Today's Featured Article

Prescription for Happiness? Reading Dr. Seuss Out Loud

Today is the 105th birth anniversary of the beloved storyteller Dr. Seuss, aka Theodore Seuss Geisel, who passed away on Sep 24th, 1991. If you visit the Google Search home page today, you’ll probably see some familiar Seuss characters forming today’s temporary Google logo.

Seuss’ stories are of course fun for “children” of all ages. So if you’re depressed or simply feeling down, reading pretty much any Dr. Seuss book – preferably out loud – can uplift your spirits. Reading the same book to happy, squealing kids can infect you with the same happiness. In fact, I read his alphabet book to a couple of squealingly happy five-year old twins a few days ago and I’m still smiling.

Happiness Comes From Within?

You’ve probably heard that happiness comes from within and that you shouldn’t let external factors bring you down. While that might be true from an ideal point of view, it’s easier said than done. Sometimes you need an external boost.

As I always point out, this blog looks at life from a very blunt perspective. I hold very litttle back, and that makes some people uncomfortable. It’s for them to look down on me than to consciously realize that “it could have been them.” Be forewarned, then decide if you want to continue reading. But if you’re in the state I’ve been in, you might want to read, to understand that there’s always hope.

I’ve been miserable since my last career effectively ended after 9/11, primarily because my standard of living tanked. It was nice to be able to eat.

One of the first important things in my life to go (after the career) was my car, and then my car insurance a year later. I’ve been without a car for just over five years and it hasn’t been fun, to put it mildly. I’ve lived in Toronto with and without a car, and I prefer without. You just don’t need it there, unless you work outside the city. And in the last city I lived in, I didn’t really need a car there either. I lived minutes from the bus station – even cooked there for a while, trying to get back on my feet.

But when I returned back to my de facto hometown in 2004, I knew it’d be tough without a car. I live in the south end, which has historically been poorly served by city transit. The transit commission made things worse last year by changing their schedule from a 30-minute cycle to a 40-minute one – instead of going to 20 minutes like they’d planned. The nearest grocery store is about a 25-30 minute walk there, and longer back if I’m carrying heavy bags. By bus it’s actually even longer both ways because of the way the bus routes are set.

To make things worse for me, the only commercial movie theatre closed over a year ago and moved to the north end of the city, about 7 miles away – a bus ride of at least 45 minutes, maybe more. And if I missed one coming out, a long wait in the cold or an expensive bus ride back. Watching movies was the one indulgence I kept even at my poorest, since I’ve wanted to make movies for a long time. There was no question that I had to keep seeing movies. Without a car, I’ve been out of luck here. Were I already in Toronto – where I’ve lived on and off over many years – it wouldn’t be an issue. I don’t need a car there, for the most part. But I do where I am at present.

Fortunately, I finally have a car as of last week, thanks to help from my father. I had had to give up my beloved green Subaru GT in 2002 because of my financial situation. The primary reason I fell into that situation was due to a car dealership going bankrupt and the owners intentionally screwing over four or five customers, including me. (There are other factors, but they were the catalyst.) They took my old Subaru wagon but didn’t pay off the bank lease. So the bank went after me, illegally harrassing myself and family members for four years – despite the due diligence I followed at their request. They didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

My mother’s divorce lawyer – who knew nothing about these types of matters – gleefully told me I could be sued, but I’d done my research and told her she was wrong. I was shocked at how happy she was telling me that. In response to my saying she was wrong, she kept my only copies of all the papers and receipts I’d submitted to her. It was many months before I got them back, and only because I launched a complaint to the law society. They were mostly unsympathetic but did request that she return my papers and receipts. She wouldn’t even apologize, despite being completely wrong and unprofessional to boot.

After I lost my last work contract in Dec 2001, shortly after the terrible events of 9/11, all the money I’d saved to by out my Subaru GT’s lease – not the one the bank was after, but the next one – eventually had to be used to pay bills. Unfortunately, I’d spent other hard-earned money to buy a lot of gear for a recording studio, hoping to expand into that type of work, since I’d actually wanted get out of contracting. But because of events, I ended up having to sell my musical instruments and most of recording gear at about $0.30 on the dollar. Some of the items had been mostly untouched.

After that, I borrowed money from family members, and that ran out. People treated me differently after 9/11, which made me miserable, which in turn must have made other people uncomfortable. I had a hard time getting work, even in restaurants. And when I did get it, I had to put up with young line cooks who wanted to give me a hard time. Or I had to do coat check in a nightclub. When young ladies tipped because of the crazy hair “punk Elvis” hair I had, sometimes boyfriends would get jealous and actually take the tip back.

