blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How To Attract More Readers For Your Great Content

if you build it right they will come – and stay

FancyCrave on Unsplash

Do you want more readers?

Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?

Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.

Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse

The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy.
John Caples

The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.

It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.

Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.

Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.

The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.

This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.

Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100

Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.

How Hard Can It Be?

So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.

Hit the Wall

Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.

We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.

Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.

The Long and the Short Of It

Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.

Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.

  • The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
  • Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
  • Stephen King novels 12 years
  • Reader’s Digest 12 years

You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.

Keep It Moving

Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,

The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.

Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.

Avoid The Angry Trap

Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.

I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.

Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.

Put Meat on the Bones

So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.

Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.

If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.

Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.

Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.

Showing Up

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.
Dwayne Johnson

After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.

Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.

Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.

Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.

  Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.

You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.

Walk That Talk

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
Karl Marx

How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know —  because I live the same struggle.

A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.

I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.

The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.

I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.

Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.

Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.

You’re good now — and you can be better. Learn, improve, repeat.

blog

Richer On The Outside – With A Poor Centre

yogurt_Bernadette Wurzinger
Image by Bernadette Wurzinger from Pixabay 

We all want to progress in life.

We want to improve, have more, do better. And it’s taken for granted that we want the same for our children, especially if we come from humble beginnings. One day recently, I measured my progress using yogurt.

Take that perfectly curated breakfast above. It’s full of protein, fresh berries, and organic, naturally. It murmurs vitality and micronutrients and my body is a temple. It also says I am well off. I can afford the ingredients and the time to compose this hymn to healthy eating.

Lacking time or inclination for Instagrammable bowls of perfection, I buy quality yogurt with fruit and live bio cultures. My daughter watched me scrape the lid clean; maybe half a teaspoon’s worth. Any parent of older children grows immune to the slightly pitying looks and sighs of their much cooler offspring, but I decided to play.

“At least I didn’t lick it,” I said.
“Ew. Why would you do that?”
“To get the last bit, obviously. Don’t act as if you’ve never done it.”
She rolled her eyes and left the kitchen. “I’ve never done that. Gross.”

The Yogurt Lid of Truth

I grew up in a large family where resources were scarce and you made the most of everything. Wasting anything that could be used was sacrilege. Hard work ensured my two children never had to cut the mould off stale bread or go to bed hungry. We are comfortable. But here I am, still rinsing the last drop out of laundry liquid bottles and scraping foil lids.

We are prisoners of our past.

We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what in the morning was true will by evening become a lie.
Carl Jung

Learning to live comfortably is a challenge you never expected when you grew up wishing that you had more. You can find yourself penny-pinching to the point of misery even when you no longer need to. Or you can find yourself overstocking and hoarding just in case you find yourself destitute again.

It’s a struggle to change ingrained habits. But sometimes little things are the marker of bigger changes under the surface. Now that marker is a yogurt lid with perfectly good yogurt clinging to it, thrown in the trash without regret.

At some point, you have to start overwriting all that “no you can’t” from the past with “yes, you can have what you want.” Since there’s always an element of shame involved in being poor, saying yes to yourself is hard at first (I shouldn’t be doing this) then anxiety provoking (what if it all goes wrong?)

But ultimately it frees you from those old scripts. Saying yes empowers, not because it’s self-indulgent but because it’s self-affirming. It acknowledges how far you’ve come and how hard you worked to arrive. Yes to yourself is a vote of confidence.

Enough is a Feast

There was never enough in my childhood, but things are better now. I deserve to relax and allow myself the benefits that my children take for granted because I have enough now and I will not be left wanting. With that change of mindset comes a shift of focus from fear to gratitude, a much better way to live.

So make those baby steps that take you away from outdated patterns, and don’t look back.

It’s time to move on.

(first published 17.5.19 in Live Your Life On Purpose on Medium)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Build Your Self-Worth Through One Simple Act

giving is good – taking is great

gift-flowers-hands_klimkin
klimkin via pixabay

Give without remembering and receive without forgetting.
Elizabeth Bibesco

Would you rather give something or get something?

