Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, March 28, 2014

28 Life Lessons I Learned In 28 Years

It’s my last hour of being 28 years old, and I decided to write down 28 lessons I learnt in the last 28 years.

1. It’s very important to be kind - you can always be kinder than someone and it can't hurt.

2. Happiness bought from things can be fleeting and doesn’t last.

3. That doesn’t mean that happiness can't be found in a tub of really good ice-cream - even if it lasts only a short while.

4. Your family is the most important possession you have, and you should treat them as such.

5. Friends can be family too, sometimes even better.

6. Having a mentor in life, and choosing this mentor, is one of the most important decisions you can make, so do it wisely and while you’re young, if possible.

7. It’s important to respect the beliefs of others.

8. It’s also important to be true to your own beliefs, and be able to talk about them openly.

9. Know yourself, as well as you can. That’s your best chance at happiness, and success.

10. Accept yourself completely, and know that’s the secret to getting others to accept you.

11. Cultivate compassion for others, even if and especially, if their suffering is something that you can't relate to, or if you think, they should stop whining already. You never know what it’s really like to be them / have their problems.

12. It’s far more important to complete one thing than to start many things.

13. Failure is another term for learning, so fail often, and fail fast. Make it a habit to fail as much as possible, and success won't be too far away.

14. When you help someone else, often you’re helped as well.

15. One of the greatest joys in life is persevering at a difficult goal and accomplishing it by yourself.

16. Having integrity in all your dealings helps you sleep better at night.

17. You must find an answer to the question of god and religion for yourself, and be happy in your answer, without feeling the need to judge everyone else for theirs.

18. Money and success is worth pursuing for many reasons, but becomes hollow as an end in itself.

19. It’s great to find work that you are passionate about, but equally important to find a way to create value everyday, in any small way.

20. It is easy to point fingers and see where others are to blame; not so easy to see our own faults. Making a study of our faults and working to improve ourselves is one of the biggest investments in our long-term happiness.

21. When something bothers us about someone, chances are it’s a habit or problem we are facing ourselves and are simply in denial.

22.  It’s easier to do what is fun than what is right, but often success and the ability to hold one’s head high lies in doing what’s right.

23.  There is always someone in every field who hasn’t had to work for it, for whom everything can come easy. Don’t dwell on their life, or complain about how unfair life is. Instead, focus on what steps you can take on your own path to success.

24. The stronger you are, the easier it is to be gentle.

25. Teaching someone else only helps you to learn better. This is true of school and of life.

26. Time passes by in a flash, and we only remember some of it. Thus, you won't remember the excruciating pain of working hard towards your goals, only the moments of success. Amnesia is on your side.

27. It’s important to save, but life is also too short not to have some treats.

28. Life is a serious business. And that’s why it’s important to make time for the little things - reading a great book, listening to soulful music, admiring a beautiful sunset. Live like you have all the time in the world, and like you have no time to waste. Yes that’s a paradox, but isn’t that what life’s really about?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Ode To Evernote: 5 Ways Evernote Has Changed My Life

I mentioned Evernote as one of my favourite apps in this post in December. I have since started to become even more organised and thought I would write a post on my favourite ways to use Evernote, some of which have evolved in the past months.

1. Makes Research A Cinch
I do a lot of research projects, usually in collaboration with others, and they require writing reports that need a variety of sources. I used to prefer journal articles and books as sources (the hangover from college), but many of the topics I research now are either too niche or too new to have many journal articles, and usually have no books at all. Much of my material is now sourced from the internet, either in the form of reports and government brochures (usually pdf documents) and web pages.
I always create a folder in Dropbox for each project, and in it save all pdfs I come across. But web pages are difficult because you never know if you will need it later, it’s hard to save the information in a way that’s easy to cite and find the page again if necessary. I have to admit that throughout college I simply ignored web pages in my research or lost anything useful I found because I had no reliable way to deal with them (my bookmarks usually was a mess and I gave up using it years ago).
Then I recently decided to use Evernote for this. I always used Evernote for a while, and it occurred to me it would be perfect for my research. Here’s what I do: I create a new notebook in Evernote for the project, and each web page that is vaguely helpful, I save as a new note. You can even use the web clipper to clip pages directly in, although I don’t use that much, because of issues with Internet Explorer. Even so, I find this extremely convenient, and Evernote automatically saves the url of the web page, to make it easy to cite or go back to the original page. Since I created a new notebook for the project, I don’t usually bother to tag pages unless I know they are useful for a specific section of my report. However, since you can tag each note, you don’t need to create a separate notebook for this, I simply prefer to.

