Thursday, 18 December 2008

Festive Fun in the Office

Spinning Geomag Christmas Stars

This morning my colleagues and I got even more creative than usual with my favourite desk toy, Geomag. We realised that the magnets stick to the metal parts of the ceiling between the ceiling panels. Initially we had one long column hanging from the ceiling but it was not strong enough to support anything more than a small pyramid. So we then went for a two column approach to spread the load. This allowed us to hang a spinning star going one way and a spinning diamond the other way, as pictured above! I can see we're going to be working hard this last day in the office!

More Geomag constructions (not my own) can be seen at The Geomag Wiki.


Friday, 12 December 2008

The Road To Sepilok

A Short Travel Story

What follows is my entry into the 2008 Telegraph Travel Writing Competition. The brief was to write a short story in a maximum of 500 words about an adventurous travel experience. I'll let it stand for itself, except to say that it happened while my wife and I were on honeymoon last summer. My wife is called Alex too - which you need to know while reading this or you will get confused!!

The Road To Sepilok
by Alex Bowyer

The fuel light had been flashing furiously for an hour. It was dark now. In 100 miles we’d seen only two petrol stations; our anxiety grew into panic when we found a third one deserted.

Driving across Malaysian Borneo was always going to be ambitious, but we really wanted to see orang-utans in the wild. We hadn’t anticipated this kind of trouble.

“If we run out, who could we call?” I wondered aloud, “I bet there’s no AA here.”

“No,” sighed Alex.

At last the endless palm plantations receded. We’d reached the outskirts of Sandakan.

“Can you tell how far it is?” Alex asked. Her voice was strained.

I checked. “No.” Useless map.

Minutes passed. We drove on.

“Hang on!” I yelled. “I saw a sign.” We must be close!

She pulled over.

“OK, you go and check. I’ll turn around.”

I walked back to the roundabout and crossed the road carefully, invisible in the darkness. Cicadas chirruped loudly in the dense jungle all around. I reached the signpost. It read LABUK B&B – 600 METRES, with a big arrow. I smiled. What a relief! I bounded back, eager to share the good news.

Getting closer, I froze. Four Malaysian youths surrounded the car. Shit. I ran, my heart pounding. Shouldn’t have left her.

The back of the car was hanging over a three foot ditch. A guy in a baseball cap and scruffy jeans was trying to communicate with Alex, “Apa yang telah terjadi?”

It was clear she was struggling to respond.

“I was reversing… I didn’t see the ditch,” she explained to me, as I drew near.

I could see they were trying to help. The man in the cap took charge, and we pushed the car with all our might. The wheels just skimmed the ground, splattering mud over my leg. I didn’t care. He tried to instruct Alex, but we could not understand him. He gestured that he should take the wheel. Alex got out. We exchanged a look. We were taking a huge risk; all our possessions were inside.

In that instant, I understood what it is to be completely vulnerable. We were putting our trust in a complete stranger.

He revved continuously. We gave one great heave. The wheels caught. The car sped forward. Instinctively, I hung onto the spoiler to try and stop the car driving away. I felt silly as he stepped out.

I shook his hand warmly; we thanked the men profusely for their help.

Back in the car, we felt overwhelming relief. My heart was still thudding.

“We were so lucky.”

“Yes, that could have been a lot worse.”

Five minutes later, we arrived; a wooden chalet amongst exotic jungle bushes and colourful flowers. Peaceful. We felt both euphoria and disbelief. We made it.
The next morning we filled up less than a mile away. We had an unforgettable day watching orang-utans being fed and swinging around the jungle – made all the more memorable by the adventure that took us there.

Some photos from Sepilok


Thursday, 11 December 2008

I've been around the world and I I I..

Track your travels with

I've just found an interesting site,, which draws up a personalised Google Map of countries in the world you've been. Here's my personal map...

Powered by 29travels

Still lots of white bits, I better get cracking!


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Putting users first

SMS Haircut Reminders

My hairdresser, The Green Room, recently took an innovative step forwards; it now texts customers a reminder the day before their appointment. It struck me that this is a very smart move on their part, and a great example of how listening to your users - in this case people coming for haircuts - can not only improve their experience of your product but also help your business.

I chatted to Scott, the manager, about the process. He'd mentioned that they were having lots of problems with people not turning up for appointments. This was causing an impact to his business because those slots were lost business - which could not be refilled at such short notice. Also it meant that staff would have nothing to do during those slots.

Having chatted to some customers about this he had established that often people just completely forget - especially as appointments are often made weeks in advance. It's something about the busy lives we all lead these days - it's so easy to forget things like this if, like a large proportion of the population, you are not ultra-organised. I'm fairly organised and I managed to forget one once - even though I had it on my calendar.

So having worked out that really people just needed a reminder, he took the really simple step of buying a pay-as-you-go phone with a £15 per month unlimited text bundle, and having his staff text all of tomorrow's customers each morning. The cost of the phone & texts is neglible - and the time taken by staff is easy to cover.

As a result, he has noticed a 50% reduction in no-shows - which not only helps avoid any business impact and improves staff morale - but also is a real benefit to customers. I find it great peace of mind knowing I'll get that reminder - and it's just one small thing that acts as a differentiator for them from other competing hairdressers.

The lesson is clear: Listen to your customers, understand their problems, and think of ways to solve them that your business at the same time.

Earlier this year, I attended HCI2008, the Human-Computer Interaction conference, in Liverpool, and learnt all about User Interviewing and User Persona Creation. Personas are essentially fictional characters that you create to represent your users - and you use them as a means to drive the software design and development processes.

What's interesting is that it's not about asking users what they think of your solution or your ideas for features - it's about understanding users' goals, motivations and mental models, to equip you to make better design decisions.

It sounds such an obvious idea really, but it's amazing how many software companies do not routinely have these sorts of conversations with their customers. So I'm starting an initiative in my department at work to interview some of our customers and generate some personas. Once we're done, I'll blog here about how it goes.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Keeping in touch in the digital age

Using ooVoo for three way family webcam chats

I live in Hampshire, my brother lives in Scotland, and my parents live in Northumberland. Not ideal really, but that's the way it's ended up. This generally means we only get to see each other altogether about twice a year - not as often as we'd like. As you may know, my wife and I are moving to Canada next year, even further away - so I decided it was time to do something to make sure we get to see each other often. I don't want to have even less contact due to being overseas!

First we experimented with Windows Live Messenger (MSN), Yahoo Messenger and Skype, which didn't do the job for various reasons - we needed something that would work on Windows XP and Mac OS X, and which would allow more than two participants at a time.

We eventually found the ideal piece of software for having webcam & voice chats with more than two participants. It's a great piece of software called ooVoo. It runs on Mac or PC, is a free 15Mb download, and is very easy to set up.

So now we can have 3 way video-conferences (in fact, ooVoo supports up to six participants) at a set time every week - which will make the distances seem a lot less. It's so much more than just a phone conversation, it is much more like seeing your family in person. Problem solved! I love it when technology actually improves your life! If your family or friends are far away, I recommend you give it a go.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Speed up Windows Boot Time with StartupDelayer

Maybe you still need those apps, but do you need them right away?

I recently read this article about how US employees are suing their employers over lost hours due to the time it takes Windows to boot. It's also struck me I really should do something about my Thinkpad's Windows XP boot time. It typically takes me the the best part of 15 minutes from power on to "ready to work" state. So it was good news when I came across a piece of software that can really help me gain some of that time back each day!

Some of the delay is due to the so-called "quick launch" applications that the likes of Adobe, RealPlayer and QuickTime install without asking. Many of these can be shut off but there are many drivers, applications and Windows services which are less obvious and think they need to load after Windows boots: anti-virus programs, Thinkpad drivers for Touchpad, TrackPoint etc, various corporate spyware apps my company makes me install, not to mention the applications I do need to use now and then - such as Messenger, printer drivers, Nokia phone software, Bluetooth support etc.

There are programs that let you optimize your system by removing/disabling some of these. A good write up of this is on Lifehacker here. You do need to make extensive use of Google to work out what a given EXE or DLL actually does. I see that they have improved this a bit in Windows Vista which provides more information on process names in its task list.

One of the problems with this approach is that often you do need some of these things to load - just not all together at the beginning. It's this "big hit" of 15-30 small apps all trying to load at once that renders your machine unusable when you just want to quickly check your calendar, email or a webpage. (i've actually arrived at work at 9.45 for a 10am meeting and still been late because of the time it's taken to boot my laptop and get into my calendar!)

The problem comes that (much to my disappointment) I do actually need a lot of this crud to run just to make things work (yet another reason why I prefer the Mac!). However I'd still like to avoid that initial delay that stops me starting working straight away. R2 Studios have come up with an ingenious solution - StartupDelayer. Essentially this is a program that lists your startup applications and lets you disable any of the items you want to - but more importantly, to specify a delay for each one - so that you can stagger your boot sequence and work away happily without overloading your processor. Here is what it looks like:

Screenshot of StartupDelayer

I've staggered the applications that still need to load over a 15 minute period, with things like TrackPad support and Access Connections loading straight away, and the items I'm least likely to need loading last of all. I activated the Delayer and restarted and the difference was noticeable - I can now get into the Web (thanks to Chrome's fast startup) well inside of 5 minutes. Lovely!

I'm not normally a fan of downloading extra applications to enhance Windows but this is one worth using. I recommend you give it a try!

Update: Well, it's name and shame time; I've found that the following applications add themselves back into the Windows Startup List and refuse to be controlled by StartupDelayer - meaning they will insist on booting up straight away and causing a CPU spike at boot time:

  • c4ebreg (corporate spyware thingy, can't be disabled or delayed)
  • ISAMtray (corporate spyware thingy, can't be disabled or delayed)
  • ISSI EZUpdate Service (internal company installer thingy)
  • BMMGAG (ThinkPad Power Monitoring, seems to be needed)
  • pmonmh (IBM My Help, seems to be needed although I'm tempted to get rid of it)
  • msnmsgr (Windows Live Messenger, fortunately auto-start can be disabled in Messenger preferences)
  • ISUSPM (something to do with InstallShield, can't be disabled or delayed)
Fortunately, if you're reading this, most of those won't apply to you (unless you work for the same company!). Oh well, at least things are better - now if I only I could get rid of these corporate monitoring applications! Any tips on getting rid of (or at least delaying) these last few are welcome!

Author's notes: Please excuse the strange vertical line down the middle of the page - I can't figure out where it's coming from or why it suddenly appeared - I suspect Blogger may have changed their template and since I customized it for a wider page, I'll need to go deep diving into the template HTML. Oh what a joy! Any tips are very welcome. Secondly, I just wanted to say that I can't believe I've been back a month from India now - I have a few blog post ideas kicking around so will aim to get them down over the next couple of weeks! As ever, thanks for reading.


