Working from home full-time is a different experience than we are used to. You make or break things, there’s no one asking about your progress and there are no deadlines. It’s all up to you.

My productivity has varied a lot during this time and I was wondering how to make more days productive than they are as of now.

So I polled some of my friends who also work out of a home-office on how they they maintain productivity / motivation / focus, and I got some interesting replies:

  • Manish Jethani says:
    • Make a separate “office room” in your home. You could convert your old study room into your office. You go into this room only for work — fully dressed for work (not in pyjamas!). When you get out of this room, you leave your work behind. In other words, you have a proper office located inside your home.
    • Cut out the distractions. Make your family know that this is your office. No visitors, no phone calls (except work-related), etc.
    • Follow proper timings. Work fixed hours.
    • To stay motivated while working out of your home, I think you basically have to enjoy what you do.
    • Self-discipline is the key.
    • The concept of an office, as we know it, is relatively new in our history. Throughout the ages humans have worked out of their homes. Think about it. It’s the more natural way of things. Thanks to the internet, working from home is likely to become the norm in the 21st century (also because commuting might become prohibitively expensive).

(more…)

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?

(more…)

Today, I re-read a book called Super
Crunchers: How Anything Can Be Predicted
by Ian Ayres.

So what is supercrunching?

Now something is changing. Business and government professionals are
relying more and more on databases to guide their decisions. The
story of hedge funds is really the story of a new breed of number
crunchers – call them Super Crunchers – who have analyzed large
datasets to discover empirical correlations between seemingly
unrelated things. Want to hedge a large purchase of euros? Turns out
you should sell a carefully balanced portfolio of twenty-six other
stocks and commodities that might include Wal-Mart stock.

What is Super Crunching? It is statistical analysis that impacts
real-world decisions. Super Crunching predictions usually bring
together some combination of size, speed and scale. The sizes of
datasets are really big – both in the number of observations and in
the number of variables. The speed of the analysis is increasing. We
often witness the real-time crunching of numbers as the data come
hot off the press. And the scale of the impact is sometimes truly
huge. This isn’t a bunch of egghead academics cranking out
provocative journal articles. Super Crunching is done by or for
decision makers who are looking for a better way to do things.

This is best explained by the chess example:

We tend to think that the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov lost to
the Deep Blue computer because of IBM’s smarter software. That
software is really a gigantic database that ranks the power of
different positions. The speed of the computer is important, but in
large part it was the computer’s ability to access a database of
700,000 grandmaster chess games that was decisive.
Kasparov’s
intuitions lost out to data-based decision making.

(emphasis mine)

The book starts off with the example of Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton
economics professor as well as founder and editor of the Journal
of Wine Economics who wanted to apply supercrunching techniques to
predict whether a wine from a particular year would be a good wine or
not. He ended up with the following equation:

Wine quality = 12.145 + 0.00117 winter rainfall + 0.0614 average
growing season temperature – 0.00386 harvest rainfall

You can imagine the commotion that followed. The wine experts brushed
off this theory and that numbers can predict the wine quality better
than they can. After all, “Just as it’s more accurate to see the
movie, shouldn’t it be more accurate to actually taste the wine?”

And yet, the equation did indeed make better predictions, especially
with the prediction that 1989 and 1990 wines would be
bestsellers
.

(more…)

Long ago, a wise friend I used to know once told me that humans have
many kinds of needs – physiological, emotional, etc. Along with these,
there is also the need to fight.

I’ve been thinking over and over on how true this is. Or whether it is
just baloney.

The need to fight. And I’m not talking physically. There is something
that you’re always fighting against – whether your focus is challenges
at work, or road rage, or even fighting with your loved ones.

A basic human need is to fight. That’s why we have wars and battles
all the time. Especially in the mind. I know many people who coded
best when they were
angry
.
Maybe our genes and body are built for action, for the rush of the
battle.

Pillow Fight 2008

Maybe that’s why the milestones in a startup feels more “earned” than
when working in a big company where the same situations are so
shielded.

Maybe that’s why you get things done only when you have a deadline.

Maybe that’s why people do sports, trekking, adventures, long distance
biking, etc.

Maybe that’s why people with rags-to-riches stories are more happier
than kids of rich people.

Maybe that’s why people feel fired up after a debate or a race,
irrespective of whether they win or lose.

Because you’re trying to fight the odds.

And if people don’t have the fight in them, or don’t fight for
anything, that’s when they seem so boring, so bored and so lifeless.

Maybe that was part of the message in the Fight
Club
.

Fight On!

P.S. Has there been any organized pillow
fights
in India?

One of the hard lessons that I have learned this year is “Always
remember Carpe Diem“. The
corollary is that “If you don’t execute on your idea quick, someone
else definitely will.”

For example, long back Vikram had this
idea that there should be a company which takes care of odd chores
such as electrical maintenance or plumbing, basically handyman work.
Yesterday, I saw www.handiman.in on the back
of an auto rickshaw. I came home and checked it out and it does
exactly that. It’s a very useful
service and seems
reasonably
affordable, at
least for IT people. I’m sure lot of people in Bangalore will go for
it.

Today, Mrinal
pointed

to www.indimeme.com,
a TechMeme for the Indian blogosphere.

I started kicking myself.

