Browsing the blog archives for July, 2011.
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ToDoist Is (Was) Down

Resources

FINAL  UPDATE: Todoist is back up: time to immediately save my data!

UPDATE: Todoist tweeted and posted about the problem at 1:35 EST: see http://todoist.com/Support/showQuestion/255/ . They say that their database became corrupted for unknown reasons and that they’re fixing the problem. They also apologized for the outage. I’m no longer worried about having to switch systems, but will take my own advice (below) and start backing up.


In my post “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips” from a couple of years back I extol the virtues of Todoist, a free online task tracking system with a modestly upgraded, slightly less free version available as well. Today I’m not so much in an extolling mood. I can open Todoist, and each of the categories shows the proper number next to it showing how many tasks I have in that category, but clicking on the categories themselves opens up a screen with no tasks except for (bizarrely) the completed ones.

I have a work account and a personal account for Todoist, and I’ve tried them both, on different computers and browsers, with the same results, making me think it’s a universal problem. ToDoist Mobile on my smartphone is giving me even more flack, claiming I have no projects (categories) at all.

To my surprise, Google reports that no one has blogged about this, and there appear to be no news articles on the subject. If you’re experiencing this problem, though, I’m here to tell you it’s not just you.

Oh, and did I mention that their support site times out? I can’t even ask what’s going on.

I understand it’s a free service, but it’s still very damaging to have a large amount of critical information disappear on you and to not know whether or when you might ever get it back. Being able to access Todoist on my phone as well as on computers wherever I may be has been terrific, but going forward I may give that up just to get some peace of mind that I won’t lose it all. Losing my task list would set me back enormously and cause problems in many areas of my life.

The moral? Back up your data. In my case, it would have been smart to get into the habit of at least once a week (and preferably more often) entering “view all” in the search box on todoist and saving the resulting page, which lists all current tasks in all categories, but I’ve tended to think of backup as only applying to data on devices I own–bad mistake. If my data does reappear, I’ll certainly get in the habit of doing this. If you’re not in my position, may I please very strongly recommend regularly backing up your task list (and calendar, for that matter)?

And if you are on Todoist, like me, could you comment on whether you’re experiencing the same thing today (Thursday, July 28th) or not?

Update: I should have thought to check the Twitterverse; when I did, I found others experiencing the same problem. Not long ago, @JB66 reported “It’s still mostly down, but if you view Completed Tasks it shows your current tasks as well buried in there.”

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Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List

Strategies and goals

Let’s say an important e-mail arrives in your inbox, a message you have to reply to at length or do something about. You don’t want to forget about it, but you can’t take care of it right away, so what do you do? Put a star or a flag on it? Re-mark it unread? Put a post-it note up? Just hope for the best?

E-mail inboxes are lousy to do lists. An item in an inbox might have to do with one major task, a bunch of tasks, a task that could be done very quickly (like a one-sentence reply), or no task at all. It’s very hard to prioritize and sort them. Trying to use e-mails as reminders is kind of like trying to use a cat as a rolling pin: you might be able to make it work, but the process is going to be painful and you might not be happy with the results.

Taming my inbox
Almost a year and a half ago, I finally figured out how to keep my e-mail inbox empty. I don’t know if e-mail affects you the same way it does me, but it used to be that I’d go into my e-mail and immediately feel exhausted by the massive list of subjects I’d left lying around in my inbox. I’d look at the newest things, maybe delete some unimportant notices or spam messages, read anything quick and appealing, and mentally designate other messages to follow up on later.

“Later” would sometimes take weeks. Sometimes it would never come at all.

So e-mails languished in my inbox, growing from tens to hundreds to thousands, a huge mishmash of messages from friends I really wanted to hear from, junk mail, reminders of things to do (or that I had already done, or had let slip past), information I needed, and a lot of other noise. Just looking at it was enough to destroy my motivation for doing anything about it. The job always seemed too big until I finally figured out how it could be done early last year: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty.” My e-mail box was still empty 10 weeks later, and it’s empty today too, though it’s had periods where ten to twenty messages accumulated for a while when I wasn’t being completely vigilant.

(By the way, for a recommendation on free, Web-based e-mail that lends itself to keeping an empty inbox–GMail is no good for this, I’m afraid–see my post “Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox.”)

