Burnout

17 03 2019

Stress, anxiety, and burnout seem to be common infliction in today’s demanding work culture.  Perennial to-do lists, never-ending ad-hoc requests, simultaneously working on multiple projects define the job reality. This is more true for some than others. Often, our unconscious mistakes and tendencies lead us to work-related stress and burnout. These are, of course, much bigger topics and a range of factors affect them. I would just like to touch upon a couple of things in this post.

To-do list is the simplest tool for anyone to get a hang of the number of tasks to be performed . However, in my experience, to-do list is a poor choice of tool to manage tasks and projects. From time to time, I typically list all the things that I want to do and have to do – my work tasks, errands, learning goals, social activities, everything. And when I do that, usually my first reaction would be of anxiety – Oh my God, there’s a lot to do! The to-do list by itself doesn’t provide any ability to categorize or prioritize or set time boundaries on any of the tasks. The only good thing that comes out of it is the surge of dopamine that results upon striking off an item on the list. Ha, that’s really very rewarding. But this can actually act against the utility of the tool, because we will usually end up doing the simplest and may be unimportant tasks first just to strike them off the list and feel rewarded.

Prioritization:

The fix to this is to actually use a prioritization tool instead. Yes, I’m talking about the famous Urgent/Important matrix.

Important

Our goal should be to spend the most time in the Quadrant 2 on the important and non-urgent tasks. That should be our sweet spot. However, on any given day, we need to first start with Quadrant 1 tasks, because they are time-sensitive besides being important. But it’s wise to spend majority of time on Quadrant 2 tasks, which are usually more strategic and highly valuable. The idea is that when we spend more time in Quadrant 2, the number of tasks that end up in Quadrants 1 and 3 will be minimized.

Of course, there will always be some urgent things that we need to do, which in the grand scheme of things aren’t important enough for one’s goals. Examples may vary from person to person (in personal life), but in work settings they could be activities like preparing a mundane report, sending that email notification, proof-reading the presentation etc. We cannot really dismiss them totally because they do serve a purpose. The best way to deal with them is to delegate or automate those tasks as much as possible. Sometimes, procrastination also helps. In the sense that we can perform several unimportant things quickly in the last minute rather than spending crucial time early. Think creatively. 😉

Another equally important goal is to eliminate all Quadrant 4 tasks. This is perhaps the toughest one for me because my Quadrant 4 typically has things that I like to do, but are neither urgent nor important to my well-being and/or progress. But I so do enjoy them. And I always start with Quadrant 4 because that is the most attractive to me. And that’s definitely not a wise decision. This is where the next tool may help, which is very similar to the above Important/Urgent matrix – The Want to do / Have to do matrix:

Jewels

In this model, the sweet spot is Quadrant 2, which comprises of tasks both we want to do and are required to do to meet our goals. However, we need to eat our Frogs first – those in Quadrant 1, which we do not want to do but we have to do as part of our jobs. That way, we can tackle the unpalatable tasks when we have the highest reserves of energy and once done with them, can indulge in dealing with Jewels. It goes without saying that we need to avoid the Knats totally. For many tasks, we may not realize that we need not do them ourselves. Similar to the Unimportant/Urgent tasks, we can come up with creative solutions to get those things done, through others or through automation. In some cases, we may be able to totally ignore them. Butterflies pose a little problem though. These are the tasks that we really want to do, but are not required to do as part of the job. These are usually our indulgences. It’s important for our motivation to be able to spend time on the things we want to do. We may need to spend our time judiciously on butterflies though. 🙂

I agree that getting the priorities right is not an easy thing to do. Often, everything seems to be important and urgent. However, thinking in terms of the above frameworks will help one a lot in taking the first steps.

