Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top 5 Apps of 2014

Its that time of year again – when you look back over the past 12 months and reflect on the time gone by, what you accomplished, what was good and bad. Since I write about productivity and creativity here, its appropriate to round out the year with a list of the top apps that helped me, in some way, to achieve those goals.

1. Evernote – Readers of this blog know about my love affair with Evernote. Its my favourite app, one I use everyday to keep track of important notes, reminders and lists in one place. New ways I started using Evernote this year – reminders (for appointments, renewals or cancellations of services), keeping all the details for each book in one place for marketing campaigns and saving screenshots.

2. Scribd  - I have been using the Scribd app a lot lately – mostly on my iPhone but also my iPad. I received a complimentary subscription as a Scribd author earlier this year, and have over time increasingly found the service very useful. I mean to do a longer post about it – but for now, I love this app because I am able to make really good use of the little bits of time that otherwise get lost. Essentially I read multiple books at a time on this app, and it does a great job of remembering where I stopped (and syncs between devices seamlessly). They have recently added audiobooks to their library as well.

3. NovelRank – this app is mainly for ebook authors selling their books on Amazon. The app helps you track the sales of your books on major Amazon platforms. I use this app at least once a day to monitor my sales – and its quite accurate. I probably don’t need to monitor my sales that regularly – but its a neurosis thing – and it helps to keep me motivated to work harder at promotions or new writing.

4. ATracker – this app made last year’s list – and its still one of my favourites. I use it to track the amount of time I dedicate to various categories of activities, and use it to motivate myself to put in more time on things I tend to neglect, or just to keep tabs on how much I am getting done. I use the pro version, which gives me unlimited tasks, and the ability to personalise my display in terms of colours and icons.

5. Feedly – choosing the 5th app was a bit difficult – but this RSS reader made the list because its also another one I use everyday. They have made it much easier to share articles with friends or on social media, or to save to other apps such as Pocket and Evernote.

Honourable Mention: IFTTT

This app gets an honourable mention, although really it should be somewhere on the list. Its my most useful app because I never use it! – by which I mean it does everything it needs to in the background. IFTTT basically is a great app to automate many tasks that need communicating between apps or devices. I use it to save certain favourite Lifehacker articles, or save my Fitbit data to a spreadsheet. I probably don’t use it as much as I could – and am always on the lookout for great IFTTT recipes. Leave a favourite recipe in the comments and I will be sure to check it. out!

These are my top apps – and many didn’t make the list but are just as useful. What apps did you find most useful in the past year? Leave your replies in the comments below.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all my readers a very happy holiday season (and for those who celebrate, Merry Christmas!).

Here's wishing you a happy and creative 2015, one where you branch out in new directions, try things you never tried before, and live more fully, experiencing more of what life has to offer.

[Photo: our tree, put up at the very last minute, but still looking quite festive.]

Friday, November 28, 2014

Needing a Tribe

There is a lot of talk on blogs and in books about finding your "tribe" - a group of people with whom you can identify and who form the natural audience for your work. There is a lot of merit to this idea, however, it is usually reiterated in the context of marketing and promoting one's work.

I recently found out that it is equally, maybe even more important to find your tribe in the intermediate stages of the creative process. At an event that I attended recently (the launch of a book in which I have a co-authored chapter), I met an ex-colleague who is now also a full-time writer - of fiction. We hadn't met in a long time, and amidst catching up on life events we discussed some of the vagaries of the writing process, and life being a writer. It was a short dialogue, as the primary purpose of the event was to network, and I had to leave shortly after.

The few minutes casually discussing perspectives with another writer, even though she writes in very different genres, was more validating than I had imagined. I haven't belonged to a writer's group, as I have been officially writing for only a short while, and was afraid to put too many labels on what I was doing, lest I become constrained by those labels. I find it hard enough to write without undue pressure and constant questions regarding the work.

In fact, that was partly what we talked about. My friend, the writer, writes what I would classify as literary fiction, while I write only non-fiction. I always imagined that the approach and the experiences would be different writing such different material - but when I heard her describing her challenges with her current book, I could instantly relate. More so, it validated many of my own concerns.

