“What’s next?” Here’s how you stop procrastination

We all know procrastination is a bad thing. Why then, do we do it?

More often than not, it stems from a lack of structure, and not realising that our own habits are the problem.

Here’s what happens.

Picture this: your team had a brainstorming session for a new product line. Brilliant ideas were whizzing around, and it all came together into an absolute firecracker of a concept, something everyone thought would be a winner. Everyone left the room buzzing with energy, exhilarated and looking forward to the future.

Only, no one knew what the next course of action was. Market evaluation? A round of internal evaluation, to confirm feasibility? Management approval?

The idea sits on its imaginary bum, while another meeting is held to figure this out. And so on. You get the drift.

What if everyone had agreed on the next step to take, following that meeting? Perhaps the guys in product management figured it’d be better to check the market for potential competitors first, before anything else got done. Easy.

Not convinced?

Let’s talk about something simpler. You get home after a long day, and find something in the mail: an Aldi brochure listing the week’s offers. Surely it can wait, you think. It’s late, you’re too tired to bother. It gets left on the desk, and joins a growing heap of junk mail.

What if you’d simply taken two minutes to browse, circle the items that needed to be looked at, and placed it into the shopping bag, ready for the weekend?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Multiply the same action by twenty, and that pile of junk might not even exist.

It even applies to email.

A new message just appeared in my inbox.

Scenario A: It’s a newsletter I used to read years ago, but ignore out of habit these days. My inbox is a cesspool of unwanted messages, I find it hard to get to the really important ones.

What if I’d simply taken ten seconds to click the unsubscribe link? Or created a filter that sent it right into Trash, without ever hitting my inbox? Replicate the same thought process to all those other unwanted emails, and we might be well on our way to Inbox Zero.

Scenario B: It’s work. Someone needs a report. It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s not urgent. Hell, it can wait. The email sits in my inbox every day, staring me in the face until the deadline’s a week away, and then I start scrambling hard.

What if I’d taken five minutes to put a plan together after reading the email? Was the scope clear, did I need to clear it up with someone? Did I already have the tools I needed to generate the report? Who should I be talking to? I send an email to a coworker, and mark the email conversation as done. One less email to care about.

Always consider what the next step should be.

I’ll be the first to admit that this principle isn’t applied to everything in my life. I do however, practise it consistently enough that Inbox Zero is a real thing, both at work and in my personal life. Avoiding procrastination improves my mental state of mind, and allows me to focus better on the things I need to do.

Cultivate positive habits, especially ones that save time and make your life easier. What do you think the next step should be?

I suggest checking out How Habits Work, and the book that’s changed my life to getting things done: David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Get started today.

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From native to cloud: Life in the cloud age

Back when I had my first computer, I used to spend a lot of time customising my desktop, to the exact way I liked it. After multiple rounds of OS reinstallation, I got tired of the routine, and eventually decided, that what I wanted was a consistent, replicable user experience.

Having experienced the early, clunkier days of the computer era, I’m really glad for the advances the internet age has presented. The sheer computing power of the internet and creative talents of so many enterprising individuals out there, has allowed me to gradually detach myself from the constraints of the computer, and rely on the browser instead.

This means a lot, because I’m able to do most of my daily work from most (if not all) computers, and not have to worry about having to reinstall the OS, and then fiddle around with a hundred different pieces of software on a new computer every single time it dies, just so I can get my work done. Move to a new computer, fire up the browser and life goes on.

For example:

  • Email: No need for Outlook/Thunderbird and the need to configure those damn email settings on a new computer all the time. Use Gmail for a consistent, device-independent interface that allows access to multiple mailboxes.
  • Image editing: Try PicMonkey (quick crop/caption/collage) or Pixlr, both are fantastic services. Pixlr is pure genius: it’s as as close as you can get to an online, free version of Photoshop.
  • Image compression: Web Resizer for easy resizing of JPEG files into web-friendly sizes.
  • Document view/edit: Google Drive is a handy replacement if you don’t have Microsoft Office ready.
  • Document storage: Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, the variety of cloud storage services out there are endless. Having a NAS in your local network is ideal (especially for large files), but offsite storage has its perks.
  • Audio editing: Online MP3 Cutter, as good as it gets.
  • Video editing: Haven’t bothered looking for an online alternative. Not sure if it’s a good idea to begin with, given the fact that videos are usually massive files.
  • Audio transcription: Transcribe is a very helpful tool. Upload the audio clip, and use the simple text interface to type. Handy audio controls, allow you to pause/rewind as needed.
  • Music: Have your music online, no need to store them locally and worry about losing it all. Sync music to your device as needed. Spotify, Google Play Music.

