Tag Archives: multitasking

On Prevarication, JIT, and Acorns & Oaks

22 May

oak and acorn

So, it’s true – the acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak. I just read this article on early risers vs late night owls, roughly 10 mins after my daughter finally got up this morning/ afternoon – at 12.10 (that’s p.m.)! And, despite my frustration at the time she was getting up, was forced to face my own habits – I have done various all-nighters throughout my life, but ask me to wake up at even 7 a.m…..and I’m like someone asked me to run a marathon! So, not surprised lo sleeps at 4 and wakes up at 12.

I also see this same genetic influence in her regarding another bad habit – that of “putting off things till tomorrow that should ideally be done today”. In other words, prevarication! The fact that I didn’t write a blog for well over 3 months, was basically prevarication – so is this now-almost-extinct book project I launched upon a year ago! This unfortunately is a lifelong habit.

When I think about it, prevarication is a fantastic way of letting nature prioritize tasks for you – basically, you keep putting things off till they either assume monumental do-or-die proportions, thus forcing you to put your head down and work to finish that task; or they just fade away – which basically means that they weren’t all that important to begin with. Read this article to see how procrastinating does help you become more focussed and productive!

But the other aspect of it is that I work best under a deadline – the buzz that a concentrated effort with a looming deadline brings, is unparalleled – I know advertising agencies work best that way – maybe desperation brings out the creative juices in a way that having a lot of time doesn’t. Or maybe, it’s just that some folks are wired a certian way, and they only work best under pressure.

All my life – whether it was exams , where I wouldn’t study throughout the year, but basically not sleep the entire week/ fortnight of exams; or, whether it was a client deadline on work that would get done JUST-in-time…I’ve practiced this last minute way of work. Not easy on parents/ teachers/ fellow workers – but, hey, it works!

The Japs made JIT such a big management phenomenon, and supply chains all over the world, for example at Wal-Mart, specialised in optimal inventories and thus enormous cost reductions, due to JIT!


The best slant on what I would ruthlessly call the big P word, but HBR calls the theory of optimum delay is this link. It talks about how it’s almost always better to wait a bit – whether it is Jimmy Connors’ tennis shot, or a decision made after some delay (infact, in true HBR style, it even has a shorthand for it – OODA – observe, orient, decide, act)

The interesting point that emerges therefore I guess is about the value of time. We always heard Time is Money, and the hare vs. tortoise story about wasting time resulting in a certain win being converted into an ignominious loss! But the author argues here, that the time spent “observing, orienting and deciding; actually ends up being useful time in the end.

Coming back to procrastination however, the kind I am talking about is the one where you are not necessarily achieving much out of the delay – but instead spending time on arbit rubbish, convincing yourself you are WORKing – it’s like when my daughter sits in front of her comp at her desk, with her books open; but then watches Bethany Mota or Superwoman or Into the Woods – in her mind, she is working! Or, when I continuously scroll between facebook, whatsap and email – convincing myself I am reading/ enlarging my mind —- all of this is chronic procrastination!

So, the question is: Is procrastination good or bad, (or, if bad, how do you avoid it)

I really like this article where procrastination is related to willpower, or the limited amount of it. “If you’re thinking about procrastinating, it’s already too late” it says. Sounds familiar? 🙂

IMO, habitual procrastinators are just so – they can at best become a bit better – I think what is important is whether they get results despite procrastinating, i.e. whether their procrastination achieves success, or ends up in failure. I suspect this in turn relates to — how much horse power the procrastinator has — as an example, I repeatedly did things last minute, because I saw time after time, that I COULD do things last minute – whether it was cramming for the year’s portions the day before the exam, or a client deadline to be sent off.

It also relates to, WHAT kind of work is being delayed – as I said before, some work actually is better for the delay. Read this article on how prevarication is better for productivity

Things To Do List

Most experts give advice on how to battle procrastination. Most procrastinators are experts at listening to, then ignoring this advice. I did like some of the stuff in this article which talks about whisker goals as opposed to stretch goals, and how to not let a task list overwhelm you; and this nice logout tip for productivity.

