This Is A Post About Dog Poop.

Up until about 8 months ago, I was a prolific writer. I published my first essay in 2001, and kept going for fifteen years. I wrote a weekly personal newspaper column for four years. My work appeared in large national magazines for a decade-plus, and it’s been featured on countless websites (I suppose technically they could be counted, but I’ve lost count.) I published four books the traditional way and one e-book, and from 2009 on, I blogged several times a week.

And then one day, I just stopped. 

There were a lot of very valid reasons for taking a break. One, the content marketing side of my business started blowing up and required focus. Two, I started podcasting more and now have big plans for my network, which also deserves energy and time. And three, I wanted to expand my writing out of the parenting/mom space, and I felt I needed a clean break between myself and my mom blog to do that. “I’ll still have my personal blog,” I thought, referring to this space. “I can write whenever I want.”

But when you’ve created a structure around writing and then you knock that structure down, it turns out it’s pretty easy to just stop entirely. In fact, it was a little scary just how easy it was. What started off as a welcome respite from the pressure and expectation to produce content daily somehow morphed into apathy about writing at all. I didn’t just stop blogging: I stopped working on my memoir, stopped coming up with essay ideas, stopped tooling around with ideas for new stories, stopped sending friends lengthy emails (and as you may know,  I love email), even stopped reading much.

So when I decided, after a 3/4 year hiatus, that it was time to start meandering back toward writing, of course I over-thought it. “Where should I write? And about what? And how often? And should I do it blog style or try something new? Should I publish anonymously somewhere and experiment? Should I start working on my book again? Should I tell people I’m doing it or just write and hope they find it?”

When I expressed some of these questions to a group of writer buddies, my friend Christine said something to the effect of “If you wrote about dog poop, I’d read it.” And I laughed at first, but then thought “Why not?”

Actually, one of my clearest early memories relates to dog poop. I was three or four years old and asked my mom if I could play outside on a wet spring day in northern Michigan. She said yes, but warned my brother John and I not to get dirty because we had to go somewhere in a few minutes. I went outside in my pale pink coat, white tights and Mary Janes, and my brother proceeded to chase me around the house until I fell in a patch of soggy dog poop. He laughed hysterically as I slowly stood up and went inside to meet my fate.

My guess is most of us have a story about dog poop. Maybe it’s a stand-alone memory, like the time your dog rolled in her own poop and you had to give her a bath with the hose and she freaked out, thereby covering you in poop as well. Or maybe your dog poop story is more of a hazy montage of all the times you beat your shoe against the stoop or the side of the house or dug at the tread with a stick hoping to dislodge the results of stepping in the wrong spot in the grass.

Maybe dog poop has also led to some revelations about life. Maybe in the wee hours of a summer morning, standing in the dewy grass as your puppy did his business, you felt at once supremely connected with the universe and yet somehow separate from it, marveling at its beauty like an appreciative visitor who decides all at once to move in and make this place home. Maybe you’ve scooped someone else’s dog’s poop out of your yard, muttering to yourself in self-righteous indignation about the lazy, inconsiderate jerks you are forced to share a planet with, and only days later found yourself standing in a neighbor’s grass, reaching for the plastic bag you stuffed in your pocket to collect your own dog’s poop, realizing too late that the bag somehow got out of your pocket and not only are you now that lazy, inconsiderate jerk who leaves dog crap in someone else’s yard, but you’re also the lazy, littering jerk who set a bird-killing plastic bag loose on the city.

All of the above dog poop experiences are mine, but my guess is at least one of them is recognizable to you, too. If you’ve ever had a dog, loved a dog, hated a dog, or lived or walked on a street on which dogs exist, chances are you’ve had an encounter with dog poop. Dog poop is ingrained in the modern human experience. It serves as a metaphor for relationships (we accept the poop because we love the dog,) we use it to describe poor quality, sometimes playing fast and loose with the laws of physics and matter (“I can’t believe what a piece of dog poop my cable service is!”) and as a descriptor for impossibly bad luck (the guy who was already having a bad enough day, and then stepped in dog poop.)

