Self Improvement

Meditate to train your brain, calm your mind, and awaken your creativity with little fuss and lots of benefits

Meditate anywhere. Don't over think it. Under think it. (Photo via Stencil)

I write novels. That artistic effort requires concentrating on story problems for multiple hours a day. It demands that your mind enters a state of flow and to enter the invented minds of your invented characters as you write down their story. Because of the length of novels, you must pull off these mental miracles for months, or years, at a time.

In the first 25 years of my writing, I wrote a score of short stories, four novels and half a dozen screenplays. I improved with each effort, but never had anything resembling commercial success. I was a rank amateur with only a stack of rejected manuscripts to show for my labor.

Yeah, that's about how many drafts of all my manuscripts I had. (Photo by Stencil)

In the past 10 years, my writing has leveled up, especially my ability to solve story problems, which demands the most creativity of all. When I started, I wrote simple stories with hardly anything happening because that's as much as I could handle in a story. I now write multiple point-of-view novels, juggling personalities like a politician at a Florida political rally, with lots going on in the stories.

What changed? Part of it is just practicing for ten more years. But I think meditation is a big part of my improvement.

Meditation was recommended to me ten years ago by two writing instructors. When I started meditating, I immediately noticed the benefits, calming me and strengthening my mind's ability to focus and let interruptions slip away like ducks over a waterfall.

Of course, correlation is not causation, but I'm convinced that meditating has allowed me to learn to write better during my recent classes. It's not the solution, but a critical part of the solution. (The other parts are exercise and better sleep habits — and meditation is also what helps me keep those habits, as well.)

You should try it.

Breathe. (Photo via Stencil)

How to get started meditating

To begin meditating, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.

If another thought emerges in your mind, let it go. Tell yourself you'll think about it later. Then pay attention to your breathing again.

That's it. Do that and you are officially meditating.

If the simplicity of that seems like it's a joke, it's not. That deceptively easy thing to do is what delivers great benefits to you mind and body.

Try it — right now! — then come back and ask yourself this question:

How can something that easy be so valuable?

If you can concentrate, then you can write. (Photo via Stencil)

Does this sound like you?

We are constantly assaulted by distraction in the modern world. If you work on a computer, you likely check your social media feeds or scroll through email. (I do those, but I'm also addicted to reading the news.) If you have a smartphone, you may check your social media, check your email, read the news and also play a game.

On top of that, you may listen to a podcast or the radio in your car, then watch streaming television in the evening, and go down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos before falling asleep.

If that's you, your brain is dealing with a lot of input that is telling you what to think. Other people's opinions and judgment. Stories that you are expected to enjoy.

None of that input gives your brain a chance to think for itself about something. Maybe not anything.

So a break of as little as five minutes can give your mind a chance to recover and even strengthen itself. That little bit of calm goes a long way, and feels pretty good.

Find a quiet place and meditate. (Photo via Stencil)

How long should you meditate?

You can meditate for a minute, or an hour, or any number of minutes in between. I declared six (6) minutes to be the threshold for me. I set myself a goal to sit quietly once a day and pay attention to my breathing.

Six minutes works for me, but ten or twenty might be better for you. You have to try it and figure out what works for your schedule, even if it's less than six minutes.

Are you familiar with that adage about how to control your anger? You count to ten before responding. Even that tiny amount is a form of meditation. You are focusing your mind on counting, giving it a chance to calm down.

I recommend you keep track of your mediation efforts because the act of tracking encourages you to keep doing it, turning it into a habit. You can use a calendar, a journal, or a rosary.

Journal to keep track of your meditating. (Photo by Stencil)

What else does meditation do?

By focusing on your breathing, you are training your mind to concentrate on something. It's like practicing scales in music: we play an ukulele with our hands, but the real work is done in our brain.

This modern world constantly interrupts our thoughts, teaching our minds to deal with the next thing, the next headline, the next level in a game. It's become a big casino with bells and blinking lights beckoning for our attention.

Taking five or ten minutes to practice focusing your mind strengthens your ability to filter out some of the noise. Remember how I mentioned that, should a thought intrude upon your meditation, just let it go, reminding yourself you'll worry about it later. Then focus your attention again on your breathing.

