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How’s this for plain language?

The last time I had a blog in 2007, the final post was called Gone fishin’. I was done with that first iteration and decided not only to go fish … but also to jump ship. I wasn’t digging the blog tool I’d chosen, and my business was taking up more of my extra time.

This time ’round, I’m in a similar boat (along with using too many nautical metaphors).

Writing and editing is what I do for my work the rest of the time, and it’s taken on greater steam.

Fortunately, I get to spend even more time writing for clients now as SimplyRead continues to take on larger-scale plain-language projects. And I’m ramping up to get involved in prep for International Plain Language Day October 13. But it’s lately left precious little time for Messages (and for you, if you’re a regular follower).

My bulb’s burnt out

But the clincher has been health-related. Along with the normal stresses of managing a business and life with two young kids in the expanding suburbs, years of battling chronic food sensitivities have doused much of my already-flickering flame. In plain language: to balance out my energy, I need to do fewer things better, eat more meat and carve out more Me Time.

So I’m taking a break from this space for awhile. But I continue to find and and share new info and critical thinking about plain language, simpler processes and communications. You’ll find me on the SimplyRead facebook page and on our Twitter feed.

Can’t figure out what to have for dinner? Maybe it’s decision fatigue.

Before I run off, here’s something that’s grabbed and held my attention. It turns out that I’m not alone in my predicament. If you ask researchers Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, many of us struggle with what they call ‘decision fatigue’ when their lives get too demanding.

This problem stems from the number of decisions each of us is faced with in today’s more complex, information-soaked world. Here’s my version: Daughter asking “Mom, what’s for dinner tomorrow?” while I respond to a client’s text, seated in front of my bank’s log-in screen, while my toddler pulls on my shirt and the phone buzzes in the background. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the commonness of multi-tasking – and the self-denial that come with all that stress – greatly impact on our personal self-discipline and willpower.

Common life patterns can compromise our willpower – who knew?

As discussed at length in this New York Times article, it’s harder for people in our times to maintain healthy willpower and make good decisions. Choosing among so many options all the time just burns out our brains.

Those of us who operate without enough money are more susceptible to decision fatigue, since the number of times we have to decide between tempting options goes up.

Does your willpower swim wit’ da fishes at certain times of the day?

Similarly afflicted are people who spend their days in back-to-back meetings, only getting to catch up at the day’s end when their energy is sapped.

Worse, they’re probably hungry (or more often, ‘hangry!’). Baumeister and Tierney say the amount of glucose is another key factor in these capacities.

This sudden limit to our better  judgment is a good explanation for why people on diets often break them: People who have to deny themselves so many things will eventually find their resources for self-regulation severely depleted … and their heads in the freezer scoping out the Haagen Dazs.

It’s also blamed for all those times we’ve heard about the outstandingly successful person who blew it all on that one bad decision … (now take a second to remember the last one in the Financial Times or TMZ that you went all schadenfreude about …).

Now that alone is a good enough reason for my Serious Need To Chill. If all these other brilliant people have gone off the deep end, I’d better get my own house ship shape lest I end up in the same kettle of fish.*

Let’s stay connected!

Until we get our blogging mojo back, if you like what you’ve seen here you can still enjoy tweets, news, musings and more to help you ‘cut the churn’:

* I should probably work on some new metaphors too, huh?

Sometimes, I admit, I work through my lunch hour even when working at home. But the Have you had your plus sign today?way I lighten things up is by flipping on yesterday’s Y&R episode. You really don’t have to turn toward the screen to know what’s happening with soaps, after all.

This is especially true of commercials which — as many know — are often louder than the show you’re watching and, during daytime TV, are often about healthcare, household or cleaning products (hence the term Soap Opera, right?)

But the other day, I heard three in a row that were refreshingly clear and positive. Which is probably why I actually easily could remember and write down their key slogans when they were long over:

  • The Ontario Government (really!), promoting the Flu Shot: “Making our immune system stronger.”
  • Rogers (yes, again, really!) advertising its new electronic home security package: “Stay connected. Stay close.”
  • The Canadian Sport for Life movement’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity and promote lifelong physical activity’s “Active for Life” campaign.

I’ve written here before about drug commercials: their droning background voices, scrolling tiny-type disclaimers and negative side-effect warnings. But the above three were nothing like that. With each slogan, you know immediately what you stand to gain. It’s the “WIIFM” factor we always hear about.

They’re also aspirational: A statement of the organization’s goal in providing the service, rather than a focus on what it’s trying to prevent (massive flu epidemics, risks to someone’s home and family and obesity respectively). And, as is often the case with strong messages, they’re all in the simplest of language.

You still may not feel that you want or need any of these options; and, if you’re like me, you’ll be skeptical about what’s behind the messages in these three ads. But at least you can easily grasp their expressed benefits.

