All posts by Mercy Ojwang'-Kinyua

Education & Human Capital Enthusiast - Mentor - Productivity Geek - Lifelong Student Of Disruption & Innovation

How I improved my productivity by changing my sleep habits

I’ve always admired people who can sleep less than five hours and seem to function. I’ve always thought that the people who have trained themselves to sleep for such few hours accomplished more than I possibly could, as I sleep for at least 7.5 hours daily. To be honest, I average 8.5-9 hours.

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I’ve tried the whole I’m-gonna-sleep-for-four-hours-and-then-hit-the-ground-running thing, but it has never worked for me. Sure, on the first day I will feel like Superwoman, but by the second day I am a zombie. Even with the tons of coffee.

So what does research tell us about sleep? The National Sleep Foundation released the results of a study that took over two years to complete and offered the following recommendations:

For healthy individuals with normal sleep, the appropriate sleep duration for newborns is between 14 and 17 hours, infants between 12 and 15 hours, toddlers between 11 and 14 hours, preschoolers between 10 and 13 hours, and school-aged children between 9 and 11 hours. For teenagers, 8 to 10 hours was considered appropriate, 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults, and 7 to 8 hours of sleep for older adults. (Excerpt from the National Sleep Foundation report published in the Sleep Journal. Read full report here.)

Basically, as an adult, I need to spend a third of my day asleep (validation of my sleep!).

Reseach also shows that some of the costs of insufficient sleep include:

  • Physical maladies such as obesity, headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal issues, liver disorders, slowed metabolism, among others;
  • Occupational injuries such as crashing motor vehicles or having near-misses;
  • Reduced productivity in the form of impaired cognitive and motor skills, making unsound decisions, giving muddled presentations, trouble learning, easily distracted, weakened social skills, missed work days due to health concerns, among others.

Some say that a sleep deprived person (one getting 5 or less hours of sleep) are akin to those who drink and drive above the legal limit.

So, what are some things that one can do to encourage better sleeping patterns?

  • Set a bedtime routine and stick to it. This includes winding down at least one hour before your bedtime by switching off all electronics. You could drink a cup of herbal tea while listening to some soft music.
  • Create an environment that encourages sleep – basically comfortable, quiet and dark.
  • Exercise for 20 minutes daily to ensure good fatigue, which contributes to deep sleep.

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Lessons

Someone once told me that you will forever be in a situation until you learn the lesson in it. I look back at my life and try to reflect whether I have learnt all my lessons, as there is nothing as frustrating as feeling as though you are stuck in a senseless rut. As I ponder, I remember some of my trying moments in life and wonder how I even managed to get out alive. Situations in which you wish you could curl up and die. Betrayals and lies that run so deep you feel like you could never possibly recover from that blow.

The process seems to be the same. The shock, anger, and pain. The screaming and fighting. The disbelief and absolute denial that someone you love could ever hurt you in such a manner. Then the tears come. You weep like your heart would break. The apologies and self-absolution. “Oh my God” and “It wasn’t me”.

The tears finally run dry, and there you are. Spent, but no closer to the truth. Your brain begins its feeble attempt at rationalizing the whole issue. Your heart cowers every time the mind speaks, afraid of getting hurt again. It’s at this point you look in front of you and realize that you are at a junction. To your left lies the truth. Investigations, so to speak. Harsh words exchanged. The truth must out, so help me God. “Silence, dear heart of mine! You are too biased to be involved.” I find out the truth. But what do I do with it?

The other road, the one to my right, looks less trodden. Why? I ask myself. It is the road of blind faith; the road that lets go with no question. It is the path that demands of you absolute faith – sometimes more than that the mind can have. It speaks to the heart, and the heart listens. The mind rejects all notions that the road suggests; it is, after all, contrary to what it believes. The heart responds gladly, for it believes in the goodness of mankind. And after contemplating, after fighting the battle between mind and heart, I am walking down the road. Some look at me and think I am foolish or naive for making this choice, but the road less traveled gives me peace.

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To join a startup or not?