And really, that’s all writing – or any art, really – is: tapping into the universal human experience to evoke emotion (like, say, helping a reader reliving the utter disgust they felt when they decided to go barefoot on the first warm spring day of the season and stepped directly in a warm doo-doo pile) or inspire critical thought (like, say, why you shouldn’t make snap judgments of other people when they don’t really know if they deliberately failed to clean up dog poop or simply had a flyaway bag mishap.) Making people laugh, cry, remember, or just shake their heads and say “I have no idea what this no-talent hack is talking bout.” You can’t guarantee a response, but at least by putting yourself and your thoughts out there,  you’re clearing a path to connection.

I didn’t need to worry that my hiatus from writing meant I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. And I didn’t need to over-think my return or how I would once again find the spark to put words on a page. Writer’s block doesn’t exist, because we always have dog poop, and (barring a scientific miracle) we always will.

And it turns out, dog poop is all you need.

Thanks, Christine.

Don’t Run Your Blog Like A Mediocre Restaurant (2 Mistakes To Avoid)

As someone who loves to dine out and travels a lot, I’m often baffled by obvious examples of missed customer service at the restaurants and other small businesses I visit.

One evening, while ranting to my husband about a so-so dinner experience (which, incidentally, did not come at a so-so price) I started checking off faults we’d noticed in a single dining experience: Horrible use of social media. Lackluster greeting. Inconsistent service.

But later, as I reflected on my laundry list of complaints, I realized something uncomfortable: I have made every single one of the same mistakes as a blogger.  Continue Reading

A dream realized (scenes from the BEYOND Retreat)

Nearly three weeks ago now, nine women came together in Southwest Michigan to refresh, recharge, dream, and get inspired at my very first live event – the BEYOND Retreat.

Our charming rural lodging – a spacious farmhouse on a wooded lot a few blocks from Lake Michigan – set the stage for a relaxing and luxurious weekend.

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There was plenty of time for group conversation and one-on-one connection. We set goals and offered each other suggestions for making more time for ourselves, identifying our values and priorities, and incorporating our dreams, big and small, into our busy lives.

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There was time for yoga, walks on the beach and in the woods, a vision board session and even a guided craft.

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We also spent plenty of time just talking and laughing. The awesome food, prepared by my husband Jon, seemed to magically appear before us at just the right time. Sharing meals added to the sense of camaraderie and community, which was already strong by the time we’d spent an hour together on Friday evening!

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We came together (mostly) as strangers from different backgrounds, with unique challenges, and hailing from all over the country – but by the end of the weekend, we had become friends and mentors to one another. I am so honored that these women took time away from their lives and traveled to make my very first in-person retreat a huge success, and very happy to say that I think they all took a lot of value away when they returned to “real life.”

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And the feedback I’ve gotten has been nothing but positive. From one attendee, Jacquie: “Thank you for such a wonderful weekend.  The retreat was exactly what I needed – dedicated time away from my responsibilities to just be.  I really liked the size of the group and the balance of activities and down time.  It was also the most rested I have felt after being away from my kids.  It is amazing how much energy is required to make decisions like what to do next and what to eat.  Having that taken off the table was fantastic.”

Here’s where I admit that doing an in-person event has been one of my goals for the past, oh, ten years or so, putting it off year after year for some good reasons (lots of little kids and other logistical issues,) but also a lot of fear. Was I organized enough to pull it off? What if no one signed up – or worse, what if people came and the event didn’t meet their expectations? What if it turned out to be a huge failure?

When you’re thinking about doing something completely new, it’s normal to be a little apprehensive. Indeed, there were definitely times in my life over the past decade where pulling off a retreat would have been more difficult for a variety of reasons. I don’t regret waiting until I had the time and resources to pull it off well, but at the same time, I’m very glad I didn’t let those lingering fears – though they were still definitely there, hovering in the background – keep me from jumping when I knew it was time.

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If you missed BEYOND this time around, don’t worry – it was such an awesome experience that I’ll definitely be planning at least one more next year (possibly two.) To make sure you find out as soon as the next retreat is announced (and when anything else of note is happening!) join my email community.

But in the meantime I hope you’ll use my experience in creating the BEYOND retreat to examine something you really want to do but have been putting off. Are you really as un-ready as you think? Or is it possible that if you just committed to making a reality and got out of your own way, the details might start to come together with a lot less effort than you’re anticipating?