That hurt more than anything else, emotionally and physically. My amount of tips decided whether I would eat certain meals on the weekend or not. Friday’s tips meant I could go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoon. I’d gone from once eating quite well to eating about a half meal each day, sometimes substituting a proper meal with “mr. noodles” and “mr. freeze”.

This terrible diet took its toll on me and triggered a long-term illness that I’m still struggling to cope with. (I sometimes had an option of a free meal in some restaurants I worked in, but I was often too busy or too tired to take the meal. And then I’d have to walk home because the buses stopped running – too exhausted to eat anything at home either.)

To wrap up a long story, I’ve put a lot of this behind me, except for the illness. I’ve even stopped wondering what career I would pursue, since my heart knew all along: movies. Now, only a day after getting my new car last week, my whole demeanour must have changed. I find people suddenly being friendly to me, girls smiling at me. Believe me, this is something that hasn’t happened in a very, very long time.

I mentioned this to my brother a few days ago, and his response was, “Your identity is tied up in being mobile.” Or something like that. And it’s true. Long ago, I gave myself the nickname “The Wanderer.” We grew up spending a lot of time visiting friends in both the U.S. and Canada, travelling by car. I enjoy driving, being able to go where I want when I want. Without that freedom, I feel like a caged bird. I tried for five years to be “green” and live without a car, but in some cities, it’s just impossible without feeling caged – even for someone like myself that works from home. Maybe because of that.

You’d think that I shouldn’t let external factors such as this bother me to the point of changing my life. Maybe not, but we’re human. Ideals are something to strive for, but we live through our flaws. When you consider that I’d lost so much the past seven years, you might feel differently.

For reasons I won’t get into here, I left behind many cameras and computer gear and  other irreplaceable “things” in Atlanta. I lost my career of two decades probably due to being miserable about how people treated me after 9/11. I had to give up my entire recording studio, which I’d hoped would help me into a new career doing movie and TV soundtracks. I lost my favorite car. Friends that I’d helped many times offered crocodile tears.

There’s more but it’s not something I want to get into. Suffice it to say that things are more noticeably changing for me, but it took several years. About six years, in fact.

The lesson? No matter how bad things are, even if your affirmations go wrong, if you stick it out, you can eventually turn the negative tide. You might get bruised and battered and hurt during the journey, but consider the alternatives. Don’t try to change things in huge leaps and bounds. Apply small changes.

When Affirmations Go Wrong

You’ve likely heard of “affirmations”. They’re a set of nice things you tell yourself will happen/ are happening to you. You write them down to make them concrete, and then you repeat them each morning and each night, so that they become embedded in your pscyhe, setting the state of mind required to accomplish these mini-goals or and situtations.

This is a powerful way to accomplish goals. I know, because I used to use them for many years. But for long, complex reasons I won’t get into here (yet), I haven’t done affirmations for many years – since shortly after my last offline contract ended, or about five years. Yet just over a week ago, mid-week, being excited at some of my future prospects, I fired up a fresh mindmap and recorded some new affirmations.

What happened? A sequence of “bad” things:

  1. My computer shuts down on its own less than an hour after I made my affirmations. I couldn’t turn it back on until morning, and the error message was not encouraging. (I’ve never seen such a message, despite my decades of computer and web programming experience.)
  2. Since I make my living online, I get a bit worried and make my next computer purchase early. I thought I’d lost my computer and all the data and software on it. But the service desk managed to resolve the problem.
  3. Of course, my cash flow is impacted and I have to end several small partnered projects.
  4. Some of my writers understandably get upset that I have to pay them “late” for November work. (I usually try to pay immediately at the beginning of the next month, even though I don’t get paid until mid-month, and sometimes even longer, by the time money gets transferred from PayPal to my bank account.) The unfortunate part is that several of them didn’t have the courtesy to tell me they were quitting, and in some cases I end up having to do their assigned work for several weeks.
  5. Today, I lose one of my big freelancing gigs due to budget restraints.
  6. My plan to get a car after five years without (I was trying to be green, but also couldn’t afford it) is going to be delayed. Unfortunately, I need the car to accept a big gig offered to me tentatively for February.
  7. Either that or move to Toronto immediately, which isn’t working just yet, as I mentioned in How to be happy.

However, despite this sequence of normally stressful events, I have this really weird feeling that there’s nothing to worry about. It’s hard to explain it, but I feel as if the old saying “when one door closes, another opens” is happening to me multi-fold. Let’s see what happens.

Addendum: Be careful what you wish for, because in setting that in motion, you might lose other things.

How to be Happy: 7 Lessons from Deconstructing Nirvana

Sometimes, the answer is sitting right there under your nose but you don’t see it: don’t deny yourself something you’re craving. If it’s bad for you, do it in small degrees. That’s far better than regret. If it’s good for you, then why deny it?

