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.

What does the JEE (Advanced) – 2013 Data Mean for You?

Here are some data related to JEE (Advanced) 2013 and some inferences that can be valuable for IIT aspirants. Some facts, like JEE (Advanced) is an easy examination and can be conquered easily with the right strategy, are clearly visible in these data. Common perception, like it is a very difficult examination, is primarily because majority of the students prepare very hard with a wrong strategy and fail to perform as per their potential. How else can you explain the fact that the marks scored by students who appeared in JEE (Advanced) 2013 varied between 332 and -70 out of maximum of 360? Remember that they all are quite brilliant students and have qualified through JEE (Mains). Look at the following data.

— Data:

The highest overall score for JEE 2013 has been 332 out of 360. This is 92.2% and is considered to be quite a slide from last year’s 96%.


The questions asked in JEE can be answered within the given time. Students are able to score more than 90% here too.

— Data:

Only 23 students managed over 300 while 326 students scored over 250.


70% of 360 (full marks) = 252. Since only 326 students could score above 250, a student scoring just 70% gets a rank in the top 326. It is so easy.

— Data:

The lowest mark scored this year is minus 70.


If you are serious about JEE, don’t get amazed by the number of students taking the examination. Minus 70 and similar marks have been scored by those students who have qualified for JEE-Advanced on the basis of their performance in JEE – Mains. They are good students. Only wrong strategy can lead to such a disaster. Being you and having a right strategy is more important than anything else.

— Data:

The maximum questions unanswered were from mathematics.


Yes, you don’t have to answer all the questions. You can leave quite a good number of questions unanswered. But, what is the fun in preparing so hard and leaving the questions unanswered? So much of time and effort goes wasted. Can we identify in advance, the time and efforts that are likely to go wasted and use them smartly on something more productive? Yes, it can be done.

— Data:

About 30-45% students allotted seats at the older IITs were successful on their second attempt.


Majority of the seats are grabbed by students taking the first attempt. But 30-45% is not a discouraging figure for those taking the second attempt. They need to understand the challenges they are likely to face and be prepared for that. Remaining motivated for another year, studying the topics that they have studied so many times in the first attempt with same level of enthusiasm and handling distractions are some of the common challenges.

The data used here has been taken from an article published in Times of India. The article can be read here.

Sunday, October 6th, 2013. Written by admin. No comments.

Numbers vs. intuition: How to make sure that you act on your plans

How many times have you planned to do something and then not done that?

Back when I was a school-going kid, I would sit down with my cousin every time I performed poorly in an exam and after a brief session of self-pity, we would decide to start taking school more seriously. One part of taking school more seriously was to prepare a “schedule” for studying. Thus, we would decide that from the next day onward, we were going to wake up at 5 AM every day, study for one hour, go to school, come back and study for another four hours, finish all our homeworks and so on. Preparing the schedule always seemed like a life-changing event. We were always convinced that we had found the solution to everything finally and that there was no stopping us from being the most successful people on earth any more. The only problem was that it never worked. I would be totally convinced that I was going to do it for the rest of my life and that this was the new me, that waking up early and working hard was what defined me now. But the next day I wouldn’t do it. The slightly annoying sound of the alarm clock at 5 AM was all it ever took me to drop entirely a plan that I had only the previous day, promised to follow for the rest of my life.

The ineptness of human intuition at distinguishing true from false is well documented. Cognitive biases, as they are called, are little errors that the human brain tends to make from time to time. Whether they are good or bad for the human being is debatable. But that they exist, is a fact and has been proven in hundreds of psychological experiments. The purpose of this article is not to provide an extensive survey of cognitive biases, because it’s a huge area of research and entire books have been written about them. However, a particular error in the circuitry of the human brain is relevant to us and it manifests itself in the form of what is called the overconfidence effect. On an average, people tend to be more confident about their abilities than is accurate. For example, in a study done in 1981, it was found that 93% of American drivers rated themselves as better than the median. This would never happen if the beliefs of the drivers about themselves were perfectly aligned with reality. In fact, the study demonstrates a huge discrepancy between the true driving skills and the believed driving skills of the drivers. If all drivers had the correct belief about their driving skills, exactly 50% of them would have claimed to be above the median, since that is exactly what the median means!

