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Have Trouble Getting to Sleep at Night?



I’ve been corresponding with Denise, a reader of this site, and she recently wrote to say

I realized last week that I can no longer go to sleep with the tv or a movie going on all night, but I do need something distracting to help me get to sleep. So I decided to try to have music play quietly and put it on a timer. It works. I have been falling asleep easily and am not semi-aware of it all night as I was with the tv. The strange thing is that it’s been a week, it’s clearly in place and it’s a done deal. So why was that so easy? You know what they say in texts; “lol” and that’s exactly what I am doing. Ridiculous.

Background music or sound really is a very handy approach, especially if you’re easily distracted at night or have trouble falling asleep due to background noise. My entire family uses CDs of ocean sounds at night to help us fall asleep. For myself, I won’t try music because I’d be afraid of it getting burned into my brain; I have that problem regularly. Heck, I saw Les Miserables three weeks ago and still have some of the songs running through my head against my will sometimes. Fortunately I have some good techniques for getting rid of them, but those techniques only work in the moment, alas.

But back to the sleeping thing: if you have trouble getting to sleep, give that a whirl. You could even try, a handy white noise site, on an iPod or smartphone.

For more tips on sleeping better, check out “18 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep.”

Image by striatic

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How to Turn Complex Choices into Hard Numbers


I was recently struck by writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau‘s recommendation for a way to choose between a number of possible business opportunities, and I realized immediately that it was applicable not just to business decisions, but to any choice that involves a lot of competing possibilities with different pros and cons. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a useful one if you want to take a lot of possibilities and end up with a single score for each one so you can decide which is best.

In a nutshell, what you can do is figure out what factors are important to you and rate each idea or possibility on a scale of 1-5 for each of those factors. You can use paper, a word processor, a spreadsheet, or another medium. What you get in the end is a grid, kind of like this:

The 5-point scale
Why a 5-point scale? Because it’s detailed enough to be able to distinguish between levels like “terrible,” “bad,” “OK,” “good,” and “great” while not so detailed that it’s difficult to decide what value to assign. The process isn’t supposed to be surgically precise: it’s just meant to show us which way the wind is blowing. Our quick, subjective impressions of each item will generally be good enough information to provide the answers we’re looking for.

Keep in mind that 5 always means “best,” not necessarily “highest.” For instance, Hawaii has a 1 for “cost” not because the cost is low, but on the contrary because the cost is high and therefore merits the worst rating.

While I think a 5-point scale is especially handy, you can use any scale you want (say, 1-3 or 0-10, etc.). Just be sure to use the same scale for every factor.

Instant insight
You can see right away how this approach is handy. For instance, Hawaii might sound great, but when you factor in the very high cost and the lower amount of relaxation you experience because of airports, reservations, and all the rest, it doesn’t stack up as well (using this method) as the other two options.

Weighty questions
With that said, there’s a major problem with the system as Guillebeau and many other people use it, which is that it treats all considerations as equally important. In many cases, that works out fine; as I say, we’re just trying to get a general direction. In other cases, though, it can be … well, less than ideal. Consider the following example:

Using this approach, it’s easy to see that it’s better to dive without a parachute than with one–except that … you know … it isn’t.

So how do we fix this problem? By using weightings!

What are weightings? They’re just a way of adding up or averaging information proportionate to other information, in this case to information about how important each item is. By introducing weightings, we can let our grid reflect our priorities. Consider this new version of the skydiving grid:

Our totals have changed completely, and they shouldn’t be compared to totals from any other grid, but they tell a clear story: even for this obviously danger-loving individual, skydiving with a parachute is a much better choice than skydiving without.

Of course, using weightings is more complicated than not using weightings, especially in terms of calculations, because you have to multiply each rating by its weighting before you add things up. If you don’t want to get technical, I’d like to invite you to skip down to the picture of the kitten now, and I’ll mention that I can probably upload a template that won’t require you to do any of the technical work if enough people want it.

If you don’t mind getting technical and are following along in Excel, here’s how I set up the spreadsheet so that the total would use the weighting values I specified:

The little $ signs, in case you haven’t used them in Excel before, mean “use the row (or column) I specify even if I copy this formula somewhere else.” By referring to B$4, C$4, and D$4 instead of B4, C4, and D4, we can copy the formula from F5 into all of the rows below, even if we add a hundred options, without having to change the formula.

