Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com A Guide for Anxious Humans Wed, 01 Jan 2020 17:01:02 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.3.2 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/face-square.jpg Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com 32 32 How to Have No Regrets http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-have-no-regrets/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-have-no-regrets/#respond Mon, 20 Jan 2020 15:53:00 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3200 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] Once upon a time, my parents took me to the zoo. This day is full of memories which have stuck with me ever since—the sunshine, the excitement, the ice cream… even holding hands with my dad, watching eagerly as he unfolded the map. One of the sharpest and […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Once upon a time, my parents took me to the zoo. This day is full of memories which have stuck with me ever since—the sunshine, the excitement, the ice cream… even holding hands with my dad, watching eagerly as he unfolded the map.

One of the sharpest and most vivid memories is of the dolphins. In particular, there was a moment when a dolphin surfaced from the pool with a loud “kkk-rkrkkk-kkk-rkkk” sound.

“Look! He’s saying hello,” said my mum, pointing. “Why don’t you wave back?”

I liked the idea, but I was too shy. I sat on my hands until the dolphin went away.

I spent that night crying, overflowing with guilt as I imagined how sad the dolphin must have been that I ignored its kindly greeting.

I was twenty-eight years old.

The Past is Unchanging

I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I wasn’t really twenty-eight. I was, maybe, five or six. But I couldn’t resist the punchline.

Right now, I regret adding it. Perhaps the humour detracts from the emotional impact of the story. But, just like everything that has already happened, it now cannot be changed.

Collecting regrets, big and small, is human. As multipotentialites, we have plenty of opportunities for regret. Every choice we make—by necessity—excludes all the others. (A wise, handsome man once wondered if this was perhaps our biggest fear.)

This means that if we pursue education, we lose time we could spend on career. Pursuing career loses time that could go on family. And pursuing this job means not pursuing all those other jobs… and…

We often focus on the difficulties of making these decisions. But what about decisions that have already been made, that we can’t let go of, even long after the time for choice has passed? Those collected regrets can mount up painfully.

Clearly, a troubled relationship with the past is not going to be healed overnight. But perhaps there are some alternate perspectives which could help.

Recognize When We’re Regretting

Regret has the most power when we don’t recognize it. 

Simply admitting to ourselves that we’re engaging in the world’s most pointless activity—battling reality by wishing that the past was different—can be enough to free us.

After all, spending now regretting the past is also wasting the present! Later on, I’ll regret spending so much time regretting… and the cycle continues, absurdly.

If we want to spend time in that cycle, that’s up to us. But most of us would prefer not to, so simply recognizing when it’s happening can be enough.

Three Ways to Reframe Regret

In extreme cases, the slightest reminder of paths not travelled can be agonizing. A disillusioned ex-actor avoids going to the theatre. A frustrated astronomer never looks up at night. An increasingly middle-aged man cries at the thought of a sad dolphin.

Those emotions are all valid, and need to be felt, without allowing them to rule over us. But there are ways to maintain perspective while processing regretful feelings.

1. Realize you’re pining for a fantasy

Part of the trouble is that it’s an unfair fight. Regret means comparing a known quantity—our life as it truly exists—against any alternative we can possibly imagine… and boring old reality is always going to lose that fight.

It may help to reframe the story by focusing instead on the good things which arose from the path we actually took. For example, if you had chosen differently, who are the people in your life now that you never would have met?

Recognizing the real good things which came from the path we chose can be an antidote to the imaginary goods we conjure when we fantasize about alternatives.

2. Remember How You Felt

Sometimes we forget how much we’ve changed since we made a decision. But our past selves might as well be entirely different people. A career change which seems reckless to our present selves might have seemed like an exciting adventure to our old self. And there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s how the universe inevitably must work.

(Unless we never grow or change whatsoever, but that seems like a recipe for a different regret, not no regret.)

Our past selves made the best decision they could with the information available. Short of inventing a time machine, there’s no point beating our present selves up for knowing what our past self couldn’t.

3. Consider ‘Your Parallel Universe Regrets’

There’s something paradoxically freeing about how universal regret is. There’s always something to regret—and that’s just as true for the parallel-universe version of us who lived the life we’re jealous of right now!

For example, if you’re regretting not travelling enough, imagine the version of you who’s sick of travelling and wished they’d put down deeper roots. If you’re regretting a boring career choice, imagine the version of you who wishes they had a predictable, stable work environment.

The grass is always greener works both ways.

When Regrets Can be Helpful

Many, perhaps most, regrets are pointless. All they do is cause pain, and we’d be better off without them.

But some regrets can nudge us into making positive changes right now. The way to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful regrets is with a question: can this regret spur me into action right now?

Regretting not exercising over the last few months could fuel my desire to exercise today. Or decades of regret over not going to grad school could lead me to wonder if I want to go now. Maybe I do!