Saying No:

The other common obstacle in managing our time and tasks is our tendency to take on more ad-hoc requests and doing ‘favors’. Helping others is a very good trait and solving other’s problems give us a sense of satisfaction. However, we should be cautious about the impact of such favors and ad-hoc requests on the regular and important projects. Sometimes, the favors may be really simple, requiring only an hour or less of your time. Even though, if such a request comes while we are in the middle of something and we tend to it right away, we incur a heavy cognitive cost while switching between the contexts. This doesn’t mean that we must deny any such requests and not help anyone. It’s just that we need to help and handle ad-hoc requests in a strategic way.

If taking on the ad-hoc requests is indeed a part of our job, we need to frame it in the big picture. How important is this aspect of our job compared to others? What’s the priority? Depending on that, we may need to attend to it right away or set aside some regular time (Fridays or Monday mornings etc.) and let others know. This way, we will be able to work on your other priorities without interruptions the rest of the time.

Also, not all requests are important and/or urgent.  People may come to you, only because it’s easier for them to get that done by you rather than doing it themselves and of course, you always help them. A simple way to protect yourself against such requests is to simply let the requester know that you are tied up with something at that moment and can get to her request at so and so time/day. Or you can tell them that we are busy at the moment and will get back after checking your calendar about when you can get to the request at hand. Often this tactic is enough for the requester to reconsider. This is saying No, without actually saying it. If the task is really important for them and need your help, they will be open to approach you at the time convenient to you. After a few times, they understand the pattern and approach you only when it’s absolutely needed and rightly do not expect immediate attention from you. In many cases, it may not be urgent at all, but oftentimes we succumb to the tendency of jumping right in as soon as we get the request.  We need to define the boundaries for our time and set right expectations for others. Because ultimately, we want to spend our time and energy on things that are important and beneficial to us and also those which we enjoy most. This will go a long way in reducing or even eliminating burnout and stress.

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Productivity porn

13 03 2019

I first heard of this term on a podcast with Dan Ariely a while ago and I was intrigued. A quick google search revealed that it’s not a hypothetical, spur of the moment invention but rather something that’s being much discussed and written about. And that it’s a real phenomenon. It basically represents the tendency to seek more and more productivity-enhancing information, often to obsessive levels.

There is a plethora of information out there in the form of tips, techniques, tools etc., both scientific and pseudo-scientific, that seems to bombard a productivity seeker from all corners. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this avalanche of information and this may eventually lead to inaction. There is also the danger of receiving a lot of conflicting information as well. It’s very challenging to assimilate different pieces of information and come out with a plan that works for oneself.

While I’m not obsessive about productivity, I do keep seeking productivity tips from time to time. Here is my personal journey:

Several years ago, in an effort to be more efficient and to reach my goals, I started creating and using To do Lists after learning about their utility from some resource. They definitely helped me to understand the scope of the tasks I do and like to do. But I faced difficulties in trying to tick off items on my list. Then came along the advice on attaching time bounds – basically recording your tasks on a calendar. That sounded reasonable and so for a couple of years, I happily tagged along with me a bulky organizer (this was pre-smartphone days). It seemed to work for me, at least better than just plain old to-do lists. But of course, it’s not a magic pill and didn’t solve all my efficiency and productivity goals. Moreover, it seemed a lot of work. Then I happened to read a piece of advice from a top Yahoo executive on To-do lists. Her advice on the best way to deal with to-do lists is that one shouldn’t, as a rule, seek to accomplish all the tasks listed, but one should aim to accomplish only about half of them. Her premise is that we tend to put too many things on our to-do lists with varying degrees of priority and importance, and the intention to achieve each one of them puts undue stress on self. Assuming that you would typically tackle the higher priority tasks first, we shouldn’t really bother about those on the bottom of the list. This too seemed appropriate advice. I tried to follow it, but couldn’t because I had issues with prioritizing my tasks. Either everything seemed important to me or I routinely found myself tackling first the more appealing but utterly unimportant or useless tasks, thereby indulging in classic procrastination of things that matter and draining my energy with petty things leaving very little or none for the tasks that are more important. Here tools like the Urgent/Important matrix by Eisenhower are an obvious choice to implement. These quadrants are also dubbed as Frogs, Jewels, Knats, Butterflies to drive the point home and help the users to understand the nature of each quadrant by association. I can’t say I have mastered using this tool, but it had been a huge help. But the story doesn’t end here.

