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James Maxey: Mere Excitement is Vastly Overrated


Maxey superhero novels

James Maxey is the most unrelentingly quotable person I’ve ever met. I complained about this to him the other day in the course of asking permission to post the below. He gave me his blessing to post and mentioned he’d be likely to expand on what he said soon on his own site (see link, below).

“Even I find myself quotable,” he said. The bastard.

Anyway, in a recent writing group discussion, we were talking about why we chose our current projects. There were a variety of answers, but the word “excitement” came up a lot, and James  had this to say on the subject.

For what it’s worth, I think mere excitement is a vastly overrated reason to commit to a novel. Excitement is sufficient grounds to take part in a one night stand, but committing to a novel is more like choosing someone to marry. There needs to be that initial passion, but there has to be something stronger beneath it. The novel has to share your values and your long term goals. You have to be willing to stand by it in sickness and health, through riches and poverty. You’re going to see this novel without its makeup on. You’ll have to be there to comfort it when it gets the flu and has bad things pouring out of every orifice. You’ll have to keep believing in it when it hits low points, when it’s lost its way and no longer moves you to passion. You’re going to have to keep going home and sharing a bed with it even though other younger, better looking, more clever novels flirt with you. 

The long term rewards of such a relationship make it all worth it. You write the novel, edit it, polish it, and all the time it edits and polishes you. At the very least, you should emerge from a finished novel as a better writer, but I also think it’s possible to emerge from a novel as a better person.

That resonated with me, and James, a prolific and popular writer, is speaking from a lot of personal experience.  He’s the author of award-winning short storties and a pair of read-at-a-gulp superhero novels, as well as the Dragon Age trilogy and the very different Dragon Apocalypse series. If you’re curious, check him out at .

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Better Writing Through Writing About Writing


The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

My life is fairly crammed, and writing time is hard to come by. Today I got one of those precious blocks of time in which I could write for several hours almost without interruption, yet as I fired up the computer, I felt not excited about the prospect, but worried and on edge.  I also felt a little unsure: I had several projects I could be working on and was waffling on which one to choose.

Looking before leaping
I could have just plunged in and begun working on whatever seemed easiest, most obvious, or most attractive, and if I got deeply enough into the writing that I achieved flow, that might have gone well. On the other hand, I might have made a bad choice out of inattention, and it’s possible that even if I’d made a good random choice, my concern that I might be working on the wrong thing or my general unexplored discomfort might have seriously interfered with my ability to focus. Under those conditions, I might be especially unlikely to enjoy the work, which is a problem, because while common sense suggests that it doesn’t matter to productivity whether you enjoy the writing or not as you do it, in truth not enjoying what we’re doing tends to make us quit sooner, latch onto distractions more easily, feel less positive about what we’re achieving, and avoid coming back to do more. Liking the process of writing is a good way to write more and to be more invested in our work.

Schema journaling
So instead of starting by writing, I started by writing down my thoughts about writing. One of my current projects is a layperson’s book on mental schemas. Mental schemas (the habitual patterns called “early maladaptive schemas,” if we want to be more technical) are persistent ways of thinking that tend to interfere with living a happy and productive life, explored in detail in a branch of psychology called Schema Therapy. To provide a framework for making use of these ideas in my book, I’ve been experimenting with something I call a Schema Journal, where daily entries are an opportunity to find focus, work through confusing situations, reflect on progress and obstacles, and find answers to difficult questions. This same approach can be used without keeping a journal to sort out any situation that seems to be interfering with writing, whether it’s intellectual (like choosing which of two projects to pursue), emotional (like feeling worried that a project isn’t going well), or organizational (like having trouble finding time to write).

Schema journaling tools
Just writing freely about problems is a good approach, but it can be especially effective to write to a specific purpose. Here are some of the available tools or purposes writing about writing can have:

  • Feedback loop: Reflection on how behaviors and choices are affecting a situation so far, identifying improvements, and coming up with specific plans to use those improvements at the next opportunity.
  • Exploration: Thinking in detail about an opportunity or problem to come up with more specific questions or goals.
  • Decision: Making a choice. This is the kind of entry I used today, starting with the question “Which of my writing projects should I work on at the moment?” This came after realizing that what was holding me back from feeling enthusiastic about writing was that I was conflicted about which project to work on. If I hadn’t been sure what the problem was, an “Exploration” entry would have been the thing to do first. That would have led me to the question I could use for my Decision entry.
  • Assignment: Choosing a task that is usually avoided and setting a specific time frame for getting it done. This shouldn’t be a big project, but rather a specific thing you can accomplish, preferably in one attempt. Ideally this is something you can repeat, for instance “Choose a short story that needs a small amount of editing, edit it, and send it out.” The writing to do about the task is whatever is needed to create enthusiasm and get focused.
  • Envision: Visualize a future situation that helps motivate you. The situation should be plausible, but doesn’t have to be something that’s immediately realistic. Getting used to the idea that things could go well and allowing ourselves to feel some of the emotions we experience when things do go well can help create a more positive and focused mood for writing.

