Useful websites and books

Here is another round of useful links and books. The previous one can be found here.

Science-based advice on pretty much everything: Bakedesuyo

Science-based advice on choosing your career: 80000 hours

Book of tricks to make yourself motivated about things you want to be motivated about: The Motivation Hacker.

Book about achieving results with least effort by doing things smarter: Smartcuts.


Thursday, May 28th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

On meditation

At a very abstract level, two factors determine your success in life: 1) how well you perform when you perform at your peak, and 2) how often do you perform at your peak. Meditation helps with #2. Or to be more specific, it helps you perform at your peak even in situations that are stressful. Thus it is a relevant topic for any blog (such as ours) devoted to understanding the patterns that lead to extraordinary success.

Unfortunately, understanding and practicing meditation is hard because of all the junk information available out there. But we have filtered out two resources that are much better than others. They are:

Waking Up, by Sam Harris

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and a big proponent of rational thinking. His organization, Project Reason, is devoted to promoting scientific knowledge in society. Thus it was refreshing to read a book on meditation written by him. I think the quickest way of summarizing his main message is this:

Imagine the transition from being asleep in the night to waking up in the morning. When you are asleep, you are not aware that you are asleep. You have all these dreams and you think of them as representing reality. Once you wake up, you become aware of the fact that you were an entity that was dreaming those dreams.

Now when we are awake, we are thinking these thoughts and we think of them as representing reality. We are hardly ever aware that we are an entity that is thinking these thoughts. According to the book, meditation helps us reach a mental state where we are constantly aware of being an entity thinking these thoughts. Thus it helps us achieve a second level of waking up (hence the title of the book, I think).

How does this help one perform at peak in stressful situations? A situation is stressful only because of the thoughts it induces. If you could somehow prevent yourself from having stressful thoughts, no situation would be stressful. Meditation helps you realize that you are not your thoughts, that you are a separate entity that is merely thinking these thoughts.

Anyway, here is a link to the book in case you want to buy it.


This was all theory. What do you once you are convinced that meditation is cool and want to give it a try? The best way to do it is to find a proper teacher you can interact with one-on-one, but short of that, the next best thing is this app called Headspace. It has some very nice instructional videos and 10 guided meditation sessions for free.

Friday, May 22nd, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

Things to do a week before JEE

Your performance in JEE is determined by three factors: your skills, your knowledge, and your attitude.

By skills I mean your ability to think fast and solve difficult problems. This is not going to change much in the last few days. So there’s no point working on it either.

In principle it’s possible to change your knowledge more than your skills in a few days. But as we know, JEE does not test you on your knowledge as much as it tests your understanding. So just cramming in a few more chapters is also not going to be of much use.

The most volatile factor during the last few days is your attitude. This can swing wildly based on various factors including the amount of sleep you had and the kinds of people you talk to. So we suggest that during the last week you forget completely about your skills and your knowledge and focus on ensuring that you have the right attitude during the exam.

So what is the right attitude to have during the exam? You need to make sure that you are able to perform at your peak for six hours in one day. During those six hours you should be pumped up about showing to the world what you are made of. You should go in believing that you will completely destroy the question paper. And you should be able to focus on the questions in front of you.

How does one get into such a mental state? The best way is to practice by recreating the same situation at home 2-3 times in the week preceding JEE. So there you have it. The best way to spend the week before JEE is to do about 2-3 mock tests that try to create almost exactly the same situation as you will face during the real exam. Nothing more, nothing less.

Thursday, May 21st, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

The 3 most important tips for JEE preparation

Tip #1: Remember that it’s a low scoring exam.

It’s hard to believe it after going through more than 12 years of schooling. But it’s true. To get in the top 500 in the entire country you only need to score more than about 70% in the exam. To be in the top 5000 you only need more than about 40-50%. Contrast this with a school exam where to be in the top 5 in your class you need to score more than 90%.

What does this mean? This means you do not even need to understand the entire syllabus to qualify. In fact, you can completely ignore a significant portion of it and still perform very well. This means you can just find the topics you like and are good at and become really good at them. If you can solve 90% of the questions from 60% of the topics you will already score 54%, which is enough to qualify.

Tip #2: Remember that JEE tests you on your understanding as opposed to memorization skills.

