- Sauvik Biswas - https://sauvikbiswas.com -

All that have defined the first half of my 30s

I. Health and Nutrition

In August 2011, I was out of college. I was also in a terrible state. Most of my twenties was spent curating quite a few bad habits. I had completely destroyed my circadian rhythm. In addition to that, heavy intake of processed and junk foods—with no fixed food timings—had caused fatty liver. I did not pay much heed to my body. That trekking trip to Dzongri-La [1] should have given me a heads up but I was too occupied with other stuff to even notice. Later that year, I started working on a job as well as playing shows in and around Bangalore. Physically, it was a taxing situation but the enjoyment of both the occupations kept me going. Health was not even a priority. I ate whatever I could get my hands on. I grew fatter. Any more and I would have been obese.

Sometime in early 2014, Nitesh Nandy—my college friend—asked me to join him for a backpacking trip [2] that he wanted to do during the December holidays later that year. He clearly warned me that I wouldn’t be able to do it in the shape I was in. If I wanted to travel with him and enjoy the trip, I had to get fitter. He had himself lost a lot of weight in the past couple of years and had better endurance and stamina than what I had seen of him during the college days. I needed an entry point.

Enter a blog called Nerd Fitness [3]. More than exercise, I was hooked onto the analysis of food. The discussion on sugar and easily-digestible carbohydrates is what opened my mind. Back in 2014, Steve Kamb—the author of the blog—was a big proponent of the paleo diet. With the help of another blog, Mark’s Daily Apple [4], I started following paleo diet as closely as possible. Rewiring my brain (more than my tastebuds) was hard. I had to convince myself that I did not need so much of rice or roti to survive. I replaced most of those easily-digestible carbohydrates with large bowls of cooked vegetables. One of the key challenges I faced was to adapt those instructions to the ingredients available in my local market. I soon found out that it was not impossible. What supported the dietary aspect of paleo was the accessibility of cheap, local vegetables and lean meat. I was still cooking the traditional Bengali/Indian way.

Mark Sission (left)—author of Mark’s Daily Apple—and Steve Kamb (right)—author of Nerd Fitness.

I started going to the gym. It was a filthy, ill-maintained place that smelled of a chicken coop. The only reason I did not go to an expensive place was because I was unsure of whether I wanted to continue gymming in the long run.

By the end of the year, I was visibly fitter. I managed to keep up with Nandy (for most parts) during the trip. Even to this day, I fondly look back on the trip. It marks an important milestone in my life. I learned the ABCs of travelling. It was also the first trip where I decided to systematically document my travels. Compared to the Dzongri experience five years ago, this was a much more enjoyable endeavour. I was hooked to hiking and travelling.

The decision to not go to an expensive gym turned out to be a good one. In the last five years, I have never paid too much for a gym. I never found it enjoyable. Instead, I started to enjoy long distance cycling [5].

Subsequent refinements to my food intake came from two books. The first one being Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life [6] by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber. This book is scientifically grounded and explains non-inflammatory diet the way a doctor would. To this day, this book serves me as a guide. Later I came across Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma [7]. It opened my eyes towards how modern society procures its food. It’s report on the whole industrial method of creating a simple dish on one’s plate—the focus of the first third of the book—made me rethink of what I had in my kitchen. I started reading labels of packaged stuff I picked up from the supermarket. I had a new notion of what processed food meant. One by one, I got rid of most processed sauces, cheese and instant ingredients.

Dr. David Sevan-Schreiber lived on for 20 more years after his diagnosis of cancer.
Michael Pollan has written a lot of other books about food—Cooked, Botany of Desire.

One thing that I learned from this whole exercise is the necessity to incorporate systems into my daily routine. I came across a formal treatment in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit [8]. It was a one-time read and the only important takeaway for me was his theory on how habits work [9]. I have also found Zen Habits [10] and James Clear [11] to be good sources for building better habits even though I stopped following them once I had my food habits internalised.

II. Minimalism / Essentialism

About three years ago, I realised that my life was a huge clutter. It was also reflected in my surroundings. My house was in a mess. My mind was in a bigger mess. I had stuff from my college days that I had not used at all. There were these plastic containers that I had stopped using once I started paying attention to my food; there were books that I did not want anymore; and paraphernalia pertaining to hobbies that occupied space in my house yet I had no time or priority to indulge in.

My first exposure to a viable solution came from some podcast and a subsequent TEDx talk by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Together, they run a blog called The Minimalists [12]. I voraciously read through all of their entries. Their methodology was extreme—and for sure gave me some quick wins—but it was hard to follow in reality. I have read an e-book version of their work Everything That Remains [13] (which is just a reformatted version of the contents of their blog) as well as watched their movie—Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things.

While I loved the principles behind the movement, there was something that bothered me. Watching a couple of blogs on people who had embarked on a journey of minimalism, I realised that they were all from an affluent society. Many replaced their functional items with something that matched the pale-palette aesthetics of the minimalist movement. Activities like 30-day decluttering challenge made no sense to me.

