The secret sauce for “Getting Things Done”: slow down

The claim, “I’m busy,” is flaunted as a badge of honour. But, are you getting things done? Is your health and personal relationships suffering from your busy-ness?

There is a better approach to success and productivity: “slow work.”

“Restore your attention or bring it to a new level by dramatically slowing down whatever you’re doing.” —  Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

  • Dismount the treadmill: We get stuck in the cycle of prioritising the urgent over the important. You have to step off and reverse the choices.
  • Single-tasking: Set aside time to focus on a single activity. If the job is complex, break it down into smaller, simpler chunks. It’s useful to work in 20- to 30-minute sessions with short breaks in between. If you are stuck, listen to music, take a short walk–break the rhythm.
  • Use the Pareto Principle (80-20 rule): 80% of our outcomes originate from 20% of our efforts. Invest time in understanding the activities that have the “greatest bang for the buck” and focus your energies on them. This will help you transition from a hustling attitude to a leisurely work philosophy.

Decision making has speed limits

In today’s world, much of our daily efforts involve decisions. If you are hoping to hasten your decision-making, forget it. You can’t ramp up the speed of your thoughts no matter what you do or how hard you try. Your thinking rate is fixed.

Some guidelines for good decision making

  1. Concentrate on what you really want. Ask yourself, “What do I intend to accomplish by addressing this choice?” Look at the answer from a 360 degree perspective.
  2. Don’t get caught up in little details. Leave them for later, when you are actually executing the task.
  3. To avoid decision-making under pressure, pre-commit to strategies that you have thought out ahead of time. 
  4. Seek the opinion of others. Obtain a few perspectives, preferably from those who have past knowledge of the subject.
  5. Be aware of your emotions. Don’t let anger and other negative feelings push you.
  6. Write down your ideas and options to help you clarify your thinking.

The quality of your judgments suffers when you are under pressure.

If you want to make better decisions, you need to do everything you can to reduce the pressure you’re under. You need to let your brain take all the time it needs to think through the problem at hand. You need to get out of a reactive mode, recognise when you need to pause, and spend more time looking at problems.

Make judgments while sitting down and examining the subject from several perspectives. You’ll still need to set aside time to do nothing but ponder.

The merits of slack time

Slack is the lubricant of change.

We are brainwashed by the belief that continuous activity equals efficiency. A lot of this perceived busyness is spent in the pursuit of trivial, unimportant tasks. In order to be effective, a certain amount of wiggle room is mandatory.


 

Making meetings matter: do it like Bezos

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged” that employees resent meetings and try their best to avoid attending them. Surveys show that as much as fifty percent of people in an organisation believe that they are a waste of time. Executives can spend up to 20 hours a week on them. They interfere with productivity; time spent could have been put to better use. But, no enterprise, big or small, runs without periodic meetings.

We Don’t Like Meetings and We Don’t Want Them Gone

Still, when asked if meetings should be abolished altogether, the same number of people reply that it would not be a good move. They feel that meetings are essential for maintaining a democratic spirit. Ideas should be aired, discussed and modified by groups of people; otherwise, the management style will be seen as autocratic.

Two factors are at work.

1. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality — Meetings have agendas. Items on an agenda vary in importance from critical to trivial. Professor Northcote Parkinson, him of the much quoted, eponymous law, also described a constant characteristic of meetings: The Law of Triviality.

There is an inverse relationship between the importance of an item and time spent on discussing it. Plans for a large investment on a major expansion will get passed over in a few minutes whereas a half hour or more will be spent on arguing about a new coffee dispenser in the lounge. It’s easier to talk about something that you are familiar with than something beyond your knowledge limits. (This law is also called “ the bike-shed effect ” based on a popular anecdote.)

2. More People, Less Effective the Meeting: There is also an inverse relationship between the number of people attending and effectiveness of a meeting.

The optimal number is 5. As the number increases, meetings become more and more unproductive. At 20, chaos reigns; from here on — 20 or a 100 — the number in the room doesn’t make a difference. It’s imperative that only those who can contribute effectively to the discussion be invited to take part. This is one element that is seldom carefully addressed.

The challenge, therefore, is to structure meetings to make them matter.

First, and For Ever, No “PowerPoints”

Jeff hates PowerPoint (or any other flavor) of presentation app. He believes that “ Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

That’s an earth-shaking diktat for all of us who automatically reach out for these tools when making a presentation.