If the regret suggests no action—and never could lead to action—then holding onto it serves little purpose. (We’re still allowed to, of course. It just might not help.)

Perhaps today could be a good time to let go of a regret or two. Or to take action to prevent collecting another.

I hope you don’t regret reading this article. But I’m heading out now—I’ve got dolphins to apologize to.


Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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When Every Day Is The Same… Make Each Day A Little Better http://www.walkingoncustard.com/when-every-day-is-the-same-make-each-day-a-little-better/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/when-every-day-is-the-same-make-each-day-a-little-better/#respond Mon, 13 Jan 2020 04:57:00 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3230 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] Last year, life was tedious. It was like my own personal Groundhog Day, except I actually got older and I barely learned anything. Each day was the same: I awoke, I worked in my little office, I slept.  And repeat. At least, that’s how it felt at the […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]


Last year, life was tedious. It was like my own personal Groundhog Day, except I actually got older and I barely learned anything. Each day was the same: I awoke, I worked in my little office, I slept. 

And repeat.

At least, that’s how it felt at the time. Looking through my calendar, I actually did quite a bit. Still, as New Year ticked over I couldn’t help feeling frustrated at how little my life seemed to have developed. I vowed to make a change: this year would involve more living than existing.

In one of those happy coincidences, a friend recommended an app which compiles a video of 1-second-long clips, one from each day. I immediately decided this would be a perfect mini-project. By taking a few seconds out of each day, I’d be encouraged to live a little more. Every day, I’d try to do something a little more interesting than filming my lunch—even if it was just a short walk by the river.

And it’s been a success: I’ve spent this year building a compilation of friends and adventures and happy times and delightful views. (Including, on one less memorable day, a video of the first run of a new washing machine.)

But I’ve also come to a deeper realisation about the very structure of life.

Life goes by in a flash

This summer I went on a two-week long dream road trip around Europe, visiting castles, restaurants, and museums in stunning medieval canal-filled cities.

Afterwards, I watched the trip back in my “video compilation of the year.” This dream trip—which I’d spent months building up to—goes by in twelve seconds.

Twelve. Seconds.

One moment you’re looking at videos of my lunch at home, then it’s TRAIN, CASTLE, CANAL, CASTLE, CANAL, BEERS, BOAT and suddenly I’m back home eating lunch again.

The trip is over almost as soon as you’ve realized it’s happening.

But this is normal. These sorts of life-highlights are always short compared to the rest of our time. Whether it’s a dream holiday, the final culmination of a huge project, or a major performance, we inevitably spend way longer building up to big highlights than we spend experiencing them. It’s just the nature of time: life is made up of far more ordinary times than extraordinary ones.

And this is my realization: I spend a lot more effort on planning these extraordinary times than I do on raising the bar for my ordinary days.

Make every day worthwhile

Most days tend to be similar, which means that any improvements I make to my ordinary life add up far more than a short break from everyday life could ever give me. 

Cutting five minutes off my commute, actually taking a proper lunch break, sleeping in a comfier bed, eating a tastier lunch, buying a chair that doesn’t cause backache, or creating a home office that makes me happy every time I step inside… each of these raises my happiness every single day.

Sure, I haven’t exactly transformed my daily life, or solved all the problems of the world, but I’ve added some cool up-lighting to my office and made more of an effort to enjoy lunch on “normal” work days, and that’s made lots of otherwise forgettable days more pleasant as I tackle the endless to-do list.

Don’t skip the trip

Obviously, I’m not saying we should never go on holiday, focus on highlight moments, or save up for special treats. After all, it’s important to have something exciting to look forward to.

But I know I have a tendency to be carried away by these larger dreams, to the point that it’s easy to forget that most of my days aren’t spent experiencing them. Watching this video of my year back made me realize how much better off I’d be if I put some of the effort I spent planning my holiday into improving my everyday reality.

I expect my experience isn’t universal. There are probably people reading this post who might benefit from the opposite message—perhaps it’s time for a long-neglected big treat!

Whether we tend to neglect the everyday, or focus on it to the exclusion of all else, there’s something reassuring about the raw fact that most of our life is made of ordinary days. Somehow, making small improvements sounds like an achievable ambition. I could take a walk in the morning. Meditate for a moment at night. Listen to more music. Eat healthier lunches. (Or more attractive ones for video clips!) 

I’m curious… how could you improve your ordinary days?


Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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Six Lessons from Writing the Book I Swore I Wouldn’t Write http://www.walkingoncustard.com/six-lessons-from-writing-the-book-i-swore-i-wouldnt-write/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/six-lessons-from-writing-the-book-i-swore-i-wouldnt-write/#respond Mon, 06 Jan 2020 04:58:00 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3232 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] “Never again.” – Neil Hughes, after writing one book… and before writing another book. After winning four Olympic gold medals, Steve Redgrave famously said that if anyone found him close to a rowing boat again, they could shoot him. Four years later, he won a fifth gold.  Let’s […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]


“Never again.” – Neil Hughes, after writing one bookand before writing another book.

