An article in the New York Times by Laura Vanderkam suggests maybe we need to re-think our attitude toward time.
She spent a full year noting how she uses her time in half-hour blocks. Even though she has four children under the age of 8 and a career, her conclusion was, "the stories I told myself about where my time went weren't always true. The hour-by-hour rhythm of my life was not quite as hectic as I thought."
This is in line with studies that show we tend to overestimate how much time we spend working. In one case, people estimated they were working 75 hours a week but actually it was 50.
Before she analyzed her data, Vanderkam thought she probably was working 45 to 50 hours a week; in fact, she averaged 40.
She suggests tracking your time for at least a week to get a more accurate picture of how you're actually using your hours. It might show that you're getting more sleep than you think, or that you are not working as much as you think--it or could reveal the opposite. Either way, it might suggest some adjustments or at least make you feel less frazzled.
One thing is certain: everybody's time runs out.
It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare's Richard II: "I have wasted time, now time doth waste me."
But what constitutes wasting time?
Looking out the window and daydreaming, or not looking out of the window and daydreaming?
Writing a book that may never get published, or not writing a book just because it may never get published?
Going out with your friend for a coffee or a beer--or not going out with your friend for a coffee or a beer?
Only you have the answer.
As you may be aware, recently all of my websites were hacked and the home pages replaced with an image of an evil grinning cat. My tech consultant says hackers must have had a way of getting into the server (which was at Hostgator--I've switched now, but I don't think any hosting company is immune). Almost all the sites are back up and functioning, but this morning I ran across a very clever phishing ploy that nearly got me.
It was from a friend and the subject line was "FYI [and the name of a project he did on which I had some input]".
The body of the message repeated this information and there was a document attached. When I clicked on it, I was sent (apparently) to Google with a message that included my name, saying that I'd been signed out of Gmail and needed to sign back in with my password. I looked at the address of origin and it said accounts.google.com. The graphics were right and there were no mistakes in spelling, etc.
The body of the message repeated this information and his phone number, and there was a document attached. When I clicked on it, I was sent (apparently) to Google with a message that included my name, saying that I'd been signed out of Gmail and needed to sign back in with my password. I looked at the address of origin and it said accounts.google.com. The graphics were right and there were no mistakes in spelling, etc.
Probably if I hadn't been hacked so recently I would have gone ahead but I realized that if I'd actually been signed out, I shouldn't be able to open any of the other emails. I clicked on another email. It opened.
I emailed my friend and, sure enough, he's been hacked. It was the most realistic fake I've seen so far.
I do have double sign-in on Gmail--in addition to the password, I have to enter a code that they send to my phone, so I'm not sure whether the hackers would have had a way around that, but I don't really want to find out.
Hackers are getting more and more sophisticated, so if you have any doubts (or even if you don't), it's worth double-checking!
What's sexy is new ideas, breakthroughs, innovation. This paragraph from Farnam Street Brain Food newsletter reminded me that maintenance matters, too:
Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more — "We overvalue innovation; we undervalue the routine work that keeps the built world going. Innovation is “only a small piece of what happens with technology”. Most of what happens is repair and maintenance when innovation becomes infrastructure. Just as we celebrate innovators, so we should celebrate maintainers, “those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”"
I think this applies to individuals as well as to society as a whole. For instance, there are lots of little things you need to do in order to maintain a writing practice, and they're not sexy or new. They include keeping good records, keeping up with what's happening in the field, getting enough sleep, exercising, and remembering to stand up and move every hour or so.
It also applies to continuing to write when you get to the hard parts, avoiding letting your inner critic stop you, and finishing and rewriting what you already have instead of moving on the more appealing choice of starting something new.
We'll never win a prize for doing any of those, but they help pave the way for the possibility that we will create something good.
I'm always interested in studies that can help sedentary types like most of us writers remain in good health, and this time there are two encouraging results, one about exercise, one about chocolate.
One study found that even one minute of vigorous exercise has measurable positive effects. That's not to say you need to exercise for only a minute a day, but it does suggest that you need not be a slave to the treadmill...and that a solid couple of minutes of fast pacing and enthusiastic swearing when a rejection comes in is a good thing.
Hmm, maybe I should make a DVD: The Rejection Workout.
HELLO CHOCOLATE, MY OLD FRIEND
A new study suggests that Including a small amount of chocolate each day could help prevent diabetes and insulin resistance. This is in addition to previous findings that eating up to 100 g of chocolate every day is linked to lowered heart disease, and that eating a moderate amount of chocolate each week may be associated with a lower risk of stroke in men.