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I’ve been asked severally what my thoughts are on working for/with a startup. In the course of my (relatively) short professional career, I have worked more for startups than the so-called established institutions. Both types of institutions provide their merits: startups offer an environment where innovation is key for success in every aspect of the operation, partly due to limited resources. You have an opportunity for making substantial impact, and greater appreciation all round. The work environment tends to be more relaxed. The learning curve is steep. Flexibility. Stock options. The list goes on. Established institutions work better and more smoothly due to structures having been put in place. The pay tends to be better. There is more job security. Time to productivity is usually less rigid compared to a startup. There are more perks offered.

That being said, if you are considering a job in a startup, I believe the following are some pertinent questions to ask before making the leap:

  1. Start with why: According to Simon Sinek, Your Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do What you do.  If your reasons do not align with the opportunity, it is likely that you will not be happy. Check your motivation also against your personal values. Your core values will determine whether joining a startup, or a particular startup, would be a great move.
  2. Who are the founders and what is their story? Learning more about the founder(s) of a startup can go a long way in cluing you on the motivation behind the company. Check for past work history, successes and failures, education background, awards won, check out their web presence, follow them on social media, learn more about the history of the startup itself and any other strategy you may employ to learn more about the startup. All these will be very helpful when you need to make a decision on whether to take the leap or not.
  3. Where is the money coming from and how long can it sustain the business? What business model is in play? Are they donor-funded? If there is funding in place, what type is it? How much runway does the organization have before it runs out of money? What is the plan for that? What is the current monthly revenue?
  4. Do they offer stock options and what is their vesting schedule? Many startups are using stock options as a way to attract, retain and motivate employees. Many individuals have become millionaires through stock options in companies like Facebook, Google, and Whatsapp. The concept of stock options is that it is attractive, not just for the perceived monetary value, but also for the sense of ownership it gives an employee. Of course for this to make sense, you must believe that the company will succeed.
  5. What is my role in this startup? Due to the nature of startups being an all-hands-on-deck kind of place, your exact role can blur with time. It is very important to establish what you are expected to deliver on early enough. A startup, as I mentioned earlier, is a place that allows for great impact and great appreciation. The downside of this is that you not delivering on your mandate (whether you even know your mandate or not) is glaring.

At the end of the day, no amount of due diligence will guarantee a startup’s success or failure. I believe a startup is an incredible place to learn, grow and diversify your experiences in ways that an established company may not allow, and present you with opportunities down the line.

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My favorite productivity tools: 2017

As a fan of productivity, I try to research and experiment with tools that I come across, in the hopes of learning more and upping my game. There are those which I instantly fell in love with; others exhausted me for various reasons. Without much further ado, here are my top 3.