After winning four Olympic gold medals, Steve Redgrave famously said that if anyone found him close to a rowing boat again, they could shoot him.

Four years later, he won a fifth gold. 

Let’s be real—I am not as good at writing as Steve Redgrave is at rowing. But after my first book came out, I knew how he felt. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever write another. 

Some writers say they couldn’t stop writing if they tried—they just love it so much that even death might not stop them writing another book. I am not like those people.

For me, writing is an exercise in facing my own inadequacy, day after day after day, while constantly being taunted by others who are more talented than I. Writing something as massive as a book is months (at least) of self-punishment, with an uncertain, possibly even negative, reward.

And yet, I have written a second book.

One potential—and valid—conclusion from this is that I’m an idiot who has no idea what he wants. But after reflecting on the whole experience, I’ve been able to determine some more helpful lessons. Whether you’re working on one huge project or many smaller ones, I hope they’ll be helpful to you too.

Lesson #1: There’s always a new challenge to be found, even in what appears to be a repeat project

Part of me wondered if I’d tick off “write a book” from my list of ambitions and never do it again. I think this is actually a common fear: that we might do everything exactly once and move on.

But there’s always something new to learn, even in a repeat project. For example, my first book is non-fiction, while my new book is fiction and each genre brings different challenges. In this case, I found it difficult to choose just one branch from the literally infinite possibilities for the story. I had to learn how to fix elements in place to craft the story I wanted to tell. 

Even if I were to attempt to write the exact same story again, it would be harder not to challenge myself somehow. My fear that doing the ‘same thing’ might lead to stagnation was unfounded.

Lesson #2: Internal resistance can be a positive signal

On the whole, I avoid unpleasant things, and I wasn’t keen on the difficulty of another big writing project. But some challenges become more enticing due to their difficulty.

On reflection, a few factors have helped to decide whether to complete such huge, scary projects:

  • Stretching: Might this project take me out of my comfort zone, and how far? Not at all, a little growth… or too much difficulty?
  • Complete-ability: given enough effort, can I do it?
  • The “work-to-eventual-satisfaction” ratio: can the eventual completion justify the effort involved?   

And perhaps the most important thing is being consistently drawn back. If an intimidating project keeps preying on my mind, and the answers to the above questions are positive, then I know now that it’s at least worth starting. After all, we can always stop!

Lesson #3: Perfect doesn’t exist, and that’s fine

For many projects—arguably most projects?—there’s no such thing as “perfect.” I could tweak any piece of writing I’ve done over and over and over and over… forever. And there’s still no point when it is Officially Done.

As someone who likes an authority figure to come and pat me on the head and give me a sticker saying “full marks!”, this is a tough reality to come to terms with.

I expect this is a lesson I’ll have to learn repeatedly: “good enough” isn’t a destination, it’s a range of destinations. (And sometimes “bad enough” is okay too!)

This is particularly hard when there’s no right answer. I agonized for a long time over two nearly-identical options for my book’s cover, before I finally admitted to myself that the very fact I was agonizing over it so much meant that it definitely didn’t matter.

In future, if I’m choosing between two similar options I’ll try to remember that—by definition—they’re similar, and the choice ultimately won’t make much difference. It’s better to just choose one and not agonize for days on end over it!

For your interest, the cover ended up looking like this… and I guarantee you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from the “other” version:

Lesson #4: Actively plan a fresh (and very different) project for when your current project ends

I’ve learned that once I finish a project, I need to do something very different. I can’t pick up a similar project immediately. After my first book, I drifted. Many writers gave me the common advice: “start writing the next one.” But that felt like being advised to eat more dessert right after a whole dessert banquet.

This time, after finishing, I jumped straight into a very different project: a video game. This turned out to be perfect. I got to learn some new technology I’d been meaning to play with, and I designed it to tie into the book, so it still felt cohesive. (You can play it here if you like!)

Lesson #5: Judgement is less scary the second time around

When my first book came out—or the first time I hit ‘send’ on a blog post, or gave a performance on stage—it felt like my entire personality was going into the world to be judged.

Every time I do those things, I worry less about judgement. I’m not sure that I’m growing a thicker skin, exactly, but repeat exposure definitely makes it less scary.

I didn’t die when any less-positive reviews of the first book came in, so I know I won’t this time either. Those who love it, will love it; others won’t. It’s all fine.

Lesson #6: Tell the world when you’ve done a thing!

I’m not sure where I absorbed the idea from, but whenever I do something, part of me feels as if it’s somehow inappropriate to even mention it. Apparently, part of my brain believes I ought to spend years creating something, but then never tell anyone.

Many people share this sense of shame at saying “Hey, I worked hard on a thing–would you like to see it?” But it’s not only okay to share the thing, it’s essential.