I’m one of those people who have been denying themselves, but in my defense, I didn’t realize it. Let me paint a quick picture, but I’ll warn you now that I’m not holding much back below, as it’s important to understand how we get into downward spirals in our lives. Though there is a happy ending – or will be. The lesson comes after the list of misery. The timeline is approximate, with a bit of jumping around.

The Spiralling Descent into Anti-Nirvana

If you’re not in the mood for this list, jump down past to learn what I learned.

  1. Pre-9/11, I was contracting for IBM Canada and making reasonably good money, hot on the heels of a nice contract in Atlanta, Georgia. (Where I left a lot of my belongings behind, though that’s another story.)

  2. IBM builds a big facility north of Toronto, Canada, and moves all of us, then starts letting some contracts and employees go, especially after 9/11.
  3. Except that I’d already paid first and last on an apartment in a town called Kitchener (once called Berlin), twin city to Waterloo, which is the home of RIM and the Blackberry phones/ devices, not to mention Waterloo University – one of Bill Gates’ favorite places to hire from up here.
  4. Post-9/11, some people who know me start treating me weirdly. I get angry and bitter, have to suffer through other people’s road rage, and $600/mth highway toll fees. Then my contract ends early instead of being extended by a year.
  5. I start a spiralling descent for a period that lasts three years while living in Kitchener. But what saves me is my cat to keep me company, lots of theaters to watch movies in, and my long-time “sister” and her husband as my upstairs neighbors. I was suddenly poor and got ill over time but was otherwise oddly peaceful.
  6. Despite finding time to finally write my short fiction and getting a computer book deal shortly after losing the IBM contract, computer contracts are not forthcoming. It takes me 5 years to realize that my anger probably sunk that career.
  7. I have to start selling off my $25,000 worth of recording gear, including 9 guitars/ basses, 5 synths and other items at about thirty cents on the dollar. It’s a huge loss that contributes to later putting me into bankrupcty. I eventually have to give up my beloved green Subaru GT, which I’d saved money to buy out the lease with, but now have to pay off the recording gear debts with. There goes a potential career as a soundtrack composer.
  8. At some point I lose my Internet connection and cell phone for non-payment of monthly fees. I have to stop blogging (2002). Even though I used to work for a Bell Canada division, I couldn’t convince them to give me another month for the phone so I could find work.
  9. It becomes hard to get work, but my mother – kind woman that she is – puts me through a fast-track cooking school, only for me to “find” how racist a lot of restaurant owners are in that town. Much, much later, after I leave the town, I realize it was me, my intimidating frown. But in the meantime, I have to work doubly hard to find even dishwashing jobs. Are you depressed yet? Don’t be. I learned a lot, as is revealed below.
  10. My brother eventually buys me a cell phone so that I can actually get calls for jobs. I cook and wash dishes for two years in about a dozen restaurants, for crap wages (and no tips), sometimes working up to 85 hours per week, not having time to eat, and getting sicker without realizing it. I live, believe it or not, on “Mr Noodle” and “Mr Freeze”, which of course triggers diabetic symptoms – fortunately on a borderline scale instead of full-fledged. Eventually my debts are too much, despite my parent’s help (totalling $20,000, for which I’m still trying to pay them), and I have to declare bankruptcy.
  11. Truncating the timeline… I return to my home town (or the closest thing to it) as I have a chance at getting in to a Master’s and PhD, only to find politics – which I cannot cope with. I give up after 3 semesters and work for my mother, as well as start blogging again – thanks to a gift from my father of two computers and later an Internet connection.
  12. Fast forward to now: I’m still not making as much as I made as a consultant, but it’s better than I did in Kitchener, barely surviving on about $1,000-1,200/mth in wages for most of that period. Though I have a bit more money, I’m still empty inside, still feel isolated – of my own making, again without realizing it.
  13. Why? Because I’ve been denying myself many, many simple pleasures, and feeling that I have to stay where I am out of some misfounded obligation when it’s really not true. This is my sin: misunderstanding.
  14. I want to move back to Toronto, but that doesn’t seem to be happening quite yet.
  15. What’s the solution? Why the place that I was actually happy once of course. It’s a detour for now, but at the least will make me happy.

The Plan

Despite all that I went through while living in Kitchener, and despite the eery resemblance of my life to the happenings of a main character in a novella I wrote (Fall From Grace), I had a revelation tonight, just before falling asleep, that I brought all that three years of misery upon myself in layer after layer, due to my own misunderstandings about myself. And people around me just reflected my state of mind back onto to me.

I still felt very peaceful in those times, despite everything, I had numerous friends that I’d known for nearly a decade, and had the atmosphere of a mini-Toronto to boot.

Putting time limits on my goals only served to make me miserable, saying I had to do such and such by a certain time. I no longer believe in time in the same way I did for most of my life. And tonight was the culmination of my thoughts for the past three years since leaving Kitchener.

