“Ram, oh no, you can’t use Ram as a name in these sentences.” My reaction was loud and strong as I corrected my 7th grader’s Hindi idioms exercise. Her notebook read, in Hindi, ‘Jhooth pakde jaane par, Ram ne apni aankhen chura li’ (meaning, as Ram’s lies were caught, he was ashamed). Not just one idiom, she had made a template for all idioms that meant being ashamed of. The sentences she had made were in series and each example followed the same template- Jooth Pakde Jaane par, Ram ne… (when his lies were caught, Ram… ).
The idea of making a template, to use it for various idioms is a shortcut that my Hindi averse girl had adopted. Less thinking, same work. The problem was not with the template. The problem was with the name. She chose a name that is easy to spell. But well, Ram and lies… You know how our brain reacts.
We have a way to find shortcuts when we want to escape from hardship. This is how our brain is designed. There are two minds. One is slow and deliberate. The other one is quick and intuitive. Daniel Kahneman has defined the functioning of the brain as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. When a person is tired, distracted or stressed, they are more likely to revert to less rational ways of solving problems and less on deliberate thinking. Simply said, mental tiredness leads to poor decisions.
Continuous hardship and mental tiredness leads to fatigue. And, this is our reality today. Fatigue is in and around us. It is not just due to illness but also due to boredom, a series of bad news, stress and anxiety. It is real and it is everywhere. It is in my city, in my house, on my workstation. It is in my neighbour’s house, my colleague’s home, my clients workplaces. It is everywhere.
In an article, how affluent Indians became covid superspreaders in Mint lounge, blame to some extent is on fatigue and therefore poor decision making. Response fatigue is real, says Anoop Amarnath, head of geriatric medicine at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, and a member of the Karnataka government’s critical care support unit for covid-19. “It was a huge lifestyle change for people to stay locked in their homes, wearing masks, keeping physical distance and not meeting friends and family. People were waiting to meet and talk to each other. Man is a social animal and if you don’t let him socialise, fatigue is bound to set in,” he says. He adds that such fatigue played a significant part in the covid-19 peaks in September last year.
And, this mental fatigue, individual or as a community, leads to bad decisions and therefore to further tiredness. Managing a routine, a physical routine, as mentioned in the previous article, helps in finding a balance. In today’s Habits for Thinking, in addition to the routine, here is a template, almost like the Hindi Idiom template that helps in managing the fatigue. One can follow these at home, or as a team leader at workplaces. It can be practiced, taught, nurtured to save from bad decisions and breakdowns.
1. The realist optimism- understanding the Stockdale Paradox
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — Admiral Jim Stockdale.
The Stockdale paradox has been written about in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great. Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years. Tortured over multiple times, living in uncertainty of whether he would survive to see his family again, Stockdale did everything he could to create conditions that would increase the numbers of prisoners who could survive unbroken. Collins read Stockdale’s memoir and found its grim details hard to bear, despite his knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. Collins wondered, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
When he posed that question to the admiral, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins asked him about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. “The optimists,” he replied. “Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This became known as the Stockdale Paradox. To be a realistic optimist. To accept the reality and yet keep the faith to prevail in the end. Leaders demonstrate that with acceptance of reality yet keeping up the hope.
As a realist optimist leader, one would accept the changes in the reality but still keep the faith. One would not follow that all of this will be over by May 10th or May 30th, one will just believe in managing and seeing it through week by week.
2. The ability to listen
My daughter’s school arranged for a meeting with parents to explain about the process of online exams. Since it is the first year for middle school to be taking online exams, parents, in videos, on switched-off mode, were waiting for a list of dos and don’ts. But wait, the meeting started with the school authority asking parents to share how they were feeling. A family has been suffering with covid and the parent suggested canceling the exam, a family has been worried about their child’s well being, a family has sent the child to stay with some other people for safety reasons. Different stories tumbled out of square tiles of the zoom screen. While it started with suggestions on canceling the exams, it turned out to be almost everyone in favour of the exam as it is a constructive way to keep children engaged at home. It was not that the school authority had concluded the decisions, in-fact, the school authorities were just listeners. The moderator only thanked each parent for sharing stories but as the zoom video tiles lit up one by one, the narrative of the group changed. The ability to listen to the pains and agonies of others is managing the fatigue too. Fatigue is impacting both parents and school authorities, but the leaders demonstrate the ability to listen and make others feel heard. It changes the energy level of the room.
3. Nurturing a learning mindset
A growth mindset, or a learner mindset is more resilient to failures and has the ability to come out of it step by step. It believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. It is important to build the culture of learning mindsets in homes and workplaces to face the challenges. In crisis, it starts with every morning to be treated as a fresh day to deal with.
Like the 7th grader uses a template for sentence making, it is ok to make a template for fatigue handling. Your template could be on the lines of, ‘‘I manage fatigue by being a realistic optimist, by listening to feelings and emotions and by nurturing a learning mindset.” Fatigue is manageable. And yes, you can use whatever name you wish to, even Ram.
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21st April had a special place this year for me. It was Habits for Thinking’s first birthday. It was my father’s birthday by Hindu calendar. It was a friend’s birthday as well. However, it was a mentally tough day, like most days these days. Father, a doctor in his late seventies, contacted Covid19 after nearly six weeks of his second vaccine shot. Both him and mother had been suffering from Covid since fifteen days and were not showing signs of improvement. And, then unexpectedly, on 21st, he replied to a birthday message on the family chat. Thankfully after fifteen days of illness, marginal signs of improvement glimmered as a message on the group chat. He wrote ‘Khush Raho’ (stay happy) as a blessing to all.
It is hard to stay sane during this pandemic. There is a helpless feeling everywhere. Forget being happy, as the message urged, it is impossible to stay unaffected with the gloom all around. Anxiety, stress, anger, fear these are predominantly ruling our minds. In this pandemic wave, there is no one who doesn’t have a loved one or friend who has been affected.