I am confident that the need for acknowledgement, the need to share daily struggles exists in every creative endeavor. While some are more naturally collaborative mediums, some arts require weeks and months of solitary effort to produce something. Often the end product may be less than what you imagined, or it may not be received as well as you were hoping. At such times, the journey has to be worth it, because for now it may be all you have. It really helps to hear that from someone other than your mom or significant other, which is where the tribe comes in. A timely reassurance, the acknowledgement that someone else is going through the same thing, may keep you going for a little while longer, hopefully long enough to finally create that masterpiece!

Who is in your tribe and when do you reach out to them?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Who's Afraid of Math?

I was auditing this course on Coursera (Learning How to Learn), which gives strategies on how to learn more effectively. I was intrigued and was watching the videos. Interestingly, some of the insights apply not just to learning, but also to creating (that's for another post).

One of the videos led me to have an a-ha moment. The lecturer, Dr. Barbara Oakley, was talking about her story of learning languages and being in the army, and how relatively late in her life, she turned to math and computer science and qualified as an engineer, despite having a phobia of math in high school. She talked in detail how she overcame her fear, and got better at the subject. The video explained that math and other technical subjects require practice, to spend time working on problems over an extended period of time, while the concepts slowly become embedded in our long-term memory. At this point, using those concepts in tests or other applications will be easy.

This was astonishing to me, as somehow her story sparked me in the thought that maybe it wasn't that I was bad at math per se, its just that I had applied the wrong technique or given up too easily.

In elementary school, when my mum taught me math through everyday objects, I aced every single test. After encountering a few terrible teachers, I started to dislike the subject, and in high school, really struggled with it. I had a tutor all through high school, and still didn't really do too well. In fact, in 10th grade I came first in school in the board exams, and topped the class in every subject other than Math. By this time it was official, I was hated math, and was afraid of it. I was one of the editors for the school magazine, and used my privileges to cut math class as often as I could, ostensibly to "cover" school sports events for the magazine, but basically to hide from logs and differential equations.

So I didn't really have the best track record with learning math. When I was listening to Dr. Oakley talking about her struggles, I could relate. But then she revealed that she was not only an engineer, she had a PhD in engineering. At that moment, it was as if a switch flipped in my head, and I thought, maybe I can overcome my fear of math too.

A few days later I went to the local library and got a few math textbooks and brought them home. This was so alien, I couldn't help feeling very strange. But I was determined to see if I could change how I approached studying math. The videos I watched described how becoming familiar with each concept could help with subsequent ones, and it was simply a matter of practicing enough to embed the ideas in our brain.

I started with the first chapter - determined to approach using the skills I had learnt from this course, and the other material on learning that I have read recently. Something that I didn't know in high school or college, but learnt recently, that passively reading or copying answers from the text book doesn't lead to effective learning, but testing yourself does. In this context, I decided that as far as possible, I would try to attempt every question, even the sample ones, myself, only turning to the book when stuck.

This turned out to be a really good strategy - as I found myself remembering some things, and stuck in others. The book I was working on focused exclusively on word problems, something I had a lot of difficulty with in school. I am talking the questions on trains meeting after 2 hours, or pipes filling a tank. These were the questions that I dreaded in school (not to mention probably bombed on my GRE Math test).

Going through the book, which had tons of examples and very simple approaches to each type of problem, I started to feel a sense of accomplishment. I usually only got one or two questions wrong in each quiz, and I could feel myself getting more and more familiar with the material. I woke up each morning, stealing time from writing, to sit with my math textbook. This became my guilty pleasure, and I was loving(!) every minute. My rule was, that as soon as I got tired, I could stop. Most days I worked on problems for about 45 minutes, although some days it was less. I was racing through the book, some chapters ridiculously easy. I was even tempted to quit, since I didn't feel like the problems were really challenging me, but I was determined to get through the entire book.

Now I am on chapter 10 of 12. I stumbled a bit on the problems about trains and pipes, but I got through that chapter. I am unbelievably ecstatic that I could learn how to do something almost effortlessly, that in high school would be unthinkable. I used to routinely go to my dad for help on those train questions, and although he could solve them, they were still slightly difficult for him. With the help of this book, I now found them effortless.

The lesson I learnt from this experiment (still ongoing), is bigger than learning how to do high school algebra. What I learnt is that it is easy to give up on something difficult and think, its not for me. I knew I was smart, and yet I secretly believed I was smart in a certain kind of way, i.e. the non-math way. I believed that I wasn't going to ever have a head for numbers, even though I did well with economics classes at graduate school, and had even used calculus for one of my classes. I learnt just enough to get through the class, but didn't go beyond.

