Cal Newport So Good book cover

Last weekend, I read Cal Newport’s latest book – “So Good They Can’t Ignore  You” and was very happy that I read it – it was just the sort of book that helps a person who is a few years into his/her career and is beginning to question many things about his/her own career. Of course, the book is relevant to people in all stages of their career, but I think people who are in this stage are more likely to grok what the book is talking about.

The book starts off by destroying the “passion hypothesis” which states that you “should find work that you love”. The book aptly demonstrates why that is a wrong premise and that loving what you do comes AFTER you’re good at it. He emphasizes:

Compelling (i.e. inspiring) careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

This is where Cal starts talking about career capital:

Basic economic theory tell us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return – this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.

Acquiring career capital requires the craftsman mindset which is about working day in and day out on getting better at your craft. Achieving flow is a good thing, but something equally important is deliberate practice, i.e. intensive work aimed at stretching yourself at your craft:

Geoff Colvin wrote: Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate”, as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

Cal goes on to explain:

If you show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

 

I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique – a classic case of deliberate practice – the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique you’ve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician would also admit, is the precondition to getting better.

 

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good”. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

 

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback – even if destroys what you thought was good.

I had a big a-ha moment as I read this passage:

  • I used to “stretch” myself regularly long ago when I used to read many computer science papers and I was constantly trying out new technology, these days I’m just stuck when it comes to reading papers, for example, Out of the Tar Pit and On Lisp papers have been on my reading list for a long time and perhaps I’ve been avoiding it exactly because it is not an enjoyable activity if your mind is being stretched.
  • When people say I’m “not learning anything new”, it is because there is no deliberate practice in their lives. We are more comfortable doing what we already know rather than learning something new which will possibly makes our work simpler and better. This is the “simple vs. easy” that Rich Hickey (obligatory mention) talks about.
  • This is what Leo Babauta is referring to in the Habit of Starting: “You are comfortable with what you’re doing (reading online, probably), and the habit is less comfortable (it’s too hard). We cling to the comfortable.”
  • Open source programmers tend to be better programmers because of the feedback they get from people they collaborate with – who are people who care about their craft, and not the type of colleagues or managers whose sole goal is to mark a task as done without attention to how it has been implemented.
  • This is what Chad Fowler talked about in the Passionate Programmer book : “Practicing may include learning more about your programming environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading (reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.”
  • I’ve been kicking myself that I know all these concepts but have not yet been able to put it into practice. There’s always hope that I’ll start chanting the mantra “deliberate practice” everyday for an hour or two.

The point is that “hard work” is not the answer, “hard work deliberately intended to improve your craft” is the answer.

And what do you do after you keep acquiring career capital? You invest it on yourself in a few ways such as acquiring more control:

At this point, Lulu’s skills were so valuable that finding clients was no problem. More importantly, working as a contractor also gave her extreme flexibility in how she did her work. She would travel for three or four weeks at a time when she felt like getting away. “If the weather was nice on a Friday,” she told me, “I would just take the day off to go flying” (she obtained her pilot’s license around this time). When she started work and when she ended her days were up to her. “A lot of these days I would take a niece or nephew and have fun. I went to the children’s museum and zoo probably more than anybody else in the city,” she recalls. “They couldn’t stop me from doing these things, as I was just a contractor.”

This story sounds familiar because I started freelancing with some of the same mindset – at that stage of my career after having worked at Yahoo!, Adobe, my own startup (creating a product) and Infibeam (in the hot area of ecommerce), I had acquired enough career capital that I was getting good job offers but I wanted to experience freedom of cutting down the miscellaneous corporate activities and focus purely on coding and that is what my life has been about – that was how I was able to work out of Goa in a road trip.

Of course, that career capital is not going to last forever. That is where I need to work even harder and start acquiring more career capital.

If control is not what you’re seeking, there is another thing that you could invest in : a mission:

A mission is a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on the world – a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.

How do you get to finding a mission? That’s where you need significant career capital to be at the cutting-edge of your work:

The examples of joint discoveries in scientific breakthroughs [where multiple people make the same scientific discoveries around the same time] surprised me, but it would not have surprised the science writer Steve Johnson. In his engaging 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Johnson explains that such multiples are frequent in the history of science. Consider the discovery of sunspots in 1611: As Johnson notes, four scientists, from four different countries, all identified the phenomenon during that same year. The first electrical battery? Invented twice in the mid-eighteenth century. Oxygen? Isolated independently in 1772 and 1774. In one study cited by Johnson, researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at near the same time.

