for your phone to check what's new. Mobile app makers understand this phenomenon and ensure their first and foremost user engagement strategy is "Notifications". They personalize these messages, make them variable, interesting, whacky and what not.

I started to realize that I was getting distracted a lot with these triggers and was not able to focus hard. It could be due to FOMO (fear of missing out) or seeking novelty but I decided to take some conscious steps to get back my focus.
Focus is THE precious asset these days, more than time, physical energy or money.
I went through the list of all the apps on my phone. As a first step, I uninstalled all the shopping ones. I'm not an avid shopper and the notifications - "25% discount on shoes" and "fabulous offers on branded clothes" are irrelevant to me.

Then I looked at the health and fitness apps that I installed long time back but still keep bugging me to track my food and water intake everyday. Got rid of them.

The remaining were the toughest ones - social networking apps like Facebook and Twitter. My most used ones. I disabled the notification sound and vibration first. But the LED light was bothering me. I finally disabled that too. FB started troubling me with notifications about a random person posting something on a FB group that I follow. (Seriously, FB?) The tweet below proved I wasn't alone in this assault.

Twitter is not too far behind either. It keeps notifying me on how 3 of the people I'm following have tweeted about a certain hashtag.Or how 2 of them started following someone.

I finally said "Enough is enough" and uninstalled both these apps. It's been more than 3 weeks now and the number of times I access my phone have gone down tremendously. I still use these products on the web but I control when I want to access them and not the other way around.

Are you feeling like a Pavlov's dog? Do try out some of these steps and see the difference it can bring to your productivity and your life in general.

Sep 14, 2015

A long weekend trip to Pondicherry

Having been born and brought up in Tamilnadu, my friends found it strange when I told them that I had never been to Pondicherry. "You must go, Anu. You'll love it", one of them recommended during an evening chai meetup. When hubby suggested that we go for a long drive to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I knew exactly where to go. Cleartrip somehow got a peek into our "offline" conversations and sent a hotels flash sale email on the very same day :-) We got a great deal in one of the CGH Earth Properties at Pondy, Maison Perumal.

Day 1
A light drizzle greeted us early morning and we left Bangalore around 5:45 AM and drove straight to Vellore - the route that has become very familiar thanks to our Chennai trips. We took a short detour inside Vellore to have breakfast at our most favorite place - Saravana Bhavan. Loaded ourselves with some amazing dosas, yummy pongal and refreshing filter coffee. After Vellore, we took a right turn towards Arcot (route SH5). That was a beautiful route with greenery all around, little villages and trees on either sides of the road. The weather gods blessed us with pleasant cool breeze throughout the journey. We reached Pondy around 12:30 PM and drove straight to Hotel Surguru for lunch. My friend recommended this place and the vegetarian thali was amazing with a good spread of kootu, keerai, sambar and rasam.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral Church
We checked into our room at Maison Perumal and relaxed for some time. It's a beautiful heritage property with traditional courtyards, paintings and pictures from yesteryears. In the evening, we took a walk on Mission Street, stopped by for few minutes in the beautiful Immaculate Conception Cathedral Church and then went to Bakers street for some pastries. Though the pastries were good, the service could have been better. The coffee that I ordered never came even after 20 minutes. When checked, they realized that they completely forgot.

Traveling with a toddler who refuses to walk and wants to be carried around all the time, we didn't have the energy for longer walks and so took an auto-rickshaw and came back to our hotel. The chef gave us a cooking demo of "brinjal gothsu". We ordered aapams and veg stew along with coconut ice creams for dinner. Loved the dining experience with homely food and friendly service.

Day 2
At Matri Mandir viewpoint
We woke up early and were all set for roaming around. The breakfast was a good combination of continental and South Indian, with fresh fruits, fruit juice, muesli, toast, eggs and dosa/idli. And not to miss the strong filter coffee. By the time, we finished breakfast, it was already 9:45 AM and we drove towards Auroville. The sun was at its peak and we could feel the heat and humidity, as compared to the previous day. We took the vehicle towards Matri Mandir and spent some time admiring the beautiful surroundings. If you want to go inside Matri Mandir, you need to book an appointment a day in advance. I spent some time in the couple of boutiques near the Visitor gate. The clothes and other products were handmade and very expensive and so I didn't explore much, apart from a few packs of incense sticks and scented candles. We drove back to Pondy and had Pizzas for lunch at Cafe Xstasy - these were thin crust and loaded with cheese. D loved them and so did we.