There are additional kinds of entries in an actual Schema Journal that are more involved and have longer-term intentions, but the five specific tools above offer ways to get past the emotions, complications, and mental obstacles that prevent writing from getting done, or sometimes that simply get in the way of enjoying the process.

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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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The Little Lying Creep That Lives in My Head

States of mind

I used to have excuses: I wasn’t as clear on what would make me happy, on the difference between happiness and pleasure, or even on whether or not happiness was what was really important. Even when I understood what the best things were to do, in the past I often couldn’t figure out how to care and act on that.

Past excuses
These days I don’t have those excuses. I understand how central happiness is and how it’s different than pleasure. From researching and writing about habits over the past years, I have so many available ways to get and stay on track, it’s not so much a bag of tricks as a chase van full of them. I have a clear sense of how to be a deeply fulfilled, effective, and compassionate person.

So why aren’t I doing a better job? Sure, I’m doing pretty well, but why aren’t I closer to, you know, perfect?

It’s true that knowing isn’t enough, but if we understand the process of bridging the gap between knowing and doing (see the link for details), that’s not much of an excuse. No, I think what gets in my way those times that I could do the better thing and end up doing the worse thing, is the little lying creep that lives in my head.

I’ll call him “the Creep” for short.

Meet the Creep
Let’s say I come across a plate of doughnuts. I might say to myself,  “Yeah, those doughnuts look good, but you know what would make me feel better and happier? A round of push-ups.”

The Creep will respond “You know what would actually make you feel better? A freakin’ doughnut, that’s what. Push-ups don’t make you happier than doughnuts do. Push-ups just make you a joyless, self-righteous exercise junky. Doughnuts make you somebody who’s eating a delicious doughnut.”

Or I’ll have an hour or two available and think, “Why don’t I spend this time going over my task list and reorganizing items into updated categories so that I have a better handle on what I need to get done over the next couple of days?”

The Creep will respond “Or you could not do something stupid and boring and instead install World of Warcraft. Then you could spend the next six months playing that. Come on, it would be fun!”

I am pleased to say that these days, the Creep usually loses. I’ve been waging a long and exhausting battle against him over the course of years, learning to be more reliable, more productive, more self-aware, kinder, and a lot else.

Yet he’s still a major daily obstacle. I know he’s a big fat liar, but he’s so convincing. He emerged when I was very young, and I’m used to following his instructions.

Sometimes he’s even partly right. “Wow, this doughnut is good,” I might say, and he’ll say “I know, right? Now let’s get you some kind of candy to go with that.”

Later I’ll point out how the Creep’s advice has created problems or squandered opportunities, but he’ll be unavailable for comment.

Keep on Creepin’ on
These days, I try not to fall into the trap of fighting the creep. You can’t win an argument with him: he keeps coming up with more “common wisdom,” more “obvious truths,” and more justifications. “But you’re tired,” he’ll insist. “And you had that thing with the water spraying all over you, which wasn’t fair and was annoying, and anyway who are you trying to impress?”

Even if we get past all that, he doesn’t stop. “Yuh huh,” he’ll say. “Nuh uh,” I’ll point out. “Yuh huh,” he’ll rebut. He can go on like that all day … and sometimes has.

Still rummaging through the toolbox
So what’s the cure for the common Creep? I don’t have a single, easy answer: now that I’ve identified him, I have to see what mental tools I can use to get him to settle down. I take heart that I’ve been making headway, that he’s become a weaker and weaker influence over time.

I’m also interested in this idea of the Creep as a character or a mode in my head. This connects well with the schema therapy concept of modes, nine different roles that people take on mentally, for example the Healthy Adult and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child.

Seeing the Creep as a mode or role, as soon as I identify him as being the one behind an idea in my head, my perspective shifts. I can say to myself “Well of course the Creep wants to do that. But what does the part of myself who actually has a clue think?”

