Beeminder Postmortem

I've been using Beeminder for about 3 weeks, and I finally fell off the road for my "writing" goal last night. I still have two other goals, so it's not all doom and gloom.

One thing I've learnt is that quantifying creative goals by time does not work well for me. I originally set up the goal because I wanted to write more, but it didn't really have the desired effect. I'd find myself rewriting things just to meet the time quota, which wasn't really productive.

I usually only write when I'm in the mood, and it can be a couple of days before inspiration hits. Forcing myself to write for 30 minutes every day seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the end just led to me scrambling for ideas and producing very little of value.

Still, Beeminder itself works really well. It's encouraged me to keep my email under control, and I've spent way more time working on personal projects than I used to. I'm still trying to come up with a good system for tracking personal & work goals, but I'll probably go with a points-based approach.

Lightning vs the Lottery

The 30th of March, 2012 saw the biggest lottery jackpot in World history. The pre-tax total was approximately 640 million dollars, and despite the odds of winning being rather narrow, nearly 1.4 billion dollars was spent on lottery tickets 1.

Whenever there is a large lottery jackpot, the same crop of articles always appear, such as:

  • What you could buy with $X million
  • How to pick your numbers
  • 10 things more likely to happen than winning

I'm going to focus on the last one, because the statistics are usually wrong (or rather, used incorrectly).

The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 179 million. That means that there are 179 million different number combinations that can occur. If you buy one ticket, there us a 1 in 179 million chance your numbers will come up. Buy two tickets (with different numbers), and the odds are halved. Nothing too complicated.

Normally there's something about how much more likely it is that you'll be struck by lightning than win the jackpot. The odds of being hit by a lightning strike in the US are 1 in 10,000 2. This makes it sound much more likely, but these odds are spread over an average lifetime (80 years) rather than a single event (a lottery drawing).

A slightly more realistic set of odds would be: if you buy a lottery ticket, what are the chances of you being struck by lightning before the draw compared to winning the jackpot?

Odds of being struck in a year 1/775,000
Time between lottery draws 3 4 days
Odds of being struck in 1 day 1/282,875,000
Odds of being struck in 4 days 1/70,718,750

Assuming you buy a ticket as soon as the previous draw ends, you have nearly a 1 in 71 million chance of being hit by lightning. Of course, this doesn't take into account the current season or state you live in (people in Florida are twice as likely to be killed or injured than people in Michigan 4).

So, in order to be more likely to win the jackpot than being zapped by Zeus, just buy two tickets.



According to ABC news (What $1.46B Spent on Mega Millions Could Buy), Americans spent nearly $1.5 billion on lottery tickets.


The Mega Millions lottery is drawn every Tuesday and Friday, which gives 4 days between the Friday and Tuesday draw.

Simple Tips for Effective Task Lists

Task lists are the cornerstone of many organisational systems. They're easy to set up, but after a while they can take on a life of their own and become more of a hindrance than a help.

How can task lists be improved without adding too much administrative bloat?

Here are a few things you can add to your task list to make them (and you) more effective. You don't have to add all of them, just use what works and toss out what doesn't.

Estimate how long a task will take

It's much easier to set time aside for a task when you have a rough idea of how long it will take to complete. Setting a time limit for a task also gives you a deadline to aim for, which can stop you from losing focus. Tasks without any sort of estimate have a habit of taking longer to complete.

Another advantage is that thinking through how long things will take will help you spot tasks that haven't been broken down into small enough chunks.

If you have a lot of tasks that will take less than 5 minutes, they probably belong on their own "shrapnel task" list. Same goes for things like phone calls and other errands.

Track the time spent on a task

This ties in with the above point. If you're anything like me, you'll probably find that estimating the time something will take is difficult. When you track the actual time, you gather evidence that can really help in the future. Not everything needs to be tracked (there's not much point in tracking the length of phone calls for example), but other important tasks are wroth tracking.

The better you get at estimating, the easier it is to plan your day and to make decisions on incoming tasks.

Make it interesting

If you encounter resistance when using your list, you'll avoid using it. Granted, it's almost impossible to make a todo list the most fun thing on Earth, but tweaking things can make it less painful to use.

Experiment with different ideas. Give yourself "points" for achieving certain tasks that you can spend on rewards, or set yourself a target for the day & week. Use an online task tracker that lets you share your results, and compare with others.