Obviously, two big caveats here.

  • You’re stuffed soon as the internet goes down. But hell, it beats losing all your crap the moment your computer dies.
  • Serious tasks that require heavy processing power or require large files, should still be done locally. This includes video editing, watching videos, programming.

Why cutting my own hair makes sense

Haircuts are fun, but annoying.

Fun, because you get to create a different look for yourself every time.

Annoying, because it happens too bloody often. Assuming you’re not growing it out, maintenance usually happens at the 3-4 week mark.

It then comes down to making time out. The entire process is tedious at best.

  • Make an appointment with the stylist/barber (optional).
  • Travel. This means driving out.
  • Sit and wait for your turn.
  • Sit and wait to have your hair done, and make polite conversation.
  • Pay up.
  • Travel (again).

A mechanical, boring procedure. And hooray, you get to repeat the entire sequence again in about a month’s time! In a word, it’s inconvenient. I have to sacrifice weekend time to get this done, and it’s not something that can be ignored for long, before one starts looking unkempt.

My earlier years in Melbourne involved a steadfast willingness in ignoring the way I looked. I would wait five, even six weeks before I got a haircut each time, in a bid to put it off as long as possible.

When Simon suggested cutting my own hair last year, I was a little skeptical at the skill level involved. People actually make a living off this, could it be that easy? I might very well turn my own hair into a disaster zone, and end up shaving it all off.

I didn’t give up on the idea though. It got to the point where I told myself, fuck it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the worst possible circumstance, I would waste a bit of money on the clipper purchase, and a month or so of injured pride.

Getting started

And so I got started on the project. I got myself a Wahl Colour Pro (easy starting point), and watched some YouTube videos to get the hang of things. I also recruited my brother to the cause, because I wasn’t ready to cut my own hair right away – it was more of trying the DIY approach.

Given how low my expectations were, I was really surprised that our first session turned out decently enough. Granted, we were really cautious about it, and went slow.

It got a little easier as we got more reps, and it really helped that we would pass on feedback immediately if we needed something fixed. Depending on your relationship with the barber, it’s something that might feel awkward. After all, the barber is a fellow who has a finite amount of time, and is likely keen to move on to his next customer.

My brother and I on the other hand, were happy to spend as much time as we needed to get things right.

While we started off together cutting our hair every month or so, I gradually shortened my cycle to three weeks. It was around that time, when I began experimenting with cutting my hair myself – watching even more YouTube videos helped. Turns out, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be, so I continued doing it myself.

I then became the de facto barber in the house, and it stayed that way for a while, even when he moved out. He eventually got his own clippers earlier this year, for the same obvious reason: convenience.

Equipment

I got more equipment as we went along: some thinning scissors, a better pair of scissors (the one that came with the Colour Pro was rubbish), and a cape. Having a spray bottle also helps a lot.

Cleaning up is easy: just use the vacuum cleaner to suck it all up afterwards.

Approach

These days, I usually go with a high slope using number 3, then 2 on the sides and back. I also use a number 1 at the edges, and trim the top with either the straight shears or thinning shears, depending on how short/long or light/heavy I prefer it to be.

The hard part is getting to the back of the head without another mirror – I need to get that soonish, but it’s not a high priority item. My guesstimation is getting pretty good these days, so I usually finish 95% of the job and get V to look it over, then snip stray bits as needed.

Injuries

I’ve been relatively lucky on this front. I’ve been cutting my own hair for ten months now, and have only managed to snip myself twice – both times, when cutting someone else’s hair. Damn scissors are too sharp for their own good, but it’s all about being careful.

Benefits

Time

Instead of spending something like two hours outside, I take twenty minutes or so. At home.