Monday, 3 November 2008

A feast for the senses; a land at peace

India 10: Reflections on India

So, my three week trip to India is nearing its end. Tomorrow I fly back to Mumbai and on Wednesday back home. As I reflect on my time in India my feelings are overwhelmingly positive. From day one, India has blown away all expectations. I have to confess I was pretty prejudiced about India. I imagined a disease ridden place with rubbish and bodies in the streets and destitute people all around. I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes there is more rubbish than you would see elsewhere - but not in the streets, the people are very proud and streets and highways are regularly swept clean. You have to look hard to see the rubbish - down back alleys and at the edges of towns. There are no bodies in the street either. That seems to be pure myth. The only thing we did see occasionally is sarcophaguses of mummified religious leaders by the roadside, as sort of shrines.

The most significant thing that strikes me about India is the colours. England and the West looks positively drab by comparison. Everywhere you look, bold bright colours can be seen. Women dress in striking coloured sarees to go about their daily business - even the poorest women still look beautifully dressed.

And it doesn't stop at the women. Buildings and office blocks are painted in bright reds, yellows and blues. Store fronts are decorated with fresh flower garlands each day. Even the vehicles are painted and adorned with flowers over their radiators. People decorate the entrances to their homes with intricate rangolis made from flower petals and pulses (and even more so at Diwali).

And it's not just colours, you find all your senses overwhelmed - smells of spices and freshly cooked curries mixed with incense and earthy farmyard type smells as well the occasional smell of bad drains. And vehicle horns mingle with traders and taxi drivers hollering each other along with occasional religious chants and calls to prayer from loudspeakers above temples. Even the temples are varied, a fusion of Islam and Hindu styles. And the taste too - The curries we have at home are not a patch on real Indian food. There is no "curry powder" here. Each dish is delicately crafted with the precise mix of chillies herbs and spices to complement its ingredients.

India is definitely a shock, but in a good way. It is unlike anywhere I've been before. Each place took a while to get used to, and I realised that a big reason for this is that India is really 28 different countries with various climates, cultures and languages - united mainly by proximity and religion. I had not realised that most Indians speak the language of their own state and one or two others - and only if you're lucky a basic level of Hindu and English. Both Hindu and English are the unifying languages but only the highly educated are fluent in either.

The thing that will stay with me most though is memories of the people here. Not are they incredibly warm and welcoming, they are more peaceful than any I've ever seen before. I saw no crime in India. Outside of tourist hotspots I saw minimal begging. What beggars you do see tend to put on an act and do it in tourist areas to earn a living, because they can earn more money that way, sadly. People wave as you pass by and greet you in the street. Everyone here just seems happy. And I literally mean everyone. We are glum by comparison.

It started to dawn on me when I looked at the "slum" outside my hotel in Ahmedabad, and on closer inspection I realised that while these people had little money, they were getting on with their lives. They had very basic rooves above their heads, and electricity and water. They keep their streets between the tin huts clean, and their kids play happily outside. This was not a slum as I'd imagined it, from African famine appeals and Geography textbooks. These were proud people going about their business. Maybe the climate helps, but it just felt like there is a kind of positivity - everyone just gets on with life.

I think it really hit me though when we were driving into Mumbai from the airport and waiting in traffic. I saw a young girl of eight or so by the roadside. She was naked but for a pair of red shorts and had a pail of water by her, from which she was filling a small jug. She was rinsing and squeezing her clothes and then wringing them out on the pavement. She finished one garment and hung it on the railings by the roadside, and started on the next. I didn't feel horrified, and I wasn't sure why - surely I should be appalled at such a scene? But thinking about it afterwards I realised - that girl is not starving or malnourished, she is not begging, she has not given up on life. She was completely at ease with what she was doing. It was just part of her routine. And I think this sums up what the Indian people are about. Whether it comes from the belief in Karma, I don't know, but it seems that in India, you make the best of what life gives you. People don't spend all their time obsessing about how to make a better life for themselves. Which isn't to say they have no ambition - just that they maintain a happy and balanced outlook.

It's a really noble thing in a way, and it really makes you think about how we live our lives in the West. In general, we spend our lives in pursuit of more wealth or better partners, or we worry about fear losing what we already have. We obsess over what-ifs and might-have-beens without ever stopping to just enjoy what life has given us. I know that is probably a great over-simplification but I hope you can see what I am getting at. There is something we can learn from India. It's no wonder they are an up and coming force in the world. It's a country that's going places and which by and large hasn't been sucked into Western capitalist and media ideals (yet - I did see a few disturbing adverts for "skin whitening moisturiser" on the TV, and Mumbai feels quite a lot like other Western cities). I hope that as India grows to join the bigger, more "developed" nations of the world, it retains its vibrancy and individuality.

So that about sums it up, really. If you get chance, go to India, and leave your expectations behind. Go with an open mind and after a few days acclimatisation you will find a friendly place full of happy people, bright colours, great food and a rich history and culture. I know I'll be back.


Goa Goan Gone..

India 9: Goa - Paradise lost?

After a successful week's work in Mumbai, Steve headed home to the UK, and I took advantage of the paid flight to India to take a week's holiday.. beach time in Goa! I'd heard mixed things about Goa - from people saying that it wasn't "the real India" and best avoided, to people saying it's total paradise.

Well the good news is that nature-wise it's beautiful. On the way from the airport we passed fields, palm & rubber plantations, rainforest. Goa is a state on the west coast of India with 63 miles of west-facing coastline - which means beautiful beaches and amazing sunsets every night. I stayed in Palolem Beach in the far south of Goa - which is a sort of alternative/backpacker place like Byron Bay in Australia or Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. I've always preferred the laid back alternative scene than just going to get pissed in the sun somewhere! First impressions were great, a long bay with golden sands and overhanging palm trees. Not complete paradise, the sand is not as clean as it could be, and there just a few too many beach-front huts, bars and restaurants - but it comes pretty close!

I stayed in a very nice beach hut (actually a couple of different ones - the tourist season is just starting up here so it's starting to fill up, I had to move after the first night!)

After a few days I decided it was time to do some sightseeing, so I hired a car with driver for the day (about 25 GBP) and saw Panjim, Old Goa and Fort Aguada, all of which are fine remnants of the Portugese era which only ended in 1961. You can look at my set on Flickr to see some photos of that.

I also took a stop at Baga, which is the "party place" in Goa, and can I just say, it was horrible! North Indian lager louts wander around in their "Goa is Best" bests, drinking beers and hassling girls like some sort of parallel universe Ibiza. All the palm trees are gone and replaced by a never ending strip of bars and shops all aimed at extracting cash from tourists. People hand out flyers to bars that never close. You can't get even a small patch of sand to yourself without being hassled by traders. It was everything that is wrong with commercialism and tourism.

The really disturbing thing is that I saw a lot of development happening on Palolem Beach with businesses expanding to take more tourists. A bay just down the coast has been eaten up by a 5 star hotel resort complex. People say that the entire middle section of Goa's coast has been ruined like Baga - the only places with a bit of peace and charm left are Palolem in the far south and Arambol in the far north. You really get the sense of an unstoppable monster chomping up the beautiful beaches and spitting out Anywhere-On-Sea.

It really brought home to me the ugly side of tourism. I suppose in a way backpackers are like early-adopters of new tourist destinations - and over time as more and more people discover them the inevitable developments happen and the mainstream masses arrive. I wonder how much longer Palolem and Arambol have left before they lose their charm too. I've heard that Ko Phi Phi in Thailand has been ruined since "The Beach". I wonder where will be the next backpacker hotspot to bite the dust? I wonder if anything can be done?


Sunday, 2 November 2008

Rules of the road: Ahmedabad vs Mumbai

India 8: Indian driving styles

I've never seen traffic anything like the traffic in Ahmedabad. Not because it's chaotic, but because they seem to have some set of unwritten rules that actually produce order from the chaos such that people rarely crash into one another. In Ahmedabad probably only a quarter of the vehicles are cars as we'd know them. Most are auto-rickshaws or motorbikes, and the rest are either tiny trucks shorter and narrower than Western cars, or a variety of thrown-together carts pulled by camel, cow, three-wheeled bicycle or even pulled by hand. There is no such thing as lane discipline. Since the average vehicle size is so much smaller, roads are typically filled four or five vehicles across. People cut into whatever gaps are available, bipping their horns as they do so to say "watch out, I've got this space". I never heard anyone beeping out of frustration. The only rule I could discern is that like at sea, smaller vehicles give way to bigger vehicles.

The amazing thing is that there is no road rage to speak of, and while the vehicles seem to all look a little battered and dented, I only saw one bump the whole time we were there. The thing that stands out in my mind is that people seemed to just expect other people to cut them up, and accepted it graciously. I wondered what it would be like if we had such a system in the West - would there be fewer accidents? As we got out of the city I realised that one of the reasons it worked is that the traffic is fairly slow, so people have more time to react. Once you get out of the centre with vehicles at speed it gets a little more hairy. But still, it was very interesting to observe.

Mumbai, on the other hand was a completely different kettle of fish. Mumbai has quite possibly the worst traffic problem I've ever seen. In central Mumbai, auto-rickshaws are banned, as are cows (mostly), and most of the traffic consists of rich financial types being driven around in luxury saloon cars. The local cabs are smaller than the average car, old Fiat 1100s I'm told, but they look straight out of the 60s. There is very little chance to cut into gaps here, there are no gaps. Mumbai is gridlocked from 9 til 11 and 6 til 8 every day. Many Mumbai citizens have given up on road transport and take the train instead, meaning the trains are overcrowded with people hanging out of the open doorways. Many people become isolated to certain parts of the city because getting anywhere else in the city is just completely impractical - taxis and buses being affected just the same as private cars. Our hotel was only a couple of miles from our office, but it took almost an hour to get to and from work every day. We actually moved hotel to reduce our daily travelling time.

And there is road rage here. Boy, is there road rage. Every few seconds people are beeping and honking in frustration at the fact they just can't get anywhere. In short, don't ever expect to travel anywhere in Mumbai by road quickly. I expect it will completely grind to a halt within a couple of years if they don't do something. The amount of businesses and hotels is continuing to grow, and there isn't any more room on the road. If I were them I'd introduce a congestion charge, pronto!


The Mumbai Milk Scam

India 7: The lengths people will go to, to con a tourist

Mumbai, Friday night, after dark.

