Back to School — Getting Bedtime Back on Track

This is the last week of summer for Oakland Public Schools — school starts on Monday. We let bedtime for our six-year-old slip a little later over most of the summer. Even on days she had camp, the camp drop-off was usually later than her regular 8:30am school day. Like many kids she gets a huge energy burst right as it’s time to go to bed, so bedtime is often a struggle.

Ever since we did our no artificial light experiment several years ago, we’ve been turning lights way down in the evening. Even so, our daughter wasn’t getting to sleep until 9:45pm up until last week. Knowing we’d all have to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 7am once school began, we started to worry about how to get back on schedule.

Luckily we remembered how well turning off the lights had worked in terms of getting all of us to bed earlier, so we tried that. If our daughter hadn’t already brushed her teeth before the sun went down, we allowed her to bring her flashlight to the bathroom, but no overhead lights, no lamps, etc. When it’s dark, it’s time for sleep … so get the book reading in early while you still can.

We’ve added some fun rituals: lighting candles, a few minutes reading by a low-lumen wind-up flashlight, the adventure of getting to bed in the semi-dark.

Short explanation: blue-wavelength light (emitted by light bulbs and screens, but not candles) prevents serotonin from converting into melatonin. The latter makes you sleepy. So keeping lights off in the evening helps you get sleepy (and thus go to sleep) earlier. Think camping.

The other factor is FOMO: fear-of-missing-out. With all the lights off in the house, our daughter is less concerned with what we are doing while she’s supposed to be going to sleep. A dark house seems more boring, which in this case is a good thing.

So the experiment is working … we’ve shaved 15 minutes off of bedtime every night since we started, and last night she was asleep by 8:45. The goal is 8:30 so we’re getting close. Most kids her age need at least 10 hours (at least if you want a kid in a good mood who can pay attention to stuff), so that works.

As for myself and Kia, we’re still staying up late on the laptops, or reading. I’d like to be getting to sleep a little earlier myself (if for no other reason than to get up before my kid and get some writing in), so I’ll probably put a “devices off by 10pm” rule in place for myself. Even with f.lux installed, computers keep me up later than just reading by lamp light.

How to Increase Your Daily Word Count by 75%

Recently (twenty-one days ago), I modified my morning writing routine according to advice by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. The change I made was simple: swap out one behavior (fiction writing) for another (surfing the internet) in response to the trigger of preparing and drinking coffee.

My previous routine was something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation (just a few minutes) and journal writing/day notes (also very short).
  3. Shower and dress, have first coffee.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Drink coffee while reading the entire internet, until heart is racing and mind is full of bad news and cute animal pictures.
  6. Force self to begin writing. Write for 30-60 minutes until it’s time for lunch.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

This actually wasn’t a bad routine. I completed the first half of my current novel this way! I always felt great after meeting my tiny word count quota, and the writing process flowed once I got started (no writer’s block, no shortage of ideas).

But I knew that I was wasting time and that I could do better. In fact, I did better last year, averaging 726 words a day from May 2, 2013 through August 10, 2013. Recently, I knew I’d been writing much less than that. What changed? Part of the problem was that I was writing a sequel, and thus having to check the previous novel frequently to maintain continuity. I was also working with a looser outline this time, writing more by the seat of my pants. I had also lowered my daily quota. But the main problem was that I was getting a late start and wasting time.

Watching the Jonathan Fields interview with Duhigg provided the tool I needed to change. Coffee was a major behavioral trigger for me, but the behavior it was triggering wasn’t productive. So needed to substitute one behavior for another.

At first, effectively, this meant withholding coffee until I had actually started the writing ritual (opening documents, recording my start time, reading previous day’s work, etc.). But over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that the first sip of coffee now propels me into my work. Weird, freaky, easy. I’m back in a good groove.

I wanted to wait a few weeks before reporting any results to make sure the behavior change and productivity boost wasn’t a fluke. Here are the actual results.

Twenty-one days before starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 6,481
Average daily word count: 309
Average start time: 11:33am

Twenty-one days after starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 11,437
Average daily word count: 545
Average start time: 9:20am

Feel free to check my math, but that’s a 75% boost in word count, and I’m definitely getting an earlier start.

The new morning routine looks something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation and journal writing/day notes.
  3. Shower and dress.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Check email, quick look at most interesting news items.
  6. Drink coffee and write fiction for 1-2 hours.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

What’s Your Trigger?

What I recommend is not necessarily that you tie your creative process to caffeine intake, but rather that you note what environmental and chemical cues already exist in your routine and then tie your creative process to those cues. If you have a bad habit you’d like to substitute with a new behavior, think about what triggers the cigarette smoking, doughnut eating, or internet browsing. Waking up? The startup chime of your computer? The whistle of the tea kettle? What do those particular sights, sounds, and smells propel you to do?