Now I am approaching it very differently. Instead of just mindlessly going through the textbook, trying to copy the problems, I made sure to test myself on each question, trying to do it myself, and relishing the feeling of learning something very new. I also realized that practicing the same type of problem over and over really helped to cement the knowledge.

I intend to use this method beyond quadratic equations. I sometimes have a tendency to believe that certain forms of writing are beyond me, and that it may be too late to learn. There are many other areas of my life where I simply decided I didn't have what it takes. These last few weeks of studying math has changed these beliefs, replacing them with confidence - I know that if I practice hard enough, and are willing to consistently put in the work, I can learn anything I want to.

What new skill or subject would you like to learn if you knew you absolutely couldn't fail?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mapping Your Projects Visually

The book I published a few days ago (available for pre-order on Amazon) was a project that I was having a lot of difficulty completing, and the project was weeks behind schedule. In desperation, I tried many techniques, some of which worked, and helped me to move the project along.

I will be sharing these techniques on the blog over the next few weeks. Today I want to share the first technique that really helped me - visualizing the entire project on one page, and seeing at a glance where I was.

I was keeping tabs on how much I had progressed on the book, but it was difficult to get an overview of the whole project at one time - which added to the feeling that I wasn't really making any progress at all.

I therefore made a simple chart on one-side of A4, breaking the paper into columns for the different chapters. Within the column for each chapter, I listed the sections within each chapter. I also made a list of steps - you can think of them as stages - that each section had to go through. I marked the number corresponding to the step (each step had its own color) under the appropriate section.

The steps (or stages) were chronological - writing a complete rough draft, then putting that rough draft into order, then going through the draft to see what's missing and add in. The next steps were line editing, fixing the footnotes and proofreading. There were 6 major steps.

The colors made the map more interesting, and it was satisfying to add in a number for each step that I completed. When I got stuck on one chapter, the map reminded me that it was easy to simply jump into another chapter or section. I actually finished all the steps on some chapters, while still stuck in earlier stages in others.

While this map alone didn't help me to finish the book, it helped me to keep track of my progress quite easily, and subtly motivated me to work faster so I could fill more of it in. It became like a game, and I wanted to go up levels. It may seem juvenile, but like Julia Cameron says, the part of ourselves that creates is like a child, and anything that can help to motivate our inner creative child to work, especially when faced with a fast approaching deadline and piling up workload, is a useful trick.

Let me know if you have used similar approaches before, or if you use a variation of this map in your work - I would love to hear if this works for others too.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My New Book: Available to Pre-order on Amazon

Finally, after months of work, my latest book Lethal Legacy: The Journey to the Adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, is available for pre-order on Amazon here.

It will be released on October 2nd, a significant date for a number of reasons. It is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a revered figure in India (my home country) and the father of ahimsa or non-violence. October 2nd, is also the day my mentor, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, set off on his first journey for kosen-rufu or world peace, in 1960, which is celebrated by us (his disciples and fellow Buddhists) as World Peace Day.

This book is about the journey to ban a class of weapons that causes misery for decades after its use; 98% of its victims are civilians, one-third of which are children. The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted on December 3, 2008, and although it has been adopted by 113 countries till date, many countries continue to produce and use them; most notably recently, Syria used the banned weapon in its recent conflict.

My goal in writing this book is to highlight the tremendous co-operation between states and civil society that led to the adoption of this treaty, as well as to raise awareness of the need for more countries to ratify the Convention and pledge to stop using these weapons. This Convention is one more example of the power of ordinary people to come together and accomplish something extra-ordinary.

Friday, September 5, 2014

When The Work Stops Being Fun

I have been working on a book that I started as a labour of love, and yet lately it has become an object of loathing. I am dragging my feet, unable to make progress, and yet I am stubborn, so I can’t make myself stop working on it, or put it aside and do something else. Additionally, I get panicky at the idea of just leaving it and going to watch a movie, or go for a long walk – I have this idea that by leaving the general vicinity of my desk, I am risking letting go of the moment when suddenly I will want to write, when the words simply flow. I am like a restless animal, pacing around my territory, but unable to settle down.