Neat is good, but functional is better
Even with this e-mail organizational systems, I’ve still had trouble sometimes keeping on top of tasks that show up in my inbox. Some have languished in my Reply/Act folder for much too long, while others have been attended to when they weren’t the highest priority at the moment just to get them out of the way. Since I keep a separate task system, having tasks in e-mail too meant that I had to go back and forth between the two systems and try to decide which one had the most important task at the moment. That’s distracting, demotivating, and a pain in the neck. The best way to get things done is to know the one thing you’re going to do next and focus your energies on it alone. Prioritizing tasks needs to be something you can do once and then be done with, not something you have to reevaluate every time you finish something up and are looking for the next priority.

(For how and why to get organized with a kind of task list that actually works, see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips,” “My Top 1 Task,” “Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule,” “Why Task Lists Fail,” and “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”)

Making tasks out of e-mails
So what’s the solution? It’s a pretty simple one, actually: when you have an e-mail that needs further action, and when you can’t do that action right away, make a task to remind you to take care of that e-mail (making a note of the e-mail you have on the subject, for reference), then prioritize that task in your task list. If you don’t have a task list, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done  and start one. It will make your life happier and simpler, believe me.

This approach works regardless of whether you keep an empty inbox like I do.

I know that making tasks for e-mails may feel like extra work, but the amount of effort involved is hardly anything, and keeping everything in your task list means the end of a lot of distraction, annoyance, and potential anxiety from having to remember and review multiple places that each might have things needing to be done. If you prefer not to go to the trouble of keeping a clean inbox, this approach even frees you from having to worry about whether your inbox is empty or not because you no longer have to worry you’ll forget about the important e-mails buried in with all the other stuff.

Photo by Darcie

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Brain Overload and Why Your Doctor May Seem Like a Jerk

The human mind

Blogger Dr. Grasshopper, who practices internal medicine in a large urban hospital, posted this today: “Why Your Doctor Comes Across As An A**hole.” Does your doctor seem uninterested in you? Do you feel hurried out of the examining room? Do you ever feel like your big concerns are being brushed aside? Dr. Grasshopper’s post and the article it strongly recommends (“Neuron overload and the juggling physician” in The Lancet) help shed light on issues you and I might not have considered before. They also cover some interesting points about what needs to be fixed in our health care system. They’re the kind of thing practically anyone could benefit from reading in terms of understanding more about their health, their insurance, and their health care providers.

How we’re like doctors
But I have an additional reason to point to the Lancet article in this post, and it’s that many of us have the same problem those doctors do: too many things to juggle with a brain that is designed to only ever juggle one thing at a time.

In my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To” from a couple of years back, I talk about neuroscientist John Medina’s observations on how attention and focus work. His two key points are:

  1. We can only focus our attention on one thing at a time, and
  2. Every time we change our focus, we have to do extra work, and we increase the likelihood that we’ll make an error.

For example, if you’re studying from a textbook while sorta-watching a TV program in the background, then you’re creating constant interruptions as your attention moves back and forth. Every time you start paying attention to the program, your brain has to shut down everything you were thinking about what you were reading and then fire up pathways that relate to the TV show. When you look back to the book, the process has to happen again in reverse, but with a good chance that some of the pieces you had in your head a moment ago won’t be included in the re-activation and will be lost.

The benefits of single focus
Even if you only pay attention to 10 minutes of TV during an hour of studying, the number of times you go back and forth between those two things will make your studying much, much less efficient. It’s much better to study for a solid block of time and then watch TV for a solid block of time: you’ll remember more and still have more time to pay attention to the TV show (if that’s what you want to do with your time).

OK, most of us reading this already know that watching TV while studying doesn’t work well. The reason this applies to so many of us is that the same thing is true for any situation where we’re trying to give attention to two things at once–like trying to figure out what to do about a scheduling conflict over the weekend while composing an e-mail at work. It gets even worse when our attention is distracted by many different things.

An example
This is what can sometimes happen to me: I’ll be working on a computer task (for example), be distracted by a new thought about a writing project, realize I need to arrange something for one of the kids, then recall I still haven’t returned a friend’s phone call, then remember that I was supposed to be working on the computer. Each change of focus comes with an inefficient changeover of my mental setup, and the whole process is likely to be enhanced by stress at having so much to worry about and guilt at not getting more of these things done. What’s worse, I may not be staying with any of these tasks long enough to make actual progress.

How not to fall into this trap
The solution is a good organizational system that’s always kept up to date (so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not there’s something in it that you haven’t checked or updated recently) and setting up tasks one after the other, never intermixed if you can help it. (See my post “Useful Book: Getting Things Done” for what I suggest is the gold standard for organizational systems.) If you add to that organization and focus a habit of getting rid of tasks and distractions that aren’t important in your life–or at least getting comfortable with giving them such a low priority that you understand they may never get done–then you have an approach that can yield a much calmer, more productive, and happier day-to-day existence.