Quite a contrast to other ads that focus on risk and make readers/viewers retain long streams of information about all of the possible negative consequences the buyer might face.

My poor mom.

She just bought a brand-new laptop, and while you’d think that it being brand-new would mean it was easier for her to use, this is not at all the case.

It’s got all the bells ‘n’ whistles: Windows 7, built-in Webcam and mic for Skyping, a gorgeous 17″ screen…you name it, it’s got it. And because she lives in a condo, she’s got the plug-and-play hi-speed cable connection. Heck, the workhorse I use for my work doesn’t do half of what hers does, and all she wants it for is to get her e-mails and print the odd photo.

But with all that sexy stuff comes the complication of having to understand why all the dialog boxes keep popping up, asking whether she wants to update this or load that.

My husband – who knows a lot about such things – actually recommended she buy this computer because it will take her into the future, even if she doesn’t at present feel that she wants to go there. And knowing that her computer literacy was limited, he went through and installed a virus checker and turned off some of the applications that require regular user intervention, before she started using it; he knew she wouldn’t use those, and that it would just intimidate and confuse her to see all these dialog boxes popping up or have apps running that she didn’t need. She already feels intimidated when she has to so much as unplug the thing, thinking that something will go wrong and she won’t be able to fix it.

But still, she phones us once in awhile to say she got a message and doesn’t know what to do with it: Mozilla is asking her if she wants the newest Firefox; she needs to download the newest Windows update; her printer software is warning her that it will only operate for free 24 more times, then she’ll have to buy a copy. It’s got her flustered, to say the least.

This with a very stripped-down system set-up.

At one point, my husband asked for the original Windows disks while he was setting up her system. She didn’t have them. “The computer comes with Windows installed,” she informed him. So no disks. If she wants those, she’ll have to pay more. And if she ever has a problem with Windows, she’ll be stuck without those disks. But no-one at the store told her that.

Oh, but there is help. The HP Advisor box keeps popping up, too, cautioning my mom that if she wants X to happen, she’ll have to do Y. Only problem: she doesn’t have the knowledge to know what they mean when they refer to her ‘browser.’ And because the message is coming from the HP Advisor, it must be important and well-meaning, so she’s tempted to just accept everything it says; except she can’t understand what she’s being asked to do.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” she tells me, “so I just kept clicking ‘No'”

Why haven’t we figured this out yet? Does everyone who purchases a computer and doesn’t speak technocratese still have to put up with the confusion caused by unhelpful pop-ups and computer dealers who don’t tell you everything you need to know?

My take on it, and what I told my mom? It’s partly because people who are even semi-comfortable with technology assume we’ve all gotten past the point of not knowing what ‘installed’ and ‘browser’ means. And, it’s partly because there are still lots of more tech-savvy folks who stand to benefit financially – and perhaps feel better about themselves – each time a person like my mom doesn’t know why her computer is not doing what she wants it to.

If you know me personally, you know that I’m in the final weeks of pregnancy, and that I’m slightly over forty. When you combine those two factors with the dreariness of February, you’ve got a blogger who has barely enough energy to do the paid and required stuff – let alone the much-enjoyed blogging in addition.

So if you are subscribed here, or check in regularly, please be patient! If posts are sparse for the next while, it’ll be because I’ve got physical demands that are competing for my brainpower.

Of course, as someone interested in how people process information, I thought I’d surf a bit to see whether science has actually found proof of this fabled ‘pregnancy brain.’ True, the energy level has declined, and my recall of recent information and events has slipped; but what about the ability to absorb and process information  (should my clients be worried)?

The abstracts of a couple studies I found seem to back up the fact that, really, ‘pregnancy brain’ is mostly, er, in our heads.

Appropriately titled Cognitive changes in pregnancy: mild decline or societal stereotype?, one study compared pregnant and non-pregnant women’s perceptions of cognitive change and their performance on 13 sensitive memory and attention tasks (Study 1) and two complex driving simulation tasks (Study 2). The pregnant women rated their cognitive abilities as worse than before, but only two performance measures from Study 1 differentiated the two groups (speed of language processing and attentional switching).

The biggest difference the study found was in the pregnant women’s perceptions of their own cognitive decline  – and the perceptions of their male partners – while they were pregnant. The women themselves rated themselves the worst. So while the study did see mild cognitive decline, it is the belief in this decline that feeds the stereotype.

Another admittedly-limited study concluded that Memory performance, but not information processing speed, may be reduced during early pregnancy. While the authors say that more longitudinal (long-term) data are needed, this study observed only slight differences in memory performance.

Whatever the data say, I can tell you that my brain feels mushier than it did nine months ago. But apart from wanting to sleep more and not being able to back my car into the garage without wrenching off the side mirror, I have managed to keep working, caring for my young daughter, and managing household matters – with no notable casualties.

That said, I’m grateful in advance for your patience while I neglect this blog for awhile to care for a newborn.

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