If you're annoyed by the references to small or moderate amounts, you can fall back on another study that showed high levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a one-third reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. Yes, that one's my favorite, too.
It's true that they're all referring to dark chocolate, with 70% or more cocoa content. This doesn't taste as good as regular chocolate but if that's the only kind you eat, you first get used to the taste and then you enjoy it.
By the way, you can also buy raw cocoa powder to integrate into smoothies. Not very sweet, but good for you. For sweet flavor, I recommend Xlitol. It sounds like it should be the name of the evil ruler of planet in a cheap sci-fi movie, but it's actually good stuff.
According to Wikipedia: "Unlike other natural or synthetic sweeteners, xylitol is actively beneficial for dental health by reducing caries (cavities) to a third in regular use and helpful to remineralization...A study in rats found that xylitol had reduced or eliminated side effects compared to other artificial sweeteners, and lower caloric value and cariogenicity than sucrose."
THE IDEAL WORKOUT FOR WRITERS
There we have it, the ideal workout for writers: run to your grocery store to get some dark chocolate and eat it when you get back. Then start writing.
It’s Depression Week, not a week for everybody to get depressed but rather to make people more aware of the illness. I have personal experience with it, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.
At a low level, it saps your strength and confidence so you’re operating at maybe 70% of your capacity. It can sneak up on you and it can take a long time before you realize what’s happening.
At a medium level, you’re operating at 50% or so. Things pile up, you slow down or stop making contacts with friends, box sets of TV series have a sudden appeal.
At a high level, it can be a kind of paralysis, making getting out of bed or doing the simplest things seem like a huge undertaking.
It’s usually only if you’re at the high level that other people notice.
Medication can be helpful, but there is still a lot of controversy about the drugs’ effectiveness and side effects. In my experience, they can take a bit of the edge off but they’re far from a cure. Counselling, especially cognitive behaviour therapy, can be useful. Exercise has been shown to help, although it can be hard of motivate yourself to do it when you’re in the midst of depression.
There are some things NOT to say to a depressed person, no matter how well-intentioned these comments may be:
1: ”You really have nothing to be depressed about.”
Depression doesn’t have to be about any specific incident or situation, so this is like saying, “You have nothing to have measles about.”
2: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Possibly, but there may be several shades of darker coming from where that person is at the time.
3: “Lots of people are in worse situations than you.”
Let me just poke you in the eye and remind you that some people have been poked in BOTH eyes, and we’ll see how much better that makes you feel.
4: “You should get out more, have more fun!”
That’s a bit like telling a person with a broken leg, “You should run more.”
5: “This, too, shall pass.”
Yep, and then the better times, too, shall pass. However, one of the few advantages of having survived a number of episodes of depression is the awareness that it will pass—the first time it hits you, you assume you’re going to feel like that forever, which is what leads to many suicides.
6: You should try St. John’s Wort/ get acupuncture / have Reiki treatments / take long baths --it really helped my cousin/ uncle/ sister/ brother.
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting treatments because some of these things do seem to help some people. The problem is that sometimes this is said in a tone that suggests you’re dealing with an easily solved little condition.
I think the only thing that is helpful to say is that you care about the person and you’re there for them if they would like to talk or take refuge if things get too difficult for them to handle.
The problem is that in the darkest phases of depression it’s not that you think there’s nobody willing to help, it’s that you believe nobody can help. Even so, knowing there are people in your life who stand by you even when you’re not functioning fully can be comforting.
If a depressed person chooses to talk about their feelings, understanding and empathy is helpful. Trying to rebut their feelings with logic isn’t. And sometimes a hug is better than a lot of words.
If you are suffering from depression, do reach out to your doctor and consider getting counselling even if you feel there’s no point. That’s one of the symptoms of deep depression, and leaving it untreated is no different from trying to ignore a broken arm. At worst, you have nothing to lose; at best, you'll find that people care and there are methods that help you get back to feeling better and participating fully in life.
As a comment on one of my older posts, a reader asked which would you rather have: a handful of book sales of your self-published book on Amazon, or thousands of readers gained by giving the book away?
People download tons of free ebooks and never actually read any of them. I was on the mailing list of several free ebook services but I've unsubscribed because my Kindle is full of books (mostly not free ones) that I haven't had time to read yet. So going free may lead to thousands of downloads, but nobody knows how many of those will ever be read.
