Wednesday, December 29, 2010

9 Ways to Make the Right Decision (from Goodlife Zen)

Over the last couple of days, I've had to make a moderately-sized decision about how to spend the next month or so. Juggling all the variables involved got so confusing that I did an internet search on how to make decisions, and found this excellent article: 9 Ways to Make the Right Decision | Goodlife Zen

It's a guest post by Patrick Burga neuroscientist who writes about the biology of everyday life at He has nine suggestions, that don't have to be followed in any particular order - and I found that what he says in the article is actually true: just doing the steps that appealed to me, in no particular order, really worked. So, here are 5 of the 9 suggestions I found particularly useful:

1. Listen to your instincts but don’t let them boss you around.

Write down your gut reaction to the problem. What are you feeling? But then dig deeper:
Ask “why did I think that?” or “why do I feel that way?”

2. List your alternatives.
Write down every option you have for the decision you’re making, get it out of your head and spend some quality time on each one."

3. Rephrase the question.
Whatever problem you have, try writing it down in three or four different ways. Forcing yourself to think about the problem in different ways makes it easier to come up with different solutions.
4. Anticipate history.
Remember what happened last time you were in a similar situation. Go slow and be critical with your recall – beware of only remembering your wins vs. your misses.
6. Think of this as a test.
The human brain is not isolated – it’s hard wired to function in social situations with our peers. The upshot of this is that we devote a lot of time and energy to working in groups and maintaining friends and our status. Imagine that you’re going to be graded for the decision you’re making and you will automatically pay more attention to the process. Write down why you made your decision and follow this by thinking: “This is an exam. I’m handing this in, and I won’t get another chance to change it. Others will see it and grade my logic”. Doing this makes you more likely to examine the “why” of what you’re doing and weed out poorly made plans.

There are more tips at the original article: 9 Ways to Make the Right Decision | Goodlife Zen

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Long Range Thinking: How to save the world

Merry Christmas! The previous post talked about nine 'boundaries' that we have to keep the world operating inside, to first avoid environmental collapse and then to keep Earth on a stable footing. Several of these boundaries are affected by population pressure.

For the first time while watching, I saw conceptual links between three different presentations. It was very cool, because (watched in sequence) they give a clear argument and solution to stabilising world population at around nine billion people.

First up, Hans Rosling sets the stage by illustrating that an increase to nine billion is inevitable (barring nuclear war or massive die-backs). And he does it in a way that's low-tech and convincing.

After that, the obvious question is how do we lower or stabilise the birth rate? Hans Rosling makes a good case for educating women being the key.

Finally, this presentation by Sugata Mitra lays out a low-cost, resource-light way of spreading education into the areas of the world that really need it. His thesis: let children educate themselves. Warning: this presentation is wicked.

I'm going to be on the look out now for more talks that lay out simple solutions to these nine boundaries:

- climate change
- ozone levels
- ocean acidification
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- freshwater use
- rate of biodiversity loss
- changes in land use
- air pollution
- chemical pollution

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Long Range Thinking: Ready for the most exciting phase in human history?

This TED presentation is a must-see: it makes dealing with climate change and related problems seem achievable, and the presenter (Johan Rockstrom) delivers a fantastically engaging first half presentation via an inflatable globe and some unconventional stage moves, before moving into an assertive, more pragmatic second half.

He makes the case that this will be the most exciting 30 years in human history, as we undergo an unprecendented social and economic transformation in order to make the Earth a viable, ongoing business proposition for 9 billion people.

Rockstrom lists nine parameters (or 'safety fences') that humanity has to operate within. Basically, he sets out an owner's guide to operating the Earth. Those parameters are:

- climate change
- ozone levels
- ocean acidification
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- freshwater use
- rate of biodiversity loss
- changes in land use
- air pollution
- chemical pollution

Rockstrom identifies three of these parameters as having already passed into the danger zone:

- climate change
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- rate of biodiversity loss

By setting parameters that we have to operate within, and identifying the ones that urgently need to be dealt with, Rockstrom makes dealing with climate change and its related problems seem achievable.

Highly recommended (and a hat-tip to Hot Topic, where I first saw this presentation on the quadruple squeeze.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Books: October to November

During this time period I started to realise that not every book was worth blogging about; so, rather than a comprehensive list, these book posts are moving more towards some edited highlights.