Actually, I didn’t even realize that the Creep was a mode until I started writing about him here, and with that realization I suddenly have access to the Schema Therapy tools that apply to modes–dialog between modes, for instance, where the healthy part of me asks the Creep what’s going on.

Creeps wanted
What about you? Do your worst impulses have a personality? What tricks does that character have up its sleeve? Got a name for it? I’d be interested to hear your stories.


Finding Your Place in Tradpub versus Selfpub

eBooks and Publishing

Writing for publication has always been tricky–not to mention challenging, exhausting, unpredictable, and demoralizing. Still, for many years at least the path was clear:

  1. You write a book.
  2. You submit the book to publishers and/or agents.
  3. Agents and/or publishers either do or (much more often) do not express interest.
  4. If there’s interest and you’re lucky, you cut a nice deal with someone.
  5. Your book gets released, and it sells badly, decently, well, or ridiculously well.
  6. Depending on your sales, you’re then either able to sell additional books more easily or else you have to go back to the drawing board, possibly with a pseudonym so that bookstores won’t be prejudiced against stocking your titles given your underwhelming performance under your own name.

It was never half as thrilling as the daydreams we have of writing a bestseller that the critics praise to the skies (though even that can backfire: see my comments on Harper Lee in “The Courage to Suck” ).

You could say that none of the above has changed–after all, there are still agents and publishers, and the steps are still about the same with them as they have been for a number of decades. At the same time, there’s this new thing, the eBook self-publishing approach.

Self-publishing used to be easy for me to understand: I’d decided it was mainly for people who couldn’t make it in traditional publishing or didn’t want to put up with rejection after rejection, who wanted the quick and easy path to becoming “a published author” even if it meant shelling out cash instead of getting paid for writing and not having a real readership. It was also for the niche writer who had an audience too small to interest big publishing houses but whose topic and readers were clearly-defined enough that the book could be sold directly.

For someone who has always aspired to writing for large audiences, to me the upshot was that [self-publishing==failure]. It was utterly to be avoided.

The game changes
But then came Print On Demand and Lulu and CreateSpace, and after that came the Kindle. Suddenly the possibility opened up that writers could publish their work to a potentially wide audience with very little trouble or cost. For instance, let’s say I had a modestly successful novel that went out of print a few years ago but that still had loyal fans. If the rights had reverted to me, either through a request to the publisher or though an automatic operation based on how my contract was set up, there was no real barrier to republishing it for the Kindle, and some people out there–an increasing number of whom would have Kindles–might be looking for it and end up buying it. One of my friends has done just this, parlaying a series whose traditional publisher had utterly failed to market properly into ongoing Kindle and POD sales that are providing him a full-time income. The books are making a good deal more selfpubbed than they ever did on bookstore shelves.

Or you might be one of those authors with an established following who decides to publish directly for readers who already know your work, like J.A. Konrath; or even an unpublished writer whose Kindle books catch on with readers to become Kindle bestsellers, like Amanda Hocking.

(Of course there are other places–, Google Books, Smashwords, and so one–where you can publish your eBook, and you can publish through Print on Demand technology in addition to or instead of eBooks, but Kindle sales are driving this revolution, so I’m focusing on those.)

Two roads diverged in the Interwebs
The point is, there’s now an almost completely new, second career path option available to writers. What are we supposed to make of this? J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking are making boatloads of money on their eBooks, but the vast majority of people who have self-published eBooks are selling very few or no copies*. Most of the time, ePublishing your book gets it to about as many people as would read it if it were only available in the form of photocopied manuscripts hidden under an old rug in your basement.

This makes self-ePublishing–I’ll call this “selfpubbing” for short, even though selfpubbing can include Print on Demand books too–both an incredible source of motivation and an incredible source of disappointment. You can selfpub your just-finished or multiply-rejected novel, novella, novelette, short story, collection, or poetry book for free in just a few hours, if you can put together a cover and follow the formatting requirements. Within a day or so, searching for your name on Amazon will bring up an actual (e)book that people can actually buy! Books that have merit but are difficult to categorize, books that were too long or too short or too much like a book that just came out or not enough like a book that just came out can be published and have their chance to find a readership.

