One look at a scarlet rose, and a 2 year old blurts out “red”. Did you know that children under a certain age perceive pure colours, whereas we don’t? We often perceive colours through the lens of a familiar language. For instance, if you speak a language that doesn’t have a distinct category for green and blue you may not be able to visually distinguish between these colours very well.
Remember “The dress”?
It’s true colour is blue and black. Ironically, Many see it as white and golden. Why do different people see different colours? For some of us, the brain confidently filters out blue wavelength. It senses that there is a shadow around the object.
When we look at colours of rainbow 🌈 we see stripes of various colours. However, the boundaries are not super clear. If you took it upon yourself to count how many colours are “actually” in a rainbow, the answer will boggle your mind. Despite considering limitations of the visible spectrum for human eyes, you could potentially find a million different colours in a rainbow.
To summarise, we take our ability to differentiate categories of colours as granted. We also assume that our colour vision is bulletproof. As various examples above prove, that is not the case.
Categorical thinking is flawed
Categorisation is an essential part of learning, memory, cognition, and reasoning. If you were in a jungle and you couldn’t tell a bear from a bush, well, good luck to you 😀. For this post however, let’s get into the drawbacks of categorical thinking.
1. Categorical thinking and Amplification error
Performance appraisals in organisations elicit emotional reactions. Many organisations enforce a bell curve or at least categories of performance. While Jack may be labelled as average, Sandeep might be labelled as an under-performer. Suppose, Jack is at the bottom of the average category whereas Sandeep is at the top of the under-performer category. The difference in actual performance between Sandeep and Jack is likely to be negligible.
This is dangerous because we tend to suppress similarities between Jack and Sandeep and amplify differences. I fully appreciate that this is an area laced with a lot of complexity and the choices of categories are debatable. However, simply being aware of amplification error, we can avoid unfair outcomes by bending the curve rather than bending people into categories.
2. Discrimination against unknown categories
On January 28, 1986, Space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. Cause of the disaster was attributed to an O-ring. A circular gasket sealing the rocket booster. This had failed due to the low temperature. This was a risk that several engineers noted, but that NASA management dismissed
David Epstein notes in his book Range, that NASA had this motto. NASA was so data driven that they did not take into account the hunches of people who had honed their instincts for years working on the complicated aerospace systems.
In summary, thinking in categories can make you blind to presence of unknown categories of information (Expert instincts in this case). Do not discriminate against unknown categories.
3. Categorical thinking & innovation
Thinking in categories prevents us from thinking outside the box. For instance, Kodak when faced with a new category i.e. digital camera an invention by one of its own electrical engineers, simply ignored it as an internal threat. Instead of investing in digital cameras, they ran campaigns to tell people how physical photography was better. They could not break out of what was back then a hugely successful category.
As a counter example, Software as a service (SaaS) is hugely successful. This paradigm has dispensed the users from the arduous process of paying for and setting up infrastructure, restrictive licensing, and installing and maintaining software. Instead, they simply ask the users to pay a fixed periodic fee. If we pay close attention, there are a lot of new categories here. Infrastructure sharing, application sharing, indirect charging, paying only for what you use.
Innovation by definition is obliterating categories or creating new categories (of products in this case).
Flex your spectral thinking muscle
While categorical thinking tends to suppress similarities and amplify differences, spectral thinking appreciates that two things can be more of the same despite being in different categories. Spectral thinking is able to zoom out from finite categories to an infinite spectrum.
Suppose you are in a role titled “Business analyst”, you are likely to be boxed into things you are supposed to do. For instance, the role may not enable you to be a part of product decisions, or contribute to engineering decisions even if you have the experience and are qualified to do so. This is why I am not a big fan of role titles. I appreciate that they do serve a purpose but they also push us into pitfalls of categorical thinking.
The solution lies in our ability to break the category of our role title and create new ones. For instance, if you network with product managers, and take up a side gig breaking down complex features, and helping with research, perhaps you can break into that category and become a product manager yourself!