The evening was well spent at the clean and less crowded Serenity Beach. The colorful sky and the moon rise was a pleasant sight. We spent nearly 2 hours in the beach, playing in the waters and observing tiny crabs. Our growling stomachs didn't allow us to venture outside and so we decided to have dinner at Maison Perumal again. A sumptuous Tamil style thali with ladies finger masala, carrot stir fry, papads, paniyaram and curd made us feel completely at home.

Day 3
We started off the day with a quick visit to Aurobindo Ashram and then spent some time at Bharathi Park. Our little one was happy to discover the "play area". The sweltering heat didn't allow us to linger for more time there and so we compensated her with some pastries at Zuka Chocolate Cafe. We tasted the yummy rainbow cake and washed it down with some milkshakes and iced tea. It was around 12 PM by then and we were in two minds whether to go to the Chunnambar boat house then or later in the evening. We took the plunge and drove the 8 kms to reach the boat house. The boat ride costs 200 Rs per person. I imagined it would be similar to that of Kumarakom's backwaters but it was just a straight drive to Paradise beach. Being a weekend, the beach was crowded and I was so surprised to see so many people bathing and playing in the beach without minding the heat. We sat down in one of the shacks for sometime and then returned. After a late lunch at Hotel Surguru, we came back to our room and had a short nap.

While my daughter was extending her afternoon nap, I decided to take a walk by myself to Promenade beach. Very heartening to see the traffic police blocking the beach road from all motor vehicles post 6 PM. It was a memorable walk, with cool breeze for company, observing people - the younger and older ones brisk walking, cycling or just sitting and having a good time along the roads of the beach. If ever I spend a longer time at Pondy, I decided to walk down this road every evening.

After dinner, all three of us took a walk again in the very same road. D was excited to see a wide road completely free of vehicles. We sat on the rocks for some time, admiring the waves and a clear moon-lit sky. This was THE best part of the trip.

Day 4
It was time to pack our bags and head home. After a quick trip to Manakulla Vinayagar temple, we went to Zuka Cafe again. Too bad the rainbow cake wasn't there but we had some delicious blackforrest cake milkshake and bought some white chocolates for home. The drive back home was challenging, with the afternoon sun hitting hard and a huge traffic jam near Krishnagiri. The journey felt tiresome and exhausting. But the memories of Pondy made the effort worthy.

Sep 4, 2015

Design thinking talk at Institute of Product Leadership

A few weeks back, I was interacting with organizers of executive MBA programme at Institute of Product Leadership. They asked me if I could deliver a talk on design thinking and share some of my experiences from past projects. While I was thinking about the relevant topic, I also came to know from them that the students are already doing a course on design thinking, know the concepts and that it would be more useful if I can link the concepts they have learned to real-life experiences.

I observe that many startups do not seem to invest enough time in understanding the problem space, exploring the user/customer's context and diving into their motivations. This directly relates to the first 2 stages of design thinking process - Empathize with your users and Define the problem statement. So I structured my talk around these 2 stages and shared relevant examples from the two startups I have worked with so far. Here are the slides:

It was a good experience putting together the deck based on my work projects and delivering the talk.
Please feel free to share your thoughts/comments/opinions on how startups can maximize their research in these 2 stages and the strategies that have worked for you.

Aug 13, 2015

Home remedies for treating cold/cough in children

Disclaimer: I'm neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. The tips below are based on my experience whenever my 3.5 year old daughter catches cold/cough. So use them at your own discretion. If the body temperature is very high or the child looks very weak, do consult your doctor first.

I find the below tips to be very effective during the initial stages when my daughter had started to sneeze 4-5 times or when she has watery eyes/running nose.

1) Warm water - Ensure the child keeps sipping a glass of warm water. This will keep him/her hydrated.

