What’s a Night Owl to Do?

Sunrise Yawn. I’m sleepy. It’s early and there’s still crust in my eyes.

And at this very moment, countless entrepreneurs, executives, and enterprising go-getters are getting up and starting their days. They say it boosts their productivity, raises their energy, and accomplish all the little things that could otherwise nag them throughout the day. This means eating a good breakfast, exercising, checking emails, solving critical problems, and even spending time with family.

Jim Critin’s article, “Tapping the Power of Your Morning Routine” offers this memorable piece of advice (emphasis mine):

Steve Murphy, CEO of publishing company Rodale, says, “A line in a William Blake poem inspired me to think differently about my day: ‘Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.’

Good stuff.

So, being the night owl that I am, what the hell am I going to do? I’m quite the opposite: I experience my peak energy levels later in the day, often get into The Zone late at night, and can’t think straight in the mornings.

Or, at least, that’s how I am right now. I hear that once you have kids, you’ll have to wake up early anyways. And I’ll admit – I did wake up early once and got a lot of work done.

Kyle Pott of Lifehack.org offers these tips on waking up early:

Relocate your alarm clock
I used to do this in college when I absolutely had to get up early, and it worked. Made for some wacky hijinks too, especially when I’d crawl over furniture and tumble onto the floor, all in an effort to shut the cursed alarm.
Scrap the snooze
Rats. I love snoozing. That feeling of gently falling back asleep again is awesome. I think my record is a two-hour snoozing session.
Change up your buzzer
Did this in college too. I switched to an old-fashioned alarm clock with a loud bell. My roommates hated me, but it sure got me up.
Make a puzzle
This tip means hiding your alarm in a tricky place that requires some effort to get to, like in a combination-locked box. Sounds really evil, so it probably works really well.
Get into a routine
Sounds like a great idea, though it hasn’t been easy to get my hectic schedule into a routine. I’m an over-achiever with lots of little projects going on at any given time; fitting those into a routine is tough. Not impossible though, just tough.
Have a reason
True, I’ll definitely wake up earlier if I’m on vacation or something. But I once overslept during a huge street carnival that I planned in college; I was so tired that every alarm technique in the book wasn’t able to get me up. So I can’t say that simply having a reason will work consistently for me.

Here’s an extra tip: Sometimes, if I really need to wake up early, I’ll drink some water before going to sleep. The next morning, the urge to pee will get me right up. (If you have a weak bladder, this tip might not work for you – though arguably, getting up to change your sheets would definitely wake you up.)

I also like this tip from GoimBee in the comments section:

I trained a monkey to taze me with 500,000 Volts when the alarm clock rings. That’s pretty much the most efficient technique I found so far. Now I can’t sleep knowing that the monkey is hiding under my bed…

The night owl in me says, “Mike, you’re crazy, why are you even pondering waking up early?” I’ve always been a night owl, why change now?

Let’s break down the pros and cons of being a night owl vs. being an early riser:

Being a Night Owl

Pros Cons
  • There’s peace and quiet late at night
  • You can go to sleep knowing you’ve finished your day’s work
  • You may be able to finish your high-priority items before tomorrow
  • For many people, it’s easy to sleep late
  • For some people, they are more creative at night
  • It’s impossible to ever finish a day’s work in one day
  • If you need a colleague, you’ll have to wait until the next day to talk to him/her
  • Your body’s metabolism slows down at night

Being an Early Riser

Pros Cons
  • There’s peace and quiet early in the morning
  • You can send email replies to all the urgent issues first
  • Exercising early gets your metabolism in gear, aiding in health & weight loss
  • You can get high-priority items done first
  • If you need a colleague, you only have to wait a few hours for him/her
  • For some people, they are more creative in the morning
  • For many people, it’s not easy to wake up early

Hmmm. I can only think of one con for being an Early Riser. If you can think of more pros and cons for these lists, please let me know.

And now, another part of me is saying, “Maybe waking up early IS a good idea.” At the very least, gaining health benefits is a really good reason.