On a cold spring day you’ve just landed at the London Heathrow airport. You head over to the Uber boarding point at short stay car park 5. You summon your ride and wait staring at your screen for the driver to show-up. There are many unsuspecting passengers doing the same thing around you. You keep staring at the animated car icon on Uber and hope that the driver shows up sooner rather than later. It takes about 40 minutes just as the driver calls you and you scramble to locate the car’s number plate. As he complains about the queues at the terminal, you are already frustrated but are glad to get out of the airport. Sounds familiar?
On-demand services aren’t always better
Consider our earlier example, if you had called a private cab company and scheduled the ride ahead of time, you would have found the driver waiting with a placard outside the terminal. While Uber is supposed to be convenient, in this case it ends up being inconvenient.
Another ubiquitous on-demand part of our lives is entertainment. For instance, I have YouTube premium. Ad-free videos and curated music is awesome and value for money. I also need my Netflix for Star Trek, Disney+ for Marvel, and Amazon Prime Video for Star Wars. We now have more choice of programming than any other time in human history. Yet have you noticed that it is quite frustrating to decide what to watch, so we end up watching familiar shows like “Big bang theory”. Don’t even get me started on the graveyard of Netflix originals.
When my generation grew up, entertainment was not on-demand. Yet, we had programming pre-curated, pre-planned and delivered through a device called as TV 😀. It was awesome, even with ads!
On-demand services might be making us miserable
Aren’t food delivery apps brilliant? Last week, I found myself randomly scrolling on the feed of one of India’s popular food delivery apps called Swiggy. I asked myself, what am I doing on Swiggy? Then I realised I was hungry, probably a little bored, too. I subconsciously made a pavlovian association between Hunger, boredom and Swiggy. Thankfully, my conscious afterthought pulled me out of it. I was shocked at how addictive this stuff is!
Swiggy is frictionless. Literally 3 taps and you can get your favourite burger and fries at your door under 20 minutes. Despite all the convenience, selecting the restaurant and the menu is still stressful. In conclusion, on-demand sugar and fat might be convenient, but does not add much value to our mental peace or physical health by creating an addictive association. On the other hand, if you spend time mindfully buying ingredients, and cooking it with or for your loved ones, it is therapeutic. I know that not everyone will agree with me, but it is worth trying, mindful cooking can be an outstanding de-stressor.
When you have too much choice and availability, we tend to become lazy. For instance, in the example above, in a food ordering app, we tend to be frustrated with the choice fatigue, and would often give into the algorithmic recommendations. Algorithms do not necessarily have your best interests at heart. Instead, they optimise for engagement. Prior to Uberisation, you would mindfully think what cuisine you wish to eat, then look up the best restaurants, make a reservation, dress-up and have a good time, regardless of the food. It is more joyful even if not convenient.
The curse is universal
Learning on YouTube is awesome, but there is something different about hand-picking books and making sense of them in a slow and mindful manner. On-demand learning apps are causing a tectonic shift in the way our youth learns. It is super convenient, but are we losing something in the process? You tell me!
Take groceries, remember in the pre-pandemic world when you drove to your favourite supermarket and discovered new products, tried new kinds of cheese, or perhaps made new friends in the aisle? On-demand grocery is super convenient, but why do I miss going to the supermarket with a check-list in my hand and let randomness of the supermarket surprise me?
Spotify is awesome too, but it can never replace the joy of a mixed-tape the love of your life made for you. Salon services, healthcare, home services, much of the same can be said about almost all the on-demand services.
Best of both worlds is possible
On demand services are making a lot of positive difference to the world as well. As a result of changed market dynamics smaller players now have access to a larger marketplace. These services are also market expanding in nature. For instance post introduction of Ola / Uber in India, the taxi market has expanded significantly. This means greater employment for the masses and overall better domestic consumption for the economy.
The key is mindful consumption of on-demand services. Hair Salons are still around, so are restaurants and supermarkets. We still have libraries and bookstores from where you can borrow reference books. You can still make a digital mixed-tape and surprise your loved one on your next anniversary. You could still use Uber when it really is convenient, and you could still use Swiggy when pandemic makes it nothing more than a lifeline.
The challenge is also open for the on-demand service providers to open up experiences that are currently missing. This is happening in e-commerce, where many major brands offer a hybrid shopping experience. Others can follow suit and bring back the very experiences that make us human.
