mental-math-and-abacus

Going Mental with Math, and Attempting the Abacus

Read Time: 5 minutes

Are you good with mental calculations? I certainly wasn’t. I always had issues with even the most basic problems. My confidence really took a hit because it would take me ages to answer a simple math question, like how much change someone needed, or how we’d split a bill.

It affected me in a lot of ways, but I never took any steps to get around it. I just chalked it up to being bad at mental math. Not too long ago, I had a couple of interview rounds in which passing a mental math assessment was a requirement. Knees week, heart in my throat, I took the tests, and failed spectacularly.

I missed the benchmark by a mile both times and knew that I had to do something if I wanted a job in the industry.  That’s how I began my latest experiment: improving my mental arithmetic.

If improving your mental math skills is something you want or need to do, you might want to try the approach I took.

Here’s how I got started:

I downloaded a mental math app on my phone and started doing the practice problems during my morning commute on the train.

The app I use is called Math: Mental Math Games, although there are a lot of other options out there if you’re looking for one. I like this particular one, because there are a couple of features that I find quite useful, like the helpful tips section that demonstrates techniques or shortcuts that you can use to speed up your calculations.

There are different modes, but I tested myself on speed to figure out my benchmark. The speed training has a set of ten problems, and a timer, to track your performance.

I was shockingly slow at even the most basic level. I’m not kidding, I’m pretty sure this was preschool math and there are toddlers who would’ve gleefully decimated my time, taken a nap, and woken up to find me still struggling with the questions.

I started by taking note of the time it took me to answer the ten problems on day one. This is something you should do if you’re going to try this yourself, or you won’t know how much you’ve improved.

My time was over 30 seconds on the ten single digit subtraction and addition problems. I had a lot more difficulty on the double digit addition and subtraction problems, with an average time of almost two minutes, and over five minutes on the triple digit problems.

So here’s a quick summary for easy comparison:

Time taken to complete 10 problems

  • Single digit subtraction and addition = 30 seconds
  • Double digit subtraction and addition = 2 minutes
  • Triple digit subtraction and addition = 5 minutes
  • Double digit multiplication = N/A

Yeah, it took me an average of three seconds to answer a problem like “7 + 9”. For double digit multiplication problems, like “43 * 57”, I didn’t have a benchmark time. I was so bad at them, I couldn’t complete the ten problems at all.

The results of the experiment

After just a couple of days of practice, my speed was a lot better. It’s now been over a month, and my average times are as follows:

Time taken to complete 10 problems

  • Single digit subtraction and addition = 8 seconds
  • Double digit subtraction and addition = 30 seconds
  • Triple digit subtraction and addition = 50 seconds
  • Double digit multiplication = 2 minutes 40 seconds

I know these times are nothing to be bragging about, especially my time on the multiplication questions, but it’s a major improvement for someone who couldn’t answer them at all just over a couple of weeks ago.

This is good news if you’re looking to attempt this yourself, because I noticed that improvement occurs quite quickly.

Tricks and technique

Improving your mental math skills isn’t just a matter of attempting a bunch of questions on repeat. A few simple tweaks can really improve your ability to perform calculations in your head.

Schools tend to teach math in a way that’s clunky and impractical for quick mental calculation. For instance, most of us were taught to do math from right to left, but it’s far more natural to do it from left to right, especially when calculating mentally.

I used a combination of the app mentioned above, and an online course from The Great Courses, The Secrets of Mental Math. I found the online course to be especially useful. It’s well structured and the techniques are explained in full.

I can now calculate the square of any double digit number in my head — something that I always thought would be impractical because I would be too slow at it.

If you decide to give the course a go, you’ll probably find the presentation of the course to be quite cheesy, but the content is practical and very helpful. This isn’t a paid advertisement or anything, it’s just a recommendation I’m making because I found it worthwhile. The course is often on discount, so I’d suggest waiting for the sale.

What’s next?

If you’re interested in improving your mental math even further, you may want to consider learning the soroban or Japanese abacus. 

I tried my hand at learning the abacus, and while I’ll need lots more practice, I have noticed that the abacus offers a couple of significant advantages over regular mental arithmetic:

  • There’s significantly less cognitive load:
    • Consider trying to add the numbers 74, 986 and 17, 239 mentally. I’m sure you could do it, but I’ll bet keeping those numbers in your head will be a challenge in itself.
    • The beads on the abacus provides a visual form to the numbers and allows you to hold the numbers in your head with less strain on your memory.
  • It’s a lot quicker:
    • I’ve found that the using the abacus is like executing an algorithm to solve math problems. You barely have to think about the numbers, because the calculations become part of your muscle memory.
    • This factor, combined with the lower cognitive load, makes you a lot faster. It’s almost impossible to articulate, so you’ll have to try it yourself to know what I mean.

If you want to learn the abacus, you can certainly do it online. There are many options available, but as I haven’t used them myself, I won’t make any recommendations.

