How To Prioritize Big Rewards Over The Little Ones

The human brain is a complex masterwork of evolution. It’s also a total bitch when it comes to exercising those writing muscles.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writers. If you’ve ever held down an administrative gig — or practically anything that involves a computer — you’ve done battle with your stubborn brain before.

Two men breakdance-fighting their brains in the forest, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For creative types, however, your brain’s compulsion to do everything except what you want it to do is especially strong. It craves an activity that requires it to process and store information. What you want it to do is pull up archived information to influence the creation of something new and previously unknown to it.

As a result, you’ll find yourself drawn magnetically to Facebook, YouTube, news sites, blogs — anything that takes you away from the task at hand. We’ve pointed out in the past that these types of mental stimulations cause little shots of dopamine in your brain.

It’s All Hyperbolic Discounting’s Fault

One of the most difficult tasks in my daily life is seeing the future good in everything I do. In fact, humans are hardwired to take the cheap thrill. It provides immediate rewards and, as a result, often destroys the bigger rewards that you see in your mind’s eye but never truly pursue.

This is a human behavior called hyperbolic discounting. We want the smaller rewards now. Our modern culture of pleasure-on-demand doesn’t help things, either. As a result, we tend to ignore the bigger rewards available to us down the road if we could just focus on the damn blank page.

Hyperbolic discounting results in procrastination and a failure to reach those big goals we envision in our minds’ eyes. The more we procrastinate, the more we reward ourselves for that behavior, causing a Pavlovian response that reinforces it.

Classically Conditioning Your Way Out of the Rabbit Hole

To rise above hyperbolic discounting, we have to condition ourselves to focus on the bigger future benefits. You’ll need a bit of self-deprecation and a shitload of discipline. Up to the challenge?

It actually isn’t all that challenging. Simply reward yourself every time you take positive steps towards long-term goals. Maybe you’re writing that book that will break you to the mainstream one day. Give yourself a daily goal of 500-1,000 words. The first time you reach that goal, reward yourself by taking the rest of the afternoon off, grabbing a beer, watching your favorite movie — whatever gets your juices flowing.

Have a nondescript beer on me, courtesy the righteous and forthright tap that is Wikimedia Commons.

Setting daily goals and channeling the discipline you require to meet them is another way to focus on the future. Planning ahead, your rational brain can set out a successful path for you. It’s in the heat of the moment that we tend to lose sight of our goals. That’s why scheduling your day is such a powerful way to find success as a freelancer.

Start off by making a to-do list that includes your daily goals. Build those into separate weekly and monthly goals. Put a little order to the chaos and you’ll find yourself more motivated to go after those big rewards.

Why It’s Important for A Writer to Keep An Open Mind

Recently, audiences across the nation were enthralled by my post on cultivating creativity. Now, I’d like to talk about one of the strongest factors in creativity.

Open-minded people are hard to come by. Many of us try to be more open-minded on a daily basis. But we all have bias. As humans, we tend to put too much weight on first impressions. We make judgments based on those impressions, closing ourselves off to further contact and experience.

Wait, what does this even mean? These are just masks glued to a wall! You call that art?

But creativity is heavily rooted in open-mindedness. Neuroscientists have tested the connection. After all, creativity requires new ideas. And new ideas aren’t often the product of a closed mind.

Cynicism and Aging: How Do We Curb It?

Part of the challenge of staying open-minded is age. It follows naturally that the more experience we gain, the more firmly rooted we become in our beliefs. Getting older and growing cynical pretty much go hand-in-hand.

Have your parents changed their political affiliation over the course of your life? Does your stubborn uncle think technology is the downfall of America? The older we get, the harder it is to adapt to change. After learning and relearning ideas, technology, social norms and the like for years, your brain eventually gets to a point where it says “Enough’s enough!”

These factors and more lead to a natural decline into closed-mindedness. The best ways to avoid this are to challenge yourself and make changes on a regular basis.

Of course, staying open-minded is a conscious decision in itself. Prioritize it above other firmly-rooted beliefs and it’ll help you keep your creative flair.