The reasons why we hide our work are many and varied. Perhaps we’re afraid people won’t like it, or that they’ll be confused that we’ve done something so different, or that we’ll no longer fit into an easy box in people’s minds anymore. Regardless of why, if we don’t share what we’ve made, those people who would like it will never get a chance to enjoy it.


Whatever you’re doing right now—whether working on something big, or looking for a refresher, or struggling to share your own work—I hope there’s something useful in this for you.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, you can check out the book here. And I’ll try not to cry if you hate it 😉 )


Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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The Shop Before Life – A Novel by Neil Hughes http://www.walkingoncustard.com/the-shop-before-life-by-neil-hughes/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/the-shop-before-life-by-neil-hughes/#respond Mon, 28 Oct 2019 10:34:13 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3190 ” This is one of those books that I’m sure will stay with me for a while, if not for the rest of my life. There’s just something so unique and real about it and I just felt very connected to the themes it presented. ” – review The day has finally arrived – my […]

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” This is one of those books that I’m sure will stay with me for a while, if not for the rest of my life. There’s just something so unique and real about it and I just felt very connected to the themes it presented. ” – review

The day has finally arrived – my new book has been released! And I’m already delighted by the reactions from early readers. I hoped they’d enjoy the story, but I really hoped they’d resonate with the questions about who we are, how we become who we are… and what this magical Shop has to do with all of it.

I hope you enjoy the story too.

Click here to begin exploring the prelife.

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The Shop Before Life – PREORDER NOW! http://www.walkingoncustard.com/the-shop-before-life-preorder-now/ Thu, 05 Sep 2019 08:30:44 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3120 Most people don’t remember their visit to the Shop Before Life. Somehow, we forget the time we spent in the prelife, perhaps nervously traipsing through the long, dusty aisles of the Shop, choosing from countless jars of human traits while deciding who to become during our upcoming lives on Earth.But even if you don’t remember […]

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The Shop Before Life - book cover

Most people don’t remember their visit to the Shop Before Life. Somehow, we forget the time we spent in the prelife, perhaps nervously traipsing through the long, dusty aisles of the Shop, choosing from countless jars of human traits while deciding who to become during our upcoming lives on Earth.

But even if you don’t remember your own visit to the magical place which all humans visit before being born, you might remember the short story from Walking on Custard which was set there.

Either way, you might be excited to know that the world of the prelife is now ready for you to explore.

(If you just want the link to preorder, it’s right here: PREORDER The Shop Before Life RIGHT NOW—click here to reserve YOUR copy!)

The Novel Is Now* Available to Preorder!

I’m incredibly excited to share this story from the prelife with you.

I can’t wait for you to meet the characters, discover the Shop and explore the prelife. There’s all sorts of things to come: magical jars, a kindly Shopkeeper, ancient mysteries, huge, sprawling, beautiful gardens… and even goats.

And while you’re counting down the days until October 28th, why not click here for more info, and a proper synopsis!

* “available now” applies to MOST countries where readers of this site live, anyway. If it’s not available for you right now, it will be soon… either ON October 28th 2019 or sometime BEFORE. Sign up at the Occasional Email Experience if you want to be reminded.

But I also need your help!

As a professionally obscure person, I need assistance to spread the word—so if you know anybody who likes this sort of thing, please share the links above with them.

I’ve included a couple of images in this post that you might like to share, like this one:

And please, leave a comment and let me know what you think of the book cover, the synopsis on the linked pages, the images, or anything else!

Love, Neil


Click here to preorder your copy of The Shop Before Life, or click here to learn more

Click here to preorder your copy of The Shop Before Life, or click here to learn more

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You Might As Well Do The Thing: How to Make Decisions While Anxious http://www.walkingoncustard.com/you-might-as-well-do-the-thing-how-to-make-decisions-while-anxious/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/you-might-as-well-do-the-thing-how-to-make-decisions-while-anxious/#comments Tue, 03 Sep 2019 20:56:27 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3116 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] As a standup comedian who talks a lot about anxiety, I frequently get asked the same question: “how are you SO great?” But after that, people often ask how anyone with anxiety can possibly do something as terrifying as standup. For a long time this confused me, too. […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

As a standup comedian who talks a lot about anxiety, I frequently get asked the same question: “how are you SO great?”

But after that, people often ask how anyone with anxiety can possibly do something as terrifying as standup.

For a long time this confused me, too. It’s not like I’m immune to the fear of public speaking. There’ve been plenty of times before gigs when my brain has tortured me with images of failure and humiliation. I’ve often wondered why on earth I do this to myself.

Eventually, though, I stumbled on the answer. (Or, at least, on an answer.)

If I weren’t performing I’d be beating myself up for not doing it.

I’d go to gigs and watch others and think “I could do that. I should be doing that.”

I’d feel guilty at wasting my potential, and it would suck enjoyment out of all other comedy for me.