The book has taken over all my thoughts while I am awake, leaving room for nothing else. I have stopped having ideas, stopped being frivolous and fun, and even just having conversations with people is really draining. In short, the work is no longer fun, and neither am I.
In desperation, I picked up an old favourite, Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. I love that book, and I have even written a review of it here. I came across a concept that explained to me just what the problem was – I had hit The Wall. The Wall is a block that comes up when we become aware of ‘my thought’, and the fact that it is ‘my book’. I have started to over-identify with the book (something Hillary Rettig warns about in her book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific). As I neared the end of the book, I started going slower and slower, because I secretly got scared. I realised people would read the book, and then I evaluated every section and sentence based on its reception – a terrible way to write if there was one. And by cutting myself off from anything else that I enjoyed, I was making it harder for my heart to engage with the work – I just “wanted to be done”. In fact that’s what I kept telling anyone who asked.
Julia’s solution (yes, I think of her as a wonderful, warm friend I can simply call up on the telephone to receive her spot-on advice) – become humble. Get over the Wall by going under it – leave your ego behind. Be willing to write badly.
The way I interpret it is this – be willing to be different. Be willing to take a risk, and stand out. It is not the end of the world if I don’t write the world’s best introduction, or if the recommendations are a little unorthodox.
This attitude is hard to remember or sustain – I keep falling back under the spell of “what if it’s not perfect?” I don’t want to purposely do something badly, but sometimes the work is subjective. Sure I can ensure that the footnotes are correct and I have spelled every word correctly. But other than that – there are a million decisions that I have made in the course of writing, which if I tried to second-guess, I would be stuck forever. Is there a perfect choice for every decision – how to start the introduction, what word to use in the sub-heading? Perhaps I am overthinking – perhaps it doesn’t matter. These thoughts keep going around in my head – but I try to remember that the goal is to do the best job I can right now, but the goal is also to finish. An unfinished book doesn’t help anyone.
So how do I capture the fun again? Focus on the interesting little bits – usually also the bits where I have to take a risk. Look at this interesting observation I made – where do I include it? What about these recommendations – how should I phrase them? Instead of thinking of them as mistakes waiting to happen, I could think of them as the reward – the quirky bits of my book that makes it unique, which is why I started writing it in the first place.
And it doesn’t hurt to find some external sources of fun either. In my case – I bought a box of cheap oil pastels and some paper – to experiment on. I’m really not very good at art – but I love messing around with colours. The fun I am having just doing something new is slowly seeping into my work as well.

So what do you do when the work stops being fun?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

I am back after an unintended hiatus – my computer stopped working, and I got backlogged with work while I tried to figure it out, and dropped off my (ir)regular posting schedule. Now I am writing this on a loaner.

Today’s book review is on a book that although I loved, I also thought many times before recommending – because while I think it can be great for those who need a little nudge (ok a shove off the couch to get productive), it might be a little too ‘tough love’ for those who need to start small and easy. Thus, this book may not be for everyone, but I still think its message is important enough to share on this blog. 

General Comments:  The main premise of the book is that the best way to be productive and successful is to tackle the most difficult and important task that you have to get done, and make it a life philosophy to always tackle these tasks – frogs as Tracy calls them. Thus, the focus of the book is how to get these tasks done / eat these frogs.

3 Insights from the Book:

1.   Tackle the most important first - all of us are guilty of putting off something that is big and difficult because it is big and difficult. We wait till the last minute, spending our time handling email or doing other trivial things and avoiding writing the report, or calling the client, or whatever the most important task for the day is. Tracy’s main message is by handling the most important tasks (frogs) first, you get into the habit of always doing this, and as a result, become successful by dint of always ensuring your top priorities are taken care of. He suggests that you should make a list of your priorities, and don’t tackle less important tasks until the more important ones are taken care of. Important lesson, although not always easy to carry out.

2.   Focus on the highest value tasks – everyone has far more to do than they can find time for, so Tracy suggests that in order to keep on top of your work, spend your time and energy on the tasks that create the highest value for your employer, and represent the most important functions of your job. This may seem pretty obvious, but it is very easy to get caught up in the urgent and day-to-day onslaught, and lose track of less urgent aspects of the job, that done well, ultimately lead to promotions and career success.