Will this help doctors? Maybe not. After all, the problem doctors face is that they’re required to do more work than they can do effectively and at their highest level of skill. Insurance companies and related forces prioritize doctors’ practices. Fortunately, most of us are the ones prioritizing our own lives.

Photo by lovefaucet

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Jud Roberts: Nook vs. Kindle

eBooks and Publishing

Here’s a guest post from Judson Roberts, author of the Strongbow Saga trilogy of Viking novels. Jud had given his assessments of these two eReaders in an e-mail discussion, and on my request kindly agreed to put his observations into a blog post.

You can see a larger version of any image by clicking on it.


Two years ago, digital books, or e-books, were something that relatively few people had any personal experience with. Although e-books had actually been around for a number of years, they’d never really caught on. But in mid-2010, that changed. In the months leading up to Christmas, Amazon significantly reduced the price of its Kindle e-book reader. Sales of the device took off, and in January, when millions of new Kindles became activated, the rate of e-book sales exploded. It has been growing ever since.

E-books can be read on a wide variety of devices, including personal computers, tablet computers, smartphones, and dedicated e-book readers. But the tremendous growth in e-book sales that has occurred in the United States (the rate of e-book sales in overseas markets has not yet seen the same level of dramatic growth) has been, to a large extent, driven by repeated price reductions over the past year of the two most popular and widely used dedicated e-book readers: the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, particularly the top of the line Color Nook. In this column, I will offer my personal opinion and experiences with both devices (Why, you might wonder, would I own both devices? I’m an author and have published some of my books as e-books, so I use both devices in part to review my e-book editions prior to releasing them.).

First, their similarities. Neither device is intended by its parent company to be an open source e-reader. By that, I mean that each device is tied to its parent company’s store, and designed to most easily access e-books sold through that store. Unless the user is willing to undertake some work-around steps (which admittedly are not that difficult to do, and which I’ll address in more detail below), a Kindle can easily load and read only Kindle e-books purchased from Amazon; a Nook only Nook books purchased from Barnes & Noble. The actual process of purchasing an e-book is fairly similar for both devices: either on a computer, or directly from the device, you access the parent company’s website, select a book, purchase it (for the devices to be activated when purchased, both require an active account with the parent company), and the book will be sent to your device.

In addition to the parent company’s e-books, it is possible to load documents in various formats, including Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF, onto both devices. The Nook also accepts EPUB files, the mostly widely used e-book format (which Nook e-books are in), and the newer Kindles accept Mobi format files, another e-book format. Thus, if a user acquires or already possesses e-books in the PDF format, they can be manually loaded on either the Kindle or the Nook. Additionally, non-B&N EPUB e-books can be manually loaded onto the Nook, and non-Amazon Mobi format e-books can be manually loaded onto the Kindle. For the present, at least, Kindle readers do not accept EPUB files or books, and Nook Color readers do not accept Mobi files or e-books, or Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format (which is derived from the Mobi format).

Documents and non-Nook e-books are loaded onto the Nook by connecting it via a USB cable (supplied with the device) to a personal computer, and transferring or copying them from the computer to the Nook. Documents and non-Kindle e-books may be loaded onto a Kindle using the same procedure, but Amazon also offers a far easier procedure: each Kindle is assigned an email address, and some formats of documents can simply be attached to an email sent to that address, after which they will appear on the device within minutes. [Luc adds: there’s a free way to do this if you’re willing to receive your documents or eBooks through WiFi only and not through Amazon’s cellular Whispernet by sending it to a @free.kindle.com address: see your Kindle documentation for details. Also note that purchases from Amazon for the Kindle are automatically downloaded to the device.]

The Nook is WiFi only, which means that it cannot connect to the B&N website and acquire and load new books unless it is connected to a WiFi network. The Kindle is available in two different connectivity options: WiFi only, or an always-available connection via 3G cell phone networks. The latter does not require any additional charge or plan for network access and use, but the 3G versions of the Kindle device are more expensive than the WiFi only versions. Both devices, when connected, offer some degree of web browsing capability.

The two devices differ most markedly in how they operate. The Color Nook is a touchscreen device that looks much like a tablet-style computer, and runs on a version of Google’s popular Android operating system, which is widely used in non-Apple smartphones and tablet computers. Indeed, Barnes & Noble has even advertised the Color Nook as the least expensive Android tablet available. That is a dangerous claim to make, although not because of the price. Compared to other Android devices, the Color Nook is either extremely underpowered or its capabilities have been grossly limited by Barnes & Noble’s restrictive control over the device.

Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook

As a touchscreen-controlled device, the Color Nook has almost no manual controls: just an on/off power button on one side, manual plus/minus volume control buttons on the opposite side—all of which are very discreetly built into the side edges of the Nook–and a “home” button at the bottom of the front screen. Other than these functions, all other navigation and use of the device is controlled via the touchscreen.

Touchscreen devices can be extremely easy and intuitive to use. Unfortunately, the Color Nook is not. In fact, I’ll be blunt: it is the worst touchscreen device I have ever seen. When reading e-books on the device, for example, you can, in theory, advance to the next page by either tapping the right side of the screen or by making a swiping motion across the screen from left to right. Similarly, to go back to a previous page you either tap the left side of the screen or swipe from right to left. In my experience, however, only the swiping motions are consistently reliable. A significant percentage of the time the Nook’s screen is so unresponsive that the tapping technique produces no result.

Many functions on the Nook must be performed through one of two onscreen menus. Neither of the menus are always visible. One menu appears at the bottom of the screen when a U-shaped on-screen symbol at the screen’s base is tapped. The other, which controls functions within a book or document, such as word look-up or highlighting, appears only if you touch and hold the exact center of the screen. Why, one wonders, could the menus not be consolidated, and who thought it was a good idea to require completely different methods and locations for accessing them? And even the few mechanical controls leave much to be desired. For example, to completely power off the Nook, one must press and hold the on/off switch for several seconds, then tap an onscreen confirmation button that appears, asking if you really, truly mean to turn the device off. More than once, I’ve thought I had powered the device off, when it actually was still running (to save power, the screen goes black after a very brief span of inactivity). That’s a problem, because the Nook has a relatively short period of battery life between chargings to begin with. Having it go dead when you erroneously think it is turned off is exasperating.

My personal dissatisfaction with the Nook stems in no small part from the fact that I have seen how delightfully easy to use an Android e-book reader, when well designed and executed, can be. I own an Android smartphone (a Galaxy S phone made by Samsung). In addition to the actual Kindle ebook reading device, Amazon offers free Kindle reader apps for a wide variety of devices, including smartphones, tablet computers, and personal computers. The Kindle app came preloaded on my phone, and I love it. Now, when I’m out and find myself in a situation where I have time to fill on my hands (waiting at the doctor or vet’s office, etc.), I can just pull out my phone, fire up the Kindle app, and read a bit on a book—it even automatically synchronizes to the last page I read on my actual Kindle. But most importantly, it is—unlike the Nook—SO effortless to use. The screen may be smaller than the Nook’s, but the font size, background color, and brightness are all easily adjustable, so I find the reading experience to be at least as comfortable as on the Nook’s larger screen. Both the smartphone and the Nook are backlit screens, though, so reading on them for an extended time can be more tiring to the eyes than reading a printed page.

The B&N Color Nook versus the free Amazon Kindle app on a smartphone

The Nook versus smartphone comparison raises another flaw with the Nook. One of the great things about smartphones is the numerous apps you can load and use on them. Their variety and functions are almost endless, and there are countless Android based apps available. As an Android device, the Nook should be able to use them, too. But no—Barnes & Noble does allow a few apps, sold through their store, to be installed and used on the Nook, but the selection is limited and is strictly controlled by B&N, in their own inimitable style. For example, Epicurious is an excellent cooking website with numerous recipes that are well organized, easy to search, and are even rated by users. There is a free Epicurious app available for Android smartphones—my wife loves it, and uses it all the time. Barnes & Noble now offers the Epicurious app through their store for the Color Nook, too—but they charge $5.99 for an app that is available free for other Android devices.

The actual Kindle e-book reader is a completely different kind of device than a touchscreen Nook or smartphone. It is controlled entirely by a manual keyboard below the screen and by various manual buttons, all of which are clearly labeled as to what function they perform. While the result may not present as sleek and elegant an appearance as the Color Nook, it works well and is easy to use. If I want to access the menu, I simply press the button labeled “Menu,” then navigate the options than appear onscreen using the multi-directional navigation and select button. If I want to go to the home page, where all books currently loaded on the device are listed and accessible (and from where I can access other Kindle books I’ve purchased, but which are not currently loaded on the device), I press the “Home” button.  If I wish to advance to the next page, or go back to the previous one, I press the forward or back buttons located on both sides of the device. The Kindle is like a good tool whose design is based on considerations of function first, and appearance second. I liken it to a hammer that so perfectly fits your hand and is so well balanced that you strike true with it every time. It’s a personal preference, but give me function over flash.