So I guess I ought to scrap the snooze, hide my alarm, and drink before I sleep! And if those don’t work, anyone have a monkey and a tazer?

Investors and Entrepreneurs on Risk

Homer Simpson Yesterday, I wrote about why most people are more afraid of terrorist bombings than car accidents. It’s because of how the brain (and more specifically, the amygdala and the neocortex) deals with risk.

That got me thinking. How does this effect investors and entrepreneurs, both of whom have to deal with risk in order to be successful?

Investors who can control their emotional responses are most successful, according to John Buckingham’s article in Forbes Magazine, “Warren Buffett: Functional Psychopath?” The article includes the following statement from Warren Buffet’s preface in Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor:

To invest successfully does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information. What’s needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding the framework.

“The ability to keep emotions from corroding the framework.” Now there’s an argument for the neocortex if I ever heard one. A paper co-authored by faculty at Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Iowa even showed that “people with [emotionally impaired] brain damage make better financial decisions than normal people” because they’re able to rationally weigh the facts and take calculated risks.

Same goes for entrepreneurs. Taking risks is a major part of entrepreneurship. Rather, taking risks for potential rewards, as Paul Graham writes in his essay, “Inequality and Risk“:

Startups are intrinsically risky. … It seems only about 1 in 10 startups succeeds.

The fact that you’re investing time doesn’t change the relationship between risk and reward. If you’re going to invest your time in something with a small chance of succeeding, you’ll only do it if there is a proportionately large payoff.

Since risk and reward are equivalent, decreasing potential rewards automatically decreases people’s appetite for risk. Startups are intrinsically risky. Without the prospect of rewards proportionate to the risk, founders will not invest their time in a startup.

So if our brains can’t effectively calculate risk, unless we’re brain damaged, how can we expect to invest wisely or be an entrepreneur?

The answer is to raise your emotional intelligence (thereby, presumably, strengthening your neocortex). This may not be possible though, according to John Mayer, one of the authors of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), a commercial product that measures emotional intelligence (which is just one out of many other products out there). When asked point-blank, “Can emotional knowledge be improved?“, he answers:

No well-conducted, published studies have been reported in regard to raising emotional intelligence to date. Up to now, however, with a few exceptions, emotional intelligence has behaved much like other intelligences, and it seems very unlikely that it could be easily raised. Still, as very little research exists on the topic, it remains an open question.

That’s not a definite No, however. Goleman suggests understanding your emotions first as a step towards better managing them. He also offers this high-level guidance:

  1. Know your emotions – People who know their feelings are better pilots of their lives.
  2. Manage your emotions – People who are effective in managing their emotions can cope better with life’s adversities and can bounce back faster than those who are poor in managing their feelings.
  3. Motivate yourself – People without emotional intelligence lack self-restraint and would just do whatever their impulses suggest. Emotional self-control, delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness underlies accomplishment of every sort.
  4. Recognize emotions in others – Emotional self-awareness is the first step to empathic sensitivity. In other words, if we are in touch with our own feelings, then we can empathise with others and sense their needs.
  5. Handle relationships – The art of relating to others includes the skill in managing emotions in others. For example, the ability to calm distressing emotions in others can help resolve many conflicts.

These guidelines sort of fit the studies done on subjective well-being too, which have shown that people who are happier tend to be more successful investors (and entrepreneurs too, perhaps). A higher level of emotional intelligence would seem to lead to a higher level of happiness.

So does a greater control over one’s emotions lead to a greater control over one’s response to risk? All of these reports seem to indicate so, though much of this science is still new. In my opinion, raising one’s emotional intelligence (if possible) is a good thing for any investor or entrepreneur, even if it doesn’t effect one’s perception of risk.

Your Brain on Risk

Homer Simpson You’re probably more afraid of a terrorist bombing than a car accident. Which, statistically speaking, isn’t logical because car accidents happen much more frequently than terrorist bombings.