A long long time ago, on a distant planet, there were people who went to real offices. They had human co-workers, and quaint break-out areas. Some of them were so lucky, that they got to hear printer noises and chatter while they were working!! I was one of those people…
The banana principle
I loved the smell of coffee ☕ in the cafeteria and compulsively stood in a queue to get my Soya cappuccino. Heck, I even relished the fresh selection of fruits kept around the floor every blissful morning. One such morning, the unthinkable happened. I was a bit late, and all the bananas 🍌 were gone. Where were the bananas? Did the Minions actually call? No. Turns out this wasn’t an isolated incident. Bananas were always the first to go, and tangerines were the last!
Eventually, I learnt about the banana principle. The banana principle states that since bananas are easy to peel, they are the first ones to go from the basket. Similarly, tangerines take more effort so are usually the last ones to go…
Friction & change
This is an important lesson in fostering, and sustaining change. Anything with friction is hard to foster and even harder to sustain. For instance, if you want people to ask more questions when you conduct meetings, remove as much friction as possible. Some people are afraid to speak. Provide an option to ask questions via text / web. Others may feel under pressure to frame questions on the fly. Provide plenty of time ahead of a meeting to submit questions. For those feeling afraid of consequences, provide anonymity. The banana principle works!
What about tangerines? Well, sometimes you need to deter behaviours. Screen time for instance, is a major concern for parents. In our house, we use the tangerine principle with our 4 year old. We keep our iPad out of sight but accessible in a drawer. Moreover, we purposely keep it discharged. As a result, if Anik wants to use the iPad, first he has to open the drawer (first friction) and then he has to charge it (second friction). Result? he hardly ever uses it. Other toys are frictionless and take precedence.
To conclude, create or remove friction to make it easier to foster and sustain change!
It was fall of 2018. A usual work trip via Mumbai. Me and my car driver were cruising at about 80 KPH on the Mumbai – Pune expressway. The rumbling of tyres on the concrete pavement was fading into the pitter patter of the diesel engine. I was engrossed in reading my favourite book after a good nights sleep, as we passed the Khalapur toll. In about 20 minutes, I instinctively looked up. The car was strongly veering towards the right as we were about crash on to the divider. I literally shouted, “Watch-out!”. I had one hand on the driver’s shoulder, pinching him while bracing for impact.
Thankfully the driver regained control and said, sorry sir, “ek second ke liye aankh lag gaya tha”. Hindi for, sorry, “I fell asleep for a moment”. While counting my blessings, I somehow made it through the rest of the trip with a heightened sense of consciousness and a strongly caffeinated driver.
Inadequate sleep has caused major economic & productivity crisis!
The cost of inadequate sleep in Australia according to research is about $18 Billion. That is about 2-3% of Australia’s nominal GDP. In the US, the number is close to a whopping $400 Billion. Also, across many other large economies, it is close to 2% of their GDP. I estimate for India, it is to the tune of $60 Billion. The grim economics adds up quickly. The well-being issues caused my inadequate sleep makes it even worse. It is no secret that poor sleep affects health adversely. It does so in children and in adults. In fact, the effects are even worse in the elderly. It is a leading cause of cardio vascular diseases, and undoubtedly results in lots of untimely fatalities.
On a day to day basis, poor sleep results in cognitive issues. I am sure you have noticed that after a poor night’s sleep, we find it difficult to pay attention to our work schedules, or complex issues. We demonstrate reduced understanding of simple things. Also, we show delayed reaction time. “I am sorry, I missed that question could you repeat please?” – does this ring a bell? While this can result in some harmless fun at work, the collective cost is quite serious.
The delayed or impaired reaction time claims many lives on highways all over the world every single day. Not to add, it makes us perceive things excessively negatively and results in overall irritable behaviour. Leaders need to be especially aware as bad sleep will result in poor decisions. As a result, this can impact not only yourself but also the organisation and your teams.
Our bodies are amazing at regulating sleep, but…
Circadian Rhythm. Scientific term for our regular sleep-wake cycle literally means “about a day”. I have experienced this really strange phenomenon where I often wake up at precisely the same minute in the morning. Sometimes so precise, that I see the same number 7.03 on the watch few days in a row! Have you noticed this too? The conspiracy theorist in me thinks this is another proof that we live in a computer simulation. However, the realist in me knows it shows how good our body clocks are.