2) Coconut oil with camphor - Before putting the child to bed, follow this procedure. Mix a pinch of camphor in 2 tsp of pure coconut oil. Warm this mixture for 5-7 seconds. Massage this oil on your child's chest and back. The congestion will ease and he/she will be able to sleep better.

3) Tulsi-ginger extract - Pluck fresh tulsi leaves from your balcony/garden (Highly recommend you have a tulsi (holy basil) plant at home for these emergencies). In a mortar and pestle, add finely chopped ginger and a tsp of water. Mash it well. Then add tulsi leaves and mash them with little more water until the water turns dark green. Strain the extract. Add 1-2 tsp of honey and give immediately. This works wonders and the congestion/running nose comes under control.

4) Pepper-Jeera rasam - The appetite would be less whenever my daughter is not well. During those days, I make this rasam and give it with rice. The pepper feels soothing to her throat and she is able to eat atleast a serving of rasam rice without a fuss.

5) Pongal / Kichdi - For a main meal, serve either pongal/kichdi with a good pinch of turmeric powder and pepper powder. Both turmeric and pepper helps the body to fight the germs.

6) Turmeric milk - My daughter doesn't drink milk, so this tip doesn't help me much. But if your child has no issues, give a small cup of warm milk with a pinch of turmeric powder, black pepper powder and palm sugar.

7) Vicks Vaporub - Before bed, apply a small layer of Vicks on the child's feet and make him/her wear socks. This helps to give a good night's sleep. I have heard that Vicks should be avoided for young children but using a little bit doesn't do any harm. This is my opinion, feel free to avoid it if you are very concerned.  

Aug 11, 2015

Book Review - Nalam 360 by Dr. Sivaraman

Ever since I read his two books (aaraam thinai - volume 1 and 2) last year, I have become a big fan of Dr. Sivaraman. His ideologies, beliefs and principles resonate with me completely that I google him often to explore more about his work :-) That's how I came across his other books published by Vikatan publications. I searched far and wide in Bangalore but couldn't get them. Amazon and Flipkart have shipping charges that are almost the same as the cost of the books. During my last visit to Chennai, I made a trip to Vikatan office and bought his other books along with a few more interesting ones.

Nalam 360 is a series of articles that he has written focused on various ailments, ranging from allergies, migraine, thyroid, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity etc. In his usual style of being informative, witty and thought-provoking, he has written about the causes of each ailment and how it can be treated/controlled using traditional medicines and eating practices that have been followed by our forefathers/foremothers.

We have become a generation of instant gratification and instant relief from any pain. Popping pills for minor ailments like headache or fever have become a second nature. We don't take the time to think about why our body is sending these signals. Dr.Sivaraman reiterates on the basics like eating right, proper exercise, sleeping on time, keeping the mind at peace and slowing down. Some of our traditional Indian practices when it comes to food are so amazing that the quote "food is medicine" is the need of the hour.

5 key take-aways from this book

- The mother's body can detect any infection in her baby using the saliva when he/she drinks milk from the mother's breast. Then the required antibodies are produced in the mother's milk and the baby gets them during the next feed. What an amazing response mechanism nature has given! Not possible in the days of bottle feed and pumped breast milk.
- Foods that taste bitter (kasappu and thuvarppu) are great immunity boosters. He recommends regular intake of gooseberry, green tea, holy basil, fenugreek seeds etc
- Black pepper helps to fight allergy-causing foreign particles in the body and can be so helpful to combat sinusitis allergy
- The best way to fight migraine is to include ginger regularly in the diet
- In a 24 hour duration, around 1 to 1.25 litres of saliva is secreted in our tongue that helps to break down carbohydrates and starts the digestion process. Most of the common ailments like headache, acidity, food reflux, heart burn etc all have an underlying cause which is improper digestion. Concentrating on eating without distraction, chewing the food nicely and not gobbling up etc will help saliva do its work properly, thereby preventing indigestion.

There are many more such interesting insights on Indian spices, grains and food practices that we can learn from this short book. I have been incorporating many such ideas in my cooking and hoping to spread the message as much as I could. Would love to connect with readers who share interests in these traditional food practices. Do write to me.

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