Of course, if you just publish the eBook and wait for the cash to pour in with no promotion, as I suspect most selfpubbers do (and I’m not counting repeated pleas on Facebook and Twitter for friends to buy the thing as promotion), you’re likely to be disappointed. If, however, you get reviews and get people to blog about your book, give interviews, find newsworthy angles and pitch them to news outlets, get mentions from people much more famous than yourself, and so on, then at least your book has a chance of reaching someone, and ideally it will reach a lot of someones, and those someones will love it and refer it to a lot of other someones. Unless you’re famous through some other means, you can’t launch a book to success all by yourself, but you can if more famous people or more far-reaching media take up your cause, or if you get readers excited and they start spreading the word.

Wait–why am I still in Kansas?
It’s always possible, of course, that you’ll exhaust yourself in promotional efforts and get nowhere–a few people will buy your book, hardly anyone will review it, and the moment you start to rest all interest and sales will vanish. Does this mean that you’re an awful writer? Or that you’re not cut out for selfpubbing and should stick to the tradpub approach? Or that you just need more promotion? Or different promotion? Or that you should be writing different books? How do you know when to put time into writing and when to put time into social media or contacting bloggers or buying Google AdWords?

There’s no way to tell for certain. If your books don’t sell, your writing may indeed be nowhere near good enough (yet) for people to want to read it. Or it could be spectacular, but you may be no good at promotion. Or maybe the writing and the promotion are great, but your book isn’t packaged properly: the title and/or cover and/or price and/or supporting information are wrong.

A selfpub experiment
Let me give you an example: about six months before this writing, I selfpubbed a collection of 172 flash fiction pieces called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories , which like most collections, sold very lightly. A few months later I got around to putting out a 99 cent sampler that included stories from Bam! plus one new story as a bonus: this I called 17 Stories About the End of the World. A while back, as an experiment, I dropped the price of Bam! to 99 cents, so that the sampler and the full book cost the same despite one having ten times as much content as the other.

The result was downright weird: the sampler has been outselling the full collection by a margin of five to one. At the same price. Through the same venues. That’s the shorter book selling better, now.

To me, this is a clear demonstration of the importance packaging and presentation: clearly people are much more interested in “here are some stories about the world ending! (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)” than they are in “here are some stories that are awfully short (by some guy you’ve probably never heard of)”. Or they might prefer the sampler’s cover (which I started but which was greatly improved by my friend Elise Catherine Tobler).

So what am I doing? A new experiment: I’ve broken out the book into nine separate samplers like My Friend in Hell and Other Very Short Stories and 19 Very Short Stories of Talking Animals with Serious Issues, which I’ve just released as of this writing. I’ve upped the price of the collection to $2.99, in part to help people who buy the samplers feel like they’re not overpaying by comparison. At the very least, this should tell me whether my End of the World book is a fluke or not, and provide me with some fascinating (to me, anyway) sales information. What kinds of stories will turn out to interest readers the most? [Later update: none of the other samplers did nearly as well as the End of the World one, and I eventually removed them. I suspect the continued relative success of 17 Stories About the End of the World is due partly to the topic and partly to the cover. I’ve tried to coax Amazon to make the sampler free, but they are not biting so far.]

Selfpub isn’t working! What now?
But enough of my example. If you’ve tried selfpub and you’ve tried self-promotion and you haven’t made significant sales, you have three choices.

  1. Choice number one is to relax and keep doing what you’re doing. Statistically, it’s likely that things will stay the same as they are and you’ll never see significant sales, although things could begin to pick up over time, especially if you’re doing some kind of promotion. If you’re writing for the love of writing alone and don’t much care about income or audience, this approach may be for you.
  2. Choice number two is to become a combination economic researcher and marketing maven. Try different covers. Try different pricing, different promotional methods–even different kinds of books.
  3. Choice number three is to say “screw this” and go back to tradpub, which may not welcome you back with open arms, but which probably wasn’t throwing itself at you before, so you probably haven’t lost any ground.

They’re all legitimate choices. My suggestion in choosing among them is finding the method that gets you fired up. If you thrill to an “almost, but not quite” rejection letter (they’re a lot better than a form rejection!) or start feeling queasy when you think of having to dive into Twitter every morning, maybe your path is to be published traditionally. That’s also probably the way to go if you’re not sure of the quality of your own work. It’s all too easy to selfpub something just because it’s finished without really knowing whether it’s any good or not (see “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing“).

If on the other hand, you want to embrace social media but can do so without frittering away all of your writing time on Facebook, and if you’ve gotten enough clear feedback from people who aren’t your mother to know that your writing works for people sometimes, then maybe selfpub is worth a whirl.