The Amazon Kindle, shown here mounted in the optional leather cover which includes a pull-out reading light for nighttime reading.

The Kindle uses e-ink technology, which offers several advantages and one disadvantage. The advantages are that the technology uses very little power, so the Kindle can be used for very long periods without needing to recharge the battery. And because the screen is not backlit, it is as easy on the eyes as a printed page—or in some ways, even easier, because you can increase the font size if you wish. Plus it can be read outside, in bright sunlight, something most backlit touchscreen devices manage poorly or not at all. And the Kindle is mch lighter in weight to the Color Nook, too.

The Color Nook does have one area of clear advantage: color. At the current time, e-ink readers such as the Kindle (Barnes & Noble also offer less expensive e-ink Nooks) are only black and white—or more accurately, multiple shades of grayscale. This means that a book’s cover, and color illustrations inside if the book has any, appear in black and white tones. If I intended to purchase an e-book with color illustrations, I would probably choose to buy it in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, since I do have a Color Nook. But for any other kind of e-book, the Kindle is my hands-down favorite and go-to e-book reader choice.

And it’s not just the devices themselves, although I do prefer the Kindle device over the Nook. I also think Amazon is a better store, and I much prefer dealing with it than with Barnes & Noble. Their search engines do a much better job of recommending new books to you, based on your past purchases and search efforts in their store, and Amazon has a well-established policy of trying to encourage, attract, and satisfy its customers. Barnes & Noble, in my opinion, does not. For example, they flood my e-mail inbox every week with new book recommendations and coupons (remember that you have to set up an account with the parent store to activate the device? This is what B&N does with your e-mail address that you must provide them). But the recommendations aren’t personalized to my reading history, they’re just whatever book(s) B&N is pushing that week (and pushing probably due to “placement” payments from the publishers, just as they do for prominent shelf placement of print books within their actual bricks and mortar stores). And what’s worse, the small print on all of the special “sale” coupons included with these emails specifies that Nook e-books are specifically excluded –they’re always full price. Talk about a turn-off!

In conclusion, if you want a good, easy to use e-book reader, backed by the best e-book supplier in the business, m advice is to get an Amazon Kindle. If you really have to have a flashier, state of the art color touchscreen device, I‘d suggest paying extra and getting a fully functional tablet device such as an iPad, and installing the free Kindle app on it. Or better yet, just wait a bit. Rumor has it that Amazon may be coming out with its own color e-reader by the end of this year. Based on their past record, they’re likely to get it right.

Judson Roberts is the author of the historical fiction series The Strongbow Saga (which is available in both Kindle and Nook e-book versions, as well as in print editions).

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Do Introductions Turn Away Readers?

Writing

My friend Nancy Fulda‘s collection of science fiction stories, Dead Men Don’t Cry, was recently featured on Why Is My Book Not Selling?, where in addition to comments about the cover and about the title sounding more like detective noir stories than science fiction stories, Vicki (the author of the site) said this:

I was disappointed that the book stared with explanation about the stories. It’s interesting, so I wouldn’t cut it, but I would definitely suggest putting that at the end and starting right away with the strongest story.

This such immediate and powerful sense to me–not just for Nancy’s book, but for most books–that I was surprised I hadn’t come across the idea before. After all, when someone opens a book of short stories, or a novel, or a non-fiction book about ironclads, what they almost certainly are interested in getting is short stories, a novel, or information about ironclads–not the author’s reflections on the importance of the book, the process for coming up with it, gratitude toward dozens of people the reader has never heard of, etc.

I don’t mean that there’s no place for this kind of thing. Personally, I’m often interested in it, but not before I’ve read the main part of the book. I think using afterwords instead of introductions and forewords is a brilliant idea.

Of course, readers can always skip this material–but isn’t there value to a book where, when the reader opens to the first page, there’s something immediately interesting? Further, putting it at the end may get it read more often, as compared with the reader skipping it at the beginning. It also provides the author with a chance to mention some of their other work.

I’ve fallen into the introduction trap myself with my book Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories*. After all, what’s a more interesting start to a book … ?

INTRODUCTION

Of course I enjoy immersing myself in a really good novel, but sometimes there’s not enough time to wallow properly.

Blah blah blah–who cares what the author enjoys, especially before reading any of his work?

or

THE WAR WITH THE CLOWNS

Sure, there was some temporary anxiety when they took over Trenton and Allentown to carve out their independent nation of Clowninnia, but it soon settled down into a national joke, a prank on a revolutionary scale, a riffing topic for late-night talk show hosts.