Our "cool cab" drops us off by the Gateway of India. The moment we get out the taxi, a man with a four foot yellow balloon with green spots asks us if we want to buy one. He slaps it as if to demonstrate what we're missing out on. Unsurprisingly we said no. Moments later, a young Indian women approaches us and introduces herself and starts trying to tie flower garlands around her wrists. We refuse and walk away but she is persistent. We say that we don't want to buy them but she insists, she says don't worry, it's a gift. For Diwali. Ok, we say, thank you, and walk away, but we're sure this won't be the last we see of her. We walk down the seafront and notice she is following us, about twenty paces behind. We walk for a good ten minutes and she is still following us.

Eventually the seafront road turns inland and on our left, shopkeepers sell their wares onto the street, on small tables and stands. The girl approaches us again and says in stilted English "Can you buy milk for me?" pointing at a carton of powdered milk on a shopkeeper's stall. It's for my little brother. I'm tempted to help her, since she'd walked all that way. I ask the shopkeeper how much. 350 rupees (approx 4 GBP). And then it hits me. That's way over the odds. The milk should be about 30 rupees. She's in cahoots with the shopkeeper. Presumably that after I've bought the milk and gone, thinking I've done a good deed, she would give it back to the shopkeeper and split the profits. Nice little earner.

Someone else told us they'd seen a similar scam with rice. The whole incident reminded me that this is a major tourist spot and everyone wants your money. I think how lucky I am that we didn't see any of this in Gujarat. Fortunately, apart from at these major tourist spots like Gateway of India and Victoria Terminal, begging and scamming is not too prevalent. Not as much as some cities like say Barcelona. Still, it just shows, if there's tourists around, don't trust anyone!


Friday, 31 October 2008

A night out in Mumbai, local-style

India 6: Mumbai "Beer Bars" and Extreme Culture Shock

As you may have already gathered, after a week in Ahmedabad we still hadn't been able to do the work we set out to do, so we were told to fly to Mumbai and do some installations there. Mumbai is a different world from Ahmedabad - a global metropolis - but that's for another post. This post is about a strange experience we had on the Friday night after we arrived. My Indian colleague Lakshmi and his friend Puru took us out "on the town" in Mumbai to show us how Indian guys enjoy themselves. The first stop was a place called "L.P. Restaurant Bar" in Andheri.

However when we got upstairs we found something that wasn't quite what we expected. We were ushered into a small room about the size of a pub function room. On a raised stage in the corner, an Indian band played and sang something that sounded like a blend of karaoke, Bhangra beats and europop. Disco lights flashed around the room. We were shown to our seats on upholstered benches which lined the walls of the room. In front of us was an oval glass table with ornate gold-painted metal carvings for legs, of Adonis and Aphrodite like figures. At various locations around the room stood about ten waiters dressed in beige Noel-Coward lounge suits. Every single one of them had a bushy black Saddam Hussein moustache. It looked like they were as much bouncers as waiters. In the centre of the room stood two or three beautiful Indian women dressed in delicate silk sarees with gold embroidery. The clothes were clearly chosen to make them look beautiful, and they were made up to match. Further back from the centre of the room, and less in the limelight stood less well dressed Indian women or equally well dressed but less attractive women. It was these women that served us two beers as well as some complimentary some cucumber pieces and peanuts. Indian men sit at tables around the outside of the room drinking beer or Red Bulls (the non-alcoholics' preferred choice). One customer smoked away on a cigarette, underneath a big "NO SMOKING" sign on the wall. The waiter brought him an ashtray.

Steve and I were completely baffled. We weren't quite sure where we were. It had the seedy feel of a strip club but at the same time nothing inappropriate was happening and but for the women it could easily have been pub karaoke night. The women just stood there. Not dancing, not even swaying to the music. Occasionally a man would flash some notes at one of the girls, she would wander over, take the notes and put them in a big metal box by the band. Every now and then one of the girls would be relieved, and another girl would come and stand in her place.

The more we sat, the more bemused we were. We felt a sense of anticipation. Surely one of the women would do something. But no, that was it. Our Indian colleagues seemed to be enjoying themselves though.

Eventually we left, wondering if we dreamt the whole thing. This was the most surreal experience I have encountered in recent memory.

Apparently this is what is known as a "beer bar" as opposed to a "dance bar". The women used to dance (still fully clothed) while the men mentally undressed them.
A law was recently passed to outlaw women dancing in bars for men's entertainment. So now the dance bar seen has apparently gone undergound. And the bars that want to stay legal, hire beautiful women to just stand there. Because that's still legal. So there you have it.. The Mumbai Beer Bar. An evening I will not forget!


Adalaj Wav Stepwell

India 5: Is it a temple? Is it a tomb? No, it's a stepwell

Just outside of Ahmedabad on our way to the Nature Park we visited a small plain looking temple, at the driver's suggestion. It was a square building made of white bricks, nicely decorated inside with bright coloured garlands and mirrored. As we were about to leave I noticed some steps down through an iron gate. What I saw then was absolutely breathtaking and I realised this is what we had come to see.

Descending five storeys down into the ground, but open to the sky, was a series of pillars and arches on a huge scale. It felt like something you might see in ancient Egypt or in an Indiana Jones film. I certainly had some slight nervousness as I descended down the steps and it got darker and darker. Carved figures and shrines decorated with candles and flower garlands marked the walls either side of me. Eventually I reached the bottom and saw a large square pool with railings over it. Presumably this is the level of the water table and worshippers wash their feet there. I looked back up the sky and five floors of stonework towered above. I felt very small.

It turns out this is a Stepwell, a form of holy site unique to this part of the world. As far as I could understand they exist because of some restrictions about building upwards.. so they went down instead.

I'd never seen anything like this and it was at least as impressive as any temple or tomb I've seen before.


Thursday, 30 October 2008

Look at the strange cow-eating white men!

India 4: Strangers in a strange land

From the first night Steve and I went for a walk around Ahmedabad, we noticed that people were looking at us a little strangely. Not with any kind of negativity or judgement but more a sort of genuine fascination - the way you might find your eyes drawn to a person with bright green hair or an unfortunate birthmark. It took a little getting used to. After a couple of days it struck us - we were the only white people in town - even in the hotel. It seems the local people rarely see any non-Indians.

It turns out that Westerners rarely come to Gujarat, so in a way it was the ideal introduction to India. We realised just how rare it must be when we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to Le Meridien and he'd never heard of it or been there, even after we got there (Le Meridien is the most expensive hotel in town).

But it was also interesting to realise that we'd been there a couple of days without even realising we were in a minority. I found that quite weird at the time - my last experience of being in a minority was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA where everyone was black. I felt quite nervous and like I stood out, I was acutely aware of being different. Not so here. There's something about the people and their attitude that makes you feel very safe and at ease. It would take me a couple more weeks of being in India to really be able to put it into words.

On our first evening as we sat in a restaurant a little Indian girl of 10 or so years old and said in her best attempt at English. "Hello. What is your name?". Her mother stood behind her and looked on proudly. We introduced ourselves, asked her name, exchanged smiles and she went away happy. This sort of thing happened all the time.. Children would call out "Hello How Are You" in the street as we walked past. We even had a few shouts of "Welcome to India!" which was really touching. But this was nothing compared to what happened to us at Lothal.

It was our weekend off and we had a driver for the weekend. On the Saturday he'd taken us to some nearby sights - Akshardam Temple, Adalaj Step Well (which is a truly unique kind of below-ground temple or baoli which I had never seen before), Indroda Nature Park and Gujarat Science City. On the Sunday we headed further afield, south to the ruins at Lothal, and north to Modhera Sun Temple, both of which were well worth visiting.

Lothal is a remnant of the Indus Valley civilization which existed around 2600BC - comparable to ancient Egypt. There is not a great deal left, lots of floors and walls - kind of like visiting a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. What is impressive is that they had shipping and docks with a form of lock all that time ago - and the dock is still water bearing. Also the kiln-fired red bricks they made over 4000 years ago are still intact and look even better quality than those we use today! (Apparently the British thought so when colonizing the area and helped themselves to plenty - as did local farmers etc). Anyway I digress. Not long after we'd arrived at the site, a school bus pulled up. The kids spotted us and started hanging out of the windows cheering and waving. Lothal is out in the countryside and these kids must rarely see anyone outside their own village let alone from another country.

Not long after they were off the bus they ran to see us - they were far more interested in us than the ruins. They swarmed around us all wanted to shake our hands - at one point I had about 15 hands on my arm as they all tried to touch me! They all wanted to be photographed, taking great pleasure in being photographed - as do most of the children in India, they often ask to be photographed and giggle when you photograph them. A world away from the UK where photographing children is so heavily frowned upon. The school teacher with the group was just as excited as the kids, but spoke reasonably good English and talked to us about the children and his school. As a teacher he earns 2000 rupees a month (approx 23 GBP) but said that the children come from very poor farming families where there parents earn a fraction of that.

He had one of the group take our photograph with the schoolkids on an ancient-looking film camera, a picture for their classroom. He also asked for our autographs and asked if he could "interview" us. The interview consisted of one question, "What do you eat for lunch in India?" I'd actually had a lot of local foods and Gujarati Thali so I thought I'd say something more unusual to them - I said "burger and chips". He had literally no idea what this was, and asked me to write it down. It's nice to see that there are some parts of the world where fast food culture has not yet arrived! After a while, a few more handshakes and a few more photographs, he managed to tear the group away from us and get them back to their historical education.

It was an unbelievable experience I will never forget. You hear people talk of people in remote parts of the world getting excited when they see white people but I'd never seen it for myself first hand. I gave a few of the kids some English 10p and 20p coins I had left in my wallet - something from the West - it made their day! The whole experience left us feeling warm and fuzzy for the rest of the day!

We went to a restaurant in Ahmedabad for lunch, and a group of college age girls asked us where we were from and what we were doing here. We explained we were from England and were working here. They said they were studying for MBAs - which explained their good English. Generally we observed that the more educated people in India spoke English (hoteliers, teachers, students etc) but the more menial workers (drivers, shopkeepers etc) rarely spoke any.

Throughout the rest of our time in Gujarat, and to a lesser extent in Mumbai and Goa, people would come up to us and ask where we are from. We'd say England, and they'd walk away smiling. I found it a bit odd at first that people would ask our country then that would be the end of the conversation. But an incident at the airport gave me an insight into this. Steve spotted a very dark skinned man who stood out from the Indians, and asked him where he was from. The man said Nigeria, and Steve smiled and the conversation ended. I just realised I'd seen the same conversation in reverse - it's simply that we are so out-of-the-ordinary to the local people, that they are just compelled to find out where we are from!

Another bizarre celebrity-type moment happened to me at Shanku Water Park, where a group of boys dragged me into the "wet disco" (basically an outdoor room with loud music and water jets spraying from the floor. They proceeded to dance around me cheering and jumping around like I was a rock star and making "rap fingers" gestures. At the other side of the room, a group of girls danced in their own little huddle, wearing long sleeved pyjama-style swimsuits. It was a very very weird experience!


