Category: Creativity

Creativity secrets and insights of the great ‘idea’ innovators.

A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

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Secrets of a Direct-Mail Legend: Rodale

rodaleOnce in awhile, you can’t beat a good case study. And what better case study for a copywriter or direct marketer to learn from than the profile of a legendary direct-mail publisher: Rodale.

Rodale, if you haven’t heard of it, is located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Emmaus is a small American town that’s less than 8 miles square. Just under 5,000 families call it home. One of those families is that of J.I. Rodale, a former New York tax accountant who started Rodale Manufacturing in 1923.

Yes, manufacturing. Not publishing.

But then, during the Great Depression, Rodale moved to an empty warehouse in Emmaus.

And it was in the corner of that building that J.I. took a chance and followed his passion… straight to a printing press in the corner of the electrical warehouse.

His first few efforts were flops.

No, strike that, his first SEVERAL efforts were flops. They included a miserably unpopular humour magazine (closed after one issue)… some health digests… and a book of randomly accumulated health facts.

From 1923 to 1940, nothing seemed to work.

Then the company picked up roots and moved operations to a nearby 60-acre farm.

In addition to publishing, J.I. had a fascination with natural farming techniques and organic living. By 1942, he had combined the two and was publishing a magazine called “Organic Gardening and Farming.”

Yawnsville?

Maybe to the coke-and-cheeseburger set.

But “Organic Gardening” (now titled “OG”) is still around. And it’s hugely successful, with over 3 million subscribers worldwide.

The passion-publishing combination seemed to do the trick. Rodale started producing a slew of health magazines and books…

“Prevention” — arguably the most successful health magazine in history — was one of them.

Other titles include “Men’s Health,” “Backpacker,” “Runner’s World”… and books like “The South Beach Diet,” “The Home Workout Bible,” “The Organic Suburbanite,” “Shrink Your Female Fat Zones,” “The Testosterone Advantage,” “A Road Map To Ecstasy,” and many more.

The Rodale empire grew. And J.I. Rodale prospered.

He passed away in 1971, during an appearance on the Dick Cavett show.

So What Was His Secret?

The first time I saw one of Rodale’s direct-mail book promos, it was in the mid 1990s.

According to Forbes, the market for direct-mail-sold books was 4% of overall wholesale book sales. Today, according to the same article, that market has shrunk to about 1.4%. Rodale’s book division felt the pinch. Others, like Time-Life, cancelled their direct-mail efforts altogether.

But not Rodale. They stuck it out. Then they stumbled on an outrageously simple idea: Focus.

More focused marketing… more focused editorial.. more targeted benefits…

And most importantly for Rodale, more focused tracking of customer buying behavior.

Rodale took survey data, customer purchase behavior, and their magazine databases… and applied the same rigurous sorting technics you’d expect from a credit-card company.

They sorted and re-sorted their pile of prospects into fitness buffs, gardeners, weight-loss practitioners, etc.

Then they sorted even deeper until they found unexpected connections. “Organic gardeners buy household-hint books. Runners buy organic-lifestyle books,” said Forbes, “Using that information, Rodale sends out 100 million mailings a year.”

As focus and clarity had helped J.I. back in 1940, so it helped Rodale Publishing in 2002. Fewer ideas, more passionately-held. More quality. Bigger promises. And a crystal clear answer to the question, “What does the customer want.”

Says Rodale of themselves, “Rodale is America’s leading ‘how to do it, you can do it’ book publisher… regardless of whether it’s a book, magazine, or Web site, we take pride in our ability to communicate with our readers through personal, positive, practical and passionate editorial… “

Rodale’s direct-mail book sales have taken off. In 2002, they represented 31% of Rodales $450 million revenue.

New York publishers like Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin, says Forbes, are so impressed they’re looking to apply the same discovery.

Like I said, this secret is simple…

In it’s essence, less is more.

Focus works better than trying to bludgeon your prospect with everything and the kitchen sink.

That’s a lesson here for the online marketer too. For instance, super-simple websites are leagues more effective than ones with 100 bells-and-whistles. E-mail marketing sent with relavent messages sent to pre-qualified, captive readers work much better than blanket ‘spam’ mailings.