As it turns out, I’m no longer trying to apply for the job that required mental math skills, but sharpening the skill was definitely worthwhile. I’m going to continue working on my abacus skills too, perhaps at a more leisurely pace.

Mental math can come in handy in ways most people wouldn’t necessarily think of. Par exemple, if you’re quick with math and have some knowledge of basic probabilities, you could improve your odds of winning at poker. Those game nights could become a lot more fun with a couple more tools under your belt.

I hope you’ve found this useful, and if you do decide to give this a go, keep me updated on your progress! If you’ve found other ways to improve your mental arithmetic, leave a comment and let me know how you did it.

 

 

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How to Validate Your Business Idea

Read Time: 3 Minutes

Have you ever had that sudden moment of inspiration where you sit up in your chair, slam your fist into the desk and go, “that would be a great business idea!”?

Perhaps not as dramatic as that, but I’ve had a few of those moments, and more often than not, I was dead wrong. After the initial excitement wore off, I’d soon realise it was either a stupid idea or a better solution already existed. You might have gone through the same thing yourself. The question is, how do you know if you have a good business idea on your hands?

I’m sure you’ve heard that 50% of all startups fail within the first year, or some other severely depressing statistic. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the business world. To survive, you need a business that provides something that people want, or need. Idea validation is the main step in figuring that out, but I never had any idea how to do it.

I recently had the chance to ask a question about idea validation to Mark Goldenson during an AMA session. Mark is a serial entrepreneur, and the founder of Breakthrough.com. So far, he’s founded four companies and raised a total of $27 million in funding.

The response I got was much better than anything else I had read so far, which is why I decided to share it with you. Mark’s advice is actionable, so if you have any aspirations of starting your own gig, it’s something you could potentially use to validate your idea!

My question:

Hi Mark, I’ve had a few ideas for startups, but I don’t know how to validate any of the ideas. I don’t have much capital, but are there any ways to do this without needing a large budget/ at no cost?

I’ve always received the advice that I should talk to potential customers, but where’s the best place to talk to these people? I feel like people don’t really want to be stopped and questioned by a stranger.

Answer:

“Where to talk with potential customers depends on your target audience. I like Starbucks as a default because it has a broad reach across demographics, income, and locations.

But really you should identify personas (customer types) that your product would serve. Here’s one guide on creating personas.

Once you have a hypothesis on people who might want what you’re building, you can have insights into where to reach them:

  • Low-income people who really want more income? Try budget retailers like Walmart and Target.
  • Yuppies who might buy a premium accessory? High-end malls and nightclubs.
  • Teenage gamers? Game stores and online gaming communities.
  • Sports fans? Sports bars and events.

For Breakthrough, I visited clinics and talked with dozens of therapists and clients. It was tricky because people can be skittish about being in therapy but I still got good insights about what people wanted in an online therapy service (insurance coverage, convenience, privacy, detailed info about providers).

Brian Chesky, founding CEO of Airbnb, spent a year early on traveling around the country and staying at Airbns to learn what his users wanted. He said it was invaluable for learning what to build.

Re: talking to a stranger, it’s true that many people don’t want to be bothered but being an effective founder is like being a golden retriever. You have to be positive, relentless, and okay with rejection.

You can also learn charisma to engage with strangers. Don’t imagine the huckster type that schmoozes his way into selling snake oil. Even imagining Steve Jobs intensity is probably wrong for most. Just imagine nice but assertive people you know. People who listen but also make sure they’re heard. If you want to watch examples, I think Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and former President Barack Obama are decent models.”


 

If you have any of your own suggestions, or thoughts on this particular strategy, feel free to leave a comment below!

tracking_happiness

Tracking Happiness – Changing My Life One Data Point at a Time

Read Time: 15 Minutes

I conduct two-week experiments all the time to try and push myself into learning new things. I call these short-term experiments “sprints”, a term borrowed from a framework called “Scrum”, which is extremely useful and I will talk about in an upcoming post.

Basically, at the end of every sprint, I take some time to consider the effectiveness of the experiment, make changes, and think about whether or not it’s worth continuing the experiment. This time, I decided to try something relatively new to me.

How the Experiment Began

I was on Reddit when I came across a unique blog. Its title was “Tracking Happiness”, and it caught my attention because I had been in a rough spot at the time and had been thinking about the concept of happiness and trying to figure out certain aspects of my life.

The author was describing his life in great detail, and had graphs and correlations that very clearly indicated his levels of happiness over certain periods of time. He was quite literally, tracking happiness and analysing it in a precise, methodical manner.

My interest piqued, I decided to learn more about his methods and why he was doing this. There’s an interesting backstory on his blog, which I urge you to check out. He’s been doing this for three and a half years now, and he’s meticulously recorded and tracked his happiness levels every single day.

The idea behind it was to figure out what made him happy, and just as important, what didn’t. This way, he could focus more on the things that increased happiness levels, and avoid the things that had a negative impact on those levels.