Tuesday, 21 October 2008

How to get a drink in Ahmedabad

India 3: "Dry County"

The first time we went out for a meal in Ahmedabad, Steve and I were in for a surprise. Steve tried to order a beer and we were told that alcohol is illegal in the state of Gujarat! Gujarat was the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi in 1869, and he believed that alcohol was a major social evil and a cause of many of the world's problems. In deference to that, the state of Gujarat made it illegal to possess or consume any form of alcohol.

Fortunately we found out that as a foreigner in Gujarat, it is possible to obtain alcohol. Here's a handy how-to guide, from our experience:
  1. Take your passport to your hotel front desk, between 11am and 6pm (no earlier and no later)
  2. They produce a document that proves you are resident at that hotel, along with dates and a reference to your passport number.
  3. They also provide a photocopy of your passport and Indian visa.
  4. Locate a licensed "liquor shop". These are few and far between, probably only 2 or 3 in the whole city. We found one at Cama Hotel, just 5 minutes walk up the road from our hotel.
  5. Enter the liquor shop, which will most likely look more like a library reading room than an off-licence, with a few solitary spirit bottles on the shelves and a stack of beer crates.
  6. Decide what alcohol you want to consume in the next 7 days. You are allowed one bottle of spirits, 3 bottles of wine or 10 large bottles of beer.
  7. Fill out some paperwork for the state government with your contact details, purpose in India, and sign to confirm that you will not sell or redistribute the alcohol.
  8. Take the paperwork to the government licensing official's desk at the other side of the room. He will most likely make a bit of a fuss and charge you double the official rate, before stamping your paperwork and issuing you with a Visitor's Permit "to possess and use foreign liquor for personal consumption"
  9. Sign the permit and have it stamped. You will have to bring it back and renew it every 7 days.
  10. Take it back to the liquor sellor who will then issue your box of beer or alcohol of choice and stamp your permit and passport to ensure you do not get more than your weekly allowance.
  11. Carry your box of Fosters home to your hotel.
  12. Feel rather self-conscious as you realise you are blatantly carrying something down the street in plain sight which is a banned substance the general population can't get hold of.
  13. Breate a sigh of relief as you get it back to your hotel room.
  14. Do not take the alcohol to dinner at your hotel. You will be reminded that consumption of alcohol in public, even with a permit, is illegal.
  15. Resort to joining your colleague for a hotel room to drink the beer as you watch American films or Indian pop hits.
  16. Eagerly take your first sip, and then sigh with disappointment as you realise Indian beer tastes disgusting.
  17. Recall something you once heard about how beer in India has glycerol added as a preservative. As one blogger put it, "A couple of tastings was enough to confirm our initial suspicions that any chemical used as an active ingredient in soap or as an anti-freeze in car radiators has no business in beer. Not only does the glycerol cause huge bubbles to form in the beer, it gives you a headache the next morning out of all proportion to the amount of beer you consumed the previous night."
  18. Place your thumb over the bottle and invert it upside down in a glass of water.
  19. Watch as a huge quantity of glycerol pours out of the beer into the water (because glycerol is heavier than water). Hold it for about 2 minutes until the bulk has gone.
  20. Right the beer and pour.
  21. Drink it, find that it tastes a little better, but wonder if it was worth the effort!
  22. Repeat every seven days
The good news is we are now in Mumbai, where alcohol is legal. We made good use of it tonight with a few imported beers and a nice bottle of Sangiovese with our meal (which was a mixed grill!!)

Blogger's note: A couple of people have commented that my blog posts are quite long - I guess they are hard to read on a computer screen. So I am going to try a different approach and write a few shorter topic-based posts like this rather than using the daily journal approach. Feedback welcome as always.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

First Impressions of India

India 2: Welcome to Ahmedabad

Le Meridien in Ahmedabad is a little odd. It is simultaneously amazing and disappointing. It is beautifully decorated with marble pillars, polished brass railings, glass chandeliers, and bowls of water with floating flower petals adding colour to the lobby. At first glance it looks like no expense has been spared. But once you get past the surface layer the reality seeps through, that this is just a facsimile of an expensive Western hotel, where something got lost in translation.

The bedrooms are large, with 2 beds, a desk, a comfy armchair and a large (42”) flat panel TV. A small table sits in front of the window with two fruit vaguely resembling an apple, and a knife. The first thing I noticed on walking into the room though was a damp smell, like laundry that hasn’t dried properly, which has not gone away over time. I think it’s something to do with the air-conditioning system. I started to unpack and found that there was only one small drawer, barely large enough for a couple of T-shirts. Maybe they don’t use drawers in India. The room itself is just a little bit dark and dingy. Looking out of the room I could see the river with a bridge over it, and between the hotel and the river I could see a cluster of run-down shacks that appeared to be some sort of slum settlement. I was struck by the contrast between the plush hotel and the poverty below, and felt a small pang of guilt.

After settling in we went for a swim. The indoor swimming pool (why they made it an indoor pool when it’s 35 degrees outside in October I have no idea!) is a magnificent affair, a long room with light marble floor and walls, and white Greco-Roman columns lining the poolside. At the end of the pool is a white stone carving of a mermaid sitting and holding a seashell from which streams of water trickle into the pool below. Between the columns are art deco painted murals of half dressed cherubic figures, much like you would see in an art gallery. A spiral wrought iron staircase takes you down from the changing room to the poolside. Five minutes into the swim, I discovered just how impractical this excessive design is – marble and water do not mix! The result is a slippery and treacherous floor which is pretty much impossible to cross in bare feet. I found this to my cost as I got out of the pool and slipped over and landed with a thud by the poolside. I stubbed my toe in the process. A very concerned pool attendant fussed over me and helped me to my feet.

I then went to check out the sauna and steam room, both of which are fully functional but have complicated control panels with dials and switches to set the temperature, time etc – in effect you have to “order up” your steam room or sauna session, waiting for it to be ready and hoping you chose the right settings. The jacuzzi is huge, with mirrors all around, and looks like something an LA movie star might look at home in with a glass of champagne and a girl on each arm. The jets are insanely strong, like an industrial power hose, so much so that it hurts to sit against them. While I was waiting for the steam room, a man who had been cleaning nearby came up to me and pointed out some marks on the floor and said something I couldn’t understand. I looked down and it turned out I’d cut my toe when I slipped over and left dots of blood across the marble floor! It barely hurt at all, but in no time the man had ushered me into the gym where I sat on a towel on a weights bench while he and a colleague carefully applied Dettol, cotton wool and a Band-Aid to my toe.

Then the pool attendant came back, looking even more worried than before, apologizing profusely for my accident. I said it was nothing, no problem, and that I would wear shoes next time as I hadn’t realised the floor was slippery. After that I thought nothing more of it, but as I was getting changed in the changing room, the pool attendant came back with the hotel Front Office Manager who offered even more sincere apologies and asked me if there was anything he could do for me; he seemed desperate to want to do something to make up for what happened. I couldn’t believe they were making such a fuss. Again I assured him it was no problem. He gave me his business card and said that if I needed anything at all I should just contact him. Back home you might think that all this fuss was a fear of being sued – but here it is different, there seems to be a genuine desire to make the guest or customer’s experience as perfect as it can possibly be and the staff were genuinely shocked and upset that they could have allowed such a thing to marr my experience.

Putting the poolside adventure behind me, as the heat of the day subsided a little (having dropped from around 37 degrees to a mere 25 degrees) we headed out to explore Ahmedabad. The air was hot and dusty, with a little humidity, though not as sticky as somewhere like Bangkok. Like other parts of Asia, it seems that pavements here are not really intended for walking on, and are typically filled with parked bikes and motorbikes, piles of building materials, small trader’s stalls selling fruit, pastries, trainers or T-shirts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the streets were untidy, there was not a lot of litter or unhygienic waste at the roadside. We circumnavigated the various obstacles, stepping out into the road every now and then to do so, and wandered in the direction of what appeared to be the centre. The roads were packed as ever with motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks (as I’ve called these miniature three-wheeled taxis since I first saw them in Thailand – “auto rickshaw” seems to be what they are called here). In fact probably only a third of the vehicles on the road are cars. Every now and then a bike would pass by with a six foot by six foot load of boxes or bags on the rear, all tied together with string, or a similarly perilous load. Miraculously the load would stay attached despite the cyclist weaving in and out of the traffic.

Next we had to work out how to cross the road. It turns out the technique is very different than in Europe, where we might wait for a gap in the traffic then wait, or cross at a marked crossing point on the road. We did see one marked crossing, but it was completely ignored. It seems the best technique for crossing the road here is to walk confidently out into the road at a steady, predictable pace, and trust that the motorbikes and tuk-tuks will weave around you. Occasionally you have to pause or speed up a little to ensure a vehicle has room to pass, but it seems to work remarkably well – maybe because the traffic is generally going quite slowly so that vehicles can avoid each other. It’s bizarre, I’ve never felt so safe stepping out into a busy road.

We carried on wandering, past tattered mobile phone shop kiosks, clothes shops, shoe traders and assorted street-sellers, and started to look for a restaurant for our evening meal. We could find no restaurants to speak of, nor any bars. We wondered if we were in the retail district. (We weren’t). Eventually we noticed one or two places, an expensive looking restaurant with no menu, and a Havmor ice-cream parlour. We settled on a very simple looking restaurant with diner-style seating in booths and an open front onto the street, called Star.
We were welcomed in and ushered to our table by a friendly man with a grey moustache. He wore a Thunderbirds hat and looked like he might have once been part of the Raj. He poured water into metal cups for us (which we decided not to drink, asking for mineral water instead), and gave us the menus. The menu was bi-lingual, in Hindi script and English too – although the dishes had no descriptions, so we went for dishes containing words we recognized from curry house menus back home such as “Paneer”, “Saag” and “Tikka”. Then we had our first surprise – There were no meat dishes on the menu! It turns out 90% of Indians are vegetarian, so it is very rare to see any meat on the menus – you have to specially seek out so-called “non-vegetarian” restaurants.

We ordered a couple of Paneer (cheese)-based curries (not that they call them curries in India – that is an English word), some rice and some “butter chapattis” as well as two lassis (yogurt drinks). I remembered having lassi once in Little India in Singapore and finding it very good to counteract the hot food there. The waiter asked if we wanted “Special” lassi. Feeling adventurous we said yes. A few minutes later he turned up with what looked like two ice-cream sundaes! In fact it was still a yogurt drink but with nuts and some sort of sweet bean sprinkled on top and sweet red fruit sauce down the insides of the glass. We thought it would be a bit sweet especially as he’d brought it before our main meal, but in fact it was delicious and not overly sweet at all.