And so on. But you get the picture.

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Getting the Most Out of Sales Letter Layout

We all know the rule. Great design can’t do diddly to help bad sales copy.  Great sales copy can often succeed despite bad design. But when great copy and great design work together? Watch out. So how can you make sure you’re getting the best work from the person who will layout your lovingly crafted sales letter?

It can be tricky, yes. But not impossible. 

Let me just rattle off a few quick insights from a few years of plying this trade… 

  •  For one, always, always… always… ask that your designer reads the copy. I’m blown away by how many don’t. And it shows. Boy does it show.
  •  Fancy design isn’t always good design. Your first aim is readability. Your second is to make sure the copy isn’t obscured by the design. Good design makes the copy feel easy to read.
  •  If you throw a designed piece of copy onto a table with other pieces of finished direct mail designs… and it disappears into the pile… you’ve got a problem.
  • No screened images behind text. No screened images behind text. Did I mention? Please avoid screened images behind text.
  • When in doubt, cut graphics before cutting copy. Really. By the time the designer gets a piece, the copy should be airtight. Or close to it. Graphics are less important than the written message. That’s just the way it goes.
  • Designers need to understand the motivations of the target market just as much as the marketers and copywriters. There’s no way to be a good designer when you’re working in a vacuum.

 I could add more. But that’s good enough for now… don’t you think?

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The Fastest Way to Master Copywriting

speed

What’s the fastest way to master copywriting… or anything, for that matter?

You could sign up for the courses online. You can read all the books. You can go to the seminars, drink protein shakes at the keyboard, or slaughter goats at the foot of a guru. And all are good, except maybe the goat bit. 

But there’s an even easier way.

Said Edmund Burke, “It is by imitation that we learn everything.” Of course, he was just copying Aristotle who had said it a couple thousand years earlier.  Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.” And then there was Ben Franklin, who educated himself using an imitation technique he describes in his autobiography.

Who else? Before Stephen King wrote blockbusters, he wrote out passages of “Moby Dick” over and over in college.  Virgil did the same with passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe holed up with a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and copied it out a few times, long before launching into “Robinson Crusoe.” 

Painters, actors, and musicians — imitating the masters plays a key role in all their training.

I’ve even got a local example for you: My wife is a classically trained musician with a graduate degree in Baroque opera. At the conservatory, aside from actually singing the arias, she and fellow students had to sit down with fat scores of famous pieces and write them out — note for note — over and over again.

Once, she says, she and three friends once spent 72 hours hand-copying all 300 pages of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion. After finishing, they had to write their own fugues, but with Bach-esque flourishes sprinkled generously throughout. 

Here’s where the magic happens. The bridge between strict imitation and your own mastery is the spark that awakens, shapes, and educates that handy little tool we all call “creativity.”

Even in the natural world, you’ve got your irrefutable examples. Think about it. Not only do babies learn to speak by imitation. But also, beavers learn to build dams by imitation. Seals learn to swim by imitation.  Lions learn to hunt by imitation. Zebras learn to run by imitation.

So what’s stopping copywriters? Imitation, for some, has a stigma. It feels like cheating. Or a lack of confidence. Or maybe… illegal. And yes, if you’re talking about copying someone’s work and then passing it off as your own… that’s just not kosher. It’s even counter-productive to the growth of your own talents.

However, what we’re talking about here is different.

You’re copying — verbatim — the best stuff. But only to learn, in a way that you just can’t do by memorizing theory or learning from books and seminars, what’s working between the lines of the ads you’re studying. It’s an education of the subconscious. And you’ll be surprised by how well it works.

To try it yourself, do this:

First, get your hands on a blockbuster sales letter that’s similar to whatever you’re selling. Make sure it’s a good one and not a dud. Check the marketing reports, talk to the product managers, get on the mailing list.

When you’ve picked your piece, and before you do anything else, read it. Front to back, at least twice. Getting familiar with the words before you start copying will help you stay focused during the actual work of the exercise.

And here’s where the real benefit begins, in the last step.  You’re not going to do anything complicated.  You’re just going to copy out the sales letter page by page, word for word.  All of it.  If it’s too big to do in one sitting, then I recommend you spread out the task over a few days, a week, whatever you need.  But try to put in at least a half hour to 45 minutes each time you sit down.