Convenience

The process for getting a haircut used to go like this:

  • Random night: “Damn, I need a haircut.”
  • “Got to remember to drive out on Saturday or Sunday.”
  • Makes note on calendar.
  • Wait for appointed day to happen, drives out to the nearest barber.

These days, things are less complicated:

  • Random night: “Damn, I need a haircut.”
  • Walks into bathroom and starts haircut, finishes off with shower right after.

The same convenience applies to the kids as well. They obviously aren’t used to the thought of having someone unfamiliar handle a loud device that buzzes menacingly near their head, and being able to do it at home just makes things easier.

Can’t say I’m a world-class stylist, but no one’s pointing to their hair and laughing their heads off, so that’s a win in my books.

Cost saving

An average haircut used to cost anything from $16 to $20 for me. By cutting my own hair alone, I was saving that much every month. Add the fact that I was cutting my brother’s hair as well, and that effectively doubled the savings.

That’s not even counting the kids yet. The savings have already repaid the cost for my equipment.

Is DIY hair cutting for everyone?

Not necessarily.

If you:

  • like the experience of kicking back and letting someone else do it for you
  • are really particular about the way you want it to look
  • have someone who can do it your desired way consistently
  • do not mind the hassle of travel

Getting out to the barber/stylist is probably the way to go.

DIY hair cutting is a fun experiment, and in hindsight, a life skill. It doesn’t take much to pick the basics up, and is relatively low-risk. For me, it’s checked all the boxes, and made my life easier. #gamechanger

The road back to fitness

I have to admit, health and fitness have largely taken a backseat in the past couple of years, and a large part of my excuse was that I didn’t have the time/energy/motivation.

This time round, I’m really determined to make it work. 2016 is the year I renew my focus on health and fitness, and I’m pleased to say that it’s been positive so far.

Disclaimer: what follows will be an extensive log of my gym routine. YMMV, what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. Feedback is welcome.

Eye on the prize

First off, I had to lock myself in on a goal, or rather two goals.

Primary goal: Gain mass. I had my eye on gaining weight, to something ranging from 72kg to 75kg. This is a projected gain from 9kg to 12kg.

Secondary goal: Strength gain. This was a rather vague goal at first, but it solidified later into this goal. Man, these exercises are crazy!

Basic decisions to get things started

Heaps of decisions made in making things work, which included:

Where: I decided on Zap Fitness. It was no-frills, but I didn’t need extra shit like a sauna or HIIT classes. It checked my boxes: it was affordable ($70 a month for 24/7 access), and convenient – walking distance from the workplace, and a quick drive from home.

How: I was looking everywhere for a routine to start off with, but ultimately went with StrongLifts 5×5, despite the fact that I’d never done compound exercises like squats/deadlifts/barbell rows before. The app seriously sold me, the UX is fantastic.

When: It was more than obvious that the logical gym window would be during the workday, three times a week. I locked it down as Mon/Wed/Fri (to conserve my weekends), and to start my routine before lunch hour.

It was more to make sure I grabbed one of the two available quarter racks for my workout, before anyone else did. Queuing for a rack, seriously sucks.

Also, the timings would not disrupt my nights and take time away from the family or from the website – ideal.

Home equipment: I got a foam roller, and also a weighing scale – both very important tools.

#feedthebeast, also known as food intake

This is obviously an area of emphasis. Fail to feed the body, and you fail to get results.

My strategy basically revolved around two things.

Getting enough calories

Part 1: Dextrose monohydrate

Sylvester was kind enough to point out the need for extra calories. I started off with mass gainers, but he had a better answer: dextrose monohydrate. It’s basically sugar, that gets easily broken down into calories. If you want to win the calories war, this is it.

And the best part is, mass gainers are basically a combination of whey protein and dextrose monohydrate anyway. It makes more sense for you to buy the two separately, and mix your own proportions to your own liking.

Obtaining the dextrose monohydrate cheaply, took a while. Simon pointed me towards a microbrewery in the area, and I lugged a 25kg sack home that same week, which I shared with the brother. Yep, you can tell I’m really determined to make it work.

Part 2: Eating enough

The second part of getting enough calories obviously, comes from the simple fact of eating your damn meals. I made adjustments along the way, and a typical day’s eating looks like this. Have to give a S/O to Sathish here for a conversation I had with him on his daily diet, it helped develop the blueprint here.

