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10 Habits for a Happier CSE Journey

At the Indosan-Nipponji Temple / Bodhgaya, Bihar

These are certain practices and concepts that I have found to be beneficial for my emotional, physical and spiritual health. I discovered all of these during the past 4 years as a Civil Services aspirant. I have been asked to share these on my blog so here it goes. Some of the advice here is very personal so just see what resonates with you.
I hope this helps you! :)

#1. Exercise

Exercise is about self-love. Exercise has many physical and emotional benefits that I don’t need to reiterate here. It doesn’t matter whether you pick up Yoga, Tai Chi, kickboxing or join a dance class. But it is imperative to get out of the house and do something that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, you will never make it a part of your lifestyle so pick something that suits your temperament. 20-30 minutes a day is all you need but do try to cultivate the discipline to just do it! See it as a part of your preparation.

I’ve been a couch potato all my life and I don’t think I have an athletic bone in my body. I hate the gym because it makes me feel like a lab hamster. So I stuck to Yoga. During my preparation, I joined a yoga class at 6:30 pm and those 30 minutes were my oasis of peace. You don’t have to lift weights or do something insane that makes you tired. Just STRETCH and BREATHE. Give your mind-chatter a break and leave the thoughts aside for that time. Try to be in the moment by cultivating mindfulness.

#2. Meditation

If there is one simple activity that has completely transformed my life for the better, it is meditation. After I flunked prelims twice, I am pretty sure that I was on the edge of a mental breakdown. I had never experienced failure in my life and so my ego simply freaked out. I didn’t feel like meeting people because I thought everyone would judge me to be a loser. My self-esteem took a hit and I could feel myself slipping away into negativity and depression. That’s when I realised that I have so much work to do with my mind. And not just for an examination but for life.

One day, I randomly googled “buddhist meditation retreats” and found an Introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita Meditation Centre, Mcleodganj. It’s a beautiful 10 day course in a monastery in Dharamshala away from the hustle-bustle of ambition and competition. Here, in an ambience of noble silence, you’ll get a chance to observe your own mind – all the attachments, aversions and desires that are ultimately your own mental constructs. Stories that we tell ourselves, basically. And stories that are not in alignment with objective reality or the way things actually are. Tushita really helped me get out of the negativity and depression.

Usually what we do when we are feeling something bad is that we escape that feeling. We reach out for our phone or talk to a friend or eat something. In the environment of noble silence, you’ll actually have a chance to go deeper into stillness and deconstruct your own emotions. You will discover that so much of the suffering that we put ourselves into is A) self-created and B) absolutely unnecessary. (Just to clarify, Tushita is a gadget free zone and you will not have your usual sensory distractions here. You will be asked not to talk to other course participants either.)

What meditation does is that it gives you a distance from your own thoughts and obsessive thinking patterns. An analogy that is often used is of a person sitting on a river bank. The river is your own mind. And it is sometimes peaceful, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes volatile, sometimes dark and heavy, sometimes over-excited. What the untrained mind does is that it jumps into the river and get submerged in what it is feeling or obsessively thinking. That feeling then becomes its reality and human experience. Meditation breaks that pattern. It helps you to have mental self-restraint and not drown in the river of emotions and thoughts.

How it helps with UPSC is that it will make you relatively more chilled out with the process. It will sharpen your memory and increase your concentration. And most importantly, you will become more patient, more positive and more at ease with the madness and uncertainty of it all.

I wish I could explain it better but then I don’t think anyone can explain meditation to you. You have to experience and realise it for yourself through your own practice. 5–10 minutes daily is all you need.

Having said that, meditation is not a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. It is simply a tool that will enable you to work with your own mind. It will allow you to channelize your mental energy into a direction that brings more joy and happiness into your life. But you have to make that effort. No one can walk the path for you.

From my own experience, I can tell you that going to Tushita was the ultimate game-changer for my personal and professional life. I don’t want to say more. Just go experience it for yourself.

Also, if you’re not into the whole Buddhist thing, you should try out Vipassana. I haven’t done Vipassana but I have heard that it is much more emotionally intense than Tushita. Also, if meditation retreats are not your thing, just basic pranayama would be a great addition to your study-days. If you’re a complete beginner and like all things new-agey, you can check out headspace. It’s an app and they have cute animations. If you’re willing to explore meditation in a substantive and transformative way, chuck the app and sign up for a Himalayan retreat. You won’t regret it.