 

Big ideas, Johnson explained, are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible“. We take the ideas that we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape, he explained. The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.

 

Scientific breakthroughs, as we just learned, require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered. A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.

When you reach the cutting edge of your field, you start seeing the new possibilities combining old and new ideas, and that’s where innovative new ideas come and that’s where your mission is found.

For example, using “big data” to make breakthroughs in understanding of genes requires someone to have observed the “big data” phenomenon and applying them to medical field and that becomes their mission in advancing that science. Of course, all this doesn’t apply only to science, it can apply to any field, whether it is material fabrics in fashion industry or new kinds of crowdsourcing for philanthropy or innovation (think Kiva, Kickstarter, Quirky). For example, why did Zynga come up with the idea of social games on top of Facebook? Because they were at the cutting edge when they saw Facebook rise and wanted to take advantage of it in games and they knew how to do that. And so on.

I think I should stop here because I have quoted enough from the book and don’t want to be sued by the publisher or anything like that. There is a lot more interesting concepts and learnings from the book. I recommend that you go buy and read it!

I’ve been a long-time reader of Ramit Sethi – I love his irreverent approach to money which has influenced me positively. About a year and a half ago, he launched the Earn1K program and I was immediately curious about it. Having failed to run a business once, I thought this was a great way to “hack my brain” to learn about business.

Eventually, I signed up for it. Of course, I have never mentioned this before to anybody other than a handful of friends because most people would balk that I paid so much for an online course and consider me an idiot. I guess I’m just not the latte saving kind of guy – I don’t earn a lot and I don’t spend a lot, but I do want to spend on the things that I really want. I’m mentioning this today because I have results to show from having gone through just half of the course.

A few months ago after I left my last job, most people expected me to jump into a startup again:


@vijayanands


@satpalparmar

Having the spent last 3 years in startup land, I learned a few things which have made me wary and weary of startups. It had gotten me to think of what it is that I was actually seeking.

It turns out to be simple – “I like coding. I like building interesting and meaningful projects. I like working with good people. I like getting paid well.” That’s it ;-). After all these years, I still love coding, so I kept thinking of ways to focus on just that and stay far away from the business and management side of things. “At least, let me indulge in coding till I have the enthusiasm for it” was my refrain. But how to achieve that?

That was when my lessons from Earn1K kicked in.

Today, my full-time freelancing is going better than I had anticipated a couple of months ago.

There was one more reason why freelancing seemed like a great option to me:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – control over how you fill your time.
  2. Competence – mastering unambiguously useful things
  3. Relatedness – feeling of connection to others

This was what I came across in Cal Newport’s blog whom I pay attention to.

As you can imagine, freelancing has given me an opportunity to further each of the above three points – I get to choose the projects I work on, I get to choose projects that improves my skills and I get to choose to work on projects that I want to be a part of. I am not bound by a company’s roadmap at all.

There are other pluses such as not having to commute, not having to take phone screens and face-to-face interviews, no meetings, not having to worry about sales and product roadmap (my clients take care of that), not having to worry about the competition (my clients take care of that), etc.

There are minuses, of course, such as not having a team to interact and learn from, not having the opportunity to meet wonderful colleagues, no paid holidays, and so on. Thankfully, Pomodoro and GTD help me stay focused and productive and the other minuses haven’t bitten me strongly yet.

At some arbitrary point in time in the future, I’ll do a personal review of how things stand, especially if I have a reasonably steady income. If all is well, then I’ll probably continue freelancing, otherwise there is always the option to jump back into a regular job. Until then, my new life experiment is in progress and so far, so good.

P.S. I’ll talk about my current projects in subsequent posts.


“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Nassim Taleb

Cal Newport, one of my favorite bloggers ever, wrote about the upside of deep procrastination last week. I had a few thoughts on the subject.

So what is deep procrastination? You know you’re in it when “No matter how dire the stakes, starting work becomes an insurmountable prospect.”

I remember this starkly happen to me when I transitioned from 2nd PUC to B.E.

I had the fortune of studying in a school which exposed us to computers very early. I remember playing a lot with Logo and fascinated that you can draw circles and rectangles on a screen. I knew back then that I wanted to study computers.