You’ll never know until you try. And I hope that I get to hear all about your big dream at the next BEYOND retreat.

 

Time Is Not The Most Important Thing We Have

file000274328404A little over a year ago, I faced a milestone that had seemed impossibly far away for most of my adult life, and was now, suddenly, right around the corner: the day all five of my children would be in school, all day, all at the same time. 

Since having my first child at 20, I’d never experienced a period when I didn’t have at least one baby, toddler or preschooler in the house (often more than one at a time.) And, especially during my decade-plus career as a work-from-home writer, that led to developing an almost obsessive relationship with time. Continue Reading

Podcasting 101: How To Get Your First Show Off The Ground, Even If You’re A Total Beginner

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I’m so glad you’re thinking about starting a podcast! After dreaming about podcasting for years, I finally launched my first show, The Home Hour, back in 2012, and just a few months ago started up a small lifestyle podcast network, Life Listened. It’s been a fantastic experience, widening my audience reach and connecting me with fabulous, interesting people in my niche and beyond.

We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with the potential of podcasting, and I truly believe that if you’re getting in now you are very much on the cutting edge: when it comes to growth and possibilities, the sky’s the limit.

While I’ve acquired a fair amount of podcasting experience, there are definitely experts that know a lot more than I do. So while this tutorial is pretty basic, I also link to more knowledgeable sources to help you work through some of the more technical nuts and bolts.

Remember, a podcast takes a lot of work to get off the ground, but not nearly as much work to maintain. If you show up consistently and publish, your audience and rating will grow!

I also link to several products below, some of which I use myself and some of which come highly recommended from sources I trust. (Just a note that many of the links below are Amazon Associates links, so I’ll earn a commission if you click and make a purchase.)

I hope you find this tutorial helpful! Please get in touch and let me know when your first podcast episode is live – I’d LOVE to hear it. You can reach me on Twitter @MeaganFrancis or via email at meaganfrancis@gmail.com.

 First Things First: Why Podcast?

  • Greater connection with current audience
  • The opportunity to reach and convert new listeners/readers
  • Ability to cover topics in a new way
  • Potential for new revenue – podcast network ad sales, integrated campaigns
  • Expanding market: ease of listening, in-dash applications make podcasts more accessible
  • Abundant opportunity/low competition in the home/food/family space

Challenges:

  • Educating existing audience about what a podcast is and how/when/why to listen
  • Finding new listeners within podcast ecosystem
  • Getting reviews and ratings
  • Consistency – listeners will lose interest quickly if you are not consistent

Monetization Opportunities:

  • Network advertising
  • Self-served ads
  • Integrated sponsorships
  • Sales and promotion of your own products and services

Equipment You’ll Need:

Microphone: You don’t need to spend a lot of money right away – but it is important to have something besides just your computer mic. Here are some options for when you’re just starting out:

  • Blue Snowflake, about $40 on Amazon. Podcasting guru Pat Flynn recommends this as an inexpensive and serviceable entry point. It’s not pro level, but it’s definitely a great place to get started if you’re on a tight budget.
  • Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone Silver Edition, about $110 on Amazon. A very popular, relatively low-budget option. Good quality for the price and easy to use with your existing computer setup.
  • Rode Podcaster USB Dynamic Microphone, about $229 on Amazon. This is the mic I use. It’s very easy to set up and the sound quality is very good for its price point. It most closely mimics a vocal mic, but in USB form which makes it easy to integrate with your computer without the hassle of dealing with XLR, the traditional microphone connector that does not plug directly into a computer. The Rode Podcaster works best with an overhead broadcast boom and shock mount, which you can find at a variety of price points online.

Earbuds or a headset:

No need to get fancy here unless you really want those noise-cancelling earphones – I just use a pair of regular earbuds (my beloved Beats by Dre!) But both you and any guests or co-hosts will need to have some kind of headset or earbuds to reduce the chance of creating feedback between computers.

Software:

If you’ll be doing interviews with people in remote locations, you’ll need software to record, software to edit, and sometimes additional software to move the audio files from one place to another. This is where things can get really complicated. Instead of trying to summarize this in my own words, I’m going to link to two articles here that feature two different methods for recording and editing. They’re both extremely comprehensive and do a better job explaining it all than I could!