In other words: if I’m going to suffer either way, I might as well DO the thing.

Once I realized this, it turned out to be a helpful heuristic in many other situations. Choices can become simpler when the emotional cost of not doing something is added into the equation.

Consider this highly scientific graph:

Doing a scary thing might involve a quick spike of ‘suffering’ (by which I mean the inherent anxiety or stress of doing it). But if I then spend every day for the rest of my life regretting not doing it, then the total amount of suffering might well be considerably higher.

(In graph terms, this means the light blue area eventually grows much larger than the area filled by the red spike, as time trundles on and I continue to beat myself up with regret.)

A Sucky Marathon is Better Than No Marathon

This works great for something scary which you can get over with (relatively) quickly, like a public speech or a parachute jump. But what if we’re holding off on doing something massive, like writing a book or becoming a lawyer?

Should we still just do the thing when there’s such a huge time investment?

The truth is that there’s no right answer. What matters isn’t so much which thing we choose to do, but that we choose to do something.

In other words, the only true waste of time is beating ourselves up for not using our time properly. If I spend fifteen minutes every day beating myself up for not getting ‘round to writing a book, then by the time I’m dead, I could have written a whole series. Even if the books were the worst ever written, at least there’d be something to show for all that accumulated time!

The trick is to commit one way or another: either do the thing, or let go of it. Beating myself up and not doing it is the worst of all worlds.

Decide, One Way or Another

If you find yourself suffering due to not doing something, try channelling that ongoing suffering into motivation to act.

Whatever it is—making music, painting, words, performance, cleaning your house, going for morning runs, whatever!—you’ll reap untold* benefits from that time you’re otherwise wasting.

* technically now I’m telling you about them they are ‘told’ benefits, but that doesn’t sound as good so…

Whether you land on “I’m going to DO the thing,” or “I’m going to let go of the thing,” you’ll be better off either way.

Your Turn

Do you waste time suffering over NOT doing something? How do you channel that into something positive? Share with the community in the comments.


Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

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How to Tolerate Uncertainty When Waiting http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-tolerate-uncertainty-when-waiting/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-tolerate-uncertainty-when-waiting/#respond Thu, 22 Aug 2019 08:55:23 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3112 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] Ding. You’ve Got Mail. Later, you will think, “I really ought to turn off that notification. It’s not 1997.” But right now, other things are on your mind. Your throat is tight, your heart is thumping, and you’re nervously staring at that bold subject line which has appeared […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Ding. You’ve Got Mail.

Later, you will think, “I really ought to turn off that notification. It’s not 1997.” But right now, other things are on your mind. Your throat is tight, your heart is thumping, and you’re nervously staring at that bold subject line which has appeared on the screen:

Result of Your Application

This is it. The answer you’ve been waiting for. After all that effort of studying, applying, working, interviewing, it’s time to discover if you’ve succeeded… or failed.

If you can bear to click, of course.

Opening the Envelope

Recently a friend of mine was about to receive feedback from Big Important People on a scary new project which is dear to their heart. Before the results arrived, they told me how they and their partner had planned in advance how they would handle bad news.

It turned out not to matter: the feedback was positive. Obviously, I was pleased to hear the Big Important People liked my friend’s work! But as they told me the story, that planning ahead was the detail I seized on, as I thought about similar situations I’ve experienced.

These days, I often send out creative work for feedback. Afterwards I inevitably scan my inbox a little more nervously until I gradually forget. Eventually, the reply arrives, and I’ll hesitate before opening it.

That moment of hesitation sometimes reminds me of something I read in the book Love’s Executioner. A therapist tells the story of a patient who refused to open a collection of envelopes for YEARS because he couldn’t bear to discover what was inside.

But I’m willing to bet that most of us could never tolerate that much uncertainty. Usually, once the envelope or email has arrived, there’s no question that I’m definitely going to open it. Even if I feel nervous as I physically click the subject line, I can console myself that it is always better to know.

The news is either good or bad: the sooner we know, the sooner we can either enjoy it or do something about it. For me, I’ve either celebrated wildly (with a massive cake) or cried (perhaps onto a massive cake), as appropriate.

But somehow it had never occurred to me to make an actionable plan for either eventuality. 

Planning for Good News

Naturally, planning for success is usually easier—after all, we’ll have what we were aiming for. But victory can bring its own anxieties. A new job might mean upheaval. An acceptance might lead to greater exposure. We don’t need to plan in advance for every possible emotion—especially if you have a tendency to overthink and talk yourself out of acting in the first place—but it helps to be aware that you might not feel entirely celebratory even if the news is great.

(I do try to enjoy successes when they come, honest. I’m not naturally such a pessimist!)

To plan for success, try asking yourself:

  • How will I feel if I actually get the good news?
  • How will it affect my other plans?
  • What changes will I need to make? And how might I feel about those?
  • Will new responsibilities come with this good news? How can I make sure in advance that I’ve got the resources to handle them?