Letting go of an interruption must also be strengthened.

So that's two critical things meditation does for you:

  • strengthens your ability to focus
  • strengthens your ability to ignore interruptions

What if you want to do more?

This takes a lot of concentration. (Photo via Stencil)

Take your meditating to the next level

The simplest thing to do with meditation is just do more. Sit in a quiet place for longer stretches of time. I find that, on weekends, I linger after the six minutes are after, often until my crossed legs fall asleep.

Try walking meditation, which is just like normal walking, but a little slower. Pay attention to your surroundings. It's best done away from a busy, noisy street, like in a park. Notice the trees. Look for birds. Watch where you're going, and also what's underfoot, such as grass or gravel or pavement.

If you play music, or want to learn, practicing scales, with its repetitive concentration, is a form of meditation. I play ukulele, and Danieal Ward created a song book of meditations that are delightful to hear, fun to play, teach me chords and finger-picking, and also are a meditative break for my mind.

Finally, there are forms of mantra meditation, during which suggestions are repeated to yourself.

How frequently should you meditate?

Meditating should be at least like bathing, in that you try to do it daily, or more often if you get yourself messy. During particularly frustrating or stressful times, a few minutes of meditation can restore balance and energy, while also strengthening your mind to better withstand assaults in the future.

Meditating can make you smarter. (Photo via Stencil)

What will meditating do for you?

Meditating won't in and of itself make you a novelist, pianist, or surgeon. But if you want to learn any of those skills (any skill, obviously) training your brain to focus, remain calm, and ignore distractions is fundamenntal.
The world needs more people who can use the power of their mind to solve problems.

Give it a try.

Self Improvement

The Eternal Struggle Between Private Time and Family Time for a Writer Like Me

How a Quiet Night Between Holidays Became the Battle Ground Between Me and My Family

Kind of looks like me. (Photo via Stencil)

The Monday following Thanksgiving, my wife realized that we had an evening in which no one had any plans. Not me, not her, nor our daughter or son. This was a rarity because our children are adults, now, and have lives of their own, and my wife and I keep pretty busy. (Side note: I learned from my father that the secret to a happy marriage is to stay the hell out of the house except to eat or sleep.)

As an amateur writer, an evening without an obligation to attend is one of the greatest windfalls. I struggle to carve out the minimum two hours I demand of myself every evening. With nothing going on for anyone, I looked forward to sitting at my desk in the corner for the entire evening, doing the creative work I love and some of the pragmatic work (planning, admin stuff) needed to move my writing business forward.

So what would we do with our windfall of leisure time?

Alas, my wife scheduled a photo shoot for the family. We hadn’t had a portrait done in about twelve years, and it seemed over due. In fact, one could argue it might be the last chance for a family portrait for another dozen years, what with the disparity of schedules and the onslaught of time.

This looks really official. (Photo via Stencil)

I agreed. Family activities are one of the few things I allow to encroach on my writing time.

We chose JC Penney “portrait studios” because they’re cheap, they had an opening, and they accept pets. Huzzah and three cheers for the photographer because the first to arrive, our daughter, was a full ten minutes late. Had she canceled us, it would have been my fault.

When the appointment was made, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize it was JC Penney “portrait studios.” I somehow thought it was a studio on the other side of Lansing and sent my son that address. I arrived on time but to the wrong place, and had to re-route our son.

Not our family. (Photo via Stencil)

Jacque Pene

The photographer, a young lady, exuded chill. (I’m not sure one really exudes “chill,” so much as offers the vibe of chill, and you are free to notice or not.) She liked dogs. She often photographed children and I think had come to prefer animals to babies for getting the money shot.

Not our dog. (Photo via Stencil)

To sit for a portrait is surreal, as you must be painfully aware that you are sitting for a portrait while painfully attempting to look natural. The only people exempt from this are hand and foot models. No matter what they think of their hands or feet, their faces are not in the picture, so they can make all manner of uncomfortable faces, and it’s only minimally expressed in their farthest appendages.

We had chosen dark outfits and this was a sound strategy. I’m not a big fan of the family photos with everybody dressed in matching pajamas, or in sports fan garb or, my least favorite, western costumes.

