Inspiration and Getting Things Done

There have been times, which quite honestly come way too often, when I have felt uninspired and not wanted to do anything for a long time. I have procrastinated, produced work below my standards of quality and hence have been miserable. On the other hand, there also have been times when I felt a flow, was inspired and thought about something deeply and produced the best work that I can.

Obviously, we all want to maximise the latter and do away with the former. But, for this I do not want to rely on factors that are out of my control. Hence, I’ve found myself a few actionable items, hacks if you please, which have helped me stay more in the inspired zone and allowed me to produce good, meaningful work that I can be proud of. This post is about those things and I hope some of these are useful to you too.

Inspiration, for me, is something that drives me to create, to do and sometimes even consume. A good book inspires me to write stories and pen down my thoughts as well as inspiring me to pick up another good book to read. Inspiration moves you to act, it pulls you away from inaction. It instills a sense of optimism as if everything that you desire is in your reach and shows you a clear path to achieve those. But, where does it come from?

A good book, obviously. A moving speech, a thought provoking movie or a good conversation. But, apart from these external factors, I believe our own thoughts are our biggest sources of inspiration. Don’t we all know how our best ideas have a habit of arriving to us in the shower? But, how do we tap into this source?

The best way is to put yourself into those positions. I am not talking about the long walks, showers, long bike rides kind of thing. I mean a step after that. Start recording during that time. I am deeply influenced by and believe in a brilliant TED talk says that how the inspiration fairy grabs you and you have to act in that moment or else that fairy will move on to the next available, better prepared seeker. Keep a notebook at hand, record a voice message to self on your phone, tell a friend. Once these inspirations are recorded, you can work on them at a later time.

But, there are times when even after knowing all this stuff, you can’t act on it. What to do then? Don’t we all have a few brilliant ideas in our heads but nothing to show it for. Try these:

1. Change things
Our mind gets bored with repetitive things and seeks constant change (an oxymoron, I know). Whether it be in foods we eat, things we do, our hobbies or even our relationships. But, the irony is when we do seek out changes, it resists. Mind is a weird creature, seeking change but resisting when the moment to change comes along. Come over that resistance and change something. Move to a different location to work or change your posture or use a standing desk. Change helps to bring fresh perspectives and hopefully it can drive you back into flow.

2. Just get started
Starting up something is the biggest step and requires the most effort. At times, I write random stuff just to get started. Sometimes I even write about the fact that I don’t have anything to write about. But, after substantial number of minutes have passed with me putting pen to paper, something good starts to emerge. And it has served me well in other activities as well.

3. Get a good tool
An instrument or the tools of a trade/skill are very important for the kind or even the amount (and maybe thus the quality) of work produced. It is easy to say that a good artist excels irrespective of the environment she lives in. But, there is no harm in using all the help that you can get. I have not been much of a snob about it though - I still use a worn out Dell which heats up after 10 minutes of usage which also happens to be the amount of time it takes to boot up. But recently, I got a beautiful notebook and a Staedtler as a gift and I bought myself a writing desk. They make me want to use them. Beautiful tools call out to you. They want to serve the purpose they were built for and thus help you get into a flow.

4. Keep your personal and work tools separate
This is to ensure that there is no context creep between the two and it lets you focus on each thing separately. I have set up my personal, albeit slower laptop for personal projects and I keep my office laptop just for that - office work. It lets me be more involved in my day job and allows me more time or atleast a perception of more time for personal work.

What to do after you are inspired and have recorded your thoughts? Elaborate, even when you are not in the flow. Neil Gaiman once said that if you write only when you are inspired, you can be a good poet at best. But, to be a great novelist, you have to slog it out through drudgery even when you are not inspired. You have to put in those extra hours, one word after another and hope that you can get into a flow.

Related watch - Jack White on Inspiration

Doing is a state of being

I have been obsessed with the idea of being for quite some time now. I have spoken about this in some of my posts and have had some understanding of this concept. But, it is only recently that I have realised that I understood it all wrong. 


Poster in a friend’s room. 

Earlier, when I thought of ‘being’ as a concept, I imagined a life where I am not doing anything, just lying around engrossed in my own thoughts and observing the world around me. I did that for some time and enjoyed it. But, soon I realised that this is not the idea of being. Make no mistake, for others, what I just described could be a perfect way of existence, but its just not for me.

For me, ‘Doing’ is a state of ‘Being’. I like being in the midst of action, being aware, making things happen, producing more than consuming. I realised this the hard way when I wasn’t particularly happy with the state of affairs. I procrastinated, dilly dallied on the things that needed to be done. Feeling productive is a great feeling, it almost makes you feel as if your existence has a purpose. And that is why I wrote this post - to remind myself when I am feeling lazy that beyond the laziness, beyond the comfort zone, there is a much better feeling. 

Of course I am saying this right now because my mind seeks conflict. It might happen that after a few months of doing, I might feel like going back to not doing anything and being. But for now, I am good with ‘Doing is a state of being’ principle.

Simplifying Reading Habits

Recently, I’ve been in a constant quest to simplify my life. Reducing clutter and keeping only the things that interest me the most, the ones which add the most value in my life instead of aimlessly consuming everything that comes my way has been my intention. I want to control my life and the experiences I get. Doing this but without sacrificing the chance serendipitous moment is also to be taken care of.

