Does Routine Kill Innovation?

12 08 2011

If we really boil it down, there are basically three ways you can spend your day:

  1. Doing nothing in particular. Waking up late, lounging around, wasting time here and there.
  2. Following a routine. Wake up, eat, work, train, eat, sleep…etc.
  3. Spontaneous living. Trying new things. Doing whatever comes to mind – things you don’t usually do.

Now, my question is: what kind of day is the best for innovation? And which is the worse?

The last few days have been pretty quiet for me in terms of innovation (hence the lack of posts). I haven’t had many ‘ding!’ moments, nor any sudden ‘a-ha!’s. No insights, no urge to create, record, or express. I would walk around with my camera hoping to capture something dramatic, but everything would look bland and mundane.Why?

I think routine is to blame. How might routine kill innovation?

  • You start living in a bubble. You wake up with your mind already set on the first thing on your to do list. After you finish that, you go straight on to the next item with no stops in between and so on. Your mind is closed to everything that isn’t on your to do list – how are you supposed to find innovation like that?
  • Innovations are (positive) Black Swans. Routines aren’t. I’m reading Nassim Nichoals Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan at the moment.  Black Swans are basically things  you can’t predict, yet can have a huge impact. They can be positive or negative – in this case, an innovation will be a positive black swan. Since they’re so unpredictable, it’s hard to come across them when doing something as predictable as a routine.
  • Mental stimulation is zero. We become robots if all we do is follow a routine! We might as well be programmed to run as a simple line of code if we’re going to be boring, monotonous and routine. Routine = doing things without really thinking = lack of mental stimulation = no innovation.

What do you think? Does routine kill innovation? And if so, what kind of day is best for it – spontaneous living or doing nothing in particular (like staring at clouds)?


In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World

24 07 2011


“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”     

Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes, you just have to get away from it all. Even for just a few hours.

So that’s what I did today. There was an oppressive frustration slowly boiling in me for no apparent reason (perhaps I was exasperated with the lack of progress in my college research), waiting to erupt. It was mentally taxing, psychologically noxious. An insidious anger directed at everything, and nothing.

I just had to get out and do something. Move. The longer I stayed in the house, the more it felt as if the walls were pressing in on me. So I threw my book, pen, notebook and water bottle into a bag and headed out…to wilderness.

What I was desperately craving for was quiet, solitude, peace and seclusion. To get away from the din of the city. So I headed off to the seaside and sat down on some rocks, facing out into the vast open sea. There I sat, writing in my notebook. Sipping water. Reading The God of Small Things. Listening to the waves as they gently crashed onto the rocks, leaving a foamy trail behind them.

It felt good. Everything suddenly felt so much better.

A quick dose of wilderness...

I’ve just experience Thoreau’s quote for myself. This is what Thoreau meant when he said “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” – preservation of humanity. Wilderness reminds us of where we come from. It reminds us of our place in the world, and how small our problems are when compared to the vast, powerful expanse of wilderness.

To further quote Thoreau:

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

At the same time though, Wendell Berry reminds us:

“In human culture is the preservation of wilderness.”

Wilderness. The world. Human culture. Wilderness.

It’s all a loop, isn’t it?

Reading and writing next to 'wilderness' - the preserver of the world and humanity.

Playing hide and seek with inspiration

27 06 2011

Finding inspiration is a bit like hide and seek.

Sometimes it’s staring at you right in the face, while other times you literally look everywhere and  search high and low, yet inspiration is nowhere to be seen!

Sometimes we’re just on fire, and it seems as if inspiration is boundless. Even on a mundane walk, we’ll find inspiration from the most banal of things. That tattered rubbish bin on the road? It’s probably giving off a lustrous purple colour which will later inspire you to create some groundbreaking piece of art. That old granny sitting on a bench staring into space? She’ll probably remind you of the transience of life, or prompt you to ponder some profound philosophical question.

Other times, though, we feel empty…it’s like we’re missing a magic ingredient. Everything just looks dull and plain. The bin looks like a bin. The old granny is just another old granny. There may be loads going on around you – interesting movements and interactions – but they all just seem to pass through you, undigested and glossed over.

I felt ‘on fire’ during my first photowalk one early morning, but subsequent photowalks just wouldn’t yield any good pictures! I couldn’t ‘see’ anything, probably because I’ve grown so used to my surroundings. It’s a bit like getting a fish to describe what water feels like.

So here are my ‘antidotes’ to that annoying feeling of being uninspired. It might help us win the game of hide and seek against that cheeky little thing called inspiration!

  • I go on Twitter…there’s always something going on. One link brings me to another, then another, then…inspiration (hopefully)
  • I look for something interesting in my RSS feeds
  • I pick up an old book. Flick to any page. Read it.
  • Read a poem (Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app is great for this)
  • Get out and walk! I try to absorb my surroundings, paying attention to everything that’s going around you. The colour of someone’s shoe. The book they’re holding. The adverts on buses.
  • Do something new. Anything. Just jump at any opportunity and go for it. I helped out at an inaugural scavenger hunt called the Airmazing race, organised by the Hong Kong Clean Air Network. Volunteering at the event was fun, but what was more awesome was meeting new people, chatting with them, looking at different viewpoints, and just generally finding new sources of inspiration and stimulation.

Stand Up, Sit Down.

19 06 2011

Problem:  As my work load has steadily increased over the past two years, I’ve found myself sitting more. As my sitting time increased, I felt increasingly restless and craving movement.

Solution: Ditching the chair (mostly) and standing up while working.

I started this practice of standing even before the large number of studies came out about the dangers of sitting (see infographic here), so it wasn’t for reasons of health/weight loss that led me to this habit. It was more a frustration and annoyance with being on my butt the whole time, and feeling very fidgety because I couldn’t move.