This way I don’t waste time during the research process, and if I later find some of the pages I saved weren’t that useful, I can simply delete the note.
2. Keep Recipes Handy
My other favourite way to use Evernote is for recipes. I love to find recipes online, and sometimes I get newsletters on ‘healthified’ recipes - healthier versions of foods I like.
Initially I created several different notebooks, one for healthy recipes, one for everyday cooking; but now I have simply consolidated them into one notebook named Recipes, and used tags to differentiate. For example, I have tags for main dish, sides, salads; so if I want to make a salad, I can simply sort by tag.

Since Evernote is completely searchable however, this is less useful, because if I search for salad, all recipes for salad will come up. What I find more useful for tagging is things that the search won’t bring up - such as tags for ‘healthy’ indicating that it’s a healthier version, or if I think it’s perfect for weekday dinners, I will tag it ‘daily cooking’. This makes it customisable to my own requirements.

3. Keep My Inbox Uncluttered
I am nowhere close to maintaining Inbox Zero, but I have been trying quite hard to keep my inbox manageable. This is another area where Evernote comes to the rescue.

Often you need an address or web link or other small piece of information that you keep in your inbox like a holding pen, but often just when you’re looking for that particular email, it’s impossible to find. In the meantime, all these bits are cluttering up your inbox. Evernote is great at holding little bits of info - you don’t even need a designated notebook - you can just dump all this in your default notebook.
I also get a lot of newsletters in my email, and some of them are articles I would like to save, which I previously did by creating an appropriate folder. But I never seemed to remember that I had these articles, and even if I did want one, I couldn’t find it in the mess of folders. Now I simply put them in Evernote and tag it, and even if I can't remember the tag, I can just search for it. My inbox is much less cluttered with someday-I-might-need-it items.

4. Track My Progress On Goals
I use Evernote to create tables that track my goals. Sure I can use an Excel spreadsheet, and do for the more complicated goals that need formulae. But just to keep a running tally of how many blog posts I have written or how many hours I have put in my latest book project, it’s easier to use Evernote - because it’s the one program I have open every day, and I can easily access it.

I also use it to save screenshots of my blog stats page, and my reports from Rescue Time (which I have just started to use). I can imagine there are lots of other ways you can customise this - save your weekly to-do lists, or keep a food diary. The possibilities are limitless.
5. Inspiration At My Fingertips

I use my iPad for a lot of my reading, and I am a fan of Feedly and Pocket for catching up with myriad reading. But if I'm looking for inspiration on writing advice, or to find an interview with a writer that really moved me, I would prefer not to search Google or my Pocket archive - because it would be far too easy to fall into the rabbit-hole of one article after another, and before you know it 2 hours are gone, and I still haven’t read the original article I was looking for.
Instead, I save articles that I know I want to refer to again, especially ones relating to writing and productivity, to dedicated folders in Evernote. That way I simply search within the folder, and in seconds I have what I want - an article on how to write a marathon number of words over a weekend, or an interview with Neil Gaiman that’s really inspiring. If you want, you can also email articles directly to your Evernote account by sending it to your dedicated Evernote email address (you can find that by logging into your Evernote account through your web browser). I use this also to send notes directly to my account from my inbox.
Another way I save articles is when I am browsing online and I find something I want to save, I just use Evernote Clearly through my Firefox add-on to display the page without the annoying formatting, and then with the click of a button, add it directly to my Evernote account. Clearly is also smart enough to put it in the correct notebook, although because my system of notebooks is a bit messy, sometimes it goes into the wrong notebook. But it’s still incredibly convenient.

So there you have it, 5 ways that Evernote can make finding and organising things online incredibly easy. The internet is wonderful in all that it has to offer, but sometimes it can all be a bit much, and you can feel like you’re swimming in a sea of information, trying desperately to hold onto the pretty shell you found, when you see something else, and swim towards that, dropping the first shell, and losing it in the tide. Evernote is a bit like a service that picks up the shell and stores it for you, leaving you more time to browse for shells.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Quirky Authors and Their Habits: 3 Lessons We Can Learn From Them

I recently finished reading a book called Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson. It’s a book about the habits and quirks of famous writers, and their daily rituals and writing methods. It’s the sort of book I love to read, because it’s tempting to believe that if only I followed the schedule of Austen or Dickens or Fitzgerald, I would be able to write like them. Which of course really isn’t the case.