My plan: return there, then make it Toronto to make movies whenever. No time limits. Enjoy good friends and being able to easily see a movie in a theater (not possible where I am now) or walk to the Farmer’s Market, shoot some pool, babysit my “sister’s” four cats or what have you. Things that I simply can’t do right now, where I am, because of the location in town, and the state of this town’s transit system.

Moral

The moral of the story is multi-fold:

  1. Sometimes you broker your own disasters and think it’s everyone else’s fault.
  2. Sometimes, what you think you want isn’t really what you want or need.
  3. Lots of money or little money, you can be happy independently of that.
  4. Don’t punish yourself; forgive and let go, then rebuild.
  5. Don’t set time limits on long-term goals based on meeting them by a certain age. You’ll just be miserable if you don’t do this.
  6. As mystical as it might sound, it’s really just pragmatic not to worry about time long-term. Do what you have to do to get to your goals, but don’t deny yourself the simple pleasures of life.
  7. It’s not failure if you need to take a detour in your goal plans, provided you’re still moving in the right general direction.

Sleep. Eat. Breathe.

Our body doesn’t ask too much of us to provide us with the brilliance that is life. Despite that, however, we chow down on fast food, breathe polluted air, and maybe worst of all get a few hours less sleep per week than our body needs. I say that sleep deficiency may be the worst offense we commit against our bodies, because it makes the least sense.

In theory we sleep less because we don’t have enough time, we’ve got too many things to get done. Yet the truth is, we’d get far more done each day (and consume less too) if we got enough rest.

But I’m a practical person, I know that just because I say that we should sleep more doesn’t mean that you, or even I, am going to sleep an extra hour a night. So I’ll suggest something a bit more practical, let’s just all promise to spend an extra 1-hour napping each week. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but 1-hour, whether divided over three 20-minute periods for an afternoon pick-me up, or taken all at once for some restorative deep sleep, can have a profound effect on our outlook and effectiveness in life.

Productivity and Massively Multi-Tasking

Want to be highly productive? Aside from any issues that you’ll have to learn to deal with, high productivity comes from the ability to multi-task massively. This a key skill, as there are only so many hours in a day, days in a week, etc., and I already spend quite a bit of time learning new topics as part of my contract writing work.

As a former computer programmer/ analyst, my entire mode of thinking is geared towards multi-tasking. As a former search engine webmaster and regular webmaster, there have been times where I’ve had to program on up to five computers simultaneously while also monitoring a half dozen websites or more and interacting with several people. It was part of the job.

As I’ve mentioned previously, multi-tasking isn’t about doing multiple tasks at the same time. It’s about managing multiple tasks simultaneously. There’s a difference. If you’re using technology, it’s even easier to to multi-task, as you can start something and let the technology take over as you do something else. Of course, you’ll have to come back to first item at some point, then repeat the cycle.

Now, you can apply multi-tasking principles in regular life as well. The only way to explain this is to give you a concrete example…

My whole mode of thinking for the past five years has been frugality out of necessity. I became a 100% bonafide starving artist/ freelance writer in Jan 2002, when my last computer contract was cut short in Dec 2001. The company had just built a new $40M facility north of Toronto, and the tech bubble had burst. Employees and contractors were cut. I was one of them.

I won’t get into a long discussion of what happened, but the result is that I’m now frugal about both money and time. It’s a bit weird being looked at with disdain by some people who think I’m cheap, especially when I used to be someone who threw money around like it was rice at a wedding.

No matter. I find that multi-tasking seems to be directly related to frugality. It’s like achieving an economy of time and effort, but not to be confused with laziness. Multi-tasking success initially requires organization and thought, but will later become habit. On to an example…

I was just thinking to myself that when I move to Toronto later this year, I plan to start going to repertory cinema and non-mainstream theatre again, as well as take up photography, volunteer at the opera and a soul kitchen, etc. But I currently do contract work all week long, day and night. I haven’t learned economy of effort. How can I possibly find the time? Not to mention, to even do laundry, I’ll probably have to either hop on a streetcar or walk to the nearest laundromat.

The frugal person in me suddenly put two concepts together:

  • constrain yourself
  • take photos in the street

The Headrush weblog says that if you want to create something amazing right now, you need to constrain yourself. I know from my nature as a perfectionist that I often spend more time than necessary on a project. It’s why my contract work takes about twice as long as it probably should.

So I sat down, sharpened my project management skills, and figured out how I could juggle my daily and weekly projects. Surprise, surprise, it worked. Well, sort of. Instead of spending 85+ hours per week, I calculated that I could possibly do the same amount work in only 55, give or take. That’s because, if divide each large task into smaller tasks and alternate them with the daily work, I won’t spend so much time on them. (That is, I won’t waste those hours staring at something when I could work on something else and come back to a problem.)