Then the curries (I don’t know what else to call them collectively!) arrived in two small dishes, and a basket of chapattis that looked like they were swimming in butter! The waiter spooned some of the curries and rice onto the round metal trays in front of us - these are used in the region instead of plates. We tucked in and the flavours were delicious, incredibly aromatic with a blend of tomatoes, chilli and various unfamiliar herbs and spices in combination to make a really unique flavour. The chapattis were just the thing too, and I began trying to eat in the Indian way, scooping up rice and curry with ripped off pieces of chapatti. It’s messy but comes quite easily. The challenge is that you have to do it only with your right hand. In India the left hand is used in place of toilet roll so must never be used at the meal table. This can make ripping chapattis a little challenging, but not impossible.

Once we’d polished off our food our mouths were burning just a little bit. We ordered another two lassis (not “special”) to counteract the spiciness, which did exactly that. The bill came with two small dishes of what looked like bird seed and salt respectively, but I suppose are the equivalent of after-dinner mints (it turned out to be something a bit like sunflower seeds and some form of ground spicy mint). The total price for the two of us was 257 rupees, around £3.50 – and we were absolutely stuffed, despite the fact we’d essentially only eaten bread and vegetables, and the quantities had seemed a lot less than back home. We figured maybe it was the ghee in the curries that filled us up.

Leaving the restaurant, we then decided it was time to try out the auto-rickshaw back to the hotel so flagged one down. We asked the driver to take us to Le Meridien, figuring since it was the biggest most upmarket hotel in town he was bound to know it, but he didn’t seem to understand us. We tried showing him the map, but he held it upside down – we realised he couldn’t read. A local man joined in the conversation and explained to the driver where we wanted to go, reading aloud the name of the nearest bridge, Nehru Bridge, which the driver recognized. We asked the driver how much it would cost, and he said that we should make him an offer. We knew that this was a bit sneaky, but had no sense of the appropriate price, so proposed what we considered a low price, 100 rupee (£1.25), which he agreed to just a bit too quickly. Later we found out this was about 5 times too much! The man who’d helped with the directions ended up sharing the tiny cab with us as he was travelling nearby, and when we spotted the hotel getting further away behind us he helped explain to the driver what our gesticulations meant!

We arrived back at the hotel well fed and having got a good flavour of Ahmedabad. Back in my room I flicked through the 90 or so channels on my TV and saw a bewildering array of Gujarati community television, Indian soap operas, Indian pop music videos and something that looked like a Bollywood version of Pop Idol. Almost all of the channels were in one Indian language or other, and only 5 or 6 channels were in English, but I found it quite fascinating to watch some of the Indian channels. After a little while it was time for bed and a good night’s sleep ready for our first day of work the next day. I thought back over the day and considered my first impressions of Ahmedabad. It seemed like a bustling city, hot and dusty and scruffy, but at the same time very it felt very friendly and safe, and the food was great!

Well I’ve written a lot in these first two posts, amazingly I’ve only covered the first 48 hours of the trip! In the next post I’ll talk about the remainder of the week – starting work, doing a bit of sightseeing and generally began to acclimatise to living and working in India.


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Losing my business class virginity (with a backpack!)

India 1: Journey to Ahmedabad

Less than a week ago, I was told that I’d be doing something a little different for the next two weeks. Rather than sitting at my desk in Hampshire writing code, I’d be flying to India with a colleague to help our Indian colleagues with an installation of our software for a major Indian telco as part of an outsourcing deal. It had been a possibility for two or three months but in the end it was confirmed on the Thursday and we flew out late on Monday – after a hectic Friday in the office booking overpriced last-minute flights and trying to find a hotel that met our criteria of being (a) close to the centre, (b) having a swimming pool and (c) being available. At the time we were only able to secure the first three nights in Le Meridien (which satisfied the first two and was the only hotel with any availability at all that wasn’t a long way out from the centre). All the hotels had been booked up in advance for Diwali, the Indian festival of light, as well as a major Indian Premier League cricket match in the city. We hoped that we’d be able to extend our stay or find an alternative once we were there in person.

The good news is that we were given permission to fly business class, something that is quite rare in my company, and something which I have never done before. So it was that I found myself sitting in the Flagship Lounge at Heathrow Airport enjoying the use of the fully stocked bar and the buffet of good old English sandwiches alongside Indian delicacies while sitting in big comfy armchairs and watching the news on a big flatscreen TV. It was nice to be out of the hustle and bustle of the Departure Lounge in a little oasis of calm. We even spotted a celebrity, Caron Pickering, who as it turned out would be travelling on the flight with us to Mumbai. After a relaxing couple of hours the lady from the reception desk announced that the 2125 Jet Airways flight 119 was ready for boarding. We wandered through and boarded the plane straight away.
First impressions of the business class section were excellent – each passenger gets a whole cubicle to themselves, with a seat which adjusts in three directions, all the way to the horizontal, making a completely flat bed in conjunction with the footrest. This is the most striking difference from economy class – this is what you pay your money for! The other differences were lots of little touches which all add together to make a very pleasant experience.

I made a list of what you get over economy (as well as the chair that converts into a bed):

  • Personal welcome (by name) from the very attentive stewardesses
  • Ordering your food from a menu
  • Your table is made with a tablecloth, napkin, salt & pepper cellars, butter dish, silver cutlery and elegant crockery
  • Your food comes hot on the plate, no peel off foil trays – looks and tastes like it’s been cooked in a restaurant kitchen (not sure of the reality!)
  • A choice of breads from a bread basket with your meal.
  • A designer convenience pouch by Bulgari including moisturisers, toothbrush & toothpaste (rather than a plastic pouch of aircraft own brand accessories)
  • High quality can-style headphones (although still airline-branded – apparently you get Bose headphones in First Class!). They still come with those airline-only two-part plugs to discourage people lifting them!
  • Your own set of airline pyjamas (or “sleep suit” as they called it) and hanger to hang your clothes on once changed. The stewardess even offered to take my clothes after I’d changed (I declined, finding this a little odd!)
  • Fold out flat screen television with around 50 movies and a similar number of programs available on demand – although most of them were Bollywood films – so the choice was pretty much the same as in economy.
  • Stewardess makes your bed up for you
  • Nachos & salsa brought to you while you watch the in-flight movies.
  • Top drawer wine or champagne which you choose from a wine list – and a 20 year old Graham’s Port after your meal.
  • Selection of newspapers and magazines brought to you on a trolley
  • Luxury mirror with dressing room type lighting, designer cosmetics and fresh flannels in the bathroom, and a bidet feature on the toilet.
  • 4 levels of brightness on the adjustable reading light.
  • Lots of pockets to store things, including a long thin one marked “literature only”

So there you go, that’s what the extra £3300 (yes you read that right) buys you on Jet Airways! How was the experience? Thoroughly pleasant – the only thing that bothered me was the dryness of the air which is true no matter where you sit – and the moisturisers helped. Was it worth the money? No, I don’t think so, not at £3,800. Maybe, if I was doing a long multi-part flight to Australia and it was just a few hundred pounds extra, and I could afford it, it would be worth it in order to be able to have some really solid sleep, and the convenience and comfort of the business class lounges at your departure and stop over airports. Those, and the fast-track through security and the priority tickets on your baggage, are the real selling points, I feel, the rest are just nice-to-haves.

We arrived in Mumbai at about 8.30am (4am according to our body clocks) and the business class experience ended abruptly as we wandered through very hot corridors to get our connection. We went through security (at the main desk rather than the “Unaccompanied Children & Ladies” desk next to it). As we checked in at the desk some electricians were installing ceiling lights overhead while standing on a rickety wooden platform that would have given British Health & Safety officials nightmares.
We walked outside into a wall of heat and were ushered to a run-down and cramped bus and transferred to the Domestic Terminal, which was very modern and much more impressive. We changed some pounds into rupees (74 to the pound) then headed through to the business class lounge, where we were treated to a breakfast of hot chilli chicken & vegetable rice – the first of many spicy meals to come. We read the Times of India, the Mumbai Mirror and the Hindustan Times while we waited. I read an interesting article about how Marashtra (an Indian state) is looking at legalizing live-in relationships. I went to the toilets and experienced my first taste of what I can only describe as Indian “over-attentive hospitality” as a toilet attendant jumped in to put his hand under the tap sensor for me when I failed to find the sweet spot immediately, and handed me hand towels to me before I could turn and reach for them myself.

We travelled on a small propeller plane up to Ahmedabad. The flight took less than two hours and gave us views of sun-baked farmland, dried-up river beds, and towns that were a mix of shanty towns and high rise white blocks of flats.

We were met at the airport by a smartly dressed driver from Le Meridien, who took us in his very clean but slightly run-down car (where the seatbelts didn’t work) to the hotel.
The ride through the town was a real eye opener. Motorbikes holding whole families and green and yellow auto rickshaws buzzed around the streets like over-excited insects. Dented cars, over-populated buses and men with painted carts jostled for space, honking their horns to make sure they were noticed and all the while avoiding cows, goats and wild dogs that would wander into the road every now and then. Somehow, the two lanes marked on the road managed to become five as the traffic bunched up as junctions. I’d seen traffic chaos something like this before in Yogyakarta and Bangkok (albeit without the cows!), but the thing that made this different, the thing that really struck me about this Indian traffic, is how organised & well disciplined it is. Nobody bumps into anyone else. Very rarely is there any sudden braking. You don’t hear horns beeped out of road rage as people cut each other up – just short pips as drivers announce their presence to one another.

We pulled up at Le Meridien gate and the gatekeeper ran a mirror around the underneath of the car to check for bombs (not surprising given recent terrorist attacks at Western hotels around India). The doorman, a portly looking gentleman in colonial army-style uniform, a sizable red turban and a particularly long moustache, held the door open for us.
The receptionists were equally welcome, taking our details then checked about extending our reservations for us. Meanwhile a porter came over with a tray of freshly squeezed orange juice, lifting the paper coasters off the top of the glasses with tongs as he served the glasses to us. The receptionist told us that our Indian colleague had already extended our hotel booking for us, and then the two receptionists personally showed us up to the rooms while other staff carried our bags.
At last, at 2.30pm on Tuesday (10am body clock time), we’d arrived. Fortunately we weren’t due at work until the next day, so it was time to unpack, settle in, go for a swim, then go outside and see what India had to offer!

Come back soon for my next instalment where I will write about my first impressions of Ahmedabad, the hotel and the delicious Gujarati food that can be enjoyed here. I hope to post some photos too.


