Monday morning writing joke: "Writer at night"

There once was a writer at night

Who wrote all the way to daylight.

His stories were grand

About a sun-drenched land

But his descriptions were never quite right.

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Filed under 2020, Monday morning writing joke, Poetry by David E. Booker

Emotional Intelligence: The Social Skills You Weren’t Taught in School

You’re taught about history, science, and math when you’re growing up. Most of us, however, aren’t taught how to identify or deal with our own emotions, or the emotions of others. These skills can be valuable, but you’ll never get them in a classroom.

Emotional intelligence is a shorthand that psychological researchers use to describe how well individuals can manage their own emotions and react to the emotions of others. People who exhibit emotional intelligence have the less obvious skills necessary to get ahead in life, such as managing conflict resolution, reading and responding to the needs of others, and keeping their own emotions from overflowing and disrupting their lives. In this guide, we’ll look at what emotional intelligence is, and how to develop your own.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Measuring emotional intelligence is relatively new in the field of psychology, only first being explored in the mid-80s. Several models are currently being developed, but for our purposes, we’ll examine what’s known as the “mixed model,” developed by psychologist Daniel Goleman. The mixed model has five key areas:

  • Self-awareness: Self-awareness involves knowing your own feelings. This includes having an accurate assessment of what you’re capable of, when you need help, and what your emotional triggers are.
  • Self-management: This involves being able to keep your emotions in check when they become disruptive. Self-management involves being able to control outbursts, calmly discussing disagreements, and avoiding activities that undermine you like extended self-pity or panic.
  • Motivation: Everyone is motivated to action by rewards like money or status. Goleman’s model, however, refers to motivation for the sake of personal joy, curiosity, or the satisfaction of being productive.
  • Empathy: While the three previous categories refer to a person’s internal emotions, this one deals with the emotions of others. Empathy is the skill and practice of reading the emotions of others and responding appropriately.
  • Social skills: This category involves the application of empathy as well as negotiating the needs of others with your own. This can include finding common ground with others, managing others in a work environment, and being persuasive.

You can read a bit more about these different categories here. The order of these emotional competencies isn’t all that relevant, as we all learn many of these skills simultaneously as we grow. It’s also important to note that, for our purposes, we’ll only be using this as a guide. Emotional intelligence isn’t an area that most people receive formal training in. We’ll let psychologists argue over the jargon and models, but for now let’s explore what each of these mean and how to improve them in your own life.


Before you can do anything else here, you have to know what your emotions are. Improving your self-awareness is the first step to identifying any problem area you’re facing. Here are some ways to improve your self-awareness:

  • Keep a journal: Career skill blog recommends starting by keeping a journal of your emotions . At the end of every day, write down what happened to you, how you felt, and how you dealt with it. Periodically, look back over your journal and take note of any trends, or any time you overreacted to something.
  • Ask for input from others: As we’ve talked about before when dealing with your self-perception, input from others can be invaluable . Try to ask multiple people who know you well where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Write down what they say, compare what they say to each other and, again, look for patterns. Most importantly, don’t argue with them. They don’t have to be correct. You’re just trying to gauge your perception from another’s point of view.
  • Slow down (or meditate): Emotions have a habit of getting the most out of control when we don’t have time to slow down or process them . The next time you have an emotional reaction to something, try to pause before you react (something the internet makes easier than ever, if you’re communicating online). You can also try meditating to slow your brain down and give your emotional state room to breathe.

If you’ve never practiced intentional self-awareness, these tips should give you a practical head start. One strategy I personally use is to go on long walks or have conversations with myself discussing what’s bothering me. Often, I’ll find that the things I say to the imaginary other end of the conversation can give me some insight into what’s really bugging me. The important aspect is to look inwards, rather than focusing solely on external factors.


Once you know how your emotions work, you can start figuring out how to handle them. Proper self-management means controlling your outbursts, distinguishing between external triggers and internal over-reactions, and doing what’s best for your needs.