So in PUC, I had chosen to study computer science (PCMCs) and not choose biology at all, compared to most of my peers who wanted to “keep their options open”. No sirree, computers was for me.

I couldn’t wait to get to “B.E. in Computer Science” so that all I would do was learn about computers.

Uh oh.

I found myself studying about “strength of materials”, about the different materials used in construction of a building, about the calculation of the weight that a pillar has to support, blah blah. WTF.

I was disgusted. I was very demotivated. I was in deep procrastination. I had stopped studying. And I didn’t care.

I have usually stood in the top 2-3 ranks of my class throughout my school and pre-university days (well, geeky was the word used to describe me…). In engineering days, I was given a rap for having attendance shortage.

But something happened. I soon started to enjoy it.

I explored a lot in those days – from lots of trekking (which meant travelling outside the city with friends! Whoa!) to reading tons about technology.

Because I studied well in PUC and got a good rank in CET (463, out of lakhs of people), my grandpa surprised me with a gift of 5000 rupees (don’t remember the exact amount). I had never seen so much money in my life (back then).

I blew it all up by sitting in a cybercafe. I used to download web pages, put it in floppy disks, come back home and read them on the home computer. I fondly remember reading about a lot of open source projects and a lot of Tim O’Reilly’s essays.

Those were amazing days. And legend has it, that it all began with a few good seniors who taught us Linux and open source, and I eventually ended up writing a book (stop yawning alright!).

Fast forward by 5 years… As a good friend likes to say: “There are only two times you innovate in your life – 1. when you’re in college 2. when you retire.” True enough, I don’t think I have ever read deep tech stuff since then. Nowadays, reading the LLVM Blog makes my brain hurt. Sigh.

The point of my story is this: Since I stopped focusing on studies in college, I let my curiosity guide me. All that curiosity has led me places and I’m forever grateful for that.

My Advice: The key to get out of deep procrastination is to have a constant balancing act between hard focus and curiosity. Leaning towards either for an extended period of time can be completely demotivating.

I believe that working on projects that will have long-lasting impact and simultaneously priming your curiosity, and engaging with the unlimited number of topics to explore out there, will keep you on an even keel and a good frame of mind. Maybe even a happy frame of mind.


39 people have asked me “The case for master degrees. Should or Shouldn’t ?” This article is for those 39 people.

Well, the correct answer almost always is “It depends.”

But let me give a few points to think about. Obviously, I’m answering from the perspective of CompSci students. Students of all disciplines can draw analogies to their respective fields.

Question: Do you want to focus on theory or on practice?

If you picked theory, why aren’t you thinking of a PhD? If you picked practice, why aren’t you thinking of the actual practice of coding and joining a job? Remember, Software engineering is not the same as Computer Science!

In other words, what are your reasons for doing a Masters? Be specific and clear. List down the pros and cons of doing an M.S. degree.

For example, here are few arguments for not doing a M.S.:

  • You have been studying for 16 years (10 + 2 + 4) or so. Instead of studying for a further 2 years, why not take a break and work for the same 2 years? You can still do a M.S. after that if you please and you would have earned money to support yourself as well.

  • If you haven’t been able to decide during graduation on what it is that you want to do in life, how are you going to gain this knowledge when you’re in post-graduation? Does giving yourself “2 more years to decide” really work? Even if the answer is yes, at what cost?

  • Maybe the question you should be asking yourself is How to Get a Valuable Education Without Mortgaging Your Life? Josh Kaufman answers it beautifully, but obviously he has a strong opinion on the subject. You should draw your own conclusions.

  • Now that you have read the arguments, against doing an M.S., write down your arguments for doing an M.S.

    Update : Read the excellent comments below on the positive aspects of doing a Masters.

Once you have a pros-and-cons list, it will be far easier to decide what to do. If you are still asking the same question, you might as well ask “Should I learn Java or C++?”

Whether you decide to do a Masters or not, I would recommend keeping two things in mind:

  1. Focus on building up an impressive list of things you’ve done. Follow the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy.

  2. If you already have a few ideas in mind that you want to achieve, then just go ahead and apply The Pyramid Method.

Thinking from a big picture perspective, perhaps The Real Question is: What do you want to do with your life?

If you don’t know the answer, then the answer is:

Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.