This is the birthday week of Habits for Thinking. While several ideas were explored for a big bash weekly article, today, as the country is on its knees, here I am, sharing the only thing that matters today. “Follow your routine”. The ability to stay sane and calm lies in our own hand. Cry, you must, if you need to, but learn to get back to normal. And to remain normal, follow your daily routine. The routine of staying safe – mask, being indoors, minimising exposure. It is a big help to the health infrastructure. The routine of doing work, no matter how little it seems. The routine of physical care like exercise, nutrition, sleep. The routine of mental care by being empathetic, generous, helpful. Self care, both mental and physical is a big responsibility.
I have a little story to share to showcase the importance of following a routine. Not too long ago, in 2018, as I shut down my startup, I found myself at a loss. I had never been at home in nearly eighteen plus years of work life. To close a firm and leave the people and commitments was numbing me. In search of ideas and desperate to have a work life, I stumbled upon a line, “I read like it is my job.” This became my motto too. I pasted it at my home workstation. “Reading is my work.” Every morning I would get ready by 8.15am, my usual time for leaving for work, I would wear shoes and sit down at the workstation to work, yeah you right, actually just to read. Read a book, an article, a research paper. I don’t remember from those moments of reading and note taking, how and when I slipped into an idea of launching Right Box, a unique service for unused gifts items. One thing led to the other and these small routinely efforts compounded into ideas and work that got executed. The more important part was the ability to form a routine and maintain it. To work, to read, to follow a fitness regime as I always did and all of this helped. Following a routine meant I could add new things on my plate like learning something new or a new project. The more I lived in routine, the more it opened new avenues for me. Routine, when built on the basis of right habits, has a way to compound itself into bigger things. While being performed as small steps on a daily basis, it creates a bigger impact at the right time. Look at the habit of maintaining a fitness routine, or sleep routine or reading routine. A mundane routine is powerful.
As it gets harder everyday these days, one has to remember to do the hardest thing in the day. And the hardest thing is to maintain a routine. For me, I have seen maintaining a routine starts with showing up. Show up on the yoga mat. Show up on the workstation. Show up on the bed at your sleep time. Show up on your book to read. Show up on your ideabook to write. Show up and the practice forms a habit and thus follows a routine. With every little gain, you grow. It adds up to what my father blessed, ‘stay happy.’
Positive thoughts, optimistic words, state of happiness do not come through words. These come through actions. Small, consistent actions. These routine actions manifest to keep one optimistic and on the path to growth.
Last year, during this pandemic, course SHIFT and habitsforthinking.in was launched. I must say, the journey has been truly satisfying. And here I am, as a routine worker, sharing my weekly post with you. In this annual letter for your learning journey, I bring your attention to the basic need of our minds, the routine work. Learning is a routine work too.
Here are some nuggets from previous articles on Habits for Thinking.
Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. Courage is not the absence of fear.
“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”
When a community comes together morally, it forgives and extends help. The compass for Moral Intelligence towards a community could be the one like this popular social kindness quote, “We are all just walking each other home.”
Business leaders need to become mothers as they practice moral intelligence. They must remember, a mother teaches her child by not just preaching but by practicing.
She doesn’t say only “be kind”. She says, “let us be kinder today.”
I had said thank you and she had welled up. This is my first memory of making a friend. Adulting means you remember odd things like your first interaction with some people who later become friends. I have a memory of such a meeting years ago. I was meeting a teacher during parent teacher interaction in the school for my then sixth-grader kid. The teacher, new to the school, had marked zero for an assignment. As I sat down with my child in tow, I thanked her for marking a zero for late submission of his assignment. A good way to teach children the value of time, I had thought. And, this was only sixth grade and a small class assignment. The teacher’s reaction had surprised me and probably the reason why the moment is etched in my memory. She revealed, most parents had complained about the zero and had suggested that she should have cut some marks for the late submission instead of cutting all marks. Not only a sense of entitlement was being pushed at her but also her way to nurture children was being questioned. She was only teaching responsibility to the children.
“The only approach I know that gives parents any hope of truly providing their children with around the clock protection is that of instilling within them the internal desire to make right choices, even when no one else is watching. And the only way to do that is to teach children correct principles- and the earlier the better.”
Stephen R. Covey in the book, The Leader In Me.
One of the biggest responsibilities of parenting is to make the child a responsible human being. The book, Leader in Me by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, taught me that parenting needs to inculcate responsible decision making skills. Let kids learn to make choices and therefore decisions and therefore take responsibility for that decision. What is good to eat, whether you should play truth or dare, which sport interests you want to pursue further, should you submit the work on time or it is ok to delay? Making your own decisions teaches you to be responsible.
Responsibility is a skill that is taught since childhood, yet adulting tends to skip the steps of responsibility from time to time. In this week’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to a basic trait where a single irresponsible behaviour can lead to a fatal end.
Stephen R. Covey writes:
“Not all parents want their children to grow up to be CEOs or a nation’s president, but I cannot think of a parent who does not want his or her child to be able to lead his or her own life, to be a strong example for others, to live by principles, to be an influence for good. And that is called self leadership- doing the right thing when no one is looking. Every child has that kind of leadership within. The challenge is how to bring it out, how to nurture it.”
This week’s piece is triggered by the missteps of responsibility trait, not just by individuals but also by companies, big and small. The tsunami-like second wave of pandemic is an ongoing proof of irresponsible behaviour by human kind. Responsibility is the reverse of a zero-sum game. If one grows responsible, it lifts others’ levels too. As one gets responsible in one area, it multiples in other areas too. There is no full stop here.