You’ve heard that it’s better to give than to receive. The idea of giving is central to most religions around the world. Winston Churchill supposedly said “you make a living by what you give, but you make a life by what you give.”

If you’re the lucky recipient of a gift, how do you receive it? Get it wrong, and the whole exchange is soured.

You’d think it was easy, but gift giving is often a fraught affair, hedged round with expectations and social norms. Some people don’t know how to give; others never learn to give. Even when we’re following that golden rule, it can still fail.

During a writing group meeting, I once complimented a writer on her dialogue, which flowed on the page with the polished elegance that comes from a finely tuned ear. She smiled uncertainly and protested that it wasn’t that good – at all.

So we both felt bad. She felt undeserving of something good, and I felt as though she had thrown my words away. What made her react like that?

Given But Not Taken

Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.
Alexander McCall Smith

I’m certain that my writer friend would never throw a physical gift on the ground and walk away. But in refusing to accept the intangible gift of praise, she essentially did just that.

When parents and caregivers teach us to be polite, they leave out the most important skill in receiving. Politeness hides many a scowl of anger and disappointment, and its lack of authenticity is obvious even when cloaked in smiles and happy words.

The art of receiving a genuine gift (or even a fake one) is in understanding that when a gift is given it must also be taken. Both sides are necessary.

Learn to give without strings. A gift with conditions is at best a loan of something the giver still controls.

The art of receiving a gift is first in feeling worthy enough to be given something, and second in expressing genuine gratitude.

When given a compliment, are you:

  1. embarrassed because you don’t deserve praise,
  2. suspicious of their motives because they must want something from you, or
  3. angry because they’re clearly mocking you?

These emotions have their roots in old programming and/or traumatic events that you’re holding on to in the present.

Think back to the last such encounter and examine your feelings. There’s often an old memory attached that still shapes your behaviour in the present. Perhaps you were taught that taking things was selfish, accepting praise was a sin of pride, or simply that compliments weren’t for people like you.

To rewrite this script, here is one thing you need to accept about yourself.

You are worthy.

You are good enough, so is your work, and you deserve the rewards you receive. Whether it’s a yummy cupcake, a well-written report, or a project delivered on budget and on time. So accept that compliment. If you refuse it either outright or by deflection, you hurt both parties.

As interactions become more transactional and less genuine, dysfunctional gifting can be seen as a microcosm of a wider problem. When your gift is covertly rejected, you become cynical. There seems no point in giving, so you restrict yourself to exchanges that directly benefit you in some tangible way. When you refuse a gift, you replay an old script that says you are unworthy. You add to your burden of self-doubt.

The donor is hurt because rejection robs them of the pleasure of giving. You hurt yourself because you reinforce old lies that whisper you shouldn’t have nice things. And an exchange that could start to heal those wounds is wasted.

Take The Box

After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.
CS Lewis

It’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling under-appreciated while simultaneously refusing credit where it’s due. Hidden under the guise of humility or self-deprecation, this form of self-sabotage eats away at self-esteem unseen. It’s time to find a better way.

Next time someone says something good about you, remember you’re being offered a gift. Don’t walk away or bad-mouth it. You know how you’d like your gift to be received. Make eye contact, smile and thank the giver sincerely. There’s no need to explain more. Don’t follow up with how hard you found it, or minimise your efforts. Don’t give away the gift by saying anyone could have done it.

There is no giving without taking. They complement and define each other.

Stay in the moment and acknowledge the gift. When you do that, you honour both the giver and receiver. That’s the gift you give back.

View at Medium.com

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Mine

love hearts_Public Domain Pictures
Public Domain Pictures via pixabay

listen to this poem here:

We whispered quietly as lovers do
of you, and me, and us. We came to be
so intertwined no boundaries were seen,
an alchemy whereby two became one.
And when in velvet dark I murmured soft —
a soundtrack to our games of hide and seek
of push and pull, sharp teeth and tenderness
traced round its edge with just sufficient pain
to ground us in mortality — yours, mine
seemed all the same. We kissed and lived our choice.
You held me close, in case I floated off
into the dark skies of forgotten dreams.

