Most of us intuitively welcome sleep as one of the best and most important things in life. Its depth and duration redound not just in the quantity of our years but in the quality of those years, too. When National Geographic took an in-depth look at the benefits of sleep, it found that during sleep, spindles stimulate the cortex and help categorize new info according to the old info we’ve already acquired. And in episode two of its third season, Radio Lab showed how certain tasks can be better completed (or completed in the first place) after a good night’s—or even a good nap’s—sleep.

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Old research has frequently spoken to the brain benefits of this kind of “offline learning,” but new research argues that even tiny breaks are important to achieving new tasks. When we combine the ameliorating effects of resting and the incremental achievements gained through micro-ambition, we gain a better picture of “micro-offline gains”: the very small but very necessary work that enables skill acquisition.

Micro-offline gains suggest that skill acquisition depends not (or not just) on the active effort to learn a new skill or to complete a task but in the periods of rest we offer our brain to consolidate the information it’s working so hard to acquire. Ultimately, when we tax our brains with learning a new skill or staying focused on a big, integrated project, we accomplish more when we offer our brain more, very short, breaks.

Even when they’re just seconds long, these tiny breaks can aid our completion of the task at hand (or at least can aid our accomplishment in the steepest part of the learning curve). Unfortunately, the breaks aren’t the kind that include Instagram or other semi-conscious scrolling; rather, they’re micro-moments that mimic the consolidating effects of sleep.

Summer is a time for downshifting. Although I’ve already contributed to this cause by advocating for aiming lower, I’m now also arguing for interrupting your project with more guiltfree breaktime. This is especially true for my clients who struggle to make summer the most productive season of writing. It turns out that scheduling many opportunities for micro-offline gains can help with making connections and building arguments. The season requires it, and your brain will thank you by becoming smarter, faster.

Tiny trophy award

Tiny award available from Tokens and Trophies on Etsy

Micro-ambition, or “the passionate pursuit of short-term goals” is generally attributed to Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and somewhat of a renaissance man, who advocated for the term in a 2013 commencement address (which offers other truisms that I passionately endorse, including, “There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run”).

Whereas macro-ambition refers to the passionate pursuit of The Dream, micro-ambition refers to the work in front of you. Macro-ambition sometimes works for those with A Dream, but it doesn’t always lead to success, and the cost of pushing achievement into an indeterminate future can be high.*

That’s why while most of our clients procure our services in the pursuit of macro-ambition, we try to structure our offerings according to short-term goals and the work that needs to be done today. This sort of micro-ambition too neatly dovetails with the uniquely American dedication to life-hacking productivity, but micro-ambition does not advocate for productivity for its own sake. After all, there’s nothing either particularly ambitious or necessarily fulfilling about simply being “productive.”

Rather, we offer micro-ambitious services that we’ve typically described as “strategic.” For example, for an author working on a first draft of a memoir, we offer strategic prompts soliciting tiny stories that contribute to the memoir’s theme. Or, for an author testing out curriculum guidelines for inclusion in a guidebook, we help create smaller strategic publications to determine reader engagement and guideline efficacy.

Strategy has become too encompassing a word, though, probably because it has been just about fully pushed into the land of useless jargon (from which words rarely return). Micro-ambition, though at first glance just as useless, captures for the moment the very small achievements that can elicit the engaged work that ultimately adds up to A Dream, even if it’s not the dream the author first had in mind.

*Minchin’s existential takedown of the lifetime pursuit of A Dream: “[I]t’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.”


smart phones

Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

Inspired by my last post’s gif and by a few recent client experiences, I want today to advocate for the phone.

For contract workers, freelancers, and anyone working remotely, email (and its more casual cousins, like Slack) are the queens of communications processes. Asking a quick Q, updating a far-flung project partner, onboarding a client: In all of these cases (and most others) it feels supremely efficient to send a quick email. Email lets you get stuff done when you’re in the midst of other work.

But sometimes that’s a problem. Email aids the multitasker, but its benefits are often perceived rather than real (research typically shows that the high mental cost of task-switching makesmultitasking pretty inefficient anyway).