One key way to manage your emotions is to change your sensory input. You’ve probably heard the old advice to count to ten and breathe when you’re angry. Speaking as someone who’s had plenty of overwhelming issues with depression and anger, this advice is usually crap (though if it works for you, more power to you). However, giving your physical body a jolt can break the cycle. If you’re feeling lethargic, do some exercise. If you’re stuck in an emotional loop, give yourself a “snap out of it” slap. Anything that can give a slight shock to your system or break the existing routine can help.

Lifehacker alum Adam Dachis also recommends funneling emotional energy into something productive. It’s alright to let overwhelming emotions stew inside you for a moment, if it’s not an appropriate time to let them out. However, when you do, rather than vent it on something futile, turn it into motivation instead:

I recently started playing tennis for fun, knowing that I’d never become exceptional because I began too late in life. I’ve become better and have a very minor talent for the game, so when I play poorly I now know and I get down on myself. When up against an opponent with far more skill I find it hard to do much else than get angry. Rather than let that anger out, I take note of it and use it to fuel my desire to practice more. Whether in sports, work, or everyday life, we can get complacent with our skill and forget that we always have some room for improvement. When you start to get mad, get better instead.

You can’t always control what makes you feel a certain way, but you can always control how you react. If you have some impulse control problems, find ways to get help when you’re feeling calm. Not all emotions can be vented away. My struggle with depression taught me that some emotions persist long after the overflow. However, there’s always a moment when those feelings feel a little less intense. Use those moments to seek help.


We talk about motivation a lot . When we’re talking about motivation as it relates to emotional intelligence, however, we don’t just mean getting up the energy to go to work. We’re talking about your inner drive to accomplish something. That drive isn’t just some feel-goody nonsense, either. As Psychology today explains, there’s a section of your prefrontal cortex that lights up at the mere thought of achieving a meaningful goal.

Whether your goal is building a career, raising a family, or creating some kind of art, everyone has something they want to do with their life.When your motivation is working for you, it connects with reality in tangible ways. Want to start a family? Motivated people will start dating. Want to improve your career? Motivated people will educate themselves, apply for new jobs, or angle for a promotion.

Daniel Goleman suggests that in order to start making use of that motivation, you first need to identify your own values. Many of us are so busy that we don’t take the time to examine what our values really are. Or worse, we’ll do work that directly contradicts what we value for so long that we lose that motivation entirely.

Unfortunately, we can’t give you the answer for what it is you want in life, but there are lots of strategies you can try . Use your journal to find times when you’ve felt fulfilled. Create a list of things you value. Most of all, accept the uncertainty in life and just build something. Fitness instructor Michael Mantell, Ph.D suggests that using lesser successes you know you can accomplish. Remember, everyone who’s accomplished something you want to achieve did it slowly, over time.


Your emotions are only one half of all your relationships. It’s the half you focus on the most, sure, but that’s only because you hang out with yourself every day. All the other people that matter to you have their own set of feelings, desires, triggers, and fears. Empathy is your most important skill for navigating your relationships . Empathy is a life-long skill, but here are some tips you can use to practice empathy:

  • Shut up and listen: We’re gonna start with the hardest one here, because it’s the most important. You can’t experience everyone else’s lives to fully understand them, but you can listen. Listening involves letting someone else talk and then not countering what they say. It means putting aside your preconceptions or skepticism for a bit and allowing the person you’re talking to a chance to explain how they feel. Empathy is hard, but virtually every relationship you have can be improved at least marginally by waiting at least an extra ten seconds before you retake the conversation.
  • Take up a contrary position to your own: One of the quickest ways to solidify an opinion in your mind is to argue in favor of it. To counter this, take up a contrary position. If you think your boss is being unreasonable, try defending their actions in your head. Would you find their actions reasonable if you were in their shoes? Even asking the questions of yourself can be enough to start empathizing with another’s point of view (though, of course, getting real answers from others can always help).
  • Don’t just know, try to understand: Understanding is key to having empathy. As we’ve discussed before, understanding is the difference between knowing something and truly empathizing with it. If you catch yourself saying, “I know, but,” a lot, take that as an indicator that you should pause a bit more. When someone tells you about an experience that’s not your own, take some time to mull over how your life might be different if you experienced that on a daily basis. Read about it until it clicks. It’s okay if you don’t spend all your time devoted to someone else’s life, but putting in just some time—even if it’s idle thought time while you work—can be beneficial.