This might or might not be your cup of tea, but at least it’s a story!

On a related subject, at a workshop back in 2001, Orson Scott Card advised us attending writers to avoid writing prologues. While my personal point of view is that these can occasionally work well (this may or may not match Card’s opinion), I think by and large no prologue is a smart bet. The typical reason for including a prologue is that the author feels there’s information the reader needs to know about before the story starts. However, it seems that readers are rarely interested in studying up on background information in preparation for reading a story that may or may not turn out to interest them. It would be better to start the story right off and hand out information in an engaging way as you go–even though this is much more difficult than just dumping it at the beginning. Alternatively, have the prologue introduce the central conflict early on in a gripping way. Prologues do seem to work well sometimes, but I believe they should prove they can earn their keep by grabbing the reader’s attention, or else they should go.

*Bam! also suffers from a title that advertises only that the stories are very short, something I was originally thinking might be a prime selling point but which I suspect prevents the book from engaging anyone because there’s nothing in that description that suggests the stories might actually be interesting. I hope to rearrange and retitle the book in the near future.

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Finding Peace in Crazy-Making Situations

Self-motivation examples

I recently moved out of a house I was renting and am currently wrangling with my former landlord over getting my security deposit back. I’m certainly tempted to denounce him here, to list what I see as his misconduct and wrongdoings in an attempt to show you what a terrible person he is and how justified I am in being upset at him for causing me trouble over this issue. This way, however, lies madness (or at the least, unproductive angryness).

All the ingredients for crazy-making
Honestly, the issue of getting back the money I gave him in good faith is the kind of thing that can easily drive me nuts. It’s a combination of money matters plus uncertainty plus a feeling of being wronged, each of which has its own specialized cohort of broken ideas, things like “I need that money” and “He should stop trying to steal from me!” and “What if I can’t get him to play fair? Will we have to go to court? How long will that take? What kind of evidence will I have to prepare? Will the judge see it in the same light I do, or will I get screwed?” And on and on: fortune-telling, mind reading, “should” statements, magnification, and more broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“). It’s an ideal formula for driving me up the wall, in recent history running a close second to similar problems with the same landlord while we were still living in the house he owned. (It’s bad enough having someone you feel is untrustworthy is holding onto your money; it’s that much worse to have such a person holding onto your money and in charge of the building in which you and your family live.)

However, this issue is not driving me crazy. While I certainly haven’t quashed every last bit of anxiety about it, it isn’t keeping me awake at night and preventing me from focusing during the day or making me unhappy–nor should it bother me, except to the extent that I may need that to do the things I need to do with the situation. What tactics have I learned that are helping keep me sane?

1. Dig out the broken ideas, and keeping digging
Broken ideas are thoughts that force us deeper and deeper into negative emotions.  To clear my mind, I have to witness what I’m thinking, catch the problem thoughts in the act, and then replace them with more useful thoughts.

For instance,

“He’s going to steal my money!”

turns into

“He may or may not take money that I don’t think he should have.” (That’s a twofer: not trying to predict the future and not labeling the situation in a way that makes it sound as bad as possible.)

For me, that rephrasing gives an immediate–though partial–relief. The problem then is that the broken ideas keep cropping up and continue to need to be repaired. The good news is that the more I do this, the sparser and sparser those thoughts become.

2. Stop making my happiness conditional on outside situations
I don’t know if there’s anyone in the world who always gets everything they want, but somehow I suspect even a person like that wouldn’t always be happy. Since sometimes things are going to go my way and sometimes they aren’t, and since making my happiness dependent on something that might or might not happen in the future postpones that happiness indefinitely, it would be smart for me to be happy with whatever I have at the moment–even if discomfort, deprivation, or injustice are involved. It worked for me last night at Taekwondo practice when I was holding a stance and beginning to ache and feel tired from it; it also worked for me this morning when I reminded myself that my happiness doesn’t need to be a hostage to whether or not I get my full security deposit back.

3. Relax, stretch, meditate, move, breathe
Anxiety and stress can accumulate physically in the form of tense muscles, aches, cramped posture, and the like. When I remember to let go physically and mentally, take short walks (see “The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise“), breathe deeply, meditate (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“), and consciously relax my muscles, I begin to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Photo by notsogoodphotography

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Don’t Practice in a Vacuum

Strategies and goals

A few weeks ago, Deborah Walker wrote a blog post commenting on my Futurismic article “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage” in which she asked for (and got) readers’ thoughts on the importance of feedback for her writing. One of the commenters, Joe Romel, protested that “the difference between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson isn’t hours spent practicing, okay?”