Monday, 25 August 2008

The Zen of Productivity

For when Getting Things Done isn't as easy as it sounds

For 2+ years I've been interested in improving my productivity, that is, being more effective at getting the things done that I want to do or need to do. I originally gravitated to the Getting Things Done (GTD) system and while it has some really great ideas I struggled to get it to work for me, and haven't really managed to "internalise" this kind of thinking and make it second nature. Ultimately I realised that's because all it is is a system, it seems to assume that you are the sort of person who can easily change the way you operate and establish new habits without any difficulty (For example, if you haven't been used to keeping lists of actions up to date and checking them regularly, because you are used to doing it all in your head, then any list based system will be difficult to adapt to). And it's not just GTD, there are literally hundreds of time management techniques and software tools out there - all claiming to be the solution to your problem.

Painted red sun on a blue background

Uploaded to Flickr by Marco Brown
What I have come to realise is that it's time to take a step back from these tools and systems, and look at the human side of the problem - we are people not machines, and have established habits, ways of thinking and emotional reactions to things, all of which can make it less than straightforward to adopt a new approach to managing our tasks and time. Only once you understand your own habits and how to influence them can you look at changing your system effectively.

So, what do I mean by "the Zen of Productivity"?

Zen is quite an abstract concept from Eastern philosophy; It's often used to refer to a state of mind where everything is harmonious, the mind is at peace and everything happens effortlessly. In the context of productivity what this means is being in a state of mind where you don't need to think about your projects and actions, you aren't worrying about things you should do, or haven't done, and you are effortlessly achieving the things you want to achieve and need to achieve - a kind of productivity Nirvana.

In fact, one of the main ideas in Getting Things Done is getting everything out of your busy mind so that you can focus on here and now, which is in line with this idea. So I spent some time digging into the less tangible aspects of productivity - not the mechanics of how to organise your life with lists, reviews, actions & projects, but rather the practical side of how you can change your life to become happier and more productive without it becoming a drain. In this blog post I'll share some of the positive ideas & thoughts I've found, so that if you are interested you can use this to help you work towards your own Zen-like state of mind.

It's all about balance

Chris Pearson has an interesting angle on the subject. His theory is that to get a Zen-like state you need to balance your left brain (which likes following steps and using lists) with your right brain (which is the creative side). He suggests the best way to do this is something called stream-of-consciousness writing, where you spend 15 minutes a day writing down anything that comes into your head.. As he puts it "your goal is to unleash the creative chaos in the right brain, temporarily freeing it from the suffocating bully that is your left brain."

rock balancing impossibly on another
"Zen Balance"
Uploaded to Flickr by StoneMen
I dabble in creative writing anyway, so I thought I'd give this a go, I tried it for a couple of weeks. It was interesting, it certainly felt good to empty my head of a whole lot of random thoughts and get them out on paper - and I found that once all the "things to worry about" had made it out onto the page that I was certainly more creative. One thing I did notice is that my left brain did keep wanting to take control, or at least that's what I think it was - I was wanting to write in full sentences with a coherent flow, in a way that made sense - and I was certainly aware that this inhibited the "flow" from my brain to the page. I can see why some writers say that the key is to "just write" even if it's terrible - get the ideas out on the page and then massage them more & more until they are beautiful.

After a couple of weeks I got out of the habit of doing this. It was an interesting exercise, but I wasn't convinced that it had any bearing on my ability to manage my time & tasks better. I'd certainly recommend it as a technique for people who want to move from more logical work to more creative work such as art, music, or writing and train their brain to think in that way. I think I'm a reasonably creative person anyway as well as having a very logical side, so maybe there wasn't much I could have got from this in the first place, maybe I already am reasonably balanced? (Some people I know might disagree! :-) )

Get yourself addicted to getting things done

Marc Andreesen, in his guide to productivity, does an excellent job of taking the human side of getting things done into account, unlike many other productivity guides. For example, he says that one of the ways to feel more productive is just to make sure you get the maximum positive feeling from all the things you are already doing. He suggests having an "Anti-To Do List" (or to put it another way, a list of things you have done). Each time you do something useful, you write it down on the list, and cross it off, which gives you a little rush of endorphins that makes you feel good. By doing this several times a day you can feel a lot better about your productivity without actually doing any more work! I could see this working, and I suppose the great thing is you go home at the end of the day with a list of things you have achieved. Marc carries on with the endorphins theme and suggests that this is why email is addictive. If you're anything like me, working at a company where e-mail is the default means of communication, it's easy to spend the whole morning just responding to e-mails and then think "what have I actually achieved?". Marc offers an explanation as to why we do this even when there are other things that need doing: Replying to an email also gives you the same little rush of endorphins that you get like crossing something off on your list - but the difference is you haven't necessarily achieved anything. In the moment, you feel like you're achieving something, because you get that buzz - but you end up disappointed because you're cheating yourself.

This makes a lot of sense, and Marc extends this to some productivity advice for the office-desk-bound among us: Limit yourself to checking email exactly twice a day, and keep your email client shut down at other times. He also says that you should disable notifications otherwise you end up being interrupted from your real work. I definitely agree with this one. No e-mail is important enough to warrant interrupting me. If it's that important, they'll call me. For the same reasons he suggests not answering your phone, and dealing with your voicemails in batches - because all these things can trick you into thinking you're being productive, but you won't be doing the things you set out to do. I guess to a certain extent this depends on your job. Another interesting question is instant messaging - in some companies this can be a vital means of communications, sometimes used more than the the phone - so it's hard to turn it off. Again, it's all about balance - turning it off when you really know you don't want to be interrupted.

Trick yourself into being more productive

Another idea that Marc talks about is that by recognising how you are working through your to-dos, you can actually trick yourself into being more productive. He calls this "Structured Procrastination", which was originally proposed by a philosophy professor called John Perry, and he says you should never fight the tendency to procrastinate – instead, you should use it to your advantage in order to get other things done. The idea that if there's a task you don't want to do, you'll often end up doing many many other things you have putting off (for example, you should be doing your tax return but you don't want to do it so you end up mowing the lawn, tidying your desk, doing an urgent bit of DIY, etc. etc) He says you can turn this to your advantage by finding something that isn't really important or urgent but that you are unlikely to get round to doing, then put it at the top of your list and treat it like it is urgent - the idea being you end up doing all the other things that are really important instead. It's an interesting idea, I can certainly see it working for certain people - again it will be down to understanding how you yourself tick whether this will work for you.

Think about what you let onto your to-do list

Heart shaped shadow cast over a book by a round lens
"A heart..."
Uploaded to Flickr by gjik
Another way of thinking about your productivity is to think more about what things you allow to make it onto your to-do list. Marc quotes Hollywood producer Robert Evans: "Only agree to new commitments when both your head and your heart say yes." If you don't do this - you'll end committed to something that you don't really care about because part of you feels obligated or thinks it would a good thing. I can think of many examples of this from my own life and while I don't think I had expressed it so clearly I had come to a similar realisation.

For example, a friend recently asked me if I was interesting in joining in with him on a new website venture as a side project to make some extra income. Now I've always fancied the idea of this, I certainly have the skills, and who couldn't use some extra cash - but even though there were many good reasons to get involved, my gut feeling was not to get involved, and before you know it I found myself saying "No". I think I just wasn't excited about the idea and my heart wasn't in it. I could have easily said "Yes" just because I think it would be a good thing to do - and would have ended up committed to it without any real emotional attachment to it - Not a recipe for success, I'm sure you'll agree. A similar example is with charities & voluntary groups I get involved in - where aside from my main involvement I end up helping with writing things or coding things or other technical admin work just because I can - and I end up dissatisfied because that isn't what I joined the organisation to do. I'm getting better now at only committing to those things which not only make sense logically but feel right as well.

You also need to be wary about what tasks other people send your way. Often people will try and offload their monkeys onto you (the monkey being a metaphor for a task or responsibility they don't want). One proposed solution to this when saying "No" doesn't work is "Strategic Incompetence". When someone forces you to do something, you say you are not the right person and will probably do a bad job of it, then you make sure you really screw it up - and you won't be asked again. It's a high risk approach, and you have to be really good at the other things you are doing.. but it might work!

There's another possibility to be aware of too, you need to be aware of when you're getting overloaded. It seems in business that quite often a lot of work can pile up with a particular person because they are "the right person to do it" or "the only person who knows how to do it". This can be very dangerous for the individual, who quickly becomes overwhelmed, not only can they not get to these new tasks but the ones they are already doing and their existing relationships may suffer as the person becomes more stressed about the work they are not doing. I experienced this at work myself recently and learnt an important lesson, that sometimes it is ok to say "No", even to your boss. Know what you can reasonably do and flat-out refuse any work beyond that. Suggest a time in the future when you can do it (or better still, somebody else entirely - as you will still think about it if you know it is coming.)

Make sure you notice when the cheese runs out

Any effective & productive person needs to regularly think at some level about what things they are doing and whether it meets up with their own passions and goals. Structured systems like GTD suggest a monthly review, and for some people this will be the best way. Personally I prefer a less structured approach, every now and then when I find my self with time to kill on my own, probably when I'm swimming or walking (my best thinking time) I'll just think about my life and the things I am doing and whether I need to make any changes. Marc concludes his productivity guide with a very good summing up of this, which I will paraphrase here:

Ultimately you need to keep yourself as free as possible to pursue your core interests and follow your dreams. If you're not doing something you love with the majority of your time, then it's time to make changes. This doesn't mean something that you love the idea of - but the thing you most love doing in practice.

Great advice, I think. It reminds me a little bit of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (pictured left). Everyone will be at a different level, but whether you are looking for love, acceptance or a way to express yourself creatively, go after your dreams and regularly check yourself to make sure the things you are doing in practice fit in with that.

I thoroughly recommend the book "Who moved my cheese?" by Spencer Johnson which is very relevant to this idea of revisiting your goals and reassessing where you are at regularly. The book is a parable about two mice and two humans (shrunk to mouse-size) in a maze in search of cheese. The mice find cheese, and quickly move on when it runs out. The humans on the other hand, are resistant to change, insistent that somebody moved their cheese and that if they stay in the same place they will be able to recover it. The cheese, of course, represents anything that the humans want in their life. The message is clear; be aware and adaptable, be ready to change your life and direction in pursuit of your goals.

Don't become obsessed with productivity as a goal

Jonathan Mead has written an inspiring wake-up call to productivity enthusiasts in his post entitled "The Cult of Productivity and the Art of Purposeless Living". In this he has some quite strong but wise words to say about the obsession that people can get trapped with to become more productive. Others have described this as "productivity porn", and I can certainly relate. If you feel your life needs reorganising, these productivity systems can completely draw you in and become very addictive. You spent hours tweaking your system and trying different tools. The key point that Jonathan makes is that we can easily lose track of the reason we try to be more productive - which is to be happier. If we're not careful, we've created new problems.. we're not satisfied until we've achieved everything we want to do... and when we do that we end up constantly putting our happiness in the future. Have you ever felt yourself thinking "I'll feel a lot happier once I've done x"? I know I have, so this definitely struck a chord with me. There's nothing wrong with being more productive, but the problem occurs when our happiness is determined by it. He sums it up quite well when he says "The truth is.. We're often the happiest when what we're doing has absolutely no purpose."