By definition , empathy means getting in the emotional dirt with someone else. Allowing their experiences to resonate with your own and responding appropriately. It’s okay to offer advice or optimism, but empathy also requires that you wait for the right space to do that. If someone’s on the verge of tears, or sharing some deep pain, don’t make light of it and don’t try to minimize the hurt. Be mindful of how they must feel and allow them space to feel it.

Social Skills

Summing up all social skills in one section of an article would do about as much justice to the topic as if we snuck in a brief explainer on astrophysics. However, the tools you develop in the other four areas will help you resolve a lot of social problems that many adults still wrestle with. As Goleman explains, your social skills affect everything from your work performance to your romantic life:

Social competence takes many forms – it’s more than just being chatty. These abilities range from being able to tune into another person’s feelings and understand how they think about things, to being a great collaborator and team player, to expertise at negotiation. All these skills are learned in life. We can improve on any of them we care about, but it takes time, effort, and perseverance. It helps to have a model, someone who embodies the skill we want to improve. But we also need to practice whenever a naturally occurring opportunity arises – and it may be listening to a teenager, not just a moment at work.

You can start with the most common form of social problems: resolving a disagreement. This is where you get to put all your skills to the test in a real-world environment. We’ve gone into this subject in-depth here , but we can summarize the basic steps:

  • Identify and deal with your emotions: Whenever you have an argument with someone else, things can get heated. If someone involved is emotionally worked up, deal with that problem first. Take time apart to vent, blow off steam on your own, then return to the problem. In a work environment, this may just mean complaining to a friend before you email your boss back. In a romantic relationship, remind your partner that you care about them before criticizing.
  • Address legitimate problems once you’re both calm: Once you’re in your right headspace, identify what the conflict is. Before you jump to solutions, make sure you and the other person agree on what the problems really are . Propose solutions that are mutually beneficial and be sympathetic to any concessions the other person may be unwilling to make (but be sure to stand firm on your own).
  • End on a cooperative note: Whether in business or pleasure, relationships work best when everyone involved knows that they’re on the same page. Even if you can’t end on a positive note, make sure that the last intention you communicate is a cooperative one. Let your boss/coworker/significant other know that you want to work towards the same goal, even if you have different views.

Not every type of interaction with another person will be a conflict, of course. Some social skills just involve meeting new people , socializing with people of different mindsets , or just playing games . However, resolving conflict can be one of the best ways to learn how to apply your emotional skills. Disputes are best resolved when you know what you want, can communicate it clearly, understand what someone else wants, and come to favorable terms for everyone. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that this involves every other area of the emotional intelligence model.

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Booksie 2020 Flash Fiction Writing Contest

Cost: $6.95 / entry Start: February 02, 2020 Deadline: May 08, 2020 Prize: Grand prize: $500 cash, one free week of boosts for their winning story, and a gold contest badge. Runner-ups: $100 cash and a silver contest badge.

Booksie 2020 Flash Fiction Writing Contest

Man and woman in train station

Take a look at the picture above. 
In 500 words or less, write a story about the image. The challenge of flash fiction is to create a thought-provoking story within the tight word constraints of the writing form. 
The story can be any genre as long as it is based on the picture.
One grand-prize winner will receive $500 and receive a gold contest badge.
Two runner-ups will receive $100 and receive a silver contest badge.
The cost is $6.95/entry.
Writers can submit as many entries as they want.