Our age plays a big role in determining the mix of sleep types and their duration. In simplest terms, older adults do not sleep as well as younger adults.
This applies to ease with which one can go to sleep, the amount of deep sleep, and the fragility of sleep. Everything gets worse as we become older. There is research that substantiates why this happens. So how do we react?
Hacking our way around common enemies of sleep
If we focus on these 15 hacks, we can substantially improve our ability to generate and regulate sleep. I have tried and tested these!
1. Pre-plan your day and prepare your morning!
Take a look at your calendar for next day and do a dry run in your mind. This should relax you about the next day. Some people even go to the extent of trying to pick what we want to wear the next morning, you may want to prepare breakfast menu or chop some vegetables ahead of time.
Any sort of prep relaxes you as you know you are better equipped for the day to come.
2. Express anxiety or residual emotions. Talk or Journal.
Anxiety & worry can affect sleep. We are just sat in bed, thinking about our unresolved emotions. We worry about how that challenging interview would turn out. Your amazon parcel is stuck somewhere! There is no end. Just using your friends, partners as a soundboard for this can massively alleviate the impact that worry has on your sleep.
I have observed that writing what is on your mind, or listing down tasks, has an overall relaxing effect before you go to bed.
3. Tweak lighting. Not only in your bedroom but also during the day.
Melatonin secretion is photo-sensitive. In other words, it is affected by exposure to light. This means you should be exposed to as much natural light as possible during the day. As the day wanes, artificial lighting should be controlled depending on your tasks or sleep routine. In our house, we start early evenings with bright whites, and slowly dim them and switch to soft yellows as we approach bedtime. I have observed that this has a nice transition effect. The bedroom lighting has to be soft. I have a combination of yellow spot task-lighting for reading etc. and overall soft yellow hues.
Although not compulsory, consider automating lighting. I have this automated in our bedroom. An Alexa command can switch from bright to yellow. We can also control dimming which is very useful if you don’t have specific lights installed for reading etc. It helps you ease you into the night.
4. Do not forget the lighting for bathroom breaks.
It is not routine but sometimes we have to wake up to go to the restroom. Most of our bathrooms are either inadequately lit up, or they are super bright. I have installed an IR based motion sensing dim lighting in my bathroom. This is in addition to all the other kinds of lighting that I can control manually.
This ensures, when I am a sleepy head, and I am going into the restroom, I don’t have to manually turn the lights on or off. You can also install dim motion sensing lights under your bed. This way, when you step out of bed, it lights up a soft hue. Such lighting ensures my eyes don’t have to endure sudden exposure to bright lights. It also makes sure I don’t trip over! 😄
5. If you can, allow natural light to enter your room in the morning.
Keeping some parts of blinds open allows natural light to filter through gradually as it dawns. This ensures Melatonin can ebb, allowing our natural circadian rhythms to take over and gently wake us up. This is so much better than the jarring sound of an alarm.
Your smart home can help. You can get smart bed lamps, although I am not sure how good they are. They get brighter as it dawns and they claim to gently wake you up. Have you tried one? Let me know in the comments section whether it works!
I ran out of budget 😁, but one thing I would like to DIY one day, is to automate opening of blinds in the morning. I will keep you posted on the effort. For now, partially open blinds do a good job of letting the natural light in easing us from sleep to wakefulness.
6. Please invest in a good mattress
When was the last time you bought a new mattress? Majority of us would say a long time ago. Speaking for India, there are many start-ups that have really changed the game on the whole mattress experience! There is so much choice available. After doing months of research, we settled on a moderately layered memory foam + a composite base. This is our choice, and you will probably prefer something else. However, the key takeaway here is the value of experimentation. Good mattresses need not be expensive, but if you like one that is expensive, please invest. It is one of the best ways of spending your money. 🙌🏻
7. Experiment with pillows!
On a related topic let me share some science on pillows. Pillows determine spinal alignment. They can give you chronic neck and back pain. Choose a pillow that keeps your head aligned to your sternum and collar bone. If you sleep flat on your back, also ensure head is not too high or too low but properly aligned to your body. Experiment until you fight the right fit.
