The Secret to Happy Productivity: Eat a Chocolate Frog

What’s the secret to happy productivity? Swallow a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. That’s right, a chocolate frog.

For most of us, there is something looming on our To Do list that we need to get done but keep putting off. Whether it’s the paper to write, the email to send, or the grant application to submit, these activities take us away from what we may more enjoyable, like frolicking in the sunshine, spending time with friends, or sometimes even staring at the wall. But alas, those less pleasant tasks will not disappear instead only grow bigger-- and uglier--the more we put them off.

At the Cambridge EnterpriseWISE conference, we were advised to think of these unpleasant tasks as frogs. You probably have a box of frogs. Some of them are bigger and nastier looking than others. The key to happy productivity is to start the day by picking the biggest, ugliest frog, staring at it meanly in the face, taking a deep breath, and gulping it down.

Didn’t that feel good?

Now everything else will seem sweet in comparison. Of course, practically speaking sometimes frogs are so large that you cannot handle them in a single gulp. You’ll need to break it down into parts and swallow a little piece every day. (Apologies if this has turned into a revolting metaphor.) Then sooner than you know it, that frog will be conquered.

That may last for a couple weeks, months, years, or even an entire lifetime. If you can keep it up, I applaud you. But sometimes we all crave a little sweetness and cannot bear the thought of an ugly frog first thing in the morning. One approach is to look at the chocolate lining, so to speak, of the unpleasant circumstance. Be grateful that you have Internet connection to send that email. Think long-term about the potential payoff from making that grant application today. Attitude change is one approach. Another is to insert fun activities like listening to music or treating yourself to coffee, while doing the activity. Whatever strategy works for you, there are ways to make that frog seem less unpleasant.

Follow this Harry Potter recommendation to eat a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. You will spend the rest of the day bouncing happily from your morning burst of productivity.

Why coffee tastes so bitter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA short poem about the bitter life of coffee.

Why coffee tastes so bitter

Because it is good for you

Some like it sweet

Some like it neat

Some leave it on the pot to overheat

But those who know coffee at its best,

Drink it black, fresh, and undressed

Because good coffee is purity

Pristine like clean water and rejuvenating like fresh air,

Rich like the colors of an artist’s palate,

Complex like emotions, from rage to compassion, from sorrow to love

Coffee is dark.

It sometimes makes me want to cry

                                                            or pray

                                                                        or sing

Because, for many, del café vivimos

Coffee is life.

Why coffee tastes so good 

Because it is bitter

© Madeline R. Weeks

Daydreaming at Dandelion

Daydreaming at Dandelion

Part I: March 3, 2013 How do you do it, I mean, how do you take the chocolate leap? Greg blinked. Just do it. You could start coming here on Saturdays to help with production, you know, to see how chocolate is made from bean-to-bar. I thought it was a crazy idea. I was already juggling two jobs, taking an online Biology course, and trying to pull together a Fulbright research proposal on coffee. Plus it was nearly a two-hour commute from the South Bay: bike to Caltrain, ride the train for an hour, then bike another couple miles to Dandelion. Nobody in her right mind would go through all that trouble just to satisfy the curiosity of learning how to make chocolate. And yet, here I was at it again. Curiosity to learn everything possible about chocolate got the better of me. In those short months I did not become a master chocolate maker. I did not learn the secret to making chocolate (except improving my ability to taste really good chocolate). What I did learn: the people who do make good chocolate are innovative, dedicated, and admirably modest. Many of them have other lives or had no prior experience working in chocolate. Having such tenacity to learn a completely new craft and the persistence to master it takes a certain personality. They have almost an obsessive, yet really adorable, dedication to the chocolate. There are dreamers and risk-takers at Dandelion. Greg quit his high tech job to “take the chocolate leap” and is now the cacao sourcing expert. The founders, Cam and Todd, started Dandelion literally in a garage as their second start-up company. The team has grown over the years. Part of the reason I kept coming back to Dandelion was to be part of this team of really smart people who are so happy doing the simple thing of making good chocolate. Not to mention their Mission hot chocolate, which is like Mexico and San Francisco together in a cup. Part II: May 3, 2014 Dandelion’s Mission hot chocolate is so good that it’s worth making a trip all the way from Mexico to San Francisco. At least that was my justification for treating my colleagues from Mexico to a pot of the rich hot chocolate. We were visiting the Bay Area on a coffee exchange surrounding the week of the Stanford Coffee Symposium (see blog). And Dandelion conveniently landed between our visits to Ritual and Four Barrel Coffee. They seemed to like the hot chocolate. It was sophisticated enough for people who normally drink coffee. At one point the CAFECOL director, Gerardo tried to test our server: “Do you know where chocolate is originally from?” “Nobody really knows for sure but there’s evidence of chocolate consumption tracing back to ancient Mexico,” was an appropriate reply. So the dream of bringing Mexico to the Mission and the Mission to my colleagues from Mexico really did come true. Part III: December 10, 2014 “Inside of this room, all my dreams become realities. And some of my realities become dreams” Willie Wonka chirped from the big screen. The showing of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was part of Dandelion’s 12 Nights of Chocolate series.  It conveniently landed around the dates of one of my visits back to the Bay Area from the UK. I am now studying at Cambridge University working on a Masters degree in Geography. Though this project builds upon fieldwork on coffee plantations in Mexico, I have not lost my original passion for chocolate. In fact, there could be some interesting cross-regional comparisons between chocolate and coffee. As my friend and I sipped our hot chocolates and munched on candy corn, I began to ponder these possibilities. Daydreaming at Dandelion will continue as the story continues to unfold…