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The ‘Sunday Scaries’ and the Anxiety of Modern Work – The Atlantic

To Alec Burks, a 30-year-old project manager at a construction company in Seattle, Sunday evenings feel like “the end of freedom,” a dreadful period when time feels like it’s quickly disappearing, and, all of a sudden, “in 12 hours, I’m going to be back at my desk.” It’s not that Burks doesn’t like his job—he does. But one thing that contributes to the feeling, he told me, is that “you almost have to shrink who you are a little bit sometimes to fit into that mold of your job description.” The weekend, by contrast, doesn’t require any such shrinking.

The not-exactly-clinical diagnosis for this late-weekend malaise is the Sunday scaries, a term that has risen to prominence in the past decade or so. It is not altogether surprising that the transition from weekend to workweek is, and likely has always been, unpleasant. But despite the fact that the contours of the standard workweek haven’t changed for the better part of a century, there is something distinctly modern about the queasiness so many people feel on Sunday nights about returning to the grind of work or school.

Regardless of whether people call this experience the Sunday scaries (Sunday evening feeling and Sunday syndrome are two alternatives), a lot of them undergo some variation of it. A 2018 survey commissioned by LinkedIn found that 80 percent of working American adults worry about the upcoming workweek on Sundays. Another survey by a home-goods brand found that the Sunday scaries’ average time of arrival is 3:58 p.m., though they seem to set in later than that for many people. (A cousin of the Sunday scaries is the returning-from-vacation scaries, which can fall on any day of the week.)

Read: Workism is making Americans miserable

“This feeling, whether we call it anxiety, worry, stress, fear, whatever, it’s all really the same thing,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Psychologically, it’s a response to the perception of some sort of threat.” The perceived threat varies—it might be getting up early, or being busy and “on” for several days in a row—but the commonality, Abramowitz says, is that “we jump to conclusions” and “underestimate our ability to cope.” For most people, he reckons, the stress of Sunday is uncomfortable but ultimately manageable—and they end up coping just fine. (And just as with other forms of anxiety, some people don’t feel the Sunday scaries at all.)

“Low-grade existential dread” is how Erin Thibeau, a 28-year-old who works in marketing at a design firm in Brooklyn, describes the feeling she gets on Sunday afternoons and evenings. For her, the end of a weekend presents stressful questions about whether she has taken full advantage of having two days off. Those questions fall under two categories that seem to be in tension: “It’s a mix of ‘Have I been productive enough?’ and ‘Have I relaxed enough?’” she told me.

“In 19—whatever—52, some people hated their jobs and didn’t want to go back to work, but I don’t think this is about hating your job,” says Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed and the author of the forthcoming book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “I think the Sunday scaries are about feeling an overwhelming sense of pressure”—to perform well at work and thus pursue or maintain financial stability, as well as to keep up other everyday responsibilities, like cooking or child care.

“I don’t think there’s anything that’s timeless about [the Sunday scaries],” Petersen told me. “Burnout and the anxiety that accompanies it are so much about living under our current iteration of capitalism and about class insecurity.” From roughly the end of World War II to 1970—a period that’s often called the Golden Age of American capitalism—Petersen says, “there were a ton of jobs that weren’t great, but the difference was that people were more secure in their class position … [Now] it’s this huge combination of not only ‘How am I going to do in my job?,’ but all these other things that I’m anxious about—‘If I lose my job, then I’m not going to have medical insurance.’” This goes some way toward explaining the need to make weekends both productive and relaxing—workers need to both get stuff done and also make sure that they’ve sufficiently recharged to get more stuff done during the week.

Read: ‘Ugh, I’m so busy,’ a status symbol for our time

Work has changed, and so have Sundays themselves. One analysis of Canadian time-use data from 1981 to 2005 that tracked paid work, chores, shopping, and child care found that “Sundays became busier and behaviorally closer to weekdays than they were at the beginning of the 1980s.” “This change would probably become even more obvious,” the study’s author speculated, “if one were to go back to the older data sets, such as [one 1968 data set] from Washington, D.C., where Sunday meals at home occupied more than 90 minutes and shopping only 8 minutes.”