JEE questions are not like the questions asked in school exams. But unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what exactly the difference is without going through lots of examples. Of course, one difference is that the questions are much more difficult. But there are various ways of making a question difficult. JEE uses one specific kind of difficult questions—questions that test your understanding of the subject matter.

This is crucial to understand during your JEE preparation so that you will know what kinds of things to focus on. I think one of the most succinct ways of explaining the difference is just quoting Richard Feynman:

The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

So in short, school exams mostly test you on how well you know the names of things and JEE tests you on how well you know things. You should remember this during your preparation and focus exclusively on activities that enhance your understanding.

Now I realize that it’s hard to just read the paragraph above once and completely understand what I am talking about, specially after going through ten years of schooling. So how does one understand the meaning of understanding? By reading good books, solving challenging problems yourself, and interacting with good-quality mentors and tutors. And I will leave it at that for now. Hopefully future posts will be able to explain this more thoroughly.

Tip #3: Do not get nervous during the exam.

Many students who have done everything right still fail in the exam because they get too nervous. Some nervousness is unavoidable. But try to keep it to a minimum.

I know that asking someone to not get nervous is exactly the kind of thing that’s likely to make them even more nervous. So I’m sorry to bring it up right now. But let me compensate by offering two tips that will genuinely help with nervousness.

First, any skill is learned with practice. Same is true for the skill of not getting nervous. Put yourself in lots of stressful situations where normally one would get nervous and try to maintain calm instead. This will make you better at not getting nervous in several ways. For example, during the exam, it’s nice to be able to tell yourself something like this: “Come on, I gave an impromptu speech in front of 1,000 people once and won. I can handle IIT JEE.”

Sports offer an excellent environment for small stressful situations. Moreover, nervousness is a biological response which is guided by the hormonal composition of your body to a large extent and physical activities help regulate your hormones. So we highly recommend playing sports.

Second, meditation helps. Several highly successful people meditate on a regular basis and vouch for its effectiveness. Unfortunately, most meditation-related resources are full of junk information. But stay tuned, because we will soon write a post on meditation with recommendations for useful resources.

Friday, May 15th, 2015. Written by admin. 1 comment.

All you wanted to know about time management

The fundamental lesson of time management is that if you feel you need to manage your time, then things have already gone wrong. If that’s true, you can still recover, but that will require you to get into damage control mode and this post is not about that. This post is about setting up the parameters of your life in such a way that you sail through it without feeling that you lack time.

How does one achieve that? The answer is that instead of trying to manage time, you should focus on managing attention, energy, and motivation.

Attention management

Attention determines the rate at which you will get work done in the same amount of time. A typical work hour in modern times is full of distractions. Your email, text, and social networking apps are constantly open trying to notify you of every single event as soon as possible. This creates a huge overhead and drastically compromises one’s productivity. An hour spent working in isolation with all electronic equipments on a do-not-disturb mode is several times more productive than otherwise. For more tips on how to cultivate similar “deep work habits” visit Cal Newport’s blog.

OK, so switching off electronic equipments is the obvious thing you can do to improve attention. What else? Improving attention is equivalent to eliminating distractions. So what other sources of distraction can we eliminate? We often get distracted if we are not certain about what we want to work on. If you sit at your work desk with the goal “get better at math” you will spend a lot of time deciding whether doing something will make you better at math or not. For example, say in order to get better at math, you sit down with a set of exercise problems in combinatorics where you encounter the notion of the Catalan number. You get curious and fire up your browser to check out the Wikipedia page on Catalan number. You quickly glance through many mathematical formulas and reach the History section on the page where you read Euler’s name, which reminds you of Project Euler and you get curious to know why this guy’s name keeps showing up whenever you read about math. Several clicks and an hour later you know everything about Euler but have hardly made any progress with your exercise problems. So even though you are now more likely to win the next Math Trivia contest, this hour should be called a distraction because it was not the aim you started with.

Productivity experts have developed several tools to fight these kinds of distractions. The central idea is to reserve a block of time and be very articulate about what you want to achieve in that block. For example, you could reserve a one-hour block with the precise aim of “solving as many problems as you can from this set of 20 exercise problems in combinatorics.” This is precise and makes it much easy to decide whether something contributed towards this goal or not. For example, if you open Wikipedia to fulfill some temporary curiosity, it satiates your curiosity and that’s all. It does not help you progress toward your goal of solving those 20 exercise problems.