I found myself continuously seeking and absorbing more productivity tips and tools like – 3-5-8 rule to organize my work day, the famous Pomodoro technique to focus on complex tasks, email management etc. You get the idea. It’s as if the act of collecting the productivity tips is in itself useful.  But have I really become more productive and efficient? Maybe a little. Over time I realized that my joy in seeking to improve my productivity is illusionary because of the phenomenon of analysis paralysis that it leads to. It all seemed such a useless chore.

But now, my objective is not to become the most efficient but rather just find my sweet spot or secret sauce of one or two ingredients that will benefit me in a big way and in the long run. Everything is much simpler now. My brush with productivity porn made me wiser. I think the connotations of this term should serve as a warning bell, urge one to take a step back, reflect on related behaviors and catch oneself when about to cross the line.

Here a couple of great articles on the term and the phenomenon:

Productivity Porn and How to Stop Fiddling and Start Doing

The Trap of Productivity Porn

 

 





My MOOC journey – 3

5 06 2017

Part 1   Part 2

I do take some technical, skill improving courses, which I cherish too. But I don’t take them too often. Especially not when I’m already bogged down by regular work. My areas of interest in this aspect include data science, statistics, machine learning, data analysis, visualizations…. You get the idea. I like the ones offered by John Hopkins University as part of the data Science Specialization, though I must admit that the two statistics related courses are a little too hard to follow.

Out of my fun stuff, the following are the best:
• The Science of Happiness (series of posts)
The Science of Everyday Thinking (edX)
Life of Happiness and Fulfillment
Besides being fun, these are truly life-changing and influential. I gained lot of insights from these MOOCs.

I also loved Understanding Memory: Explaining the Psychology of Memory through Movies from Wesleyan University that I have taken recently. It explained lot of memory related phenomena as portrayed in movies. It was educational and entertaining. I enjoyed this course much more than the similar course – Marriage and the Movies: A History from the same university which I took a couple of years ago. It could be because of the choice of movies or the professor.

Becoming Human: Anthropology (Open2Study) is yet another introductory course that I enjoyed a lot. This is my first serious attempt to learn about anthropology. This course has complemented my earlier isolated ventures into evolutionary theories, paleontology, biology etc. through reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Helen Fisher’s An Anatomy of Love. I absolutely loved both the books.

Intro to Psychology course from Udacity had been a wonderful experience too. Despite being content heavy, the interactivity and the engaging lectures made it worthwhile.

How much do I actually learn and retain from all these MOOCs? To be frank, not much. Especially from all those introductory fun courses I take. But they are definitely helpful and expands my thinking and general knowledge. I find that when I supplement the specific topic or area with additional reading – an interesting non-fiction book or random articles, listening to podcasts etc., I can easily make the connections and feel the synergy arising out of all the past learning experiences.

I believe that true learning involves discomfort and a little frustration. If everything seemed easy and does not require any effort, one may not be truly learning much. The journey to really learn something involves getting over that discomfort by focused studying and deliberate practice. There are no short cuts to learning. Sure, there are smart ways and right ways to learn, but none that would eliminate the process of climbing the learning curve.

The 2 courses by Barbara Oakley on learning – Learning How to Learn and Mindshift – are really ground-breaking MOOCs in many aspects and require special mention. Widely popular and immensely practical and useful, they provide lot of tips, techniques, and insights into the art of learning, thinking about careers. (How to Learn: The right way, Learning Challenges, Learning). She advocates the growth mindset in Mindshift with respect to surmounting our mental blocks as to our abilities, choosing multiple career skills etc.

How do I typically choose my MOOCs? Just through simple and plain old methods. Browsing the platform catalog and recommendations that come through email. 🙂

Which platforms do I like more? As you might have guessed already (totally evident from stats from Part 1), it’s Coursera. With numerous offerings and choices, it’s like a huge shopping mall. The mobile app is very convenient. I also like the edX platform, the way the course content is arranged in the UI. Open2study is pretty basic and it doesn’t have a mobile app.

