Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Decluttering: Releasing the Regrets of the Past

It’s almost time for Chinese New Year, and for the past month or so Chinese households have been busy spring cleaning. The tradition is that before the festivities of the New Year, the house needs to be cleaned, and dusted, and freshened in order to provide a fresh start before the start of the new year. All old and frayed furniture and furnishings are thrown out, all the clutter that has been accumulating for the past year are thrown or given away, and the negative energy that has accumulated along with the unwanted things is driven out - making room for the flow of positive energy.

This year I decided to (or rather was nudged in this direction) embrace the timing of the Lunar New Year and undertake my own clutter-be-gone program. I have in the past done something similar, usually when I'm packing to move, and appalled to discover how much stuff has actually accumulated over the past couple of years. In that case, usually my decluttering efforts are relegated to going through the piles of paper I have somehow managed to accumulate, and my enormous amounts of toiletries, and try to pare it down to a manageable amount - but somehow they manage to mushroom back to previous proportions within a few months.
This time I was determined to do it properly, to really take stock and try and organise everything.  Or everything that I could. I was profoundly impacted going through my grandmother’s things after she passed away late last year, seeing how she had held onto things for years that we were forced to throw away in a matter of days. The horror of that experience really opened my eyes to the true nature of clutter - regrets holding us back. In this case, I'm classifying anything as clutter that has outlived its usefulness, either because it’s a gadget that doesn’t work, or make-up that I don’t use, or papers I no longer need.
As I started to look around the house with this new perspective, I was horrified to see truly how much I was holding on to, and how much stress it was causing me. My kitchen pantry was a complete mess, and I could never find any spices or pastes when I needed them, and I didn’t really know what I had or didn’t. Every time I opened the door of the pantry and things threatened to spill out on me, I simply quickly closed the door again. The same story was repeated elsewhere - my drawers were full of make-up that I wasn’t wearing because they were the wrong shades - too light or too dark. I had spa-at-home products that I weren’t using because I forgot about them, since I had to tuck them away for lack of room. My house isn’t that messy, but mainly because I have mastered the art of hiding the clutter; I did it so well, I hid it from myself.
Over the past few weeks, an hour at a time, I have been tackling the offending areas. So far I have re-organised my kitchen pantry, my make-up and toiletries, including some I had completely forgotten about and found new ways to use them (details in another post), the store room, my stationery collection, the cleaning supplies, and many other little nooks and crannies. Since I did in fits and starts, it didn’t feel like a huge burden. And my home is looking and feeling much better and nicer, all set to face the rest of the year.
I have decluttered and organised before, but this time I did with a whole new philosophy. Whilst earlier I tackled my things trying to see what I didn’t need anymore, this time I tried to focus on what I did need or like the most, and tried to pare down the rest. I used to hold on to everything, just in case I needed it someday. Or I was holding on to some for a special occasion. But when the special occasions did come, I always forgot to use it. So now my motto is that life is a special occasion, so why not use it today?
And the best part? I've let go of many things that I have been holding on to for many years, because they were gifts, or purchases that were mistakes but I have spent good money on, and didn’t want to acknowledge they were mistakes. Letting go of them has made me feel lighter, less stressed. I can actually feel the difference in myself, however corny that sounds. And I'm not done - I have committed to this process until I have really pared everything down to only the things I need on a daily basis and the things I love the most - that way I can appreciate them better.
I would love to hear the experiences of others who have decluttered or are trying to - please leave your comments below.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Find A Fun Way To Keep Your Resolutions

As January is nearing, the fervor towards keeping New Year’s resolutions will also be dropping. Gym memberships lie unused, the language tapes aren’t removed from their case, and the pedometer is left at home.

This year I didn’t so much make resolutions as decide that I would do more of certain things, and track them. Like walk more, or write more blog posts. Or complete that project that I have been working on for far too long.
One of the things that I wanted to do was start drinking green tea. The benefits of green tea have been extolled by everyone, and my mom kept at me about why I should start my day with warm water. Besides, I have a huge stock of green tea and herbal teas at home, completely untouched. I had planned to start drinking it, but on the rare occasion I had tried it, I hated it. So I never really got into it.

Until recently. My mom gave me a beautiful teapot and Chinese tea cups for Christmas. I decided to try them out while she was visiting, and fell in love with the ritual of making tea and drinking it while I write. It takes the same amount of time as making a cup of coffee (instant, I don’t like brewed coffee), and it’s so much better for me - no sugar, no harsh effects from too much caffeine. I haven’t replaced my coffee and black tea habit entirely, but I have cut it down considerably.