And yes, I do believe you have to do this by hand on paper and not at the keyboard. Why? Studies show we learn differently when taking notes by hand. Where those studies are right now, I don’t know. But really, I promise, they’re out there. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that I can touch-type so automatically that I can daydream while reading the words. They seem to flow straight from eyes to fingers. 

Yet, when I write on paper, I have to stay fully focused on the task. I read a line, remember it, then turn to the page to right it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s much more effective. But what if you hunt-and-peck when you type? Well… maybe… but I strongly recommend the pen and paper approach. 

Think of the martial arts master. Slow movements and perfection. Not a rhinoceros plowing through the program. Yes, you’re knodding, you’ll try this. It sounds like a great idea. And I promise you, you’ll put it off… because frankly, it isn’t fun. And it makes your elbow hurt.

But I also promise you this: It’s worth it, in the end.

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Are YOU Creative?

checklist.png In the last post, we asked why some people are creative and others aren’t. This time around, let’s put it even more plain: Are YOU creative?

Even though I.Q. tests supposedly measure your brain power, there is still no “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) test that measures how creative you are.

But the same Scientific American research found that creative people often have similar character traits. See if any of these apply to you…

Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

How did you measure up?

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Finding the Elephant…

"I just carved away the bits that weren't elephant..."

“I just carved away the bits that weren’t elephant…”

What’s it mean to be “creative?”

Says the great John Cleese, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. Easier is to ask yourself, “What doesn’t it mean?”

Or as he puts it in the brilliant talk below, think of the sculptor who was asked how he made a beautiful statue of an elephant from a piece of marble.

“I just,” he answered, “cut away the bits that weren’t elephant.”

Watch below and be both enlightened and amazed…

John Cleese Reveals How to Be More Creative

P.S. Thanks for this, via our friends over at copyscience.com.

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Sleep, The Ultimate Writing Tool

snoringIn a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

 Sleep, it turns out, gives your brain time to “repack” the day’s collected memories for longer-term storage. In the process, your powers of creativity get a boost. The more you sleep, the faster it seems you’re able to sort through all those ideas and make the connections you need to come up with something new.

 For the same reasons… sleep works as a writing tool too.

Think about it…

Have you ever fell asleep with a problem on your mind, only to wake up with the solution.Countless writers, businessmen, musicians, and other creative types make similar claims.

 Per psych Professor Richard of the University of Hertfordshire, England, “In our dreams we produce unusual combinations of ideas that can seem surreal, but every once in a while result in an amazingly creative solution to an important problem.”

 How to take advantage of these findings?

Here are some ways…

 1. Skip “must-see” TV. In fact, throw out your television altogether. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you’re NOT staying up late to watch Conan or Letterman.

 2. Give late-night net surfing a pass too, if you have trouble sleeping. As well as answering late-night email. I’m working on these two bad habits myself.

 3. Go easy on late-night sugar or caffeine. That double coffee-ice cream mocha fudge sundae with espresso bean sprinkles might sound delicious after dinner, but you’ll be sorry come 3 am.

 4. Go easy on workaholic behavior too. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.”

 5. That said, if you do have a tough problem to work out, give it a 15-minute review before going to bed. You just might wake up with the solution.

 6. Exercise, they tell me, helps you sleep even more deeply. So do breathing exercises before bed (like the ones where you inhale and exhale using only your abdomen).

 7. Sleep late? Not hardly. It turns out one of the best ways to guarantee a good night’s sleep is to load up on sunlight the preceding morning, the earlier the better.

 8. Besides, say early-risers, you really do get more done when you start early. Even, by the way, if you work the same number of hours as the night owls. Nothing helps you sleep better than knowing you’ve gotten a lot done.

Yes, they’re just tips on getting better sleep. But I can tell you, as a parent of two kids under age five, there are the nights you get no sleep… and the nights you get plenty… and there’s a world of difference. In every way, including in front of the keyboard.

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“They Laughed When I Stopped Shaving…”

My Petit Mo.jpg What’s this on my lip? Nothing less than the unfettered whiskers of a man determined (if not a little deranged).