Responsibility fuels moral intelligence. Moral intelligence was first developed as a concept in 2005 by Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, Ph.D. They defined that the construct of moral intelligence consists of four competencies related to integrity, three to responsibility, two to forgiveness and one to compassion Responsibility’s three competencies are 1) taking personal responsibility, 2) admitting mistakes and failures, and 3) embracing responsibility for serving others. (see article Moral Intelligence – the remarkable trait for leaders).
In Habits for Thinking, here is the illustration of three competencies. The point to remember is that responsibility is a lifelong process and there is always a scope of improvement.
1. Taking personal responsibility
Self leadership, as defined by Stephen Covey, not just stands true for children but also for each one of us. Responsibility is actually a self-care act. Adulting is hard, because one doesn’t remember the right things. Like the responsibility of self care – mental and physical. The care means to ensure both physical fitness and mental growth. It is not just about wearing a mask but it is also about staying away from triggers that cause anxiety and negativity like doom scrolling on social media apps. That is a hard responsible behaviour to follow. See a tweet below, nudging towards a responsible behaviour.
2. Admitting mistakes and failures:
A responsible person takes the ownership of his actions. It is about being accountable for mistakes and failures and accepting responsibility for consequences of our actions. This is a trait that develops the growth mindset of the practitioner as he works to improve on his mistake.
3. Embracing responsibility for serving others:
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a means through which a company incorporates environmental, social and human development concerns into its planning and actions to ensure that its operations are ethical and beneficial for society. CSR in India has traditionally been seen as a philanthropic activity. However, with the introduction of Section 135 in the Companies Act 2013, India became the first country to have statutorily mandated CSR for specified companies. The Act requires companies with a net worth of ₹500 crore or more, or turnover of ₹1,000 crore or more, or a net profit of ₹5 crore or more during the immediately preceding financial year, to spend 2 percent of the average net profits of the immediately preceding three years on CSR activities.
Imagine, without the purview of the law, if there were corporate leaders who took responsibility for the well being of people during these times. Ten unicorns have been announced this year raising millions of rupees for their businesses, six of them just in a few days in April. The Economic Times writes- Half a dozen Indian startups raised $1.55 billion (Rs 11,580 crore) to enter the unicorn club between April 5 and April 9. Large, deep pockets of unicorns means large power to influence and great capacity to help. There are ways to help people, customers. Pharmeasy, one of the recently anointed unicorns, uses its social media presence to remind people about mask and responsible behaviour. Maybe they could do more. Cred, Meesho, Groww and other freshly funded unicorns can use some influence too- for example see the images.
As the onus of being a responsible person doesn’t lie on the lawmaker, similarly the onus of corporate responsibility should not be on the 2% profit spend CSR law, but it should be on the leadership. Unicorns can be responsible self-leaders too.
My teacher friend who cut all the marks to teach responsible behaviour to kids would have given a full score just on the attribute of shared responsibility to these companies. After all most unicorns are young in age. Well, it would have mattered somewhere!
“I have seas but no sharks, rivers but no water; forests but no birds; cities but no people. Who am I?”
My daughter nagged me with a riddle while I was busy taking pictures of the sky outside the plane window. The simple joy of flying after a long time enhanced with a beautiful setting of the sun outside the window had my attention. She nagged again and then she blurted the answer, “a map.” A map, the word, took my husband seated next to her, to the GPS in his car and how the car starts beeping at every point where he crosses the defined speed limit. His frustration came out animatedly especially when he talked about the speed limit of 30km/hr.
Cars are getting designed with behavioural controls like alarm beeps if you cross a certain speed limit. These frameworks exist to guide and maneuver human behaviour. Google Maps and other inbuilt GPS systems work as useful guides through their easy, nearly accurate navigation systems unless they start beeping. At that moment, to get away with the annoyance, you remind yourself, a map is not the territory!
“A map is not the territory” is a statement coined by Alfred Korzybski. The mathematician presented this in a paper in 1931 in New Orleans. He used it to convey the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself. In Korzybski’s words,
“A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.”
He meant that people in general do not have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but merely possess a subset of that knowledge that is then adapted through the lenses of their own experience. In today’s Habits for Thinking column, I want to bring your attention to a way of thinking which hinges around this concept that, ‘a map is not the territory.’
The map here means the tool to understand reality like theories and models. Like a physical map helps us to understand a space, similarly a mental map, is an abstract way of understanding things that our mind adapts to. To understand the complexity of a subject, the human mind creates a map or a model internally. It is just an understanding in a short form. What we have in our mind may be flawed because it is just a version of the actual explanation. Secondly, it may be incomplete, as one can miss out on a point. Also, it may not be interpreted in totality as the reality. These understandings, that a model can be flawed or incomplete or under-interpreted reflects the understanding of the statement that the territory, the reality, can be different from the model.
Let me explain to you how it impacts our lives:
Several models of explanations that are in our head and in our workflows and decision making are just models. These are not realities. When we repeatedly get into the habit of using that model, without questioning or analysing them, we may not be able to identify the problem in our decision making and therefore may end up in a failed outcome. This stands true for both personal life and work life.
An illustration in a personal life:
In architecture and urban planning, there is a term called desire lines. What are desire lines?
“Desire lines” are paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning. Free-will ways. Aka “cow-paths” & “Olifantenpad” (elephant trails) says Robert Macfarlane.
These are essentially short cuts or paths made away from the actual path, or in absence of a path by walking through a hedge, or a sharp corner of green patch as the shortcut etc. Despite well laid walking paths, these human footprints made paths sprout in areas where they are not designed to be, all created by a certain human behaviour. People create desire paths for three primary reasons: time efficiency, experience, and resistance, in the sense that why would I do ‘X’, if I could do ‘Y’, as quoted in an article. Some places are left marked with desire-paths, but some well maintained urban places like manicured green lawns prevent pedestrian behavior crossing by creating a series of design elements like rope fences or some extra pots and plants as vertical hindrances.