For example, say I have 3 recurring weekly tasks that take 15-20 hours each right now, due to doing each in a mammoth work session that isn’t always productive. Splitting each into a group of small tasks of 1-3 hours lets me cut out unproductive time. Attention span only goes so far, and interleaving different tasks will force me to stay on schedule.

I use Google Calendar, which lets me schedule my tasks, It uses an annoying popup reminder set a few minutes before a scheduled new task. This is effective if I don’t ignore it. I find that list tools like Neptune are helpful but don’t keep me to a schedule as much as annoying popup reminders.

As a result of this form of multi-tasking (doing several projects at once), I’d not only be able to complete all of my contracts and earn more money each month, but I’d have time left to do my own writing and projects. I could even take up photography again, etc., when I move. (Now, if still want to be frugal, I could always do some street photography while my laundry is being done, and then leverage that effort by doing a bit of blogging about photography.)

I’ve only been applying this new work methodology as of last night, but it appears that it’s effective, and I’m already getting more work done. Discipline in sticking to this multitasking method is the part I still have to conquer.

Depression Affects Productivity: 10 Tips For Fighting It

Overview

[Feel free to skip down to the 10-point list if you like.] Depression destroys lives, robs strength and spirit. It’s considered to be the fourth most important cause of disability worldwide, and expected to grow to second place by 2020. That’s very frightening. In the past, it was “wrong” to talk about it and an admission of weakness. But with numbers like this, talking about it is important in coping.

For those of us who try to keep depression under control and manage to live functional lives, it still sometimes sneaks up and destroys the hard-fought productivity we’ve gained. I make no bones about it; this is a very frank and open weblog. I suffer from the screaming blue meanies (seasonal affected disorder aka SAD aka seasonal depression) from about October to March. If you don’t want to read more, stop now and go elsewhere.

Usually, January isn’t as bad as December or February, but I’m going through a particular bad winter and a particular bad day today as I write this. However, I have a freelance writing business to run and I haven’t been able to do much of my contract work all day. So I’ve been going through my partially written personal blog posts (as opposed to doing paid work), finishing them up and publishing a few. Even though I wrote twelve posts for one client over the weekend, I can’t seem to bring myself to actually posting them to the weblog, partially out of guilt from not progressing on larger projects for the same client. It’s not rational, this unseen barrier stopping me.

So I’m trying to utilize my time to the best of my ability and to get at least partial productivity today. And that’s really one of the most fundamental ways to cope with depression, especially if you’re like me and refuse to take allopathic pharmaceuticals (I take homeopathic and naturopathic medicines, apply ayurvedic principles, and take vitamins for my SAD and hypothyroid problem. The latter already affects my concentration and productivity; depression worsens it.)

10 Tips For Fighting Depression

I’ve done a bit of research into fighting depression recently and I’ve put together ten brief tips for fighting depression, leaving medication out of the list (excepting vitamins), as it doesn’t work for everyone. Most of these tips are probably common sense but it’s sometimes hard to think rationally when you’re depressed, and thus easy to forget.

  1. Get sufficient sleep.
    I’ve always burned the candle at both ends. It’s a flaw of being a type-A, driven, workaholic personality. Lack of sleep multiplies the effects of depression. If you can’t get a full 6-8 hours each night, try 15-30 minute catnaps through out the day. I’ve tried implementing Steve Pavlina’s attempt at polyphasic rhythm-based sleep, but I can’t quite pull it off yet. I have however been very successful in using Pzizz’s two free 15-minute energizer audio MP3 recordings for power naps several times a day. It’s unbelievable how much these help. I’ve also successfully been using binaural beats to positively affect alpha, beta, theta, etc., brainwaves. (More on that in the future.)

  2. Reduce stress.
    Stress can be invisible and subconscious, and it can come from guilt about a variety of things, personal and professional. For example, as I write this article, I’m suffering from guilt for not working on client projects, which I’ve been unable to do for most of the day. That means I have to make up for this lack tomorrow, which in turn induces anxiety. It’s tough, stressful cycle. If you don’t keep stress under control, it can induce productivity-grinding panic and anxiety attacks. Naps, a walk around the neighbourhood, and exercise can help alleviate the effects immensely. Remember: you cannot learn effectively with stress weighing you down. Sometimes, practicing detachment from your worries will solve your stress.

  3. Get sufficient exercise.
    It’s not just a matter of getting blood flowing, though that’s part of it. But getting outside and getting sunlight and fresh air is important because it rejuvenates you. If you work at home like I do, this is especially important. I find that despite being a hermit thinker type, physical activity makes me feel great during times of depression. Blood flow and adrenaline seem to stave off the worst effects. Though it’s sometimes hard to remember that exercise or keeping busy helps.