Yep. For the month of November, I’ve pledged — along with the other men in our family and hundreds of thousands of others worldwide — to grow a “mo.”

In case you don’t know, “mo” is slang in Australia for a mustache.

Now, I’ve never been to Australia. But the cause behind this is so good, that doesn’t make a fizzlewob of difference.

See, it turns out, that “mo” growers everywhere… yours truly included… are risking mockery and taking donations, all in the name of research in the fight against prostate cancer.

Sure, there are plenty of other worthy causes.

But this one sits close to home.

One out of every six men will get diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of them is my father, who right now is battling the later stages of this disease.

Nonetheless, he’s rallied to grow a November “mo” of his own (“It’s like grass,” says my four-year old daughter).

And he’s inspired us to get in on the cause too.

There’s nothing saying you can’t also play along.

Just go here and either join up or donate…

http://us.movember.com/mospace/959346/

Hope to see your name on the list!

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Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

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“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

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How to Write in Your Sleep

340662F2-33CB-4CA3-9F2E-C32C4F0F5F03.jpg “Sleep,” said Shakespeare, “rock thy brain.”

Study after study shows it, a good night’s sleep makes for a sharper, more productive mind. And yet, your average worker gets 6 hours and 55 minutes. With half of those saying they were doing work up until an hour before going to bed.

A badge of honor worth wearing?

Hardly. Those hard-working types, it turns out, are hardly working… or at least, hardly working at true capacity. Despite delusions to the contrary.

Scientists have yet to figure out how sleep restores your brain function. But they have no doubt that it does. So ye sleep-deprived, if we get a lot done now… imagine what we could accomplish well-rested.

Maybe because I’ve always been an undisciplined sleeper myself, I’ve both collected and written plenty about sleep and how it fits into a creative life calling.

Rather than try to thread them all together, let me just hit you with a burst of some of what I’ve got on hand…

* Per Popular Science, when you zonk out after just learning something, you’re more likely to wake up with an even stronger memory of what you learned than when you went to bed. Why? REM sleep, when your eyes are darting under your eyelids, somehow reinforces and sorts the information. And non-REM sleep gives your neurons a chance to repair a day’s worth of free-radical damage.

* Per the same article, go jogging. Not only does it lead to deeper sleep at night, which is just as key to whatever the brain does while you sleep, but it also builds brain cells faster. In one 1999 study, lab rats had double the number for new brain cells after running (no, I don’t know how they got the little sneakers on their little rat feet).

* In a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

* Think TV helps you get to sleep? Maybe. But it might make your sleep less restful. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you shut it off hours before your head hits the pillow.

* Go easy on workaholic behavior. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.” Studies show disrupted sleep for those who work until they drop, no matter how nobly they manage to do so.

* That said, a 15-minute review of key work details is enough to get that “wake with the solution” result so many crave. Be sure to keep that notepad on your nightstand.

* Have trouble sleeping? Try the counter-intuitive. Like exercise in the morning. And loads of sunlight. Plus a short afternoon nap (emphasis on short: 10-15 minutes at lunch time is nothing to feel guilty about).

* Eat a protein breakfast. Yes, zero carbs. No toast. No bagel. Definitely not doughnuts, fruit juice, or anything with sugar. It will buy you an extra few hours. It may even get you through the day. You’ll be even better off if you do the same for lunch. Or skip lunch entirely and take a walk instead. Whatever you do, do NOT eat big in the middle of the day.

* In a real pinch, drink coffee but drink it right. Which means sipping it slowly — cold if you have to — on the hour or half hour. The longer you make the cup last, studies show the longer you can last. Not a substitute for sleep, but a fail-safe when you can’t get any.

* Forget, by the way, trying to make up for a week of not sleeping enough by “sleeping in” on the weekends. North of nine hours or more, it turns out, can make you just as tired and even age you just as fast as too little sleep.

Try this.

For one week, go to bed at 11 pm at the latest. Even if you have “lots to do.” And wake up when you wake, if you can, which should be around 6 am or 7 am. If you need to get up earlier, move the bedtime to 10 pm.

Then come back and tell me how you feel… and how much more productive you are.

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