Free as a way to prime the pump
If you can manage to target readers effectively and if you have several books in the same genre, it can make sense to give the first one away free in hopes that readers will then go on to buy others.
However, targeting readers these days costs money. One expert I talked to feels that currently Facebook ads are the best medium for this. You can risk a relatively small amount of money to see whether the ads lead to sales and justify the investment.
In his opinion, free social media doesn't work for unknown authors of fiction (although I'm sure, as always, there's are exceptions).
The other point this raises is why this choice seems to come up only for writers and artists. I don't think shoemakers debate whether it's better to charge for their shoes or give them away so they can have the satisfaction of seeing more people wearing them. They expect to be paid for providing something of value, and I think it's reasonable for authors to expect the same.
Of course, that requires authors to convince potential buyers that what they are offering does have value. That's going to require us to be as creative in marketing as we are in spinning stories.
We keep hearing that exercise is good for your brain as well as the rest of your body, but what kind of exercise is best?
A study in Finland looked at three types of exercises. The subjects were rats, so this may or may not apply to humans, although we seem to have an embarrassing similarity to rats In lots of ways.
They tested the brain's ability to develop new nerve cells. Running or jogging had the best results (they didn’t say whether the rats wore little jogging shorts).
Next best was high-intensity interval training.
Weight training didn’t increase nerve cells but presumably made it easier for those rats to push the other ones around.
Journalist Michael Grothaus decided to check whether he’d experience the same benefits. He already walked a lot, but for seven days he ran 45 minutes a day. The next week he did weight training four times. The third week he did 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training daily.
He didn’t stick to any of them long enough to increase nerve cells, and there was no measurement other than how he felt, so as a study it’s pretty worthless. However, running made him feel more clear mentally. He didn’t get that from weight training or high-intensity interval training. You can read his full account here.
If you’ve been thinking about taking up some exercise perhaps his experience and that of the rats might inspire you to get started.
I’ve been doing weight training three times a week for a long time, and I feel it helps me to stay healthy, especially as I don’t do anything else more physically demanding than working the TV remote. I lie, I don’t even do that; the remote is firmly in my partner’s control.
I’m just about to add some cardio again (cross trainer and rowing in the gym) because when I’ve done that consistently in the past it definitely improved my mood and focus.
The trick, of course, is finding what makes you feel good because that's also most likely what you'll continue to do consistently.
We know that successful people are not immune to fearing failure, so how do they still manage to succeed?
This is my third and last post that steals, er, curates, the ideas proposed by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his TED talk. He says that successful people do fear failure…but, even more, they fear not having tried.
These people can put aside their fear long enough to come up with lots of ideas and lots of projects. They look at bad ideas as part of the process, and the same goes for rejection and failure. They see those as steps on the road to success.
They don't give up, so if one day they face death without having realized their dream, well, at least they will know they gave it their best shot. A study of the regrets of very old people backs this up--most of them said they regretted more the things they didn't do than the things they did.
My quest for 100 rejections
I’ve recently put this into action with something that I was finding depressing—the fact that so far agents have failed to grasp the greatness of my YA novel. I'd received about a dozen rejections, most in the form of hearing nothing back.
Rather than suffer with each new rejection, I decided I to go for 100 rejections. I don’t rule out the idea of rewriting the manuscript if I get useful feedback, and I’m moving forward on other projects at the same time. If some astute agent wants to handle it before I get to 100, that’s fine, too. But in the meantime, it allows me to be playful and philosophical instead of depressed.
Three ways to re-frame a problem
The cliché, “It’s all how you look at it,” is true, as is the maxim, “It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to what happens.” (Actually, it IS partly about what happens, but your response is even more important.)
In the previous post, I mentioned “the best-friend strategy,” in which you consider your own problem as though it belonged to your best friend, and decide what advice you’d give them. That’s one example of re-framing.
Another is to change the time context of whatever is happening. If you are upset about something, imagine going forward a month in time. Do you think it will still upset you? What about six months from now? A year from now? In many cases, putting it into perspective as one of many things that are happening and will happen brings down your anxiety level immediately.
The third re-frame is good for situations in which you can’t see the way forward.You're taking something you consider impossible and re-frame it as possible.
Even if you have come to the conclusion there is nothing you can do about it, imagine you’re interviewing yourself and ask, “But if you could, how would you do it?”
You repeat the question until you come up with something. Here’s an example:
"I’d like to take a two-week vacation in Europe this summer, but I can’t, I don’t have the money."
