Stop procrastinating by creating certainty

We are going to start doing interviews with people with backgrounds that are interesting to the readers of this blog, and this article is the first in the series. Our first guest is Sayandeep Purkayasth who is currently finishing up a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin and exploring the world of entrepreneurship. He holds a B.Tech and an M.Tech in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering from IIT Kharagpur.

EL: Remind me what your PhD was about.

SP: It was about designing computer algorithms for analyzing art and helping art historians. I developed a general framework using image processing techniques to analyze art objectively for various applications.

EL: OK, let’s talk about some of the non-technical challenges you faced during your PhD. For example, procrastination. Any long-term project goes through these phases when you feel that you should work more but you don’t. This makes you feel guilty and makes you even less productive. Did that happen during your PhD and if yes, what did you do about it?

SP: Yes, absolutely. Happened all the time. In my case, I think the main cause of procrastination was lack of planning. Often there were times when I had a thousand things to do but I didn’t know which ones were the most important. As a result, I’d reach this phase of limbo where I would just sit there trying to decide what to do and at the same time not doing anything at all. So at one point I started maintaining a kind of a to-do list which I revisited regularly. Even now I have a list that I try to update once every morning. I figure out what should be bumped up to the top and decide what are the main priorities for the day and then throughout the day focus on those top priorities.

EL: You update the list everyday? That sounds like a lot of hard work.

SP: It’s not set in stone, but approximately everyday, yes. For example, I won’t do it during holidays.

EL: So did you notice any difference once you started using this list?

SP: Yes, in my first two years or so I was really disorganized. But once I started maintaining this list, I had a kind of certainty in my head about what I was supposed to do at any given time. Keep in mind though, that there are certain disadvantages of maintaining such a list too. For example, many creative tasks are not amenable to such list-keeping, as a result maintaining such a list might lead to reduced creativity. So try to not let the list consume your life. Not every single thing you do in life should be a part of the list.

EL: One issue commonly encountered with maintaining to-do lists is that it becomes crucial to set your priorities correctly. Otherwise there is a tendency to keep doing the easiest task on the list so that you get the pleasure of striking out another item. So what do you do to decide priorities?

SP: Usually it’s based on some amount of intuition and some heuristics. For example, I prefer doing the most difficult tasks first if they are essential for a project that I consider important. Also, if something is more urgent, for example, if it has a deadline, I will assign it a higher priority.

EL: OK, great. So this was about your PhD. You must have faced similar challenges during your JEE preparation.

SP: Interestingly, this didn’t happen during JEE, mainly because my mom used to help me a lot with planning. She used to have a proper time table for me to study and I used to simply follow it. That gave me a similar sense of certainty about what I was supposed to do at any given time.

EL: Nice, so you essentially “outsourced” your planning to your mom.

SP: Yes, exactly. Actually, I had outsourced it to more than one sources. I don’t know if you know this, but I’d spent a few weeks at a coaching institute in Kota. In six weeks I realized it wasn’t for me, so I came back home. However, I did get all their study material, which provided me with another source of certainty regarding what I was supposed to do for my preparation since their study material gave me a good idea about what was expected of me in JEE.

EL: Interesting. Let’s talk more about Kota. What exactly did you not like about the place?

SP: They encouraged superficial and rote learning based approaches. I found this did not sit well with my value system or my inclination towards developing a deeper understanding of the syllabus.

EL: Hm, there has to be an explanation for why the JEE cutoff hasn’t change much despite such widespread existence of coaching institutes. Anyway, so far it seems that the cure to procrastination is certainty. You created certainty during JEE preparation by outsourcing your planning to Kota’s study material and your mother’s excellent planning skills and you created certainty during your PhD by maintaining a to-do list. Did you join any coaching institutes after coming back from Kota?

SP: There was a coaching class tied up with our school to help prepare us for AIEEE/JEE. I went to those classes, but wouldn’t consider that part of my essential preparation. Apart from that nothing.

EL: Of course you wouldn’t remember this exactly, but on average, how long did you used to study during JEE preparation?

SP: I think it was about 4-5 hours per day after school.

EL: That’s interesting. A lot of people worry about studying 10-12 hours per day. If you browse through some of the questions on Quora about IIT JEE preparation, most of them are talking about some insane number of hours.

SP: 10-12 hours is not possible. You can’t possibly be attentive and study for so many hours per day. Your quality of work will be significantly compromised if you try to work so much.

EL: Did you cover the entire syllabus or did you ignore some of the topics?

SP: I did cover everything actually. I’d covered the basics of everything first from NCERT. That was the entire syllabus. For the more advanced material, I learned them based on interest. So in the end I wasn’t an expert of everything. I knew the basics of everything and had a good grasp of the parts of the syllabus I found particularly interesting.

EL: So what kinds of topics were you mainly interested in?

SP: I think I liked most of physics and math, and in chemistry I liked organic chemistry a lot. I was also interested in biotechnology, which was taught in my school but unfortunately was not a part of JEE syllabus.

EL: And from what I remember, you also went to the astronomy olympiad, right?

SP: Yes, I am surprised that you remember.

EL: Tell me more about it.

SP: I think I’d qualified in the first two levels and gone to the national level olympiad. It had some interesting questions. I remember there was a question about decoding the number system used by some alien civilization based on some evidence presented in the question.

EL: It’s very interesting when one remembers a specific question from an exam you took more than ten years ago.

SP: Actually I also remember some of the horrible questions. There were questions about specific locations of specific stars that were based on your memorization skills more than anything. Obviously I didn’t know how to answer them.

EL: How about your psychological state during JEE preparation? Were you stressed? Were you relaxed? Did you enjoy those years, or did you hate them?

SP: Looking back, I’d say I definitely enjoyed the preparation very much, especially since I loved reading the slightly advanced material (aside: which I now realize was actually first year college level).

EL: Interesting. Give an example of advanced material?

SP: There was this book for Organic Chemistry by Morrison and Boyd. That was one of the best books I have ever read. I’d ended up reading the book cover to cover and solving all their questions. The problems were so interesting and also very relatable.

EL: Yes, absolutely, that book is a classic and always highly recommended. How about the exam time? Were you nervous?

SP: There was a normal amount of nervousness, nothing noteworthy. I think I was more nervous during my 12th boards.

EL: Really? That’s interesting. Why were you nervous during your boards?

SP: I’m not sure. May be because it was the first major exam of my lifetime.

EL: What’s one advice you would give to a high school student who is trying to be successful?

SP: I think it’s important to be precise about your goals, whatever you are trying to achieve. This is something people often ignore. You should do some introspection and figure out what it is that you want to achieve. Once the goal is clearly defined you will start thinking of ways to achieve it. Not to say that actually achieving it is easy, but if I had to give one piece of advice, that would be to define your goals.

EL: Do you have a favorite book that you think everyone should read?

SP: The Little Book of Contentment by Leo Babauta. Just like the title says, it teaches you how to be content. And it’s really little, so it can be finished in a day or two.

EL: In retrospect, do you think going to IIT was a good idea, and if yes, what interesting things happened with you in your post-IIT days because of going to an IIT?

SP: Interacting with so many smart people definitely broadens your mind. The kinds of projects that I find interesting or that I got the opportunity to get involved in couldn’t have happened in a different environment.

Tuesday, June 30th, 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.

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