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Hello World | How to do many things at once and not burn out

The idea of habit stacking has been around for a few decades now. It is very simple but powerful. 

October 30, 2021 / 10:04 AM IST

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.

In the last 12 months or so, my first book was published. I started writing this column which is into its 54th edition now. I co-authored a book with two top academics. I wrote stories for Shaastra, a first of its kind science and technology magazine supported by IIT Madras. With a colleague's help, I’ve done more than 50 podcasts and a dozen-odd webinars for Freshworks, the company I work for. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on fitness and with family. I’ve now started a cohort-based course for people to learn podcasting.

hello world logoSorry, I don’t mean to be ostentatious. I also fall behind deadlines and fail to deliver. I also have bad days and terrible days. But I just wanted to point out that I’ve had a productive year and talk to you about how I found time to do all this together. There are a bunch of things that have helped. The single most important idea is what I like to call layering. This is not a new concept. The idea of habit stacking has been around for a few decades now. It is very simple but powerful. 

Don't start everything together. Start one thing. Do it for a few weeks. Add another. Do it for a few weeks. Add another and so on. When you feel like the new things you’re doing are eating into your rest time or are affecting the quality of your work, stop doing new things. When you look back, you’ll be surprised how you’ve found time to do so many things. Looking at the end state, it might even seem like you have some secret productivity hack. The truth is, there is no hack.

Also read: 1 in 3 Indian professionals burnt out, stressed due to remote work

There are four other ideas that have helped me. First is being deliberate about my information diet. Which means I try to seek out high-quality content that is aligned to my work or that I think might give me an insight into the state of an industry. I skip a lot of “breaking news” and wait for things to settle down so I can spend time reading more informed takes on what transpired. When a problem is thrown at you, you almost never have to start from scratch. 

Second, I like to identify and meet people who have a great vantage. This is a habit I picked up from my years as a journalist. Say, there’s a whole lot of action happening in the world of digital art. The best way to have a top-level understanding of the space is to spend time with a practitioner and understand their process, tools and trends. This helps save time and also establishes a relationship that you can tap into when you need a more nuanced understanding of the space. 

Third is multitasking. We’ve been told that multitasking is a bad idea. Last year, I spoke to behavioural design expert Nir Eyal who changed my views on this. The idea here is called multi channel multi tasking. That is, if you’re driving your car, you can listen to music or a podcast. If you’re out for a walk, you can again listen to a show that you like. If you need some ‘think time,’ can you combine it with another activity? For example, I take my son out on my bicycle for an hour-long ride a few days a week. He’s happy, we have occasional heart to heart talks, I get a workout in and I also get time to think or listen to a podcast. 

Finally, some basics. Find bright people who can work with you. Pay them out of pocket or collaborate with them and share the spoils. If you have repetitive tasks, try to automate them. Keep a to-do list or notes to do it later, and plough through them one at a time.  Nothing kills productivity like poorly run meetings that cram up your calendar. Use meetings to come to a consensus or a decision and not brainstorm ideas. 

Now let’s put all this together. To write this column every week, I’d have to read and research. I’d pick books that are aligned to this column or write about the things I’m reading. I’m making notes while I’m reading. I do most of my reading when I take my son out to play (multitasking?!). If I’m biking with him, then I plug into a podcast. To record a podcast, I’d have to identify interesting people. And once I identify them, I’d have to research them. I also learn while I’m recording with them. This not only gives me an insight into people with great vantage, but also the ideas they’re working with. The column is often an offshoot of such conversations, or a book that I’ve read. I also work these ideas into a bigger narrative. To sum up, the key is to keep the big direction fairly steady and find adjacencies that power each other.

Also read: Healing Space | The great Indian burn out

Jayadevan PK
Jayadevan PK is a storyteller who focuses on business and technology. His first book, Xiaomi: How a Startup Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following, was published by Harper Collins in April 2021.
first published: Aug 26, 2021 12:57 pm