  4. Meditate.
    Meditation can be an effective means to reducing stress and thus depression. It can also help you to become aware of what is causing your guilt, your stress, and often help you achieve some detachment from those “problems” you cannot do anything about. In short, it helps you achieve perspective, to see where to focus your attention. I’ve been meditating on and off for about 20 years. (I’ve done over 10,000 hours of meditation, part of the requirement of becoming a Buddhist monk, though not all under a “master”, which disqualifies me.)

  5. Add some colour to your wardrobe.
    Tough for me, an ex-goth who still wears mostly all-black, but all dark clothes all the time increases the effects of depression. Colour stimulates positive feelings. I find blood red or a hunter green shirt helps me. Some people prefer yellow, orange or peach, or prints or paisleys. You can also add colour to your life through art therapy.

  6. Eat properly.
    You know eating properly applies all the time but it’s even more crucial for those suffering from depression. I find grains, nuts, and fruit help me, and staying away from fried foods and refined carbs. I have a friend, a gifted classical guitarist, who ends up in the hospital every three or four years because of the massive amount of fast food he eats nearly every single day, and without vegetables at that. (He’s had around three meltdowns in the decade or so I’ve known him, and hasn’t worked in that time.) Even a fresh submarine/ hoagy/ rocket with lots of free toppings (i.e., veggies) is better than fries, gravy, burgers and pizzas several times a week like he has. (I’m not knocking them, as I eat them, but not every day.) Seek out healthy snacks or make your own, eat nutritious foods and add colourful vegetables and leafy items.

  7. Take your vitamins.
    Learn your E, B, Cs. And Zinc, Folic acid, iron supplements, etc. Poor diet robs us of many absolutely essential nutrients. If you are not going to change your diet, whatever your reason, at least replenish those nutrients.

  8. Drink water.
    The proper amount of fluids helps keep your skin from getting dry in the winter time – the “season” in seasonal depression. It also helps clear out some of the toxins in your body. And by the way, it’s NOT 8 glasses per day for everyone. The proper amount is based on your body weight, age, activity level, and other factors.

  9. Add extra lighting.
    Research shows that adding some warm, bright lights helps fight the effects of depression. You don’t have to spend $150+ on special lamps; just increase the wattage in some of your light bulbs. Also, fluorescent lights are less bright than they appear. Try to replace them if possible.

  10. Smile.
    It’s not a guaranteed nor permanent cure, but it does help sometimes, if you can maintain a smile for a few minutes. I watch The Comedy Network (Canada) sometimes, as laughing helps – at least temporarily, like chicken soup sort of helps a cold. Remembering to do so is key, so you may need to tape some visual reminders to your mirrors or computer, etc.

Disclaimer: I am by no means a doctor and don’t pretend to be. There’s more than one way to fight depression. If you have insidious, persistent depression, consider seeing a doctor, pyschiatrist or a therapist. (For some people, drugs may be the only answer.) Thus, the information provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice – only the findings of someone who suffers from seasonal depression. You use the information found here at your own risk only.

How To Learn A Subject Fast: 6 Steps

One of the fundamental tasks of my freelance blogging is having to learn a topic very quickly, sometimes in just a few days. Some of my writing is for the clients of my clients. The end clients come from a variety of industries and that means learning what they’re about – at least enough to write about their subjects authoritatively. It’s not always an easy task, and I’m still learning how to learn. Here’s what I have learned so far, that might help you learn a subject fast.

  1. Learn what you know.
    What do you really know about the topic? You might know more than you think. Writing down your knowledge in point form (or in a brainstormed mind map) helps you to learn what you already know. This makes it easier to decide what you still have to learn.

  2. Learn what you don’t know (i.e., decide what to learn).
    When I was in my twenties and wanted to be an actor, I started studying Lee Strasberg’s method acting by “living” a role to the best of my ability. I try to do the analogue with writing, when possible, especially on topics I’ll be writing about regularly. Now, maybe you don’t need to be an expert, but do you know what you need to learn for your immediate purposes? Whether you’re writing an article, a blog post, a term paper, a technical manual or just learning, decide on the scope of your learning. For example, if you’re learning a highly technical subject, you may need to prep your mind by browsing and surfing relevant websites before the actual learning. This task should be part of your scope as well.

  3. Map out your project plan.
    No matter how little you have to learn, it’s still a project, and (mind)mapping what your tasks are makes them concrete in your mind. This plan should be an extension of the scope you determined in the last step. If your learning is going to be over a long-term, and/or if you will be learning multiple topics, a project plan just helps you balance everything without feeling overwhelmed. (I’ll get into more detail about using mindmapping to develop a project plan in the future.)