3.   Break tasks down – while it is clear that completing the toughest tasks will give us the most bang for our work hours, the reason we procrastinate on them is because they are, well, tough. Tracy’s suggestion – every task can be broken down into smaller and smaller sections – and tackle one at a time. Each section you complete will give you increased momentum to tackle the next one. When nothing else works – give yourself time quotas (i.e. I will work for the next 5 minutes on this project). All progress is progress, and remember, its doubly effective because this is progress on your most important task. 

Recommend For: Anyone who finds themselves procrastinating on important tasks and projects, or who is stuck on a project and unable to move forward. Can also be very useful for those who seem to be spending a lot of time ‘working’ but are frustrated at not getting good enough results or moving forward sufficiently.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

How I Write: Authors on Their Writing Process - David Clarkson

Today, instead of the usual Friday book review, I have something much more exciting. As readers of my blog may know, I have been working on improving my writing a lot this year, and have been interested in how other writers, especially indies (independently published authors) are navigating the challenges of writing, marketing, building a platform, as well as what tools and technology they find most convenient. Writing hacks as it were.
I was fortunate enough to get an interview with indie author David Clarkson, author of three novels, with a fourth on the way. He talks about his writing process, how he tackles writer's block and his take on the various aspects of self-publishing.

David Clarkson
David Clarkson's profile photo

Location: Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Last Book Published: Diamond Sky
Traditional, Indie or Both: Indie
Current Project: Editing Book 2 of the Diamond Sky Trilogy
1.     What is your writing process like? How much do you make use of technology?
I prefer to keep the writing process pure, so I do not use any writer specific programs/tools. I use pen and paper for my (very loose) story plans and then type it up on my laptop.

2.     What apps / software do you use for writing / creating?
I use Microsoft Word for writing. I do not think that anything other than the bare basics are required for the creative side. As for cover design, I also try to keep it as simple as possible. The reason so many self made covers turn out bad is because the designers are in over their heads with the technology. The more advanced the program is, the more damage a novice can do with it. I use free internet photo editing programs like Ribbet. I select the right picture to use as a base and will then amend the colour and add simple text only. Anything more should really only be handled by somebody with training in graphic design. It took a few mistakes to get there, but I like all of the covers I have made for my novels.

3.     Other than those, what other apps / tools are daily essentials?
The only tool a writer needs is his or her imagination and a bit of knowledge to reinforce it. Good reference books are all a writer needs. Stephen King’s On Writing is a must, as is the Strunk & White Elements of Style. How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman is another good one.

4.     What books are on your (virtual or otherwise) bookshelf currently?
I am ashamed to admit that my reading has really dropped off this year, but I am currently halfway through Inferno by Dan Brown. It was recommended to me by a colleague after we shared conversation regarding the approaching global population disaster. I said that somewhere down the line, a culling of the human population will be on the agenda of an unscrupulous government. It is not quite the same plot, but close enough so I thought I would check it out.

5.     Do you listen to music while you write? What kind of music?
It varies a lot. If I have no clear idea of what I am writing and just free styling it, I prefer the music to be in the background. I have a lot of recordings of contemporary pop/rock music played in a classical instrumental style. This works well for that. If I know where I am going, I like to crank it up a notch - especially with action scenes. In Diamond Sky, Guns N’ Roses actually made it into the story and I listened to them a lot whilst writing it. One of the characters is struggling to get over the loss of a loved one and he spends a lot of time in an alcohol induced funk listening to Axl Rose and co.

6.     What is your writing routine like?
I only form a routine when I am nearing the end of a novel and have built up a lot momentum. When this happens, I will start writing as soon as I get home from work (5pm) and work through to 9 or 10 with a brief break for dinner. I put in serious hours when editing too, otherwise it is really just when I am feeling in the mood. Writing should be enjoyed and once you start forcing it, the fun will go really quickly.

7.     Do you have daily / weekly goals such as word quotas?
I think word count goals work best over the long term. Setting a goal of 1,000 words a day will just lead to failure and once you desensitize yourself to failure it comes much easier after that. I prefer to aim for a timescale for the overall project. Six months for a first draft and then another six for editing, although I will usually have at least 2 projects running simultaneously.