Or you could go both ways
Or you may be like me, pushing projects on both tracks at the same time while simultaneously sending out short stories for good measure. I don’t especially recommend this approach because it dilutes my efforts, slowing me down in every direction because I’m constantly exerting effort on several things at once. But then, this approach excites me, and I have a hell of a lot of energy. Ultimately I’m probably slowing down my overall progress, but at least I’m having fun doing it, and I’m moving forward.

I’d suggest that it’s much less a business decision than a decision of the heart. We’re lucky enough, at this point in history, to have at least two viable ways to make a living writing narrative fiction. Choosing the one that makes you excited to write will not only get you writing more, but will get you working more toward finding your audience–and I’ve yet to find a writer who complains about being too industrious at either.

If you’re interested in seeing what I have on offer for the Kindle, here are the titles I currently have available:

[ *My estimates of typical Kindle sales are based on comparing Amazon sales rankings for the total range of Kindle offerings to the rankings of eBooks for which I know specific sales figures through discussions with the authors and experience regarding my own books. ]

This article is reposted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers.”

Photo by Fabio Said

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Stay the Course or Try Something New and Promising? Some Ways to Decide

Strategies and goals

A friend recently mentioned that she was having trouble deciding whether to stay with a project she’d been working on for some time or to follow a new, very unusual idea she’d come up with that could, she thinks, be highly successful. While she’s been enthusiastic about the new idea, it isn’t catching on with the people she’s talked to about it so far.

There is no simple way, much of the time, to make these kinds of decisions. Some of us are constantly seduced by new and exciting ideas–for me, for instance, it’s an unusual week when I don’t dream up some huge project I could be doing instead of what I have on my plate already. I’m glad to say I usually write these down and stay the course, since if I followed every one I’d never finish anything at all.

Others of us have no inclination to rock the boat and want to stay with what we have–sometimes even when that’s showing every sign of failing.

So how can we make good decisions about choices when we can’t predict the outcomes? Here are some suggestions for ways to do that.

Sometimes audacity is brilliant
First, it seems to me that doing things that other people say will never work sometimes works amazingly, as with J.K. Rowling’s much-too-long debut young adult novel or Beethoven’s opening to his 5th symphony, which starts on the second beat.

Innovators have to be able to hold the line
Second, even when an audacious idea is successful, its creator often has to perservere well beyond the usual point of success to get anywhere. Rowling was rejected by a couple of dozen publishers before Bloomsbury picked her up, and the great majority of writers would probably never have persisted that long. I gather that some of the initial reaction to Beethoven’s 5th symphony was disbelief and scorn, though some of that may have been because the premiere went very badly.

Failure is normal
Third, most ideas that other people say will never work really do never work, just because it’s hard to make a big, new thing come to life in an effective way. Audacious surprise successes are very unusual.

How committed can you be?
Fourth, the audacious ideas that do succeed seem to do so only when their creator is completely behind the idea, heart and soul. I can reflect on a variety of businesses I’ve worked on the past that have begun promisingly but ultimately died with a whimper because I didn’t want pour my entire life into them. Some were very sound, and one of the businesses did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business before it petered out, but when it comes down to it, business isn’t what interests me, so that these days I avoid getting involved in business pursuits whenever I can even though I’ve gained a lot of good experience in that area.

Follow happiness
Some advice that’s very good in other situations, like “follow your passions” or “just do it!” can fail us when we’re working on complicated decisions. One suggestion I’ve heard is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” This kind of advice has led uncounted young people to Hollywood to try to become stars, for instance, and the huge majority of them wash out completely. Does that make it a bad decision? It depends. Maybe the thing to do is to choose the course that will make you happy even if you fail, just because you tried and you put everything you had into it. With that approach, even failure can be a form of success.

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To Make Better Choices, Create a Protocol

Strategies and goals

Willpower as a series of choices
The real challenge of willpower often comes down to making good choices–a lot of them. One of the best ways to make a good choice is to come to a decision before you actually need to act: for instance, making firm plans to start cleaning out the closet at 3:00pm (ideally with an alarm or reminder in place) instead of coming to an opportunity to start and deciding between that and watching TV; or planning and packing meals for the day rather than choosing something to eat after you’re already hungry.