Well Structured Narrative

The man says, in a much-quoted memo that he sent out: “Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as Powerpoint. The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page Powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.”

The fundamental argument is not so much about the medium itself — Powerpoint or written document — as the need to think critically and clearly.

Here’s how it’s done

Step 1: Writing the Narrative

The person or group responsible for the meeting, spends a good amount of time producing a 4-6 page, tightly reasoned, carefully worded, written narrative. (More on how to do this in another post).

Step 2: All Those Needed for the Meeting Gather at an Appointed Time.

Step 3: Read the Narrative for 30 Minutes.

The document is NOT distributed ahead of time.

Everyone present now gets a copy of the document and spends 30 minutes in silent reading. They note down their observations, comments, opposition and so on, now.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient if the document were to be given in advance? No, says Bezos; “Just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting, as if they’ve read the memo, … you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read — and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for.”

Step 4: Discussion Begins Now.

The document is used as the anchor for all that follows. It’s easy to keep all members tightly focused on the task at hand with everyone being on the same level of knowledge about the agenda. The event acquires both magnitude and direction.


Meetings have been given a bad rap. Some of the reasons are valid. In order to extract maximum effectiveness, Jeff Bezos of Amazon uses an unique structure for all meetings in his organization. In summary, here’s how he does it.

  • Prepare a carefully-written, 4-6 page narrative about the topic for discussion.
  • Invite the smallest possible number of people for the meeting. Limit invitees to those who can make meaningful contributions.
  • Circulate the document at the start of the meeting and give everyone present half an a hour to carefully read and annotate the paper.
  • Tether discussion to the contents of this document.
  • Designate one person to be responsible for summing up the discussion and to provide an action-taken report.

The sole purpose of meetings is to create change, hopefully for the better. Like any tool, meetings are neither good nor bad in themselves. It’s how we use them that matters.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” ― Carl Gustav Jung


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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How to write a business narrative which will impress Bezos

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway

But then, we are not talking about writing like Hemingway or Nabokov or Alice Munro. You have come up with a project. You are sure it’s a winner. You work at a company like Amazon and to take it forward you have to first write about it in a 4-6 page narrative. This document will serve as the pivot for all discussions about the project, something that your colleagues and bosses can read with ease and grasp the ideas you are putting forth.

What are We Looking At?

First things first, we must be in tune with Jeff Bezos’ recommendation. “Writing a good 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page Powerpoint … the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.” Powerpoint presentations are banned at Amazon. Meetings, when needed, have to be structured around a pre-prepared, carefully thought out, flowing narrative.

Who, Me?

The prospect of writing a business narrative is daunting to most of us. We baulk at the act because we have never received training for it. Writing with clarity and flow is hard work. Even Hemingway viewed it with trepidation.

Yes, You

Most narratives, business or fiction, have a typical structure. Once we get familiar with this simple scaffolding, the process of writing becomes natural and effortless. Let’s look at a 4-step method of producing a business narrative that even Jeff will smile at.

Step 1: Where are We Now?

As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” What was it that provided the original impetus or spark for putting forward this proposal? Write about it in simple words. The starting point could be one or more of many things. Maybe it was:

  • Pain points: Write about whatever produced discomfort in your present situation: things that make you uncomfortable, wary, anxious, frightened or angry.
  • Dangers ahead: There may be lurking threats to the organisation which you feel need prompt and proper handling.
  • Opportunities: Maybe it’s about things that present a lucrative prospect and could be harnessed for the good of the company. Describe it.
  • Innovations: In a rapidly changing business world, it may be that you feel the present set up does not encourage new ideas. To survive, you sense that innovation has to be nurtured.
  • Competition: Today’s world is brutally competitive. You know that other groups are sniffing at your heels. We have to start moving faster and farther than them

The number of starting points are limitless but you will have a single, specific item. Identify it and write in detail about it.

Step2: Where are We Headed?

If you don’t know where you are going, one thing is certain: you won’t get there. Describe your goal and ambition. There are many frameworks for outlining this section. A popular one is the “SMART” mnemonic:

S = specific – be clear about what you want.

M = measurable – assess results by objective means.

A = assignable – allocate specific people for specific tasks.

R = realistic – stay within your ways and means — don’t over reach.

T = time bound – be hard nosed about deadlines.