Most people are more afraid of plane crashes than of road accidents even though road accidents are much more frequent than plane crashes. If you spend one hour driving a car, statistically speaking, you are much more likely to have an accident than if you spend one hour flying in a plane. And yet, most probably you are more scared of planes than of cars. I am too, until I remind myself of this statistical fact. It is still very difficult to maintain calm when the airplane I am sitting in is passing through a nasty turbulence. My body automatically starts releasing stress hormones and my instincts begin screaming at me the instructions to flee. I have to constantly keep reminding myself that I am still less likely to die than if I were driving a car right now. On the other hand, driving a car is much less stressful, because I too, like the 93% of the American drivers in the study above subconsciously believe that I am better than the median and thus when faced with an accident-prone situation, I subconsciously believe that I will have the dexterity and the reflexes to steer my car away from disaster.

In Hollywood as well as in Bollywood, and in fact in any other entertainment industry, the number of people aspiring to become successful in show business exceeds in several orders of magnitude the number of people who really are successful. And yet, any new aspirant who decides to join the race is usually more optimistic than is justified about his own chances to succeed. This is another manifestation of the overconfidence effect.

What does all of this have to do with planning to do things and not doing them? An unrealistic belief in yourself leads to a tendency to make absurdly unrealistic plans. If you have planned to wake up at 5 AM twenty times and failed every single time, your newfound enthusiasm and conviction to wake up at 5 AM tomorrow is completely unjustified unless you have changed something fundamental about the scenario. Your intuition will mislead you and it will be very hard to not fall into the trap of assuming that tomorrow is going to be different. But most probably, eighteen out of the twenty times that you failed, the day before that you were also entirely convinced that the next day was going to be different. Thus no matter how strongly you believe that you will successfully wake up at 5, all past evidence points unanimously to the highly likely event that you won’t.

So what’s the solution? How does one get out of the cycle of planning and then not following it? By being sceptical about what your intuition says.

Until recently, I had the bad habit of starting more projects than I could handle. I would subconsciously assign some commitment to anything that would temporarily excite me. And then failing to do all of them, I would get depressed and feel worthless about myself. It’s not that I never evaluated whether I had enough time and resources to start another project. I always did that before starting a new one and (incorrectly) always came up to the conclusion that yes, of course I did. The problem was that I did all the calculation intuitively, which, owing to the overconfidence effect, led me astray. So one day I decided to sit down with a pen and paper (actually with a computer and a keyboard) and do all the calculations using actual numbers. So I listed down all the projects that I considered ongoing and specified the amount of time that I expected myself to spend on each in a week. When I added up the times I assigned to each project, the number turned out to be an insane 140 hours per week! Dividing by 7, we get 20 hours a day, which was just pathologically absurd. This meant, to fulfill all my expectations, I would need to sleep for only 4 hours per day and not do anything other than work for the rest of it. That day was very enlightening to me. I crossed out most of the projects from the list except for the two most important ones and postponed the crossed ones for some later time of my life. My productivity and self-worth, both increased since then.

Perhaps most people are not infected with such an extreme case of overconfidence effect, but the basic message of the story and of the article is to rely on actual numbers more than on intuition. Thus when trying to judge how likely you are to follow a plan you just chalked out, base your judgement on the evidence hidden in your past behavior, not on how you feel about the plan. Your past behavior says a lot about you. It puts some constraints on the plans you are likely to follow. Think about the goals you want to achieve and come up with a plan that violates only a very few of those constraints. If such a plan doesn’t exist, you need to revise your goals.

What exactly does your past behavior say about you and how exactly should you use it to make plans for the future? Are you making unrealistic goals? Knowing the person you are, how likely are you to achieve your goals? What steps should you take to increase the probability? It all eventually boils down to numbers and the right way to interpret them. A Personal Preparation Plan provides you with analytics for your own preparation. You will not need to collect the data and interpret them on your own. Our experts will do the math and provide you with the optimal strategy for your preparation.

Footnote: The article presents a slightly simplified version of the overconfidence effect. There are situations where an equivalent “underconfidence” effect has been observed to exist as well. However, the area of planning is dominated by overconfidence, so much so that it has been given its own name: The Planning Fallacy. People’s planning skills have been repeatedly found to err on the “over” side of the spectrum. In any case, under and over are both miscalibrations and have their own harmful effects, which can only be nullified with an approach based on numbers.

Monday, February 11th, 2013. Written by admin. No comments.

How many hours should you study?

This question is probably the most common question asked by curious JEE aspirants to their teachers, coaches and parents. But, is it a relevant question? When you ask this question, what you essentially want to know is whether you are preparing right or not. Are you doing enough work for getting into IIT? Perhaps you know of a friend who says he studies 12 hours a day. Should you start doing the same?