I believe that the main reason I was able to begin to enjoy green tea is because I love taking out my teapot and cup and setting it up where I'm working. It brings beauty and a bit of drama to the act of drinking the tea, and actually makes the tea taste better to me.
So if you are seeing yourself slacking off from your New Year’s resolutions, try this tip - find a way to make them more enjoyable, fun, or just bring some beauty to them. Maybe buy yourself new gym clothes that you like, to make going to the gym a bit easier. Treat yourself to a hazelnut latte while listening to your language lessons on your iPod. Light a favourite candle while sneaking in some writing after dinner. Whatever the trick, it must be something you look forward to enough to ensure progress on your resolutions.
Feel free to leave comments on what tricks work for you.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Listen To Your Own Tune

Nowadays it’s so easy to get caught up in what others are doing or saying, with the majority opinion on things that you may not think to question. Sure, we have our own political and religious beliefs, and argue with our friends about whether Katy Perry is better than Lady Gaga. But when it comes to established ideas about working overly long hours (well, that’s what our boss expects, and besides I don’t want to be shown up by my colleagues), or multi-tasking (well, there are only so many hours in the day), or questioning the way we approach our work (who has time to change how I work, I barely have time to do the work); well, we don’t often question these ingrained ideas.

For instance, I always believed that multi-tasking is the most effective way of getting a lot done, after all, women are supposed to be great at multi-tasking, right? However, for me it didn’t just extend to checking my Twitter feed in the elevator. In order to get my projects done faster, I believed that I had to combine steps, to save time. When writing a research report, halfway through I realised I needed to incorporate information from some more sources. I identified a dozen new sources, and since it was crunch time, I decided to simply start reading and adding in the information at the same time. Needless to say, I was being slowed down by the fact that I had to process what information was relevant, and where in my report it needed to be added in, at the same time. I was making very slow progress and started to panic that I wouldn’t make my deadline.
At this point, I had the idea to break down the tasks into fewer steps - I first added the research I found that was relevant into a new document, properly cited of course, and then I tried to figure out where in my original report this could be included. Surprisingly, adding in additional steps, instead of increasing the time I spent, actually saved me precious time and I made my deadline. I found that, at least for me, multi-tasking slowed me down so much as to be an ineffective strategy, and I was far better off doing things one at a time.

Reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet I came across a similar point, where she argues that introverts may feel pressure to conform to society’s expectations of behaviour, and forget their own strengths. She suggests that it would be better for them to “honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms”. As someone who prefers to spend time alone and reflect, you may be pressured to instead fight against that instinct, and be more social. Sure, we all need to attend some social functions, and broaden our horizons at times, but it’s important to acknowledge that it is draining, and keep those occasions to the minimum.

I found that I was being subtly pressured to attend certain kinds of activities often, in the evenings, and I found the timings and nature of the activities to be so draining, that I would come home and over-indulge on junk foods and late-night TV in an attempt to get back my equilibrium. Needless to say, that didn’t work, and just made me groggy in the mornings, and helped to pile on the pounds. This year I have made it one of my resolutions to think carefully about each social obligation, and only attend if I absolutely have-to, keeping in mind that I need a lot of time to recharge afterwards.

Listening to your own tune of course has much larger implications as well. When faced with certain career trends or pressures to do one kind of work and not another, we may feel that we chose the wrong field, or that whatever work we are doing isn’t exciting or important enough. At one time it was all the rage to be a lawyer or a management consultant, hence the race to law and business schools. Now the trend is leaning towards app developers, and it seems lots of people are jumping on the coding bandwagon - with free online courses teaching code being the new must-do.

However, just because you aren’t a whiz at Python or Ruby doesn’t make you unable to impact the world, it just means you have to do it in your own unique way. Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can't Ignore You, makes this point forcefully - you shouldn’t buy into the ‘follow your passion’ mind-set, instead you should become really good at what you do.
I would take that one step further, and state that you don’t need to worry whether you’re in the right field, or even the best at your field. Instead, you need to worry about whether you’re trying to make an impact, trying to create value, even in a small way, on a regular basis. This means, be more of yourself, honour your own unique strengths, and use them to give back to the world around you. This is part of the argument made by Seth Godin in his book Linchpin. I found it very reassuring, as lately I had started to fall into the trap of thinking that I made mistakes in the path I chose, I should have studied something different, honed different skills. The point is not what you could or should have done, the point is to make the most of who you are in the present. What are your unique skills and abilities today that you can use in your whole life, not just at home or at work? What do you uniquely bring to the table that can change someone’s life, make someone’s day? I believe that dancing to your own tune doesn’t mean that you should isolate yourself from others, in fact, by being more of yourself, you can give more of yourself to the world.   

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why the Internet is Great for Introverts

Picture this: you’re at a party, and someone introduces you to a stranger, and after the usual greetings, they ask you, so what do you do? Do you tell them that you’re currently freelancing, or working a temp gig, or even working on a project? Which they hear as “I'm not successful or impressive”. Or do you tell them excitedly about the book you just published? If you’re anything like me, you would do the former, and then kick yourself later for not mentioning the book.