8. Fresh or dedicated bedding every night can work wonders
It is a bit of work, but changing your bedsheet can do wonders to your sleep. Who does not like the smell and feel of a fresh bedsheet as you prepare to snuggle? Apart from all the health benefits such as reduced allergens, etc. there is a discrete brain signalling that occurs when you change your bedsheet before hitting the bed. Your brain knows that now you are entering a relaxed state. Your favourite PJ’s can have the same effect. So please take the extra effort.
9. Mosquito nets for my friends in India or tropical countries
I grew up sleeping on beds with full sized manual mosquito nets. It was a chore, but a worthwhile one. Firstly, it allowed us to keep the room fully ventilated, which was awesome. Secondly, with a tent like effect, it immediately made the sleeping environment a bit cosier. This may not work for you or some may feel claustrophobic, but it certainly worked for me.
10. Mess stress is real 😃 keep your bedroom tidy!
You may have a gift, and you can sleep in a dumping ground. However, for most people, mess is a major cause of stress. Just keeping your room clean and tidy can control the hormone cortisol which is a major miscreant towards your sleep.
11. Snore, but don’t roar! 🦁
Can you really control snoring? It is certainly possible. Some exercises, elevated position (pillows), nasal pressure equalizer devices all can be done without visiting a sleep clinic. These do help. If you do not get relief, please do visit a doctor.
12. It’s worth investing in an air purifier
Unless you live in Swiss Alps, or remote countryside, you are likely to have urban pollutants in your bedroom. This causes congestion, allergic reaction, hoarseness of voice, and a few other issues. A HEPA filter based air purifier can really make you feel less stuffy in the morning. Personal experience, and I 100% recommend it.
If you use a room heater, consider getting a humidifier. The heat radiators will suck moisture out of the air and make your airways dry and itchy. This cannot be good for your upper respiratory tract. A humidifier works wonders. Similarly, in tropical climates, an air conditioner can regulate humidity well. This will really improve quality of your sleep. Ceiling fans are a strict no for me they also dry out your airways, and often result in poor sleep. This may be different for you.
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13. Try white noise. It didn’t work for me.
There are various white noise apps, and devices available on the market. They are supposed to make you sleep better or faster. It didn’t work for me, but hey give it a shot, what do you have to lose? Let me know if it works for you.
14. Exercise more during the day, keep it light in the evening
Vigorous exercises in the night contribute to heightened alert state and loss of sleep. Regular exercise will definitely improve your deep sleep. Also avoid too many liquids in the night so as to avoid completely unnecessary trip to the loo! Avoid big meals after sunset can also help you regulate blood sugar and positively affects quality of sleep.
15. Desirable sleep routine
Start your bedtime routine with something you love. A book, some soft music, perhaps? A cup of chamomile tea, or simply some fun chat with your little ones! This can truly be the best time to connect with yourself and your loved ones. Once you have a set and desirable routine, you won’t let anything else distract you!
Use habit forming methods to do this effectively. Meditation can be amazing too! This will help you win over all the other distractions.
Pro-technique to sleep faster
US Army uses this technique. It involves relaxing muscles of your body one by one and visualising a pre-determined scene. I have tried this once, and due to sheer curiosity of whether it will work, it didn’t work for me 😄. It may work for you! Let me know if you manage to try it.
Is it ironic that I was writing this article at 1am Saturday night? Ethical dilemma wasn’t over until I bought it, and slept for a good 7 hours before finishing up on Sunday. If this article doesn’t give you some insight, at least its length can help you snooze better. 🤣 Either way, it is a win-win.
Oh and by the way, did I mention that you should keep away from screens a couple of hours before bed? Easier said than done, right?
It was spring of 2007; me and couple of my friends had recently moved to Buffalo, New York for a few months on what would be my first overseas assignment. Technically the second largest city in New York State, Buffalo had the feel of a sleepy suburb with rich industrial history. Our work days began early in the morning in shared radio cabs that felt quite futuristic for a young twenty something. We made our way to a multi-story office in downtown Buffalo every weekday and religiously started back home 5pm in white radio cabs. As we were doing lots of “production support” activity turn by turn, we also had many late nights. Cooking, friends, sports and access to cheap electronics was just so much fun. As many young foreigners living their dream in the US, we quickly figured out how to drive on the right side of the road and started renting cars over the weekends. I remember we didn’t waste a single weekend and traveled to tens of states and cities, like proper tourists, hours and hours on the interstate network and explored America as it should be explored.