But for the choices that come up without planning, there are many other tools we can use. As opportunities or temptations come up, we can take time to envision accomplishing a current goal (visualization), focus on immediate positive benefits of a good choice, look for broken ideas, use distraction to steer away from a temptation, or focus on the mechanical steps of  acting well (for instance, see my post called “Just Don’t It“)–to name a few techniques.

Seizing the moment
What’s tricky about this is that bringing these tactics to mind takes special focus and a little time, commodities that are often in short supply when there’s an immediate choice to be made. If we wait to figure out what we can do about the situation, often by the time we are recollecting how to detect broken ideas or have come up with a good visualization to use, the opportunity has passed, the doughnut is already being eaten, or the procrastination has already begun.

The solution to this is to develop a protocol, a set of steps to follow every time you possibly can when a choice comes up that requires willpower.

How to create a protocol for choices
A protocol is short list of pithy reminders about willpower tactics: 3 to 4 items is good. It should contain the techniques you think have the best chance of getting you on track on short notice, summarized in a way you can memorize and bring to mind immediately when a situation comes up.

Once you think of your protocol, don’t hesitate: apply the first technique. If that gets you to the good choice you want to make you’re all set, but if it doesn’t seem to be working, switch to the second technique. No single technique is likely to work all the time, which is why having several already thought out is so powerful. Having too many, though, begins to get difficult to remember and hard to apply. Your protocol can swap out elements over time, but try not to overload it.

It can help to include both high-power techniques that require some time and attention and quick-draw techniques that you can apply immediately, since you want to have the big guns available but may not always have the time to deploy them.

Some examples
Protocol elements should be stated in a positive, encouraging, brief way. They should always be directed to plug into your motivation and long-term happiness and never to inspire guilt or to try to force yourself to do something you know you don’t want to do. Rather, these elements should redirect your thinking so that your actual desires in the moment change to make you want to pursue the best choice. There are many such techniques on this site. Here are a few examples. The terms in quotes are the kind of thing you might memorize, while the rest is just explanation. Your protocol elements might be much more specific to your goal than these general examples.

  • “What am I thinking?” – Search for broken ideas and repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair
  • “Just go ahead” – Focus on the mechanical steps of doing the thing you want to do. If the task at hand is making a telephone call you’ve been avoiding, go through the moment-to-moment tasks of looking up the telephone number and dialing each digit instead of trying to get up enthusiasm. If it’s to stop eating, focus on moving your dishes to the sink, closing food containers, putting things away, washing up, walking into the next room, etc.
  • “Picture finishing it” – Use visualization to get some immediate happiness out of a long-term goal.
  • “Write it out” – Use a feedback loop to reorient yourself.

There are many more techniques you could use in a protocol, and I’ll see if I can’t get together a reference page of them to help. In the mean time, try browsing the complete post listing for this site, where you’ll find articles on a wide variety of willpower tools.

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What Kinds of Goals Really Work?

Strategies and goals

Following up on two recent articles about New Year’s resolutions, “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?” and “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution,” today’s article takes a quick look at the kinds of goals that make good resolutions.

The summer before last I posted “One Good Way to Judge Goals: S.M.A.R.T.,” which lays out some advice about goal-choosing from a personal development site called Mindtools. Mindtools offers a set of very constructive ideas in recommending that we choose a goal that is “S.M.A.R.T.”: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. To put it another way, they suggest that we should choose one particular goal rather than a general area of improvement, that we find a way of telling as we go exactly what kind of progress we’re making, that our goals are realistically possible, that they really matters to us, and that they can be accomplished in a specific period of time.

Beyond S.M.A.R.T.
There’s a lot of useful material in this approach, but there are also a couple of things to be cautious about. For instance, make sure what you’re measuring to make the goal measurable is something that truly reflects your goal. It’s sometimes easy to measure something that’s easy to track but that doesn’t really show how you’re doing. For a popular example, see “Why Weighing In Is a Poor Way to Measure Progress.”

Second, you will probably be best served by a goal for your own behavior instead of a goal for results you want to get, because you can’t always control results, but you do always have influence over your behavior. Focusing on results rather than the process you want to follow to get those results can make it harder to figure out what to do and can sap enthusiasm when the results are affected by things outside your control.

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How Fewer Choices Make for Better Decisions

Strategies and goals

“Overwhelmed” isn’t a very good state of mind in which to make decisions. When we have too many things competing for our attention at the same time, it becomes difficult or impossible to compare them all to one another at the same time. It’s like having a whole classroom of kids calling out answers, or a dozen different messages coming up at once on the computer: if there’s no time to stop and go through the items one by one, we may be able to pick out useful things here and there, but we can’t evaluate all the choices effectively. At this point, habit tends to take over. If the habit in question is a good one, that’s great, but in areas where we’re trying to make life changes, this is generally bad news.