I found this very interesting and began to track my own happiness levels for two weeks, just as an experiment. I wasn’t sure if I would be committed enough to do it on a continuous basis, so I thought I’d start small, but I’ve now passed day 50 and have no plans to stop.

What I Learned

Alright guys, this is a pretty long section, so bear with me on this.

Now that I have some useful data to look at, I decided to share what I’ve learned from this experience with you.

I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but it was eye-opening after just a few days of consistent tracking. I started to notice little things that negatively affected my happiness and wellbeing. The worst part? I was allowing these things to happen, unaware that I could take control.

Over time, I started noticing trends and realised that I would have to make changes if my happiness levels were constantly low for more than a couple of days. Whenever this happened, I would reflect on my situation and attempt to figure out what was causing the issue. It’s important to do this because each day builds on the next.

To quote Redditor JHawkeye143 who has been tracking happiness for a year now, “Life is incremental, but compounding. While our experience of life is discrete due to sleeping everyday and our consciousness not being continuous, our perception of this experience is a collective of these incremental conscious periods. There is no such thing as “resetting” overnight. Changing your life requires time and effort, but it pays dividends.”

Your experiences make you who you are, and by that same logic, each day of happiness (or lack thereof) affects the next, even if it is in some minor way. If I was unhappy on one day, I would try and figure out the reason behind it. Once I did that, I would work on it, and hopefully fix the problem, so I could work on raising my happiness levels the following day.

This actually reminded me of Steve Job’s famous Stanford Commencement speech. If you haven’t watched it, definitely do, but I’ve highlighted the exact section I was thinking about just below the video.

 

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like, “If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

It made an impression on me… and since then, for the past 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today.”

And whenever the answer has been, “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

– Steve Jobs

This was similar to what I was describing before. If my happiness levels were low for a few days in a row, it was a sure sign that something needed to change.

Tracking my happiness levels reminded me to be more mindful in general, because I received two alerts a day on my phone which would ask me to key in how I felt and asked me for a short summary of why I felt that way. This has become my version of journaling, and it takes less than a minute.

I actually found that I can better deal with my negative emotions once I write down how I’m feeling in the app. I’m not sure why, but I think the physical act of putting your emotions into words actually has a powerful impact on allowing your mind to process the issues, rather than shoving it into a dark corner, only for it to blow up at a later date.

There’s an episode on Joe Rogan’s podcast in which psychologist Jordan Peterson discusses something similar (I strongly recommend listening to all the episodes involving him, they’re absolutely thought-provoking and enlightening).

If you check out the video below, skip over to about 6:50, which is when he starts talking about dealing with the weight of emotions by writing about them, and 12:00 is where he describes how the psychological process works. Although Peterson is talking about a much longer timeframe, I think it has the same effect when you’re doing it for day-to-day issues.

On the flip side, I also have a greater appreciation for the good things that have happened throughout the day. It’s amazing how much we can take for granted, and we tend to have the habit of only remembering the bad stuff that’s happened. It’s so important to consider and be grateful for the good things as well, because when you do that, it can actually raise your happiness levels. A lot of people find “positivity-talk” to be positively nauseating, but it can help.

Once I started tracking my happiness, the app I was using would create a little graph for me, indicating my happiness levels over the past week. The visual effect of seeing bad times pass and good times coming around again has had a powerful impact on me. Nowadays, when I’m having a particularly bad day, I am a lot less depressed than I used to be, because I am constantly reminded that it’s a temporary situation, and it will always pass, eventually.

The other benefit of tracking my happiness was that I started changing my habits and actions. I became far more proactive in terms of making myself feel happier. For instance, I started working out a lot more, and because I’m tracking it, I’m far more consistent. Like Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed”.

Tracking my happiness also involves me making quick notes about what I did during the day. If I noticed that I hadn’t worked out in two days, I would push myself to hit the gym the very next day.

The added benefit or working out a lot more is that it has also improved my mood and my ability to manage my emotional state. I strongly believe that working out can affect your mental state far more than you would expect.

Tracking my happiness has had a tremendous impact on how I’m living my life. I’ve started becoming more productive and I’m noticeably happier, and I’m constantly making better decisions to improve my wellbeing. If you’ve never done this before, do consider giving it a go.

The only potential drawback that I found was that rating your happiness is a very subjective affair. You have to be honest with yourself and you need to take into account the entire day, and not allow yourself to only think about how you are feeling in the moment of making the rating.

Redditors Weigh In

When I decided to start this two-week experiment, I decided to go on Reddit and invite others to join me, and I actually had the opportunity to interview a number of Redditors after they had completed the experiment, and I asked them about their experience. The responses highlight some important points that I think will help you if you decide to try the experiment yourself.


JHawkeye143

Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?

My life has changed drastically since beginning this process. I have changed jobs and moved to a new state almost directly because of tracking my life. After realizing how unhappy I was, it was simply determining why and working towards resolving that. For me, it spurned from being unhappy with my job and station in life so I worked to change that.

Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?

If you discover that you are unhappy, it becomes a daily reminder. In my experience the process of reminding myself of how unhappy I was became a chore and seemed to exacerbate my condition. I think its crucial to be proactive and decide to take action to change your situation in this scenario, or you risk a serious cycle of rumination.

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

Most definitely. This has been the most influential thing for my state of mind since graduating college. In a world where we seem to be becoming more concerned with tracking our physical fitness and health, I find it equally (if not more so) important to maintain our mental and emotional health. The first step to proper maintenance of anything tracking its progression and diagnosing causes for outcomes.

My personal logger consists of an hourly activity tracking gant chart, a journal tab, and a happiness tab. The happiness tab is fairly simply: good day, meh day, bad day. I’m a fairly resilient person, and have a hard time qualifying something as a bad day (this was my reassurance to myself that I do not have clinical depression) but through June of this year I was about even split or leaning towards mostly “meh” days versus good days.

This was my tip that I was in a situational depression and something needed to change. If you don’t consider yourself to be extremely happy, I recommend you track your life and find causes for your unhappiness so you can change them. We experience this life day to day, but we can observe these things and change our lives for the better with a little bit of effort.


wtfudgery

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

Without a doubt!!! From what I have experienced, gratitude and happiness go hand in hand. If I am miserable, then I’m probably taking parts of my life for granted. If I’m happy then I’m focusing on the right areas of my life. Also, I don’t think anyone enjoys being [un]happy. If I notice a trend in bad days, I have to figure out where the problem lies and work on it. Is it my depression creeping up? Is it the people I associate with? Is it the situations I have put myself in?


I also had the chance to ask the same questions to the author of the Tracking Happiness blog himself, and he had some fascinating points to make. Here’s the complete interview:

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from tracking your happiness?

Tracking my happiness has been great for many reasons. The one that sticks out the most is that it allows me to rationally reflect on every kind of period in my life.

Humans are sometimes pretty poor in judging the value of certain events, especially when emotions are involved. By tracking my happiness and the factors that have influenced it, I know exactly what influenced my life at the time.

I’ve learned to use this data to steer my life in the best direction possible. I’m not saying that I’ve turned my life around with a complete lifestyle change, but I have been able to make the best and reasonable decisions possible based on my newfound knowledge. In short, I now know what’s best for me. And I can use that every day to get the most out of my life.

Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?

It’s hard to measure the exact effect of my decisions, since I don’t know what my life would have looked like had I made different decisions in the past. That said, I am currently very happy, and I’d like to think that’s a result of my informed decisions.

For example, my relationship has been conflicted many times – primarely during long distance periods – and we have discussed the topic of a breakup several times. However, we both knew that our relationship was great, and made both our lives happier. So we both decided to fight for what we had. Our relationship is currently as good as it gets, and we’re very happy to have made the decision to stick together, through thick and thin.

Another good example I always refer to is arguably my biggest passion: running. Running is a difficult sport, and a lot of people would probably agree with me. Running takes discipline and endurance. When it’s raining or cold, it’s not always easy to get dressed and step outside. But tracking happiness has learned me one thing: running always makes me a happier and better person in the long run (pun intented ;-)). After a run – no matter how I initially felt – I always feel better. Ever since I started tracking happiness, I have been running a LOT more. I’ve since ran 4 marathons, and continue to run through wind, rain and snow, knowing that it will eventually make me a happier and better person.

Do you think you will continue to track your happiness after the two week experiment?

[I] have been doing it since December, 2013 and still going strong! I plan on doing this for the rest of my life, and want to inspire people out there to do the same! Tracking happiness becomes more and more valuable as you grow older and your life changes and transforms into something else. We need to be able to steer our life in the best direction possible, and by tracking our happiness, we will know exactly what it is that makes us happy.

Do you feel that you were being objective when you were rating your happiness (did you take into account all the factors or just how you felt during that moment, etc)?

This is a difficult and critical question. It is a fact that we are humans and are influenced by emotions, biases and flawed decision making processes. I will never argue that. We are not robots, it’s that simple.

However, tracking happiness is about rationally quantifying a feeling of happiness. This surely must sound very hard, considering what I’ve just said about biases and flawed decision making processes.

But the key here is consistency. As long as you are consistent in using the same scale and method of rating happiness, your data will eventually become valuable.

It doesn’t matter if I rate my day with an 8, while you rate the exact same day with a 6 (hypothetically speaking). As long as the relative difference between happiness ratings remains consistent.

I rate my happiness based on how I feel at the end of every day. I try to include the entire day within this single happiness rating. Of course, I would be naive to think that every single happiness rating is a perfect judgement and totally un-biased without forgetting about certain emotions I’ve had during the day. Again, we are not robots.

Consistency and continuity are very important here. As long as you keep it up, your data will eventually become more valuable and reliable.

Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?