So, the message is that once you get into productivity as a means to an end, be careful not to make it an end itself. You will never be satisfied, because there will always be things you want to do and things you need to do to obsess over. He says one way to recognise this is when you find a lot of things in your life have become what he calls "grim duties", when they should be fun. If you think of everything as tasks to be done, it takes a lot of the joy out of your life. Have you ever found yourself putting off calling your family or friends because it's just one more to-do on your list? I made this mistake for a while - and found myself calling home less and putting it off as "another job to do" - which is crazy because I love talking to my family and friends. This is a perfect example of losing sight of the reasons for wanting to do things. If you read my earlier post about Mission Control, you will recognise these ideas of realising that we cannot possibly get everything done, indeed that very goal should questioned. Keep a vision of the reason for doing something in your mind (perhaps tying it into your dreams as Marc Andreesen suggested).

Jonathan suggests that what we need to do is to have the courage to re-evaluate, drop and re-prioritize our goals at any time. Most people in our time have a internal conflict between what they love (what they want to do) and what they feel is practical (what they should do). Ultimately he also says it's about the marriage of your heart and mind, ask yourself of everything you do "Does this make me feel alive?"

There's some very interesting points of view in the comments on that post as well, he's obviously hit a nerve of people recognising the feeling of being sucked into the productivity cult - and somebody summed up the article into a snappy motto: "Be a happy slacker!"

"Flow Gently"
Uploaded to Flickr by Kenny Maths
Go with the Flow

One of the ideas that is mentioned by a lot of people is "Flow" - which I guess is another word for what I have referred to as the Zen-like state; it might also be called being "on a roll" or "in the zone". There is a book called "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which says that basically to be truly happy in life we need to able to experience Flow - "a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity and results in the achievement of a perfect state of happiness". He lists nine things which can be indicators of a state of flow:
  1. Clear goals - Expectations and rules are clear, and the goals are achievable with the skills you have.
  2. Focus - Delving deeply with a lot of attention and concentration onto individual parts of the task.
  3. A loss of self-consciousness - You are not concerned with what onlookers might think
  4. A distorted sense of time (maybe the origin of the phrase "time flies when you're having fun"?)
  5. Direct and immediate feedback so that the approach to the task can quickly be adjusted (Interestingly, this is one of the core premises of agile software development too!)
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and less aware of anything else
I'm sure everyone will have experienced this at some time in their life; it usually happens by accident but there are certainly some clues here as to how you can approach a task in a way that is more likely to be condusive to flow. I'll have a go at turning this list on its head into into an approach to maximise your chance to achieve Flow.
  1. Make sure that your goal is clear, and that everyone involved has the right expectations. Make sure you have the right skills for the task, or bring someone in who has.
  2. Ensure that you minimize possible distractions that would prevent you from focussing, such as alarms, phones, officemates, etc.
  3. If the activity is likely to make you feel self conscious, find somewhere private to do it.
  4. Make sure that you have a large block of time without following commitments, so that you can lose track of time without worry.
  5. Make sure that you have enough information about what is needed so that you can continually assess & adjust - if you need to keep checking what you've done with someone else, you'll never achieve flow.
  6. Ensure you know enough about how to approach the task that it is not too difficult; but equally ensure it is not too easy for you or you can become bored.
  7. Try and obtain or retain control of the task; if you are being micro-managed or have "too many cooks" at play, this will limit your ability to flow with the task.
  8. Try and engineer some personal reward for doing the task, to motivate yourself.
  9. Ensure that you minimize possible distractions to help you get absorbed. Perhaps use ambient music or binaural beats to help absorb you.
It became very clear to me in writing this list why it is so rare that we can achieve this kind of flow in business, and why it is most often achieved by creative people. In my line of work at least it is very rare to be able to work on clear and agreed goals in large blocks of time where you control the task, know the area to the right level and enough to assess your work as you go along. It is more likely that many players will be involved and the realities of the situation will be far from clear, you will have to involve others for feedback or others with an interest will involve themselves and muddy the water. In many cases, an artist, musician or poet, on the other hand, seeks out situations which inspire them, and does not have somebody telling them what to do or how to do it. They control the work and the work is its own reward. Maybe this is why some of us in the IT profession do our best work when we work from home; away from distractions and conflicting directions, free to carry the work forward in the way that works best.

Perhaps it's not so easy to use flow as a means to be more productive, but some people manage it. Marc Andreesen wrote about how some people manage to be incredibly productive by not having any schedule at all. The idea is that you keep your calendar free and only make commitments to specific times when you absolutely have to. This means you will be free to go with the flow and do whatever is most important or interesting at any given time. Apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger claims this is the key to his success - he found that because he had no commitments he could put all his waking energy into his campaign to be elected Governor of California (which of course he duly was). Marc sums it up that flow is about finding meaning in a particular activity you do, or if you're lucky, in your profession.

Avoid the multi-tasking virus and resist speading yourself too thinly

Josh Waitzkin has written a very thought provoking article "The Multi-tasking Virus and the End of Learning" which is published on Tim Ferriss' blog. He describes sitting in a lecture and being struck by the degree to which the students were multi-tasking with their laptops, phones or Blackberries. They were busy online shopping, blogging, editing photos, reading news articles and a whole lot more, while keeping one ear on the lecture. The point he makes is an interesting one, that the world has changed around us and that we "live in a world that bombards us with information, and we feel the need to respond to stimulus as it comes in." People develop a strategy of doing more than one thing at a time in order to cope and get used to dividing their focus - I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only one who often spends evenings in with their partner in front of the TV, but each tapping away at their own laptop at the same time. Is it just a sign of the times? Or should we try and do something about it?

Josh makes the point that students defend themselves by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. But science has shown this is not true - the human mind can't multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your e-mail while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points - which is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

Uploaded to Flickr by manganite
"The problem with [responding to stimulus as it comes in] is that we get stretched along the superficial outer layers of many things," Josh writes. He argues that we should focus on one thing at a time, study or absorb it in depth, before broadening our attention to other areas. If we don't do that, we end up becoming the "jack of all trades, master of none". I can certainly relate to this. I find myself interested in more and more things, and my list of to-dos just keeps growing: For example: organise my MP3s, make highlights albums from my photos, learn to play guitar, read about social and global trends online, write a novel, learn to sail, improve my cooking skills, watch all the episodes of a given TV series, listen to podcasts, read friends' or organisations' blogs, develop widgets, learn new programming languages or software tools, and so on, and so on. With 24 hour media and the Internet at my fingertips, as well as signs, billboards and advertisements grabbing my attention wherever I go, ideas and possibilities arrive in my brain faster than I could ever possibly do anything about them. It's hard to know where to start. I think it's one of the reasons I struggled with GTD - It's a system that assumes you have a realistic and achievable to-do list - It took me a while to realise - I don't! 90% of the things on my list should be deferred to the far future which I focus on just of few projects. Josh is right - focus on one thing at a time, do it to a level of quality, and only then should you move on. It's very easy to dip in a little bit to a variety of things without getting the full benefit of any of them, and you end up feeling unsatisfied. It's no wonder we struggle to keep focus or go with the flow.

Dave Gorman summed this up brilliantly when he talked in Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure about his difficulty in getting started with his novel:

"Jake [the publisher] lied to me. Jake said it's just you, your imagination, and your computer. That's not strictly speaking true! My computer is attached to the internet. The internet contains everything in the whole wide world ever. I don't know about you, but I find everything in the whole wide world ever to be a bit distracting! I would sit there at the computer thinking… Right, here we go, Chapter one! Aahhhh.... just as soon as I've checked my email!"

I recently read an article in the Independent entitled "Is Google making us stupid?". The article was written by Nicholas Carr and was first published in Atlantic Monthly. It's not really about Google but the Internet as a whole. The proposition made is that constant availability of more information than we could ever possibility absorb, has changed the way we read, and the way we think. Where footnotes were once an afterthought that might never be read, hyperlinks grab our attention and encourage us to jump between pages and sites before we've even finished doing what we came for. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet-ski." Nicholas observes that we are all reading fewer books and getting more of our information online. Blogger Bruce Friedman is quoted as saying "I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print". I think they may be onto something. When I think about when I read books, the only time I really get stuck in to a good book is when I am relaxing on a beach on holiday or travelling on the train - away from the TV, the internet and the media. In my normal day to day life I struggle to find time and space to read books - I only get through 3 or 4 a year, whereas I used to read a lot more. I'd be interested to hear how people receive this article - If he's right, then many people will struggle to read this article and will find it too long. It is long, but I'm just making it is as long as it needs to be to say what I want to say. Is the idea that something can be "too long" something that should be challenged?

And it's not just that we are losing out on the joy of reading books - the quality of the information we absorb online is arguably less than we would find through traditional sources and learning methods. Rumours and speculations online quickly become perceived fact as they are quoted and crosslinked on numerous blogs, podcasts and opinion pieces, often making it onto Wikipedia which is regarded by most people (myself included) as probably the best online source of accurate information. But that doesn't mean it is 100% accurate. Google is trying to address this problem with the introduction of Knols, a cross between blogging and wikipedia - definitive articles on a subject from an identifiable trusted source. I'm not sure that it's a complete solution - At least a distributed authorship article is more likely to be balanced. But it is an interesting step forward to try and help people find the truths they are looking for that little bit more easily.

Rhodri Marsden writes on the Independent blog site of Nicholas Carr's article, "the notion of whether having information at our fingertips affects our ability to remember and recall facts [is interesting]. If our brains aren't required to retain information – because we can get hold of it in a couple of seconds via Google [...] – is that part of our cognitive process destined to slowly die out?

Pre-internet, the search for information could be a long, drawn-out and ultimately infuriating process; the example that always comes to mind is how then-Radio 1 DJ Danny Baker, in the early 1990s, conducted a phone-in competition in which he asked listeners to compile the entire list of characters in the children's cartoon Wacky Races. He managed to keep that going pretty much all summer. Whereas today, that information would be with you in 10 seconds, tops. In fact, here it is. I don't need to remember the Wacky Racers, because Wikipedia will always be there to tell me. But does that make my brain any less powerful?"

So what can we do in the face of a world of distractions and stimulae, a sea of distorted truths and trivia? How do we avoid a world like that in Ben Elton's Blind Faith? How can we achieve everything we want to achieve?