  • Skype Garage Band via SoundFlower and LineIn – This is the method I use. It allows for greater control of the end product because we can separate out tracks (so, if the dog barks on our end, we can remove that without affecting my guest track.) However, it’s important to note that I have my extremely detail-oriented and techy husband helping me with the process. If I were doing this all on my own, I would probably choose a simpler, more streamlined method.
  • Skype Audacity This link leads to an extremely comprehensive tutorial on getting started podcasting by Pat Flynn. Video #1 demonstrates Pat’s suggestions for recording and editing. Definitely a must-watch.

Music – Finding music for your intro/outro can be tricky. We’ve had good luck finding songs we like on sites like Vimeo Music Store, then contacting the artist directly to negotiate a price and commercial license. GarageBand and other audio recording software often includes a fairly comprehensive selection of free music to choose from, too. 

Storage – After you record and edit your podcast, you’ll need a place online to store, or host, the audio file. We use Podcast Hosting by Blubrry. It’s easy to set up, inexpensive, and fast; and we also use Blubrry for other podcast-related services, so it’s nice to keep everything in one place.

Setting Up and Submitting Your Feed – This is a really important and fairly confusing part of the process. The good news is you only have to set up your feed once. I use Blubrry Powerpress, which allows me to publish, syndicate, and submit to iTunes and other podcast applications all in one place. It also collects fairly robust stats. Here’s a link to Blubrrys podcasting tutorial.

Monetizing Your Podcast

As we discussed during the workshop, I consider podcasting a long-term investment in my brand and my audience, and am only now beginning to consider monetizing options. Podcast ad networks work very similar to the way blog ad networks would…except the ad is in audio form. Each network has its own requirements and standards for how they like the ads to appear (some want preroll + midroll, some just ask for one or the other, and some podcasters even put sponsor spots at the end of the podcast.) Some podcast networks want you to work the advertisement into the flow of the podcast “live,” while others will allow pre-recorded ad spots.

Other options:

  • Approach brands you already work with and incorporate podcast ads into a package deal
  • Consider signing up with affiliate networks like Commission Junction or ShareASale. Some options for tracking sales:
  • set up landing page on your site and create custom URL to forward; include affiliate links in the landing page
  • -or- give custom link that directs automatically through your affiliate link
  • -or- give coupon code that allows advertiser to track sales from your show

What options are available to you will depend in large part on how much customizing the affiliate is willing/able to do and what approach you think will work best for your audience.

Don’t forget that your podcast is also an excellent opportunity to make your audience more aware of your blog and any products or services you might offer. So even if you choose not to directly monetize your blog right away, there is definitely the potential to indirectly earn income from it.

Promoting Your Podcast

This is a crucial step: let people know about your podcast! Consistently remind your audience about your show: promote on social media, alert your email list, and post about it on your blog. One standard practice is creating a “show notes” post for each episode, where you not only stream the episode but also pull together resources and links related to your guest or the topic of the show. You can see all my show notes at www.lifelistened.com 

Depending on your audience, you may also have to do some educating so that your potential listeners understand how, why, and when to listen! I actually wrote a post teaching readers exactly how to listen to podcasts (and why they would want to!) You can see it here: http://www.thehappiesthome.com/listen-podcasts-beginners-guide-finding-organizing-listening-favorite-shows/

Just remember that podcasting – both producing your own and listening to other peoples’ – comes with a learning curve. As a podcaster, part of your job is to help your existing audience find and listen to your podcast in a way that works for them. So definitely don’t skimp on the promotion aspect!

You’re ready to start!

No, this guide isn’t 100% comprehensive, but if you’ve read the above you know more than I did when I got my podcast up and running.

Here are the steps you need to take now:

  • Decide what equipment you want to invest in at first and purchase it.
  • Choose software for recording, editing, and publishing your podcast (I’ve given you two options above under “”)
  • Come up with a format. Will it just be you talking? Will you have a regular co-host or do interviews? If you’ll have other people on the show, figure out who they will be and set up a time to record together.
  • Find music for intros and outros. You can have a canned, prerecorded intro or record the intro live every time. Many podcasters even have professional voice-over artists create fun, catchy intros for them.
  • Record and edit your first episode.
  • Write a show notes post
  • Publish your podcast
  • Promote far and wide
  • Rinse, repeat! Remember, the most successful podcasts publish frequently and consistently. And I’ve found that the more of a habit I make podcasting, the more likely I am to show up again and again, week after week. 