On one such evening in New York City, a group of criminals / hooligans targeted us with racial slurs and intimidating behaviour in a harrowing episode. We were thankfully unharmed but the ordeal left us shaken to the core. I have to mention that my colleagues and almost everyone else we met were extremely generous, welcoming, friendly and simply brilliant. This is not a gripe about a country or a community but just my first brush with what we didn’t know back then as – “hate crime”. I am pretty sure it could have happened to anyone and anywhere and also that it exists everywhere including in India. All that mattered within that moment is that hate wasn’t to be tolerated. I made a promise that day to myself to fight hatred, racism, bigotry and bias.
Let’s look at 3 reasons why diversity can help address some of these issues.
1. We are not just fighting attitudes – we are fighting our very own Limbic system. This will take generations to change.
Stanford University’s Recruitment to Expand Diversity and Excellence program suggested that about 75 percent of whites and Asians demonstrated an implicit bias favoring whites over blacks (Link).
In other words, Racism, bigotry, hatred, and xenophobia are all emotions. They run deep in many of us, we are taught that racism is bad however parts of our limbic system (Amygdala) respond to new and unfamiliar stimuli with apprehension and fear. This is referred to as implicit bias. While we can train our brain and become better at controlling our biases they don’t change overnight. They must change over generations and diversity will ensure we are exposed and not just taught. I studied graduate school in a class with 25 different nationalities, I have traveled to over 25 countries and I have operated in extremely diverse work environments. This has conditioned me to realise that diversity brings value, richness of thoughts, opinions and actions which is 💯 a good thing.
2. The universe is full of infinite diversities. That’s what makes it so exciting.
We know about racial / gender diversity – many of us have heard or operate with rightly laid out diversity and inclusion targets. How many of us consciously celebrate other kinds of diversity? Do you hire for example because someone brings brilliant creativity to your team? Do you connect with someone because they have much different life experiences than you? Do you avoid the unknown or you embrace it? Are you uncomfortable with uncertainty or do you thrive on it? I think it’s time we did all these things and know that diversity is much wider than just Gender or Race. For starters think about following kind of diversity.
Introverts vs Extroverts
Creatives vs Analytical
Northerner vs Southerner (regional)
English speaking vs vernacular
Deep thinker vs impulsives
Comic vs serious
Rich vs poor
Naive vs shrewd
Secure vs insecure
Known vs unknown
Straight vs Gay
Liberal vs conservative
Democrats vs Republican
Modi Love vs Modi Critical
Too young to be a leader vs Wise and Grey hair or simply a Boomer!
Highly Educated vs Drop outs
Ivy league vs non Ivy league
I could go on forever 😂
The more diverse the better though! Send your kid to a diverse school, let him or her mingle with non like-minded people, different cultures, travel – this is the best way to learn more about new cultures, food, music and so many other things! Hire for all kinds of diversity, invite external speakers to your team meetings, perhaps from a different country or region or even industry and see how much you learn and become better at everything. Diversity brings difference of opinion and views that results in healthy conflict. This almost always results in better outcomes.
3. Science very strongly favours diversity, without it we wouldn’t have evolved as the dominant species on this planet
Darwin’s theory of natural selection supports diversity. According to a related theory, A large gene pool has extensive genetic diversity and is better able to withstand the challenges posed by environmental stresses. So even marrying outside your cast or race can be a good thing for your gene pool 😁. So, babies and marriages aside, diversity on boards results in better returns, diversity on teams results in better results, diversity in data science teams results in better bias avoidance. It is widely researched that diversity of thought is not just good but it is great.
In a universe most likely teeming with life our survival as a species seems to be dependent on diversity. How would you feel if you were the only kind of intelligent life in the universe? I would be certainly unhappy. So if not for all this, for the universe’s sake, would you join me in fighting for diversity?