Recommended BookList:

  1. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill — Mathieu Ricard
  2. Why Meditate — Mathieu Ricard
  3. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — 14th Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
  4. On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters — Mathieu Ricard
  5. How to Meditate — Kathleen Mcdonald

#3. Positive Affirmations and Positive Visualisations

Visualising my success and believing in my success is something that I did regularly during my third attempt.

For my positive affirmations, I had flashcards with sentences like:

“I am a diplomat with the Government of India.
I am in the Foreign Service.
I live in the present.
I am kind and compassionate.” etc.

I usually said these out aloud first thing in the morning or 5 minutes before going to bed.

I have had the logo of the Ministry of External Affairs as my phone desktop for around 3 years now.

“You are in the Foreign Service” has been there on the door of my study room for about a year and a half now.

Before my Mains, I visualised myself finishing all my papers on time. After my Mains, I visualised myself opening the PDF and finding my roll-number. These are just 5–10 second visualisations that you can do anytime during the day.

I am not espousing pseudo stuff like The Law of Attraction. You have to work really really hard and outsmart your competition. But what positive affirmations and visualisations do is that they take care of you emotionally and mentally so that you can give your absolute best to your daily routine.

I think I just convinced myself that the IFS would happen for me. That was my way of putting in the hard work and staying stable. It helped me remain positive and not waste time by dwelling on doomsday scenarios.

Your only job during civil services preparation is to work hard and stay positive. That’s all you can do. So just let go of the negativity.

I’m being totally honest here. Never once in my third attempt did I think — “What if I don’t clear the exam? What will I do? Where will I go? How will I face the world? What will XYZ think? ”

I never thought about these dumb things in my third attempt. I tried my best to enjoy the process and kept myself busy and happy.

My advice to everyone writing CSE — don’t just hope, wish or dream that you’ll be an officer one day. BELIEVE that it will happen and get back to work!

credit: Gary Vaynerchuck

#4. Scheduling and Waking Up Early!

I have already spoken about scheduling and time-blocking in the post on time management for CSE. Again, this one is a gamechanger.

Just to reiterate, have specific, time-bound and realistic goals and then create a system that enables you to achieve at least 70% of what you have scheduled. This is a recipe for happiness, positivity and success.
Don’t study randomly. Keep yourself at the steering wheel so that you’re driving this process for yourself. Invest good time and energy into devising a study plan. Keep your plan flexible, give yourself frequent breaks and take it easy – one day at a time.

Also check out the post on time management by Petal Gahlot, IFS (AIR 96, CSE 2014) on her blog:
Her posts really inspired me during prep and I can’t wait to meet her and thank her in person :)

I have personally found that waking up early and sleeping on time is a good way to keep yourself happy and productive.

Waking up early did two things for me. Firstly, I just felt good about myself. It made me feel mentally stronger and more disciplined. Secondly, the morning hours are your golden hours when you can get a lot of tough work out of the way. Your focus and concentration is at its peak. The first 3–4 hours after you wake up are very high quality hours and shouldn’t be wasted. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to become a night owl especially because Mains papers are scheduled from 9–12 and 2–5 pm.

During my prep days, I woke up around 7 am, washed my face and brushed my teeth, got my coffee and bottle of water, did my positive affirmations and started studying by 7:30. I would keep the required books and the schedule for the day on my study desk the night before.

I wrapped things up around 11:00 pm. As I said earlier, I cannot wake up early on my own unless I have to catch a flight. So I told my mom or dad to wake me up with coffee. They did this every morning without fail during Mains. I never tried to wake up at 5 am in the morning because I know that it’s just not going to happen.

Don’t judge yourself. Just know yourself.

#5. Journaling- Let it all out and give yourself closure

Since the civil services process is primarily about self-study, you have to be your own best friend. It’s a solo-dolo process. Most of the time, the only company you will have is your own self.

The monkey mind loves travelling! When I was studying, a lot of emotional garbage from the past would come up. All of this obviously wastes a lot of time by destroying your focus and concentration, but it is also so bad for your peace of mind.