If Duhigg is right, we can’t just “turn off” our reaction to the cue, but we can modify our behavior so that we do something else in response.

Should You Use a Word Quota? What’s the Right Number?

My daily word count may look laughably small to some professional writers. Stephen King’s quota is 2000 words per day, every day. My quota is 600 words/day, most days (weekends and holidays I still write and revise, but without a quota).

My current monthly goal is 15,000 words. That gives me a rough draft in approximately 6 or 7 months. That’s slower than King recommends for a first draft (in On Writing, he states that he likes to bang out a draft in 3-4 months), but it’s where I’m at right now.

Last year, when my daily average word count was higher, I was working with a higher quota (1000 words a day), but missing it a lot. I lowered my quota with the thought that meeting an easy goal provides motivation and ultimately increases productivity, but maybe I made it too low.

Ideally I’d like to consistently hit 1000 words/day without expending too much willpower. Maybe I just need to type faster. As a first step I’m considering raising my quota to 800 words/day.

At the moment I have ideas and rough notes for 17 novels. I’d love to achieve a pace of one novel per year. I realize I’m getting ahead of myself; I haven’t published any fiction, I don’t have an agent or connections. But what I’m doing now is working the process. If I succeed at fiction writing the reward will be more fiction writing, so I might as well get a good system going.

After I finish my current draft I plan to write music for a couple months while it’s being read. Ideally I’d like to get into some kind of regular production schedule where fiction writing is the main activity but there are breaks for immersion into music production, other kinds of writing, collaborative projects, and the like. While I haven’t yet worked out the details, what is clear to me is that I need a daily creative practice (with some intensity and pressure and measurable output) to maintain my mental health, wits, and love of life.

Please share your own thoughts, questions, and experiences in the comments.

Happy Wednesday!

Happy Wednesday to you! Yes there is a reason for using a picture of a polar bear with a milk crate.

Happy Wednesday to you! Yes there is a reason for the polar bear with milk crate.

For me, Wednesday is a happy day. For many years DJ Spesh and I hosted a weekly party at 111 Minna in San Francisco every Wednesday (Qoöl) and these days Wednesday is my bi-weekly D&D game (check out the new Wizards of the Coast site that went up today). And even if it’s a just a “regular” workday, I enjoy most of my work. So I don’t mind being in the middle of the work week.

In that spirit I’d like to share a secret with you. Recently, my label Loöq Records has been giving away free tracks every Wednesday. Yes, you have to join our mailing list, but we’re too lazy to send out more than one email every couple weeks (and it’s usually only one sentence long). Entering your email multiple times in the widget won’t result in duplicate emails — you can download as many of the tracks as you want.

So why the polar bear with the milk crate? Back in the day being a DJ meant stealing milk crates for vinyl storage and transport. Don’t judge — everybody did it! (My belated apologies to the grocery industry.) These days getting great music is much easier. Just some clicking. Or if you’d like to support hardworking artists, pay a couple bucks and then click. No milk crates required.

Happy Wednesday to you!

Habit Bending — Manipulate the Trigger and the Reward

Coffee is the trigger. Chocolate is the reward.

Coffee is the trigger. Chocolate is the reward.

As regular readers know, I’m in the process of establishing a daily writing habit. I’m doing decently well; on most days I write between 600-1000 words of fiction in the morning. Keeping a writing log has been very helpful on a day-to-day basis, and having a 5-year commitment has been equally helpful in terms of big-picture thinking and motivation.

Still, I’m ironing the kinks out of the system. My biggest issue has been starting work in the late morning (usually after 10am, sometimes as late as 11:30am) when there is nothing preventing me from starting as early as 8:45am. This doesn’t always mean I’m wasting time. Sometimes I’m productive during that morning time (just not writing fiction), but sometimes I am wasting time (on reddit or other online distractions).

I’ve tried using site-blocking software, or just turning off my wi-fi. This works well once I’ve started, especially in terms of preventing tangential “research” that can so easily lead to checking email, clicking on links, etc. If my wi-fi is off, I’m more likely to make a note like “look up native species of evergreens in Harz mountains” and then continue with the actual writing (instead of going to wikipedia and then making a left turn to Facebook or Twitter).

So my problem was really how to start “first thing.” Sometimes I managed to do it, but I was having trouble establishing a consistent habit of starting my work early.

Watching the video below provided some excellent clues.