What’s the ideal length of a block of time to reserve for focussed activities? It depends on you. Clearly, a 4-hour long block is usually not good. Focussed work is taxing and doing it for four hours at a stretch is close to impossible. The pomodoro technique posits that the ideal block is 25-minutes long. We suggest that you experiment with it for a while and figure out what works best for you.

Finally, one can also optimize attention by playing around with the time of the day when one is most productive. The human body operates in a rhythm that makes certain times of the day more productive than others. Some people are more productive early in the morning and some in the night. But for most people there is a specific block of about 2-3 hours per day when their productivity hits its peak. It’s important to figure out what that block is for you and exploit it to its fullest.

To summarize:

  1. Find a block of about 2-3 hours per day when you are most productive.
  2. During those 2-3 hours, switch off all your email and social networking apps.
  3. Make a list of precisely defined goals that you want to work towards in those hours and devote your full attention towards those goals.

Motivation management

It is hard to consistently force yourself to do things that you hate doing. At the same time, work is work and it’s unreasonable to assume that you can truly enjoy your work all the time. No matter how much fun your work is, there will be times when getting together with friends and making stupid jokes will be way more fun. So you can’t always enjoy your work and you shouldn’t always hate your work. The more motivated you feel about your work the more productive you are going to be. Thus it’s important to maximize motivation. How does one do that?

First, the obvious. You should pick something to work on that feels like fun at least sometimes. If you have never enjoyed problem solving in your life, do not pick a career based on math. If you hate writing and have never enjoyed reading literature, then no need to try to become a writer. So let’s assume that you have picked a career wisely. What else can you do to maximize motivation?

Social circle is the biggest determining factor in how motivated you will feel for working towards your goals. The primary source of motivation in humans—and, in fact, in all other species—is social reward points. Subconsciously, we all work towards being recognized as a respectable member of our own social circles. So you should engineer your social circle so that this fundamental driving force works towards helping you achieve your goals. Hang out with people who are working passionately on goals similar to yours. If you want to pick one thing to do right now, this is it. The impact of a smart, energetic, and productive social circle cannot be underestimated.

These two steps should get you to about 80% of the maximum motivation level you can achieve. You can perform further tweaks by gamifying things. Measure your progress, create fun little competitions, compete with yourself and with your friends, create records, break records, and so on.

To summarize:

  1. Pick a career that does not make you do many things you hate doing.
  2. Hang out with people working passionately towards goals similar to yours.
  3. Gamify!

Energy management

This is usually not an issue with the younger crowd, but it is important that your body feels energetic a reasonable amount of time. If you feel sleepy all the time then you should fix that. How? The three most important areas to focus on are diet, sleep, and exercise.

Everyone should exercise, no matter what their age. At the minimum, pick up a sport and play it regularly. Sports are fun and will not only keep you healthy, but also help you grow as a person. Sports teach you how to perform under pressure: a skill that comes in handy at every important occasion in life. If you cannot play a sport, then make arrangements to be physically active at home. Buy a pair of dumb bells and lift them every alternate day. Or buy a resistance band and do some resistance training. If you do not want to buy anything, try body-weight fitness. There are many online communities where people working on their fitness get together and share tips and tricks. One example is the body-weight fitness subreddit. If you do not like any of the suggestions above, just go out and jog. Being active at least 20 minutes per day is *much* better than not being active at all.

Next thing is sleep. Going to bed at a regular time every day has immense advantages. At a young age, this may not be a big issue but older you get, the more benefits you will see from fixing your sleeping schedule. But in any case if you do feel lethargic most of the day, then an irregular sleeping schedule could be causing it.

Finally, eat healthy. Eat nutritious food and avoid junk food. We cannot explain in this one small post what constitutes healthy food. But the fundamental principle is that healthy food gives you all essential nutrients in the proportion that’s best suited for the body. Buying cooked food outside hardly ever achieves this. Restaurants and fast-food chains are trying to maximize their profits, which means they siphon millions of dollars of money into researching the food that’s most likely to get you addicted, not the food that’s most likely to keep you healthy. In short, staying off of pizzas, lays, and samosas is a good thing. Eating home-cooked food rich in a variety of nutrients is a good thing.

To summarize:

  1. Be physically active.
  2. Try to go to sleep at the same time every day.
  3. Eat nutritious food. Avoid junk food.


If you do the things described in this article, you will not feel the need to “manage time”. And that’s how time is managed.

Sunday, May 10th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

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