Cal Newport

Update: See “The obsession of Indians with the MBA degree”, a similar discussion at StartupDunia.

My Online Life, in Mint Lounge

A list of blogs I read has been published in the Mint Lounge newspaper on 13-Dec-2008 Saturday.
Read it online on the Mint website or in the epaper section.

Thanks to Sidin for asking me to write this and publishing it in Mint.

Unfortunately, as typical of newspapers, my words were modified to something that is newspaper-y which is really not my style, and the article was printed before I got a chance to review. And no, that short bio was not written by me :)

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As a small experiment, I had put up a skribit sidebar where anybody can suggest what I can write about. Little did I know that it would actually be used seriously. Someone posted the topic “On how fresh graduates can learn independently and grow. Instead of waiting for the Company to help” and today, there are 9 votes on it!

To be honest, I think I am not qualified enough to answer this question. I am certainly no role model. But since 9 people have voted on it, I feel obliged to write something useful. I have jotted down some thoughts on what ideas and habits have helped me, it may not necessarily be useful for everyone. I hope these fresh graduates who voted will pick the best ideas and habits suited for them.

Character and Lifestyle

Instead of focusing on building a career, why not focus on building a character? The career will take care of itself.

  • “Sow an act… reap a habit; Sow a habit… reap a character; Sow a character… reap a destiny.” – George Dana Boardman
  • As Cal Newport would say, “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.” … Too often, we confuse the medium (lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc.) with the message (what is important to us, what we want to do). So it’s far more important to figure out what you want out of life, then figure out how to achieve that rather than the other way around. And only you can figure this out for yourself.
  • I would recommend reading First Things First by Stephen Covey to help you understand your priorities in life.
  • Most important of all, find your inner peace. Remember that “Satisfaction is within.”

Career Building

Basically, you need to take initiative in what you want to achieve, no one can tell you what you have to do, life is not that simple. I’m glad the original question poser said that he/she wanted to grow “Instead of waiting for the Company to help”, you’ve got that part right already.

I recommend reading:

Get Results

Ultimately, you need to take action and get results. It’s not enough to just plan and hope. As Morpheus would say, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

Read

My personal slogan is “I read. Therefore I do. Therefore I am.” If I compare myself to my school days and today, there has been a major transformation in character and outlook, and I attribute that purely to reading.

A great part of my learning also comes from writing, hence the blog, wiki, books, and twitter. It might seem like a waste of time, but I learn more by communicating. But that’s just me.

If you don’t know where to start, I would suggest The Personal MBA Reading List.

Friends

Make valuable friends. This is the most important tip I can ever give you.

Equally important, make the right kind of friends. Yes, it’s tough to let go of friends who you intuitively know are not the right influence on you, but speaking from experience, it is worth it in the long run.

As a wise man once said, “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.”

Learn Your Trade

For example, if we are talking about a software engineer:

  • Debugging is the most important skill, not coding. I wish I had known this when I was in college.
  • Reading is a great habit that has a side-effect that you will also have the ability to read a lot of code and build up the structure inside your head about how the code works, just like you have to imagine what is written in a book or novel.

I also recommend reading:

If you are looking for more in-depth knowledge, I would recommend taking a look at this Stack Overflow discussion.

Make A Difference

Consider this excerpt from a Business Week article:

One vocal camp even maintains that the repetitive nature of writing software code has corrupted Bangalore’s intellectual spirit. “These 20-year-olds are like coolies, doing the same job over and over,” says CNR Rao, a Bangalorean scientist who has been an adviser to the Indian government for decades. The software industry, he says, has turned the city into a glorified sweatshop. “Where is the innovation?” he asks. “How does this contribute to anything but greed and commerce?”

The joy of programming is the joy of building and creating something. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we can build and create something useful for other people? If yes, why aren’t we doing more of that? After all, there is no dearth of things that we can create.

Closing Statement

Hopefully, I have given some food for thought here.

If this article was useful, please feel free to post suggestions on what I can write about on my skribit page.

Update on 29-Oct-2011: Also read this great article by Patrick McKenzie (a.k.a. patio11) called “Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice”

I’ve been pondering about specialization vs. generalization in terms of career skills.

I have this notion that I should be a maven, should be an expert at something. But yet, I mostly do things that are the very opposite of this idea.