Step3: The road map

We live in the age of Google maps. You wouldn’t stir out anywhere new without first getting a road map. Your narrative must talk of three things.

  • The various steps that need to be taken to get to the goal.
  • The time limit and deadlines for each step.
  • Obstacles that are likely to pop up en route and your plans for working around or over them. Anticipate road blocks.

Step 4: What will it Look Like when You are There?

“Are we there yet?” — the constant refrain of children on a road trip applies to your narrative as well. Don’t just go with gut feelings. Refer back to the stated goals and make sure that you have reached every one of them. Take a hard look.

  • Use objective methods of assessment.
  • List the benefits and joys of having reached your destination.
  • Pitch it against the list that started your journey.

Not Just for Business Narratives — be an Ace Speaker

Storytelling is a sure-fire way to capture attention. Anytime you need to make a presentation, convert it into a story and you will hold your audience during your talk. The framework that we just saw can be used to rephrase an idea into a narrative. With a little imagination, a boring sermon can be transformed into a tale of how the idea was born, its goals, the path to implementation and the view from the top. Like the ad says: “Just do it.”

Clever Tip

You don’t have to use the steps in the order listed. You can play around with it for dramatic effect. For instance, you could open with a vision of what the end looks like, shift to the reason for starting the journey, talk about the road and end with what your goals were. Play around with the four steps and see which order suits the spirit of the narrative

Come Back to Papa Hemingway

You don’t need a vast vocabulary or a smart turn of phrase to write well. Hemingway said this when putting down Faulkner: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Write from the heart. Focus on:

  • Simple language.
  • Short sentences.
  • Brief paragraphs — each one containing one idea, each paragraph flowing logically into the next.
  • Anticipating objections and addressing them ahead of time.
  • Redrafting your manuscript many times. Be a ruthless critic of your writing, logic and flow. Every word must have a reason to be there.

Writing well is the best way of thinking well. Which is why anything written is given far more value than spoken words. Penned sentences linger as a legacy of a human being, sometimes well beyond the life of the person who wrote them. To disseminate great ideas, you need to write captivating stories. 

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Every job application must include a covering letter

A carefully-crafted resume is the keystone of a job application. A large number of employers will also ask for a covering letter. Most, often, you will use a standard template: a few lines dashed off thoughtlessly.

Why Bother With a Covering Letter?

Giving a lot of time and attention to the covering letter might appear old-fashioned in an age when applications are submitted online. Still, a well-written document can make you stand out amongst a crowd of applicants.

The covering letter is a single-page letter of introduction — yourself, to the hiring manager. It is a carefully-crafted argument for why you are the best person for the job.

Remember, applications are scanned for specific keywords, phrases and qualifications, often by apps and bots, before being passed on for review by humans.

When Do You Send A Covering Letter? Always.

Quite often, a covering letter may not be mandatory. Don’t take this as an opportunity to slip out. Always send one.

No Templates, be Creative

Although you can recycle some portions of the letter, the bulk of the message should be one-of-a-kind, targeted at the company and the job you are applying for. Resist the temptation to automate the document.

Use this outline for writing your letter.

Begin with the usual salutation, a name preferably, or the designation of the person doing the hiring. Increasingly, there is a tendency to be informal: a “Hi” or a “Hello” rather than the “Dear …”. Judge the nature of the organisation before you decide. If it’s a young, start-up, open to fresh ideas, stay informal. If it’s a well-established company, then a more traditional style of address.

STEP 1: Start with Them, Not Yourself.

It’s customary to start by talking about yourself. Don’t. Your resume will do that. Do some research on the organisation and learn what their mission/ vision is. Point out how your ambition fits with theirs. Keep the tone enthusiastic but not over-powering. As the Taoist saying goes, pointed, not piercing.

STEP 2: Talk About the Job and How You Fit the Description

Show that you have understood the nature of the job and the specific requirements of you. Describe how your skills suit the position. How do they solve a problem or address a pain point for the company?

Many a time, tucked somewhere in the body will be a question or task assigned to you. The employer uses this as a check to see if you have scrutinised the application well. Make sure you respond and highlight your response.

STEP 3: Close With a Call-to-Action

The last paragraph should be a single-line recap of the company, the job and your fitness for the position. Give a contact number or email address, even if it’s there in the resume.

Keep It …

  • Short – not more than 2 or 3 sentence per paragraph.
  • Clear.
  • Succinct – don’t use grandiose or flowery language.
  • Neutral in tone – don’t be fawning, effusive or stiff.