At the same time, inbox scope creep is very real and a very real problem. It’s hard to hierarchize replies and responses to anything when everything—every query, question, and fyi—is piled on top of an already towering heap.

Meanwhile, the phone, also a tool of communication, seldom feels like an appealing alternative. In the email era, a call may feel a little intimidating. It’s more involved, and it’s more intimate, perhaps because it seems to require participants’ (almost) complete attention.

But a phone call conveys care, and—because it assumes an immediate response—helps aid prioritization. It can also keep projects running smoothly. A few years ago, I began integrating phone calls into my SOP where I’d typically send an email. It’s hard to gauge the impact on productivity, but I absolutely noticed a difference in my work. Getting on the phone to more regularly check in and troubleshoot helped partnerships feel real and invested.

Because of this, I’ve become an advocate for picking up the phone: It may be out of style, and it definitely feels more labor intensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to bring it back.

call now!

In my work with book development, authors who finish their books often differ from authors who don’t finish in just one respect: Those who don’t finish don’t feel accountable—for a variety of (sometimes complex) reasons–to completion.

Creating flow charts, using editorial calendars, adhering to timelines, tracking time, soliciting beta reader feedback: These tools help foster a willingness to take responsibility for a project. Appropriately deployed—and routinely used—they can encourage someone to feel more accountable for a project than they might otherwise feel inclined to do.

I rely on the tricky quality of these types of tools to produce posts. My editorial calendar works as an impassive disciplinarian, coldly reminding me that I’ve set out to but have yet to complete a task.

Coaches and others know that there are all kinds of ways to foster accountability. One of the simplest is to articulate your goal. Go further by writing it down. Go all the way by writing it down and regularly reporting your progress to a friend.

The efficacy of this method was tested in 2014 by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University, who wanted to test the premise of the never-conducted-though-frequently-cited 1953 “Yale Study of Goals.” The latter was used (spuriously, it turned out) as evidence that people who wrote down their goals had a much higher chance of reaching them.

When Matthews created her study, she found that among her 267 participants, 76 percent of those who had been instructed to write down their goal and send their weekly progress to a friend accomplished their goal or felt they were “at least halfway there.”

Matthews’s sample size may be too small to draw big conclusions, but I will add my anecdotal evidence in support: Authors whose work requires routine progress reports almost always progress. Those who do not make use of progress reports may progress, but who can tell? They don’t report.

Whether you manage teams or just yourself, research suggests that there are some very basic ways to foster the accountability that can lead to success. Write it down and phone a friend to get at least halfway there.

If you’re a reader of the MWS newsletter, you already know that I used Independent Bookstore Day to restock my supply of birthday books. You also know that at the very top of the heap is Normal People, Sally Rooney’s follow-up to Conversations with Friends (an emo-elder-YA hybrid), and that it’s for me!

But there are lots of other titles in my stack, and they’re mostly for young readers. My favorites include the endearingly odd Dory in Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, the clever environmentalist Noah in Flush by Carl Hiaasen, the delightfully different Penderwick sisters in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, and the hilariously unlikely nanny in Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt.

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I love giving books because it lets me imaginatively repeat the first-time reading experience with the anticipation inspired by the knowledge of what’s to come—the book is great! When I give Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or Enchanted by Rene Denfeld or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I feel like I’m giving someone a ticket to a fantastic land I’ve just discovered.

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But of course, because it’s a one-way, single-use ticket, I can’t take that journey again. Sure, I can reread the book (and that, too, is a source of great pleasure), but I can’t ever discover an already-visited land. In this way reading is like stepping into Heraclitus’s river: It’s never exactly the same book (because it’s never exactly the same reader) twice.

Giving books, then, is a gift you give yourself. In giving, you get to relive a bit the magic of discovery, and once your recipient has returned from their journey, you get to talk about your discoveries together.

A map of twin cities bookstores by illustrator Kevin Cannon

A map of twin cities bookstores by illustrator Kevin Cannon

The weekend is coming! The weekend is coming! And while that news alone is a source of joy and wonder, it’s doubly so this weekend because Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day!

