Tyranny of rush

I had accepted a project with the understanding the timeline would be four weeks but then because of the client’s management schedule they decided they need the deliverables in two weeks. That was impossibly rushed and so we tried to keep the scope leaner and push ourselves to deliver. It wasn’t a good experience and I found the quality control difficult through the process even when I wanted to give my best. The result was huge amount of stress, pressure on everyone and potentially bottled resentments.

Urgency is a weird thing, it grabs you by the neck and forces you to do this and that without much thought at the risk of being choked. It causes great discomfort and as much as it is a good motivator of action, it doesn’t always allow actions to be directed thoughtfully. It is very much a tyrant and one who forces everyone to bow down to its will.

Often I found it hard to get out of this tyranny once it grabs me. Mentally, it captures even my time of rest and attempts to go through natural recovery. Physically, it prevents me from engaging in other activities which takes me away from its will but would soothe my body. I wonder how we can respect urgency less especially in societies that are already fast-paced and relentless.

Because if we don’t break its hold, it will eventually break us.

Overthinking

At some point in my teens I loved observing the world, so much that I don’t like to ‘participate’ in the world. I enjoyed being by myself and thinking through narratives about what is happening – in those moments I think I’d lose myself and be completely unaware of my own presence in this world.

I wonder what that did for my ability to make friends but I was by and large comfortable by myself. Some like to believe I overthink but frankly, the self-talk I have tend to affect me hardly. In fact, I think the people who tend to fill up silence, who always need people around them are the ones who tend to overthink.

They overthink when they are on their own and prefer to shut it out by having their minds engaged in something else. They prefer to listen to others so that they drown out the voices in their heads which are from themselves. Or maybe this is all just me overthinking? How about you?

Enjoying Boredom

What do you do when you don’t have anything on? Do you drift into thinking about work and try to make yourself “productive”? Only to subsequently think you spent too much time on work?

Or do you fill that time by scrolling through social media and going through motions of curiosity, envy, judging, outrage, and so on? Then on reflection think that you spend too much time on social media?

We have trained ourselves to default to some really poisonous habits when we feel bored. And we get upset over ourselves after that. Changing that default is so important. And it starting with awareness of that boredom default, helps.

Measurement & Growth

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Peter Drucker

This resonates with us in business and in personal life, lots of productivity experts have been looking at it. And what we’ve been doing is trying to figure out ways to measure just about everything. But does it mean whatever that cannot be measured, cannot be improved?

Yet at the same time, we know measurement and improvement is distinctly different; efforts invested in measurement cannot translate to improvement by itself. The measurement is in essence just a state of awareness that can really be achieve with varying degrees of precision.

What that means is that many aspects of growth is going to be moving because of things other than measurement. It will have to do with our habits, thoughts, behavioral patterns. How do you improve confidence, or trust, or responsibility? These are all non-measureable yet we know when these things are improving. Is it because we have some kind of barometer inside us to make that measure but no scale to synchronise towards?

How do we respond to that then? We make sure we are aware. Our awareness is our measurement; and that is why self-awareness is so important. And being able to observe yourself: your thought process, your behaviours, is such an important ability. Awareness, is that first step to growth.

Opportunity Cost

The concept of opportunity cost is probably not so well appreciated even though it is extremely simple. But the manner by which we tell the story of opportunity cost might have to change in order for us to appreciate this powerful concept.

We traditionally understand opportunity cost to be the sacrifice of the next best alternative in whatever choices made. The best example is the way you spend your time; when you choose to spend your time going through facebook or your instagram feed, the opportunity cost is the work you could have done, or the presence you could give to your family. Likewise, money spent on consumption cannot be saved.

Time and money is scarce. But when we tell our story about opportunity cost, we tend to focus on the cost in terms of what is scarce. Sure, it is the limited time and money (as a proxy for resources one has) that results in the existence of opportunity costs, but what we are truly sacrificing is the “opportunity”.

So it is important that we begin to think about the cost of one thing or another not so much in the form of time and money but what that time or money would be used otherwise. Because without the “opportunity”, the cost has very little meaning.

Spectrum of intelligence

I was having a conversation with a middle aged man. He was in his late forties and having been a salaryman all his life, he was happy and satisfied with his work. He thought about some of those who went farther and higher in the organisation and said ‘they were really good’. I interpreted that to mean ‘they had what it takes’. I responded to say, ‘it’s also a lifestyle choice’.

The society has its way of determing what constitutes merit. And it’s often a mad rush in those dimensions in order to prove you’re up to par. Whether it is certificates, points, grades, licenses, we are all sucked into some of these common denominators of comparison. We want to find out the rules of the game everyone is playing and then play to win it. And be ‘really good’ – and if others win, we consider them ‘really good’, implying also that they are ‘better than us’ (though only in that single, narrow dimension).

The greatest gift as a parent that you can give to a child is to show them – that despite the education syste, despite what the society and people around you keep trying to tell you about studying hard, getting good grades, gaining CCA points, being able to rattle off lists of achievements, that there is a spectrum of different intelligence. And you may be intelligent in some form, others may be intelligent in other forms. There is no single overall type of intelligence. In a PR firm, intelligent may be about EQ, language skills; whereas in academia, intelligent may be about intellectual rigour. The context matter and of course in the context of school, there is certain definition of merit but that is not the definitive kind of merit in life.