My List of MOOCs

My Fav moocs

Image credits: Open2Study, Coursera, John Hopkins, Prevention





My MOOC journey – 2

2 06 2017

Part 1 Part 3

So, how did it all start? I don’t recall how I came to know about Coursera but I distinctly remember my exhilaration at discovering such a platform. My first MOOC was “Model Thinking” from University of Michigan. By any stretch, it’s my first taste of international academic teaching and I was thrilled. I was really impressed by how well the complex and otherwise models related to social science are explained and demonstrated. And then I took “Networked Life” offered by University of Pennsylvania and then Computing for data Analysis, an R programming course from John Hopkins. Ever since I explored lot of courses and many platforms.

Out of my over-enthusiasm, I sometimes enroll in multiple MOOCs simultaneously, which was fine in the beginning when there weren’t too many options to pick from. But these days, with the plethora of offerings available out there, one can’t risk being impulsive anymore. I need to pick and choose carefully, and also time them appropriately to accommodate my regular life’s demands so that I can enjoy the learning without getting stressed or burned out.

Focused learning is so exhausting, I really welcome the break of “no MOOC months” after a stretch of intensive courses, like the one I took in 2014 after my data science courses from John Hopkins. Also, I catch myself if I’m being over-ambitious by taking on too much and don’t hesitate to drop from the courses. Most of my unfinished courses are drop-outs rather than discontinuation due to expectations not being met.

My main motivation for going on a learning spree is more to broaden my knowledge base rather than to deep dive in any particular discipline or skill. So, I can usually manage at least a couple of light-weight MOOCs at the same time. I derive most pleasure learning about new topics- just introductory courses, without requiring much effort beyond watching the video lectures and taking the quizzes. I like it when I tend to come across same studies, theories, concepts across seemingly different disciplines. I clearly enjoy the cross-discipline synthesis a lot. For example, studies like Milgram’s prison experiment on effects of perceived power, Sheena Iyengar’s jam experiment on choice, pantyhose experiment on our hidden biases etc. have been referred to in seemingly varied disciplines like neuro-economics, philosophy, social psychology, science of happiness, scientific thinking and more.

MOOC word cloud2

So, what do I like in a MOOC? I like intelligently devised quizzes to test comprehension rather than testing the memory about specific studies or facts described in the lectures. I like them when too much content is not crammed into the slides and the course. Also, I would like enough repetition of key concepts, to ensure higher chance of comprehension and retention. I experienced such repetition in my recent course – Neuro-economics. For a person coming from a non-science background, the course introduced lot of terms and concepts, but strategic repetition of key terms (brain areas and their functions) helped me to progress through the course with more confidence. Pictures and animation definitely help. Cheerful professors and lively and engaging discourses also get me more involved. However, “too upbeat” kind of makes me uncomfortable. But it’s just a personal preference.

 





My MOOC journey – 1

31 05 2017

Part 2    Part 3

MOOCs have revolutionized learning in true sense. Though the true origins of MOOCs can be traced back to distance learning, they have undoubtedly gained wide popularity with the advent of Internet and other associated technologies. Ever since the inception of Coursera in 2012, they have become widespread and they have been in vogue ever since. And why not? It’s truly praiseworthy and remarkable that renowned educational institutions and pioneers in various fields have come forward to impart the knowledge and skills to everyone surpassing all boundaries. Several MOOC platforms sprang up offering completely free courses, while simultaneously adding more and more disciplines and courses.  And most of the MOOCs are still free, and at least let you audit for free. MOOCs have brought world-class teaching and material to the doorstep of anyone who can afford a network connection.

Coursera has started out as everything free, and later  introduced optional pay for verified certificate for most courses. And now, many of them are strictly pay courses, while some of them allow one to audit for free. Udacity was the first platform which introduced paid courses and nanodegrees designed by tech giants like Google etc. Likewise, statements of accomplishments were offered on successful completion of all free courses in the beginning, but not so much these days. However, most paid versions of MOOCs have affordable pricing, which provide authentic verified certificates.

