Monday 25 January 2021

Process quest

The Bhagavad Gita has one of the earliest articulations of what we today know as the importance of mindset. It talks about the importance of "doing one's duty and not focusing on the fruits of one's labor". This is such a fundamental framing of the concept of mindset that many other following philosophies and disciplines have borrowed this and articulated it for their specific contexts.

But in many ways, following what the Bhagavad Gita and others say can be rather unnerving. Applying this mindset in one's daily life can feel like exhausting. It can feel like you are not making any progress at all. But you still need to keep on going, not worrying about or focusing on, expecting results.

Now there is emerging research in the field of behavior change, from the likes of BJ Fogg, that adds a different dimension. This identifies the role of small wins and incremental success markers have in wanting us to keep going. And help our brains wanting to adopt a new mindset. Andrew Hubermann, Stanford neurobiologist, and his study of the human brain has also shown that this 'incremental wins' approach is among the best ways to keep the motivation going and to reinforce it along the way. Most of the dopamine release in the brain happens not after achieving some big goals. But it is actually released when we are in pursuit of those goals.

So, is the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita which calls for a detachment from the goals and BJ Fogg's research about celebrating micro-wins inherently at conflict with each other? How can these two forces be resolved? One which is philosophical, and the other, that seems more practical and looks to create an environment that reinforces motivation by training our brains to be driven by the incremental wins.

Actually, it struck me one day that there is a very elegant resolution for this. And it can be very simple. It goes as follows.

Reframe the mindset into one which falls in love with the process. In fact, staying detached and doing the work is exactly what the incremental rewards should enable.

Fall in love with the process of doing and get the rewards from this. I would like to call this as the habit of 'going on a Process Quest'.

This is the simple and straightforward framing that makes the Growth Mindset something that can be learned. Which is to fall in love with the process. Change the mindset from "success comes from the eventual outcome of what you are doing", to "success is doing the process". This way the micro-goals and small wins will indeed be triggered when the process is being done.

Going on a Process Quest nicely resolves the tension. Detachment from goal orientation on one hand. And the motivation for behavior change requiring small wins on the other.

A Process Quest mindset provides an elegant solution by making this into a workflow for the mind, eliminating friction.

Saturday 23 January 2021

A time-blocking workflow

Time blocking is a very effective workflow for me. Time blocking is a process where one creates set blocks on their calendar as a way to get things done. I have explored different ways to do it. These have been influenced by advice from the likes of Cal Newport, Nir Eyal, and Curtis McHale. What I have compiled below is something of a workflow I have created for myself to make time blocking work for me.

My workflow uses the concept of time blocking but marries it with two other productivity concepts.

  1. TO-DO lists - which don't really need to be defined.
  2. Setting specific intentions - which is the process of creating more specific intentions for tasks to be done in these time blocks. A side note: if I remember right, I heard about specific intentions in a podcast between Tim Ferriss and Jim Collins.

Specific intentions are clarifying the specific actions one wants to achieve in a specified time. The specificity is not at the outcome level, which is also needed, but the specificity is at the level of the granular actions, step by step if possible.


My workflow for time blocking follows a few steps.

  • There is information capture, which is the primary role of a TO-DO list.
  • There is converting that into specific intentions/actions.
  • Finally, there is the need to block time on the calendar to do those actions and not letting it just be a TO-DO list.
    • There might be an important sub-step which is to pre-assemble the items needed to do the work, as making the context right is very important to get things done.


Let me now provide details on how this process works and how I build a really productive workflow. As mentioned in the summary there are these steps. I encourage you to think of the steps. Thinking of it in steps is good as they reinforce the point of view that it is a workflow and needs to be done in a particular order for best results.

Step 1: Have a to-do list to capture tasks and outcomes with deadlines

This is needed for the 'capture and classify' part of the workflow. My experience tells me that using a calendar to capture is not a good choice. It does not seem to work as a good inbox. This is especially true as it does not allow for a neat list view and automatic reminders. I use Microsoft To-Do for this, but any other to-do list application can work as well.

Step 2: Then do the step of breaking the tasks up into specific sub-actions, step by step if possible

This is the essential task of schedule building as Nir Eyal calls it.

This is the way to convert a to-do list into an actionable, specific intent. Some tasks will need more effort to break down into specific sub-steps. Some will be self-explanatory or granular enough.

