Being a freak can be a good thing

Who knew that ‘freak’ – a common term with negative connotations, can turn out to be more than what it seems on face value.

At least that’s what the authors of Freakonomics and Super-freakonomics will have you believe. What else would you expect from them when ‘brand freak’ is at stake here.

Or, could it be really true? Is being a freak really a good thing to happen? Should you retrain yourself to be one?

The answers are nicely explained in an entertaining package that can provide enough material for your discussions at a party, water cooler, an intelligentsia get-together, or a big audience that is polite enough to not throw tomatoes when you are trying to fill-in the blanks between acts.

Seriously, it is excellent.

If you have not read freakonomics or its twin, you should be ashamed. You should close the browser, buy the book at your nearest book store, read it and return to this page. Or better yet, head over to Amazon and buy it on Kindle if you are indeed a freak.

‘Think like a freak’ did not have the same shocking factor as the first book.

think like a freak book

By this time, you would know the line of thought, how the facts are presented in the form of stories, and you are expecting some unbelievable things to be thrown at you in the commonest of scenarios.

All that excitement is very much part of the book.

The book answers some typical problems that would have nagged you when you are trying to think ‘intellectually’. Can’t remember when that was? Well, get in the line – you are in a well-populated place.

Without giving away spoilers, here are the three gems that influenced my thoughts.

Why do people predict things even if they don’t know?

The book convincingly explains how incentives have a role in making people predict things. If you are a economist, you will get a lot of fame and fortune by predicting doom at the end of century.

What happens if that doom never happens – well, no one really cares in the few weeks or months after your prediction. It it doesn’t happen, people will discuss some more and move on to the next big thing.

No one has a strong incentive to track everyone else’s bad predictions. There is also no strong incentive to say “I don’t know”. That would mean you are a person with no knowledge, and have nothing interesting to say.

So, people predict even when it is statistically proven that the future predictions seldom work in the context of the present.

Don’t be contained by your biases

There is always an interesting angle to look at the problem and solve it. But, we always gravitate towards the most biased.

People may take the road less travelled and have a better opportunity to succeed, but they seldom do that. The reason if you look back is quite evident – if you took a ’empirically accepted path’ and fail, you have tried hard enough. But the society will not be so kind if you fail doing something ‘stupid’. No one wants to be that guy even if dumb stats say on the contrary.

Freaks don’t need to be controlled by these biases, giving them more chances of success.

An example – the ‘hot dog eating contest’. Takeru Kobayashi, a new comer from Japan, did not think the 28.5 hot dogs was the upper limit. He ended up eating 50 hot dogs and set a new record that would not be beaten for the next couple of years.

Raw talent is over-rated.

Practice and you will achieve the most ambitious of the tasks that you wanted to master. Corelate and solve problems rather than thinking about how monstrous the problem appears and how many people who are supposedly smarter have not found their way out of its charms.

In Summary

Although the book is a quick read – it is well worth the 3-4 hours that you will spend on it. ‘Think like a freak’ may not revolutionize your thinking and lead you towards freakdom, but it sure initiate you to the process.


Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Evitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

Learn productivity from productive people

Are you one of those who look at Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Jerry Seinfeld, Homer Simpson and scores of others and wonder – how the heck can they manage to cram so many things in so little time?

Do you ever contemplate if –

  • They time travel. While you and I have a slow trip to the next block, the successful people zip across the multiverse (also explains why they are successful – they learn across universes).
    time travel productivity
    Unquestionably, they cannot be bound by something silly like “only 24 hours in a day”.
  • The highly productive people have their brains wired differently. I would have given another Hollywood movie here, but I will leave it to you as homework.
  • They belong to, or have a secret arrangement with Jumper community to eliminate travel time?
    save time by becoming jumper
    Get coffee… whoosh… dictate to Secretary … whoosh .. travel to International Date Line (well, as much as a place as any) – you know the drill.

If you answer any of the questions as “yes” – you are weird and should consult a doctor.


.. you could also read a 19 page “5 Things Highly Productive People Do Every Day” that clearly outlines what the highly productive people do right every day.

Update: the book is gone. Get audiobook here.

Charlie Milan book review

It is simple, really. The facts are broken down into five categories for you uninitiated simpletons –

  1. Stick to a morning routine
  2. Exercise
  3. Value time
  4. Commit to Priorities
  5. Write Everything Down

No sh*t. That is it – you now are on the path to greatness automagically.

I am presently stuck at step (3). While I’ve outsourced the heck out, I am still trying to figure out what to do with all that time.