You don’t need to channel Dr Strange and envision 14 million possible timelines, but a little forethought to how good news could affect you will make any changes smoother to manage.

Oh, and don’t forget the most important question: exactly how will I celebrate this excellent news?!

Planning for Bad News

Failure and rejection are harder to take, which is why my friend planned specifically how they’d spend the evening with their partner after opening their feedback.

There is a sense in which bad news can be relieving. When my old company used to fail at a pitch to a new customer, I would joke with my boss that at least we’d all have less work to do as a result. But while this negative humour can lighten the load, it’s important to have a plan for dealing with the very real negative emotions which come from an important rejection.

First: can you plan an emergency morale event? Perhaps you could have a favorite movie and some ice cream on standby, or save up some cash to treat yourself to a gig ticket or some new shoes. Maybe you could warn some friends in advance that you might need cheering up, and they’ll be ready to take you out for a slice of cake and a vent.

You know yourself best! In the immediate moments after getting the bad news, you can put your plan into action.

As well as the immediate plan, you might also prepare yourself for the days that follow. When everything else is going okay, a rejection might fade rapidly. But when we’re struggling, even a small perceived failure can be the final straw. Again, planning ahead for bad news will help, as we take into account our current mental and emotional state.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help plan for the potential bad news:

  • How strong is your ability to cope right now? Does everything else feel like it’s going well, are you in a rut, or are you somewhere in between? Depending on how you’re feeling, the same bad news can hit with different force. Expecting how it’ll hit you might help to soften the blow.
  • How do you normally process negative emotions? Some of us are more prone to anger, others to sadness, or frustration, or a mixture. How do you expect this bad news to hit home?
  • If you think you’re likely to need it, perhaps you could even plan to handle each type of emotion. Which pillow will you punch to let out the anger? Which sad movie could help you cry? Have ideas in place so you can just try them if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • What do you have to look forward to? It might be completely unrelated, but it helps to have something good to focus on. If the answer is currently “nothing” then that’s a great opportunity to think of something—large or small—that you can plan for.
  • If this fails, what’s plan B? Even if this seems like the final roll of the dice, there’s always another option. This failure or rejection might mean licking your wounds and trying again, or it might mean a change of direction. You don’t have to have the answers right away, but if you can mentally prepare for another option then you’ll be better placed to handle the bad news and move on quickly.

For most bad news, this level of preparation will be overkill. But if this news comes after a run of bad luck, it can feel like everything is riding on getting good news. In those circumstances, having a detailed plan in place for channeling the negativity into something positive can save us from an extended struggle.

But Before All This… Even The Waiting is Hard

The patient who refused to open the envelopes got addicted to the uncertainty. But for many of us, the waiting is the hardest part. There’s no easy answer, but the general principle is that focusing on the wait only makes it worse. Whether we throw energy into other projects, or idle our time with fun and games, doing anything is better than thumb-twiddling and rumination.

It might even be worth planning for an outcome which remains forever unknown. When pitching work or applying to popular programs, it’s a sad truth that we don’t always get a reply. After a long enough time we’re supposed to simply presume we didn’t get it. But there is a period in which we have to live with that uncertainty.

Again, where possible, focus on channeling the wait into positive action. If you use the waiting time to spin up other projects, you might never even notice that you never got a rejection on this one.

Next time your mouse cursor is hovering over a scary subject line, I hope you have an awesome backup plan—and, more so, that it never has to be used at all.

Your Turn

How do you handle waiting for news? What about disappointments or rejections? Share your tips and stories with the community in the comments.


Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

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A Simple Trick to Sidestep Self-Criticism http://www.walkingoncustard.com/a-simple-trick-to-sidestep-self-criticism/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/a-simple-trick-to-sidestep-self-criticism/#respond Fri, 16 Aug 2019 15:49:47 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3103 [this article was originally written for Puttylike] Sometimes I’m ashamed to share my work. You might think that’s understandable (particularly if you’ve been exposed to many of my posts before!) but this isn’t just a healthy sense of shame at my evident limitations.  Often, it’s fear of my own unoriginality. That inner voice of shame […]

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[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

Sometimes I’m ashamed to share my work. You might think that’s understandable (particularly if you’ve been exposed to many of my posts before!) but this isn’t just a healthy sense of shame at my evident limitations. 

Often, it’s fear of my own unoriginality. That inner voice of shame tells me to scrap my work, and to only return when I’ve finally created something truly original.

It’s hard not to listen to that voice, but over the years of living with it I’ve developed a technique that helps me to manage it when it speaks up. And I call this technique the Absurdity Principle.*

* I actually don’t call it this at all, but somebody suggested this name and I’m not original enough to come up with anything better.**

** I kid, of course.

This trick is to agree with the voice, and to exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. For example:

“Oh no! Someone else has already done work similar to mine! This is unacceptable! I must only do work which is 100% wholly original and in no way related to any other work. Even working in English is cheating, as it builds on my ancestors’ achievements in creating the language. In fact, using my internal organs is cheating, as it builds on the previous work of nature. I must become a being of Pure Reason, transcend my earthly form, and only then will I be able to create something unique and original that isn’t at all similar to anything anyone else has ever done.”