You can thank your brain for this. In Bruce Schneier’s book Beyond Fear, he writes about how the human mind analyzes risk. Basically, we worry too much over minor risks and not enough over major ones. Schneier distills this into five common observations:

  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

Why is that? Daniel Goleman explains how two parts of your brain offer competing interpretations of events around you in his book Emotional Intelligence. The amygdala gleams the raw emotions within any given event while the neocortex analyzes the facts to determine a more logical reaction.

These don’t exactly work in parallel, however. Your body’s sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, sensations, tastes) travels along two connections. The connection to the amygdala is shorter, causing your brain to process the emotional content of an event before it can process the logical content. The amygdala also works faster than the neocortex.

In many cases, the neocortex can override the amygdala – you can override an illogical emotional reaction and behave rationally. But sometimes, the amygdala reacts so strongly that you act before you can think; Goleman calls this “emotional hijacking.”

There’s a good evolutionary purpose for this. If a saber-toothed tiger is chasing you, you don’t want to stop and process the facts. You want to run like heck. This is your fight-or-flight response.

In his essay “The Psychology of Security“, Schneier adds that running away from saber-toothed tigers is no longer a reality (unless you’re Fred Flinstone). The events of today’s society are actually better handled not by reacting emotionally, but by reacting logically. Like negotiating a raise with your manager; you might feel fear and be told by your amygdala to run, but unless you listen to your neocortex, you’re not going to get that raise.

Unfortunately, your brain retains the memory of past emotional experiences and uses them to judge risk in future events. Schneier quotes a good example of this from Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open:

But ever since that June storm, a new fear has entered the mix for me: the sound of wind whistling through a window. I know now that our window blew in because it had been installed improperly… I am entirely convinced that the window we have now is installed correctly, and I trust our superintendent when he says that it is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. In the five years since that June, we have weathered dozens of storms that produced gusts comparable to the one that blew it in, and the window has performed flawlessly.

I know all these facts–and yet when the wind kicks up, and I hear that whistling sound, I can feel my adrenaline levels rise… Part of my brain–the part that feels most me-like, the part that has opinions about the world and decides how to act on those opinions in a rational way–knows that the windows are safe… But another part of my brain wants to barricade myself in the bathroom all over again.

Essentially, a memory can emotionally hijack your perception if a risk, especially if the memory is a significant one. Again, back when there were saber-toothed tigers, this was an evolutionary advantage. (“Oh no, it’s another saber-tooth! Run before he sees us!”)

In today’s society, it causes us to exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common ones. That’s why terrorist bombings seem so much scarier than car accidents.

Can Managers Create Satisfied Employees?

In the book Organizational Behavior, the column “Managers Can Create Satisfied Employees” caught my eye. It’s a Point vs Counterpoint column that follows a chapter on job satisfaction and how it effects productivity, turnover, and even customers.

The Point read:

A review of the evidence has identified four factors conducive to high levels of employee job satisfaction: mentally challenging work, equitable rewards, supportive working conditions, and supportive colleagues. Importantly, each of these factors is controllable by management.

The Counterpoint read:

Unfortunately there is a growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that managers control the factors that influence employee job satisfaction. The most recent findings indicate that employee job satisfaction is largely genetically determined. … Given these findings, there is probably little that most managers can do to influence employee satisfaction. … The only place where managers will have any significant influence will be through their control of the selection process.

In my experience, I’ve found that both are necessary for an effective team; it’s not an either-or argument. By effective, I mean satisfied and productive.

There are people who naturally seek challenges, are always learning new things, and have a hopeful, positive outlook on their future. A rare few are even able to self-motivate. If you hire only such people (assuming they fulfill your other requirements), you’ll no doubt have a satisfied team initially.

But if you don’t actively keep them engaged with challenging work, appropriate rewards, and a supportive environment, a competitor will easily lure them away. As a manager, you have the ability to reshape the environment. If you don’t create a healthy one, a competitor will.

Effective organizations are the ones that can hire the right kinds of people -and- keep them satisfied & productive.

Thinking Like a Genius

“Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.”
– A. Einstein

You too can think like a genius. So says Michael Michalko, a “creative thinking expert” and author.