The book has its highlights –

  • Make time by getting up early and use that time productively
  • Outsource less productive work to free up your time
  • Free up your mind by writing stuff down
  • Use to cultivate a habit for 90 days (yep.. you read that right –
  • Learn to exercise from (yep.. you read that right too. But stay here for two more minutes)

But, it isn’t quite there.

The book could have been far, far better. There are scores of things that people do, don’t do, or can’t do. While the author does make some points about how successful, productive people do stuff, the message gets diluted – real fast.

Did David Allen outsource his typing? Does Mr. Buffett do the chores? Did Bill Gates resolve the BSOD by himself? We are never going to find out here. The author superimposes his ideas in the later parts of the book, and the title just dissociates itself with the content.

The book does make a good 15 min read rather than wasting your time playing Farmville or watching TV.

5 Things Highly Productive People Do Every Day [Book died on Amazon]

Audio-book on Audible.

3 ways to browse responsibly

Internet is one of the greatest inventions ever.

You can get access to invaluable information at the click of a button, connect with smart people around the world, and be the harbinger of change.

You can also choose to while away your time, get entertained, have a laugh or two, and check the status of your 121 friends for the 3rd time in the hour.

Even if you are the person with absolute self-control, Internet makes it really easy to get distracted and switch between productivity-heaven to hell with one click.

enjoying non-productive time browsing websites

Fear not my friends. There are other tools that smarter people have built to solve this problem.

Here are 3 great tools that you will find useful. They are completely free and there is no reason for you not to use them starting today.


1. Strict Workflow

This is one of the tools I like the best. Strict Workflow is a Chrome browser extension that sits pretty in the background and blocks non-productive websites for 25 min at one stretch.

Why 25 min? Well, it follows the Pomodoro technique to make you focus on your work for 25 min followed by a 5 min break. You can change the work time and break time as you wish.

You can also specify which sites to block. It does make your life harder if you are working on Facebook apps, but should work just fine for the rest of us.

strict workflow browser extension to improve productivity

What more – you cannot change the options once the timer is started. You have to complete the stipulated work time, or disable the extension 🙂

This extension because it follows a strict pattern of work and break phases, and the timer is inbuilt. Having the timer and the block is a big productivity booster. It encourages you to stay focused, bring urgency to the task at hand, and also blocks non-productive tasks.

On the downside, it does not have a counterpart for Firefox.


2. StayFocusd

StayFocusd is another Chrome extension that gets the same job done.

What I like about this extension is the sheer number of options that I can leverage to control my wayward ways.

block time wasting websites

You can do several useful things using this extension –

  • Block/allow specific web sites
  • Track your time on work/non-work sites
  • Allow the non-productive browsing only during specific times of the day, and for a pre-defined duration
  • Set a challenge to disable. You would think twice or thrice before typing away the challenge that disables the preset pattern of blocking websites
  • You also have a nuclear option to block all sites except for allowed sites for that intense focus that may save the world
    stayfocusd allow specific websites and improve productivity

You could use StayFocusd independently, or alongside Strict Workflow.


3. FocalFilter

All these browser extensions are fine, but what if you are technically advanced to browse without a standard browser, or just switch to Miro for the movie trailer that everyone’s seeing.

FocalFilter is the answer to your woes.

It may not be as advanced as the browser extensions, but it does something very simple. The program will run natively on Windows and block specified websites for a predefined time period – on all browsers/programs.

focalfilter block access to websites for predefined period

The program has a light footprint and is easy to install and use.

If you find the lack of options here disheartening, you may pay $19 to get Cold Turkey. It has all the bells and whistles that you can hope for.

Again, you can use FocalFilter alone or combine this with the power of other two extensions mentioned here.


Anything goes when you are needed to work for the good of humanity. Rock on!

Prioritize your priorities

Human mind is an amazing thing.

You can think up so much in so little a time that thinking itself can become your favourite hobby. If at all you come out of that and focus on doing your tasks – you do the best thing possible for any action-oriented person.

You try to do everything in one go.

Take my example. I have a day job where I (try to) be a IT manager/developer. I have three blogs that I actively update – which makes me a weirdo on weekends. I try hard to think about how we live, what we do, and where we are going (without lot of success). And, I am far too interested in anything technology and programming. I have parallel projects going on in multiple technology platforms.

That doesn’t help.

prioritize your priorities

It does not make me an expert anywhere. I just pass by without making an impression anywhere, and not satisfying my learning goals in any area.

Though I like to talk philosophy, science, and technology – I am horribly under prepared to think any further than singularity.

Even on the serious side of things – it becomes incredibly hard to focus on “that one thing” to get your life going to the next level. You are of course trying to improve it on multiple levels – but that means divided attention that doesn’t cut it.