For folks who are annoyingly on time all the time, obviously sometimes it is better if procrastinators around them learn how to manage this addiction! Here is some more reading on this topic (clearly written by someone who is NOT a procrastinator, and thus has NO idea what he is talking about!)

tech adoption lifecycle

We all know the adoption life cycle – in many cases, early adopters, while being the first to get to experiment with new stuff and getting the pleasure of it; also the associated status; as well as creating a new market, also sometimes become guinea piggish – so, in case the new tech doesnt do well, they suffer reversals. On the other hand, procrastinators (only, the tech life cycle doesn’t use the P word – it calls them the “mature” consumers), get to enjoy the combined experience of all the early adopters – and benefit from iterations in technology, also very often cheaper prices as, due to scale, prices of the new tech stuff drops.

Even in the newer versions of the hare and tortoise stories, the procrastinator hare becomes smarter, and not only runs faster and steadier, but also changes the rules of the game to enjoy better/ more suited to him – wins.

So, ofcourse, being a die hard procrastinator, I will look for the pluses – but I have to confess, when I wear my mom hat, I’m not so happy seeing this in my lo!

Having said that, facebook fed me another early vs late night article which was reasonably complimentary to “night owl chronotypes”), so, maybe, procrastinator oak notwithstanding, my acorn has some hope in life yet!



Focus Or Multi-tasking? Arjuna/ Voldemort Or Jack?

26 Feb


“Kill the Spare” – were Voldemort’s words just prior to poor Hufflepuff’s sole star, the good looking Cedric Diggory’s death. However, the reason why the innocent bystander was killed, was, so that “He Who Must Not be Named” and his allies could focus on the big task at hand – first resurrecting Voldemort, and then killing the “Boy Who Lived”.

What this talks to therefore is the need to focus on the important things in life so you can optimize your never ending “to do list” and check off those big ones that absolutely need to be done! It is no coincidence, after all, that “focusing” sun rays on one spot can light a fire! How’s that for incendiary?

concave_focus hanks

Strangely and coincidentally, my friend Nirupama just now put this up as her status update on facebook – “Focus on the eye of the fish said the famous guru to the even more famous disciple. Focus is the mantra. As long as it doesnt lead to extreme self absorption and an inability to appreciate collalteral damage to others in your wake:)”

I don’t know what her context was, but she refers to Arjuna, one of the Pandavas in the Hindu epic the Mahabharat, and his unparalleled ability to focus on the job at hand. This was displayed by 2 separate incidents – a), when their guru Dronacharya is testing all kids on archery – the target is the eye of a bird, when asked by the guru – what do you see, everyone answered different things – from the tree/ the bird/ the sky. But Arjuna said – the “eye of the bird” thus ensuring that he was the teacher’s pet forever (my kids would say – sucker up! and probably REALLY give him a hard time ☺ )


and b) when at the Swayamvara (marriage ceremony where the bride gets to choose her husband from a wide assortment – ancient India was far more liberal, you see!) held for Princess Draupadi, the competition is to shoot a revolving fish stuck on a moving pole, while staring into its reflection in a platter of oil – Arjuna again won his fair bride by nailing the fish in the eye.


The point is, that many leaders will tell you the secret to their success is concentration, and focus on doing what needs to be done most, first!

It is interesting, and a bit paradoxical, that in a world which prides itself on multitasking, it is as important to juggle many balls up in the air at the same time, as it is to ensure that the main ones – well, all actually but the main one most of all, is the one with the most time and attention invested upon it – in other words, focus!

Of course many of you may have come across this fairly famous New York Times article on multitasking (Actually, I was googling to find the url to insert here – and found many related articles within New York Times itself! A more recent one, with a slightly different stance, was this one )which essentially said that multitasking is actually detrimental to speed and efficiency, and even overall health! Interestingly, NYTimes argues for the power of concentration too, and draws an interesting analogy to Sherlock Holmes, who it calls the quintessential unitasker ☺ – read here

For the longest time, I despaired of my Woman Friday – Tulasi (referred to in my older blog) EVER learning parallel processing vs. her painful waterfall method of working – she was an invaluable resource, but try as I might, I NEVER managed to teach her the merit of frying the onions while cutting the tomatoes, and then frying the tomatoes with the onions while cutting the paneer! All this, while the water in the geyser was heating so the kids could take a bath. She FIRST cut ALL vegtables, THEN put the wok on the fire, and when the vegetable was all made – went upstairs to switch on the hot water! No wonder she got little time to herself! I realized that this ability to multitask/ parallel process – was not a gender function (much to my regret – trashing my hotly debated theory against my husband that women made better multitaskers), not an age related one (despite the NYT article – my mom multitasks with the best of them, and she is nearly 70) not even so much a socio economic class function (atleast not directly), but one related to education – if there is one thing that the process of higher education – specially engineering/ business management functions teaches us – it is how to do more in less time. So, one can’t really blame Tulasi – except maybe for having flunked the 5th grade!