Kashmir is a screenplay about three specialists hunting down Osama bin Laden. An enjoyable, fast read. Probably still available at scriptshadow, if you want to google for it.

After watching Surrogates, the Bruce Willis movie about people who stay at home and live their lives through remote drones that look like them, I felt like I needed more exploration of that idea. Kil'n People by David Brin is a noir version of the story (rather than an action-adventure), and it contains both a twisty mystery, great uses of the first person narrator, and a lot of excellent ideas about what would happen if you could clone yourself, live 5 different lives, and then reabsorb the memories of those clones. I was a little disapointed with the mysticism that ended the book, but (overall) a good read.

The Ask and the Answer is the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go. As I mentioned last time, I was resisting reading this, but Jenni told me that the book shifted from a single narrator to alternating between two points of view. That (plus the third POV she hinted would be introduced in the third book) was enough to get me reading it again. The Ask and Answer was great at getting me to like the characters again, but in terms of plotting it became a little bit plodding and event-based (this happened then this happened) without any real sense of meaning behind the events. I stopped reading it twice because I almost lost sympathy with the main male character; the author deliberately pushes the line here. However, the story built to an excellent finale.

The sequel, Monsters of Men, is just excellent. Definitely the best of the series; flipping between three different points of view means that the plot is advanced without the annoying 'knock the protagonist out' tricks of the first book. There are cliffhangers with nearly every chapter, and I'm a sucker for battle scenes of mass combat - the ambushes and strategies - which this book definitely delivers.

Overall, this Chaos Walking series has a great payoff but it was definitely a struggle for me to get there.

Exegisis is a short little science fiction tale about an artificial intelligence sending emails to its creator. An ok, fast read with one or two moments of genuine insight about how the world might 'look' to an AI.

How to Make it All Work is about looking at your life from a high-level perspective, setting goals and how to recognise when you're heading in the 'right' direction for you. I'm still figuring out how to apply stuff from this book; I think it'll be up for a re-read in a few months.
The Race is the second book by Richard North Patterson I've read this year. He's got a thing for writing well-researched thrillers which I approve of. This one is about a Republican presidential primary: overall, the story felt a little familiar to me, having watched Seasons 6 and 7 of The West Wing and followed the last few US elections and mid-terms fairly closely, but it's got a great final act (set at the Republican convention, illustrating the wheelings and dealings that go on). It's also interesting in that the book addresses the internal contradictions and unstable alliances between the different social groups that make up the Republican party (or at least did, pre-Tea Party).

While the first two books of Jessica Amanda Salmondson's Tomoe Gozen trilogy are fun, they didn't really move me. Her stories about a doomed female samurai have quite a bit to say about honour and feminism, but they felt a little disposable. The third book, Thousand Shrine Warrior, is infused with a melancholy mood and Tomoe becomes part of a fascinating moral dilemma: each person that Tomoe is forced to kill in order to save her life is actually part of a grander plan of revenge. That sense of doom and the awareness that violence only made the problem worse lifted this book into Yojimbo style territory. While the ending felt too easy, to me, I would love to read more Tomoe adventures (and I'd definitely want to see a film of this particular story).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Top Writing Tips

Here’s my top writing tip: visualise the person reading your article; they’re busy, suffering from information overload, and will skim read your article. Your reader wants to know why it's worth their time to keep reading.

To keep them reading, here are two more writing tips (each with a couple of suggestions):

Spend 50% of your writing time planning your article

+ Make sure you define the article’s purpose: To convince? To inform? To entertain? …

+ Do a brain-dump or mind-map of everything you want to write about in this article.

+ Summarise your post or article into four short bullet points before you start.

Make your article easy to read and understand

+ Put your main point at the front; don’t make the reader work to discover your magnificent conclusion (assume they’ll quit reading before they reach the end of your article).

+ Say what you want to say using the simplest but most precise words possible.