Given how work (side gigs included) has, for many people, bled into nights and weekends, Petersen says, “Two days is not enough—it’s just not … For people I know, myself included, Saturday is a catch-up day, and then Sunday is the only real day of leisure. So people, as soon as they start, they’re like, ‘It’s about to end!’ You’re so conscious of the fact that it’s so short.”

This is the economic milieu from which the Sunday scaries have emerged. It is responsible for the Sunday scaries–branded vegan CBD gummies, the how-to videos outlining “productive” Sunday routines for preparing for the workweek, and—perhaps most troublingly—the tweets from brands such as Starbucks, Mary Kay, and Malibu Rum about warding off the Sunday scaries.

The phrase itself hasn’t been around for very long. Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and author, told me that the first written usage of Sunday scaries she could find after searching around was in a hangover-inspired entry from 2009 on the website Urban Dictionary. Over the course of the 2010s, though, the scaries became less about the consequences of partying than the anticipation of the week ahead. A spokesperson for Twitter told me that use of the phrase has been “growing steadily” on its platform since early 2016, and that 90 percent of tweets that mention it come from people in the U.S.

One advantage of the term is that it is immediately graspable, but at the same time it is almost gratingly infantilizing, expressing genuinely uncomfortable emotions in the language of toddlers. (Multiple people I interviewed for this story disliked the term on these grounds, even as they noted its usefulness.)

“For some reason, we have a great whack of words that sound silly but describe unpleasant feelings or negative emotions: the heebie-jeebies, the screaming meemies, the collywobbles, the jitters, the creeps, a case of the Mondays, boo-hoo,” Stamper says. She notes that some of these terms are playful and sonically repetitive, and wondered if “we like these ameliorating terms because their humor makes it easier to talk about something we would rather not talk about at all.”

The phrase seems even more modern, and even more childish, considering the dangerous outcomes that many American workers used to fear on the job. “There are lots of stories, almost 100 years ago, of people dreading going back to the factory, whether it’s injuries or being yelled at,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It was said that at the Ford Motor Company, the foreman knew how to shout ‘Speed up!’ in 15 languages.” Scaries doesn’t quite do justice to the awful work experiences that many people had back then, and still have today.

Whatever this feeling is called, and whatever economic conditions may be in place right now, people have probably been mourning the end of weekends in one way or another for as long as days off have existed. In the mid-19th century, when Sunday was workers’ only official full day off in England, many of them extended their break by skipping work on Monday, “whether to relax, to recover from drunkenness, or both,” explained Witold Rybczynski in The Atlantic in 1991. This habit, which scans as a symptom of a Sunday scaries–like feeling, was effectively formalized in some industries and was referred to as “keeping Saint Monday.”

Precursors to the modern Sunday scaries were detectable as long as 30 years ago. In 1991, The New York Times published an analysis of “the Sunday blues,” and while economic precarity was listed among the potential causes, the article presented a host of other possible explanations: an interruption of the internal biological clock’s usual weekday sleep cycles, caffeine withdrawal, hangovers, and, of course, a simple dislike of work (or school, or housework).

The proposed cures for this unease range from the micro to the macro. Some of the people I interviewed who experience the Sunday scaries have been implementing plans to thwart them. Erin Thibeau finds some success with what she calls her “Sunday Funday initiative”—a program that aims to “extend the feeling of the weekend” by strategically scheduling movies, museum visits, and walks in the park when the scaries typically set in. Maggie Lofboom, a 36-year-old who works in landscape design and as an opera singer in Minneapolis, says she cross-stitches and takes baths to keep the scaries at bay.