OK, it’s safe to read on! No more technical stuff!
photo by Merlijn Hoek

Just useful; not miraculous
Weighting isn’t perfect either, of course. It’s hard to put hard numbers on the relative importance of things like “environmental friendliness” and “good for the kids,” say, and if we just put the highest importance on everything, then we might as well not be using weightings at all. Also, if we have two different but related factors (like “general aesthetics” and “goes with the furniture”), then both of those add together to give them a weight that’s probably higher than intended–although if we’re using weightings, this can be fixed by cutting both weights roughly in half because the two are in a sense working together. This same problem comes up if we don’t use weightings, but in that situation, there’s no good way to fix it, so that’s another point in favor of using weightings instead of unweighted ratings.

I don’t want to lose sight of the benefit here: the amazing thing is that you can take any number of choices–just a handful or hundreds–and evaluate them all at the same time. There are other ways to make these kinds of choices, like filtering and sequencing (see “How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions“), but using weighted ratings makes it possible to evaluate them all at once and to tweak the decision-making process afterward to see how that changes things. (Because you can always decide to add or change your ratings or alter their weights, and in a spreadsheet or similar solution, those changes will immediately show new scores.)

Using your results
If you’re using a spreadsheet, you can sort by totals when you’re done (in Excel, highlight all of your data, including the choice names and the totals, then choose Data > Sort) so that your choices are then listed in the order from best to worst, according to your spreadsheet.

You don’t have to then make the choice at the top just because it got the highest score: again, this process is just a way to put things in perspective. However, that perspective can be invaluable for figuring out what to actually do next.

My example
I put together a spreadsheet for myself of a few of the many, many speaking and writing projects and possibilities I’ve started or considered, and set it up using weighted ratings, as I’ve described above. Having a technical background and being very interested in squeezing every last drop of meaning out of my information, I made some further enhancements, which you can see here. Note the little red corners: those mean that I can hover over the factor with my mouse to see details of how I should rate, so that I can assign ratings consistently. I’ve also used conditional formatting to highlight better and worse information with different colors. (You can click on the image to see it at full size.)

If you’d like a copy of my template for the grid above, please comment here. I’ll put something fairly user-friendly together and post it if there’s a need.

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How Do You Fix Greed, Part III: Why Should I Sacrifice Myself?


In a recent comment to my post “How Do You Fix Greed? Part II: American Society Is Built for Greed,” someone asked

Why should l sacrifice my self to others? Read Ayn Rand, and you will know where greed comes from.

I was surprised by the question, because the answer seemed obvious to me, but the more I thought about the response, the more grateful I am for the comment, because it’s a fair question: even if greed is bad for society, which is something I’ve been asserting in recent posts, from a certain perspective there’s the following pressing question: So what? If I can get everything I want, why should it matter to me if other people are unhappy about that, or if it interferes with things society or culture expects from me?

For the asker’s interest, I’ve read Ayn Rand, and I’m familiar with a lot of arguments for greed. If you’re looking at the question on a strictly personal level, it comes down to this: people who let themselves fall prey to their own greed are assuming that getting more will bring them more pleasure, and that pleasure and happiness are the same thing. The truth–and there’s good science backing this up–is that having more stuff does not necessarily bring more pleasure, and that even if it did (which it doesn’t, remember), that pleasure doesn’t by itself amount to happiness.

I’m not going to go into detail about all the research here, to prevent this post from becoming unmanageably long, but before I continue I’ll link to other articles on this site, several of which reference the studies that provide the raw information for the connections between human relationships, happiness, and pleasure that I’m about to describe.