Susan Cain’s wonderful book “Quiet” points out that introverts and/or people who are “sensitive” are temperamentally diametrically opposite to extroverts, who have no problem going up to strangers, loudly engaging in small talk, and selling themselves at every opportunity. When I meet people I don’t know, I simply freeze up, and when asked basic questions about myself, I can't remember anything remotely interesting about myself to share, and my biggest flaws and drawbacks (that I'm not sure about my career path, that things haven’t been as smooth as I like) are the only things that come to mind.
I promptly forget the wonderful conference I attended in picturesque Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we dined with local dignitaries, including an actual Prince. I forget the fact that I spoke at the launch of a project in Jakarta that I had worked on for over a year, a project that was innovative and cutting-edge. I blank out the book projects I am currently working on. Instead I stand there stammering, and wishing the floor would open up and swallow me, Sita-style.
With the advent of the internet, even if I can't tell people my accomplishments, I can use social media to put my accomplishments out there. Okay, so I am still not able to declare to my entire friends list on Facebook that I just aced my presentation, but I can create projects on LinkedIn to illustrate my diversity of work experiences.
That’s the thing about the internet - there are various levels, and one can always find a niche that fits. Even if you’re not the sort who chronicles every single meal and passing thought as a tweet or status update, you can still take advantage of the power of the internet to craft a more complete profile of who you are. You can write a blog to express your quirky, off-the-wall ideas, the ones that your social circle either pooh-poohs or you aren’t able to get across among your louder and more extroverted acquaintances. You can showcase your wonderful artwork or photography as an online portfolio. You can list your accomplishments in various projects on LinkedIn, or your own blog or website. While conversations in social occasions often come with only one speed, the Internet has many speeds, and there is always one that’s just right for you.
Already, as we all know, the internet has made collaboration amongst people from far-flung corners of the globe possible. Geographic barriers are no longer sufficient to hold people back from exploring opportunities. I believe the other great accomplishment of this global connectivity is that it allows not just people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds opportunities that they may not have had previously; but that it allows people from different temperaments, the voices that may have in the past been hidden underneath the cacophony, to emerge, with their unique insights and contributions. We may have more global problems than ever before, but I believe we also have more opportunities to hear from those who may find the solutions.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New Facebook Page

I have a new Facebook author page: This is my official author page, with updates on my books and promotions, as and when they happen. I don't like to spam my Facebook friends with this sort of information, so this is a better way of keeping updated. Feel free to like my page!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Does Being Prolific Impact Quality?

Peter Sim’s book “Little Bets” makes this point, as does author Franz Johannsohn of “The Click Moment”: in order to be more successful, it is better to make “little bets”, or commit to smaller and many more projects, rather than put all your creative eggs in larger, fewer baskets. In entrepreneurial circles this idea is also known as making the smallest viable product and putting it out there as quickly as possible.
The obvious extension of this point is also that you are more likely to succeed if you increase the quantity of your creative endeavors. As Smashwords founder Mark Coker puts it, those authors who have more books published by their platform, sell more books. Bloggers know this too, the more posts you have, the more likely you are to increase traffic to your site.
If this is so obvious why doesn’t everyone do it? Well in some ways this is a common strategy, but it’s also a common problem - how do I increase my productivity without impacting my quality?
In some ways, certain products like apps can be revised - so you can create an app, and based on user feedback, update and improve it. This can be a better strategy than simply tinkering away in isolation on features that users may not value as much, and wasting time and effort. The same applies to blog posts - if you write a post that didn’t quite hit the mark, you can try again tomorrow.
With books, or music records, or movies, the same principle doesn’t apply. Once the product is out there, you can't change it, not without considerable expense, and even then, it may be too late. The reviews are already out there. In that case, it makes sense to spend as much time as possible carefully perfecting the product, doesn’t it? Don’t we always hear of an award-winning author releasing his much anticipated third or fourth book, after a gap of eight or nine years?
The problem here then is how to reconcile the two objectives - the need to increase quantity and the desire to maintain quality. Many creative professionals appear to have mastered this dilemma, those who publish a book a year, or one best-selling record after another. At last night’s Golden Globe Awards, acclaimed director Woody Allen was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Till date, according to IMDB, he has written 71 films and directed 47. Whatever else you may think about him, that is amazingly prolific. And he was won and been nominated for numerous awards, which suggest that many of his films are outstanding.
Here’s the thing: I suspect some of them are also really terrible. And perhaps that’s the secret to his success, or that of other prolific, creative individuals. You have to be willing to make some really bad art in order to be able to create some truly spectacular stuff. Agatha Christie, one of my favorite authors, wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. Some of those novels were truly brilliant, but many others were merely a good read, and some quite disappointing (I have read almost all her novels, many of them several times). Perhaps it’s not always possible to predict the quality of a book or movie or painting in advance - it is only when it is completed that it’s possible to judge it.
As a writer and perfectionist myself, I am not as prolific as I would like to be, mainly because the issue of quality pulls at me. What if this is totally rubbish? Maybe I should let it marinade, and come back to it. I imagine that either prolific artists don’t have these sort of thoughts, or as is much more likely, they choose to ignore them, and doggedly complete the project at hand, and immediately start thinking of the next one. Perhaps they have much thicker skin, and are not as affected by negative criticism. Perhaps they know that they may not be able to control the outcome of their work, but they can certainly control their own effort, and hope that it is enough. This new year, I am resolved to aim for a little less perfection, a little more pragmatism, and hope that I learn habits that let me look back in the years to come at a body of work that more closely resembles that of Christie or Allen, if not in quality, at least in quantity.
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