Reflecting on a Fulbright Year

Receiving and Learning In reflecting on the past nine months as a Fulbright-García Robles scholar, it is hard to describe the countless events of this remarkable journey. Coffee has served as a medium of exchange—academically, personally, and professionally—in more ways than expected. In the academic sense, coffee is the central point of exchange between disciplines and academic institutions. I have been generously hosted by the Instituto de Ecología, A.C. (INECOL) in Xalapa, Mexico where working with two different research advisors—Dr. Robert Manson (Ecology) and Dr. Armando Contreras (Sociology) has transformed my disciplinary perspective and helped me to reflect upon my own academic background (Economics). Along with thinking more openly across disciplines I am also keener to seek collaborations across academic institutions. This year I have also received research advice from experts at the Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo and the Universidad Veracruzaña; collaborations that may be viewed as the start of long-term endeavors. In the professional sense, I have learned from working with colleagues at the Centro Agroecológico del Café, A.C. (CAFECOL), and their way of operating directly with the coffee producers in the region of Central Veracruz. Their efforts to promote high quality coffee in the region through the Oikos certification has involved interacting with regional coffee leaders, academic institutions, and buyers—both in Mexico and abroad—to connect the many components of the coffee supply chain. In the personal sense, living in the coffee growing communities during field visits has given me a newfound sense of humility and appreciation for the hard work put into each cup of coffee. Families have shared their beds, tortillas and stove-boiled coffee, and narratives of surviving through difficult years of low coffee prices. Most of all they have taught me deeper respect for traditions like ancestral knowledge of land management and their spiritual connections to the land. Giving Back These multiple exchanges have also instilled a sense of obligation to give back. While I recognize my limitations—or that of any individual—to singlehandedly revive the coffee industry in Mexico, there are small efforts that hopefully contribute to the larger equation. Academically: The inaugural Stanford Coffee Symposium on May 2, 2014 brought together researchers and industry experts from the U.S. and Mexico. It was a proud moment to be able to invite my colleagues from INECOL and CAFECOL to participate in the event. As two complimentary pieces we hosted a pre-symposium dinner for speakers and led a student-focused talk the day before (Please see adjoining Woods Institute media piece). Professionally: In the days surrounding the Stanford Coffee Symposium I organized a Bay Area professional exchange for CAFECOL to meet with representatives from Four Barrel Coffee, Ritual Coffee, and Front Coffee. The goal was to exchange perspectives from the coffee roasting to the coffee growing worlds and hopefully foster future relationships down the line. Personally: My own conversations about coffee now have a different flavor. I am more aware of the heterogeneity of coffee in terms of production and consumption. There is no single coffee experience, and there is hardly a single solution to tackling complex issues about sustainability and livelihoods. Overall this has allowed me to enter conversations with a more open mind yet also willingness to question the conventional and break the norm. Looking Forward In many ways, this is the beginning of a new approach to living and conducting research. It takes time to build research collaborations, gain trust within the communities, and understand different cultural contexts. These are not bounded activities but rather part of ongoing processes. Much of this Fulbright year has been about initiating relationship and embracing the unexpected opportunities that come with conducting research in Mexico. Though the Fulbright grant period formally concluded on the first of this month, I am staying in Mexico through the end of the Visa on an extended Social Engagement Grant to run workshops with the coffee growing communities.
La Hapa in Xalapa

