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.

Footnotes:

1

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

3

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

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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.

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