Enter Marie Kondo with her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up [14]. It’s a different take on the concept but isn’t a radical one. Her book mostly focuses on a systematic way of decluttering. I was partially successful in implementing her method. By and large, her method focuses a lot on clothing and books. I had very few of the former and quite a lot of the latter. All I could get rid of were my old clothes that were too big for me (I had lost quite a lot of weight owing to my new food habits.) and some ten percent of my books—mostly some old novels and self-help books. I still have a gigantic bookshelf filled with comics and graphic novels. I had also bought another book by a Japanese guy on the same day—A Monk’s Guide to A Clean House & Mind [15]. These two books helped me get rid of a lot of useless stuff from my kitchen.

Marie Kondo has created an empire out of her methodology and has even starred in her own TV show. I have watched a couple of episodes. I did not like them.
I came to know that Matsumoto-san has an MBA from ISB Hyderabad.

Monk’s Guide… became an extremely useful resource when I got rid of my maid sometime in early 2018. She was not very punctual and I had to work around her timings to have my morning chores done. Within few months of firing her, I realised that I still had more stuff that I could take care of. It wasn’t minimalism that I was aiming for but essentialism. Decluttering and reduction has now become a constant process in my life. Needless to say, I struggle a lot.

During this process of decluttering, I had to relook at all the hobbies I had gotten myself into. Over a period of two years, I managed to consciously decide that I wouldn’t be pursuing three hobbies—programming, gaming and painting. I gave away all the related paraphernalia to people (mostly colleagues and friends) who were actively involved in those hobbies. I am still involved in music, writing, travelling, cycling and reading books. As of today, these are manageable outside my working hours. For some of the things I have borrowed a page from Ankit Mitra—a musician friend from Kolkata. I try to address them in batches, rotating my attention in a seasonal fashion.

The discussion would not be complete without an allied subject—Digital Minimalism [16]. The idea was proposed long back by Cal Newport in his blog (even though the book came out last month). I must have come across his blog sometime in 2015. I managed to follow his advice and get off from almost all forms of social media [17]. Being an early adopter of these platforms helped. I was already saturated with the exposure.

Cal Newport has written two other books. I have even recommended his book—Deep Work—to a colleague of mine who wanted to take up a career in a niche technology.

My digital decluttering is still not done yet. There are still a few addictions that I am working on.

III. FI/RE and Work

My foray into the whole minimalist movement led me to brush against the FI/RE movement—Financial Independence/Retire Early. A college friend of mine suggested that I read Early Retirement Extreme [18] by Jacob Lund Fischer. I did not buy his book. Just like most of the other people, his point of view and methodology is laid down well on his blog [19]. He took Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin’s idea [20] and pumped it up with steroids. If you are up for it, why don’t you try his twenty-one-day challenge?

Jacob Lund Fischer is one of those guys whose extreme approach might be helpful to someone considering FI/RE but has a lot of inertia.

It wasn’t until I came across the FI/RE blog of Pete Adeney—who writes under the psudonym of Mr. Money Moustache [21]—that I could truly ease into the idea. In fact, a lot of actions that he promoted were stuff that I truly believed in—simple living, bicycling (and the hidden cost of cars), hacking DIY solutions to daily problems, and anti-consumerism in general. As of today, there are quite a few FI/RE bloggers who focus on slightly different variations of the same topic and its implementation in their own lifestyle, which are quite varied—like J.L. Collins [22] with his stock market approach, or Jillian Johnsrud [23] with her extreme lifestyle-design-centric approach.

There is a reason why the movement has two names. Some people, like me, do not want to retire at all. It’s financial independence that matters so that I can open up to the possibility of meaningful work. I have not thought too deeply about what I want to do in the long-term. Maybe that’s something that I should focus on in the next half of my thirties. While travelling in Garhwal Uttarakhand [24] and reflecting back on my work-life, I understood that what I was doing at work was a cul-de-sac—a dead end—in the Indian ecosystem.

I came across a post on Linkedin that talked about Chandramouli Venkatesan’s Catalyst [25]. His career has been primarily in the Indian private-sector which is why his ideas felt more relevant to what I was doing. After a deep introspection that lasted for a couple of months, I switched my work profile. I am now reading Ray Dalio’s Principles [26]—a much more sophisticated and a slightly more abstract take on the subject. For me, it is more of a workbook that requires a few years of analysis and implementation.

I often recommend Chandramouli Venkatesan’s book for most newcomers who would want to approach their work in a systematic way. However, it may not be relevant for someone in his 30s pursuing a technical path.
I wouldn’t recommend this book as the entry point to life and work management. It works too much on abstraction. However, people who love abstraction would find this book invaluable.

I must admit that as of today, I have not thought through the whole FI and work well enough. It requires a lot of work on my part.

Looking back

I believe that in the last five years, I have gone through a transformation that had less to do with external environment. It was definitely so in my twenties where I had to adjust to a different environment of hostel and university life. This one in my thirties is more intrinsic in nature. I wrote in two earlier blogs on [27] decluttering [28] that it was a work in progress. It is still a work in progress. These are things that do not have end goals. Instead, they are exercises that are helping me understand myself and what my value system is. There isn’t a hard answer. The philosophies that appeal to me might not even be applicable to others.

I am sure that I would start following more authors, bloggers and thought leaders while discarding some of the ones that I have followed in the past. I wouldn’t know what it’ll be when I hit forty. Maybe in another five years…

A trip to Pondicherry on a Summer weekend [29]
Commentary on Palestine by Joe Sacco [30]