You didn’t pause, my love, or think it strange
that passion’s language is awash with death
and dangerous. We fall and drown, expose
soft beating hearts. We’re careless with our trust.
But when you said I’m yours excitement woke
a lurking appetite that stalked the depths.
I took your willing sacrifice with joy
and feasted on you, gobbled up – your flesh
consumed, assimilated thoroughly
while weeping for my loss. Another one
whose wish came true. You’re part of me always.

To taste your enemy and then devour
is to possess all of his wondrous strengths.
I almost held back this time. Sadly you
my love, were too delicious to resist.

blog, self improvement

How Driving Iron Man’s Car Changed My Life

audi R8_Marlene Bitzer
Photo by Marlene Bitzer via pixabay

 

This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.
Terry Pratchett

I was Iron Man once.

It all started with an invisible birthday. You know, one where you have appropriately low expectations and still you come away disappointed. Instead of getting resentful or angry, I did the grown-up thing and bought my own damn gift.

Back then I was deep in the trenches of life, juggling my practice, children, spouse, and parents. Everything was top priority except me. While driving home late one evening a sleek black car passed me by, slung low to the ground with a restrained purr. I watched it disappear in my rearview mirror, knowing I’d never be able to own anything like that. Where would the kids go, and the guitar, and the cello, and the dog?

But a seed had been planted. Months later, I booked myself a supercar experience day. It was time to change the script.

Go Your Own Way

When I’m a bit sad I just go for a drive in the country, quite fast with my music up.
Calvin Harris

The world is full of people ready to tell you why you can’t do something just because they can’t envision themselves doing it. I turned up to an old airfield for the track driving day feeling both apprehensive and excited. Everyone I asked was busy that day so I went alone, and soon found that all the other women there were part of a couple.

Did they regard me with pity, disdain, amusement, or disapproval? I chose not to worry about those possibilities, and instead watched the cars flying around the track. We were all there to enjoy fast cars, and their opinions of me were unimportant.

Other people’s expectations and judgement will throw you off course. Often the best plan is to keep your own counsel. Don’t talk about what you will do. Just do it, and let actions speak for themselves.

In The Driving Seat

I am not reggae, I am me. I am bigger than the limits that are put on me. It all has to do with the individual journey.
Ziggy Marley

We listened to our safety briefing, and then the instructors came to collect each couple for their drive around the track. While I watched the first few people take their laps, a man asked me if I’d really come alone. I told him it was my birthday treat to myself, and he gave me a pitying smile.

“So there’s nobody to take photos of you? Well, never mind.”  

We say pics or it didn’t happen because modern society runs on proof that can be posted to social media. But photos are only a proxy for experience. Memories matter.

In the end, there’s only one person in the driver’s seat and that’s you. Don’t wait for someone else to agree, go out there and do your thing regardless.

A Helping Hand

I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.
Chris Rock

Soon it was my turn to be called. Joe, my instructor, was totally unfazed that I was alone. He pointed out the controls on the Audi R8 and let me get used to the unfamiliar paddle shift.  Signs around the track reminded drivers when to brake and change gear, but with so much happening it was hard to take it all in.

That’s when the calm voice of my instructor cut through my adrenaline, giving instruction and suggestions. This intense driving experience took me back to being a new driver, overwhelmed by inputs from every direction. As hard as it seemed, I had to take a breath and listen, even as I also steered through curves and held on down the straights.

Find a coach or mentor for your activity, whatever it is. Be humble about your lack of knowledge and respectful of theirs. Open your mind and be teachable, and you’ll find yourself going further and moving faster.

Need For Speed

If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.
Mario Andretti

By the start of my last lap, I relaxed a little. The car was unlike anything I’d ever driven; more powerful, more precise, more responsive, more everything. My top speed of one hundred and thirty-two was more than enough to keep me happy.

My instructor had other ideas.

After steering through a fast chicane that was already a favourite, I accelerated towards the second last turn.