The non-profit educational public service Study Guides and Strategies has done a fantastic adaptation of Michalko’s article, “Thinking like a genius: eight strategies used by the supercreative, from Aristotle and Leonardo to Einstein and Edison“. It quickly summarizes how anyone can use the same thinking styles & techniques as Aristotle & Einstein to be more effective in everyday life. (Thank goodness for study guides!)

To whet your appetite, the eight strategies are:

  1. Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives that no one else has taken (or no one else has publicized!)
  2. Visualize!
  3. Produce! A distinguishing characteristic of genius is productivity.
  4. Make novel combinations. Combine, and recombine, ideas, images, and thoughts into different combinations no matter how incongruent or unusual.
  5. Form relationships; make connections between dissimilar subjects.
  6. Think in opposites.
  7. Think metaphorically.
  8. Prepare yourself for chance.

Free Coffee! Well, Almost

Terra Bite LoungeFree coffee! Free coffee! But only if you don’t mind the guilt of not giving a donation, you cheapskate.

Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, posted an article last week about an interesting new coffee shop in Seattle, WA: The Terra Byte Lounge — “an upscale voluntary payment cafe/deli.”

The Seattle Times calls the founder, Ervin Peretz, the “Robin Hood of the Starbucks set.”

Terra Bite Lounge looks like any other coffee shop – until you get to the menu. There are no prices listed. Terra Bite doesn’t have them.

You read that right: No prices. Customers pay what and when they like, or not at all – it makes no difference to the cafe employees, who are instructed not to peek when people put money in the metal lock box.

And there’s the rub. The coffee is essentially free and customers have the option of contributing however much they want – a “voluntary-payment” system, as the Kirkland Weblog calls it.

Quite an interesting social experiment in trust and honesty, eh? Are customers really paying? Yes, at an average of $3 per transaction. Some even pay more than they would at Starbucks (SBUX).

It’s because the social pressures of contributing are strong. One commenter on the Freakonomics Blog added that, “peer pressure & guilt is only part of it. There’s also an element of the reciprocity impulse, and darn it, just plain old decency.” Another commenter offered a counter argument, however:

I live right around the corner from Terra Bite in Kirkland. This business model makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m there – did I put enough in the box? Did I put too much? I really like having a fixed price to pay.

I’m uncomfortable with tipping too, for the same reason.

Will this business model work? We’ll see. Another Starbucks cafe just opened in the same neighborhood. The competition will be fierce. But if it does work out, Peretz has hinted that he’d be interested in expansion.

Hmmm. Think free coffee will work in San Francisco?

How Do YOU Feel When You Trade?

Brett Steenbarger of TraderFeed posted a personality questionnaire a few weeks ago. It is designed to assess the emotions you experience when trading in the stock market. Here’s how I scored:


  1. I feel happy when I’m trading = 4 (often)
  2. I feel stressed when I’m trading = 2 (occasionally)
  3. I feel alert and energetic when I’m trading = 5 (most of the time)
  4. I feel discouraged when I’m trading = 1 (rarely)
  5. I feel capable of succeeding at my trading = 4 (often)
  6. I blame myself when my trading doesn’t work out = 1 (rarely)
  7. I feel satisfied with my trading results = 4 (often)
  8. I feel edgy and frustrated when I’m trading = 1 (rarely)
  9. I feel in control of what happens in my trading = 3 (sometimes)
  10. I make impulsive decisions when I’m trading = 1 (rarely)


My positive emotional experience score (all the odd questions): 20
My negative emotional experience score (all the even questions): 6

Steenbarger next post describes what these scores mean. Basically, a high positive score and a low negative score is good. So I’m doing well. Whew!

He cites several studies that describe a concept called subjective well-being (SWB). One study, from the Annual Review of Psychology, entitled “On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonistic and Eudaimonic Well-Being” by psychologists Richard Ryan & Edward Deci, describes SWB as having three components:

  • General life satisfaction
  • The presence of positive emotions
  • The absence of negative emotions

They may sound familiar; they’re basically the components of happiness. One of the more interesting finds from this study is that we’re happier when we pursue autonomous goals.