Good luck, break a leg, and dont forget to let me know when your first episode is live!

 

Always Over-Deliver? Raise Your Rates.

I have something exciting to announce.

No, it’s not a sale, a discount, or a special deal…in fact, it’s the opposite.

Starting today, I’m charging…more.

For months, I’ve offered a content strategy audit for bloggers and small businesses for $297. As advertised, the deliverable was pretty simple: a 2-3 page analysis of a site’s strengths and weaknesses, with a recommended plan of action. It packed a lot of value, since I put considerable time and thought into analyzing sites and creating the plan – but it was also a fair rate for what I promised to deliver.

Here’s the rub, though.

I always delivered more than I promised.

Typically, my clients are other small business owners and bloggers, people whose heart is in their writing and for whom a solid content strategy makes a big, noticeable, immediately-game-changing difference.

When I read their responses to my initial client questionnaire, I’m immediately invested. I want to help…really help. So without fail, that “2-3” page analysis has turned into 4, or 5, or 6+ pages. The email follow-up became a “quick” phone call that always stretched on longer than I anticipated. I often continue to follow up by email weeks and months later to see if they have any more questions.

Yes, I can pass some of the research and admin off to an assistant, but when it comes to the actual client connection, I don’t want to delegate. I really, really want everyone I work with to succeed, I take their businesses as seriously as I take my own, and I want them to understand that.

I’m really not complaining. I love the work I do with business owners and bloggers, and experience a rush every time I complete an audit or hang up after a coaching call. But almost every time I develop a product or service, I realize after a few months or so that I’ve been under-charging and over-delivering.

Many business-minded folks would tell me that I need to set stricter limits, observe boundaries. Do what I say I will do, and no more. Observe my bottom line above all else.

But that’s not how I’m built.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years considering the best way for me to scale this little one-woman enterprise I’ve created. And truthfully, I’m still mulling. I admire the Marie Forleos of the world, who reach and help large numbers of people on a mass scale – and are raking in the bucks doing so – but I’m not convinced that’s the right path for me. Maybe I’ll get there, or maybe I’ll decide I am better off sticking to going deeper with fewer customers. Maybe I’ll accept that what it would take for me to build a multi-million dollar business isn’t worth the tradeoff. Or maybe I’ll find a path that allows me to have it both ways.

In the meantime, though, I still fully intend to continue earning a good (and increasingly better) living for doing what I do best, whether I ever scale, or simply decide that the “solopreneur” path is best for me for the long haul.  The key is to understand myself to know the best way to package, price, and deliver my products and services, and not get caught up in the way other people are successfully pulling it off.

So when it comes to charging, what I finally realized is this: when I’m not asking enough money for my work, I have two basic choices: deliver less, or charge more. And  l’ll never be satisfied delivering less, so charging more is the only real option.

Blame it on my Enneagram type-2 tendencies, but part of what makes work fulfilling for me is knowing I’ve gone above and beyond in making a difference for someone else. And a big part of doing business with heart is creating a model that lets you be yourself, doing what matters to you, and finding your own pathway to success.

(As an aside, I feel I must also point out here that in over 11 years of self-employment, I’ve found that the clients that pay the best are quite often also the ones who value my work the most.)

So starting today, I’m raising the rate on my content audit to $597. It’s a significant increase, but it reflects the “extra” work I’ve been putting in. It allows me to continue developing early relationships with potential long-term clients who will understand the value in what I’m offering (because what you charge does, in many ways, signal what you think you’re worth.) It allows me to deliver the way I want to, while feeling good rather than stretched or under-valued.

And the ironic upside is that charging a little more for certain things I do actually frees me up to give more away in other areas or take on passion projects that simply won’t pay as well. I think of it as one area of my business subsidizing another, in a way that benefits everyone.

If you’re feeling burdened (or broke!) because you’re always giving more than you promised, maybe the problem isn’t what you promise or what you deliver.

Maybe the problem is simply that you’re undervaluing what you bring to the table, and are giving away more than is reasonable.