You can answer the questions above using the following fact: Number of hours spent studying per day is NOT the most important factor that decides whether or not you will qualify for IIT. But then, how will you know whether you are preparing right or not? The best way is to use your own data and feeling. Here are some tips:

The ultimate way to test whether your preparation for a topic is sufficient or not is by solving past years’ JEE questions from that topic. If you can solve them, your preparation level is good. The only catch is that you might achieve this level several months before the final exam, in which case, there is a chance you might lose it by the time it’s exam-time. So be careful. You need to maintain the level until the end of the exam. Have a plan to revise the concepts periodically in whatever way you feel comfortable.

— If you have spent more than 4 hours on a topic (in one or multiple sessions) and have never been able to maintain concentration for a continuous stretch of 15 minutes, ignore that topic for a while. You have given enough time to the topic and you should move on to other portions of the syllabus. It is completely normal to find some topics boring. If later in your preparation, you have time to revisit it, try to find some way to make it interesting. For example, you can look for a good source of content or good source of learning or some interesting study group.

— If you are not able to enjoy your studies or if you feel stressed or lack confidence or you keep finding reasons to avoid studying, you need to find ways to enjoy it. Take help on this matter.

If you use your own data, you may discover that studying at your natural pace works best for you. It may be just an average 5-6 hours a day of quality work, with some variations depending on several factors such as topic, mood, environment, health etc. This might just be all you need to do to get into IIT.

It is very important to know how to correctly measure your present preparation level. Otherwise it is very easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself with others and concluding that you are very underprepared.

Mock tests often do a very good job at breaking your confidence. Often, the questions asked in such tests are not JEE-like. It is a common tendency to ask trick or complex computation based difficult questions in mock tests. Just because these questions are also difficult, doesn’t mean they are a representative of questions asked in the JEE. Scoring very poorly in such tests is no indicator of your performance in JEE. The real indicators are the points mentioned above.

If you are anxious about your preparation and don’t know if what you are doing is enough or not, our Personal Preparation Plan can provide some help. As a registered user of the Personal Preparation Plan, you will get your preparation level monitored at a regular interval by experts. We will tell you whether you are on the right track or not, and if you are off, what you should do to get back on the track.

Monday, February 11th, 2013. Written by admin. No comments.

If you want to achieve big things, do this.

In the 1960’s and then in the 1970’s, an experiment was conducted at Stanford University, which is now famously called the Marshmallow Experiment. Quoting Wikipedia:

They presented four-year-olds with a marshmallow and told the children that they had two options: (1) ring a bell at any point to summon the experimenter and eat the marshmallow, or (2) wait until the experimenter returned about 15 minutes later, and earn two marshmallows instead. The message was: “small reward now, bigger reward later.”

Many kids gave in to the temptation and ate the marshmallow and others waited for 15 minutes and earned two. The kids that participated in the experiment were monitored for the rest of their lives (and in fact are being monitored even now) and it was found that the kids that did manage to wait for 15 minutes have been consistently doing better than the ones that didn’t in almost all aspects of life. Quoting Wikipedia again:

The children who waited longer, when re-evaluated as teenagers and adults, demonstrated a striking array of advantages over their peers. As teenagers, they had higher SAT scores, social competence, self-assuredness and self-worth, and were rated by their parents as more mature, better able to cope with stress, more likely to plan ahead, and more likely to use reason. They were less likely to have conduct disorders or high levels of impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, the high delayers were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, get divorced, or be overweight. Each minute that a preschooler was able to delay gratification translated to a.2% reduction in Body Mass Index 30 years later.

It is amazing how one skill has been found to be associated with so many good things in life. On the other hand, it also makes sense if one thinks about it for a while.

It happens way too often in life that we want to get something but we do not want to go through the procedure required for getting it. For example, people like cleanliness, but do not like cleaning; they like to be healthy but do not like exercising or controlling their diet or regularly visiting the doctor; they like to get good grades in exams but not the studying required to get them; and the list goes on.

Most people end up acting upon their immediate whims instead of what’s good for them in the long run. This is exactly the case of preferring a small reward now over a bigger reward in the future.

It makes sense to do that if you live in 10,000 B.C. where any long term plan could be unexpectedly foiled by being killed by a lion. However, in today’s world, where at least statistically speaking, life is much more certain than it used to be, it is clear that people who act based on long term plans will do better than those who don’t.

You should thus prefer bigger rewards in future over small ones now, because most likely, very soon you will be in the future facing the consequences of the decisions you took in the past.

Exactly how to do that is a different issue and I will discuss that in a future article. Right now I feel like watching the T.V. for a while.

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. Written by admin. No comments.

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