La Hapa in Xalapa

I have a hapa way of doing things hybrid style. Food is one tangible instance where this plays out. As one way to learn about Mexican culture, I go to the markets and buy unfamiliar ingredients. This turns into a conversation with the vendor about how to cook that ingredient, or the different names it has depending on the region. Then I go back and prepare a dish based on the vendor’s recommendation and adjusted to my own cooking style. Sometimes it feels like I eat more Mexican food than my host family in the pure sense of ingredients. They shop at Costco and buy packaged ingredients that look identical to what we find in the States. People had warned me to bring American comforts like peanut butter. Ironically, one of my first shocks when I was introduced to my host family was the jar of Skippy’s on the dining room table. At the same time, they know far more about preparation methods and are showing me some of the regional dishes like caldo de pescado (a seafood stew with fish and crab) and chileatole (a spicy stew with potatoes, green beans, chicken or beef, and chile). They have been so generous to include me special occasions too, like a birthday celebration. We learn from each other: I bring the curiosity and the ingredients, and they bring generational knowledge of how to blend and prepare. The eating schedule is another compromise. One of my good poblano friends taught me the Mexican saying: “Desayunar como un rey, comer como un príncipe, cenar como un bendigo” (Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a beggar). This works well for my schedule. But the main meal in Mexico—lunch (“la comida,” which literally means “the food”) and is typically served in the mid-afternoon, between 2 and 4 pm. I am still figuring how to get around this one. The compromise is usually two breakfasts—the second being my version of lunch—and a late “la comida,” which is my version of dinner. But each day is so different that it’s a case-by-case basis of finding the best time based on company and other engagements for the day. Names, too, present me with a conundrum. My English name can be hard to pronounce in Spanish so a while back I took up the alternative name “María,” which has the nickname of “Marie” (subtle difference, shorter by one syllabus). I became accustomed to both. Now my research involves bi-lingual speakers; moreover, I need to use my English name more often for professional and official reasons. Yet “Madeline” is still not easy to pronounce in Spanish. So I took up a closer translation—Magdalena—and within a matter of days people started calling me “Magda.” ¡Aya! My ears perk up when I hear any of the four Spanish iterations or the English version.  And that’s only talking names in Mexico. I used to have the goal of completely assimilating to Mexican culture but have learned to embrace this hybrid version instead. Being already bi-racial gives me reason to seek the best of many cultures without trying to adopt everything. It’s fun to be a hapa! I should not try to hide this part of my identity. Hapa, and proud to be one, I am.
Mexican Independence

Mexican Independence

Today commemorates Mexico’s independence from Spain and the famous Grito de Dolores in 1821. Over here in 21st century Veracruz I am constructing my own grito (yell) concerning the downpours from Hurricane Ingrid, mosquitos, and frustrations over soggy laundry. All while contemplating this new independent life of my own. There are almost too many avenues to explore here. The moment I open my mouth and tell someone that I am studying coffee there are two reactions: (1) Where are you from? (2) Let me introduce you to aunt/uncle/neighbor that owns a coffee plantation/shop/company or is otherwise associated with the coffee industry. They see it as such great importance that I have come all this way to study coffee. It’s a compliment, really. But it is also a huge responsibility. The third question (which not always asked) is: What did you study? This is where I see my formal training in economics as a two-edged sword. There is a real need for solid analysis of the costs of production and market strategies. At the same time, coffee production in Veracruz holds great social and cultural importance, like preservation of local knowledge systems and household nutrition security. Attempting to look at this from a holistic, systematic approach has opened up doors for endless research avenues, people to meet, and places to visit. I am learning to prioritize by saying “No, gracias” to some offers while a wholehearted “¡Sí!” to others. The unstructured days are blissful when they come. I take these days to work, eat, exercise, and sleep according to when the mind and body are at their prime. Then there are also days when the schedule is completely out of my control. Bus rides, meetings, conferences, and even simple chores tend to take more time than expected. Or this gloriously chaotic weather dictates the day. Then there are the small choices of daily independence. I choose to cook and shop at the local market whenever possible. It is not to save money or time (in fact, doing so probably costs more in both senses). Rather, it helps me practice slow food in a non-research context. Coffee and chocolate alone do not constitute a balanced diet. It is an active choice to make the most of independent, unstructured lifestyle. I am still learning the art. Chocolate manages to sway me from coffee at times. And I am eager to dive into the core research. It seems like there is so much work ahead. Then I remind myself to think like a long-distance runner: one lap at a time. Ten miles feels a lot shorter when broken down into 15-minute increments.