I agree with Joe: it’s not just raw hours that count; it’s hours of deliberate practice (see “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“). In the Futurismic article, I talk about how Tiger Woods got his start in golf: his father, a professional golf coach, began training him before the age of 2. Tiger got in not only hours on the green, but crucially, tons of expert feedback. By contrast, Phil Mickelson started golf as a toddler too, but under the tutelage of his own father, Phil Mickelson Senior, of whom the best I’ve found said is that he “could play a little golf.” Both grew up and rose to the top of the golfing world, but Woods rose higher. More time on the green? Maybe, but Woods also had much more expert instruction from the beginning.

Compare this to Mozart’s and Salieri’s stories: Mozart was instructed from toddlerhood by his father, whose musical instruction was renowned across Europe; Salieri began learning music at a young age (though likely a few years later in life than Mozart) from his brother, who was a professional violinist but not especially experienced at teaching music or composition. Both rose to among the most well-known musicians of their time, but one vanished in obscurity until he was vilified in a movie about the other.

Applying this to writing, I think the point is not just to write a lot (which is certainly essential to becoming really good), but to get a lot of feedback of the best possible quality.

This relates directly to first readers and critique groups. As Joe says:

Anyway, I’ve done first readers and crit groups, and…well…meh. If you’re lucky enough to find a really good reader, whose opinion you trust and who will be completely honest with you, then great, but otherwise…well…meh. Same goes for critique groups.

Learning from readers who aren’t particularly in tune with what you’re trying to write or from writers who haven’t yet become very good themselves is not likely to be ideal, although it’s better than no feedback at all. It’s also essential to be actively interested in getting and using feedback. I admit, when I hand a story over for critique, what I’m really hoping for is that the reader will rush back to me, breathless and in tears, and insist that I recognize that the story is the best thing ever written in the history of the short story. Sadly, the result sometimes falls a little short of that–but at that point, if I’m going to learn anything, I have to switch from praise acceptance mode to self-examination mode.

My recommendations for feedback for writers are

  1. Find the best critique group you can,
  2. Send out work regularly to the publications or publishers you admire most in hopes of getting comments from editors even if you don’t sell the work,
  3. Discuss writing with people who know what they’re talking about (or find transcripts of such discussions), and
  4. Read books on writing by writers you respect.

This is more or less what I do myself, and so far so good, though I’m no Mozart or Tiger Woods (well, yet anyway).

Photo courtesy of NASA

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Toward a More Motivating Working Space (Sylvia Spruck Wrigley)

Self-motivation examples

My writer friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (I know, I have a lot of writer friends. It’s kind of cool for me, actually) who maintains the cool handwritten blog Can’t Backspace was recently reading my free eBook (or 99 cent eBook, if you buy it for the Kindle) The Writing Engine and let me know about one of her experiences with it:

I started reading The Writing Engine and got to “Your writing environment” and stopped. The bullet list really made me stop and look around.

So I wrote my thoughts on each point and then went through reorganising. I now have a big bag of rubbish, a clear cabinet in the TV room, an empty file drawer where my camera and peripherals now live instead of on my desk and a clean desk! I have a little mushroom corner with poppets and a bookshelf place of honour for James T. Kirk and a stack of notebooks and a bunch of new pens.

It’s all little things but I feel really good about it!

In case you’re interested, here’s the bulleted section she mentions. It’s followed by specific points to consider.

What could you do to the space where you work that would

  • make you happier or remind you of things that make you happy?
  • make it easier to concentrate?
  • put things more easily to hand or more conveniently out of the way?
  • attract you to your work?
  • remind you of why you do the work you do? or
  • put you in a good mood or a frame of mind to focus?

 

I was curious to see the details, so asked for a photo, which she obligingly supplied:

She added:

For the full effect, you need to know that the bookshelf was full of books that I rarely refer to and I had to clear the right side of my desk in order to write in a notebook there (in truth, I often got up and moved to the dining room table). I should have taken a before photograph but I didn’t realise how much junk I had!

I filed all my stationary/envelopes in the filing cabinet instead of in the desk drawers and I’ve taken the “desk stuff” that I generally need and put it in the drawers for fast access. I moved almost all of the books into the main bookshelf (which is not very far away) and then just spread around happy things that make me smile.

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On Mental Paralysis and Choosing Tasks at Random

Resources

Gustav at the Fiction-Writing Directorate offers this useful-and-weirdly-entertaining post: “The Phrenologist’s Apprentice: The Directorate Guide to Getting Enough Done,” which John Burridge kindly pointed out in comments to a recent post of mine.