The next great gift to your child is to encourage them to get out of basing solely on the paper chase, and find a domain of intelligence that allows them to flex their potential more than any others. Cultivate and develop that, and keep at it even as they try to meet the basic standards on other areas. Then they will come to appreciate others’ as ‘really good in such-and-such’, ‘better than me in so-and-so’.

The Truth About Procrastination

To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!

I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.

As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.

There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.

During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.

Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

The Value of Pessimism

Smile Frown
To smile or frown?

I felt a bit vindicated to read in the Lexington column in The Economist‘s Christmas edition that two writers have decided to tackle ‘the American tendency towards mindless optimism’. Being a habitual pessimist it does feel good occasionally to read about people who are pessimists and stand up for their views instead of let themselves be bashed by optimists.

The two writers mock the optimists for being too positive and too dependant on positive thinking to help them in their lives, from defeating cancer to not gaining weight. I like that the example of the banking crisis was used to justify when one should listen to ‘the killjoys’ and stop letting the bubble inflate. Optimism apparently blinds sometimes, and this is where pessimism comes in. I like how one of the writers allude pessimism to ‘foul weather’ like thunderstorms: it might be dampening and depressing, but to some it refreshes and energises them. It can wake people up from their daydreams and their eternal sunshine (even though many people love thunderstorms because they can sleep comfortably through the cool weather).

But of course, there needs to be some optimism. Ultimately, Lexington argues that pessimism should be taken like a pinch of salt, just a pinch / ounce and not too much. For instance, one of the writers (a conservative) argues that mass immigration will not benefit America, but ultimately ‘America was built on the mass immigration of optimists’. I guess there needs to be a balanced dose of both sides.

On a side-note, reading The Economist makes me feel more and more pessimistic about the world… is it because of the coverage, or are world affairs really that gloomy and glum?

Vertical Thinking

Lateral Thinker
Lateral Thinker

I finally found a copy of Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking, published in 1970s. It collects his earlier insights about Lateral Thinking and reflects his more original ideas about the subject. The books he published much later are more or less repetition of these earlier ideas, presented in alternative means – some acting as encouraging creativity, others at simplicity of thought and some plainly about motivation and happiness.

I’m not exactly a fan of De Bono – I think he exploits his authority in the area of lateral thinking pretty well and have managed to set himself apart from the general ‘creative thinking’ bunch. I think his Six Thinking Hats programme made him quite a lot of money and his success in trying to frame his concepts into thinking in the business realm means more money. Still, he offers much valuable ideas that are untapped by the masses.

He highlights some problems with Vertical Thinking that we traditionally use to think about problems and perceive our world; these problems are intricately woven with the advantages of this system of thinking so the point is to be aware of these inadequacies and counteract them with Lateral Thinking. Here are some of the problems with our thinking system I would like to share and explain how they might impede us in our daily thinking:

1) Our thinking creates patterns that helps create an efficient system of memory that relies of amazingly few details to trigger the recollection of an entire experience. Unfortunately, they become established ever more rigidly since they control our attention; we’re constantly searching for patterns to fit into our experience to make sense of things. These patterns are also difficult to change once they become established.

This is the case of conspiracy theorists who see patterns in places people don’t and form elaborate theories of conspiracies even when they are just a series of coincidence. The pattern that these conspiracy theorists establish in their minds direct their attention to particular details that reinforce their beliefs in their theories. It’s difficult to convince them that their ideas are flawed.

2) Our system of thinking tends towards ‘centering’ (a term used by De Bono), which means that anything which has any resemblance to standard pattern will be perceived as the standard pattern. Because the information that is arranged as part of a pattern cannot be easily used as part of a completely different pattern, it is hard to change the way one perceive the same set of information to interpret them differently.

This is a case of stereotyping on steroids, best exemplified by the character Mr “Everything Comes From India” in the BBC Sketch Comedy, Goodness Gracious Me. Here’s an Youtube clip showing how he makes his arguments that frustrates his poor son.

3) There’s also marked tendency to ‘polarize’ in our system of thought, moving to either extreme instead of maintaining some balanced point between them. This implies that even when the choice between two competing patterns are very fine, one of them would be chosen with another being completely ignored.

Using the above example of Mr “Everything Comes From India”, we notice that his thinking is such that there’s only the two extremes of ‘Indian’ and ‘Not Indian’. He thinks little of the effects of globalization and the influence of culture on each other or the possibility of overlapping rituals between different cultures.

Finally, patterns that we accumulate can get bigger and bigger, resulting in declarations like, “There are only 2 kinds of people in this world…” People package a whole lot of individual patterns and lump them within a bigger pattern, that immediately trigger off other perceptions that are unreal or not observed. Of course, there are advantages to this system, with it’s roots in instinctive fight-or-flight responses when efficiency of generating a response is more important than producing a precise/correct response.

The idea is to know when we should make use of what sort of thinking. In pondering over important issues in life and generating ideas for a project and such, one should suspend our typical system of thought in favour of lateral thinking that has the advantage of proliferating more ideas even if they don’t appear to be quality on first impression.