Am I a Writer or the Father of a Family?

I’m both, alas, and the push and pull between those two realities can cause me stress. Part of me wants to schedule hard blocks of time for my writing that are inviolate. But doing so means I might miss something that happens with my family, and that’s just not how I want to live. Let’s face it, if the only thing I ever wanted to do was write, I would have abandoned my family years ago.

Also not our family. (Photo via Stencil)

But I’m not. So I scramble to find time. Just like the time I found to write this.

Self Improvement

How to Email Like a Pro to Get Shit Done – The Mickey Way

I used to have a boss who didn’t understand email. The root problem was that he neither understood correspondence, nor the art of conversation. How he got to be my boss remains a mystery (but I have a few theories). So…

What didn’t he understand about email, you ask?

My boss thought that email worked fine if you typed all your thoughts into a single paragraph, using only an occasional period for punctuation. Furthermore, he wrote the entire email in ALL CAPS, which is off-putting at best.

I frequently rewrote his email for him. It never occurred to him that he should learn to correspond in any other fashion. He hardly believed me when I told him the email needed to be rewritten. (Of course, he did believe me because he returned for help, and sent my version as his own. He just never admitted he was wrong or thanked me for helping.)

This is not about sales or marketing

A lot has been written about email to make sales or expand your marketing reach. This article is about advancing projects, solving problems and getting stuff done when it’s your job on the line.

I’ve been working for 35 years, since before email, and have evolved and adapted to make email an effective and reliable tool that helps me do my job. Using the techniques I describe, you will worry less and produce more. And it’s no more difficult than having a conversation.

First things first: what is email?

Email is a form of correspondence, and correspondence is the one-sided form of conversation. When you converse (or correspond) with someone, you bring up a topic, you listen to their thoughts on the topic, and you share your own thoughts. If a decision (or action) is required, you then base the decision on the thoughts just shared with the other person.

At the risk of being pedantic, those principles of conversation are:

  • Bring up a topic
  • Listen to the thoughts and opinions offered
  • Share your own thoughts and opinions
  • Suggest a decision (or action) if one is needed
  • Confirm agreement (if needed)

That pretty much covers how all human civilization arranges and advances itself. When you send an email, you are participating in human civilization. But, being one-sided by its nature, it’s even more important to be exactly clear in an email about:

  • Topic
  • Your thoughts and opinions
  • Whether or not a decision is needed

As tempting as it may be to avoid confrontation, or to be chatty, don’t do any of that stuff. Stick to the topic and ask tough questions if needed. Tangential thoughts may ruin your chances of getting an answer. Most business correspondence is done via email, so it’s imperative that you are skilled in it if you want to flourish in your work.

Business conversations should be focused on reaching (or sharing) a decision, leading to an action for the business. Email is a great way to have those conversations, allowing the participants to respond at their convenience.

Here are a few rules for business email done The Mickey Way:

Rule #1: Put the topic in the subject of the email

Email has a subject line that’s displayed for all recipients. Put the topic of this one-sided conversation there. Write it in a clear and interesting way because this is your first and best chance to get the opinion, decision or action you need for your business.

Don’t reuse an old email’s subject line because you can reply-all and send it to a particular group. Go ahead and hit reply-all, but take the time to put the correct topic in the subject line.

Rule #2: Greet the recipient in the body of the email

Email has a To field which specifies one or more recipients. If the To field is crowded with names, most people will think somebody else is going to deal with email. This is called the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect is when people witnessing an accident, crime or disaster will assume that someone else is going to take care of it.

You must combat the Bystander Effect by naming your intended in the body of the email. It’s best to do this as a greeting. Make it absolutely clear who you are talking to. This gets their attention, and is the next best chance to get what you need out of this email. It’s best to keep it simple, and here are three examples:

  • Dear Tom,
  • Felix:
  • Hey Bethany…

Don’t salute them with “Hey girl,” or “How are you?” or “What up?” Use a name. Use the name of the person whose attention you seek.