8.     How do you combat writer's block? 
As above – work on two different projects simultaneously. If you hit a wall with one, switch to the other. Then when you hit a wall with that one, you will hopefully be looking at the original work with a fresher perspective and be able to overcome the original block.

9.     What's your best productivity trick?
If I am struggling to write, I go back and edit earlier chapters. That way, I am always doing something productive. I think it is vital to edit whilst you go. For the sake of consistency, a writer must have a clear view of everything that went before in the story as they continue it. Otherwise it is too easy to forget the small details and these soon turn into major plot holes. The only way to do this is to keep rereading over what you have written.

10.  How do you create balance between work and life? 
When you are a writer, there is no separation. I am always observing and thinking. Except on holidays. My wife is very strict about that. No writing on holiday.

11.  How much of the publishing process do you do yourself? What books / websites / software have helped you most?
I rely a lot on friends for help with editing, proof reading etc, but everything else I do myself. A lot of people argue against using a friend’s opinion, but if you have friends who are well-read, hold an English degree or do a lot of creative writing themselves, this really becomes a moot point. To be a good writer, one needs above average intelligence, an inquisitive mindset and exceptional judgement (this may sound arrogant, but writing is an academic pursuit). If you possess these qualities, you will know whose opinion you can trust and whose you cannot.

12.  How much marketing do you do? Which platforms are you most active on? 
After a year, I am trying to cut down my time on social media. I just do not think that it works. Maybe a few years ago when the number of self published titles was measured in the thousands, but now it is in the millions it is virtually impossible to stand out other than through an act of sheer luck. Having said that, I try to keep my presence on FaceBook, Twitter and G+ current. When I started out, I wrote two blog posts a week. Now it is just on an as and when basis.

13.  What's the most fun aspect of marketing to you? 
Random interactions through twitter, which due to the sheer volume of the newsfeeds, the only conversations that happen are the spontaneous ones that happen in the moment. Compiling answers to interview questions can be fun too.

14.  What's the most challenging?
Finding the time. In the early stages of promoting a book the marketing feels just as productive as the writing, but after a while, writer’s guilt starts to sit in. Anytime not spent writing is time wasted.

15.  Anything else you would like to add?
I have enjoyed answering these questions and I hope people can take something from my responses.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Avoiding The Research Trap

Creating something out of thin air can be nerve-wracking, and one of the ways we try to subconsciously avoid this is by doing what Cal Newport calls "pseudo-work". While he refers to this in the context of studying, we creative professionals can recognize that this is akin to hiding behind the old excuse - "I need to do some more research".

Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with research. One of my hats is that of writing academic-style papers and books, and those are founded on solid research. However, precisely because research is so important in such projects, it is very difficult to know when enough is enough, and to stop doing research and get down to actually writing. Even in non-academic work, such as fiction, writers are sometimes tempted to read ever-more interesting, but irrelevant books on the types of wines served at the table of Swedish kings in the 18th century, when it is not really pertinent to the story at hand. Anything to avoid figuring out how the princess and the stable boy actually get past the guards to elope.

I have been facing this problem in my current WIP. It's going very slowly, which has been very frustrating. When trying to brainstorm ways to move it along faster and figure out why its stalling, I started to trace out the time spent on it so far. The book is actually an adaptation of my master's thesis, so theoretically I have already done the important research already. Why then is it still taking so long?

And then it hit me - I spent a whole month or so between April and May working on this project - which should have significantly moved it forward and got me far closer to finishing. Except that in that whole time - I did not write a single word. That's right - not one word. I did a lot of research - and I read through it all with highlighters - and I even copied out the relevant quotes. What I didn't do was add even a word of that to my manuscript. I did move paragraphs around - broke it up into chapters, reorganised it and moved the chapters around again. All that took a lot of time and I really thought I was working. Except it was pseudo-work - none of it got me any closer to a finished book.

Although I hadn't realised this, I figured out earlier this month when I got back to this (I had started working on something else in the middle) that I had to either complete it or decide to let go of the project. Doggedly not wanting to let go, completion was my only option. And I started to work on adding new writing to the WIP.

To see how much I was actually getting done, I kept a simple table in a note in Evernote - with the starting and ending words of the day. It soon became a little game with myself - to add more words than the day before - although many days I only progressed a little bit. Sometimes that frustrated me - and I wishing it would move much faster. Until that is that I realized - even adding 500 more words that day was more than I had done when I was just doing research and nothing else. At least now I was writing - some of it might be edited out, but it was progress. I wasn't deluding myself about working when I wasn't.