Our mental models are also like that. We know we have to behave in a certain way but we find routes as shortcuts, like desire-lines. Because why not? And, sometimes that shortcut becomes a habit which gets difficult to change later. Take an example of a mother reprimanding his child for a misdeed and cancelling his screen time as a lesson and the other parent, the father, quietly letting the child watch the screen, because he is just a child. The map here is a discipline model and the child with his misdeed creates his desire-line. The mother aims to mend that desire-line created by the child by cancelling his screen time, but the other parent allows it. This leads to an altered model of discipline and ethics in the child’s mind. Small example, but it compounds over the years.
At work places, in management, in education, models or frameworks are extensively used. These are great reference tools. However, these are not end goals but just tools to aid decision making. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and other books does not believe in the entirety of a model.
‘A model might show you some risks, but not the risks of using it. Moreover, models are built on a finite set of parameters, while reality affords us infinite sources of risks.’
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
He talks about a specific model used in investing called as VAR and how the model is limiting in its capacity. “It summarizes the expected maximum loss (or worst loss) over a target horizon within a given confidence interval. It is the uniqueness, precision and misplaced concreteness of the measure that bother me. I would rather hear risk managers make statements like -’at such price in such security A and at such price in security B, we will be down $150,000.’ They should present a list of such associated crisis scenarios without unduly attaching probabilities to the array of events.” He continues, “If financial engineering means the creation of financial instruments that improve risk allocation, then I am in favor of it. If it means using engineering methods to quantify the immeasurable with great precision, then I am against it.”
Immeasurable is the keyword here. Many models that work on risk analysis do not have the capacity to measure the risk in entirety. However people still use and accept such models. Sometimes these inadequacies in the models cause failure.
#Ideastoaction: A map is not a territory is a concept that needs to be used in the decision making process.
Models, as explained, are maps that are not territories.
Through varied and unique experiences, these models develop desire-lines, which may lead to a good decision or a bad decision.
When making decisions based on models, one must step back and understand if there could be flaws or incomplete interpretation. This will help in better decision making.
Google Maps has introduced a few new features this March where it allows you to draw a missing lane or to share actual photos as updates of a place. Maps evolve to be flawless, so should decision making models.
Leaving you with Nicholas Taleb’s statement:
“Never cross a river because it is on average 4 feet deep.”
Sounds of bells, spoons, plates, claps, like a complete band baaja baraat, empty streets, baraat in balconies we welcomed the fools day last year. Just short of a few days, in March, we were clanging utensils to thank essential workers and preparing ourselves for April. Last year our perspective of April changed. The fools day got fooled itself and came and stayed with us like any other lockdown day that was filled with anxiety, fear, worry in our hearts and minds. By 5th day of April, we were back in the balcony lighting lamps. That day, the score was less than 4000 infections in the country. Today, there are districts that have crossed that mark. April is here, again.
But this April, unlike last April, which was an extreme, will be a new April. New April because now we know our new working patterns. New because we value healthcare and well being more than ever. New because we are more empathetic and thankful for just being here.
April is the month of a new beginning. Beginning of a new year, a new financial year, a new accounting year for most companies in India. All filings related to annual financial performance have to be completed by March 31st. Accountants, business heads scramble in the last few weeks of March not just to close the year but to also budget for the coming new year. Ideas, big or small, are sown. Budgets are firmed up. April is the month of new year in many religions. April is the month of new year in farming and agriculture. The new year is deep rooted in our culture and with any new year there is hope and aspirations in the air.
April is the month of aspiration. With every new beginning comes hope. There is hope in anticipation of salary raises, hope for new projects, hope for new jobs. Hope brings in energy and we need to learn to use that positive energy. What does one do with the energy decides his or her future. One can invest the energy into learning new things which can bring in more energy in the future. One can let this hopeful energy be spent into a good, happy day and the energy will be lost. It’s how conscious we are and how we chose is what defines our days.
April is a month of performance. “How did you gain that kind of confidence?” is a common question that you will hear in podcast conversations of several successful people. This is in response to something bold or brave that they did in their careers. Their responses show that even if you don’t feel confident, you can still act in a way that manifests confidence. In time, these repeated acts of bravery will build a feeling of confidence. Take action first, confidence will follow.
Courage to take a decision doesn’t mean absence of fear or confidence, but courage means taking the first step of action. Read more about courage and fear in a previous article here.
The first step is to show up. April is the month of performance, the month of just showing up for what we aspire to be.
April is a month of reflection. Reflect, not to improve on misstep but reflect to pat your back on the best deed of the year gone by. Success inspires success. Reflect on the decision that brought some joy, no matter how big or small that decision was. In a recent podcast interview hosted by Rajkumar Singhal, founder Multipie.co , I heard Abhay Pandey, founder A91 Partners, speak about his achievements. He said, “Someone asked me about achievements in life It is not about the IIT or IIM or McKinsey and other jobs, it is about the social work that I have been doing that’s something I feel most proud of. You sit back and think that is what gives you most joy and pride then you should be doing more of it.” Reflection brings clarity.
I – Ideation
April is a month of Ideation. – look for pockets of growth, learning, break, recover, come back. April, not January, is the month of vision. Resolutions born in January mostly disappear in a few months. But like budget planning in the financial year, April, helps in planning of the vision for the year. Athletes before the competition are trained to visualise the entire race day starting with how they walk out of the locker room and to the point of finish. It is a mental exercise that they start training to actualize their goal. April is the best time to ideate for the year ahead. Work processes, growth plans, learning, breaks to rejuvenate and come back to the plan.
April is a month of fools day. It is best to keep it light hearted. Last evening, there was news about multiple cases in our locality. Last evening, some of us in our own bubble, sat around and had a laugh about a few silly things. Laughter somehow is magical in its impact. It never fails. It strengthens bonds and is good for health and heart.