The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness
If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It? A Few Pointed Answers
Why Happiness Is Key
How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own
Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time
The Best 40 Percent of Happiness (this one covers lottery winners)
The High Cost of Not Liking Your Job

Why doesn’t “more” bring more pleasure?
Getting more things does not necessarily lead to more pleasure, although it’s true that some things, in some situations, can add to pleasure and even happiness. Unfortunately for our pleasure levels, though, the more we get, the less any given part of it matters. If you go to a restaurant and eat the most delicious meal in the world, the first time you eat it, you may be in ecstasy. If you eat it again the next day, due something psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” it simply won’t be as good. It’s similar to the process a drug addict may go through, whether that drug is caffeine or crack or something in between. The first hit has an enormous effect, but subsequent experiences produce less and less dopamine, the neurochemical that makes us feel pleasure. In other words, the more I have, the less pleasure I get from each thing.

Additionally, having more power, money, resources, or things also means I have more concerns, because I need to defend myself from people who want to usurp my power, siphon off my money, use my resources, or take my things. As I get more and more, what I have pleases me less and adds more to my stress load. We often envy celebrities, people with political power, and others who have “more,” yet the rates of scandal, failed marriage, substance abuse, and other indicators of severe unhappiness seem to be exceptionally high among these kinds of people. Some of it is surely the pressure of being in the public eye all of the time, but regardless, it lends support to the point that having more is not necessarily pleasurable. Ask the many people who’ve won the lottery and later committed suicide–oh wait, you can’t: they’re dead.

Isn’t “happiness” just another word for “pleasure”?
Even the pleasure that we can get from having more doesn’t amount to happiness. Happiness, according to research, has a lot to do with having enough and not much to do with having extra. It also has a lot to do with how we think and feel about ourselves and about our relationships with other people. If I feel like a good person, am proud of my accomplishments and integrity, enjoy the company of people close to me, experience trust and connection with others, and otherwise make the most of myself and my relationships, I’m far, far more likely to be happy than if I have piles of stuff, people whose interest in me might be mainly about my having piles of stuff, and things I don’t need that I have to defend from people who either don’t have enough stuff or are as greedy as I am.

Greed at its heart is a misunderstanding, at attempt to substitute money, power, or stuff for the things that really make us happy (see the first article in this series, “How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed“). The altruistic and kind behavior that seems like sacrificing ourselves, when done in a healthy and proportionate way, surprisingly turns out to get us the most individual happiness of anything we could possibly do. Greed is an easy path to falling short of the happiness we could otherwise achieve.

Photo by CaptPiper


5 Authors, 5 Questions: Advice for New Writers at Shimmer


Over at Shimmer, Elise Catherine Tobler has started a series of posts in which she asks five authors (me included) five questions about writing for the benefit of aspiring fiction writers. Questions so far have been “How do you begin a story?” and “How do you go about choosing a title for the story?” The answers get at the issue from a variety of points of view in a very short space.

The other four authors in the series are:

Krista Hoeppner Leahy (Writers of the Future XXV, Shimmer, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet)

Don Mead (Writers of the Future XXV, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons)

Justin Howe (Crossed Genres, Brain Harvest, Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Vylar Kaftan (Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, ChiZine)

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Have an account on Writerspace? Please change your password now!


It appears that some tens of thousands of e-mail/password combinations from Writerspace have been hacked and posted today (I won’t post a link so as not to encourage further dissemination of the information). If you have an account on Writerspace, I’d strongly recommend changing your password there and anywhere else you might be using the same e-mail/password combination. Also, be sure that your new Writerspace password is not one you use elsewhere, in case of a repeat incident.

Good luck and godspeed.

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When Formatting Books with Microsoft Word …


Although it’s not the kind of thing I regularly post about, I thought I would mention a tip for formatting books for POD (print on demand) books–or really, for anything meant for publishing as a book or magazine–in Microsoft Word: there’s a very obscure formatting setting called “Widow/orphan control” that can make the bottoms of your pages uneven. This doesn’t usually matter for manuscripts or anything else that isn’t going to be printed in many copies and bound.

Widow/orphan control is turned on by default, at least in some versions of Word, and makes it so that if the first line of a paragraph falls at the end of a page, it’s bumped to the next page. The result is that the bottoms of pages look uneven, but paragraphs are kept together more of the time. Under normal circumstances, this isn’t important, but if you want the bottoms of your pages even, you’ll have to format your text or styles with Widow/orphan control turned off.