Spending this time to make it specific is an art and one needs to start doing it to find what works for you. And yes, this action itself will require a specific time-block on the calendar, ideally every day, to get this done. For me, one slot in the morning and one slot in the evening is needed on workdays. The evening slot can also be used to wind down.

Step 3: Then transition the specific actions into clear time-blocks on the calendar

These specific intentions are now converted into actual time-blocks on the calendar. This will take time and one will learn over a period of time how to get this right. But blocking time for tasks on the calendar is the only way to ensure there is a scheduled time to get to the job of doing this. In fact, I have seen that however specific the intention and however neatly it is captured in a TO-DO list with reminders, etc, if it is not assigned a time in the calendar, the likelihood of it getting done is low, and the likelihood of procrastinating or 'snoozing' the tasks is much higher.

Step 4: (might be needed) pre-assemble the items needed for the task or make that into a separate task and in the time block - write down the very 1st action

This is an essential task for when it is a big task that has multiple steps and has actions that are very dependent on some items which are needed to help complete the task. Allowing for the items need to to do work (tools, documents, location) to be readily accessible is a way to make it more effective and the ability to keep to the time block. This along with step 2 of articulating the exact first step will be the topics that will cause the most friction if it is not done. This is an important managing the context hack to get time blocking workflow to work well. Also, in my experience, it will help immensely in actually feeling productive and making progress.

That's it. Once these steps are followed, you have a workflow and you can actually get work done.

Other hacks that will help improve this process

There are few more hacks that can be added to this workflow which is suited for someone more advanced in this. They are:

  1. Ensure that recurring tasks are done on the same day / same time as that helps with habit-forming
  2. Ensure in a time-blocked calendar there is enough downtime and the calendar is not packed. Planning to do too much can be the easiest way for the system to fail
  3. Ensure to coordinate the schedule with others and ensure it is not infringing / too-rigid

Thursday 14 January 2021

How does insight emerge?

How does insight emerge? How is it formed? Where is it formed? And how can it be got out of the mind?

I have one simple answer to these questions.


Yes, the process of finding insight is literally to take it out of your mind and to put it outside your mind.

Take a pen and paper. Open up your laptop or iPad and write.

Write down what you are thinking. Write down what you want to think. Write down what someone told you to think. Write down what you told someone to think about. Write, and insights will come.

Writing is essential. It is the only way insights can form. I am not exaggerating. Even now when I am writing this, my mind is helping clarify thoughts I have on how insight emerges. My insight about insight is developing as I write these words.

Writing forces one to think and clarify concepts that are swirling in the mind. In doing so, writing provides the fastest way to develop insight.

It can be any form of writing. It can be in a physical paper note pad, it can be digital. In digital it can be in any format. A text file, a slide deck, a sheet with numbers. Anything works.

Read. And after reading, write

There are other aspects that help with the process of finding insight.

Reading is important as well. But, not as much as writing. My assumption here is one who is on the quest for insight, is naturally going to be a reader. A consumer of information. So that will be a natural process. It is not something that needs to be debated or told.

But after reading, getting out a pad, and writing about it, may not be an obvious action for most. In fact, I will guess that most do not do this. Many people are expecting to come up with something insightful just by thinking in their minds about what they have read. This very rarely works.

Writing is engaging

The process of engaging in writing, when the body is mostly stationary and the mind is nimble, is ideal. There is something about this.

One can observe that it is possible to talk while walking. It is possible to eat while walking. It is also possible to think while walking. In fact, a lot of thinking actually happens when one is walking. Movement is great, don't get me wrong. It might even help to move before getting to the act of writing.

But one cannot write while walking. Well, nothing beyond a short scribble, maybe.
So in some ways, one needs to be stationary, to write. Sitting or standing.

Writing is connecting, simplifying, and solidifying

Writing is an essential and necessary step to help the brain form connections. And from those connections come the insights.

The mind is always making connections, even when you are not writing. But, this kind of connection is at best temporary. It is flimsy and not yet well-formed. But when you write about it, the connections become stronger. Both on the writing apparatus, but also interestingly in the mind.

James Clear observes, "To simplify before you understand the details is ignorance. To simplify after you understand the details is genius".

By just thinking or reading, and not writing, we are trying to simplify before we have understood the details. This is a state of ignorance and no real insight comes from there.

But when we write, we have better understood the details. This is when real insight emerges from.

Basically, writing connects simplifies, and solidifies concepts that are in the mind. And from this fertile base, which is connected, simple and solid, insights can germinate, take root, and sprout.