Keep a someday/maybe list

The someday/maybe list is an integral part of the Getting Things Done system, and it's well worth integrating into other systems. Someday/maybe lists are particularly useful if you do a lot of creative work and gets lots of ideas during the day. Just jot them on your someday/maybe list, and review it at least once a month.

By writing down all your ideas, you give yourself permission to be creative but still gain the benefit of keeping things in a trusted system.

Keep your lists organised

This is the hard part. A single list works well, but once it fills up things can become challenging.

A setup that works for me is to have a separate list for each project, a master list of non-project tasks, such as topics to research, and then a list of context-sensitive items like phone calls to make or emails to send. I also keep a list of any books that people recommend so I can keep any eye out for them when I'm out.

Keep a "done" list

A "done" list might seem like a strange thing to keep, but I've found it very helpful. It's less about keeping organised, and more about keeping a positive outlook on things. It's easy to work long hours and feel like you've achieved nothing, but by keeping a record of important tasks you've completed you get a better picture of what's going on.

Waiting for perfection

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

It's a good question, and recently got me thinking about perfectionism.

If a project is finished but nobody sees it, does it exist?

Whilst not a revolutionary idea, it's important to remember this when striving for perfection. It's easy to get in the habit of putting things off because they're not quite ready, but really, what's the danger of someone seeing something "too early"? Sometimes the roughness around the edges is what gives something charm and appeal.

Sharing things with the world is scary. Some people will be negative. But remember, nothing on Earth is without its detractors. Be brave and share what you have. It's the best way to grow.

Learning to Lucid Dream

Have you ever had a dream that felt totally real to you? The kind where you felt as if you could reach out and touch anything, and when you woke up it seemed strange that what you'd seen didn't actually happen? What if you could control these dreams? That's where Lucid Dreaming comes in.

I'll be the first to admit that lucid dreaming can sound a bit hokey, and it took me a while to get used to the idea. It sounds weird, but given some thought it actually makes a lot of sense.

Take sight for example. When you "see" something, your eye receives information from the outside world. It then sends signals to your brain, which interprets these signals into images. When you dream, your brain is just making up these signals for itself, so the whole experience can feel just like waking life.

Lucid dreams often have varying levels of realism. Sometimes things might be hazy and dream like, but you'll have control over what happens. In others, you'll be able to imagine things into your dream and everything will feel as real as when you're awake.

So how do we have a lucid dream?

Remember your dreams

This is important. After all, if you don't remember your dreams, what's the point in trrying to influence them? I've found the best way to do this is to keep a "dream diary", where you write down your dreams when you wake up.

By writing them down, you strengthen your ability to remember. The more you do this, the better you get.

Remember you're asleep

One problem with lucid dreaming is that it's not always obvious that you're still asleep. It should seem obvious that you're dreaming when everything crazy is happening, but it often takes something more subtle to trigger the "awakening".

There are a few giveaways that you're dreaming:

  1. You can pinch your nose and still breath through it
  2. Electronics and machinery act haywire. This could be phones ringing but not responding to being picked up, screens showing a jumbled mess or watches showing completely different times when you look at them twice. Light switches often have unexpected results, and cars may drive much slower than expected.

A good way of knowing you're lucid is performing a "reality check" by checking if any of the above occur. Ive found the most effective check is pinching my nose, and it only takes a few seconds to try (although you might get a few funny looks).

Sometimes you'll have a "false awakening", where you'll think you've woken up but you're actually still dreaming. These are a great time for reality checks.

Staying Lucid

The final piece of the puzzle is staying lucid. The first few times, you'll probably get excited and wake up (or have a false awakening). Don't get too disheartened. Here are some ways to stay lucid:

  • Spin around on the spot.
  • Focus on your hands or other part of your body.
  • Tell yourself to stay lucid (I've had very little success with this method, but I'm told it works.)

Once you're lucid and it's stable, enjoy yourself! Anything is possible in the dream world, so go crazy. Learn to fly, or pass through solid objects. Run faster than cars, or jump over buildings.

I've found the best way of having lucid dreams is the WBTB method (Wake, Back to Bed). If I've woken up in the early morning (usually between 4am and 5am) it's much easier to go lucid than when going straight to bed. You can always set an alarm clock, although this might not go down so well with your sleep neighbours :)

If you can get over the weird factor, lucid dreaming is definitely something worth experimenting with.