When we are free to set and pursue our own goals, we tend to be much more fulfilled than if we are pursuing goals that have been set for us.

You’ve probably heard the axiom that good-looking people are happier in life. Well, another notable find from the study:

Interestingly, such factors as salary and physical attractiveness do not predict SWB. In fact, people whose values show a preference for high income and job success over personal relationships tend to report less happiness and self-fulfillment than those who emphasize interpersonal attachments.

The questionnaire was designed to “assess well-being and stress in the context of one’s trading.” The positive emotional experience questions focused on feelings of personal satisfaction, perceived competence, and perceived autonomy. The negative emotional experience questions focused on feelings of anxiety, frustration, and loss of control.

In other words, it’s much more important to have self-confidence and control over your own trading goals, than to be in the market purely for a profit. Steenbarger summarizes this well:

Trading may not always be profitable, but it is important that it contribute, over time, to a sense of autonomy and competence and that it be accompanied by experiences of personal fulfillment.

How To Minimize Interruptions

Don’t you hate it when you’re distracted by hallway traffic, chatty coworkers, and other things that break your concentration? Especially when you’re in The Zone?

Here are some helpful tips to minimize disruptions, even in your current cube layout.

  1. Physical Layout of the Workspace

    The actual arrangement of the furniture in your workspace can actually invite interruptions. If your desk faces a busy hallway, people are more likely to stop by and chat. Shifting around your furniture and placing subtle blockades in your entrance can reduce these incidental interruptions.

    1. Visitor’s Chair

      If you have a visitor’s chair, place it towards the entrance instead of next to your desk. It can actually act as a barrier to entry.

    2. Put a Curtain Across the Entrance

      Not very easy to do for some cube-dwellers, but it’s the ultimate barrier to entry; you’re literally blocking out the world.

    3. Put Desktop Computer on Desk

      Position your desktop computer so it blocks your face from the entrance. You’re less likely to be disrupted by traffic in your peripheral vision that way.

    4. Make the Entrance Smaller

      Sometimes your office manager can make your cube’s entrance smaller by extending a partition. This isn’t possible for all organizations though.

  2. Behavioral Patterns

    Sometimes, your own behavior may invite interruptions. If you’re a very open and friendly person, your coworkers are naturally going to turn to you for casual chit-chat. Take note of your behavior and try to determine which actions draw interruptions towards you. Then consciously change those behaviors when you’re busy, or try one of these suggestions.

    1. Use Signals

      You and your team can agree upon a common signal to let each other know when you’re unavailable. Some teams block out a block of “no interruptions” time. Others put up a flag on their monitor.

    2. Wear a Cap

      One such signal can be wearing a cap. Whenever you’re wearing your cap, no one can disturb you. Simple as that.

    3. Put up a “Busy” Sign Above Your Monitor

      Or you can be even more obvious. You can make this sign out of cardboard. This can help for non-team members from other departments.

    4. Earphones

      Contrary to popular opinion, earphones are NOT be a good idea, since you’re apt to be wearing them anyways. Most people are so used to seeing coworkers with earphones that they still will interrupt them.

  3. Be Assertive

    When all else fails, say “No.” That’s the most powerful word in the English language. Learn to say it politely and professionally. No.

  4. Visit Your Interrupter

    Or you can flip it around. When a coworker wants to chat, tell him/her that you’ll visit that person instead. By visiting your coworkers, you remain in control of your time. It’s also easier to decide when to end the conversation when you’re the visitor, as opposed to asking a visitor to leave your cube.

We’ve all been victims of interruptions. Sometimes they are welcome interruptions that break up a monotonous day. Sometimes, they’re important emergencies. Other times, we’re the ones interrupting!

But when you’re in The Zone and it’s Crunch Time, interruptions can waste valuable time & brain cycles. These simple techniques can help when you’re in one of those situations.