The way to make better choices in these situations is to narrow things down, to get the choices to a small enough number that we can make an intelligent, considered decision about which to pick. Two good ways to do this are sequencing and filtering.

Filtering: honing in
If you know certain things about the choice you want to make–for instance, that you want the job applicant to have sales experience, or that you want to pick a menu item that’s heart healthy–you can filter by putting aside or ignoring all the options that don’t have the quality you’re looking for. Once you’ve done that, you can filter or sequence further to get an even smaller set of options, or if the group is small enough, choose directly from the filtered selections.

The reason filtering is often better than evaluating items one by one is that it’s easy to get distracted or preoccupied with less-important factors when you have a lot of different criteria to consider. Going through options one by one, you might end up hiring someone with a really good cover letter but no sales experience, or eating the delicious-looking fried food platter that caught your eye.

When to use filtering
Filtering is mainly useful for situations when you have specific, definite needs. If sales experience isn’t essential, for instance, then filtering by it could make you ignore the best candidate for the job. In cases where you can’t come up with rules to apply to narrow down selections, sequencing may be a better choice than filtering.

The exceptions are for less-important decisions or decisions you have to make very quickly. If you want to make a good decision but don’t necessarily have the time to make the best possible decision, or if the time involved in considering every possible option isn’t worth it for the decision you’re making, then filtering is still useful even with criteria that aren’t entirely absolute.

Sequencing: one thing at a time
Sequencing means taking the options one after the other and considering each of them. You can consider each item individually and pick out only your top choices, or compare each item to the item after it and choose between each pair. With the first approach, you should end up with a much smaller set of options that you can either consider as a group or sequence or filter to narrow down more. With the second approach, you’ll already have your final choice when you’re done going through the list.

Sequencing is also very useful when you have a set of choices that aren’t numerous enough to be overwhelming, but that are difficult to choose from. Comparing each item to the next and carrying along the “winner” of each comparison makes it possible to focus attention on just the differences between two choices.

Whether you use filtering or sequencing, narrowing down choices is a good defense against feeling overwhelmed by options, and a good way to serve your goals rather than serving the habits you’re trying to break.

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Transformation: Making One Good Choice Many, Many Times

States of mind

I love movies and novels where a character finally makes a change that we’ve been dying to see since the story began. I love seeing Lester in American Beauty finally understanding the importance of other people, when he sheds the worst of his self-deceptions. It’s a huge relief to see Miss Havisham in Great Expectations break down and finally see what she’s done to herself, Pip, and Estella. Yet to some extent, these transformations are a lie.

The bad news
Let’s face it, our problems, hangups, bad habits, and limitations aren’t hats or shoes, ready to be taken off and replaced at any moment. They’re more like our bodies, which can’t be replaced but can be gradually transformed. The trick of it isn’t to get to that one sudden moment of transformation, because there is no moment of transformation in which a body suddenly becomes healthy after being unhealthy, or in which decades-long thinking patterns spontaneously unwind themselves from our brains. The neural connections we’ve established through repeating problem behaviors or choices over and over can go away, but they only go away gradually.

To put it another way, making one choice one time will not transform us, although it can start us on that road. But making one choice dozens or hundreds or (sometimes) thousands of times will change us. Instead of receiving goals like prizes, we build them up bit by bit, so that a goal is less often something accomplished than a state we reach from some kind of thought or action that we’ve woven into our daily lives.

The good news
Is sudden change useless or imaginary, then? No! We really can and do experience sudden changes of perspective, insights or experiences that completely alter the way we look at some part of our life. And when we start something radical and good, like doing a task that’s been dreaded and avoided for months or going out and offering forgiveness to the person we have most reason to despise, that action can release a lot of energy to propel us forward into thinking similar thoughts and making similar choices going forward. Except in the most extreme cases, we’ll need more than that initial charge to get us all the way to a new habit, but the initial charge can still count for a lot.

Ultimately I think these dramatic fictional transformations do have a value to us, and that value is in their illuminating what it feels like to become a different person. Often the hardest thing about motivating ourselves to follow the difficult path that leads to an altered self is believing that change is even possible. But both in fiction and in life, if we look for them, examples of transformation are all around us.

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