“Keep your foot down,” he said.

“Really?” I eased off, obeying years of ingrained caution.

“Not yet.” Joe seemed unconcerned by the rapid approach of the Brake Now sign.

We barrelled towards the turn, every red light flashing in my brain. Surely this was certain to end badly?

“You’re all right. You have time.”

At that moment time slowed down. Joe had put his life quite literally in my hands, so I had to trust myself too.

The brake sign was a distant memory and my mouth was dry, but I focused, listening for one word. Nothing else existed.

“Now.”

I braked hard. The car responded to my every command, following the curve cleanly and then bursting forward in an explosion of glorious speed that took me all the way to the finish line.

You can go further, harder, faster than you believe, with a little encouragement at the right time. Going beyond the limits you set yourself even once is exhilarating, building self-belief and the confidence to dare again.

So stretch your goals, ask more of yourself than you think you can do. If you can be that person urging someone on, do it. Show them the faith they don’t yet have in themselves.

Photo by Daniele Fantin on Unsplash

A Dream In Parts

A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.
Harold Ramis

I drove home buzzing after my track experience in a sensible family car that suited my needs at that time. Parking, speed bumps, vandalism and lack of interior space would have made daily ownership of a supercar impractical.

But any dream can be broken into parts, some of which are within your grasp even if you have to stretch. The first step is to know what you dream of. The second is to look for ways to make it happen.

The dream of owning an R8 that had been ignited by a chance encounter seemed impossible. I had to rethink the parameters.

Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing a dream.

For a short time, enjoy the benefits of a fast car, a beach house, or a city penthouse. Then give back the keys and walk away without having to worry about the grim realities of upkeep and insurance.  

Before you do even that, dig a little deeper. What do you really want? What does the car, the house, or the title of CEO really mean for you? Uncovering your motivations steers you in the right direction so you won’t spend time and energy in the wrong place.

For me, the car represented more than the money needed to buy it. It worked perfectly. When I asked, it responded. For once there was no compromise – I got exactly what I wanted. Having complete control was exhilarating.

Dream car = total freedom.

Every time I see an Audi R8 I smile and remember. That joy alone, repeated over years since my drive, repaid the cost and difficulty of making it happen a thousand times over.

So the next time you find yourself fantasising, ask yourself what does this dream represent? How can I bring it within my grasp?

Then ignore the naysayers and make it real, just for you. You deserve it.


Have a comment? Drop it in the form below.

blog, productivity, self improvement

The Power of No – The Nice Person’s Guide to Setting Boundaries

a pink morning glory flower on a chainlink fence
Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment.
Bill Crawford

Let me guess.

You’re a super-nice person who’d help anybody do anything at any time. You’re proud of your reputation too.

I bet you’re also secretly consumed by envy of people who put themselves first and know how to say no.. In fact they make you angry… because they please themselves and get away with it. Meantime you’re stuck pleasing everyone but yourself, taking five points for niceness that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

We all have to do stuff we don’t want to do. But some make it a very small portion of their lives. Should you be aiming for the same?

Two Hard Letters

When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.
Paulo Coelho

Society would crumble if we all said no to anything even slightly unpleasant. In fact society runs smoothly precisely because so many of its members are socialised to say yes, to smile, to be agreeable. But there’s always a price to pay.

Being agreeable on the outside often conceals inner wounds which go unrecognised. Anger comes from being wronged. Resentment grows from unmet needs. Pain held inside twists and surfaces far from its source as a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms. Pain turned outside, but restrained by fear of expressing it, manifests as a hypercritical comment and passive aggression.

So you hide all of that behind a smile. You’ll be punished by disapproval if you display anger. You’ll be rewarded by approval if you play nice.There lies another problem.

Saying no risks losing your “nice” badge, the one that says you’re a good person. Refusing to help your friend move apartments on your weekend off when you’re perfectly capable of so doing is plain mean, isn’t it? And you can stand yet another football game because your companion loves it and it makes them happy.

Weak boundaries invite others to walk all over you. Everybody uses the doormat, but nobody really notices it.