But if you could, how would you do it?
But if you could, how would you do it?
"I’d have to find a way that’s free or really, really cheap. And the places I want to go aren’t cheap."
If you could find a way to go free or really cheaply, how would you do it?
"I’d have to find somebody who has a place who’d let me stay, but I don’t know anybody like that."
If you could look for somebody who has a place to let you stay free, how would you do it?
"Well, maybe I could do some work for them, but I really want to enjoy myself…wait a minute, there are house-swaps and house-sitting agencies…"
A solution may not come quite that quickly, but often if you persist you will find a way.
REFRAMING IN THE FACE OF DISASTER
Admittedly, there are situations that are just plain awful, but even in those a re-frame can be helpful.
For instance, the Irish practice of holding a wake for the departed moves the emphasis from grief for what we have lost to a celebration of what we had. That doesn’t negate the loss, but it helps balance it with a more positive element.
The reframes that work in the face of true disaster don’t deny that terrible things happen, but they can help us remember that sooner or later the wheel of fate will turn.
In a Daily Mail article about a new contest for first-time writers, best-selling author Lisa Jewell shared this advice:
"Don’t write for the publishers and don’t try to second guess the market; it’s elusive and impossible to pin down.
Just write what’s in your head and what’s in your heart and give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages, whether it’s love for your characters or a need to find out what happened ten years ago or what happens next."
Jewell doesn't mention support explicitly but it's obvious from her account of her own writing history that it played an important role. When she sent out the first chapters of her book, she had nine rejections but the tenth agent wanted to read the whole book. That motivated her to finish it, although it took another year.
She says, "A friend in Australia read my daily output and cheered me on."
That book was Ralph's Party, which got her a six-figure advance for two novels and eventually sold more than 250,000 copies the first year it was out. Her newest novel is The Girls. It will be available from May 6, 2016.
Jewell says, "Don't worry if it feels impossible. It's supposed to feel that way."
The contest for first-time novelists
The contest has a first prize of £20,000 and guaranteed publication, and is free to enter. Details are here. Entries must be received by April 16, 2016, and if your novel isn't finished you must be able to complete it by October 30, 2016.
This is one of those, "Is it just me?" quandaries, where you wonder whether what you're experiencing is universal, or personal and probably you'll just embarrass yourself by mentioning it. I'm talking about how disappointing my Future Self often turns out to be when he turns into my Present Self.
Here's an example. I belong to a lot of MeetUp groups. If you haven't heard of those, check out MeetUp.com, and you'll find hundreds, probably thousands, of groups of people interested in specific topics and activities, like photography, art, cooking and just about every other subject you can imagine.
I'll see something interesting scheduled for a week from now, like an interesting talk or a visit to a gallery or a mini-workshop.
I imagine my Future Self going to the event, meeting people, enjoying the activity.
My Future Self is a gregarious, fine fellow, a man of the world who pursues many interests. I sign him up for the event and we are both happy.
When it's time to go to the event, my Future Self has turned into my Present Self, and something has definitely gone wrong in the interim.
My future self is unconcerned with trivial details like the weather. My Present Self looks out the window and sees that it's drizzling and thinks, 'Do I really want to go out? '
Whereas my Future Self was certain he would meet interesting new people, my Present Self remembers that time I went to an event and got buttonholed for thirty minutes by The World's Most Boring Man Who Also Had Bad Breath.
My Future Self didn't bother with the details of how he would get to the venue. My Present Self looks at the Underground map and sees he'd have to change twice and walk twenty minutes.
My Present Self decides to stay home and Get Things Done. He can envision the short-term Future Self catching up on paperwork, clearing up the home office, getting a start on organizing those documents for the tax return. Yes, we have made the right decision and the Future Self will get to work right after dinner!
After dinner, the former Future Self notices that one of our favorite movies is starting on BBC2. When the movie ends he decides it's too late to get started on any work, it'll be best to leave it for tomorrow.
My Future Self was going to finish this post with a brilliant solution to this problem, but once again he's let us down.
I'm pretty sure he'll come up with it tomorrow.
This can be a rough time of year for some people. If that's you, I'd like to encourage you to give yourself this gift:
Be as kind to yourself as you are to your friends.
Once a day or so, check how you've been treating yourself.
If you find yourself hosting a harsh inner critic and you haven't been able to overcome it, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) this month--December 2015--and I'll send you a present: my downloadable mp3 program on how to tame your harsh inner critic.