There is, however, plenty to learn from these writers as it turns out. The author of the book delved into all sorts of habits - ranging from writing in the bath, to writing in cars, and working in bed. Some writers, like R.L. Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Thoreau, and Robert Frost, all loved to take long walks, and use them to find inspiration, either in the world around them, or to delve deeper into their mind and find ideas. Many carried paper and writing instruments to record their thoughts, others hurried home and started to put down their ideas right away.
Lesson 1: walking not only provides much needed exercise after hours sitting in a chair, it also gets the juices of the mind flowing in a completely different way from sitting and staring at a computer screen or pad. In fact, going for a walk often gives me fragments of ideas for my WIP, or ideas for blog posts. I don’t always write all of this down though, and don’t make nearly enough time for ambling - which is an important takeaway for me.
Many of the authors featured in the book woke up early to write: for instance, Sylvia Plath started working at 4am, Jack London at 5am, and Anthony Trollope and Kurt Vonnegut at 5.30 am. The latest an author got to his or her desk was 10am (Somerset Maugham). This may due to the exigencies of a day job (Anthony Trollope), or simply because they liked that time to compose (Katherine Anne Porter).
Lesson 2: most authors take advantage of the quiet time in the mornings to write, when they are at their freshest. Recently I have been trying to incorporate a writing schedule, and I have been experimenting with different times to see what suits me best. I am not a morning person, but all of these times have been in the morning, when there are less disturbances from the outside world, and the many things I need to get done don’t weigh on me as much. Reading the schedules of these writers, I feel I could improve on my schedule and start even earlier.
Virginia Woolf wrote many letters, diary entries and even some prose with purple ink, sometimes standing up, and later, on a writing board sitting in an armchair. Lewis Carroll too used purple ink while writing. James Joyce composed Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with crayons on cardboard. Truman Capote wrote all day lying down - and changed his beverages along with the time of day. Gertrude Stein loved to write while sitting in her Model T Ford. The more authors’ habits one surveys, the more odd quirks and habits emerge.

Lesson 3: it doesn’t matter how or where you write, that you do matters. If one medium starts to get stale (composing on a computer for instance), you can try writing on a pad of paper. If that gets boring, you can try index cards (Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on notecards), or reading your writing into a Dictaphone like John Steinbeck (or our phones, most of us have microphones built-in). Sometimes I find it easiest to compose fresh writing when I'm feeling stuck by lying down on my bed. I used to feel guilty about this, but hey, if it works for Capote! The point is to find what works for you, and never mind if its unusual or quirky; after all, you’re not the first writer to do odd things, and probably won't be the last.

There are many more very interesting examples in the book, and I urge you to check it out, but the main takeaway is that no matter how interesting the work habits of others are, we are far more likely to benefit from implementing one small piece of advice, finding if it works, and if so, getting done to business. Working more is the important thing, and on that note, I'm off to work on my own WIP.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Book in the Amazon Top 10: My Foray Into Self-Publishing

As of today, my book From Auden To Yeats is on the Amazon top 10 in its genre - Education: Study Guides, in Canada, Germany and Japan.

Its a small genre, and its not that big a deal, but to me its amazing - because a year ago, even a few months ago, I was resigned to my book languishing in obscurity, because it wasn't accepted by traditional publishers.

Actually the book helped me get published even before it was completely written. I wrote a book proposal for this book, when I had a large part of this book written - when I was in high school. And with the arrogance and ignorance of youth I shopped the proposal to educational publishers in India. I never heard from most of them, not even receiving any rejections, but one publisher expressed interest in commissioning me to write a completely different book for them. This one however, they weren't really interested in. I put the book aside for the next few years, focusing on college and my masters' program.

I picked it up again at a time when I had a bit of spare time and completed it, knowing that I would not be able to publish traditionally. I also knew I had to write the book - it was a labour of love for me. I enjoyed every minute.

Since I decided that it wouldn't be published by others anyway, I may as well publish it myself. I didn't really know about KDP or Smashwords then - so I simply went with what I knew - Lulu. And I think it sold one or two copies. I didn't do any marketing - I had no idea how to go about it.

And then last year I discovered the new wave of indie publishing - legitimate options that got your book into mainstream bookstores as an e-book. I formatted the manuscript and uploaded it to Smashwords and Amazon, and fully expected to sell no books at all - I was extremely thrilled to simply have it out there in so many venues.