(Tips condensed down from a course I did a few years ago.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Have Done List: November

Played Apocalypse World

Read Two Bear Mambo (Joe Lansdale), The Race (Richard North Patterson), Tomoe Gozen and The Golden Naginate (Jessica Amanda Salmonsen), The Four Hour Work Week (Timothy Ferris), a bunch of Elric stories and most of Billy's new book.

digitised my CD collection

made a tough decision about my writing future

watched Jennifer's Body (it's suprisingly good)

brainstormed a national advertising campaign

help create answers for a Parliamentary Question

watched as the end of that chain of answers led to the resignation of 'my' Minister

handed in a film funding proposal for 2011

went to Apollo 13: Mission Control, where I was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and seized control of Mission Control (best interactive theatre experience ever)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Building a Habit: Using the net less

What I became aware of was that using the internet had become a habit: something I didn't think too much about, I just sat down and surfed (at home, at work). Sometimes an hour would pass and I snap out of my netdaze and wonder what I'd been doing.

That's an hour of my life I could've been doing something with. And each of those hours could be multiplied by several times every weeks.

It wasn't just the big hour-long blocks of my life that I was concerned were slipping away. There were the 'five minutes' here, the 'ten minutes' there. The "I'll just check one thing" net-checks that spiralled out of control until I'd find myself on a website dedicated to the covers of 1970s science fiction novels with no real idea of how I'd gotten there.

My time is valuable ... and I needed to make myself understand that. So I decided to apply some basic reward and punishment strategies to my internet use. The reward was money (effectively, pocket money I'd give myself to spend on anything I wanted - guilt-free) and the punishment was working extra time at work, unpaid.

I started by giving myself a certain number of checks per day; I tried to make this number quite large, so it'd be easy to achieve. So I started with giving myself 10 trips to the internet every day. Not only that, but I decided to be generous: checking the internet at lunch-time and between 7pm and 7.30pm would be ‘free’. They wouldn't count against my 10 trip limit.

I also introduced 'penalty zones', times when using the internet counts for double. For the first hour after I wake up, between 10 and 11, and between 3 and 4; these are the times when I really want to be working on my own stuff.

After two weeks, I dropped down from 10 internet visits per day to 9 (and then kept dropping it every two weeks after that). That's when the tension really began. I started feeling the limitation, but I also started to feel the habit breaking.

I discovered two things about myself through doing this:

+ a lot of my internet time is ego-driven; I'm checking to see if anyone's replied to a post I've made, or to an email.
+ I completely under-estimated the perniciousness of 'just wanted to check just one thing', that impulse to google a random piece of information and then be led astray into the glorious and seductive wilderness of the internet.

I'm at 5 internet visits a day now, and I'm going to keep it at that level for a while to consolidate the habit. This feels like a behavior I'm going to have to manage for the rest of my life, because I suspect it'll be very easy for the browsing and googling to slowly creep up if I don't pay attention to it.

Doing this has felt good though - I definitely have more disposable time, and I've been feeling less stressed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

How to get things done: Stop getting things done!

One piece of advice about setting up a system to get things done (GTD) more efficiently: be prepared to experience a combination of ‘adrenaline from *doing* stuff’ and ‘feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you have to do’. I’ve experienced this twice now: the first time I set up my GTD system, and just last month (when I radically simplified it).

Both times, I was left feeling stressed by the amount of stuff I’d taken on.

Which reveals one of the secrets to this whole GTD system: be careful about what you take on and decide to do. Taking an inventory of all of your commitments will reveal exactly how much stuff you feel obligated to finish and achieve.

Last year I read a book called Margin, which described the feeling of free time in your life as the white margin around the pages of a book. The more stuff you pack into your life, the less margin you have, the less freedom to relax, unwind, contemplate.

If you want margin, you’ve got to push back against obligations:

+ push some of them into your ‘Someday/Maybe’ list rather than doing them right now
+ drop some of them (or renegotiate to do them later)
+ take a break from using this system; just vege out for a day or two.

My mind, at least, is not designed to be productive all the time. It needs ebbs and flows. Being aware that sometimes you don’t need to get things done is key to this.

In that spirit, I was originally going to end this series of posts with an offer to help people who are interested in this stuff set up their own GTD systems. Instead, if you’re interested in this stuff, let me know and we can discuss it sometime.

In the meantime, ‘How to Get Things Done’ is available from the library (and from me); you can also read the Simple Dollar’s review of How to Get Things Done.