And Don’t Forget to …

  • Spell check, grammar check, obsessively. Nothing negatively portrays you as much as a sloppily-written document, full of spelling mistakes and poor grammar.

There’s no question that the resume is the make-or-break factor in your application. Remember though that an outstanding covering letter could deliver the tipping force to your effort at getting a job.

Looking for work can be very disheartening. Finding your perfect job takes a lot of courage, persistence and ingenuity. Steve Jobs said:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” ― Steve Jobs


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Personal journals: a cheaper and more effective alternative to psychotherapy

Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Virginia Woolf, “Che” Guevara, Anne Frank, Leonardo da Vinci: a list of famous people with a diverse range of interests. What did they all have in common? They maintained personal journals through their lifetimes.

Who’s Got the Time to Write Daily?

First, a popular myth has to be dispelled. Journal writing need not be an unremitting, daily effort. The association of journaling with conventional diaries, segmented by days, is, most likely, the reason for this misconception. Daily journaling quickly becomes a chore that is easy to give up.

Instead, only record what you want to remember. Make it an exercise in capturing and archiving thoughts, emotions and ideas coming from within you. Write about interesting people, conversations, meetings, books, lectures, places — anything that captures your attention. Over time, the collection will become a resource that will act as a secure helmsman to steer you through the turbulence of life.

It’s best to keep it as a private record although, we are so much richer for many of them having been published. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is the most well known example of the power of a journal. There are many more.

Why Should You Keep a Journal?

Journaling should be a collection of ideas rather than a chronological log of quotidian events. Putting your thoughts down on paper (or as digital bits if you prefer) unburdens your memory, a notoriously fallible storehouse. Journal writing is a powerful productivity and self-improvement tool.

There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal.

  • Problem solving: Writing is a tool for thinking clearly. The effort of transforming what’s in our heads as disjointed notions into words clarifies ideas and concepts. Spending fifteen to thirty minutes in this effort allows you to see the problem in distinct, easily grasped pieces. Organising them and making sense out of the puzzle becomes an easier task.
  • Decision diary: Get into the habit of making entries for the more significant decisions you make in your life. Put down brief statements about the following items:

— The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.

— A list of the possible routes of action.

— The pros and cons of each of them.

— Your choice and why you did so.

— What tradeoffs did you have to make?

— What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that regular writing reduces stress. Anxiety and depression can be alleviated to remarkable degrees by expressive writing and pouring out deep emotions.
  • Physical ailments: The benefits are not limited to behavioural problems. Many common disorders manifesting with pain and limitation of daily activities can respond to a simple recording of symptoms and feelings. Recognising pain and discomfort as something distinct and reportable goes a long way to augment healing processes within yourself.
  • Gratitude journal: Regardless of how bad things look, there are still so many others which are going right for you. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna;there is much to be grateful for. Write them down in your journal. The effects on your overall wellbeing can be substantial.
  • Self-discipline: Regularity in writing is an act of self-discipline and will power. It builds up resilience in all other aspects of your daily life.

Despite its popularity, there’s ample evidence that undergoing therapy with a trained analyst may be no more beneficial than talking to someone, even a friendly bartender. A well-nurtured personal journal is all you need. The list of winners at the head of this article, and many more, is proof.

How Do I Go About It?

The straight answer: Use whichever method or tool works for you.

It’s best to keep the process as simple and handy as you can: from just a notebook (a Moleskin, if you wish) to drawing, sketching, mind-mapping, visual thinking, photos, voice recording or any of the dozens of digital tools that are available for the purpose.

Apps like Evernote or Bear are fantastic for the ways and means by which you can organise and manipulate your entries. There are apps like Journal One which are specifically designed for the purpose.

The trick is consistency. Stick with whatever gives you the most value for the effort.

How Often Should I Review My Journal?

Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. Whenever you do look back, chose a time when you are calm, rested and still. Although there is a huge temptation to look when times are turbulent, you may not get the most out of your writing at these moments. Nevertheless, let your intuition direct you.

You must let your journal be a guiding lamp in your progress through life. No one can know and understand you better than yourself. It’s not unusual to be taken by surprise at the profound nature of your observations.

Stephen King Says

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching … your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Your attention is priceless treasure. Don’t give it away for free.