Sarah Savoy, a 35-year-old who works at a think tank in Washington, D.C., stumbled on an unexpected antidote: having young children. She used to get the Sunday scaries in her 20s, but they’ve since subsided. “Our older daughter is a terrible napper, so [on Sundays] from 2 o’clock on it’s survival parenting, just trying to get to the end of the day,” she told me. “One of the things I look forward to about the week is that we have a pretty set routine, which can fall apart on a weekend.” Of course, this pattern has produced its own weekly emotional cycle, with a feeling of stress that crests on Saturday mornings, when Savoy makes a household to-do list for the weekend.

Jonathan Abramowitz, the psychology professor, says that the most reliable way to banish the Sunday scaries, especially if they have escalated to the point of being debilitating, is to practice cognitive behavioral therapy, a means of revising mental and behavioral patterns that can be learned from a therapist, an app, or a workbook. “In the short term,” he says, “exercising, taking a walk, or doing some activity that you really enjoy on Sunday can take your mind off the scaries temporarily.”

When I asked Anne Helen Petersen what would cure the Sunday scaries, she laughed and gave a two-word answer: “Fix capitalism.” “You have to get rid of the conditions that are creating precarity,” she says. “People wouldn’t think that universal health care has anything to do with the Sunday scaries, but it absolutely does … Creating a slightly different Sunday routine isn’t going to change the massive structural problems.”

One potential system-wide change she has researched—smaller than implementing universal health care, but still big—is a switch to a four-day workweek. “When people had that one more day of leisure, it opened up so many different possibilities to do the things you actually want to do and to actually feel restored,” she says.

As a haver of the Sunday scaries myself, I would like to live in a world where there’s less to fear about Monday. At the same time, I suspect that there is an element of tragedy inextricable from the basic nature of weekends, which (not to get too glum about it) are like lives in miniature: That approaching expanse of leisure that one can survey on Friday evenings, no matter how well used, is followed within 48 hours by the distressing realization that the end of it is inevitable, and that what once seemed like so much time has been used up. On Sundays, we each reckon with the passing of time and die a small death. And that’s scary.

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Book Review: "Farewell, My Lovely"

Farewell, My Lovely (Philip Marlowe, #2)

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trying to fill in my mystery history education, I finally read this novel. My tardiness is not a reflection on the novel, which I enjoyed. If you like private detective novels and the noir slice of life that it can portray, read this book. You may wind up feeling like the pink bug found on the 18th floor of LA police headquarters that Marlowe captures and sets free, or maybe you won’t, but you have to admire the use of telling details throughout the novel to help convey the story. There are a few things that were a bit overdone for me, and really it should 4.5 stars, but half stars aren’t allowed. For me, the use of metaphors was a bit heavy in the first half of the book. Their use settled down — at least so it seemed to me — in the second half. But, overall, the novel is good example of an author striving to bring his best skill and talent to a genre that at the time it was published (1940) that was considered by many to be less than a noble or worthy pursuit. I hope you read and enjoy the novel, too.

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The Single Reason Why People Can’t Write, According to a Harvard Psychologist

“Why is so much writing so hard to understand? Why must a typical reader struggle to follow an academic article, the fine print on a tax return, or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?”

These are questions Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asks in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. They’re questions I’ve often encountered –and attempted to tackle– throughout my career as a business writer and editor. Whenever I see writing that is loaded with jargon, clichés, technical terms, and abbreviations, two questions come immediately to mind. First, what is the writer trying to say, exactly? And second, how can the writer convey her ideas more clearly, without having to lean on language that confuses the reader?

For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”, which he defines as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

“Every human pastime –music, cooking, sports, art, theoretical physics –develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to say or type a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in each other’s company. The problem is that as we become proficient at our job or hobby we come to use these catchwords so often that they flow out of our fingers automatically, and we forget that our readers may not be members of the clubhouse in which we learned them.”

People in business seem particularly prone to this “affliction.” You could argue that business has developed its own entirely unique dialect of English. People are exposed to an alphabet soup of terms and acronyms at business school, which they then put into use in their day-to-day interactions once they enter the working world.

And what starts out as a means of facilitating verbal communication between people becomes the primary mode with which people communicate their ideas in writing, from email to chat apps to business proposals and presentations.