  4. Choose your references.
    Now you’re implementing your project plan. One step should be to choose some references. If you have access to a suitable library, go for it. If not, use a good search engine online and bookmark some suitable references in your web browser. Be as thorough as you need to be, as these will be the soure of your new knowledge.

  5. Summarize each reference.
    After selecting your references, read and summarize them fast. I’ll have a separate post in near the future on how to do this using mind maps. Basically, summarize each reference in a few articles. Make your own Cliff Notes, so to speak. For each paragraph in each reference, write only one or two sentences of summary. Stop yourself from going beyond that, and don’t edit your summaries. (You can always go back and re-read if you felt you missed something.)

  6. Rewrite your summaries.
    To concretize your new knowledge, take your summaries for all references as a whole and write a short blog post or article, regardless of why you’re learning. Make sure that you use your own words. To insure that, try writing without looking at your summaries, if possible. This is the last and most important step.

I’ll try to expand on each step in separate posts in the near future. If you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment.

Blogging + Biorhythms: Harnessing Creative Cycles

harness creative cycles mindmap

This post is about personal productivity and harnessing the creative, physical, and emotional cycles we all supposedly have called biorhythms. While my example is for blogging, the tips here apply to pretty much any endeavour. [This post was orignally written in early Dec/06 but not posted until Jan/07.]

I’ve been running a cool little WordPress plugin, SparkStats, on my private article bank website. The blog is on a subdomain that’s running WordPress 2.0x and is a password-protected storehouse for all articles that I’ve written for clients. It originally included some of my own blogs’ articles, but hasn’t for a few months. The reason I’m running SparkStats is to show myself my writing productivity. The plugin displays a little bar graph showing relative number of posts per day for the past 30 or so days.

Daily posting graphNow that I’ve stopped faking the the post times (purely for aesthetic record-keeping reasons), and have let weekday posts slide into the weekend, I’m noticing a very interesting phenomenon that supports the concept of biorhythms or individual cycles of creativity, emotion, physical strength, etc. While I have a particular daily quota of posts that I “must” write for clients, I have been slipping a bit in the past few weeks – something that unfortunately happens to me in October-February, as part of SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder), also called the screaming blue meanies by some of us Canucks (Canadians).

As the image somewhere above shows, what I’m seeing, under natural posting conditions, is that the graph of my daily posting is nearly undulating on a sine curve basis, as is typical for biorhythms. That is, under natural conditions, if you only wrote and posted whatever you could handle each day, without forcing things, you’d probably see consistent up and down sine curves.

So then how do you handle problogging? I’ll tell you right off that for me, writing is a lot harder to do as a day-to-day career than computer programming. The latter I’ve done for nearly 30 years. While I’ve been writing (at least technical manuals) for over 20, I’ve never done day-to-day as a freelance career where creativity has to be available on demand. Entertaining, informative writing is not as formulaic as a piece of code that harnesses a database and specific data structures.

It’s especially not easy. Writing as a career takes discipline. One way around the cycles is to harness your cycles. Write extra “evergreen” posts when you’re at a creative and/or emotional high. Write news-y summary posts on the day of events. There are three biorhythm cycles, so strength might factor in as well. At my best, I’ve hit 100+ posts (including my e-paintings) in a week and believe that when I become a more efficient blogger, I can exceed that. (But my best months for writing are usually June-August, and sometimes January. That’s not to say I can’t produce in other months, but these are my most productive.)

Another method, if appropriate, is to change your blogging style. The truth is, most of my blogging “clients” run summary sites. But I try to add as much value as I can to what I write, usually by writing about a product or service in my own words, then hyperlinking to 2-4 articles. I also write the occasional fully original piece, often a case study, as well as some commentary articles.

Balance is the key to utilizing your creative cycles. Using a variety of post types allows you to pick, during productive down times, the ones that are easiest for you at the time, without surprising the readers. If you just find it within you to write on a given day, try some mindmapping or photography, both of which may spark your visual creativity.

These tips also apply to any type of research, writing or creative work. If you are someone that works with visual media, say photographs or paintings, try changing what you are doing – maybe try writing for a while. Harnessing your biocycles effectively means getting what you can done, and postponing what you cannot, until you can spark some inspiration.

Wax On, Wax Off: The Truth About Multi-Tasking In Research + Learning

research multi-tasking mindmap

There are so many theories and claims out there about the human ability to multi-task or not, and I thought I’d put my thoughts out there. I’ve been a multi-tasker for at least 20 years, if not longer. Though there’s a right way to go about it, and it requires both organization and discipline. I have loads of the former but I struggle with the latter.