Stay In Touch with the Weirdness

A little weirdness lives inside all of us. It’s what makes us truly unique as human beings. Sometimes, you have to suppress that weirdness to make friends, get a job and live a normal life. Highly intelligent creative people recognize that the best way to express weirdness is to channel it in outlets.

Too weird, scale it back!

Of course, you can’t let that weirdness get away. That’s what separates the leaders and the followers. Some people stay in touch with their weirdness and are more open-minded as a result. Others get dry and cynical. Whatever happens, you must not only hang onto it but nurture it as well. To accomplish this, consider things like:

  • Take an introductory class on something you have no experience or interest in
  • Watch a show you’ve vowed never to watch (as long as it isn’t Jersey Shore)
  • Try to learn a new language
  • Perform some mental gymnastics regularly (like these exercises)

Keep it weird, my friends.

Why Would You Hide One of Your Best Attributes?

A small business owner once approached me for a copy project. We talked a bunch about the themes and messages he wanted to run throughout.

“What I want,” he explained, “is to give the impression that we’re a big company.”

This wasn’t the first or the last time I got this request. I responded: “Why would you want to hide one of your company’s best attributes?”

Alright, I probably didn’t word it that perfectly. But you get the drift. Time and time again, executives want to give the impression that they’re bigger than they are.

Guess which one Apple sponsored.

By projecting a big company feel, they think:

  • Customers respect a company that’s obviously been around for several years
  • A big brand equates to reliable customer service
  • Doing it longer means doing it better

In reality, customers don’t necessary want a big brand. They want big accomplishments. They crave reliable customer service. They want a reliable product or service. Big companies tend to assume small competition. As a result, companies like GoDaddy, Comcast, Best Buy and AT&T have customer service problems. Because they know they can get away with it. They’ve cornered the market. They put their big budgets into marketing and ignore things that customers care about.

Why project that image? Why not tout the benefits of a small company feel? Successful small businesses offer a more personalized experience for customers. Try carving out a niche on which you can actually deliver.

Small businesses imply:

  • They’ll work harder to get and keep their customers’ business
  • They’ll offer personal, human interaction
  • They’re trying something new that will advance the market

Your copy should embrace your aesthetic. Customers will thank you for your honesty. And maybe that honesty will result in massive growth. Then, you can start ignoring what your customers want. *rolls eyes*

Cultivating the Creative Mind

What’s happening with creativity?

A fair question, is it not? It’s suddenly lost on Hollywood. You won’t find it in the widening gulf of politics. Today’s popular literature literally shuns creativity. Everyone is rehashing the same old ideas. And there are no twists.

You could make an argument for creativity in tech development. But then again, aren’t we just pushing ideas that require us to think less? Is that intellectual evolution?

This guy could have created you out of existence with a snap of his fingers. (William S. Burroughs, circa some time after a heavy heroin binge)

As our collective knowledge grows, it’s become clearer that the constant stimuli surrounding us are killing our creative juices. We have the answers at our fingertips. Thinking is unnecessary. When faced with a blank page, today’s writer is super efficient. Unfortunately, most of that efficiency comes from borrowed content. It’s a necessity sometimes. But as a writer, it’s important to exercise your creativity from time to time.

Take a second to breathe. Here are some simple ideas to get your mojo back.

Disconnect. Every time you interact with technology, you’re shooting up. Kick the habit for a day or two. Go the old-fashioned route: carry a notebook and a pen and jot down ideas for later.

Read. Sit down with a good book, a magazine or an honest-to-god newspaper. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to process information when you have a single focal point.

Escape. The traffic. The late night drunks. The texts and calls. Get out of the city. Go enjoy the outdoors for a bit. And remember to bring that good book (and notebook) with you.

Simplify. If you’re like me, you have 50 browser tabs open. In addition to 33 documents. Add Skype, AIM and Gchat to the list and you’re going nowhere fast. Close everything and put Microsoft Word into “focus” mode.

Exercise. It’s taken me a long time to finally get into this. But I’m surely reaping the benefits. Exercise is an important part of getting in tune with your body and clearing your head.

Mute. I’m a gigantic music geek, but it can add a layer of overwhelmingness to your brain. Turn it off and work in silence for a few hours so you can focus.

Additional reading: check out this recent article in Fast Company for psychological perspective into the world of the creative process.