I’ve had this idea for months but I couldn’t really move on it because
I don’t have the knowledge yet, for example, about clustering
algorithms. However, I did brainstorm it with a couple of friends and
thought we’ll work it out. But a single person beat us to it.

There is a range of reasons why such a website is a good idea,
probably the same reasons why TechMeme is indispensable too:

  • Allows people to see what are the latest topics that Indian bloggers
    are talking about.
  • Allows people to see the discussions across blogs, not just one blog
    and its comments.

    • Encourages the above type of discussion.
  • The portal can become the gateway of the Indian blogosphere.
  • For the website creator’s point of view, it can bring in a lot of
    visitors. And subsequently, advertisers.
  • An indispensable website means the creator of the website is
    indispensable too. Just like Gabe
    Rivera

    is everything behind the scenes of TechMeme. (Let’s face it, we’re
    all replaceable in our workplaces.)

And so on.

Anyway, the only downside I’ve noticed about IndiMeme.com is that the
clustering results aren’t good yet, but the thing is it is already out
there. It has been
executed
.
It needs refinement. And I’m sure it’ll get there.

I don’t know whether I should add this idea to my already-long
personal ‘deadpool’. Sigh.

When I started thinking about this idea, I came across one paper
called Mining blog stories using community-based and temporal
clustering
which
explained how this is a special type of clustering that takes time
into account. They call it:

“[the] Content-Community-Time model that can leverage the content of
entries, their timestamps, and the community structure of the blogs,
to automatically discover stories. Doing so also allows us to
discover hot stories.”

I was thinking whether the same idea can be applied to an RSS
aggregator and then I found that was done
too
as well.

I guess there are simply no low-hanging fruit left in this accelerated
world.


I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not
enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

— Leonardo da Vinci

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.

From Philip K. Dick’s 1978 article “How to Build a Universe That
Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days
Later”
(emphasis mine):

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation
of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control
the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in
his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to
control their perceptions. If you can get them to see the world as
you do, they will think as you do. Comprehension follows perception.

How do you get them to see the reality you see? After all, it is
only one reality out of many. Images are a basic constituent:
pictures. This is why the power of TV to influence young minds is
so staggeringly vast. Words and pictures are synchronized.
The
possibility of total control of the viewer exists, especially the
young viewer. TV viewing is a kind of sleep- learning. An EEG of
a person watching TV shows that after about half an hour the brain
decides that nothing is happening, and it goes into a hypnoidal
twilight state, emitting alpha waves. This is because there is such
little eye motion.

In addition, much of the information is graphic and therefore passes
into the right hemisphere of the brain, rather than being processed
by the left, where the conscious personality is located. Recent
experiments indicate that much of what we see on the TV screen is
received on a subliminal basis. We only imagine that we consciously
see what is there.

The bulk of the messages elude our attention; literally, after
a few hours of TV watching, we do not know what we have seen. Our
memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blanks are
filled in retrospectively. And falsified. We have participated
unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality
, and then we have
obligingly fed it to ourselves. We have colluded in our own doom.

(via email from
Anirudh)


When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s
a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when
you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks
are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far
more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the
bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in
business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

— Steve Jobs quoted in Wired (February 1996)

One fine day, I was running by myself. It was a few weeks before
Barcamp Bangalore 5. I got an idea that I should talk about
a non-techie topic at Barcamp since I’ve been giving tech talks for
the past few years and I wanted a change of pace. I brainstormed many
ideas on the reason for the talk, what to say and how to explain, etc.
all during that one run.

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend BCB5. But I stored the notes in a safe
place. And when BCB6 was announced, I wanted to be sure to talk this
time around.

A few weeks back, Ramjee called me and
asked whether we can talk about running. I smiled and thought to
myself “Great minds think alike”. Or at least “Runners think alike”.

So I made a ppt and we landed at
Barcamp on Saturday morning. We had
never discussed the presentation. And we were going to give a session
on it. Truly unconference style.

Note: The slides below have been modified to make it useful for a web
audience. It has a lot more text now.

Barcamp crowds are very inquisitive and so we didn’t actually go past
half the slides, which is actually a good thing. Instead, we discussed
a wide range of things about running right from finding good places to
run to trouble with dogs.

In spite of the delays causing us to start at 12:45 (which means
almost lunch time) the discussion went on till 1:45 and 90% of the
30-40 odd crowd were present till the end. When we went to grab what
was left of lunch, lot of people asked us questions including how to
avoid knee pain (tip: it’s the shoes). Since questions are always
a good sign, I think it was a successful discussion.

We both still consider ourselves amateurs at running but at the end of
the day its an activity we like and Barcamp is a perfect platform to
talk about our passions.

Oh, and if you’re still not a believer, I’ll end with a quote:

Games require skill. Running requires endurance, character, pride,
physical strength, and mental toughness. Running is a test, not
a game. A test of faith, belief, will, and trust in ones self. So
hardcore that it needs a category all to itself to define the pain.
When game players criticize, it’s because they aren’t willing to
understand, not because they’re stronger. Running is more than
a sport; it’s a lifestyle. If you have to ask us why we run, you’ll
never understand, so just accept.

— Jessica Propst

Update: SlideShare decided to make it a Barcamp spotlight
presentation:

whyyoushouldrun_slideshare_spotlight

The online slides has had 1274 views and 116 downloads as of this
writing (2008-05-04 Sun 10:04 PM).