There was a time, not so long ago, when, if you wanted a book or needed to research a topic, you had to go to a bookshop or library. Watching a movie meant booking tickets at the cinema and clearing your calendar to be there at the right time and date. You couldn’t do anything else at the time. Music came through radio station programmes which you waited for, patiently. At best, you could listen to a few cassettes containing a small mixtape which you made or scrounged off friends.

Fast forward to the present decades. All of this and more is available right in front of you, in an area of a few square inches, anytime, anywhere.

Inundated by this wealth of choices, we want it all, constantly flitting from one activity to another. We are the most distracted humans of all time. The average attention span today is reported in single-digit seconds.

Not to forget, the rabbit hole of social media where you can fritter away hours at a time, ending up feeling depressed, jealous and drowning in low self-esteem. Everyone else seems to be doing fantastic things and enjoying great experiences while your life is a sad story.

Meet Blaise Pascal

Four centuries ago, Blaine Pascal, the French polymath and genius, nailed it when he said:

Four centuries on, nothing has changed. Stillness and silence continues to make us uneasy. We squirm.

The 21st Century Syndrome

In a recent article, the Guardian talked about the “21st-century syndrome” of inattention and distraction. How did we get here? What can we do to get back possession of this vital commodity?

Technology is blithely blamed as the culprit, specifically the internet. It’s true that one of the greatest inventions in history has come with mixed blessings. But technology is only a tool. It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with it that matters. You can generate electricity or destroy Hiroshima with the same tool.

What’s the buzz?

Taking a nuanced look, it appears that the problem arises from the monkey-mind of our emotions.

We look for activities to divert us from the anxiety of completing tasks at hand. Why are we anxious? We are afraid of failure. So, we postpone and in the process, accumulate even more anxiety.

You can’t tackle this problem, head-on. Trying to abstain from feeling anxiety is guaranteed to make you feel worse.

“Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ― Corrie Ten Boom

How Do You Eat this Elephant?

Like the much-quoted solution to eating an elephant, you have to progress in small bits. Split the task into small components, each of which might take a few minutes to complete. Like David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, you carry out a series of “next actions”.

  • Don’t look at the task as a whole. You will be overwhelmed. Split every activity into a series of small steps.
  • Carry out one step at a time. Suddenly, you will find that the task is done. The cloud will lift. You will experience an amazing lightness of spirit.
  • Savour this sensation and go for more. Like getting your clothes clean, “wash, rinse, repeat”. You will get better and better at it.

Don’t Let Them Take Away Your Treasure While You are Looking Elsewhere

We fail to realise that attention is the currency of the day. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok: they are all stealing your most valuable possession and making enormous amounts of money out of it. Don’t let them.

Take back what is yours.

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”― José Ortega y Gasset


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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The secret to making good decisions lies in weighing the trade-offs

“You can watch a movie on TV tonight, or you can go to your friend’s house for a sleepover on Saturday. You choose.” And, over the years … do I take this smaller university where I get a generous scholarship or do I opt for the prestigious one which will mean steep fees? You are now an adult with a job. Do I continue at this safe but boring job, or do I quit and join the exciting startup that wants me?

Decisions, decisions!

We make thousands of decisions every day. Most of them hardly reach our consciousness. When they do, decision making often poses a dilemma. You want something, but you have to give up something else: a tradeoff. Some other benefit or opportunity is at stake — the opportunity cos t of your decision.

Yin and Yang

In our lives, there are a few everyday ingredients that require tradeoffs. Here are a few.

  • Time: As we grow in our professions, time becomes a scarce commodity. Many decisions have to be made based on how much time is available. Time spent on the opportunity will inevitably mean that there is less for something else. Stay longer in the office and miss out on your child’s appearance in a school play.
  • Accountability: The more number of people and projects you are in charge, the higher the demand on your mind share. Stress levels zoom up.
  • Opportunity: New horizons mean risks. The opening might be exciting, but your steady paycheck may disappear.
  • People: The role and salary at a new job may be fantastic, but your present boss is a joy and delight to work with. Moving to the other company might mean dealing with the prospect of an unfriendly superior. Relationships are an essential part of job satisfaction.
  • Brand identity: It feels good to mention the name of a well-known firm as your employer, but the competition and lack of personal touch could be a downer. Your present employer is a small, family-owned business but everyone knows everyone and the owners treat you like family.