Each time you put your needs second, or last, you add another small piece of resentment to the pile. It drags you down, lying heavy on your back where you probably don’t see it. Sometimes you almost say no, but you swallow it – and agree.

Before you can learn to say no, you must wean yourself off the excessive need for approval. That need might stem from childhood or respect for authority or fear of rejection. Those around you have already learned the best way to manipulate your reactions for their own benefit. You’re probably hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal cues, so that you read sadness, disappointment, or anger instantly and move to soothe it.

There are times when it’s right to put others before yourself. Parents feed their children first, doctors drop everything for a crash call, firefighters rush into burning buildings. A good friend misses their favourite programme to comfort a bereaved companion.

As with so much of life, it’s about balance. You have an equal right to get what you want some of the time. Compromise feels a lot better than win/lose, yes/no outcomes. Unbalanced relationships don’t feel good, no matter how many smiles you paste over the cracks.

Take time to review your relationships objectively. Are you getting as good as you give? If not, maybe it’s time to make changes for your benefit.

That’s all very well, you say. Exactly how do you say no face-to-face without feeling like a heel and losing your nerve?

bearded man leaning against a fence
StockSnap via Pixabay

Just Don’t Do It

Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.
Seth Godin

Saying yes is seductively easy. Everybody smiles, everybody’s happy – except you. You’re angry with them for catching you again and with yourself for caving.

Saying no is hard. Saying no is risky.

But saying no for the right reasons frees you up for greater rewards down the line. It’s like the marshmallow experiment except you’re trading a crumb of approval now for the entire cookie of self-confidence based on strong boundaries.

Train yourself to take that hit by practising in low-stakes situations. Say no to your co-worker’s birthday cake if you actually don’t like chocolate cake. You’ll feel anxious, but that will pass. You’re building assertiveness and you don’t have to choke down any more cake, because next time they’ll know.

When we communicate in person we respond to the words spoken and their delivery; both verbal and non-verbal cues. Tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions all contribute to the message. Both sets of cues must match it we want our message to be understood.

If you struggle to say no, practise in the mirror. Assume a confident body position – head up, shoulders back. Make eye contact with your reflection and say, “No thanks.” If it sounds like a question, try again. A question invites persuasion in an effort to change your mind, and you don’t want to be persuaded.

Observe that person you know who can say no assertively and steal their script.

“That sounds like an awesome project, sorry I can’t be part of it. Best of luck.”

“Thanks for thinking of me, but I have plans that weekend. Have fun without me!”

“Sorry, I don’t have time.”

Work up to no by degrees.

Listen to the request and think before you answer. Start by saying “maybe” or “I don’t think so” and follow up with one of these.

  • I have to check my schedule
  • I have to check with my partner/friend/doctor
  • Let me get back to you on that

There’s no need to apologise or explain. A smile is absolutely optional. Then go on with your day.

Playing for time gets you out of a tight spot, and you can decline gracefully later by text or email. It’s not necessarily your job to solve someone else’s problem; therefore you don’t have to feel guilty for not fixing it.

Of course you also have to give up the buzz that comes from being the one who solves everyone’s problems. You might not even realise how much you need to be needed until you stop offering your services. But you’ll reclaim energy for your own life — a worthwhile trade.

You might worry that saying no will lose you respect. In fact, the opposite is true. When people learn that you have well-enforced boundaries, they’re much less likely to cross them. As Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.

Using the hardest word will make your life easier. Listen to requests, balance your needs against the requester’s needs, and say no with calm confidence. Two letters have the power to improve your life. Use them wisely.

“No” is a complete sentence.

Oprah


(first published 5 April 2019 in Publishous on Medium)

blog, self improvement

How To Know What You Want From Life

Colourful fruit tarts
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

Do you know what you want?

Our desires vary from the mundane need to scratch an itchy back to the intangible urge for self-actualisation.

You’re looking for satisfaction but you aren’t very good at figuring out what satisfaction looks like.