  1. Todoist: I am still not sure how I managed to survive without this simple, minimalist, task manager that packs quite a number of features. I mean, I was so hooked onto it after three days of experimenting that I immediately upgraded to the premium version (USD 28.99 per annum)! It is available across a number of platforms (something that is very important to me), it has great features at the basic level and its premium version is very competitive among other similar apps.
    Todoist lets you create projects, in which you have your tasks and sub-tasks. These project s can be color-coded for visual reference. The tasks and sub-tasks can have due dates, and you can assign task priorities on four levels for each of them. The basic version offers up to 80 projects with a maximum of 5 collaborators in each project.
    The premium version, in addition to the above features, offers task labels and reminders, comments and file uploads, the ability to add tasks via email, iCal synchronization, notifications and project templates. The projects available are up to 200 with up to 25 users in each.
    These are just a few of the features available on Todoist. For me, though, my favorite feature is the short-cuts available on Todoist. Once you understand them, they make life so simple. For example you can type “#” to bring up your projects, “q” to input a task, “@” tags an individual in a project, or writing catch phrases like “tomorrow” or “every 2nd Monday” which Todoist will translate as due dates and file them accordingly. So to remind my colleague to send the budgeting report next week on Wednesday I could hit the letter Q on my keyboard to bring up the Quick Add Task, type something like “#Work (to add it to the Work project or ‘folder’) @Michael to send budget report Wednesday 9.30 am”, and Michael will see the assignment in his work folder and the reminder set.
    Once you have added your tasks, you can choose to view them in different ways, like Today, Tomorrow, or By Project. You can also customize how to view by searching in the quick find bar “overdue” or “next 10 days”.
    As you check-off your tasks, you gain Karma points (premium feature). Karma points basically show you how productive you are. These are awarded based on how many tasks you complete daily and weekly (target can be adjusted in the settings). The more Karma you gain, the higher you progress through the levels.
  2. RescueTime: This is by far one of the best tools for productivity (in my humble opinion). On the website, it is described as a tool that “helps you understand your daily habits so you can focus and be more productive”. RescueTime runs quietly in the background, tracking the time spent on various applications. It then gives daily and weekly dashboards on how your time was spent, ranging from very distracted to very productive. RescueTime can be customized; for example, I changed my email to distracting to minimize the amount of time I spend dealing with emails and I track my productivity between 8 am and 6 pm.
    Each week, I receive a summary of how my time was spent, with a productivity score and how many hours have been logged in total. I can also set daily goals to help improve my productivity and keep me on track. I also have downloaded the app onto my phone and use it to track my mobile usage.
    Premium features ( include the ability to turn off distracting websites for periods of time, receive daily highlights, create notifications and track offline activities. The premium version also offers more robust reports that are unlimited (the basic version offers three month reports). This, however, comes at a (pricey) tag of USD 72 per year or USD 9 per month.
  3. IFTTT: IFTTT simply means “If This, Then That” and is pronounced “Ift” (like lift, but without the l). Their slogan is “Do more with the services you love.” IFTTT has recipes, which are basic instructions that trigger an event if a certain action takes place. For example you can activate a recipe that sends certain emails to your OneNote. Or you could save your exercise data from your Fitbit to your OneNote. Or save photos that you are tagged on Facebook. There are so many recipes that you could activate and use, or your could make your own. I so far have never had the need to make any.

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2017 Integrity Report

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Wow! What a year 2016 was! This was a year of growth in unexpected ways, extreme stretch, tears, and eventual peace. It was the Year of Conflict professionally and personally. When I look at what I set out to achieve in my 2016 Integrity Report, I am amazed at how little I ticked off from that list. That’s not to say that I did not learn or achieve; far from it. I am just humbled by the fact that lessons sometimes do not come from the places you’d expect.

Lessons learnt from 2016

  1. Always have a road map for everything. I have made the Integrity Report a ritual that I do at the very beginning of the year to allow me to plan my coming year, and to evaluate the wins, losses and lessons of the previous year. I am also keeping a journal that I regularly update and track each goal. In addition to the Integrity Reports, I have diarized quarterly check-points in my calendar. These check points are half-day meetings with myself in which I take stock of what, according to my Integrity Report, I have accomplished, and what I need to do in the coming quarter.
  2. Always be flexible. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the things that happened in 2016 changed my course. I learnt that flexibility is key to managing your goals. By flexibility I do not mean that you change your goals every time you encounter resistance or obstacles. Rather, it is the realization that while your goals may be cast in stone, the strategy to achieve them is not. If a strategy is not working, move on to the next one.

    The way to achieve our goals is to hold them tightly and our strategies loosely.
    Megan Hyatt Miller

  3. Sleep is your best friend, just like Google. I have consciously been trying to average 7 hours of sleep daily. I cannot begin to explain to you the energy that I have and how I no longer experience the slump in the afternoon like I used to. I also have reduced my coffee intake to only one a day (just because I love the taste of coffee) and increased my intake of vegetable juices. This has significantly boosted my energy levels.
  4. Your greatest adversary can end up being your biggest champion. I am happy that the person who I felt tormented me the most in 2016 causing me sleepless nights and grief-filled days is now no longer on my case. I am not sure what changed, but I am glad it happened. I am not sure I can say we are best friends forever, but our relationship has definitely changed and the tension no longer exists.
  5. Having a close group of friends praying for you and standing in the gap for you when you are down is possibly one of the best things EVER! When I was struggling to wake up and go to work, or when I felt that I wanted to quit, these people encouraged me and prayed for me. And I made it. I survived it, and came out stronger. I also learnt a lot about myself and discovered levels of resilience I didn’t know I had in me.