On the back burner

Tradeoffs aren’t always comfortable, which is why we try to disregard them. We seldom consider tradeoffs when we make decisions. Quite often, the compulsions of the moment do not give us the luxury of time for weighing options.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become visible. They may only show up in the long term. In the meanwhile, life goes on with or without you. As Einstein said:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

If we pause to reflect on the options, without losing our forward momentum and balance, we can end up with more satisfying choices. Impulsive choices extract a price. The price may be more than you can afford.

Six of one, half dozen the other

Tradeoffs carry opportunity costs: what you must forgo to get what you want. The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the larger the opportunity cost.

You didn’t take a vacation because you wanted the money to buy a new car. The holiday is your opportunity cost. Life is full of hundreds of similar examples.

Tiger by the Tail

The consequences of ignoring tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same fashion time and again. Here are some situations where you might want to stop and reflect.

  • You feel like you are always behind, always trying to catch up. There’s no time to stop and smell the roses. Understanding tradeoffs in time usage is an excellent way to cut out unhelpful behaviours and wastage.
  • You are working as hard as you can, but don’t appear to be making any progress. The working day feels like drudgery. You feel trapped in “zero-sum” situations where one gain is offset by another loss.
  • Multitasking doesn’t work. When you multitask, you are constantly shifting attention. This endless flitting between activities has a very steep energy cost. In the long run, you lose. You will be much better off doing them one at a time.

Taming the tiger

There is always a space between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be doing. Once you notice this gap, it’s easier to work on changing circumstances. Here are some strategies.

  • Reframe the situation: Spending more time at home could be a significant opportunity cost. Your present work situation demands long hours in the office. Maybe you should consider working from home.
  • Alter boundaries: Examine your self-imposed limits. Go to work at transcending them. A lot of things that we think we can’t do are from never trying.
  • Bargain: Tradeoffs are not written in stone. There’s always room for negotiating and reaching a happy compromise. Don’t be inflexible.
  • Accept: You need to be able to let go of not being great at something. “Kill your darlings” — a piece of advice which editors give to aspiring writers holds good here.

Decision Diary

Get into the habit of writing a diary for the more significant decisions you make. Put down brief statements about the following items:

  • The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.
  • A list of the possible routes of action.
  • The pros and cons of each of them.
  • Your choice and why you did so.
  • What tradeoffs did you have to make?
  • What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process and an insight into your mind.


Ironically, knowing how to make tradeoffs is a valuable skill; those who can do this well, get more out of life than others who aspire for everything.

“There are moments that define a person’s whole life. Moments in which everything they are and everything they may possibly become balance on a single decision. … These are moments ungoverned by happenstance, untroubled by luck. These are the moments in which a person earns the right to live, or not.” ― Jonathan Maberry, Rot & Ruin*


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Why do I feel so tired all the time? Where has all my energy gone?

“I start the day feeling like a wet washrag. I like what I am doing, but I still dread having to drag myself to work every day. I feel so tired and lacking in energy. It’s reached the stage where my performance at work is being affected.”

Every one of us feels tired now and then; this is normal. It’s a safety mechanism built in to ensure that we don’t wear our bodies out. Feeling chronically tired, day in and day out, is not normal. Energy is more than just a physical issue. Mental, emotional and spiritual factors can impact on our energy levels.

Four Kinds of Energy

Let’s stop for a minute or two and dissect out what “energy” is all about. It’s the sum of 4 elements.

1. Physical energy: This is the element that emanates from our bodies. It is what gives us the capacity to carry out physical tasks. In today’s world, the demand for physical energy is small. Most of us do work at a desk or, at best, minimal amounts of moving around. We no longer need to put in 8 to 10 hours of hard, manual labour at a farm; toil at a construction site or haul loads over large distances. We are well-fed and sheltered from natures inclemencies. It’s only during times of illness that there is any direct diminution of physical energy. We take access to adequate, balanced meals and shelter from common ailments for granted.

2. Cognitive energy: Much, if not all, of the work we do, is carried out through mental efforts. Intellectual activity has replaced physical labour. The critical fuel is cognitive energy. It’s is not always readily available., It can be altered or diminished by outside forces that impinge on our daily activities, over many of which we have no direct control.

3. Emotional energy: It hardly needs saying that our physical and mental processes are frequently affected by emotions. When we feel good — are on a high — we can do things with exceptional physical and cognitive ease, Complex problems can be solved smoothly. Feeling down can convert the most straightforward tasks to Herculean efforts. Emotional energy is even more fickle and unreliable than the previous two.