Trevor Smith, who has worked extensively on happiness says, “Humor is a great tool to use in a crisis that helps us look at that situation in a positive way that will help us deal with the crisis. Humor lightens one’s burdens, inspires hopes, and keeps you grounded, focused and alert. With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource in confronting any crisis situation.”
Leaders, political and business leaders, use humour in the right manner. I personally like the light heartedness that RPG Chairman’s Harsh Goenka’s timeline brings:
In this week’s edition of Habits for Thinking, bring in APRIL with aspiration, performance, reflection, Ideation and obviously lightheartedness. I was thinking of writing more, but then I came across this one and this joke by Winston Churchill is on me:
“Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”
“Why the hardest habit? Why not any other habit?” I asked the host who invited me to speak to a classroom of young adults. I had been asked to speak on one Habit for Thinking to young adults. My host told me, ‘‘hardest because that word makes young adults sit up and pay attention.’’
In a world where NFTs and Beeple are taking birth, crypto currency and block chain is as cryptic as possible, it makes sense that attention is more towards what is hard and tough to follow. Challenges excite people. I get that. What I don’t get is how the simplest, blink and miss habit is actually the hardest habit for anyone to adopt.
As I began the talk, I invited some of the fastest typists in the room. Most programmers and coders actually know what their typing speed is. Out of the four that came in the front and took up this typing challenge on their keyboards, one was marginally faster than the other three. There were just a few words of separation in their typing speed. It is hard for me to tell my typing speed but I knew they were very fast. Each one has his own unique style of placing fingers on the keyboard, especially on the numbers. Do you know if you use your little finger on the keyboard and if you follow a precise finger position on the keyboard, it will increase your typing speed? Most of these young adults gaped at some of their incorrect finger positions. As a practice for a few minutes, they struggled to get their little fingers active on number 1 key. This struggle made me deliver the message. The hardest thing to do is to IMPROVE a habit.
This week in Habits for Thinking, the attention is not on a new skill or a habit, the attention is on how to “Improve” any habit or a skill. Typing is easy and mandatory. All of us have to do, what is hard is to get the right positions of the fingers, especially if you are in the business of delivering faster notes. Don’t even look at me. When I type, I cross barriers. Often my right hand trespasses on the left side of the keyboard. I admit, I have never worked on this typing habit to improve the speed in the correct manner. Almost anything that we do has a scope of improvement, yet we do not look at improving the habits that are mundane.
There are reasons why I insist that IMPROVE is the hardest skill to follow. The reasons are rooted in our upbringing:
Improvement is a skill that is not a job of our own. All of our lives, since school days, we have been trained to depend on others to guide us on how to improve, where to improve. It starts with improving your handwriting in schools, where teachers give commands. Improvement has fallen upon us as instructions. It is not our own, it is a rented ownership from our instructors.
Improvement is a job that you pay for to get access to, like a coach’s job. You want to get better in tennis, you hire a coach. You pay him to get you to a better position. You have injured your leg. You want to heal and improve your mobility and you get a physiotherapist. He becomes the caretaker of your improvement responsibility. Like we live with the feeling that improvement is not our own task, we do not feel fully responsible about our own improvement.
Improvement is the invisible thin line. You don’t see it. You miss the line most of the time. Like the young adults in the classroom, fast typists, but unaware that they can become faster by using their little finger too. Similarly, many habits take so much space in our lives that we do not feel the need to question its efficiency and thus do not give attention to improvement.
Improvement is not a challenge unless given attention to. And human minds, not just young adults largely pay attention to challenges. Improvement doesn’t come as a necessity as it lets you carry the habit in the same manner, days after days, years after years. There is nothing wrong with the habit, like typing speed and you can continue in the same manner without improving it. But some habits like your fitness regime or food habits, if not improved gradually, will show signs of decline. And, this decline brings attention to improving that habit.
All these makes ‘Improve’ the hardest idea to nurture. Rented ownership, caretaker’s responsibility, invisible line, unassuming, unchallenging characteristics makes it hard to be in the focus.
Improving is a skill. It is not a habit. It is a skill that starts with the intent to improve a habit. One has to observe the habit, analyse, find areas of improvement and work on improvement with a goal in their vision.
Roger Federer, the champion, maintains his statement that there is always a room for improvement. Simone Biles, Michael Phleps, Djokovic, Nadal, Abhinav Bindra, Mary Kom and so many star studded sports personalities have maintained one goal after their podium finish, to improve for the next match. In sports, not only top performers, but everyone in competitive sports adopts the skill to improve. Improvement takes time. A top level swimmer takes months and years to cut her timing by microseconds.
Improvement brings efficiency and growth. It is a positive trait to keep as a company. Improvement can be brought in at various stages:
Improve: a personal habit.
The first step to any improvement is to observe and analyse the habit. Analysis throws up areas of improvement. Like, you want to work on improving your sleeping habit. You observe your pre and post sleeping behaviour for a few days. It will give you areas or activities that you can work upon to improve your sleeping pattern.
Improve: a work process.
Many activities in work life are actually habits. Like a weekly meeting, making a to-do list. Some of these habits when improved not only increase efficiency but also bring in growth.
Improve work productivity:
Toyota production system is the production philosophy designed by Toyota and now implemented by many worldwide companies. The philosophy is based on principles of Kaizen. Kaizen comes from two Japanese words: Kai (improvement) and Zen (good), which translates to “continuous improvement.” The Kaizen philosophy states that our way of life – be it our working life, our social life, our home life – deserves to be constantly improved. Kaizen is about achieving improvements by taking small steps instead of big, rigorous changes. Although improvements under Kaizen are small and incremental, the process brings about dramatic results over time. This philosophy helps to ensure maximum quality, the elimination of waste, and improvements in efficiency, both in terms of equipment and work procedures. Within the Toyota Production System, Kaizen humanises the workplace, empowering individual members to identify areas for improvement and suggest practical solutions.