No! 🙂

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

I like to imagine a world in which every single person is trying to be as happy as possible, without being influenced by external limitations, such as cultural expectations, peer pressure or jealousy.

We are all different, which means that we all have different reasons to be happy. We all have different happiness factors. But we should all pursue the same goal, and that is to live the most long and happy life as possible.


Some Tips on Tracking Your Happiness

If you’re the kind of person who is interested in the idea of having a structure to your day, morning routines, journaling, etc., you’ll probably find this to be quite beneficial to add to your routine!

In my opinion, I think there are a couple of things you can do to improve the benefit of tracking your happiness, and to increase the accuracy of your ratings.

  1. Track your happiness levels at the same times every day
  2. Think about how you felt when you woke up, and the progression throughout the day
  3. Journaling can be an excellent companion tool to this, and you can look back and see exactly what was making you happy or unhappy on a particular day. This is particularly helpful when looking at trends and deciding to make changes.
  4. Make it easy and convenient. If it’s too detailed or time consuming, you may eventually give up. You can always build up to a more detailed record.
  5. Start with the two-week experiment and stick to it. The data is only useful if you can spot trends.

If you want to know exactly how to track your happiness, head over to the “Method” section of the Tracking Happiness blog for a concise description of what to do.

Before ending this post, I’d like to acknowledge that happiness itself is extremely subjective, and some say that it isn’t the final goal or the most important aspect of life for human beings. It turns into a philosophical debate with no real answer as of yet. If you’d like to weigh in on this, please leave your thoughts in the comments! Personally, I think happiness is elusive if you chase it, and perhaps counterintuitively, you need to stop searching for happiness in order to find it.

Now I know that seems very contradictory to the entire post, but I think that tracking happiness and actively chasing it are two different things. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself and figuring out what brings you enjoyment, so you can focus on those things. Again, it’s subjective, and everyone looks at this differently. Try it out, and let me know what you think!

Dan_Brown_Origin_Review

Book Review: Origin – Another Dan Brown Disaster

Read Time: 4 Minutes

Overall: 4/10

Note: Mild spoiler alert, nothing that would take away from the actual storyline. 

Look, I tried very hard to come up with an opening paragraph to this post that would be kind or neutral at the very least. The best I could come up with was this:

“Dan Brown, the infamous author of the Da Vinci Code, is back at it again with Origin.”

Here’s the thing with Dan Brown. The man can certainly spin a yarn. He takes brilliant concepts and ideas, attempts to use them in thrilling plots, and proceeds to absolutely butcher them with writing skills that leave much to be desired.

I’m happy to announce that he’s back in full force with Origin, with astonishingly clumsy prose, not to mention the cringeworthy conversations that take place between the most mind-numbingly clichéd, robotic characters ever created.

The idea behind the Origin was conceptually fascinating—intriguing even—but that’s as far as it goes.

For one thing, quoting Princess Elsa from Disney’s Frozen was just one example of his bizarre attempts at infusing pop culture into the storyline. That mortifying experience was just the start to a brilliantly comical read, along with his blatant product placements. To add to this, the majority of the conversations in the book were jarring and out of place, and the encyclopaedic descriptions of various locations detracted from the storyline more than anything else.

 

Don’t get me wrong, the story itself was written in a grave tone, but Brown’s earnest efforts to be taken seriously with his incomprehensible metaphors, awkward and unrealistic conversations, and tendency to use superfluous descriptions were absolutely hilarious, I thought to myself as I typed furiously, much like a wild bear chopping wood, on the small, but well-spaced and responsive keyboard of my 13-inch laptop built with a solid metal chassis, perfect for dispersing heat. 

The storyline itself was disappointing to say the least. Brace yourself, because this might come as a shocker: Brown has recycled his stale, formulaic plot in exactly the same way as in his previous books.

You can see it coming from a mile away: The scavenger hunt across an ancient, historically rich city, to solve a puzzle that would be virtually impossible for most people, save for our unsung hero, Robert Langdon, who just happens to be perfectly qualified for the job. Langdon is a professor of religious iconology and symbology from Harvard University. But wait, he can’t do this on his own, he needs his dazzlingly gorgeous sidekick, Ambra Vidal, A.K.A “Ridiculously Hot Babe Number 5”.

Oddly enough, Brown took a dramatic deviation from his regular plot by failing to mention Langdon’s Mickey Mouse watch every few chapters. I almost grew anxious as I initially thought he had forgotten about it entirely, but I was not to be disappointed. I could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the watch was alive and ticking.

Origin is certainly a page-turner, and yet the storyline fell flat, as it seemed a tad too unrealistic and didn’t get me as invested into the plot, compared to the previous books. The villain was a frightfully incompetent buffoon and was practically irrelevant, while the ending was mostly predictable, although the double twist was mildly refreshing.

It’s almost as if Dan Brown has a little cookie-cutter-like template for his books, and all he needs to do is to fill in the blanks and voila, the next best-seller is coming soon to a bookstore near you. That being said, I still find myself reading every book that comes out. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s the hilarity of Brown’s stylistic disasters that keeps me coming back for more.