Class-central, an aggregator of MOOCs across all platforms and universities, and provides a one stop place to find and track your interests and enrollments. It also provides helpful recommendations and articles based on popularity and student feedback. It is so easy to get lost in the ocean of MOOCs offered. And for beginners, it’s a very good avenue to start looking to get the sense of what courses are available out there.

For obsessive learners like me, MOOCs have proved to be a boon. I took courses from several platforms including

  • Coursera
  • Edx
  • Open 2 Study
  • Udacity

These platforms provide such a wide variety of courses, ranging from simple, introductory ones to more advanced courses as well. When I browse the ever expanding catalogs, I feel like a kid in the candy shop. 😛 I have completed over 30 MOOCs so far, but I’m not by any means a super MOOCer. This is over a period of about 5 years, so it’s not bad. 😉

2017-05-29_23-23-57

These are just the boring statistics. Stay tuned for the interesting reflection on my motivations, MOOC highs and lows, challenges, and more in the subsequent posts. 🙂





The Buddhist diagnosis

17 05 2017

The world is full of suffering. Each one of us perpetually move from one or more problems to others. When one problem or form of suffering ends, the other springs up, seemingly from nowhere. The first noble truth of Buddha acknowledges this reality of existence. Despite the reality of pleasures, it is the suffering that precedes or follows pleasures and seems to occupy a major portion of one’s conscious life. The diagnosis of this pervasive suffering as proclaimed by the second noble truth of Buddha is our desire and attachment for worldly pleasures. Our craving and clinging towards myriad pleasures is at the root of all misery, asserts Buddha. I can relate to this fact and experience it all the time.  Often my desire to seek validation results in me putting too much effort into anything I do making me stressful and ultimately miserable despite my material success. My desire and attachment towards nice clothes, accessories or other material things, even though gives me a transient euphoria upon accumulation and perusal of them, puts me on a hedonic treadmill and often leaves me unsatisfied and craving for more. This aligns with the essence of Buddha’s teachings that the “pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst”. (Basics of Buddhism. http://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm).

However, when I think deeper about different forms of suffering, the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering seems to beg a deeper understanding. There are other kinds of unpleasantness in life besides acute suffering, like getting frustrated, annoyed, and irritated by someone or something that doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. As we judge others based on our opinions and perceptions, we experience negativity. This intolerance is also a cause of lot of rift in our day to day life.

But when we question these emotions, we may come to a conclusion that it’s our ego and attachment towards things and pleasures that drive our underlying expectations. But it’s not always clear to me, to fathom the root cause – desire, attachment, craving – behind all of my unpleasant experiences. For example, when I get irritated by an impatient driver cutting in front of me, it is a form of suffering if I dwell on it and allow it to affect my composure. When I really think about why it affects me, it’s not entirely evident as to what desire or craving resulted in this misery. In this regard, I’m not entirely sure about the comprehensiveness of Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering.

Poverty and other forms of lack of basic needs (including social and belonging-ness needs), also cause lot of suffering for mankind. It is difficult to understand how this form of suffering can be a result of one’s craving. Even more difficult is to comprehend how it is possible to be detached at this level and transcend these basic needs.

Despite these misgivings on my part, I believe in the second noble truth because when I imagine myself curbing my cravings and desires, I can sense the promise of feeling lightness and freedom from my many sufferings. In order to comprehend these not so obvious forms of suffering and their root causes, we need to understand the true nature of suffering or “dukkha”, which simply means absence of happiness. Since happiness and pleasure are associated with impermanence, the absence of them aka dukkha is the only reality of life. And ego-desires are the cause of most human suffering. However, suffering is only an approximate translation of dukkha, which in fact encapsulates the misery of mankind in a more comprehensive way. Dukkha can be interpreted as a form on pervasive unsatisfactoriness. In this regard, Buddhism promotes a state of mental well-being that can be achieved by accepting and rising above this suffering. Understanding and acknowledging the diagnosis of dukkha is a key step in this journey.  (The Buddhist Concept of Life, Suffering and Death, and Related Bioethical Issues. Pinit Ratanakul. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.)