Kaizen philosophy has been adopted by many workplaces to improve efficiency. Startups launch products as prototypes, not the final product but work-in-progress products, that are improved upon through continuous customer feedback.
Improvement not just brings efficiency, it is a growth tool. In pockets of life like sports and healthcare, improvement takes a centrestage. In personal life, improvement is not seen as a skill but when given due attention it brings results in a magnificent way. Sleeping habits can be improved, typing speed can be improved by simply placing fingers on appropriate keys, an entire production unit can be improved through Kaizen philosophy, work culture can be improved. All we need to do is to own the onus of improvement.
He stuffed hand towels in his pant front pockets to make it work like thigh guards and she, far away from him, walked nearly eight kilometers everyday to accomplish her mission. He created a path, she knocked doors. He went from country to country, she went from village to village. He retired years ago, she retired last week. Both unique in their pursuit, but both crossed bridges that we are all walking on today. The two, unknown to each other, have been the one to influence our lives, influence in the largest possible way. Influence in cricket and in vaccines.
This month, the cricketing world and India celebrated Sunil Gavaskar for accomplishing what no other Indian had done before him in World Cricket. March 6th was the 50th anniversary of Sunil Gavaskar’s iconic test debut, against West Indies in Port of Spain, Trinidad where he made 774 runs in his debut series, which I have come to realise, is still a record for most runs by a debutant in a series.
An article wrote, “Gavaskar’s feat signalled a change in mindset for Indian cricketers. The belief that his achievement gave the team showed up in the sport and how India battled with the opposition, often in the lion’s den. Given the pittance that sportspersons were paid then, his feats catapulted him into India’s first sports superstar, opening up opportunities for endorsements.”
Sunil Gavaskar said in an interview that during his early days there were no gears for protection, no helmet, no thigh guards. They just went on. No paraphernalia. What he remembers today is the feeling of pride and happiness when he first wore the Indian Cap during his fielding.
In 1983, the iconic year for Indian cricket, in a small town Madhuri Mishra, absolutely away from cricket, had defied her family and her circumstances and become a health worker. This was almost five years after the launch of the nationwide immunisation program. This month, Madhuri Mishra retired from the service.
Before we move ahead, here is quick note on immunisation program: smallpox was eradicated in 1977 and the first version of national Immunisation program was launched in 1978 as Expanded Programme of Immunization (EPI) with the introduction of BCG, OPV, DPT and typhoid-paratyphoid vaccines. The target in EPI was at least 80 per cent coverage in infancy, the vaccination was offered through major hospitals and largely restricted to the urban areas and thus understandably, the coverage remained low. The EPI was rechristened with some major change in focus by the launch of Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) on November 19,1985. The objectives and major focus in UIP was not only to increase production and distribution capacity but also to rapidly increase immunization coverage and reduce mortality. It meant phased implementation – all districts to be covered, including a district-wise system for monitoring and evaluation.
District-wise monitoring means health workers on the ground. This is where Madhuri Mishra stepped in. For 30 years since then, Madhuri, now 60, walked for 8 kilometers everyday to remote villages to reach and immunise those with least access to healthcare. In an interview she mentioned, “The first few years were very tough. People didn’t want to get immunised. Myths and rumours like vaccines can cause infertility or will make them sick were her battles. She said, “But I’d keep walking, stopping at villages and vaccinating children. It had to be done. At times, people would misbehave. At others they wouldn’t let me enter. I would keep going back, sometimes with others who had vaccinated their children until I could convince them.” She barely took a day off and her ward managers said, wherever she went, there was a surge in mass immunisation. Such was her influence.
This week, a friend tweeted, ‘Khushi ke aansoo’ (tears of joy) with a picture of her parents post the Covid vaccination in a small town in Bihar. Anywhere you see, whether it is social media or neighbourhood or within the household, there are signs of relief on getting the jab. Wide smiles behind masks, gleamy eyes, these are not just pictures of hope, but also pictures of firm faith. Vaccines are here for real.
Sunil Gavaskar went from country to country taking India on the world map. Madhuri Mishra went from village to village carrying vaccines and determination in her bag. He didn’t have a helmet to protect himself. She didn’t have vehicles to cover the distance. He batted so confidently in his debut that created a bridge for Indian cricket in the world map. She walked for days and years so that no one was left behind in her area. He created a path for fellow cricketers, more money flowed in, more cricketers gained success. She opened doors for healthy living, more villages and more districts were covered. Both of them crossed the bridge for many others. Both of them influenced their world. The world of cricket and immunisation respectively.
In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to developing mental notes through events around us. Two large events took place in the last few days. Firstly, Sunil Gavaskar was in the news for reasons mentioned above and secondly the covid vaccination drive took off across the country. The two stories, stories of the famous cricketer and the nurse from Agra, who retired this month, are the anchor of these mental notes. And, the note is on the power of influence and how these influencers have created a solid culture in their respective fields.
Sunil Gavaskar was not the first cricket player to get noticed by the world but he created a mark that still carries a huge weight. Madhuri Mishra is just one story about healthcare workers. If you had a baby at home in the mid 2000’s, you will remember polio-drops healthcare workers coming home. I remember the shocked feeling of seeing the same polio-drops lady for my daughter at my doorstep even after we had shifted home. The lady had managed to find our new address and had landed up at the scheduled time for our baby to not miss the dose.
Influencers, as we have seen in the case of Sunil Gavaskar and Madhuri Mishra are not made by social media. This Habits for Thinking edition is dedicated to the power of influence that becomes the bedrock of a culture. Cricket is the visible culture in our country. Immunisation is a culture too in India. It is not just years of developing and maintaining a strong distribution system for vaccines, it is in the core of ground level health care workers and every human being to be aware of the importance of the vaccine. The program in 1985 defined “all districts to be covered” and Madhuri Mishra is one of the strongest examples. If all districts are being covered with covid vaccines today, it is because Madhuri Mishra and several health care workers like her have worked hard to create a culture, a culture of immunisation.