I use an old version of Word, so this may not apply in the same way to yours, but in mine this option is found by selecting Paragraph from the Format menu and clicking on the “Line and Page Breaks” tab. You’ll see a check mark next to this option: click to turn it off, then click the OK button.

You can turn this off by default by modifying your “Normal” template, but doing that is getting into more detail than is really appropriate for this blog.

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Tired? Try Getting Some Exercise


When we’re feeling tired, run down, fatigued, or drained, exercise often seems unappealing. Feeling tired seems like a valid reason to avoid exercise. After all, if it’s an effort just to drag yourself from the car inside to the couch, there’s surely not enough extra energy to take a brisk walk, go swimming, or hit the gym–right?

But you probably picked up from the way I asked that this isn’t right, that how much energy we feel at a given moment isn’t really a reliable indicator of how much energy we could have in other circumstances. Certainly the exhaustion you feel after running a marathon means your body is tapped out, but at the end of a long day or in the middle of a lazy morning, feeling tired very often is only an indicator that our bodies haven’t received a signal that much energy is needed for the moment. Exercise can send just that kind of signal.

According to Tom Rath and Jim Harter in their book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, “A comprehensive analysis of more than 70 trials found that exercising is much more effective at eliminating fatigue than prescription drugs used for this purpose” (emphasis theirs). Exercise cranks up metabolism, helping to consume fat, build muscle, and create short-term and long-term energy.

In my own experience, this ability of exercise to make me feel more energized when tired came as a surprise. As I began to gain competency in Taekwondo over the last few years and was able to participated in advanced classes, I began going four to six hours a week. In order to keep that schedule up, many of the evenings I planned to go to Taekwondo turned out to be evenings when I felt dead tired. I tried going anyway, and to my surprise, my exhaustion almost always lifted by about ten minutes into the first class of the evening, and unless I was doing a very strenuous workout, I kept feeling energetic even after class.

Photo by Jean-Christophe Dichant

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Do Bad Choices Make Us Unhappy, or Does Unhappiness Drive Us to Bad Choices?


As an extreme example, consider a heroin addict: taking heroin will make this person feel really good–for a little while. Then, when the drug wears off, the addict is left to face whatever problems the heroin was meant to be an escape from, plus whatever problems shooting up has caused–like getting arrested or using the rent to buy drugs, for instance. The bad choice of taking the drug causes bad situations that make the addict unhappy, so that taking more of the drug is that much more appealing, as a way to escape the unhappiness.

I most often use the phrase “feedback loop” to refer to the helpful kind of feedback, like journaling several times a week while working toward a goal. This kind of feedback loop provides a way to look at progress and trouble over the past few days and try out corrections that themselves will be looked at during the next feedback loop (which is what makes it a loop). But there are different kinds of feedback loops that can work against us, like the addict, his troubles, and his needle.

All which is to say that bad choices and unhappiness work together to cause more bad choices and unhappiness. Weirdly enough, this is good news, because it means that if either the behavior or the unhappiness is interrupted, both the behavior and the unhappiness can be lessened.

Getting back to our drug addict (who in a very general sense is in the same kind of bad feedback loop as someone who overeats or doesn’t do the dishes regularly or avoids calling back clients when something goes wrong), this means that anything that makes life a little more bearable can make it a little easier to think about getting off the drug, and that getting off the drug (after withdrawal is over and the consequences are faced) automatically starts making life a little more bearable in some ways.

Most of us have it much easier than the drug addict: if I start doing a better job of sorting my mail as it comes in, for instance, I’ll immediately start feeling a little better about my organization, unless the problem had gotten so bad that I needed to go through the shock of finding out what was in my mail first. And if I start feeling a little better about things, it will be easier to try organizing the mail more reliably.

In the end, both parts of the cycle usually need work. After all, addictions don’t usually go away by themselves, nor do addicts tend to stay out of trouble long if staying out of trouble means they’re miserable all the time. But by attacking either of the parts alone to begin with–whichever is the easiest to affect–we can get an initial boost that will make following through that much easier.