You’re like that person who can’t decide what to order. They look at the menu, ask what’s in every dish, wonder if they’re not really hungry, and bounce from one item to another until you want to scream.

Here are three possible reasons why you “struggle to order.”

  1. Wrong place
  2. Wrong timing
  3. Not hungry

Each of these issues requires a different solution.

Can I Get Extra Cheese On That?

You could have everything right but be in the wrong place. You think your business is no good, but really, the problem is your place is no good.

Fred DeLuca

When you’re hungry for pizza and you stop in the first restaurant you find, there’s a high chance that the menu won’t suit you. The more specific your desires, the less likely that you’re in the right place.

You might want to create something. Trying to write a novel when you really want to build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower will only lead to frustration.

Identifying the details of your desire means asking more questions. The 5 Whys technique is useful for getting to the heart of a matter. If you want to do something, ask why. Repeat up to five times until you reach the kernel of truth. That often manifests as an “aha!” moment.

It seems obvious, but you’ll get the things you want more quickly if you’re looking in the right place.

No Stars in the Daytime

In fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
Tom Ford

Suppose you want steak and a glass of Chianti, but it’s nine in the morning and the restaurant is only serving breakfast. You’re in the right place at the wrong time. No amount of effort on your part can change day into evening.

Life tends to happen when you’re not looking. An unexpected pregnancy, change of job, or illness can derail your plans so that there’s no way to make them work at that time. The only way through is around. You’ll have to recalculate your route to the goal, taking time into account as a major variable.

Taking a longer view and reframing it as a definite goal helps to diffuse the frustration and disappointment of putting something off. Rather than vaguely saying you’ll do it later, take control and commit to specifics.

The statement “I will apply for X course in January 2021” feels very different to “This sucks – I’m missing school because of family issues and it’s not fair.” Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but it’s still up to you to fix it.

Time is elastic. You have more than you think, especially when viewed from a lifetime perspective. There’s almost always another chance to do something, though you might have to approach it differently. As Oprah said, you can have it all – just not all at once.

You Can’t Get There From Here

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
Yogi Berra

Your meal is in front of you, but do you want what you ordered? Consider whether your hunger belongs to you.

If you’ve studied almost any subject at the college level, you know that some of the students don’t actually want to be there. They worked hard to be accepted because “everyone goes to college” or “you come from a long line of doctors/lawyers/engineers” or “it’s the best route to a good life.”

They may be feverish over-achievers or they may be failing, but they have one thing in common.

They are fulfilling someone else’s destiny at the cost of their own. The professions are full of unhappily successful practitioners. And it takes real guts first to admit you don’t want this prize that “everybody” says is so great, and second to walk away.

My undergraduate class in medical school harboured many who would rather be somewhere else. A girl consumed by anxiety and driven by expectations to become a third generation physician. A gentle boy who preferred music to science and drank every weekend until he passed out alone in a corner. A boy from a working-class family who was the first in his family to enter university.

Others hid it better. They all said and did the right things, and were praised. They all died a little every day to achieve something they didn’t believe in.

Only the working class boy got out. After the first year, he escaped life sciences for the greater rigour of maths and physics. His parents were distraught, but it saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really want.

It’s very easy to fall in with other people’s plans if you have no internal compass or goal of your own. It’s very easy to delude yourself that the prize is something you value.

Sure, college, a life partner, children, a profession, a new car, and one holiday a year are right for some people, some of the time. Now you need to think; are you some people, or are you an individual, living in the world of now and the future rather than the rose-tinted past?

What worked twenty or even ten years ago won’t necessarily work today.  You’ll need a map of the current terrain, both interior and exterior. Here’s how to approach that.

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash

A Big Adventure

Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.

Jon Bon Jovi

You think you want something important? It’s time to test that want to destruction.

Use the 5 Whys

If one of your reasons is “to make X happy or proud” be very careful. Making someone else proud is neither necessary nor sufficient for your happiness. Their pride should be that you are doing what makes you happy. Pause before you sacrifice your happiness. Then do what you must to prioritise it.