Duhigg offers some real gems in this video, based on a thorough review of the latest neuroscience. Some of the highlights:

  • Most of what we do during the day is habitual and automatic. To do something that isn’t already a habit requires willpower, which is a scarce and depletable resource (Duhigg uses the analogy of willpower being like a muscle: you can exercise it and it gets stronger, but it also gets tired over the course of a day).
  • “Keystone” habits like exercise and journaling tend to ripple out in terms of their positive effects on other parts of your life (I’ve found this to be true; taking quick breaks to lift weights during writing sessions helps maintain concentration and tends to boost both word count and quality).
  • Once your brain has established a trigger and a reward for a habit, it’s more or less impossible to get rid of it. What you can do is “swap out” one behavior for another.
  • Taking control of your triggers, queues, and rewards is pivotal in terms of establishing new behaviors to replace the ones you want to “overwrite.”

I watched the video, thought about it, and a few hour later got out my P-Touch labeling system and printed out two labels:


I stuck them on my computer monitor and went to bed. This morning, I woke up, had breakfast with my family, got the kid ready for summer camp, and waited to have coffee.

At 8:37 I poured myself a cup of coffee, started to write, and had met my word count quota by 10:06. A much better start time than usual. Then I ate some dark chocolate.

I realized that coffee was already a trigger for me: a trigger to turn on my computer and start surfing the internet. So all I had to do was replace the behavior that followed the trigger.

This is only Day 1, but I’m excited enough by this new technique to share it immediately. I’ll write a follow-up post in a few weeks and let you know how it’s going. In the meantime, let me know if you have any success modifying your own triggers and rewards to change behavior.


Corporations Have Glass Jaws

Wall Street bankers enjoying the peak of corporatism.

Wall Street bankers enjoying the peak of corporatism in 2011.

This is a blog post about citizen action, public protest, and being a trim tab. It’s about how the common citizen wields more power than ever before in human history. I’ll get to that. But first I’m going to take a quick look at history from the perspective of the commoner vs. the sociopathic elite.

It’s a quick read — I promise!

Five Waves of Coercive Power

One way to look at history is as a series of power struggles between the hoi polloi (the common folk who tend to treat each other decently) and “masters of the universe” powermongers (the far smaller group who tend to be more sociopathic/less empathetic by nature).

The latter group has taken on different manifestations throughout the ages, depending on what kinds of (coercive) power are effective, and who has the subset of skills to accumulate that kind of power.

Warlords, for example, inspire the loyalty of armed strongmen and terrorize the common folk into paralysis and submission.

Somewhat later in history (with much overlap; warlords still exist today), monarchs acquired and hoarded power via feudal rule (with knights and samurai as playground bullies), familial inheritance of gold, land, and title, and to some extent protection of the common folk from barbarian hordes (aka the armies of other monarchs). Some charismatic monarchs inspired romantic loyalty among the commoners (especially if taxes weren’t too high and executions infrequent). Monarch warlords, such as Alexander of Macedon, expanded their territory (and sometimes national borders) in great swaths via epic military campaigns.

Wave three of sociopathic powermongers takes the form of The Church (not the saints and luminaries who have legitimate spiritual awakenings and dedicate their lives to inspiring and helping others, but rather the institutions that ossify philosophy into dogma, punish those who stray from doctrine, suppress knowledge and discovery, and rule by fear). The Catholic Inquisition is the most iconic example of abuse of power by a religious institution, but no religion is exempt. Possessing the official moral high ground is an ideal platform for perpetrating abuse.

Wave four is fascism, which is not a political system but rather a political pathology that occurs when sociopaths within a government consolidate power and attempt to destroy their detractors. The tools of fascism are surveillance (of known enemies, and everybody else to discover unknown enemies), the encouragement of xenophobia, violent suppression of political protests, covert assassinations, and constant war. Fascism can manifest within communist states, democracies, and republics alike (no doubt libertarian or anarchist states could also exhibit fascist tendencies, if such states existed). A total descent into fascism results in a dictatorship (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc.), but “free democratic societies” also oscillate across the fascism spectrum (extreme examples in the United States include McCarthyism, violent suppression of the Civil Rights Movement, covert support of military dictatorships in Central and South America, and NSA surveillance of citizens).

Wave five of power consolidation by the sociopathic elite is corporatism, which is not the simple existence of the corporation as a legal business entity, but rather the perversion of the corporate entity into a tool for extracting wealth and labor from the poor, raiding the commons, evading taxation, avoiding personal responsibility for criminal activities, manipulating governments, screwing the consumer, and other shenanigans. Not all corporations do these bad things, and most people who work for corporations are good people. Still, corporatism is the current method of choice for the modern wave of sociopathic elites.

Corporatism works in the economic context of capitalism. Picketty points out that unmitigated capitalism is unsustainable, but so is any other form of unchecked power and resource hoarding by the sociopathic elite. The hoi polloi eventually realize what’s going on and claw back most of the power (with institutions like democracy, rule of law, human rights, public services, asset taxation, and distributing power among different branches of government). We’re slower, dumber, and less motivated than the sociopathic elite, but there are far more of us and we work together well once we’ve reached our limit of being abused and exploited.