4. Spiritual energy: Human beings are uniquely endowed with consciousness. We can observe ourselves from a detached perspective and look for elements that the rest of creation can’t: beauty, truth, morality and, most of all, an ineffable entity called “purpose” — an energy source that can render all our actions deeply inspiring or tragically meaningless. Spiritual energy fuels these activities. It is the most intangible, yet the most crucial of the four energies.

Filling the Personal Energy Tank

All four elements have to be nurtured if the human-machine is to perform at peak efficiency. There is no quick fix, however. Many little things have to be done right, now and forever. Here’s the prescription.

1. Physical energy

Food is an essential aspect of physical energy. The problem, for most of us, at present, is one of excess. At no other point in human history has there been so many choices, mostly unhealthy. We are falling prey to the downside of overeating. Michael Pollan, the internationally renowned food writer, gives the best advice regarding nutritional sense:

Eat food, mostly plants, in small quantities Michael Pollan

By “food”, Pollan is referring to meals and snacks that are as close to the natural state as possible: minimally processed, freshly cooked, without too many additives and garnishing. Practically speaking, Pollan advises us not to eat anything that our grandmothers would not recognise or acknowledge as food. The critical portion of the sentence lies in the third component: small quantities. We eat way too much.

Dietary plans, regimens and fads bombard us. It is safe to say that most, if not all, are not supported by scientific evidence. Common sense, that rare commodity, prevails.

Exercise and activity: We overeat and compound the problem by exercising too little. As our needs for physical activity have rapidly declined, we are now paying the price for a sedentary lifestyle: a physical energy shortage of profound dimension. Once again, advice on this matter is everywhere but can be summarised as: “Good quality exercise, (anywhere, anyhow) for 150 minutes or more a week.”

We sit too much. Devices like standing desks are trendy, but there is no concrete evidence in support of their effectiveness. If your job involves prolonged sitting, take breaks every hour or so for a few minutes, to walk around or do some chair-bound stretches and exercises. Use the stairs, not the elevator. Refrain from driving short distances, walk instead. Sitting is the new smoking

Say “No!” to:

  • Tobacco in any form.
  • Uppers, downers and all in between. (Coffee, up to 2 -3 cups a day is OK. )
  • Sugary drinks.
  • Alcohol in large quantities, regularly. There is a robust, recent study that indicates that all alcohol is bad. The jury is still out on this (and I hope, will return a “not guilty” verdict).

2. Cognitive energy

Mental activity is dependent on cognitive energy. Mental blocks are common occurrences. Without exception, the answer seems to lie in moving away from the task at hand for a short spell. A short walk amidst Nature, listening to music or reading an inspiring book can work wonders.

  • Exercise is often the magic wand which breaks the spell. A brisk walk, a short run, a session at the gym: whatever suits you.
  • Quite often sleeping over a problem can be the solution. As you rest, your subconscious mind goes to work, and the answer might spring up when you wake up.

3. Emotional energy

Our emotions are seldom under our control. Both physical and cognitive energy can be sapped to a great extent by strong emotions like anxiety, anger and fear. Feelings cannot be tamed by confrontation; they may worsen when we try. The breath is, under most circumstances, an activity that is under our control. Breathing exercises can be simple, effective methods of controlling powerful, negative emotions and restoring a sense of calm.

4. Spiritual energy

Spiritual energy is elusive. The best way to harness it is the practice of mindfulness — living in the present moment. Here are some suggestions.

Welcome everything. Push away nothing, even stuff you dislike.

Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” — James Baldwin

  • Cultivate a “don’t-know-mind”. Approach every situation with no bias: with curiosity, wonder, awe and surprise. In the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Be child-like, not childish. Stay open to possibilities.
  • Don’t wait until the end. Don’t be overcome by regret at kind words left unspoken until there is no time left. Tell your loved ones about how you feel.

It’s not an easy road to walk, but the rewards are immense. Our lives are short and can be meaningfully lived only when we reach and tap the energy source that drives the engine of our selves.

Too many of us are hung up on what we don’t have, can’t have, or won’t ever have. We spend too much energy being down, when we could use that same energy – if not less of it – doing, or at least trying to do, some of the things we really want to do.” ― Terry McMillan , Disappearing Acts


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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