To quote Professor Geoffrey Pullum (trust me, read his reviews, you won’t regret it) on an earlier Dan Brown novel:

“Angels and Demons is by no means a disappointment for those seeking a feast of ill-chosen word combinations, unintendedly bizarre similes, unnoticed self-contradictions, and occasional good old-fashioned sentence-mangling.”

It’s nice to know that if nothing else, Dan Brown has consistency going for him.

Here’s a quick breakdown of my ratings for Origin:

Cringe factor: 10/10

Overall, I’d say Dan Brown’s writing ruined what could have been a stellar masterpiece.  If you’re wondering if you should bother reading it, I’d say do it anyway, despite everything I’ve said, purely for the comic relief.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that my writing is nowhere near world class, but then again, I’m not a critically acclaimed novelist with millions of dollars in book sales. This begs the question—those “critics”, the ones who write the little blurbs that go on the dust covers of every Dan Brown novel, do they even bother reading the book?

 

 

Disclosure: The link to the book above is an affiliate link, any profits go into supporting this blog!

Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/websummit/22621354160/
Licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

beat-procrastination-parkinsons-law

Using the Inverse of Parkinson’s Law to Beat Procrastination

Read Time: 6 minutes

 

Have you ever wondered why the average workday lasts eight hours?

It’s the standard for most employees across the board, and is used almost everywhere in the world, but why specifically eight hours?

Does it take eight hours to get work done?

Not usually.

Does it maximise productivity?

Not even close.

So why does it exist today?

Where the Eight Hour Workday Comes From

The idea of the eight hour workday is fairly old. It originated in Britain in the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, when Robert Owen coined the phrase “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts. Fantastic, right?

For some industries, the eight hour model can’t be helped. In hospitality, for example, employees are expected to work eight hour shifts (and sometimes more!) because customers walk in at any hour of the day and expect service. In the corporate world however, the eight hour work day is practically arbitrary.

Now why on this good, green Earth do we care about this? Because it’s ancient and outdated, and it’s time for change! Okay, I’m not campaigning for change just yet, but the eight hour workday is relevant because a lot of the time spent is wasted on procrastination. Think about it. How many people can actually spend a full eight hours being completely productive?

The More You Work… The Less You Do?

Sometimes, the more time you have to do something, the less you actually end up doing.

Let me give you an example:

  • You have three weeks to complete an essay, and all of a sudden you find yourself rubbing your eyes in your coffee-fuelled stupor at four in the morning, trying to submit it an hour before the deadline.
  • Now compare this to one of those times when you’ve woken up late for work and found yourself ready and out of the door in five minutes.

Sound familiar?

Parkinson’s Law

The reason for the inefficiency is a quirky little thing known as Parkinson’s Law, which basically says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It’s extremely hard to escape this rule.

In a standard workday, people tend to find ways to drag their work out as long as possible, which makes them horribly inefficient. What can I say, it’s human nature.

However, armed with this knowledge, you can use this to your advantage.

How?

Well, put it this way – If work usually expands to fit the deadline, what if you tweaked the deadline?

What if you gave yourself less time to work on something?

The Power Hour

I used to struggle with time management when getting work done. Last-minute essays were an absolute nightmare. I got sick of spending hours on writing but never quite getting anywhere.

I soon figured out why this was happening. Although I was sitting at the computer for four to six hours, I wasn’t actually working; Procrastinating and moping made up the majority of my writing process.

I decided to scrap my six hour stints and do the exact opposite. I’d limit myself to only one hour.

I blocked out 10.30 am to 11.30 am as my “Power Hour”. In this one hour, I would turn off all distractions, set my phone out of reach and tackle the highest priority task I had for the day.

This meant that I was completely flexible with my time for the rest of the day and by lunch I had been extremely productive, and come night time, I could rest easy knowing the day had not gone to waste, even though I had only worked an hour.

This is another way that you can work less by working smarter. If you tend to procrastinate a lot, working on high priority tasks for an hour with absolute focus eliminates a large portion of your work and gives you more free time throughout the day. Knowing that you only have to focus for a short period of time could also help with the main cause of procrastination: The lack of motivation.

For me, this simple change took away all the stress and guilt that lurked in the back of my mind while I was out procrastinating, now that I knew I had already achieved at least one or two important goals for the day.

The Rationale for the Power Hour

I have a theory as to why reducing the time I spent on studying actually tripled the amount of work I got done. I believe it has a lot to do with the 80/20 principle.

If we take another look at the graph of diminishing returns, you’ll probably notice that 70 – 80% of the productivity actually occurs in the first 20% of the graph (not an accurate value, but just for visualisation). By reducing the amount of time you spend working, you’d be focusing on using your optimal energy levels.