I have to put this out there though. My mentality on eating is what I call functional eating. I eat because it’s necessary, not because I think of every meal as a feast. Most of these meals are easy to make, relatively light on the tastebuds and take minimal time to consume. Yes, I’m lazy.

You can imagine this not working for folks who get easily bored and desire variety.

  1. Breakfast: two eggs (scrambled, sunny side, whatever) at minimum, sometimes three. If hungry, add bacon strips and/or bread with cottage cheese. Add a muesli bar on the drive into work.
  2. Mid-morning: banana, along with protein shake. One scoop of WPC on non-workout days, add creatine on workout days.
  3. Lunch: sandwich with cottage cheese, avocado spread and ham, with a protein shake on workout days. I usually eat out on rest days, and try to consume some sort of meat (beef, chicken) without restricting myself too much.
  4. Mid-afternoon: another sandwich (same as above). Add a banana or apple to chomp on, if still feeling hungry.
  5. Dinner: whatever the family’s having. It varies from pasta to rice, accompanied with stew or stir-fried vegetables, salmon, list goes on. Important for me to have plenty of meat.
  6. Pre-bedtime drink: protein shake. Two scoops of WPC, a scoop of dextrose monohydrate, and two tablespoons of Milo (just to make the taste better). Add milk, not water, and shake. Bottoms up!

I’m not exactly counting my macros. Bt judging from results, I’m covering my bases and gaining weight without looking like a slob so this works for me.

Sylvester has also suggested microwaved chicken breasts, but I’m holding that as a thought for now – it’s likely going to replace WPC if I wean myself off it.

Getting enough protein

Fail to supply enough protein, and your muscles fail to repair/grow. I opted for whey protein concentrate (WPC) over whey protein isolate (WPI) because it was cheaper.

I order my WPC from Venom Protein, because prices look good and delivery’s free.

Milk also comes into the equation here, but I seriously could not stomach the idea of doing GOMAD (Gallon Of Milk A Day) or LOMAD (Liter Of Milk A Day). Sorry guys, just can’t do it.

Exercise routine and progress notes

Tip: Get a foam roller

If you do not want to get DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and stagger around like a SOB every post-workout day, get a foam roller and roll the hell out of your muscles. It really helps.

The routine

As mentioned earlier, I started with SL 5×5, and added assistance exercises: planks on one day, chinups on the other.

Planks = core training, love that stuff. I always start feeling like a spasming limp noodle at the 40 second mark, even after all this time.

Chinups on the other hand, kill me. I have never, ever completed 3 sets of 10 reps, and the record still stands.

Props to Alan Thrall for his excellent instructional YouTube videos, I’ve watched them countless times. Practiced my form at home, took videos of myself in the first two weeks of working out, and did as much as I could to make sure I wasn’t fucking my body up somehow.

January to March

It took a while to get my form functional (I won’t even call them right), but I got into the thick of things pretty quick without suffering pains. My workout weights were ramping up, everything was rolling along, I was gaining an average of 2kg every month.

And then the fun part came along.

I got hit by a flu bug in March that had me feverish and incapacitated for the better part of two weeks. Thanks kids, I really needed that.

March to present

I obviously lost my gains (both strength and weight) post-illness. What was interesting, was that I started getting ankle soreness when doing squats. It confused the hell out of me, and I was checking my form to see what I was doing differently. The answer? I couldn’t tell.

It got to the point where I felt I shouldn’t be doing squats, for the sake of my ankles. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure why I needed to squat. It was a great starting point, but I could gain weight without squatting.

So I left squats on the backburner, and dropped my deadlifts too. My grip just wasn’t strong enough to progress at the rate SL 5×5 recommended, so I stuck my guns to one set of 1×5 60kg, period.

At the same time, I tweaked the assistance exercises to compensate (sort of) for the lack of squats, and to increase my focus on bodyweight exercises (BWE).

  • Workout A, I added weighted pushups (3 x 10 with a 2.5kg plate). This later became dips, as I felt dips were more effective.
  • Workout B, I added barbell curls.