People make the culture. And magnificent influencers, whether a celebrity profile or the next door neighbour strengthen that culture. Both have the same framework of principles to influence:
1. THE RESOLUTE:
It is the determination to work that carries one forward. No paraphernalia, no conveniences yet that perseverance made Madhuri walk and work everyday.
2. THE PURPOSE:
No matter how many times she had to repeat herself, the nurse kept going back to the families that declined her initially. Her purpose was not to keep a count of how many homes she covered but her purpose was not to leave anyone uncovered.
3. THE CONSISTENCY:
If you have worked for thirty years without taking any break, without any excuse with the same enthusiasm as you had on day one, you would have influenced many coworkers in your journey. Consistency in performance, in showing up everyday becomes the reason for success.
Like the famous cricketer or the next-door nurse, each one of us has the power to influence. If every manager at office has the power to influence, so does every factory worker. That is what makes a culture of the place. It is not only social media that makes an influencer. It is the resolve, the purpose and consistency in work that makes an influencer. And, every influencer builds a bridge.
Have you joined Koo? Or Clubhouse? Or both? Koo is the latest social media platform made in atmanirbhar India and is similar to twitter, I am told. Just the fact that it is in more languages than one, adds to its charm. On the other hand, Clubhouse is a platform for listening and talking that means only audio, no text, no video and no recording, again I am told. I have not joined any of these platforms. Not yet. I am worried that I may seem as rude to people who have sent me invites. I am very tempted to join Koo to read the conversations in Hindi. I am also tempted to join Clubhouse as I want to attend one chat around writing skills. Wait, to listen to learn about writing? Sounds odd.
Some things do not come with a choice architecture. A choice architecture is the place that lays out boundaries for you to make decisions. Like, as a mother, I am laying boundaries for my children to make decisions for example late night boundaries or mobile app boundaries. For adults, there is no such thing like a phone that comes with a choice architecture. Something like you can only be on only two social media platforms? Sounds criminal. Suffocating may be the right word. Isn’t it? Lack of choice architecture in adult life makes us feel free, but that also means the onus on taking right behavioural decisions completely lies with us.
What is choice architecture:
Choice architecture coined by behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008) refers to the practice of influencing choice by “organizing the context in which people make decisions” Here is an excerpt from their paper:
Decision makers do not make choices in a vacuum. They make them in an environment where many features, noticed and unnoticed, can influence their decisions. The person who creates that environment is, in our terminology, a choice architect. In this paper we analyze some of the tools that are available to choice architects. Our goal is to show how choice architecture can be used to help nudge people to make better choices (as judged by themselves) without forcing certain outcomes upon anyone.The tools we highlight are: defaults, expecting error, understanding mappings, giving feedback.
In this week on Habits for Thinking, and as a second part to last week’s write up on behavioural economics and nudge theory, I am bringing your attention to designing your own choice architecture.
Choice architecture is exercised by policy makers and many businesses to influence your decision making. Policy makers’ role is to get behaviours that are good for the people like nudging bike riders to wear helmets for protection or demeriting a product that is not good for consumers like putting a cancer stricken person’s photo on the pack of cigarettes. On the other hand, businesses have to thrive in a highly competitive environment. Most brands and businesses turn choice architects to influence behavioural decisions by their consumers. The question is how do we, as individuals, as consumers become a choice architect of our own to protect our interests. How do we make conscious decisions that are not driven by someone else’s influence?
The first step is to define our own behavioural rules. To become a choice architect, let us look at the framework designed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. There are four tools in designing a choice architecture:
1. Defaults: Padding the Path of Least Resistance
Thaler & Sunstein research paper suggests making certain behaviours a default option—an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing—then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them. They used these nudges for organ donation, for signing up for savings.
How a company uses: when you sign up for a website registration you have to opt-out to receive promotional newsletters. If you do not opt-out, you will get all promotional emails by default.
How can you use: when you want to spend unadulterated time reading to your child, or in a meeting, leave your phone out of the room for that period. By default, you will not have the phone to get distracted.
2. Expect Error: Humans make mistakes.
A well-designed system expects its users to err and is as forgiving as possible.
How a company uses: If you draft a mail on gmail and have forgotten to attach the document that you have mentioned in your mail, gmail reminds you to add the attachment. That is a positive nudge.
How can you use: You have put a task, for example to write to someone, on your to-do list. It has been there for the last few days but you have not been able to complete this task. That’s an error that you are making. To design a productivity nudge for yourself, write a rule – either attack or kill the task after two days. This means that after two days of being on the list, any task should either be addressed first thing on the third day or get discarded from the list if it is not important enough. By expecting that you may miss something on your to-do list, you can design a choice to be more attentive and productive.
3. Give Feedback:
The best way to help humans improve their performance is to provide feedback, writes Richard Thaler. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes.
How a company uses: iPhone users have the facility to control screen time. The phone reminds every time the limit, set by the user, is over.
How you can use: You want to change a habit, maintain a log of new behaviour and this will become your feedback system. For example, maintain an entry for your fitness regime that you want to improve, write down your workout details and how you feel after the workout. This journal will become your own feedback. How you feel will be your personal assessment tool, your frequency of workout will work as a feedback score.
4. Understand mapping:
A good system of choice architecture helps people improve their ability to map and hence to select options that will make them better off. One way to do this is to make the information about various options more understandable, by transforming numerical information into units that translate more readily into actual use. For example: When buying apples to make into apple cider, it helps to know the rule of thumb that it takes three apples to make one glass of cider.