Disclaimer: This writeup is my submission for an assignment as part of Buddhism and Modern Psychology MOOC on Coursera. 

Four noble truths





Digital dump

20 03 2017

We are in a data explosion era. No surprise there. Unprecedented amount of data is being captured virtually about everything everywhere. Each day we are leaving a detailed digital footprint across the web and through several other applications and connections. Apart from the Internet, myriad gadgets and software applications, each one of us is also accumulating huge amounts of personal data. It’s all over. Filling the hard drives of the multiple computers we work with, storage on smartphones and tablets, and cloud storage services like Google Drive, One Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, Box etc. Not to mention external hard drives and pen drives.

The moment of truth finally struck me as yet another of my cloud storage accounts has reached its limit and refrained me from editing. I could have paid for increasing the storage space, but that’s not the point here. I have several online accounts that I leverage for cloud storage and almost all of them are full – with pictures, videos, documents, and music. Lots of them. And it never seems to end. This hoarding.  I periodically take backups of the contents of my laptop and store them in an external hard drive. I’m not sure how much of it is repeated and how many times. I collect articles, documents, books, my personal projects forever in progress, learning material, notes and many more. And all this outside of what’s in my email inboxes.

Why keep it all in the first place?  Preserving history. You never know what part of your past you might want to look at in future for reminiscing or what part of your past might hold a key to your present or future problems. Or so we rationalize. Storage is cheap. So, we store. Almost everything. Creating a huge digital dump.

Do I always know what all I already have? Not really. Oftentimes I can’t even remember the number of accounts and storage devices I have, let alone the contents of each. Even if I remember that I had something stored safely, often I can’t find or get to it efficiently. This is not just a simple “organization” issue. Though of course, it helps. The sheer scale of the data one gathers makes any attempt of periodically cataloging and maintaining the data dumps appear insurmountable. Even more so because cleaning up and organizing stuff is perhaps one of the least appealing tasks one can do. (Please note that here here I’m speaking more of myself than anyone else 🙂 ) Especially because one has to do it regularly to maintain.

When I started thinking about digital hoarding, I immediately saw that the minimalist approach that we (some of us) try to apply to our physical possessions can be extended to even these virtual possessions.  With physical objects, you can at least get a sense of magnitude by virtue of the physical space they occupy, the amount of money you expend on accumulating them, and the resulting impact on quality of life. But with digital hoarding, it’s difficult to get the head around the extent of your possessions beyond a point. And the fact that the costs are minimum doesn’t help either.

But one may argue that if the costs are minor, why bother. Valid point. But I believe that there are hidden costs. Most of the data just lays there, dormant, waiting, and completely ignored. Passwords forgotten and accounts seldom logged in, DVDs/CDs gathering dust etc. If all that data could think, it might have had some serious existential questions. 😛 . This massive amount of digital data – where does it eventually go? What happens to it? If it’s in the cloud, privacy is definitely a concern. As for the physical storage devices, they create clutter and have some of the downsides of other physical possessions; harder to maintain and difficult to find and retrieve information.

Of course, as with physical possessions, it would be very difficult to let go of your digital history. Especially, pictures. But do you really need all of those tens of thousands of pictures? Anyways, one has to start somewhere while pruning. The easiest task would be to eliminate duplicates. Then tackle obsolete notes and documents. Movies and old music that you seldom peruse can be next. Consolidating, grouping, and labeling help a lot to bring structure to your digital universe.

It’s not about the quantity, but the quality. My guess is that when you tackle the former, the latter will emerge by itself. When you have low inventory, finding stuff and maintenance will be more efficient. There is definitely hope. I hereby avow to embark on the journey to transform my personal digital footprint (at least what’s under my control).