Stat check

It’s at the four month mark now, and:

  • I’m benching 50kg, with
  • an overhead shoulder press of 30kg.
  • My barbell row is 40kg.
  • I’m completing my first set of 10 chinups and failing reps on the other two.
  • I can do a first set of 10 dips, and wilt after.

More importantly? I’m at the tip of hitting 70kg, for the first time in my life. It’s rather exciting, to say the least. I started the year at 63kg, and have gained almost 7kg in muscle. I’m saying muscle because my abs have gained definition, which points to the body’s fat% dropping. My shoulders are broader (new clothes needed soon) but I’m happy with the results so far.

It’s a fun journey, and I’m looking forward to consistent improvement as the days go by.

Miscellaneous lifestyle tweaks

Vitamin supplements

Cod liver oil: I came across this while reading Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Body. The book’s got mixed reviews, ranging from positive ratings to flaming outrage at the opinions presented inside, but I found it a fascinating read. The obvious disclaimer here: read everything with a pinch of salt and take your own counsel, do your research etc.

Anyway. Fermented cod liver oil was suggested as a means of increasing testosterone, along with vitamin-rich butter fat. I opted to go with cod liver oil (not fermented), as a means of improving my vitamin A and D intake.

Ginkgo biloba: Improving overall blood circulation, memory. This interesting post on TRP that may, or may not have been a contributing factor in my decision-making process.

Cold showers

This was also suggested in The Four Hour body, more as a means of increasing lean muscle mass and increasing testosterone production. In my eyes: testosterone increase = growth hormone = muscle gain.

Quoted: “Take 5-10 minute cold showers before breakfast and/or before bed. Use hot water for 1-2 minutes over the entire body …  … Expect this to wake you up like a foghorn.”

I’m slowing working my way up to the 5-10 minute shower. It’s basically 2-3 minutes of hot water, and 3 minutes of ice cold water at this point. I can never get used to the initial thirty seconds of freezing shock. V thinks I’m mad for doing this before bedtime, but it’s exhilarating and energizing, to say the least.

And surprisingly, it doesn’t get in the way of me falling asleep. I guess that’s what parents are really good at.

Getting enough sleep

Pretty much a no-brainer. Run short on rest, and your body doesn’t get enough time to repair/grow. I do my best to get into bed by 11pm these days, and fall asleep before midnight.

The three story approach to a job interview

Sharing a really great tip from inreptech on reddit (original thread) on what could probably be the #1 tip for interview prep.

Quoted:

This seems like a good time to throw in my all-purpose interview advice for college grads: well before the interview, come up with three legit stories about projects you did in college, preferably group projects, and practice telling them to a friend or somebody. Then, in the interview, tell those three stories regardless of what question they ask you.

Like, say one of your stories is about a group project to implement a chess engine. Not impressive, probably not relevant to the job, but better than nothing. So:

Q “Tell us about a time you exhibited leadership”

A “Well, I had to take a leadership role in directing the efforts of three partners in my senior project chess engine, in which I….”
Q “Tell us about a time you had to deal with personality conflicts.”

A “Well, there were quite a few disagreements among my partners in my senior chess project, in which I…”
Q “What’s your favorite text editor?” ”

A I really enjoyed using Notepad++ in my senior project, in which I…”
Q”Tell me why I should hire you when you’re obviously hung over and wearing two left shoes.”

A “Well, if you don’t hire me, you’d be missing out on the skills I learned while leading my senior project implementing a chess engine, in which I…”
You get the idea. Point is, don’t go in there and hope to come up with answers on the fly. 75% of interview questions basically reduce to “tell us a story about a project you worked on”, so have a couple ready to go and you’ll do great.

Some other smashing tips in the thread, don’t forget to check it out.

I remember going for my very first interview back in 2003, and flunking it horribly because my mind went blank. Regardless of whether you have three stories or not, rehearsal is important, folks. Always practice, and don’t be afraid to take in critique from friends and family on how you fare.

The power of constructive criticism

It’s all too easy to make pointed, disparaging remarks on a topic, and all of us have done it before.

Pointing out flaws are a necessary step in the grand scheme of making things better, but what use is knowing a flaw, when a solution cannot be found?

