J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: August 2014

Back to School — Getting Bedtime Back on Track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Increase Your Daily Word Count by 75%

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

My previous routine was something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new morning routine looks something like this:

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

What’s Your Trigger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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