Coming back to focus/ concentration (two different concepts by the way), a lot of search engines after Google, have attempted to deliver precisely this “precision” – the “focused” results thus enabling better relevance. It is also what current “Information Firehoses” are doing – structuring the info you consume such that it is relevant/ focused on what you NEED to know FIRST. Not to say that they won’t give you the others – it’s just scheduled in order of priority.


You know, a similar paradox is when you are learning to sing and play music, or to drive for that matter. When first beginning to drive, you have to focus on each of the separate aspects – pressing the clutch, then the gear change (for the non auto drivers 🙂 ), then the accelerator – whatever. But after sometime, your body lets you multitask all these easily – it’s basically the power of repitition – of having created enough muscle memory to make the task effortless. Similarly, when you first begin to learn to play an instrument say the guitar, and you have always been a vocalist – you tend to not be able to distinguish the chords separate from the lyrics/ melody. But after some training, you are able to focus on the chords such that your ear hears the notes, the chords, as well as the beats of the percussion instrument.

This is also how you resolve the apparent conflict between proponents of focus vs those of multitasking – let’s face it, in today’s world, multi tasking is an unavoidable necessity – I think ALL of us have worked multiple projects together; heated up food to feed the kids with a phone stuck to one ear participating in telecons, OR practiced our vocal music while driving. But, the “focus” helps you decide how much time to spend on which activity – the one that wins is obviously the one you NEED to do MOST – ie, that which someone else cannot do; that which has maximum impact on profitability or client satisfaction; that which just requires the maximum time to do…etc…the effective manager actually therefore manages to combine the best of both worlds – multitask, and yet focus.

Incidentally, a related concept is that of the generalist vs. the specialist – and there is a reason why at entry levels in an organisation, you start by orientation in all fields/ functions, then in mid management you specialize in one field, then again broadening skill sets when you start moving towards senior management.

Which basically means that Arjun was right – so was Voldemort in a way (killing notwithstanding) – but so also the Jack who is jack of all trades and master of none! He is probably the most relevant in today’s corporate world.


As Brian Tracy said, “…you cannot eat every tadpole and frog in the pond, but you can eat the biggest and ugliest one, and that will be enough, at least for the time being.”

Bravo McKinsey, Et-tu Marissa? (Woman Power – Ninja Power!)

25 Feb


For anyone in the consulting field, McK is obviously Ivy League. For me, the one thing that I always admired them for is the fact that apparently they were the alma mater for ALL consulting professionals! So, most consultants cut their eyeteeth at McK, and then went on to other/ bigger/ better firms (The reason why this was very top of mind to me was – that I think EmPower Research was almost a pioneer in the outsourced media research, monitoring and analytics space – and hence all our talent was home grown. We hired most of our folks straight from colleges, put them through a fairly rigorous – mostly on the job – training program (which in itself was home grown and kept evolving); made them learn processes that were home grown – and put them through HR steps that were also home grown. Then ofcourse, older – wiser – maybe better, they would seek greener pastures. Not able/ even willing to stem this attrition, I would console myself by saying – atleast we are like McK – most folks in the media research field in any big company – IBM/ HP/ Nielsen/ Aon/ PA – were all from EmPower Research.

Well, another day – and McK grabs my eyeballs again – this time for something that’s really close to heart. It is putting a program (being referred to as laptops and lullabies) in place to woo back its women employees who had quit (see link). It realised that with gender diversity important – for more reasons than statistics, and the leakage that invariably happens when women have babies – it should get active on the “returnship” front. Apparently Bain, BCG and Goldman Sachs have active programs towards this too. They certainly need to – look at the stats:

Studies, conducted by McKinsey, show that about 76% of all American women aged 25-54 are in the workforce compared to 87% in Sweden. According to this study, if each state contributed 84% of women to its workforce, the U.S. economy would grow by 3%. Most notably, women are seriously underrepresented in senior positions.

Reminded me of a panel discussion I had spoken on – it was for an initiative called “Segue” by an organization called Avtar. This was aimed at returning women. On the panel with me, I had senior HR folks from Accenture, Grindlays, Mphasis. What struck me most about the post panel session was the need/ the sheer desperation these “returning women” showed – the common complaint was that it was alright for all of you to tell us statistics within your company on women who have had babies, but for all of us, the barriers are just too high. One very evocative/ symbolic question was – when the recruitment form says – last job and duration, there isn’t even a checkbox meant for people like us – this means that we get evicted by the computers – and don’t even make it to the actual human rounds of short listing!