“How can we lift the curse of knowledge?” asks Pinker. “A considerate writer will…cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in ‘Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,’ rather than the bare ‘Arabidopsis.’ It’s not just an act of magnanimity: A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

“Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all.”

Whenever I write a sentence that makes me pause and wonder about what it means, I assume that other readers might react in the same way. If a sentence is not clear to me, it might not be clear to others. It’s an approach that I recommend to anyone who is trying to improve his own writing.

Before hitting publish and sending your writing out to the world, it’s better to be honest with yourself about how much your reader is likely to understand a given passage or sentence. Before you commit your writing to print– or to the internet– take a few moments to make sure that what you write is clear and understandable by as many of your intended readers as possible.

As Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”

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I Trained Myself to Be Less Busy — and it Dramatically Improved My Life

I am a robot, programmed to obliterate my to-do list. During the day, I direct a research laboratory, write papers, and teach classes as a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. Come 4:30 pm, I run a kid limousine service, shuttling between various activities, preparing dinner, helping with homework and the evening routine. I scurry through these activities — often missing the moments of joy embedded in everyday life — until I have some sort of nightly electrical shortage, then crash out on the couch. I reboot in the morning and do it all again.

I am addicted to busyness. I am embarrassed to say it, largely because I am lucky to have a wonderful life and a great career, and, to be fair, the struggles, demands, and slings and arrows are all of my own doing (especially the part about having kids; I know I was there for that).

I created this mess — a life at breakneck speed from the moment I wake until I finally watch 30 minutes of Netflix before drifting off. But, I recently hit rock bottom, feeling as if I was going through the motions of my life rather than truly living it.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed — you probably do too

I don’t think I am alone in my feelings about busyness, nor do I think these feelings are especially new for the average working adult. I might be alone at my rock bottom, but there are many indicators that we are feeling more overcommitted, overscheduled, overtired, and overburdened than ever before.

Brigid Schulte, in her 2014 book, Overwhelmed, writes incisively about this trend, “So much do we value busyness, researchers have found a human ‘aversion’ to idleness and need for ‘justifiable busyness.’” My favorite example from her book: Researchers can track the rise of busyness in holiday cards dating back to the 1960s. In holiday cards, Americans used to share news about our lives (the joys and sorrows of the year), but now we’re more likely than ever to mention how busy we are as well.

As a clinical psychologist, I have worked with many people who are trying to make substantial changes — from improving a marriage to overcoming generalized anxiety or depression. The idea that these changes begin with acknowledging that there’s a problem is a truism. Personal responsibility is the vehicle for behavior change. When it came to my busyness, though, I had what might be described as extreme difficulty looking beyond the hamster wheel. (Professionally, people in my line of work call this “very little insight.”)

I don’t think I am busier than anyone else. My wife and friends are just as busy as me. I think the difference is that I became aware of my busyness and started to hate it. I was feeling claustrophobic in my own life. I asked my wife if I could retire and get some time back in the day. (She said no.) Then I started to wonder about the opposite of busyness. I thought immediately of the slow food movement. I needed a slow food movement in my everyday life.

I realized busyness had devoured my values

The first change took root for me about 18 months ago when the graduate program that I direct started teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (pronounced as the single word ACT) to our doctoral students, who are future clinical psychologists. ACT is a scientifically validated psychotherapy treatment for a range of mental health problems. Basically, it’s a form of talk therapy.

A central tenet of ACT is that emotional pain is driven in large part by getting over-involved in difficult experiences and thoughts (that is, going over and over things in our mind, getting stuck in our experiences, and being unable to create any psychological distance between yourself and the terribleness of things). Consequently, when we become stuck on or in our emotional pain, we go through each day in a way that is disconnected from our core values — the essential principles that, ideally, come to guide our lives. In ACT, value-centered living is paramount, and a big part of the treatment is to help people separate themselves from the painful language in their heads (“This is so awful. I feel so terrible.”)to get on with the business of living a meaningful life.