It's actually really easy to fall into the research trap without even realizing it. Even now, everyday I ask myself if I really need to add in any more to the current section. I know how easy it to say, but I must add in this one more fact, and then I must find that other report to corroborate it. At one point just last week I found myself chasing up obscure journal articles online, one after another, down research rabbit holes. As soon as I realized this - I set a time limit - that I would not spend more than 2 days on a section at most. Having the table showing me clearly how much progress I am making, and how many days I am spending on each section, keeps me semi-accountable. Which is one of the main benefits of tracking important metrics, something I am learning the hard way.

Is there a project in which you are unwittingly falling into the research trap?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

This week's book review is of a book that I read more than a year ago, and came across recently, and decided to read again. The book: Cal Newport's career-advice book "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love".

Rating: 4.5 stars

General Comments: The second time around I am appreciating the message of this book a lot more than I did previously. I would probably have given it 3.5 stars then. I think partly that is because the message of the book is quite different, and presented differently, and takes getting used to. In some ways, my own views on career and success have changed a lot in the intervening period, and perhaps as a result, I am more in agreement with the general arguments of the book.

The central premise of the book - "follow your passion" is bad advice, and instead of asking yourself what your passion is, you are better off focusing on becoming "so good they can't ignore you".

3 Insights from the Book:

1. Focus on honing your skills at work - become what Newport calls a "career craftsman", systematically honing your skills at the aspects of your field that are most important. The better you are at work, the more you acquire "career capital", which is a lot like other kinds of capital, and can be exchanged for creating a job that you actually love.

2. Craft comes before autonomy - most of us crave more autonomy in our work, as discussions on remote working and flexible time illustrate. However, Newport argues that more autonomy isn't possible without having a store of "career capital" to exchange for it.

3. Find a mission after you gain mad skills - those of us looking for a mission believe that you need to find the mission first, and then find a way to make it happen. Newport flips that order - and states that by first becoming really good and therefore knowing the bounds of your field, you can find interesting avenues to explore, which will be easier now that you also have the skills.

Although I did find some holes in his argument, or at least many possible exceptions, I do think in general there is merit in prioritising becoming good in what you are already doing rather than looking for something elusive that you could be doing instead. I definitely wish there was a book like this when I graduated.

Recommend For: Anyone wishing to gain another perspective on how to create a career that is "remarkable", especially for those starting out, or in their first jobs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

App Review: ATracker for Tracking Your Time

Today's app review is for a time tracker application that I use several times a day, called ATracker.

Application: ATracker

Main Function(s): Task and time tracking

Why I Use It: To track the time I spent on various projects / activities during the day

How I Use It: 

I had been reading a lot about how tracking your time helps you figure out what you are spending it on. I also read about the importance of deliberate practice, and how you need to put in a certain number of hours honing your skills. I already track the amount of time I spend praying, and am used to the concept that by tracking that over the past few years, I have been able to increase the time as well as see trends. I wanted to be able to track how much time I was spending on important goals such as writing and exercise.

Initially I downloaded the free version, which lets you track 4 projects or tasks. I picked the four main projects I wanted to track, and found the app so useful, I decided to upgrade to the Pro version.

The tracker is very easy to use - which is one of its primary distinguishing features. Once you set up the task (in the Pro version you can choose an icon and pick a colour), you can start and stop tasks with just a tap - which is immensely useful. I have tried out other time tracking apps, which basically just sat on my phone desktop till I deleted them, months later, since I found them too inconvenient to use. The app also displays colourful graphs - giving the percentage of the time spent on the task, as well as the total time. I personally find the percentages less useful - I am more interested in the actual amount of time spent.

What I Don’t Use ATracker For:
I have over 20 tasks set up on the app - but in order to ensure that I continue to use the app without spending inordinate amounts of time tracking everything - I only track tasks that I want to do more of. That means I track all work projects - usually when I start a project I create a task for it. I also track all exercise other than walking ( I use a pedometer app for that, and just recently bought a Fitbit). There was a time I tried to track other things like housework -- but found it too exhausting to track so many different things, and at the same time since I wanted to minimise the amount of housework I did, most of the time I don't bother tracking it.