Since I don’t tend to be a specialist, I tend to not focus on a particular topic. I want to learn about different things and hence I tend to meet people of varied interests, and consequently end up being excited about a lot of different ideas. For example, one of my good friends is someone who I happened to meet on a bus because my seat was next to his, and we talked non-stop for 5 hours from the moment we said ‘Hello’. I was able to connect with him well because I knew a bit about his profession and we had some common terminology right at the beginning of the conversation. And I really love having such conversations. It’s one of the things that really motivate me and it ends up throwing me in different directions.

Maybe it’s not really a generalization vs. specialization debate, and more of an attitude. Then again, I see that people tend to really pigeonhole themselves, such as “I’m looking for C++ jobs” or “I want only bluetooth jobs”. Why? Because they’ll get experience in a particular technology and employers will give higher pay packages to specialists. This means these people focus only on things related to that one particular area and ignore everything else. Somehow I’ve been unable to do this, even though I want to.

As Tim Ferriss puts it:

Most people avoid certain actions because they view changes as permanent. If you make a change, can you go back to doing it like you did before? You can always reclaim your current state in most cases. If I quit my job in industry x to test my artistic abilities in a different industry, worst case scenario, can I go back to my previous industry? Yes. Recognize that you can test-drive and micro-test things over brief periods of time. You can usually reclaim the workaholism that you currently experience if you so decide to go back to it.”

This kind of sums up what I’ve been doing in the past six months – test-driving things over brief periods of time, trying my hand at different things.

Yesterday, I needed some inspiration, so I ended up listening to one of my favorite podcast talks – Jason Fried on “Lessons learned from building Basecamp” (transcript). A few things that he said made a lot of sense, not only in terms of software, but also in terms of career:

  1. Reduce mass
    • Enable change. Enable speed.
    • Do not worry about what may be needed 8 months down the lane.
    • Make just-in-time decisions, when you have the data.
  2. Every decision is temporary.
    • If it is too costly to change, it’s probably wrong.
  3. Getting Real
    • Design the interface first.
    • This is the same as Cal Newport saying “Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.”
  4. Iterate. Start small. Make your first version half a product, not a half-assed product.
    • Do a 30-day trial of things, such as your decisions of trying something new, etc.
    • But do the basics and do them well. For example, if you want to start a blog, don’t expect 1000 readers overnight, work at writing 5 good articles instead.
  5. There are so many more ideas that could be applied including the concept of publicity amplifiers, transparency and trust, blogging, etc.

It’s funny that a methodology for software can be used for lifehacking.

Of course, it’s not just software programmers who have this debate, even designers and productivity specialists do.

Later, I realized that another way of looking at this is “doing as much as required, no more”. Why is this important? Because results matter more than “expertise”. I had an Aha! moment. Suddenly, I feel less guilty and more positive.

Imagine a conversation with your doctor that goes like this:

“What do you do for work?” the doctor asked me at the beginning of the interview.

“Well, I’m trying to start my own social movement.”

(There was a long pause, but he didn’t ask anything else about that. Instead, he looked at the next item on the list.)

“Do you take any medications?”

“Not usually, but when I need to, I buy them in Africa.”

(Another pause.)

“Do you exercise regularly?”

“Yes, I just ran a marathon on a cruise ship last week!”

Such a person should surely be interesting.

That’s how I first read about Chris Guillebeau (via Cal Newport).

So when Chris mentioned on his blog that he has a manifesto coming up soon, I was eagerly waiting. He calls it a “A Brief Guide to World Domination: How to Live a Remarkable Life in a Conventional World”.

Well, surely, there have been many people who have made tall claims over the years, why this should be any different? Because this guy walks the talk. What else can you say about someone who has visited 83 countries so far and he’s only 30 years of age. His goal is to visit the remaining 115 countries by April 7, 2013. How’s that for a goal?

What I liked about the manifesto is that it reminds me of a rule that I’ve been following off late: “Enough fundas, Back to fundamentals.” The manifesto does not tell you anything earth-shattering but makes you think about the simple basics of your life.

If you choose the path of being “just like everybody else”, then you’re already set because that is what majority of the world does.

If you choose the path of “non-conformity”, then be prepared to face all the problems but at the end of it all, you’ll get to live the life that you want (assuming that’s what you want).

If you want to truly go for BHA goals (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), then you need to take care of yourself and contribute to others as well. The latter is not simply charity, but there are several ways. After all, the greatest joy a passionate programmer or artist can get is when he/she sees someone using/admiring what they created and they are getting benefitted from it. And so on.