Exaggerating the voice helps me to see the irrationality underlying my worries. Usually there’s a kernel of truth behind the concern—of course there is such a thing as plagiarism—but this inner voice often applies this truth way beyond the scope of what is reasonable.

In this case, it helps me to recognize that I don’t have to contribute something wholly new, as there’s arguably no such thing. It’s valid to simply bring a new perspective to something which already exists. 

This Goes for Any Inner Criticism

I shared this technique with a friend on the Puttytribe, and their response was “I am very much here for personal growth through extreme sarcasm.”

They were—mostly—kidding, but there’s truth in what they say. After all, this critical voice pops up in all kinds of situations and, instead of arguing with it, it might help to agree and exaggerate until the criticism seems absurd.

For example, multipotentialites often straddle multiple spaces, and it’s easy to end up feeling like an outsider in each of them. If we exaggerated that critical voice, it might say something like:

“I haven’t spent a lifetime studying this topic, so I have nothing to contribute here. Even if I spent the rest of my life devoting myself to it, I’ll have nothing to contribute here. In fact, even if I spent many lifetimes reincarnating there’s no chance I could ever be welcome in this space. ONLY EXPERTS ALLOWED!”

Now, this might free me to recognize that everybody struggles with feeling confident to be part of a group from time to time, as of course I’m not expected to be a literal world expert on something.

However, this example might illustrate a danger with this trick. It relies on recognizing the absurdity through the exaggeration, so my brain can take a step back and notice the inherent flaw. 

But if I don’t exaggerate far enough—or if I’m in such a negative mental space that no matter how far I exaggerate I’ll just accept it as further criticism—then I’m in danger of accidentally fueling my anxieties to greater heights.

That’s okay—no technique works in all situations. This is just a helpful strategy for defusing the inner critic who pipes up so often as we leap from passion to passion.

And I’m sure it’s not an original idea… but, as I can now tell my inner critic… that’s fine, too.

Your Turn

How do you manage your inner critic? Share with the community in the comments.


Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

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Self-Esteem, Self-Confidence and Anxiety http://www.walkingoncustard.com/self-esteem-self-confidence/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/self-esteem-self-confidence/#comments Wed, 29 May 2019 08:03:31 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3077 Just something I’ve been thinking about… I just spent five minutes doodling this graph. I don’t know how universally true it is, but I find it helpful to remind myself that self-confidence and self-esteem are separate. Self-esteem is, roughly, “how much we like ourselves” Self-confidence is, roughly, “how much we imagine others like us” Of […]

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Just something I’ve been thinking about…

I just spent five minutes doodling this graph. I don’t know how universally true it is, but I find it helpful to remind myself that self-confidence and self-esteem are separate.

  • Self-esteem is, roughly, “how much we like ourselves”
  • Self-confidence is, roughly, “how much we imagine others like us”

Of course, these are certainly related concepts. But there have been many times when I’ve felt confident about others while disliking myself, or vice versa.

They don’t always move perfectly in step.

Sometimes people appear outwardly confident, but we have no idea that they’re struggling with negative feelings about themselves. Meanwhile, people who love themselves can feel unconfident around others.

It’s hard work to make it to the top-right hand corner of this graph!

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The 3 Ways My Ideas Die http://www.walkingoncustard.com/the-3-ways-my-ideas-die/ Thu, 23 May 2019 10:55:53 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3085 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com] Sometimes I grow tired of the constant hum of random failure. Most of my dreams end up as flops. I’m sure I’m not alone in this—we all struggle with the guilt of not finishing from time to time. It might be unambitious, but occasionally I think it would be nice […]

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ideas by emiliokuffer, on Flickr

Original Photo © Emilio Kuffer, emiliokuffer on Flickr.
CC BY-SA 2.0

[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Sometimes I grow tired of the constant hum of random failure. Most of my dreams end up as flops. I’m sure I’m not alone in this—we all struggle with the guilt of not finishing from time to time.

It might be unambitious, but occasionally I think it would be nice to fail more predictably, so I’ve been searching for patterns in how my ideas fizzle out. What’s different when I persevere, and when I don’t?

Instead of mentally filing all my unsuccessful ideas under “failure,” I’ve realized it’s useful to break them down by when in the process the plan was abandoned.

Failure Reason One: I Never Start

Almost every idea I ever have… never even gets born. Writing a musical? I think I might have talked about it once or twice. Taking dance lessons? I’ve never so much as spoken the thought aloud.