Some months ago, I also did start to track the amount of time I spent on a certain volunteer commitment - mostly to monitor how much time I was spending and how it was spread out.

I don't however, track the amount of time spent in leisure activities, or even in checking my email, although I can see many people wanting to either monitor the amount of time spent on these pursuits, or increase or decrease them according to their needs, in which case tracking them can be beneficial.

My Workflow:
In the morning as I sit down to work, I start the tracker for the task or project I am beginning to work on, and when I have interruptions such as phone calls, or lengthy bouts of unrelated stints on the net, or I get up to make coffee, I stop the task. When I sit down again, I just tap and the task starts tracking again. This way I have a pretty accurate record of how many minutes or hours I spent each day on any given project.

Something I started recently is keeping a weekly spreadsheet of my work by project. The rows correspond to the week, and the columns to projects - and at the end of the week, or halfway into the next week, I pull up ATracker and set it for a custom range for the week in question. The data displays aggregate data for each task for that date range - which gives me totals for each project during that week. I pop the data into the spreadsheet, and calculate the total number of hours I worked on my various projects. At a glance I can see whether I put in enough hours on my most important projects, and if I'm lagging behind, there is built-in motivation to step up in the next week so I can write down a better number.

These may sound over-the-top strategies - but I have recently started to believe that while I may not be able to control certain aspects of my career trajectory - such as innate talent, and factors such as serendipity, I can control how hard I'm working, and especially, how much effort I'm putting into the work that matters, as opposed to just busy work. Tracking my time helps me to see this concretely, and ATracker makes it easy enough to use on a daily basis.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: The Right to Write

This week, for the book review, I am going back to a classic book and one that I personally love, because it helped me overcome my blocks enough to start writing what I really wanted - even though it would be some years before I could see myself as a writer.

The book - The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, by Julia Cameron, author of best-selling creativity book The Artist's Way.

Rating: 5 stars

General Comments: The book is written in an easy-to-digest style, with short chapters. Each chapter is about one aspect of the writing life, with an essay, and a prompt, to get started writing. I normally never do writing prompts from books, but I went through almost all of the ones here, and found them insightful and fun. It's easy to read the book in an afternoon if so inclined, although you might want to pause to digest the information. It's also one of the staples on my shelf that I turn to over and over, for inspiration and wisdom.

3 Insights From The Book:

1. No separation between life and writing - one of the fundamental insights of this book, and one that I need reminding of often, is that there is no need to separate writing into something big and important, that you 'do', with a lot of pomp and ceremony. You can fit writing into your life as it is now, in between looking after children and dinners with friends and doctors' appointments. Julia makes it seem so simple - as if writing is as natural as breathing.

2. Just let yourself write - don't wait for the right time, or mood, or environment to write. Let yourself start where you are, how you are, without judging. This too is something that is easy to forget - because we often think, I need to figure out what I want to say, or I'm disturbed about what's going on around me, or I'm not really in the mood right now to produce great work. Sometimes, even when you think you can't get anything done, you can surprise yourself and write something you might not otherwise have done.

3. Time isn't the problem - a lot of beginning writers or would-be writers (and I was definitely in this category, actually I sometimes still am) think that you cannot really write unless you have a lot of time - at least half a day stretched out in front of you, or a few weeks (or months) of uninterrupted time to really flesh out your book (or other piece of writing). Julia points out, and this is something that I can attest to, that having a lot of time designated at "time to write" can actually create more blocks, as you suddenly feel pressure to do something amazing, or feel stressed that you have to spend so much time writing. On the other hand, sneaking in bits of writing here and there with a few spare minutes is exactly that, sneaky. Your inner perfectionist steps aside when you are only writing for a few minutes, because its not "real writing". That doesn't mean that having large amounts of time isn't helpful, it just means a lot can be accomplished even with just a few minutes here and there with patience and persistence.

These are just a few insights - the book contains indispensable and insightful advice on every page - advice that will help you reclaim your own right to write, and call yourself a writer, if that's what you really want.
Recommend For: This book is meant for anyone who wants to be a writer, or who wants to write anything. I would also say that it should be called The Right To Create - because really it applies to anyone who wants not only to write, and is blocked, but to any artist of any sort. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to write either fiction or non-fiction, for their own pleasure or publication.
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