All this reminds me of this quote by John Davis:

You all laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.

That’s what I say to myself when people stare at me in the mornings when I’m running with a fuel belt around my waist. Hey, it may look funny, but I need that water while I’m running so that I don’t end up dehydrating (which is bad, speaking from experience). So I may look unconventional, but I need that water, and that’s how I want to do running.

So what else have I done unconventionally?

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Philipp Lenssen recently had a good post on tips on information
overload by various
people
. It got me
thinking about the various tips and tricks I’ve imbibed in the recent
past and which work reasonably well for me. So I tried to collate them
into one place:

Email

  • Always bring the inbox down to zero regularly. ‘Regularly’ is
    defined by you.
  • Never allow anything to be in your inbox > 2-3 days
    • If you’re not going to reply in that time frame, you never will.
      So simply archive it or reply with a one-liner saying you can’t
      look into it now.
  • If you don’t have anything to add, don’t reply.
  • Make sure you are clear on what is the action you are expecting
    from the recipient.
  • Reply in bullet points. Because everybody
    skims
    .
  • Once you’re done with the email (replying, taking action or
    reading), archive it.
  • If it is not actionable, archive it. Don’t let it remain in your
    inbox.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Mailing lists go into folders. I simulate them in Gmail using “Apply
    label, Skip Inbox” in the filters. The reason is that mails not
    directly addressed to me are not urgent, so I can process them
    whenever I have the inclination. Whatever is in my inbox is what
    deserves immediate attention.
  • Minimize the number of times you need to check email. The minimum
    that is required for you to stop worrying about it. The beauty of
    email is that you can reply at your pace. Make use of that feature.
    If you end up constantly checking email, you’re better off resorting
    to phone calls or instant
    messenger
    .
  • [new tip] Before you send the next email, go through the
    checklist.

Feeds

  • Use your feed reader once in a few days. The world won’t stop
    without you.
  • Use a desktop feed reader because it is faster to
    use
    .
  • Have a ‘Try Before You Buy’ folder where you add feeds. If it
    doesn’t turn out to be useful, delete it.
  • Have a number in mind, say 100 feeds. If you add a new feed, delete
    an old feed that is no longer interesting.
  • If you end up doing a ‘Mark all as read’ on a feed 2-3 times in
    a row, delete it.
  • Separate them into categories and/or priorities.
  • Most importantly, read interesting things. Do not aim for reading
    500+ blog posts a day. Optimize, don’t maximize.
  • Remember that the goal is to derive some value out of this reading
    and that value is usually knowledge. If it is not helping you
    towards that goal, delete it.
    Don’t think twice, just delete it.
  • While working, if you feel the need to distract yourself once in
    a while or read something interesting, don’t use your feed reader
    but use good filters like TechMeme or programming.reddit or a good
    link-blogger on your subjects of interest. Have a separate dedicated
    time for reading feeds.
  • Take
    notes.
    Over time, you’ll judge if a feed is useful or not depending on
    whether you’re taking (any) notes or not.

Inlets

  • Cut down on the types of inlets – Email, Feeds, Twitter, IRC,
    Messenger, Phone, etc. (this one is particularly hard for me)
  • Spend at least 50% of your time at the computer with all these
    inlets shut down.

Focus

  • Personally I find productivity inversely proportional to information
    overload. The days when I’m productive and “in the zone” turns out
    to be the days when I’m less affected by information overload. The
    vice-versa is true as well. So if you focus on the right things, the
    information overload problem will get solved by itself.
  • Maintain focus by having a todo list. Have a big todo list and then
    pick random tasks from that list depending on your energy levels
    and get things done.
  • Never indulge in tasks outside of your todo list. If you’re not in
    the mood for any of them, don’t indulge in
    wilfing.
    Go out instead – whether for a walk, or call up a friend or even
    read a paper book. If you’re not being productive, just get out of
    the chair.
  • Don’t use fancy software for writing lists. Use a good plain text
    editor (like Vim).
  • Use GTD.
  • Use an auto-pilot
    schedule

    (I’m still learning this).

P.S. Many of these ideas have been borrowed from elsewhere. It’s been
a long time since I imbibed all these, so I don’t remember all the
sources from which I gleaned them.