Watch Your Tone: 5 Tips on Brand Voice

Everyone has a unique voice.

Some voices are simple.

Some voices are terribly verbose and sometimes boisterous!

Some are confident bordering on cocky. Others are gentle and sympathetic. But whatever your brand’s voice sounds like, it must be consistent. It must fall with impact upon the ears of your target audience.

Easier said than done. How do you define your tone and ensure it resonates with potential customers?

No no, not a voice that irritates. One that resonates.

The answer to that question is complex. To get started, take a look at five tips on brand voice and tone.

1. Carefully defining your audience is central to ALL marketing. How do you know how to talk to potential customers if you don’t understand them? Narrow your audience down to people who actually have use for your product. Once you know who you’re targeting, you’ll have a better grip on how to talk to them.

2. As always, keep it human. You know…unless you’re targeting robots. During some sort of robot apocalypse.

3. Keep it simple. Planning to tell a story? Keep it short. Include the details that resonate most with your audience. Simplicity is the best policy for the diction you use, too. Just because you’re targeting a group of rocket scientists doesn’t mean they want to waste precious brainpower reading clunky words, phrases and sentences.

4. Speak like a peer. Companies that speak down to their audiences tend to lose them. Yes, you have the solution to your customer’s problem. But you’ve been in their shoes. What they do is just as important as what you do. And don’t you forget it.

5. Get specific. You can speak more effectively to a narrower audience. Use words, phrases and inside jokes that only your readers understand.

Is Outlining Really Necessary?

As a young writer, I struggled with the concept of outlining. If you already have a strength and passion for writing, you may struggle with this, too. You feel that you need the purity of the creative process undisturbed. You tell yourself that truly creative thinking follows no form.

Of course, if you get anywhere in your writing career, you’ll soon realize that this is hogwash. Yeah, that’s right. I said hogwash.

Hogwash.

Professional writing requires structure. And the longer the piece, the more structure you’ll require. The more detailed your structure, the less you have to fill in during the writing process. Outlining eliminates frustration and writer’s block while easing drafting and revision.

If you decide to write without outlining your concept first, you may be in for a huge headache. Outlining forces you to:

  • Organize your thoughts in a fluid but visible way
  • Make a simple-to-follow reference sheet
  • Order thoughts in the sequence that makes the most sense
  • Ensure you have enough content to deliver a complete message
  • Get a high-level view of your piece and make sure you don’t forget anything
  • Understand how to weave any themes into the narrative.

Before you sit down to write a piece, take five minutes to jot your thoughts down on a blank page. Put them in a logical order for your reader and craft stronger, more coherent pieces.

Why I Had No Choice But To Stop Idolizing Kerouac

It’s a hard thing to get older. You end up replacing some of that good, old-fashioned idealism with tough cynicism. As writers, some of our biggest influences die right before us. You realize that you can’t be them, and you can only barely be like them.

Keep the dream alive. But don’t forget you’re living in reality. That’s why I scaled back Kerouac’s influence on my writing.

I can’t be the only writer out there that considers Kerouac a genius. How old were you when you first read On the Road? The book is wildly appealing at any age. But if you read it as a teenager, there’s a romanticism that seems imitable.

But Kerouac was one of a kind. And it wasn’t just On the Road. Novels like Big SurThe Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans are all intense, lively and inspiring reads. They brim with youthful energy fueled by alcohol, sex and art.

Everyone wants to attain the raw energy of Kerouac’s writing, even in the world of professional writing. How do you get there? Stop trying to imitate him.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But flattery will get you nowhere with a dead author. It certainly won’t get you anywhere as a living writer. Trying to imitate someone like Kerouac is a dead-end for a writer. Especially a professional writer. His big, sweeping sentences are the exact kind that can lose your reader.

It’s sad when you finally give up imitation. But it also opens up a whole new world. It’s a scary world. We want to imitate successful writers to use them as a standard for our own writing. When you give up those influences and write from your heart, you’re likely to lose faith in your own unique voice.

Fortunately, that’s how writers get prolific in the first place. Remind yourself daily that none of your favorite writers imitated their favorite writers. Inspire yourself by discovering a style all your own and hone it to perfection.