Write in your journal

The bigger a goal and the more effort it requires, the more you need to be as sure as you can that it’s right for you. Write about any and every aspect and don’t hold back. That thing you can’t say? Write it down, because the truth lies close to the thoughts you don’t express. It’s safe on a page and you can’t be judged if you keep it secret.

Step into the future

Use a future visualisation exercise to imagine yourself at the goal. How do you feel? If your feeling is immediate dread, a sinking feeling, anxiety, or tightness in your chest, don’t do it – yet. It’s called a gut feeling for a reason, and it’s often more truthful than the justifications we come up with.

Use your head to figure out solutions, or to conclude that you need to look elsewhere. Spend more time refining or changing the goal until it aligns more closely with your true desire.

Find a guide

Ask somebody who’s done what you hope to achieve. Ask them what they wish they’d known when they started and what they enjoy about their journey. Be polite and don’t expect them to solve all your problems. The path you choose is yours to walk. Others can walk beside you but they’re not there to carry you.

Use the negative reality check

Finally, flip the visualisation exercise on its head. Imagine you didn’t achieve your goal. Your life stayed on its current track. Now step into that life five, ten, twenty years from now. What’s your very first impression? That’s the true one. Do you feel disappointed, regretful, angry? Or do you feel relief?

All the rational reasons in the world are nothing compared to how you feel about your goal. Why else would fame, money, and adoration fail to satisfy so many outwardly successful people? They are feeding the wrong appetite, living someone else’s dream while starving themselves of what they deeply desire.

We all have desires. Being satisfied is a matter of making sure that your appetite aligns with the food you choose.

Sometimes you drink water; other times you are thirsty. To be thirsty and to drink water is the perfection of sensuality rarely achieved.

Jose Bergamin

(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)

blog, self improvement

How To Stay Positive In A Negative World

feel better without drugs or therapy

the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Japan

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.
Stephen Covey

When you look at the world around you, what do you see?

Do you see beauty, hope, and possibility? Or do you see destruction, despair and delusion? It all depends on your viewpoint.

As seen above, the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji has natural beauty, man-made elegance, the richness of gold, and the calmness of water reflecting serenity.

The reality was much less attractive. We visited at the weekend and the site was swarming with tourists from all over the world, their different languages clashing in a modern day Babel. Everyone wanted unobstructed photos of the pavilion, everyone was waving a selfie stick, and everyone crowded at the barrier.

We’d travelled a long way and we wanted our picture too. Frantic tourism and ancient tranquillity fought for the same space, and I knew which I wanted to remember. By stepping back from the crowd and being patient, I was able to spot the opportunity to capture a moment.

Was that choice reasonable, or was I refusing to see the truth in order to present a lie?

Open Your Eyes

You see what you expect to see, Severus.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just open your eyes and look — but it isn’t as simple as that. You filter and disregard far more information than you retain. It’s essential, because you could not hope to pay attention to all the inputs.

Studies estimate that the brain receives 400 billion bits of data per second, of which the eyes receive 10 million bits per second. You’re only aware of perhaps 2,000 bits per second.   

Thinking about buying a new car, maybe a blue VW? Suddenly you see VW cars everywhere, and especially blue ones, where you didn’t notice them before. That doesn’t negate the existence of all the other cars on the road, but they’re temporarily less important than the ones you’re paying attention to.

Your brain is wired to take shortcuts and build theories to deal with all this data quickly. This can be helpful, but it also leads to confirmation bias, causing you to ignore evidence that disagrees with your first impression. That bias is a bad thing if you’re investigating a crime or making a diagnosis.

But if you’re trying to stay positive in a negative world, confirmation bias can be your friend.

Mind The Gap

Stress is the gap between our expectation and reality.
Buddha

The lifetime prevalence of major depression in high-income countries is 14.6%. Less severe mood disorders affect a further 12% of patients in family practice. How can this be, in this era of technological advance and generally high levels of personal safety and freedom?