Rule #3: Repeat the topic in the first sentence of the email

Email is one-sided, so it’s your responsibility to share your thoughts and opinions on the topic to be discussed. But the recipient may have already forgotten the topic of the mail (which they saw in the subject line) by the time the email opens. I’m not kidding: it’s better to assume the recipient is under a constant bombardment of interruptions, and may forget in the two seconds it takes to double-click an email and begin reading it.

Often, people are skipping through email, trying to find high-priority things they need to do, and are just glancing at the sender and the body. The subject line may only get a cursory glance.

You must set the recipient’s context for this conversation by telling them the topic. Remind them why this topic is important. Tell them what’s at stake if they mess this up.

Here are a few examples:

  • Last week, I was asked to document the user interface requirements for the new cash processing system under development. You’re the designated subject matter expert on cash processing, so I need to speak to you about those requirements.
  • I received a call from our custodial vendor regarding the change in schedule for cleaning the bathrooms. It’s ultimately your decision, so I’m reaching out to you.
  • I’d like to take next Friday off on vacation

Don’t begin by asking about their weekend, or lamenting that you missed lunch the other day. If you don’t immediately hook them they are vulnerable to interruptions, and may never get back to your email.

Rule #4: Solicit the recipient’s opinion

It’s important to activate the recipient’s thinking on the topic, and the best way to do that is ask them what they think. Following on the examples from Rule #3, here are some ways to do that:

  • Do you think we should meet and discuss the requirements, or can we exchange the requirements document and develop them that way?
  • Do you have a plan for the bathroom cleaning schedule, or do you need more time to consider?
  • Do you think it would be okay for me to be gone next Friday?

Exception to the Rule

You may be informing someone of a situation, but no decision or action is needed. In that case, tell them that explicitly:

  • This is just for your information. We don’t have to decide this matter now, but I wanted you to be informed. I’ll let you know as things develop.

Don’t muddle the topic with mitigating factors; i.e., don’t give the recipient a reason to withhold their opinion. You might do this unconsciously because you are conflict adverse and regret putting the recipient on the spot by asking their opinion. For instance, don’t add, “I don’t know if it matters, but what do you think…” or “This in no big deal, really, but what do you think…” By couching the question to avoid conflict, you are granting the recipient permission to pull their punch. If they don’t have to commit, they won’t. Even if it’s a simple question like “want to go to lunch?”

Rule #5: Share your thoughts

This being a one-sided conversation, you must present your position on the topic. This gives the recipient something to react to, and helps them formulate a response. For example:

  • I think the requirements are complex and we would reach mutual understanding faster if we meet face to face. It will likely take two hours to get through them.
  • I will let the vendor know your decision, as it is entirely up to you
  • I have no meetings next Friday, and it won’t impact my work if I’m gone.

Exception to the Rule

If you have no opinion, say so. We are often just messengers in business, and merely connecting decision-makers. There is no shame in that, and it’s best for all parties to be clear about it. Claiming mastery of a domain where you don’t belong will confuse matters, at best. In the worst case, you’ll make an enemy at work.

Don’t be shy. If you have knowledge on the topic, say so, cite your sources, and be clear. No reason to pat yourself on the back. Similarly, if you’re confused or ignorant, say so. There’s no shame in that. Sharing vulnerability is a form of strength. The recipient should respect it. (The hell with them if they don’t.)

Rule #6: Explicitly suggest or ask for a decision (if one is needed)

If the topic requires a decision, then suggest one or ask for one, as appropriate. Be explicit about the need for a decision and specify deadlines. If you’re informing them of your decision, be clear about it so that they understand your position and reasoning.

Here are examples continuing from the previous ones:

  • Let me know by 3 p.m. today so that I can inform the project manager and arrange the schedule appropriately.
  • The vendor wants to know by noon tomorrow so they can make arrangements.
  • If you can let me know before lunch, I’d appreciate it because we’re trying to make plans for that weekend.

Don’t assume that the recipient will understand any deadlines or the basic need to decide. People are busy, distracted, and looking for things they don’t have to do. The email you sent to them is a candidate for something they can read and forget. Give them a reason to not decide and that’s exactly what they’ll do. And then you’ll only end up sending another email.