Prioritizing within your priorities

Warren Buffett has a nice solution to this problem.

  1. Write down your top 25 things that you want in life
  2. Pick your top 5 things that you want from the 25 things you have written down
  3. Do your plan on how to address your top 5 wants
  4. Throw the rest of the 20 wants in a cupboard and lock it till you succeed in your top 5

Ain’t that simple?

Once you have fewer things to focus on, you become more attentive to what is going on with the problem, and start thinking about solutions. You don’t jump around the numerous priorities trying to avoid directly dealing with problems.

The normal human mind thrives on “the more the better”. 25 is better than 5 since you can put fewer eggs in one basket. You also not tend to get bored since you always have that shiny little thing to try out in the rest 24 priorities. Therein lies the problem.

Rather than an intense concentration on a problem, and thinking about the right solution to the problem – you get absorbed in finding satisfactory answers for problems to move on with life. Or worse, you may skirt around it hoping it will go away so that you can prioritize something else.

By narrowing down the things you work on, you eliminate what doesn’t need to be thought, or done at this time. The clear focus, and the “thirst to succeed” will what will drive you towards addressing the top 5 want.

And, once you are done there – you can always move on to the next big thing in your list.

keep calm and always prioritize

What is life without email?

For many of the folks out there, there is no life without emails.

I remember when there was one of the senior management “gyan” sessions when TCS went public. One of the questions was “how does your typical day look like”. The intent was to tell the ranks what their senior people do, how do they work, and what they can learn from them.

You have to give it to them for being honest. Almost 90% began their answer with “I come to office”, “I check emails” … What other inspiration do you need!?

For many in IT, checking emails is the part and parcel of life. After the advent of broadband at my home, I have never stayed away from email for more than 1-2 hours. Either I will be using personal email answering to my thousands of fans (ha ha!), or checking the official email that wants me to do a lot of things – including standing upside down for 10 minutes.

Emails help queue up my tasks in Outlook, and my zero inbox formula helps me stay sane with the 150+ emails a day floating around in a single inbox.


A plan to get rid of emails

When I had heard about Atos’s plan to have no emails for conversations amongst its employees. I knew this could be done with lot of discipline, but it requires a lot of re-learning and I was curious about the results. Atos wanted to do this within a time frame of 3 years. They even employed a “zero email program manager” to drive the task.

It is 3 years since that announcement, and Atos has announced that emails have reduced by 60%. In a recent conversation with PC Mag, Atos admitted as much and gave away the means they employed to reduce emails –

  1. Lync and SharePoint
  2. BlueKiwi

Lync is a great piece of software. It allows you not only to chat, but instantly communicate, video chat, and collaborate in real-time using screen sharing, taking notes, and white boarding. SharePoint can help store documents, and collaboratively work on documents – it isn’t my favourite document management system out there.

I knew little about BlueKiwi, but it looks like any other enterprise social platform. Think about Yammer/Chatter for the enterprise. It starts from 3 Euros per person per month.

By looking at what Atos proposed and what they have done, it looks like a big publicity stunt to me. Their BlueKiwi product may be the greatest of the social platforms, and Lync may have all the real-time collaboration features you need, but they have only been able to reduce email flow by 60%. Not that impressive, I would say.


Are Emails bad?

I can never agree to the statement of “emails waste time”, “emails harm productivity”. Emails are the very reason I and many of the people like us can do our job.

A lot of conversations amongst global teams are asynchronous, and does not need an immediate answer. A lot of communication happens addressed to the person, or addressed to a specific group. Action items are notified, views exchanged, and communication takes place.

Are we using emails like they were meant to be used? Yes, and no.

email productivity tasks

Everything evolves, and emails are no different. Emails were the best to do certain things, but technology has changed drastically.  As is the case with change, people are lagging behind in adopting them.

The following are things I would certainly do in emails –

  • One on one communication
  • Try to correct a person, or point out a problem attributed to specific person or group of people
  • Communicate with people who are outside the ecosystem

And, the following are something I would do on a different platform –

  • Group emails about a particular system problem, and solution options. Group collaboration tools including enterprise social tools are the best platforms to get this job done
  • Tasks to be queued up for your action. There are a lot of task managers out there, chose one (or two)
  • Instant communication, or request for action – use chat tools (e.g. Lync, or use Google Hangout)
  • Sharing of documents – SharePoint, or any other easy-to-use document management tools make it really easy to work on shared documents

Emails are embedded deeply in the psyche of modern humans.

email funny

It will take some time to introduce a change, however positive it can be. People tend to go back to “our old, trusted way of doing things” in spite of whatever advantages of the change.

But, change will come. You can be prepared now and enjoy its benefits, or suffer later.