Where will you visit and what will you buy? If you’re in the Minneapolis area, you might try The Wild Rumpus for a belated copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, or maybe the Red Balloon in anticipation of the newest Wings of Fire? How about Birchbark for Killers of the Flower Moon, or Once Upon a Crime for the creepy classic, Rebecca? Or maybe you’ll head to Magers and Quinn for a newer classic, The Great Believers?

Or maybe you’re working, or digging in the (muddy [snowy?]) dirt, or riding the bleachers at a child’s doubleheader. If you can’t get out and about in your neighborhood, there’s always the internet’s busy streets. Specifically, you might try Belt Publishing for the Minneapolis-superfan’s Under Purple Skies.

Buying independent is an excellent way to make manifest your belief in the restorative value of books and the invigorating power of independent bookstores.

It’s true that books are expensive and can be borrowed—for free—from the library (libraries!). But good books are forever: You read them once or twice or more. You read them aloud to those you love. You lend them to those you trust. You gush over them with acquaintances and hate on them with strangers. You revisit the phrases, the characters, the scenes, the stories—and the images and feelings they invoke—over the years of your life. And good books make those years so much better.

And bad books? They’re the worst. But even bad books deserve a second life in more appreciative hands. So sell back A Little Life and The Flamethrowers to the used bookstore, and try to remember that the books we hate also give us something to think over and question, and that’s a lot.

Find your Minnesota-specific guide to Independent Bookstore Day at Rain Taxi or Twin Cities Geek. And reserve Saturday for spending money on the booksellers, bookstores, book publishers, book printers, and, of course, the authors that entertain, educate, delight, and, sometimes, astound us.

It’s hard to find the time for in-depth project review. It’s harder to adopt the can-do attitude necessary for efficiently editing a project. But it’s hardest of all to realize that in the time you’ve taken to review and edit, your collaborator has changed your working version of a project draft.

Collaboration is a fact of life. Like all worthwhile (group) work, it requires time, energy, and the wherewithal to relocate your personal sense of value away from effort and onto the project itself.

Whether it’s a team of two cowriting a book or a team of eight running a nonprofit, effective project collaboration requires open communication, adherence to work flow, and the right tools for the work.

Zoho and Github, which are but a few comprehensive integrative solutions for small businesses, are fine. But they’re not necessary for good project-specific collaboration. Google Docs and Dropbox Paper speak to this purpose, but not as persuasively as Microsoft 365.

Google Docs is free, accessible, and has many text-based and formatting features. But it requires good, stable internet access, and although it offers excellent note-taking features, it can be frustrating to use when working with others on high-stakes docs.

Dropbox Paper is also free and accessible, with a simple modern interface and superior media integration (making it a great option for collaborative design). But its simplicity means it lacks all but the most basic text and formatting features.

Docs and Paper include tools for collaboration (edits, suggestions, comments, chat), but these tools are so integral to the apps that they sometimes cause new problems. Google Docs, in particular, can cause maddening frustrations when various contributors actively edit and comment at the same time.

To solve some of these problems, consider Microsoft 365. It’s a hypercapable version of Word that offers the same collaborative tools as Docs and Paper, including tools for real-time collaboration (“coauthoring” in Word terminology), but as a supportive feature, not a main function.

Tools for efficient collaboration are meant to streamline group work and laborious back-and-forth exchanges. Sometimes, though, collaboration is overvalued. When it’s too easy to invite in contributors, too necessary to chat about inconsequential details, and too typical to duplicate work, it’s time to try something else. In these cases, consider using an app that fosters (and rewards) a clear and clearly communicated work flow, builds in the space for engaged work, and creates the distance in which everyone can take a project-first approach.


bulls eye target​We typically offer suggestions for nuts-and-bolts practicality: Schedule your project! Create a flow chart! Try a cool app! Read a great book! But we don’t typically talk about what this practicality serves. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not really your “project,” it’s actually your goal.

While “goals” are somewhat tainted by association with “objectives,” “targets,” “ambitions,” and other jargon-adjacent terms, goals still serve to concretize aims and aspirations. Goals still imply the promise of attainment (and therefore invoke the necessity of strategy).

A goal is hard to make because, once stated, we assume responsibility for achievement. For big projects, when just getting started feels like responsibility enough, stating a goal can feel paradoxically too small and too big. That’s why we frequently hear demurrals in the form of “let’s just get going” or “let’s just see how things turn out” or “let’s take the first step.”