Usually this costs $69, but there's no catch, I won't bombard you with offers of paid products, I won't share your email address with anybody else, it's just a little gift. Hmm, according to the principle...now I have to give myself a present, too. Win-win!
Have you ever come to the end of the year only to find that many of the things you intended to do somehow fell by the wayside and you're pretty much at the same point with them as you were at the end of the previous year? I have.
Then it's hard to get excited about setting new goals because in the back of our minds is the nagging suspicion that it'll just end the same way.
Obviously, it's a busy time, and 18 days isn't very long, so I'm not suggesting setting some humungous task for ourselves--that would be a prescription for more disappointment. But getting a little head start on something you care about could help you feel better about it at the beginning of the year, and build some momentum going into January.
I'LL SHOW YOU MINE
I have one commissioned project to finish by the end of this month, a rewrite of a script that I originally wrote about fifteen years ago, but in addition to that my head-start goal is to finish the manuscript of a children's book I've been working on, on and off, for a while. Having a complete draft of that on January 1 would give me a good feeling.
WANT TO SHOW ME YOURS?
What would do the same for you? Why not add a bit of accountability by adding it in the comments section--I'll check back on January 1!
A report on Cnet news says that an artificial intelligence program called Sheherazade is able to create interactive choose-your-own adventure fiction.
It's not quite ready to kick us out of our chairs yet. According to a paper published by the program's creators, "At this point, human-authored narrative still remains the most cost-effective means of generating an interactive narrative experience."
Sure, because cost-effectiveness is how to judge fiction. Actually, given how little most writers earn, it's hard to imagine anything being more cost-effective.
Still, we can't be complacent. Here's how the paper sees the future:
"Open interactive narrative shows promise in reducing authorial burden in the near future."
Authorial burden? I didn't even realize that writing was a burden...
It goes on, "Sheherazade-IF and the lessons we learned in creating and evaluating it serve as a first step in creating human-quality interactive narrative with almost no human authoring required."
What will we writers do with all that free time once AI has freed us from the heavy lifting involved in making up stories? Perhaps join a conspiracy to destroy the robots?
Well, they've ruined food for us, and drinking, and being in the sun, so I guess it was only a matter of time before scientists would get around to finding out that sitting is bad for us as well. This a topic of special interest to writers, since we spend most of our working time on our posteriors.
We're talking about serious stuff here: "Studies and reviews have shown that higher levels of sitting are linked with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and even an early death, independently of whether a person takes regular exercise," says ScienceDaily. On the psychological level, sitting down is associated with an increased risk of anxiety.
What's a writer to do? Here's a round-up of the most recent research and some suggestions for minimizing the dangers.
How can you reduce the amount of time you spend sitting down? Some people use sit-stand desks. Although the desks designed for this are expensive, there are inexpensive stands you can put on your normal desk.
You can also stand during your breaks. Linking it to something you like to do or do regularly, like making phone calls or checking your email or social media, makes it easier to remember. You could also set a repeating alarm on your phone or computer to remind you to stand at various points in your work day.
A study at the University of Missouri-Columbia reports that when you sit for six straight hours it impairs your vascular function. The good news: walking for ten minutes after all that sitting restores your vascular health.
If you work in an office, there's a reasonable chance that at the end of the day you'll walk ten minutes to the bus stop or train station, but if you drive and it takes you only a couple of minutes to get to your car (or if, like me, you work at home), walk around for ten minutes at the end of the day.
A study at the University of Utah suggests that "spending two minutes of walking each hour is associated with a 33% lower chance of dying" --presumably they mean dying prematurely...
The study's authors suggest walking for two minutes an hour as well as getting the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week.
For writers, pacing while trying to figure out the next scene or chapter sounds like a good strategy.
Another study, this one by the National Institutes for Health, says taking a three-minute break to walk in the middle of sedentary activity can improve children's blood sugar levels and reduce their risk of getting diabetes--so drag your kids away from the X-Box or Playstation and make them walk around with you.
THE FIDGETING SOLUTION
A study at the University of Leeds suggests that fidgeting may be enough to stop long bouts of sitting from shortening your life.
If you don't fidget, should you start? I suspect either you're a fidgeter or you're not and the downside of being one (like making people around you nervous or annoying them) probably outweighs the benefits, so I'd go for one of the other solutions above.
PASS IT ON
If you know somebody who spends a lot of time sitting, why not pass this along to them?