Don’t be a cloud of doom that spews negative energy everywhere. Be positive, be constructive. When discussing a problem, make sure to offer ideas on potential solutions. Or better, offer to help in being part of the answer. There’s nothing better than lending a helping hand to people around you, and given the same circumstances, you’d appreciate the gesture too. Too many cooks spoil the broth at times, but at others, it might very well be the lightning bolt of inspiration you needed to make things work.

Every one of us knows how to whinge. What’s not as easy, is to participate in constructive discussion, and help engineer a solution to the problem at hand.

 

What is the right attitude to take at work?

Do what you need to do, and do it well.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, apparently. Let’s talk about some of the values I’ve learnt to appreciate over the years of work.

First off, I’d like to thank a friend and mentor who hammered this philosophy into my thick skull. Eleven years on, and I’m still proud to say his words have done the most good in my professional life by far. Once again, thank you to Neo Chee Beng, without whom my life would’ve likely taken an entirely different road.


Let’s start off with responsibility. That means taking ownership of your assigned task. You’re in charge, it’s all yours, and it’s definitely all on you to make it work. It’s not an opportunity to palm it off to someone else and claim credit after. It’s up to you to give it your very best shot, and show others what you’re capable of.

Your very best shot.

Always focus on what can be done, don’t give excuses. No one likes excuses, and neither do you. Talk about what can be done. Look forward, stay positive.

Find out what needs to be done, break it up into smaller, achieveable goals. It’s all about working out each successive detail properly. Concentrate on getting the little things done, and before you know it? Mission accomplished.

If you’re not sure, is there any way you can do a quick read and learn? Anyone to ask for advice? Always do what you can to figure things out, before reaching out.

It’s all about attitude. How badly do you want to see it done? Try all ways and means to reach the goal.

What if you need something from someone else?
Eyes on the prize, stay focused and get what you need. Keep pushing (nicely, this means not sounding like a condescending bully), and never let it drop off the radar.

Be realistic, understanding and professional. Be realistic about what you are asking for. Understand the situation of others, and be professional in the way you ask. Make sure it’s understood that you’re just trying to get things done, not just because.

If you are getting delays because of procrastination from others, try another tack. Should you be asking someone else in another department for help instead? Is there another pathway you can try? Anywhere else that this question could be escalated to? Be polite, but firm.

For example, start the discussion off with the objective.
“I’m really sorry to keep pushing, but this really needs to be done.”

Move on with some suggested alternatives.
Could someone else be the answer?
“Is there someone else I should be checking with instead?”

Would a face-up meeting work things out better?
“Could we arrange for a time to sit down together and talk this over?”

Give everyone some space to work this through.
“Would you prefer I check back at an agreed time later?”

Is there another obstacle you weren’t aware of?
“Is there something else you’re waiting on?”

Most importantly, offer help!
“Is there anything I can do to help move this along?”

It’s important to keep this in mind: always be appreciative of the help others extend to you! Never take the goodwill of others for granted.


Time is of the essence.

Get your task done quick, more so if someone else is waiting on you to do their work. Don’t keep people waiting if you can help it.

Help others want to help you. Be honest and truthful in what you do (or did not do).

When you mess up, own up. It’s important to learn the power of a good apology, and no one exemplified this better than Dr Randy Pausch, who spoke about the three important parts of a good apology (among other things) in his last lecture titled “The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.

I’d recommend watching the entire lecture from Carnegie Mellon, but here’s a shortened version from the Oprah Show.

I’m sorry, it was my fault, how do I make it right?

If it’s your fault, admit it. Don’t get defensive and start spouting excuses. There’s nothing wrong in saying it’s your fault, especially if it really is. Make a proper apology, focus on what could’ve been done better, and promise to do it better.

None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. It’s been quoted often enough, that to err is human, to forgive, divine. Before forgiveness though, there has to be an honest admission, and the sincere desire to want to do better.

Take responsibility, have the right attitude, communicate, be appreciative. Be mindful of timing. And when things go wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise and promise to do better.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen my own life unfold the right way more often than it should. Call it dumb luck, call it fate, but I believe the right attitude’s helped more times than I’ve realised.

“If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”
– Dr Randy Pausch