As high as living standards may be, our expectations at every level of society are still higher. Driven by comparison on social media and seductive advertising, our desire for more is constantly fed and never fully satisfied. We rapidly adjust to each step up – and there’s always something new to aspire towards.

Unmet expectations induce emotions such as anger and resentment, and feeling unable to reach them leads to helplessness and despair. While you absolutely can use envy to fuel your progress, there are times when that’s not appropriate. Expectations must be managed.

Taking a vacation is an example. Before booking a hotel, you probably look at reviews. Surprisingly, guests staying at the same time often give wildly varying accounts of their stays.  One guest was disappointed not to be given the best room in the property, treated the staff like servants and saw reasons to complain about everything from the weather to the amount of ice in their drink. Another was happy to be on holiday, treated others with respect, and saw reasons for praise.

You will be happier when you match your expectations to the limits of your personal influence. Where you have no or limited influence, try to manage your expectations as low as you can tolerate.

If you are content with less, then everything else is a bonus. If only perfection will do, even a small deviation will disappoint you. You can see this play out at the Olympics, where a study of medal winners’ expressions showed bronze medal winners are generally much happier than silver medallists.

Bronze medallists are happy to get a medal they didn’t have before, like Tom Daley in 2012. Silver medallists are unhappy not to get a gold medal, like McKayla Maroney in 2012.

It’s tough to work hard for something and then try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. It’s galling to hear people who have already achieved your goal say it doesn’t matter because process is the real prize. But that doesn’t make it less true.

Make your product or your advice great, send it into the world, and get on with the next one without obsessing over the reception you think it deserves. As soon as you talk about what you should have, your expectations are showing.

There is only one person you can expect more of, and that’s you. If you have given your all in the pursuit of a goal, that is a form of success. You can’t force any result to go in your favour and the world does not owe you.

The simpler your needs, the more likely they will be met or even exceeded. When needs are met you can be content; when needs are exceeded you can be happy. How can you make this shift in mindset?

How Much Is Enough?

My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
Stephen Hawking

Sometimes we’re told to live each day as if it were our last. How would you spend your final, precious twenty-four hours?

You could either focus on all the time you would miss, or you could focus on what you still had. The taste of your favourite coffee, the smile of your favourite person, birdsong, or the scent of a rose would take on a new significance.

The good news is, those things are available to you right now. Happy feelings can be yours, if you look for them. Rather than discount all the real things you have compared to the imaginary stuff you don’t, appreciate and enjoy them. Compare your current experience not with some fictional worse-off person, but with not having them yourself.

Reacquaint yourself with gratitude.

Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness. However, I’ve found that people react to the idea with disbelief or cynicism, particularly when depressed. Those with low mood have the most to gain, but their focus is unfailingly negative. There’s a way around this.

First acknowledge the suck. The suck is real so feel free to pour your heart out on the pages of your journal. Then once you’ve run out of suck, you find three things to be grateful for that day and write them down.

I’ve done this exercise and the truth is, some days it’s a struggle to find positive things. It’s tough. That’s when it’s most needed. You might have to dig deep but even little tiny things count. A cup of tea given without asking, a puppy running in the park, flowers, a pretty sunset, hot water and indoor plumbing, or no queue at the checkout are all reasons to smile.

For anyone preoccupied with everything that’s wrong, focusing on the tiny spots of light in the darkness can produce a real shift in attitude – without therapy or drugs. And since what you focus on grows, the more you seek out positive things the more you’ll see.

Of course it’s not the whole picture. You are applying a filter to the world, not changing it, so does any of this matter?

Your viewpoint matters because you can’t hope to feel content when everything looks negative. You can’t change your world from a position of despair. You need to feel better first.

Turn To The Light

As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?
Anne Frank

With practice, you can be happier without therapy or drugs. The keys are managed expectations and regular deliberate focus on positive moments in your current life.

  • Work within your circle of influence, which is your thoughts and actions.
  • Expect the most from yourself and less from others.
  • No matter how bleak things look, make the effort to look for the small positives in everyday life.  

The little pleasures you notice along the road to your future will build your positivity so you can take on the world.