Usually what we do in day to day life is that we just go out, party, watch movies to escape certain uncomfortable feelings and memories. In CSE preparation, you can’t escape. You have to sit at a desk and study. So the only choice you have is to just be your own emotional therapist and give yourself closure. I have literally journalled my way to closure during my civil services preparation. You don’t need to go to a psychologist. Write whatever you are feeling — good and bad — in a journal. Get it out of your system. Cultivate perspective and positivity.

We’ve all been through bad experiences in the past and life will not necessarily give you the answers that you are seeking. That is what I have learnt. Give those answers to yourself and incinerate the negative chapters of your life with the fire of wisdom.

Live in the present and firmly move ahead.

Recommended book:
1. Destructive Emotions and How We Can Overcome Them — Daniel Goleman and HH The Dalai Lama

#6. Having a Mentor

Mentors are older, wiser people who have personal and professional traits that you absolutely admire and want to inculcate in your life. I was fortunate enough to meet my mentor after my second attempt.

Back in 2015, I went to her office for some work. We liked talking to each other and exchanged numbers. Our association started off as a friendship. We bonded over writing and she offered to be my writing coach. I sent her some drafts of my articles and then we started meeting more frequently for coffee. And eventually it became this amazing relationship. She is now my Godmother and my best friend.

This advice is a bit tricky because there is no way to actually go hunt for a mentor. I believe that mentors enter your life when the time is right. Your mentor can be anyone you have a rapport with — an elder sibling, a professor from college, a friend’s father, your mom’s best friend, etc. And it’s a relationship that evolves very naturally. Since your mentor has been through what you’re going through and has a long-term view of life, they can really guide you. In my own case, my mentor didn’t help me with the specifics of UPSC preparation but helped me emotionally and spiritually. That was very important for me when I was stumbling and struggling.

I don’t want to elaborate much on this but you get the gist. Having said that, you don’t need a mentor to clear UPSC or to win at life. People achieve all sorts of things without a mentor. But talking from my own experience, having an unofficial mentor has helped me a lot.

#7. Spirituality

(This is very personal so feel free to ignore me on this.)

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have discovered my faith in my 20s. The big trigger for this was Tushita Meditation Centre, Mcleodganj. This is where I go for refuge and happiness. I have had some amazing spiritual experiences that have given me so much perspective on my transitory and fleeting human existence.

When it comes to faith, question everything! This is not about being dogmatic or orthodox or believing in superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Discard everything that doesn’t fit with your own experience or your rationality. But please with an open mind, explore the spiritual dimension of the human experience. Read many books and learn as much as you can. And take the best out of every spiritual tradition and try to practise it in your life. This will keep you more rooted and relaxed and make you more emotionally intelligent, not just for CSE, but for life.

Recommended Book-List:

  1. The Dhammapada — translation by Gil Fronsdal
  2. The Way of the Boddhisattva — Shantideva
  3. The Bhagvada Gita — S. Radhakrishnan
  4. The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind — Lama Yeshe
  5. Wisdom Energy — Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche
  6. Lion’s Roar: a website on Buddhist teachings

Basically anything by Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tenzin Palmo, Robina Courtin, Mathieu Ricard. They are excellent teachers and advanced meditators so their discourses are amazing!

^There are many other amazing books out there but these are the ones that I have read and found to be inspiring.

#8. Emotional Intelligence and Grit

These are concepts I learnt during the Foundations of Leadership course with Dr. Dwight Jaggard at the Young India Fellowship. EI and grit are the two things you need for any long-term goal, not just CSE. (Unfortunately, our education system does nothing on this front.)

Recommending two documents that you can read in your free time. You don’t have to read the whole thing but just understand the key message.

Also check out “What Makes a Leader?” by Daniel Goleman published in the Harvard Business Review. This is very important! Do read this one. I’m unable to attach it because of some copyright issue.

#9. Be Cordial and Kind but Be Exclusive

Be very selective about the people you hang out with, especially during the CSE preparation phase. This isn’t about judging and castigating people who have priorities that are different from yours or who end up making different lifestyle choices.