As I learned more about ACT and started incorporating its methods into my psychotherapy practice with clients, something important dawned on me: Busyness devoured my values. I was working, parenting, loving, emailing, and exercising in a sort of mindless way, just doing and doing. Busyness is not, nor was it ever, a guiding principle in my life. Yet, I had let the inertia of doing take deep root without realizing what was happening to me. To get more out of life — more meaning, more joie de vivre I needed to start doing less and to become more conscious about my choices.

How I started to reclaim my life from busyness

I started with a simple value: being outside. I am a regular exerciser, but I was losing touch with being outside and moving my body through space. I began walking more, that’s all. It was not a hard change to make — I just park a little farther from work and hoof it a bit more, or I go for a nice stroll during lunch. It would not be an overstatement to say that an additional 40 minutes a day of walking just two or three times a week has changed me in a profound way. Walking provides time to think, to be energized by nature, and to feel less frenzied. Quite dramatically, I am much less of a robot and much more of a human being.

Next, I focused on valuing idleness. I do not mean being a sloth, only that I was coming to see the value of doing as little as possible for long periods of time. I just finished Tim Kreider’s incredibly thoughtful and hilarious book of essays We Learn Nothing. The audiobook includes a bonus chapter called “Laziness: A Manifesto.” Kreider writes, “This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly, or trivial, or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked every hour of the day. All this noise, and rush, and stress seem contrived to cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

I cannot say if I my busyness was a hedge against some sort of existential emptiness, but all the doing certainly left me feeling empty in the end. Now, with idleness in mind, I just park myself on the couch as often as possible and see what happens. Mostly, I am looking for an opportunity to enjoy the moments of life in an unstructured way; I am looking for more play. In my idleness last night, I spent a long time just tickling my 5-year-old daughter, pretending to scare her, and lying on my back with her in “airplane position” while she perfected a move she called the hummingbird. That was the best half-hour of my year so far. What is more, I’ve found that the less I work, the better my work actually is in the end, from the ability to attend to students and clients to the creative energies needed for doing science.

As part of my effort to create time and space for doing less, I also got off Facebook. At first, I was simply trying to escape the toxicity of the election on social media. In time, though, I realized I was also escaping an attentional black hole, one with an incredible gravitational pull. I would never willfully stand in the middle of a room noisy room with everyone screaming for my attention, yet this is best metaphor I can think of to describe my mind on Facebook. I was weak and could not resist its forces, fair enough, but I also started to see it as filler and fluff. When I got past my FOMO and let it go, I gained back many moments in my day.

I’ve also tried to get serious about laughing more. For me, busyness’s neighbor is seriousness. Seriousness is overrated, and I feel much healthier and even childlike when I am not taking myself so seriously, and when I am trying to make other people laugh.

Finally, my relationships. In my days of busyness, I loathed the work pop-in — too many unscheduled interruptions. Now, I’m coming to appreciate people dropping by to say hello and to joke around (see: laughter). My door is a little more open, so to speak. I am also focusing on my local drinking club, where a few friends have been going for beers together for several years. Sometimes I am too busy and have to miss, but that really bothers me now. Friendships are sustenance, just like food.

Have I sustained these changes? Sort of. I am working as much as ever and find it hard to not get sucked into the trappings of busyness. Sometimes I look at my schedule shout to myself, “Too much, too much!” When this is the case, I just go for a walk. Or I just get on the floor and mess with my kids. Or I follow the mantra of our club: “Relax, have a homebrew.” (If my busyness freakout is in the morning, I do wait for the homebrew, in case you’re wondering. At least until lunch.)

By and large, though, I am feeling better than I have in a long time — more deliberate in the choices I make, more connected to the people around me, and more energized for the demands of the day. The surprising irony here, for me at least, is that by doing less, I am getting way more out life. I have banished my inner robot.

David Sbarra, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. His new ebook, Love, Loss, and the Space Between, is available on Amazon.

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