Rule #7: Thank them

Everybody is busy, or distracted, and the fact that they read your email should be rewarded. Thank them, and maybe even wish them a happy day. Here are a few examples I like:

  • Thanks
  • Thanks very much
  • Thanks for your time

Don’t overthink the thanking. I guess if telling people to make it a great day is your thing, you can add that. But I don’t. (I’ll say that stuff in person, in an actual conversation, but not in a business email.)

Do we have to follow all the rules all the time?

Of course, I break some of my own rules, or combine things when I’m confident I won’t muddle the message.

Not very email you send at work is a “business email.” You may be connecting with someone, or congratulating them, or fishing for opportunities, or scouting for danger. In fact, I’ll probably tell you how to write all of those, The Mickey Way, in the coming weeks.

Back to my boss

The reason my boss got away with not being able to email or correspond is because he had me do it, instead. After a while, I got tired of him asking, and I just stopped, feigning excuses or avoiding him. He went to other people in the office.

Eventually, everyone had been tapped to rewrite his crappy emails, memos and letters.

We made fun of him but he had the last laugh. When I tracked him down last year, he was a Vice President of a Chicago-based talent company. Well fuck it all, because that brings up…

Rule #8: If you can’t fucking write an email, get help

If you’re not sure about an email, ask for help. Find someone to discuss it with (in a conversation!). I do this with critical topics or in volatile situations. Thankfully, I can handle most email in my life and career, but when I’m nervous about one, I get a second opinion. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Also, I don’t sweat hanging prepositions and split infinitives. If you don’t know what they are, that’s cool too. That is, your email doesn’t have to be grammatically perfect. But I will offer one more rule…

Rule #9: Sentences, paragraphs and DON’T USE ALL CAPS

Construct your email in sentences and paragraphs. If you have trouble with those, get help; but if you can talk, you’re probably using sentences already. Give yourself credit.

The trick with paragraphs is that they need to be built around a single idea with one or more sentences developing that idea: raising a point, making the counter-point, and wrapping up the idea so that the next paragraph can raise a different point. When in doubt, go with a shorter paragraph.

Often, the body of my business emails are four, one-sentence paragraphs, with a line in-between each to allow them to stand out; i.e., use white space. (You definitely don’t want to write it all in a single block of text without punctuation.)

And for the love of God, don’t use ALL CAPS.

Seriously, I could not believe that guy was a manager. And then he made God damn VP. Fuck.

Self Improvement

Floating in a Sensory Deprivation Float Tank for Fun and Profit

Yep. This is how it's done.

I took a float today, which refers to a sensory deprivation float tank. You climb into a coffin-like box (a sarcophagus, for those who love to use a thesaurus) filled with warm salt water. You plug your ears, turn out the lights, and close the lid on yourself. Then you lay still for an hour or so.

That's it. That's floating. The floating part is easy because the salt water allows you to float, like taking a swim in the Dead Sea.

It's warm so you don't feel any temperature change on your skin (but it may remind you, at first, of swimming in public pools in summer with so many kids splashing around that you are certain there's more urine than water).

Why bother?

If you can lay still, and not freak out about being in a coffin, or floating on urine-temperature water, it allows your brain to calm down thanks to the sensory deprivation. This takes a few minutes to achieve because your thoughts have to settle. Your subconscious has to be convinced there's no input coming other than the occasional drip of condensed water from the ceiling.

I find it to be like having a dream while waking. Not a day dream, where you might work out some fantasy or disaster in your mind. More like an actual dream, where your brain interprets stored up thoughts and feelings from the day and you see images that are the brain's attempt to make sense of the thoughts.

In the float tank, my thoughts bounce between being mindful of my breathing, the fact that I'm in a float tank, and various strange images.

After the float, I'm chill as fuck. I've never gotten high, but I'm guessing it's a little bit like that. It's an all pervasive chill. My joints and muscles are relaxed. To me, it's better than my best night of sleep.

Why bother? (I know: I really didn't answer that, yet.)

I've never had a million dollar idea, or a flash of insight on a particular problem from floating. So I've never gotten my money's worth from the floats directly.

It's part of my overall strategy to be mindful, calmer and present. I also walk, meditate and practice yoga. These occasional floats (which are between $60 and $90 a shot) are assuring my brain that I don't have to worry about everything.