I think corporatism, at least in the U.S., peaked in 2011. Occupy Wall Street, if it did nothing else, made it clear to the hoi polloi who the elite were (Wall Street investment bankers, mostly). While the investment bankers drank champagne and laughed at the raggedy protestors from their balconies (literally — see image above), OWS paved the way for federal investigation and prosecution of bank fraud, more progressive income and capital gains taxation, and stricter banking regulations.

The Glass-Jawed Enemy

As enemies of the commoners go, corporations-gone-bad are the easiest opponents so far. Compared to standing up to Genghis Khan, the Vikings, The Inquisition, or the Stasi, fighting corporations is easy!

Consumer-facing corporations often go down after one punch. Michael Moore realized this when he pressured Kmart to stop selling ammunition back in 2001, and succeeded.

These days consumer-facing corporations can be swayed with a few letters or tweets. Target recently reversed positions on customers carrying guns into stores, thanks in part to Twitter campaigns like this one. Target wants moms to shop at Target. If moms don’t want guns in Target, Target says no to guns in the store. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Corporations that don’t deal directly with consumers, like mining companies and investment banking firms, are less likely to yield to public pressure and social media campaigns. So are companies with their backs against the wall, like SeaWorld (the recent documentary Blackfish clearly demonstrated the horrors of keeping orcas in captivity, but without captive cetaceans SeaWorld has no business). But even in these cases, public (or employee) outcry eventually leads to legal investigations, increased regulations, fines, and audits, which for fraudulent companies leads to bankruptcy and dissolution.

To reiterate, corporations are not the enemy of the people. The corporate entity in the context of well-regulated capitalism is an engine of wealth creation, a golden goose that generates marvelous gadgets, streaming entertainment, cheap energy, the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and other modern wonders. The enemy are the sociopathic elite who use the corporate entity to steal, exploit, destroy the environment, evade social responsibility, and generally be evil. Corporatism.

Tough and Evil

The non-consumer facing, privately controlled corporation (invulnerable to both shareholder pressure and consumer sentiment) is the strongest haven of the sociopathic elite. In this group we find Bechtel, Koch Industries, and Cargill, corporate actors who seem to openly delight in destroying the environment, exploiting the poor, and endangering the public.

Organized crime syndicates that function like corporations (and in many cases are tightly interwoven with real corporations) also generally don’t care about public opinion and social media.

But even those corporations and corporate fronts must operate within the context of nation states and their legal systems. Despite the Koch war against the minimum wage, the minimum wage is going nowhere but up. Cargill may keep ignoring safety and environmental regulations forever, but they will also keep getting sued and fined.

Why not a “three strikes and you’re out” law for law-breaking corporations? Keeping a corporate charter should be a privilege dependent on good corporate citizenship.

Keep Fighting the Good Fight

The important thing to remember when fighting for justice, the environment, and human rights is that corporations are made of up mostly good people who generally want to keep their jobs, cover their asses, and not work too hard. This makes corporations vulnerable and easy to manipulate (even privately held corporations).

For example, if we, the hoi polloi, make it more difficult for corporations to sell products containing bee-killing neonics than not selling them, the corporations are going to go with the path of least resistance. It’s only a matter of time.

Will the Sociopathic Elite Always Rule the World?

Yes, probably. But this isn’t necessarily bad news.

Even in a free democracy that values human rights, individuals who rate highly for traits like narcissism, self-importance, callous disregard for other people’s feelings, and a desire for power will probably end up in positions wielding political and/or economic power. Who else would want these jobs?

It’s the job of the hoi polloi to make sure that no single position or agency has too much power, and that institutions and entities that are ripe for the abuse (lightly regulated corporations) are constrained by law to protect the environment, worker, community, consumer, and general public, and to play fairly against other market entities.

Corporations won’t always be the preferred tool of the sociopathic elite. Eventually the crackdown on corporate bad behavior will be too wearisome to deal with, and the sociopathic elite will find a new entity or institution to abuse. Personally I think it will probably have to do with the abuse of artificial intelligence and/or cryptography (perhaps the sociopathic elite will use BitCoin or similar to avoid taxation and gain unfair market advantages).

Even if there is a macro trend towards the hoi polloi clawing back power from the sociopathic elite with each wave of coercive power, corporate abuses may still get worse before they get better. The outcome depends on citizen action (voting, letter writing, protests, exerting pressure via social media) and the subsequent reactions by our lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and courts. The outcome is not written.

So if you witness a corporation behaving badly, do something about it. You may find the fight to be easier than expected.

If you have a story about pushing back against bad corporate behavior, please share below.