One of the biggest things in that regard is controlling what I read. I’ve been an information junkie for as long as I can remember. From Pustak Mahal’s amazing series of Children’s Knowledge Bank which I used to buy from the book stalls on railway platforms, buying books from the Scholastic book fairs held at my school to the Internet. Consuming information feels good to me, it helps me grow. But, there are days when you feel as if you’ve consumed so much but at the end of the day you still feel hollow. That is why I have decided to control what I read. Hence, now, I’ve unsubscribed myself from all reading lists except a few. These are the few blogs which I admire and like to learn from.

1. Aeon Magazine - In this fast paced world of fast food articles, Aeon is slow journalism. They publish just one single, in depth, well researched article from the subject matter experts a day. Covering various genres, it is one of the best places to get an introduction on some new subject.

2. Zenhabits - It is a perfect, simple blog by Leo Babuta. A one man show, it has quickly become one of the most visited blogs on the internet. Leo’s daily insights from his life experiences are deeply thought provocative. One of his write ups, which is also pinned on his home page is Breathe and I absolutely swear by it.

3. The Minimalists - I have been a fan of minimalism philosophy and these guys are living it where we just dream about it. They are guys just like us who used to hoard stuff earlier but have now realised the importance of keeping only the stuff that matters and nothing else.

4. Art of Manliness - A man’s guide to everything manly. Need I say more?

5. Books - Not restricted to any particular category, but reading books is always a pleasure to get lost into. It takes time, but you come out of it feeling as if you have learnt something which is going to stay with you for longer than just any random article on the internet.

6. Hacker News - A geek’s default place for everything that is new, groundbreaking and exciting. Comments from the contributors are equally and sometimes even more informative than the articles themselves.

7. Mark Manson - Mark is a digital entrepreneur who has travelled the world and shares his experience in well written, insightful articles. No fluff, pure gold.

Having written this article, I feel that even this list is a little much and I need to cut down. I probably will. I hope you find some of these sites as useful as I do.

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First drafts are always crappy

Recently, some of my friends were fretting about the brand new redesign of their website. They were comparing it to Musicfellas and thought that theirs wasn’t good (which in opinion was actually way too good for the first version). It caused them grief and a little sadness. They were anxious. What they had forgotten was that they were comparing something which was a result of over 6 months of painstakingly discussing and sometimes even fighting over the minutest of details with something which was put out in a few days.

It’s not just them. I had been procrastinating on writing a short article for a friend’s blog for quite some time myself. I had a fear of imperfection. I didn’t realise one key point - first drafts are always crappy.

Things improve over time:

We don’t see how many pages a writer has torn apart to produce that great novel.

We don’t see the many erroneous brush strokes behind that final masterpiece.

We don’t see the multiple wrong notes before that final perfect one which makes a genius piece of music.

We don’t see the many changes in the color, size or placement of a button on a website before the final version.

And this can be overwhelming, depressing and a lot of times demotivating.  

Biz Stone, Twitter Co-Founder, once famously said: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success." Overnight success stories and get famous/rich/better quick is what we want. But, we forget that the people who seem be able to do that, have achieved it over a period of time. 

At Musicfellas, we didn’t get great (that’s what people have said) at design from the day one. Our first versions were almost embarrassing. It took us time, patience and constant perseverance to achieve what we did.

So, if you feel like you are creating less than awesome stuff to start with, realise that it is natural. You are already way ahead of so many people who haven’t even started something. You are in the top 1% of creators (completely made up stat). For you to achieve perfection, it is completely OK to take time.

Be aware that beautiful things, and the best ones at that, emerge incrementally.

Added bonus: Have a look at some of the earliest versions of the most popular websites in the world and see how they have evolved and gotten better with time: Wayback Machine.

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6 Productivity Hacks that work for me

1. Eat That Frog

Do the most difficult or the task you hate the most first. I guess this is against popular advice but this truly works. Your mind is the most fresh when you are starting out, and getting that one tough thing out of the way leaves you with much more motivation to carry forward with the other simpler ones. The frog analogy comes from the assumption, that people hate eating frogs.

2. Wear a cap

This is something that I have just discovered. There is no better work setting than putting on a low set cap, with your headphones over them. The idea is to restrict your field of view and focus on the task at hand. If only there was something which could tune out the multiple opened tabs #wishful thinking.

3. Ambient noise is good

Believe it or not, moderate ambient noise is proven to boost creativity. An environment like a coffee house is proven to increase your productivity. And this app called Coffitivity does just that.

4. When you are tired, push yourself to do one more thing

It’s the end of the day and you just want to wrap it up. Or it’s the middle of the week and you don’t feel particularly inspired to work and want to just leave. A simple hack is to push yourself to do just one more thing. More often than not, you will find yourself back in the zone. One more thing works magic for a few people, so why not you.

5. Just start doing, it is OK for the first draft to be crappy

The writers among you would probably agree with me on this one. The first drafts are always crappy - they don’t have to be grammatically correct. My first drafts usually are just random keywords joined together. The first drafts are more like an empty playground for your ideas, let them play around and mingle with each other.

6. Keep your goals to yourself

Derek Sivers has delivered a very solid TED talk on this. The idea is that when you tell someone what you want to do, say lose weight, more often than not they would congratulate you for taking it up. That is the validation and ego boost why you wanted to lose weight in the first place. So, your plans and resolutions are best kept to yourselves.