Instead of babbling theoretically, let me give you a concrete example. (My posts tend to be long and detailed, but I’ll try to be brief this time.) As of this month, if I can manage the workload, I know have enough writing/ blogging contracts to consider myself a full-time professional freelance writer and blogger. My own sites’ revenue is tiny, but that’s another story. Here’s the breakdown of my workload, in general terms:

  • 13 blog posts daily for 5 blogs (shrunk from 7), on weekdays. [Though I I actually post them any day of the week that's suitable.]

  • 1-3 large articles weekly. Fixed deadlines, research- intensive, potentially-stressful work because there’s a lot at stake. Retainer work for the foreseeable future.

My work is anonymous, so I’m not giving example links. If you know me, you already know where to find me. But let’s start with the blog posts. I’m now focusing on two topics, shrunk down last month from three. I needed to revise my daily writing focus because for every topic I wrote about, I had to do a minimum amount of reading/ scanning everyday, including weekends, just to keep up. Now, with two topics only, my aim is laser-focused.

The fact is, I can spend, say, 2 hours each day reading one topic and 1 hr for the other one. It usually ends up being an average of 4 hrs/day total because I cross- pollinate my interests by reading other blogs that are related to my topics but not focused.

Regardless, for the amount of reading I do, I can write one post or I can write ten for that reading session. I try to read the night before, write a bit of possible, then continue reading in the morning. Post ideas have usually brewed in my head overnight. While some people might call that “sleeping on it”, it’s actually a form of multi-tasking that takes very little effort. When I don’t do any reading the night before, the next day’s writing usually is very functional and technical, not as entertaining. [Though that's not to say every post has to be entertaining.]

And then there are the weekly articles I write. While they don’t pay as much as a print article might for the same amount of output, they still pay well. What’s more, I’m on retainer with them. For the foreseeable future, I have at least 2 every week. That means guaranteed income and some peace of mind as a freelancer. (Despite the stress of the actual work.)

The problem is that they are research-intensive, with topics that are sometimes new to me. If I don’t plan well, I sometimes end up working for $6/hr or less. On the other hand, if I apply multi-tasking at its best, I could make $30/hr on some (not all) of these articles.

So what do I need to do to maximize my hourly earnings potential? Answer: multi-task properly. What does this entail? Here is a short task list of my methodology:

  • Day 1:
  • Scope out the problem. Understand what the client needs.
  • Write up my genral task list for a given article. I apply project management principles here, which I was partly trained in back in the corporate world in the late 1990s.
  • Build a mindmap of all the elements of the project that I’ll need to address, including each section to be written and references I need to read and link to.
  • Take a short break, maybe work on something else.
  • Spend one hour scanning (not reading) some of the references I’ve been given, as well as building up a list of additional references.

  • Day 2:
    • My mind has had at least an overnight period to absorb what needs to be done, in general. I may not yet have an “angle” for the article. However, I go the metaphysical route with this, due to long experience in writing, and let the angle present itself to me. I never force it. But if I don’t do Day 1’s scoping immediately, I cannot meet my tight deadlines of 7 days or less for each weekly article. If I have details 3 weeks beforehand, then I start scoping then.
    • Spend an hour or two browsing and/or reading a few references from my list, just to be sure to prep my mind for acquiring knowledge about the topic.
    • Cull the reference list, if possible.
  • Days R1-n: Days 1-n of actual research and writing.
    • Depending on when I had details of an assignment, it may be weeks or up to two months before I actually start on a particular article. I have some articles that I’ve set researchers to working on for me three months ahead of time.
    • In the meantime, multi-tasking has kicked in. While I’ve been working on other articles and on the blogs, the “background processes” in my mind have been quietly flagging any information I come upon in relation to the project at hand.
    • So when I actually reading and making notes, I often find that each section of the article “writes itself” in my head, and I merely have to type it out, then add hyperlinks to supporting references.
    • This is what I mean by multi-tasking. Let the background processes in your head work for you by feeding them info early. Now move on to other work in the meantime.
    • However, if the article has not yet formed in my head by Day R1, I start reading indepth, taking notes, etc.
    • I then write up a draft and let it “sit” overnight.
    • This is followed up by an edit to both tighten the writing, add any unlinked references, and get the word count right.
  • D-Day: Deadline day. Package and turn in the work.
  • Now, I’ve given “blogging” as an application of this form of multi-tasking. However, you can apply similar methods for any discipline where you have to juggle a lot of tasks that require a great deal of thought and/or research. I use a combination of mindmapping, learning methods, and project management (PM) because it works for me. Without the PM, I’d be a basket case, due to my workload.

    The success of my version of multi-tasking for writing is faith- based. I stumbled upon this technique over the years, and it never fails me. Provided I actually trust it and have the discipline to use it. And that’s the hardest part for me.




    Note: Translation only works from individual weblog pages.

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