But in our experience, a project becomes more doable, and ultimately more efficiently successful, when writers take the time to define their goals and (in what can be a bit of a thought experiment) to create a strategy for realization.

When approaching your own project and determining your own goals, you may be tempted to take your cue from productivity wonks and their SMART methodology (goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely). But such specificity is not really required, and it can sometimes become a subversive avoidance tactic. Instead, ask yourself what your project must do out in the world for you to consider it a success. Then push yourself to answer this question in concrete terms.

It is certainly possible to start your project without a goal—for some lucky people, it’s not an external goal that motivates, it’s the necessity of realizing something more like an internal vision. But for most people, it’s much easier to finish your project and launch it into the world when you know exactly where you’re aiming.

​Although the push for efficient productivity seems to be waning, the desire to discover a new app, method, or model to spur a project to completion will always wax. We’ve read lots of books and implemented lots of models, and—lucky for you!—we’ve discovered the secret.

The best way to finish a project is also the simplest: First, define your audience, your message, and your method. Then, create a shared calendar or timeline. Third, stick to it.

Project completion is often obstructed by too many people knowing too little. This is a variation on the old too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen trope. Typically, the issue is not that there are too many bodies working over one stove, it’s that few of these bodies can be considered “cooks,” and none of them are working with a recipe.

Do better by designating yourself the chef and creating a recipe that anyone can follow. In terms of a project, this means straightforwardly defining—but then recording and sharing—your specific audience, your message to them, and the most efficient, most welcome form of delivery.

For a nonprofit communications project, this might mean that after you determine a fundraising goal, you identify your supporters most likely to contribute to that goal, and then develop a social media-based fundraising campaign and marketing collateral that will reach and reward them. For a coauthored book project, this might mean that after you determine a self-help-book goal, you determine readers most likely to be moved by your message, and then develop an organization scheme that will reach and resonate with them.

If you want to finish a project with a minimum of detours, it’s necessary to do this relatively low-effort work. If also necessary to create—and to record and share—a calendar or timeline.

We’ve frequently discussed calendars in terms of editorial calendars—and those are great. However, our nonprofit and book-making clients are often overwhelmed by the inputs required by the editorial-calendar format. For these clients—and for you—a calendar can be as simple as an auto-formatted Google Sheet that breaks down the calendar you’re already using in a more granular, more accountability-fostering way.

Ultimately, project completion requires getting back to basics: Defining and sharing your audience, your message, and your method ensures everyone is on the same page. Putting together a project calendar will provoke participation, and sticking to it promises completion.

For big, audience-targeted projects, beta readers can offer helpful feedback: With the right guidance, they can spot strengths, take note of weaknesses, and offer valuable information about a message’s viability (or at least its viability with a member of its target audience).
 
But beta rounds often go bad. From providing too much information, to taking too much time, to providing too little insight, to acting as too enthusiastic an editor, a beta reader can unwittingly throw good work off track.
It’s not too surprising; after all, a beta reader is really just a (very good) reader, and good readers have lots of opinions. To avoid beta-driven detours and take advantage of the best routes to completion, decide when (and to what) readers should respond.
 
The question of when can be tricky. Writers working on big projects can experience a long and dramatic cycle of productivity. The highs are high, pushing them to efficient productivity. But the lows are low, burying them in inert doubt.  
 
Writers sometimes navigate the low moments with outside readers. This is premature! Although feedback can act as a prod, too-early feedback can lead writers backward, revising and revisioning a project’s focus and message before either has been fully worked out.
 
The question of to what readers should respond is more straightforward. Create a Google Form and ask questions that will solicit practical answers. A question like, “What’s weak and needs to be strengthened?” can provoke long, impressionistic responses. A question like, “I want to close chapter 5 with a powerful testimonial. What would make the current example stronger?” encourages more actionable answers.
 
Reader response works best when readers are acting less as contributors and more as quality control, the last step of affirmation and/or gentle remonstrance before submission. Use readers to make your writing better, but use them at the right time and ask them the right questions.