All I’m trying to say is that if you want to be your best self and make your own unique best contribution to the world, define your boundaries. Know what you stand for and get out of high-school peer pressure mentality. Surround yourself with people who are hard-working and kind and consciously choose the kind of energy you are inviting into your life. Trust me, that energy will rub off on you. You will end up working harder — not in a competitive way but in a happy and inspired way.

Obviously, it’s not like I went around calculating and manipulating the kind of people I needed in my life to clear CSE. That is just silly and mean. Friendship is an organic, spontaneous experience. Having said that, I personally think that it’s so important to not be dragged into associations that are meaningless. There are certain friendships and affiliations that are just dead-weight from the past and have no value for your present or future. And there are certain friendships that can be triggers for certain habits that you don’t want in your UPSC phase — like partying.

Like I keep saying, know yourself! Know your priorities. Have the maturity to say good-bye.

Spend your free time with people who are on the same emotional and intellectual wavelength as you. People who understand the phase that you’re in. Obviously, be friendly and kind to everyone but be very exclusive when it comes to your inner circle/core group.

When you’re preparing for CSE, people will not necessarily wish well for you and that’s a fact. Stay in touch only with happy and positive people — the kind of people who are secure in themselves and lift others up.

Trust me, it does make a difference.

#10. Fb, Snap, Insta are crap

(This is my very personal take on social media and not something that I am trying to impose on anyone. Feel free to ignore me on this :)

It’s a fact that our culture is steeped in a visual narcissism of sorts. Platforms like insta, snapchat and facebook have become a barometer of how successful, popular or attractive a person is. It’s a constant energy drain and such a futile game to play. It baffles me how excited people are to hand over their privacy and spend hours and hours looking at other people’s photographs.

But that’s just me. I am no one to dictate what you should do with your CSE prep. If you’re social media savvy and it doesn’t distract you or piss you off in any way, then go right ahead. But in my humble opinion, one should try to stay away from social media during preparation. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat breed envy and comparison. These are designed to be addictive. They create this false intimacy that totally lacks the human connect. They feed your mind with information that you just don’t need.

The ideal scenario is to remain disciplined and have perspective about social media. But in case you are prone to wasting your time and subconsciously comparing yourself with others, it is better to step out of this kafkaesque circus that has become of our lives. You cannot afford to know or see anything during your preparation that ticks you off or makes you feel that your life is at a standstill. And trust me, when you’re in the civil services process, even the silliest of things will get to you. Because you will be at your most emotionally vulnerable state.

Join social media once you’re a diplomat, administrator or a police officer. Use it professionally to reach out to people and help others. Obsessive personal usage of social media is simply avoidable. Stay in touch with people who matter through what’sapp. Or better still, call them!

I deliberately choose to live my life more meaningfully and that has helped me not just with CSE but in every sphere of my life. What’sapp is somewhat manageable during preparation and that is the only thing I would recommend to aspirants (though I’d ask you to get off even what’sapp 2–3 months before Mains.)

Having said all this, I’d like to say that it’s not that I’m this sorted person. People who clear civils have their bad days too. There were days during my prep when I was totally demotivated and demoralised. There were days when I just didn’t want to exercise or meditate. I made silly excuses to cancel my yoga class. I should have and could have meditated but I didn’t. I chose to waste time instead. This is all very very normal. We are all a work in progress so don’t ever be hard on yourself. Change is about tweaking your life in small ways and putting in the effort to be consistent. Understand yourself and be patient with yourself. Take it one day at a time.

And love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Counsel and motivate yourself.

Don’t feel that you are a hopeless case. Because you’re not!

Consciously try to inculcate these happy habits I have spoken about. Trust me, you will find that overtime, the ‘bad lazy negative low’ days will become less frequent. If you feel demotivated once in 5 days, you will find that overtime, you will feel demotivated once in 10 days. And then 15 days and so on.
Your stamina to live life according to your values and goals will increase. And you will live life, not on autopilot mode, but more consciously and beautifully.

Leaving you with some quotes that continue to inspire me. These are by Swami Vivekananda. :)

All the best!

Discard all relationships, thoughts, actions and words that make you weak
The Path to Success — Take up one idea and make it your life!
^ the power of SELF-BELIEF



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