Graph-diminishing-returns

Anything beyond that 80% level is not really as productive, and the benefit you gain is just far too minimal to justify the amount of time you’re putting in.

Doing this myself, I didn’t get as much done as I normally would by working for four to five hours, but interestingly, I got about 60-80% of the work done within just one hour.

I noticed that when I planned to spend the whole day working, I would space out my work (wasting that crucial first hour) because I thought I had the whole day to do it, and I would get distracted very easily and procrastinate my day away.

With a strict one hour deadline, I had no time to allow for distractions. I was motivated by the thought that I only had an hour to work, and I’d be free to chill out the rest of the day.

Whether your problem is being completely unmotivated or working too much, limiting your work time to just an hour will significantly help, because firstly, you’ll be working at your optimal level. Secondly, you’ll be motivated by the fact that you’ll only have to work for that single hour, and finally you won’t experience burnout.

Focusing on Small Wins

Let’s face it, time management is boring, and I’m sure most of you, myself included, would much rather stick pins in your eyeballs than figure out how to manage your time.

Using a simple system – like the Power Hour – takes care of this. It’s a system that allows for flexibility, and enables you to be productive, while still having wiggle room to enjoy your day.

The system I initially came up with was way too complicated. It involved scheduling every hour of my day, and I spent so much time planning how I would utilise every minute. It was suffocating and dull.

I’d like to use an example from a section of a podcast I was listening to.

The host had received a question from a listener, saying that she told people that she wanted to run three times a week, but never ended up doing it and felt embarrassed. When he suggested that she try setting a smaller goal of running just once a week, she replied: “Well what’s the point of only running once a week? I’d rather not run at all!”.

It was mind-boggling that someone would prefer not to take any action at all over setting a smaller, more achievable goal.

I identified a lot with this – I spent so much time making to-do lists and setting numerous goals for the day, and ended up procrastinating all day. I needed to restructure my approach to goal-setting.

  • Set just one or two achievable goals for the day
  • Block out a time for those specific goals, and work on it for just one hour.

Setting a time is essential, because making a mental note of what you want to accomplish is never enough; you end up pushing it further and further in the day and suddenly it’s time for bed. By blocking out a time for your most important tasks, it becomes a scaffolding for your day. This way, you plan around it rather than shoving it out of the way in place of something more fun. That’s something I would definitely do.

What are your top productivity tips? Drop me a line or leave a comment and let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fascinating Finds: Books, Videos and the Big Bang

Reading Time: 3 Minutes

With my final exams on the horizon, I’ve been excelling at what I do best: Finding ways to procrastinate.

In my impassioned quest to find the best ways to do anything other than work, I’ve made a few interesting discoveries that I’ve been spending a lot of time on, and I’d like to share them with you. Feel free to add to the list in the comments, and I’ll check them out!

YouTube Highlight: Kurzgesagt

Kurzgesagt-logo
One of the best YouTube channels. Ever.

I’d like to give a shout out to my roommate, Toby, for introducing me to this YouTube channel that’s virtually impossible to pronounce. Within the span of a week, I had watched pretty much every single video they’d ever produced. Kurzgesagt creates videos on scientific concepts and makes them fun and engaging to watch.

I recommend checking out their videos on overpopulation, human origins, “What is Life? Is Death Real?”, “Why the War on Drugs is a Huge Failure”, and – you know what, watch them all. They’re amazing. Amaaaaaazing.

The videos are expertly produced and each one can take anywhere between two hundred and six hundred hours to create!

They are fantastic at weighing both sides of an argument, and they present those arguments in a clear, concise manner.

Many of their videos on the universe and philosophy can induce existential dread, something they often acknowledge in their videos, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s a fantastic resource. Cheers Toby!

Check out this fascinating video they made on the topic of addiction:

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This is a really fascinating book about the history of humanity. It’s been out for a while, so I was quite late to the party. I’d describe it as brilliant mix of philosophy and history, and is written in a way that’s engaging. To sum it up in one sentence, Sapiens talks about the rise of humankind and how we became what we are today.

It’s an excellent book. It was a fifteen hour listen on Audible, but I found myself wishing there was more. My full review of Sapiens will be out soon, so stay tuned for that!

Food for Thought: What Existed Before the Big Bang?

Something I’ve been pondering a lot recently (mostly due to the binge-watching of Kurzgesagt videos), is the origin of the universe. More precisely, what happened before the big bang?

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What Happened Before This?  Image Credit: Wikipedia

There’s a very long winded explanation by Stephen Hawking that’s extremely interesting (although hard to understand at times) that you can check out, or you can watch the video below, also by Kurzgesagt (in case you needed more evidence of how much I love them).

If my interpretation of it is correct, the short answer is that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, and so the concept of before doesn’t have any meaning, because in order for there to be a “before”, time itself would need to exist. Whoa.

I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this concept myself, so if you can explain this to me, please leave a comment and let me know!

Podcast Highlight: Sir Richard Branson — The Billionaire Maverick of the Virgin Empire

This is a fascinating conversation between Tim Ferriss and British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson.