Photo by nicolas

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Just Don’t It


For years it’s bothered me that “Just do it” is in use as a corporate slogan, because it’s a practical and extremely useful self-motivation shortcut. “Just do it” can sometimes sneak you into success while your brain is still arguing the merits of failure. While you’re trying to decide whether to start working on taxes or to watch some TV, you might say to yourself “Why don’t I sift through my files and dig out all my tax-related materials, just as something to do while I’m deciding?” If it works (and of course it doesn’t always, but if you haven’t tried it, you might be surprised how easy it is to fall for this handy trick), you end up doing what you hoped to do without ever having to decide to do it.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Instead of talking about just doing it, I’m going to talk about just not doing it. Here’s how that works:

Let’s say I’m at home on a Sunday, as I was this past Sunday, and I have a lot of writing I’d really like to get done, which I did. And let’s say there’s a movie I’d like to see, which there was, and that it wouldn’t be hard for me to just go to it and carve a couple of hours out of my afternoon, which was the case.

Deep down, I knew that I wanted to be doing the writing. I enjoy the writing, and it’s important. But the movie was very tempting: it was hard to argue that it would do awful damage to my plans for the day, because it wouldn’t. It was hard to argue that it was unreasonable or damaging, because it wasn’t those things either. No, it was just a worse choice than writing. Even so, pitting the two against each other, writing would have a good chance of losing, because movies are more obviously attractive, easier to picture having fun at.

But this is where I employed the mighty power of just not doing it: as I was beginning to imagine going to the movie, just the kind of visualization that tends to make a person more likely to do something, I stopped and said to myself “Or … I could stay home and get back to writing.” I felt an immediate relief, as though I had been waiting to give myself permission to make the right choice, and thinking about the options as little as possible from there, I went back to writing and wasn’t bothered by that choice the rest of the day.

I’m not describing this situation (or the cinnamon bun one) because I think it’s impressive or especially virtuous: the usefulness of it is that it isn’t anything special. I didn’t have to build up to it or use clever techniques: I just took advantage of the possibility of saying “No, let’s not.” It’s an option I’m trying to use more and more lately, and it’s surprising to me how much I’m able to accomplish by saying “No.”

Photo by D.B. Blas

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My “Use ’em If You Got ’em” Challenge


In yesterday’s article (Motivated, Wise, Productive) I mentioned a willpower challenge I’m starting, and it deals with bringing together a lot of skills from this site. If I succeed with this experiment, it should provide some useful findings–and if I fall on my butt, that should at least provide a little amusement.

You’ve probably noticed that this site offers a lot of tools for developing and using willpower, like emotional antidotes, flow, idea repair, feedback loops, and so on. But there are at least two major barriers between being familiar with those tools and using them all the time in everyday life: one is that knowing is not the same thing as doing, and the other is that it’s very problematic to try to pursue more than one goal at a time. Sure, I know a lot of great willpower tricks (like 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), but it still takes time, attention, and resignation to use those tricks.

And yet … every time I miss an opportunity to use my self-motivation skills, it’s disappointing. My primary goal right now is using organization and time management to get more writing work done, and that’s been very useful and important to me. But that means my other goals–like having a more orderly home and improving on my fitness–have had to wait on the sidelines for quite a while, and of course I’m impatient. So I theorized that if I could get into a habit of using my immediate willpower skills every time a willpower issue came up, even if it wasn’t in the course of pursuing my main goal, then I might make a lot of progress on those secondary goals and in fact on any goal I had clearly outlined and understood well without having to take on more than one goal at once per se.

The problem, of course, is forming the habit of using all those skills. Forming habits means repeating a behavior on purpose, and it’s necessary to do that daily for months before the habit typically sets in. So my challenge is this: every time a difficult willpower situation comes up, I’ll try using one of the techniques I know to deal with it. If I succeed, great. If I succeed in a surprising, interesting, or unusually powerful way, I’ll make a note about it in a special journal. If I fail, I’ll make a note about it that same journal and figure out what tool I could have used so that I’ll be prepared last time.

There are pitfalls here: this discipline might take too much focus away from my main goal, which wouldn’t be acceptable. Or it might just be that preparation (meditation, planning, etc.) is so important that in-the-moment techniques won’t get me where I need to go. Regardless, I’m planning to find out. Off I go on my adventure: wish me luck!

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