Some of my standing up methods include putting my laptop on a stack of thick hardcover books, and writing on a little bookcase that comes up to my chest.

I’ve been working while standing for over a year now and here are some observed results:

  • I’m more productive. Because sitting made me feel restless, I started to fidget with my fingers, spin my pen, drum on the table and so forth – all of which made me lose my concentration. Standing up, though, put an end to my restlessness. Now I’m fully concentrated 99% of the time and can do more with less time.
  • I think better. For some reason, I can never think quite as well sitting down as standing up.
  • I’m happier because I’m not stuck to the chair on my butt.

This isn’t to say that the method is perfect.

  • Standing does get a little tiring. To take the pressure off my feet I’ll shift my weight between my right and left legs by swaying my hips a little. Of course, I’ll also sit down and work like that for a while before switching back to standing when I feel restless again!
  • Stiff neck and lower back. This is especially true with writing while standing, but I think it is more to do with the surface being too low. It’s not a big problem though – doing a handstand or the wheel pose instantly relieves all my stiffness, not to mention giving me a boost in energy.
  • When I get tired of both sitting and standing, I walk. Granted, this only works with reading but it’s wonderful anyway. All I have to do is take my book, slowly waltz up and down the room/corridor, and feel totally refreshed.

Bottom line: mix it up. Sit, stand, walk…after all nothing is good in excess.


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2 Things I’ve Learnt From Playing the Piano

18 06 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly had an urge to play the piano again. I had decided to stop playing the piano seriously a few years back because the three hours of daily practice bored me, but I now had this desire to touch those keys again and hear the music flow from my fingers…

So I opened up the piano and sat down. I took out some Beethoven that I had played years before – sonata no. 8 – and started cautiously weaving my fingers around the notes. It was a little bumpy to start with, and I knew that my piano playing was a tad rusty, but soon enough, the sonata began to sound good enough to be called ‘music’.

It felt good. There I was at the piano, steadily feeling more and more confident as the notes slid over each other. And as I sat there playing, I thought: what have I learnt from all those years of playing the piano?

1. “You become a champion by fighting one more round.”                                                     As with anything, practice is what nails it 95% of the time. I was playing a Dutch card game with a friend once, and she said to me – “The game’s about luck, but also about how you play your luck”. The concept is similar enough with playing the piano – sure, a little talent helps, but it’s also about how you develop that talent. Playing the piano taught me that if I wanted to do something be better than other people, I had to do more than they did, practice more than they did, and fight one more round.

2. Work smart and work hard.                                                                                             Practicing three hours a day was ‘working hard’, but practicing three hours a day without a method wasn’t ‘working smart’. Playing the piano taught me to practice smart. There’s no point in playing the whole piece countless of times – it would be smooth but mediocre at best. The trick was to spot out parts that I had problems with and work on those in isolation. Then I would repeat that one part five times until I got it perfect each time, before moving on to the next problematic section. Now I use this method in a whole range of other areas: golf, running, studying etc. – and it works great.

Now I’m off to play some piano.


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Rise and Shine

16 06 2011

I took this picture of the famous Huashan Sunrise on a recent trip to China.

Early mornings…

One key reason why I wake up early is to enjoy movement.

1. I get to see things that others don’t. Early morning light is amazing. For me, this is definitely the most beautiful part of the day. The sun is creeping up slowly from behind the hill, and bars of gold and yellow paint give the surroundings a heavenly hue. I saw this little plant on on an early morning photo walk – the soft rays of the sun caught it from the side and gave it a golden halo. I wouldn’t have seen this if I had come even an hour later.

2. Breakfast. My favourite meal of the day for sure. Slices of soft, whole wheat bread with smooth peanut butter topped with slices of banana, coupled with some early morning reading – what more could I ask for? I wouldn’t have time for this indulgence if I stayed in bed.

3. Exercise. Early morning runs and bike rides. Yoga on the roof top – literally doing sun salutations. I kick start the day with exercise and it leaves me feeling pumped for the rest of the day.

4. Peace. It’s an amazingly peaceful feeling to walk around the campus/my home knowing that you’re the only one awake. In all the peace and quiet, I get to notice things that may otherwise be glossed over. It’s also a great time for thinking – I’m not distracted by all the other things that will pile up as the day moves along.

5. Head start. By the time everyone else is awake, I’ve already been up for a long while! I can pack so much more into the day and feel productive.


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R.I.P. Procrastination

13 06 2011

If achievement is movement, then procrastination is definitely a lack of movement.

So you might have guessed that I hate procrastination with a passion – this is how I like to move through my day and get things done.

  1. Write down a feasible to-do list for the day. For me, no more than five tasks.
  2. Not all tasks are created equal. I prioritise my tasks, with the top two being the most important. If nothing else, these are the two things I’ll finish by the end of the day.
  3. Work in bite size chunks. On a typical school day I will have two 2 hour working slots. When I start to work, I tell myself that this is all the time that I have – so I’d better concentrate and get moving!
  4. Every 30 minutes I take a short power break. (Kind of like the 30-10 hack from zenhabits) Walk around. Breath. Do a handstand. Jump. Then it’s back to work.
  5. At the end of the two hour slot I take an extended break. I go for a run, or dinner followed by a nice walk, or whatever else I feel like.
  6. After I finish up my second two hour time slot, I stop working. We could all carry on forever, but what’s the point? Go and do something else, and come back to it fresh tomorrow.
  7. Before I go to sleep I review my to-do list. I cross out what I’ve done, and carry over to the next day’s list what I haven’t done.

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