Then I started to learn more about self-publishing, and decided that I would try to learn as much as possible, even if it didn't impact my book sales. In fact, after not checking my sales figures at all for a few weeks, I started to check everyday (a tad obsessive I know).

My sales have been coming in slowly, and I have been trying various things as well. I still have a lot to learn, especially since I tried to do everything myself - which is great for learning, but also for making mistakes.

It's still selling only very modestly, and it's in a small genre, with plenty of competition, but I am really surprised that I have even achieved this far. I know there is so much more for me to learn, but I am really excited about the possibilities out there.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Just Can't Find The Time (To Be Creative)

I recently attended a gathering of a few friends celebrating one of my friends’ acceptance to university. During our general catch-up, we started discussing something that comes up regularly in conversations now - I’m so busy, I can't keep up with all my obligations. Yes, this is really common now in this always-on, digital age. But it’s a more complicated problem for creative people.

I find that my list of creative projects that I want to get to is ever-increasing. And yet the pile of projects that I actually complete is ever-dwindling. Now this is incredibly frustrating to me, even more so because I dedicated this year to being more productive and accomplishing a lot more. I have been researching ways to harness technology and psychology to getting more done. Despite this, I find some weeks are a struggle just to get the urgent tasks done, and I can't seem to make time for my larger creative projects.
I feel incredibly guilty about this - partly because I don’t currently have a day job, I undertake projects and can in theory, get the work I need done. And yet entire days go by without my being able to make any headway on my current book project, which is already long overdue. Partly this is because I took on some research projects, and have been finishing up work that is due to collaborators for projects begun some time ago.
Usually the reason for not accomplishing tasks is squandering time on wasteful activities like social networking sites or just putzing about on the net. That wasn’t the problem for me, as I keep a log of the work I do on projects, and have an idea of where my time was being spent. The main problem is that I knew where my day was going, and thought I didn’t have any control over it. I had a number of non-work, but important, obligations come up over the space of a few days. An acquaintance of mine was having an impromptu party to celebrate an important life milestone, so I needed to buy a gift. I agreed to make a presentation for a voluntary organisation I am involved in, for a semi-formal occasion, and had to get my speech approved. I had to attend a number of social functions, which took up two weekends consecutively. All of this meant a lot of extra prep work - either in writing multiple versions of the speech, or in buying and wrapping gifts for the various social gatherings. Additionally, almost all of this was completely outside my comfort zone (I never know what to buy as gifts for babies, and I hate public speaking).
I spent a lot of time simply agonising over the logistics, and how much I had to do. Also, the various obligations spread out over two weeks meant I had to try and get my work done in the spaces between - which is really not something I'm good at. Much of my work requires research, analysis and writing, and I need a few hours at a time to really get into it.
The result of all this activity - my projects took a backseat and I got stressed over all the work I wasn’t doing. It’s easy to conclude that I should have turned some things down, and cut down on my obligations. However, it occurred to me after the fact that a large amount of the time I spent was a result of creating unreasonably high expectations from myself - the speech had to be just right (and since I didn’t know what that was, I kept putting off writing it, but suffered from stress all the same), I had to buy just the right gifts, I had to be right on time and perfectly attired. All of this raised the stakes much too high, and prevented me from using the slivers of time I did manage to find, because I simply can't do any deep work when I'm stressed and anxious.
Yes, I had a lot of external obligations taking up time. But I also made it worse for myself by procrastinating, insisting that everything be perfect, and wasting time and energy trying to make that happen.
Often when people ask us to do something, we are unable to say no, for some reason or the other. But this we then tack on expectations and ‘shoulds’ to this obligation, increasing its potential to disrupt our routine further.
By contrast, my mum told me about how she recently learnt the lesson of being more relaxed and getting things done without stress. She lives alone, and has patchy domestic help, which makes entertaining more than a few people difficult. She recently had to host a meeting for a voluntary organisation at home, for which she needed to provide refreshments. Usually she gets panicky and stresses about how much there is to do, and she realised this was because she compared to how others had hosted similar meetings previously, and felt she had to keep up. This time she ditched the comparison, and provided refreshments that were easy for her to buy or put together, and kept them easily accessible so everyone could help themselves. She reported having a much more relaxed time, being able to really engage with everyone and not feeling stressed or tired.
What I learnt from my mum was the crucial point of not comparing to what you think others will do. My stress about the speech was mainly that I must be as good, if not better than the others also speaking. Regarding the social functions, I was worried about not being upstaged by others. It’s natural, even essential, to make an effort, to look as good as you can, or give a nice gift that will be appreciated. But it really isn’t necessary to compare oneself to others, and try to show them up, or to stress out about being the best.
This made me think - where else am I creating unnecessary tension for myself? Where else could I do something well and yet quickly enough to devote more time to what matters? I am still finding answers to this for myself.
Where can you free up more time and head space by letting go of outcomes?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Read An Ebook Week at Smashwords

Just a quick reminder that it's still Read An Ebook Week at Smashwords, the online retailer of ebooks and home to many indie authors, including myself. Many titles are priced free, or at 25/50/75% off.