The pitfall of the article above is the danger of getting the wrong things done, as described in the post John replied to (“When Being Productive is Just Another Way to Procrastinate“), but it still makes a fair point. Gustav offers this discussion of the pitfall:

“Absurd!” Frederick cried. “Why, if I picked tasks at random—“

“—With synchronicity,” I corrected.

“With synchronicity,” he continued, “how could I ensure that important tasks would get done?”

“I understand your skepticism,” I said. “But it seems to me that you spend all your time weeping and paralyzed, so nothing is getting done, important or otherwise. Is that not true?”

He nodded, ashamed.

“This way, you will achieve at least a modicum of success. However, I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised at how often this method presents you with precisely the right task. Synchronicity, lad.”

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When Being Productive is Just Another Way to Procrastinate

Strategies and goals

Too many tasks
One of the problems with having a lot of things to do is that the stress of not doing the rest of your tasks can make it hard to focus on any one task. For instance, if I have edits to complete on a writing project and I also need to finish my bimonthly budget (I keep a budget in a spreadsheet to get a better idea of where my money’s about to go), working on either task can be difficult because I worry about needing to complete the other.

This problem gets much worse when there are a lot more than two things that should be done right away. Having recently taken several vacation days to spend time with family members, I’ve come back to my tasks this week facing just this kind of situation.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: if I can get truly involved and engaged in one task (like writing this post, for instance), my focus on that task can prevent other issues from distracting me. This is a very good solution to the problem, but it contains one pitfall: picking the wrong task.

Picking the wrong task
If I have a list of things that need to be done, and if I notice one that particularly catches my interest, start in on that one, get engaged with it, and see it through to completion, that’s great–unless that task isn’t high on my priority list, in which case it’s progress of a kind, but it’s also preventing me from getting my top tasks finished.

An example: if I have edits one a writing piece that are due tomorrow, checks that need to be sent out today, and an upcoming appointment that needs to be rescheduled, it’s all too easy for me to look at my task list and see an item like “Research Google+” (a useful thing to do in terms of keeping abreast of important social computing and Internet promotion developments) and get caught up in that. As useful as the research may be, by the time I’m done it may be too late to reschedule my appointment, I may not get the checks in the mail on time, and/or I might miss my writing deadline. My productivity has actually caused me harm in this case.

The worst thing about this kind of problem is that it uses some of the best motivational tools and therefore feels really good. While I’m doing the not-important task, I may be getting excited and engrossed. I may be highly productive and focused, all while working on a truly useful task. And yet I’m shooting myself in the foot.

Picking the right task
What’s the solution? Turning my attention to the single most important task I have to do and getting engaged with that instead. Does this mean that my enthusiasm and energy that I’ve just started to put into the lower-priority task are lost? Sadly, yes. Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and changing tasks generally means getting out of our previous mindset and getting into a new one, which is not a trivial (or instantly reversible) process.

Yet the payoffs of taking care of the most important and/or pressing things first are great, and this kind of change is well worth the effort.

How to change focus to a different task
One good way to quickly get interested in a different task is to do it in very small, easily-tackled steps, not forcing anything. The first question to ask ourselves is “What would the single most beneficial task be that I could do right now, all things considered?” If there are so many tasks that it’s difficult to pick just one,  one option is to make a list of the front runners and then pick the top task for the moment from that list–that is, to narrow down the field. It sometimes helps to remind ourselves that we can only really do one thing effectively at a time, so our job is only to focus on the one best choice for the moment.

With that top task chosen, there are a couple of ways to proceed easily, depending on the kind of task. If it’s something that requires a series of known steps, then it can work very well to just ask ourselves “What’s the next small step I would take if I wanted to get this task done now?” Whether it’s taking out a file, looking up a phone number, getting the shovel out of the garage, or opening a document in a word processing program, choosing the smallest possible task makes getting started on that task fairly easy. From there the process can be repeated until we feel engaged and have some momentum.

The other way to proceed, which is helpful for tasks that don’t readily break down into easy steps, is to ask “What would it look like if I were working constructively on this?” Imagining ourselves working on the task activates a lot of the same mental processes we use to actually do the task. Getting focused on the task in this way makes it much easier to get started.

Look to the top
Regardless of how we involve ourselves in our top tasks, the key takeaway is that focusing on something low-priority can sap energy, time, focus, and success away from the things that really need to get done, leading to a sense of working hard and still always being behind. Mastering the habit of looking to our top priorities first will nip this kind of constructive procrastination in the bud.

Photo by dsevilla

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