Again reminded of a NASSCOM meeting I had attended a few years ago – where activist and classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai had said – I do NOT want to be in a situation of choosing – “EITHER work, OR family” – why should I have to face an “either-or” – I want an AND and another AND and another AND! Remember the widely controversial article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic on “Why women still can’t have it all” (worth a read by the way)

Looks like the top women leaders are all espousing this cause- I will take another excerpt from my favorite Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk – when she said “why do women leave before they leave”? Happened to me – as I was doing one on ones before finally quitting EmPower, a young analyst told me – see, I was quite cheesed off at the last promotion round when I didn’t make it – but then I figured, its OK; anyway, I have to take off to have a baby now – so I didn’t talk about it to anybody! You know what, as the exact opposite – my friend Deepika, who now heads marketing at a large MNC foods company, got promoted WHILE she was on maternity leave – causing severe angst in her colleague who was the other brand manager – his contention was – she hasn’t even been at the job for the past 2 months; how is her contribution more than mine???

I have to say, Gillette/ P&G have always been front runners at the returning women empowerment thing – P&G apparently managed ZERO attrition of returning mothers – amazing stat! – via a program called Equinox (whats the rationale I wonder – maybe balancing of work-life just as equally as the day and night on the equinox?).

Flip side of coin – and BIG disappointment/ betrayal! – I just read about Marissa Mayer, who, of all people, SHOULD be behaving differently (atleast if she fulfills many peoples’ expectation of the youngest woman CEO in a F500 company!) – and how she issued the Work From Office, or Quit dictat! Now, it may be directed at cutting flab from an admittedly obese Yahoo, but the message is a bit wonky. (See article I wrote a long time ago on Flexi Time work options for women)

We in EmPower built a finally-400-people company through extensive use of flexi-time, work from home, use of “returning mothers” plan. As a garage based/ bootstrapped enterprise, there was no way we could hire people in the early days. However, we were getting projects of all kinds from our clients – after all, if we were “makers of sense” of existing (first filter – maybe value proposition!) data – we couldn’t also put another filter and say – we would make sense only in this/ this/ this field. Ergo, we hit upon the idea of using friends and family to work with us on a flex time basis. So, we put the word out in our networks – and got lots of really well qualified people – primarily siting-at-home-because-of-kids moms – who grabbed this opportunity to do some “meaningful” work that made use of their skills. We hence had a fairly well established/ extensive network of HR specialists/ finance specialists/ marketing ones/ pharma domainers – you name it, we had it! Depending on the project we got, we would rope in the specialist, estimate hours to be spent/ compensation – and then project manage (it wasn’t easy btw, and took considerable working at!)! The ladies just LOVED it, and we were able to scale with a variable cost model! Win – win all around!

This worked so well for us btw, that our gender stats were always heavily skewed in favor of ladies – so much so, that once my partner Shoma had written the following on the HR manager’s whiteboard!!


What did NOT happen – just so you know, was what the author Leslie Kwoh in the WSJ article I referred to earlier – is saying/ expecting. “Work and family experts often tout moms as “great managers” but skills developed while managing a household don’t necessarily translate to the office, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said in a recent essay. “Family managers are accustomed to being surrounded mostly by people who are…clearly dependent, unable to function fully on their own” Ms. Kanter wrote. “Spending quality time with people with limited vocabularies doesn’t hone complex strategic thinking”.

Well, excuse me! Our women were very able to manage complex/ strategic thinking – and balance expectations, deadlines and more. This by the way, is something I had written about – when I was takinga break from work and managing my child (It was called – “what they don’t teach you at business school” – as relevant today as it was 11 years ago! Read here) It is my FIRM belief that motherhood involves far more planning and execution/ leadership finesse than a normal workday situation would ever do!

Remember what Mallika Sarabhai said – “I want AND” – women CAN be breadwinners just as they can be caregivers! They multitask better, they have a higher developed sense of responsibility and the need to make their mark, they are more ready to make sacrifices – it would be foolish companies who would put barriers in the way of enabling this workforce (yahoo?), and smart ones who would enable them (mckinsey?).

This is the basics of management as taught to us by Tom Sawyer – remember when he “traded” painting the fence with many small bribes/ gifts? Incentivize people to “want” something they can give their best to!

tom_sawyer TomSawyerFence