2017

To be honest, this year’s Integrity Report does not differ that much from last year’s. Reason being, as I had inferred to earlier, I feel that I achieved a lot that was outside of what I had set to achieve. I would like to give this another go, and see where I am at the end of this year.

  1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?
    • Growth (devotion, trust, learning, habits, sacrifice, vision, love)
      • Am I building my relationship with God daily and trusting Him?
      • Am I living and working towards my personal vision?
      • Am I building habits that lead to continual improvement?
      • Am I sacrificing/doing what it takes for my dreams and values within the confines of all my values?
    • Servant Leadership (excellence, contribution, dependability, generosity, gratitude)
      • Am I contributing to the world or just consuming it?
      • Am I giving of my time and finances to others?
      • Am I celebrating what is right in the world?
  2. How will I living and working with integrity?
    • Devotion/Quiet time: I am faithfully going to read the Bible daily and spend some time praying and delving further into the Word.
    • Mindful eating and exercising: I am watching my portions and minimizing the junk food I eat. I am reducing the number of times I eat out. I am minimizing the amount of carbs I am consuming. I am swimming for 30 minutes thrice a week.
    • Coaching: I am spending time sharing productivity tips and other nuggets I have picked up with a group of individuals.
    • Keeping promises: I am keeping promises to myself and to others and do not commit to things that I will not see through.
  3. How can I set a higher standard?
    • Execute on my 2017 plan with more intention. This will form the blueprint of my year, rather than have ambiguous plans.
    • Continue to journal regularly to keep a track report of my progress so far. This will also help me know if my strategies are working, where I need to tweak and what I need to drop all-together.

 

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Of grey areas and straddling of fences…

Being different has always been the curse of the bold. Galileo Galilei was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633 when he defended heliocentrism, a theory that places the sun at the center of the universe. The Church forced him to recant on penalty of death rather than change antiquated notions.

In the world over, many communities believed and practiced FGM, given the importance given to virginity and an intact hymen. Waris Dirie was nearly crucified (metaphorically speaking) by her people (and others of the same beliefs) for running away, and eventually becoming UN’s Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. She still lives under the shadow of threats from fanatics who consider FGM a holy rite of passage.

There are many examples of bold people suffering because of speaking out littering the paths of history. Conformity has been glorified from time immemorial. Even in traditional Kenya there are proverbs and sayings that promote conventionalism as a way of being. Contemporary Kenya has perfected the art of toeing the line to the point where having an opinion or stating a clear stand seems irrational. After all, if everyone is doing it or saying it it must be right, right?

Grey area (n): an area, situation, etc., lacking clearly defined characteristics.

Grey areas have become a cesspool of everything “sensitive, delicate or socially offensive”. This is the place where we throw in anything that makes us feel anything from mildly uncomfortable to deeply offended. Abortion, gay rights, the ever-widening poverty gap between the rich and the poor, our failing education system; you name it and you cringe, it’s in there.

One could say that by not taking a stand, one is taking a stand. After all, I choose not to align myself with either camp because both have valid points (or none at all). But the danger here is that there will always be only one voice being heard: the voice of the majority which is not always right. And when the majority quieten down, there will be the deafening sound of silence from you and I who choose not to speak up or do something.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

I change, I grow, I change

So after indulging myself reading this fantastic blog, A Day in a Dog’s Life, I started really thinking about life. Michael’s post, “How to Pray for Dummies” got me contemplating about life, love, God and everything else in between.

Someone significant to me got me thinking about where I am today in every aspect. A lot has changed in my life. Change – I now look at it as a building block as opposed to positive or negative. For once, change to me is just that – change. It has affected profoundly who I am and what I am becoming, but I no longer beat myself up and try to measure myself against the impossible standards that exist in my mind.

I am still changing. I am still growing. I try to understand more. I try to feel more. And everyday is a gift that I appreciate. Living for the moment allows me to savor and taste every morsel of pleasure life has to offer. Enjoy every moment of bliss without regret. It was once said, never regret that which makes you smile. Wise words to live by.

And before I go to bed I ask myself, “What made you smile today? What made you laugh out loud, genuine delight shining on your face?” And I scribble something in my diary for me to later reminisce upon.