I think the key is that we need to find ways to block a lot of these external stimulae out, we need to find new ways to give ourself uninterrupted thinking space and working space. I already mentioned working from home as one of the ways that some people in my industry are reducing distractions - but this is not a complete solution, for we would still suffer from Dave-Gorman-syndrome with the ever-present Internet ready to help us investigate every passing inquisitive thought. For some types of work we can just go offline for a while - but for many types of work this is not possible, as we need the Internet for reference or remote data access in our tasks too.

We need to focus on one task at a time and push all others aside until we are ready to give them our full focus. And we need to ensure we do not over-stretch ourselves by jumping at every opportunity that comes our way. So we are brought back again to the idea mentioned earlier - work out what you love - and do that first.

Josh speculates that multi-tasking "is just a symptom of a broader cultural disconnect that emerges from too much rigidity and too little creativity in our educational and corporate worlds. If we love what we are doing, odds are we will want to focus on it. So the solution is two pronged—help people discover the love, and arm them with strategies to zone in when they want to." One such strategy he recommends is focussing on a single task (the idea of depth over breadth again) and taking mini-breaks whenever the mind begins to wander. I often do this at work, I'll take a five minute break and wander somewhere quiet outside to clear my head and re-focus my thinking. Josh claimed that his endurance and quality of focus surged when taking mini-breaks. He says "this approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered—our brain does not re-map effectively when we are skipping along the surface."

My fellow productivity-podcasting colleague JF Arsenault said this of the multi-tasking virus: "It's something that will only get worse with time. Given how people live and work today, uni-taskers now seem like old and wise people who we think 'just don't get it'... when frankly, maybe they're the ones that are happiest - as they can be content with what they have and how they fill their day." I concur - let's fight the multi-tasking virus!

Update: Apparently I'm not the only one writing about multi-tasking. Immediately after posting this piece I noticed this interview on Lifehacker with Dave Crenshaw about exactly the same idea - that multi-tasking is a surefire way to get nothing done! He also introduces an excellent new term "switchtasking" - the unproductive switching between tasks that we all do so much in this day and age.

Don't worry, be happy

"The Pursuit of Happiness"
Uploaded to Flickr by jonSpot
It's often said that "A happy worker is a productive worker" and I think it's worth looking at the idea of happiness versus productivity, and what is the relationship between the two. This is an area that has been researched in depth, but as far as I can tell, decades of research have been inconclusive. One study did show that it does make a measurable improvement to managers' effectiveness when they are happier. I suppose this makes sense given that a manager's work is possibly the least tangible, and most affected by mood and quality of personal relationships. Certainly the best managers I've had are the ones that put their people first, and we and they seem happier for doing so.

In another study the effect of mood on different tasks was studied. It was found that a good mood helps a creative task, and a bad mood helps with detail oriented tasks (i.e. a good mood is bad for focus!). I also came across an interesting piece proving in a more literal way how happiness can influence productivity.. A dairy farmer gave his cows waterbeds and lots of resting time and found they had a 20% increase in milk production!!

Alexander Kjerulf wrote in his blog "Chief Happiness Officer" about a worker who experienced a massive boost to productivity not by prioritizing her tasks or using new productivity systems but by asking for different work that was closer to what she enjoyed. He says that you should start not with tweaking your approach to to-dos or calendaring, but start by liking what you do. It sounds simple, but how many of us actually do this.

From personal experience I can vouch for this absolutely - I recently moved to a different job and am now doing work that I love and which is very close to my personal technology interests - and I am sure that I am at least 50% more productive than I was in my previous role. If you're doing something you're passionate about, you put more in without any effort.

Alexander also published 10 reasons why happiness is the ultimate productivity booster:
  1. Happy people work better with others
  2. Happy people are more creative
  3. Happy people fix problems instead of complaining about them
  4. Happy people have more energy
  5. Happy people are more optimistic
  6. Happy people are way more motivated
  7. Happy people get sick less often
  8. Happy people learn faster
  9. Happy people worry less about making mistakes - and consequently make fewer mistakes
  10. Happy people make better decisions
He explains these in more detail in the article, which is well worth reading.

There's definitely something here too about empowering yourself to change your assigned work. Sometimes we feel we have to do something we really don't want to do, when there may be a way out. Maybe the task can be delegated, or replaced with a different approach, or pushed back against. Maybe the task isn't that important and you can just decide that actually you are never going to do it. If you can find a way to remove something from your to-do list that has been sat there for ages making you feel bad, it can do wonders for your morale and re-invigorate you to be more productive on the other tasks.

And if there are tasks you really can't get rid of but don't want to do - find ways to make yourself happier about it. Break the task up into chunks, take breaks, give yourself rewards, intersperse it with other things you enjoy... Make room in your agenda for serendipity!

The counterpart to happiness that can also influence your productivity is fear of failure. Sometimes we have a tendency to write every last little thing down because we are afraid we might forget something. It can be good to do this, but don't add it to your todo list - stick it into a tagged, searchable repository such as delicious or reQall and decide not to make it an action unless it comes back to your head. Our brains are surprisingly good at bringing things back to the forefront of our attention if they are important.

37signals, developers of online project management tool Basecamp, take a similar approach when handling new feature requests, as Jeff Lash blogs about:

"When you launch your products, customers will send you hundreds or thousands of feature requests. … So what do you do with all these requests? Where do you store them? How do you manage them? How do you track all these requests? You don’t. Read them and then throw them away. … You don’t need to track or remember everything — let your customers be your memory. They’ll remind you."

So, like the song says, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - If you are spending a lot of time worrying about your tasks, don't. Be pro-active in deciding what you will and won't do, and seek out things that make you happy.

"Just enough flight!"
Uploaded to Flickr by elliot23

Changing your habits is the key to success

Possibly the most important aspect of all to achieving a Zen like state is developing a greater awareness of your habits and how they can impede you or help you. Leo Babauta at realised this and came up with a novel twist on Getting Things Done - instead of GTD, it's ZTD - Zen To Done. GTD is a good system for productivity but no system can be adopted without changing your habits first, whether it's making gradual tweaks or wholesale changes.

In the Zen To Done system, there is less focus on the "how"; everything is presented as a habit change, to be adopted one at a time. If you understand the purpose of each habit it's much easier to adapt it to what will work best for you without the need for a specific system. The nearest it gets to a system is when it suggests that you plan your three MITs (Most Important Tasks) for the day, and your one or two Big Rocks for the week - a simplified version of GTD's daily and weekly reviews.

The Zen To Done system, which is essentially "Get Things Done by Changing your Habits", can be summed up by 10 habits:
  1. collect. The habit is ubiquitous capture. Find a way that works of capturing things that occur to you wherever & whenever you are, whether it's scraps of papers, electronic memos or e-mails and texts to yourself. Make sure that these captured thoughts end up somewhere where you can find them again.
  2. process. The habit is to make quick decisions on things in your inbox, do not put them off. This is one of the key approaches from GTD as well -Decide if it is actionable, and if so what, how and when the action is - and if not, dispose of it or store it accordingly. This is similar to the Inbox Zero philosophy - it may be it will take a long time to reply to all that mail - but it will never take more than 30 seconds per mail to determine the next action.
  3. plan. The habit is to set daily and weekly tasks (MITs & Big Rocks)
  4. do. The habit is to focus: do one task at a time, without distractions.
  5. simple trusted system. The habit is to make the simplest possible system that will work for you. For example, keep simple lists, and check them daily.
  6. organize. The habit is to ensure that everything has a place, so that you will know where to look for things, and be able to file them quickly without piles building up. GTD suggests a simple A-Z filing system.
  7. review. The habit is to review your system & goals weekly. I would also add reviewing the bigger picture of your life every couple of months too.
  8. simplify. The habit is to reduce your goals & tasks to essentials - remove everything except the most important tasks
  9. routine. The habit is to keep and set routines, such as morning routines, evening routines or weekly routines. I would add that you should structure your routine to take best advantage of the way you work - for example if you are a morning person, make some productive working time in the mornings. For more advice on setting your own routine I recommend Steve Pavlina's "How to create a personal productivity scaffold"
  10. find your passion. the habit is to seek work for which you’re passionate. Make your life's work something you're passionate about.
Find your own personal Zen
Uploaded to Flickr by danorbit

Ultimately, the message I would like to leave you with is that the question of how to become effective, productive and happy is something will have an answer that is unique to you. No one system or technique can be a magic bullet. Some of the ideas I have written about here will work for you and some will not be a good fit. But I hope that by combining some of the ideas from this Zen productivity toolbox, you will be able to make the changes you want to make in your own life. Let's look again at some of the ideas and recurring themes to summarize:
  1. In life, you'll need to satisfy both your left brain and your right brain. Make sure you do both logical and creative things to stay balanced.
  2. Understand how you tick and tailor any system to match that. Build a routine that makes the best of your best times. Understand the things that deter you and the things that spur you on, and use this knowledge to make your activities more desirable and more do-able. If it works for you, trick yourself to feel better about it with Anti-To Do Lists and Structured Procrastination.
  3. Take regular steps back and think about what things you are letting onto your to-do list. Make sure they align with your dreams and your goals. Don't be afraid to refuse, delegate or remove things that just aren't you.
  4. Be aware of feedback and changes around you, be flexible and adapt and re-plan or re-focus as needed. Never lose sight of your dreams.
  5. Keep a check on your drive towards productivity, make sure you don't lose sight of the reasons for doing it. Recognise that productivity techniques and software can be an addictive black hole, and stay focussed on getting something together that works for you and sticking with it.
  6. Maximise your opportunities to go with the flow and achieve maximum focus on your tasks. Avoid multi-tasking, turn off alerts, and minimize distractions. Make space in your life for calm contemplation, reflection and making new connections in your mind. Take as much control as you can of the things you do.
  7. Realise that the world is full of opportunities and things to do and find out about which will attract you and pull you in. Recognise that you can never do everything you would like to do.
  8. Seek out the things you are most passionate about, and spend the majority of your time doing those things, in depth, one at a time.
  9. Do the things that make you happy, and avoid the things that bring you down.
  10. To change your life you need to first change your habits. Decide what habits you want to adopt and bring them in one by one until they become second nature.
Thank you for reading and sticking with me through what turned out to be more of a mini-self help book than a blog post!
I hope that you have found something useful in my tour of all things Zen in the productivity space on the Internet.

In case you're wondering where this all came from, it's a topic I originally researched for a podcast, but the more I read the more intrigued I got and the more nuggets of wisdom I collected. I wanted to share all that I'd found, and this post is the result. This type of thinking seems a natural progression for me from when Getting Things Done first caught my interest. Along the way I learnt some useful practical tips and more important than that, ways of thinking to help me become more productive and happy, a little bit closer to my own personal Zen. I'm not there yet - but I'm travelling the road. Enjoy the journey!