Nowadays, that's a critical thing.

Also, I'm hoping it improves my ability to be creative and help me write stories, novels, and screenplays that are entertaining and compelling.

But I can't quite shake the worry that other people have urinated in the float tank before me.

Self Improvement

How To Harness the Transformative Power of a Daily Fitness Habit, and Take Your Self-Improvement To the Next Level

I'm not exactly sure what that pose means, but she does look like fitness has changed her life.

When Haruki Murakami decided to become a novelist, he realized he would need great stamina to persist in the writing process. Novels are long-duration creative projects. He wasn't sure if he had that kind of stamina, or the ability to focus long enough in a writing session to gather and record thoughts. The prospect of doing that day after day, for a year or more, worried him.

Murakami decided to take up long distance running. The demands of training for and running marathons would change his brain — or so he hoped — and give him a chance to sit at a desk and concentrate long enough to compose a novel of 60,000 words or more.

His four novels have all been bestsellers and critically acclaimed. Now, it's not a given that running leads to bestsellers. But he found a way to transform his life and he used his physical fitness training to fuel his efforts.

But how do you turn your new habit for fitness into something that transforms your life?

I've used this photo before because it's such a bad ass move to balance like that.

Make the habit and the habit makes you

As the habit for fitness takes hold, you will notice changes in how you feel even when you're not exercising. First of all, you will begin to look forward to your activities because your body will anticipate the release of serotonin after the exertion. You will be more alert because your sleep has likely improved. And your energy level increases because you've trained your body to process oxygen more efficiently and to manage sugar in the blood stream. Put simply, everything about your life will improve because of daily exercise.

You may feel joy or appreciate the world around you. You have transformed your physical presence in the world.

Use the extra energy

Around the time that your fitness is improving, it will become easier to get your daily activity done. You won't have to force yourself, and remind yourself, and work so very hard to make it happen. The habit becomes easier to keep. This is a one-two punch of goodness for you.

As your energy levels increase, your energy demands decrease. You can contemplate tackling other projects without putting your daily habit at risk. And after the nine months or a year of daily fitness becomes second nature (i.e., truly habitual) your confidence should further encourage you to take on other projects.

This is a great time to begin other training, such as learning a musical instrument, taking night classes, or practicing macrame — whatever it is that will satisfy your passion.

It's not like this unseen person is composing that music, but that's what I hope to imply, that you can take on projects like music composition, novel writing, or Olympic gardening if you have the energy.

Pick a bigger goal

Now is the time to make a plan to achieve the bigger goal that will realize your dream. If you want to win a Grammy or an Emmy, then you should set some goals for music, acting, or writing that will lead you down that path.

If you want to change careers, then you'll want to focus on getting the training you need, finding a mentor, and networking with people in that field to prepare for the job search.

The point is that you will leverage changes you've made to your brain — as exemplified by your fitness habit — to transform other aspects of your life. You will have the confidence, energy and tenacity to persist through many challenges, because you are no longer who you used to be.

You are on your way to becoming the person you want to be.

A rare stock photo where people are not exuberantly happy.

You have to work hard to be happy in Cleveland

If your goal is to find happiness at the end of a year of fitness, you'll be disappointed. Happiness is not something you find.

Happiness is a by-product, not a goal. You experience happiness when you work on things that matter to yourself and to people you love. Setting a goal of being happy won't work. You might mistake going to a resort and experiencing pleasant things as happiness, but you are just enjoying the pleasantries. That's not lasting happiness. When you return home to your normal life, you will miss the resort. The joy stays there. It doesn't travel with you back to Cleveland.

When I started improving my life, about ten years ago, with a daily fitness habit, I didn't find happiness either. I found I had to keep working at things to achieve them, but I was happy. If I gave up on working at things, that's when I was unhappy.

More than anything, it's the fact that I become happy by working hard at things I want to accomplish that keeps me doing it. I persist because of the happiness I experience. But I won't ever find happiness.

You won't either, but I hope you experience it while trying to achieve your dreams.

And I hope that you make whatever changes are necessary in your life to satisfy your passion.

Next Steps

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