The answer? Charge more, and then keep doing what you do best.

I consider that a win-win.

Knowing myself, knowing others: my uncomfortable – but revealing – afternoon with the Enneagram

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I’ve always been a sucker for personality evaluations. I’ve taken Myers-Briggs tests at least two dozen times (ENFP. Always, always ENFP) and as a girl, would always turn first to the “Who’s your style icon?” and “What’s your friendship quotient?” type quizzes in any new issue of Seventeen magazine.

As a person who’s fascinated by personality, psychology and the way the human brain and heart work, there’s something tantalizing about the idea of being a little more in touch with my psyche, or – let’s be honest here – sometimes, just having a flattering assumption validated.

So when I stumbled across the concept of the Enneagram via Jennifer Loudon, I figured it would be just more of the same: an analysis telling me how essentially creative, enthusiastic, and optimistic I am. Sign me up!

Before taking one of the many tests available online, I briefly read descriptions of the 9 basic personality types as defined by the Enneagram, and immediately identified with type 7, The Enthusiast:

Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over- extended, scattered, and undisciplined.

Yep,” I thought, “That’s me!” Playful, high-spirited, extroverted, optimistic, spontaneous…these are all words I’ve used to describe myself for years. I took the quiz, fully expecting it would validate my 7-leaning assumptions.

But instead, the results told me I was most likely to be a type 2, The Helper. (In fact, The Enthusiast wasn’t even the second possibility…it came in as a distant third.)

The Helper? From the initial description, Twos sounded, frankly, boring.  Continue Reading

Should your passion be a hobby or career? There’s always an option C.

Recently a coaching client of mine was having a hard time deciding whether to keep her job – a low-paying, low-opportunity position in her dream industry – or leave it all behind and try to launch a career as a screenwriter. Well into her 30s, with financial obligations that were making her minuscule paychecks unsustainable – but the idea of chucking it all and starting from scratch even scarier – she worried that she was running out of choices and time to turn her dream into a career.

As we talked, I pointed out that her natural work ethic and eagerness to please makes her an ideal employee – and that can be both a blessing and a curse. She’d made herself so indispensable at her job that she kept finding herself with more and more responsibilities, leaving less and less time for writing (let alone exercise, sleep, or eating well.) And even if she could have swung it financially, she’s so motivated by praise and positive feedback from her supervisors and peers that she worried launching a solo writing career would leave her feeling uncertain and adrift.

Together, we came up with a plan C: to apply her tendencies as an excellent employee to a much more reasonable, higher-paying job in a different field that would still allow her room and time for creativity (in her case, higher education.) Then, to use the time and energy that would be freed up by a more reasonable schedule, a shorter commute, and fewer financial pressures to work on her script. She wouldn’t be giving up on her dream, I argued – simply creating a more livable path to get her there. She agreed…with great relief and newfound enthusiasm.

So often when we try to decide if and how to try to make a living from our passions, we view it as an either/or proposition. We also tend to look way too narrowly at what it means to be a writer, an artist, etc, and miss all the ways we could potentially incorporate what we love to do into multitudes of careers. Continue Reading

Bored? How to stay inspired as a novelty-seeking creative

After dropping the kids off at school the other morning, driving down the busiest street in our (admittedly not-very-traffic-congested) town, I saw something unusual: three large wild turkeys, who’d apparently just stumbled up out of the ravine that segments our little city.

The trio stood in confusion on the sidewalk, one cautiously approaching the street, then retreating, while the other two ruffled their feathers and craned their long necks from side to side.

I slowed my car to a crawl as I passed. There was no place to pull over, and I worried that if I approached the birds they’d run out in traffic; but it didn’t seem to matter since all the cars around me were also slowing way down.

So for a brief, wonderful period of time, my fellow drivers and I gawked at this unexpected, out-of-place little nature scene, and then we went back to our everyday lives. But for me, at least, the “high” of seeing something so delightfully unusual lasted several hours and the resulting rush of energy carried me through a few tasks that I’d been putting off.

Why did a small, short-lived experience have such an effect on me, even so far as to make me more productive in my work? Because it was a novelty…which, it turns out, is something my brain craves any way it can get it. Continue Reading