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The conversation revolves around Branson’s history, how he ended up in prison, his habits and decision-making processes, risk management, and the lessons he’s learned. It’s one of the best podcast episodes I’ve listened to and I highly recommend having a listen. If you enjoy it, his first autobiography, Losing my Virginity is definitely worth picking up as well.

 

Side note, if you’re looking for a decent podcast app, check out CastBox (thank you to my friend Harold for the tip).

If you liked this post, give it a like so I know to make more of these. As usual, drop me a line and share your top recommendations!

See you in the next one!

Image credits: Kurzgesagt, Richard Branson by David Shankbone.

Full disclosure: Some of the links are affiliate links, so if I do make a profit from your purchase, the money goes into supporting this blog!

 

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Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Reading Time: 2 Minutes

Rating: 9/10

Here’s a book that just doesn’t give a f*ck about what you think or how you feel. It’s eye-opening, thought-provoking, and above all, brutally honest. There’s a lot of swearing in the book, but don’t let that put you off, the content is absolutely brilliant.

On his website, Manson describes the book as “The self help book for people who hate self help books”, and I think you’ll agree that it’s quite fitting once you’ve read the book. He talks about how conventional advice just doesn’t work, and compels us to learn about ourselves, question our beliefs, and start critically evaluating our situations. It lives up to it’s subtitle and certainly provides you with a bunch of counterintuitive ideas that help you find happiness.

The way Mark Manson presents his narrative was extremely relatable to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I have a simple test to determine how much I liked the book: Would I gift it to someone?

I definitely would. In fact, I’d present this book to pretty much anyone, and honestly, if you read the book and take Manson’s advice, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be a lot happier, and you’ll be able to see things from a different perspective.

I actually enjoyed reading the book so much that I started reading Manson’s blog, which largely contributed to the material in The Subtle Art. 

Some of the ideas in this book may be stuff that you’ve thought about already, but having them laid out in such a clear manner and having thought-provoking questions shoved in your face, is a transformative experience.

My key takeaways:

  • I learned to look at my life from a completely different perspective
  • I’ve learned to question more of my thoughts and actions, allowing me to have a better grasp of why I act or react in certain ways.
  • I gained some insight into how deeply rooted some problems can be, and the book gave me a framework to deal with them.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the book to be quite existential in nature, and it really struck a chord with me in so many ways, allowing things to really sink in and make sense.

For me, this book has provided a lot of clarity in terms of relationships, understanding my own thoughts, struggles, happiness, and life itself.  I gave it a 9/10 because I felt that there were some tiny parts that were slow and slightly clunky, but it’s something that can be easily forgiven.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is up there with the best. Do yourself a favour and grab a copy. If you’ve already read it, leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Click on the image to purchase the book. It’s an affiliate link, so I make a tiny commission off every purchase, which goes into supporting the blog! 

Improve Concentration With a Quick Mindfulness Exercise

Hey guys, in today’s post I wanted to share a simple technique that has helped me improve my concentration and focus.

A few months ago, I spoke to Nigel (a good friend of mine and a psychologist by profession), and complained about my lack of ability to focus on my work. I explained that my mind was constantly wandering and I was struggling to complete even simple tasks. Stroking his impressive beard and nodding his head, he told me to try and start every work session with a mindfulness exercise.

The Three Steps Involved in The Mindfulness Exercise

Nigel used a set of questions and all I had to do was answer them:

  1. Name the first five things you can see.
  2. Close your eyes, and name the first five things you can hear.
  3. Finally, eyes still closed, name the first five physical things you can feel.

With that last question, you can include the clothing on your skin, sensations, the weight of your own body etc. You can stop there if you want, or you can continue the exercise by repeating it, but reducing the number of things you name from five, then four, and so on until you name just one thing for each question.

That’s all there is to it! It’s extremely simple, and yet that’s what mindfulness is all about – being focused on the present moment and being aware of all your senses.

This exercise helped me calm my racing mind and allowed me to focus on my work with a lot less difficulty. Of course, the more you practice, the more effective it becomes.

Mindfulness, Headspace and Meditation

If you’re interested in learning more about exercises like the one above, I strongly recommend that you try Headspace, a meditation app that I find extremely beneficial. It has guided and unguided meditation sessions, led by Andy Puddicombe. The sessions range from a minute all the way to an hour, so it can fit perfectly into your schedule even if you’re extremely busy.

If you’re interested to give it a try, Headspace provides users with a free trial that gives you ten sessions of “Take Ten”. I’ve purchased the premium version and I absolutely love it, and use it every day as part of my morning routine. It really helps set the tone for the day, and I encourage you to try it.

I’ve included Andy’s Ted talk below if you’re interested to learn more about mindfulness and meditation. That’s all for this time, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment or drop me an email using the Contact page! See you in the next one!

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Headspace in any way, but it is a product that I often use and recommend for meditation.