How a company uses: Car sellers give comparative features and prices for models in similar categories. This information mapping helps the buyer to make informed decisions.
How to use: before joining another social media, map the time that it would consume from your 24 hours in a day. Map your other engagements. Remember, there are only 24 hours and that you are your own choice architect.
Choice architecture is not limited to only these four tools. Reducing choice overload, incentives and communication like advertisements to influence behavior, packaging and placement of products are also some other tools that are designed by businesses around us. Organisations design nudges to influence behaviour of their employees. Many organisations do not give a choice of accessing social media platforms on employees’ laptops thus restricting the choice architecture by default.
I do not work with any organisation that restricts usage of sites and apps on my devices. I am sure one day I will join these platforms and behave like a fly on the wall, the way I do on other platforms. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I am mapping the effort needed to curate my own timeline for these platforms. The choice I have made to be on social media is to learn, to pick up trends, to have fun in my way, which means I curate my timeline, I am conscious of whom to follow.
Being a choice architect takes efforts and failures. But, it is better to be a failure in your own choice architecture than to be a loser who has been influenced by others’ choices. So, are you a choice architect?
Has it ever happened to you that while driving you had to screech and halt to save a pedestrian from getting hit by your car. It just happened to me this morning. It wasn’t screeching and halting but yes, it was a sudden, unexpected break. Short, stout, in a green sweater and a blue mask there was a middle aged man right in front of my car’s bonnet staring at me in bewilderment. Jay walking is considered a safe behaviour by many standing in the crowd. Now imagine you had to halt at a star painted on the road? That’s what a Colombian mayor did years ago to prevent deaths caused during jaywalking. Ok, you may argue we do not even have zebra crossing markings on many roads in our cities. That is another debate. But, we still have people dying in road and rail accidents.
This Mayor, Antanas Mockus whose work is now published as a case by Harvard, used different strategies to change behaviour of people of the city, including painting stars on spots where pedestrians had died in traffic accidents.A mathematician and philosopher, Mr. Mockus was rector of the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, before serving as mayor of that city for two terms, from 1995 to 2004.
In an opinion piece, ‘the art of changing a city,’ he wrote “Bogotá’s traffic was chaotic and dangerous when I came to office. We decided the city needed a radical new approach to traffic safety. Among various strategies, we printed and distributed hundreds of thousands of “citizens’ cards,” which had a thumbs-up image on one side to flash at courteous drivers, and a thumbs-down on the other to express disapproval. Within a decade, traffic fatalities fell by more than half.”
Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens’ behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn’t follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes. Traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Mime artists idea was replicated in Peru Lima too to prevent road fatalities.
In this week’s Habits for Thinking, we are circling back to a topic we have discussed earlier too – Behavioural Economics and Nudge. This is a two part article and will continue next week too.
Behaviour economics uses psychology to understand decision making behind an economic outcome, such as buying of a product. The study refers to psychology, neuroscience, economics in understanding how people behave and act. The behaviour and subsequent decisions to act have an impact on people yet they continue to behave in an unsafe manner, like the man in the green sweater, who crossed the road more as a copycat behavior seeing others in front of him.
Governments and policymakers recruit behavioural economists to change behaviour in the right direction. It has been done in many countries, including ours. “By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society,” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, which was published in 2008. Read more about Nudge and behavioural economics in my earlier article here. This is what the mathematician mayor of Bogota did. He used insights that influence behaviour and designed solutions that were not easy to miss, that were engaging to bring in change.
Behavior Insights considers three factors that influence behavior:
1.Individual factors : self image consciousness, fast and slow decision making or a person, biases, rewards and penalties, time factor etc.
2.Social factors: How people think and act are many times influenced by people around them. Jumping a signal while driving because the one in front of you has jumped is an example or to litter in a public space like parking, roads etc is another example of copying behaviour.
3.Environmental or design factors : Nudges and other design elements are chosen to bring a change in behaviour. These are externally designed like Mime artists on the streets to change behaviour or messages through voice on phone.
While mimes were strategically placed to influence behaviour of pedestrians and car drivers, it worked on the self image of the individuals. Similarly, star painted spots became reminders as an environmental design factor to influence people’s behaviour.
“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”
Antanas Mockus, ex Mayor, Bogota.
When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.
Mockus writes in his note: When the city faced a critical water shortage, I made a public commitment: There would be no traditional rationing to manage the crisis, no cutting of supply. Instead, we set a goal of voluntary conservation of 12 to 20 percent; ultimately we achieved savings of 8 to 16 percent. To inform people of this policy, we replaced the busy signal on people’s telephones with a public message, either in my voice or that of the Colombian pop star Shakira, saying, “Thank you for saving water.”
This sounds like a familiar territory. We still have Amitabh Bachchan’s voice reminding Indians to wear a mask and to maintain social distancing this year. Now, there are messages that talk about the safety of vaccines. The governments, both central and state, were quick to inform people about the pandemic. Even before the announcement of the lockdown, Mumbai city had billboards with a message of safety.
In behavioral economics, you design a nudge to bring change in behaviour of people. Like some of the examples that are mentioned above and some in the previous article. As a project leader, or a marketing head or the cultural captain of your company, you can design nudges that bring the right behavioural change in the organization or customers. You can create a form where someone has to opt-out instead of opt-in to get more signatures. UK government used this to make people adopt pension funds. They saw an increase in sign up of pension funds when the default setting of the form was opt-in. It was an effort for people to opt-out. Marketers of most websites use this as a marketing tool. You may have noticed that when you register on a site, it has a tick mark about receiving promotional material, you are given the option to opt out of it. Similarly you can design a change in communication and keep it EAST – easy, attractive, social and timely to make it effective as mentioned in the previous article.
The thought that I want to leave you with is what do you do when you want to change your own behaviour? The article will continue next week with more examples on behavioral economics and ways to bring those ideas in our own lives.