My book, "From Auden To Yeats", is now available at 75% off, so take advantage of this while it lasts - till March 8th.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Appreciating Process

As I keep trying to remind myself, being a creative professional (and you can call yourself that even if you don't earn any money from your work (yet), but take your chosen field seriously), is all about process.

It's easy to forget that when you read articles about yet another author whose books are on the NY Times best-selling lists, or when you fall in love with a designer's work, or love an app that changes your life - you start to ask yourself - what's the point. I am nowhere as good. I may as well give up now.

This happens to me pretty often, and lately at those moments, I try to remember that no one became that good overnight. Likely they worked hard, going back to the drawing board when things seemed to stall or fall apart, refusing to give up or compare themselves to others doing much better. I tell myself that the only difference between them and me is shipping.

But this can be difficult to remember. Amid all the FB updates about weddings, and fabulous holidays, and book launches, its hard to remember that everyone else also has to write one sentence at a time, start from scratch and take an idea through to completion. Which is why I love the new social media tool Somewhere, which basically allows its members to post pictures and make comments about their work process - giving us a rare glimpse into the mundane day to day steps that add up to brilliant work at the end of a, sometimes long and scary, tunnel of hard work and perseverance.

I recently signed up at Somewhere, you can check out my page here:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Getting to Inbox Zero With Gmail

Getting to Inbox Zero seems to be a common goal now, with tens of posts giving different advice on how to achieve this. Most of the advice seemed to me so complicated that I abstained from implementing any, deciding that I would live with a messy inbox.

Except in my case it wasn't a mess, it was an avalanche. I had over 20,000 emails in my inbox, which was the repository of everything that came in, including all my forwarded emails from my university email address. This backlog was basically the result of never deleting anything since 2006!

In 2013 I began to feel deeply ashamed of this, and tried to tackle my emails and start archiving or deleting my emails - and managed to reduce the size of my Inbox by more than 60%, although it still felt unwieldy. Worse, in archiving my messages, I created a complex system of labelling that I myself couldn't remember, and found myself pausing at every email, wondering where it should go. That of course is a recipe for disaster when dealing with 1000s of messages, and my efforts at organising my inbox stopped there.

I recently picked up the Lifehacker book, which advocates a three folder system of organising email - Archive, Follow-up and Hold. Basically you process each email in your inbox only once, designating it either in the Follow-up folder, responding to it if its quick and then archiving or deleting it, and putting it in Hold if waiting for some response or other outcome. They recommend having only one Archive folder, which is searchable and doesn't need multiple folders.

I found this system intriguing, but modified it for my own use. Firstly, I couldn't bring myself to completely abandon organising my archive, so instead of a complex system, I decided to go with themes. Separate folders for each of my universities, for all related emails; one Finance folder for all financial stuff; one folder for all my writing drafts and finished products, and so on. The reason for this is I would never remember which keyword to search for, but within a theme I could find stuff I needed.

Secondly, I created labels for Follow-up and Hold, but I keep them in my Inbox until I have dealt with them, and either archived or deleted the email. The reason being, in a separate folder it would be too easy for me to completely forget it's there.

Thirdly, I created a Backlog folder where I moved all my old emails, so I could start with a fresh slate. I am slowly going through this as well.

Fourthly and most importantly, I unsubscribed from many lists that I only held on to because "I should" and I never actually read the messages - they simply piled up and made me feel guilty every time I looked at them. I decided life is too short to read endless messages on "5 Foods to Avoid at Parties", and "What Your Boss Wants You To Know". I never gained any actual information from these messages, and if I did, I promptly forgot what it was. I read enough articles through my RSS feeds, articles I actually want to read, I didn't need to be guilted into overloading my inbox.

I still have to get all the way through my backlog of emails - but its down to some 300+ emails (down from the original 20,000). I hope to continue to maintain a clear inbox and keep on top of my tasks, and tweak the system as I feel the need.

What methods do you use, if any, to get to Inbox Zero?
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