Sometimes I feel guilty that so many ideas go untouched, but perhaps it’s for the best. A generous interpretation would be that I’m filtering for the projects I’m most passionate about. Revealed preference theory suggests that if I don’t care enough to take action, then I never cared about it as much as I imagined.

And this is okay. We don’t have to follow through on every idea that passes through our minds, or even on every idea we actually like. Passions fluctuate, and perhaps I’ll be sufficiently drawn back to a dream someday.

Of course, lack of passion explains why most ideas never get off the ground, but there are infinite reasons why it’s hard to take the initial action on a project. Again, it helps to break down more specifically than “I can’t get started.”

How to Overcome the Failure to Start

If you can’t seem to just begin, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Write about (or imagine, or tell someone) why you’re excited to do something. Whether it’s “I’ll get fitter,” “I’ll have built my own furniture,” “I’ll have my own podcast,” “I’ll have my dream job,” that initial surge of motivation is helpful to overcome inertia.
  • List everything that is blocking you from starting, and then work through the list one-by-one. Can you dissolve, circumvent, or pass over each block? If you’re not sure WHAT is blocking you, list anything that conceivably could be, no matter how silly.
  • Don’t just focus on the negative. List all the advantages, skills and experience you have in attempting this.
  • Attempt the smallest possible version of what you want to achieve. Do a 2-minute workout. Write 10 words. Update a single section of your resume. Apply for one job.

Failure Reason Two: The Initial Struggle

Starting is hard enough, but after starting is honestly my least favourite part. Now I have to actually DO something—yikes.

Periodically I get back into fitness… usually after months (or years!) of accumulated guilt for neglecting my physical side. Each time the first few workouts feel like a trip through actual hell. My lungs ache, my muscles complain, and it seems impossible to survive to the end.

Similarly, the early stages of any new project, phase or job are the most frightening. We have to discover a mountain of new concepts to learn, and develop a whole new framework to fit them together. This is even true within the same domain: learning to write a nonfiction book is different from learning to write a fiction book is different from learning to write a graphic novel is different from… and on and on and on…

During these early phases, my biggest problem is self-doubt. I feel inferior to everybody who’s ever already done what I’m attempting. Often my projects get strangled by this fear as I nervously nibble at the edges but never quite manage to get deep enough to build confidence that I can do it.

How to Get Past the Initial Struggle

If you’re struggling with the overwhelm of a new project, try these:

  • Remember and renew your initial motivation.
  • Remind yourself this is a temporary phase. Given enough work you will learn everything you need.
  • Think of your past successes. Don’t write them off as “but that was doing and now I’m attempting y”—you proved you can learn everything you need to achieve something difficult.
  • Break down all the skills and knowledge you need into ever-smaller chunks and reward yourself for picking up each chunk.
  • Work doesn’t have to be perfect! Don’t compare yourself to people who’ve been doing this for decades—compare only to your own work from last week (or month or year).
  • Give yourself permission to quit if you need to.

Failure Reason Three: The Slow Drift Into The Void

Eventually, we adapt. In the case of physical activity, our body literally adapts: those workouts that seemed death-defying become a matter of simple routine. In other domains, new concepts which once seemed incomprehensible become obvious, and we start combining them together as we produce ever-better work.

Unfortunately, we now require commitment. This is a dangerous phase, as the initial rush of passion has drained, and the goal is often far away. For example, writing a book is a tedious plod of putting words down (and, usually, immediately deleting them) again and again and again—often without reward.

This slow plateau is deathly but incredibly important, as this is where all the real work is done. Assuming we started this project with an end goal, it’s crucial to constantly renew motivation during this phase.

How to Stay Committed

If you’re struggling to stay committed:

  • Boredom is the enemy—you no longer have the frightening thrill of grappling with new concepts. Find ways to keep it interesting. Watch videos while you workout. Dance after every 100 words. Call a friend after working for an hour.
  • Be gentle: allow yourself space to recuperate and recharge.
  • Be harsh: get someone to be your drill sergeant and scream “WRITE SOME WORDS / RUN SOME MILES, SOLDIER” until you do it.
  • Focus on the end goal—how good will it feel to finish?
  • Focus on intermediate goals—what’s the next milestone? Enjoy your improvement—remember how impossible everything seemed when you began? How impressed would past you be if they could see you now?
  • There will be hard days, when everything feels impossible again and you feel like you’ve regressed. You haven’t. It’s just an ebb day.
  • Make progress an automatic habit, so it becomes hard to imagine a day where you don’t work out / study / practice / write.

Stay in the Right Gear

Each of these phases brings a different struggle, but until I thought of them this way I didn’t differentiate between them in my mind. When a project enters a new phase, I need to update my strategy to survive the new phase. The techniques that got me started won’t cut it when things get overwhelming, and, in turn, those techniques will need replacing once I hit the plateau, and boredom becomes the main obstacle.

Hopefully, next time I fail to finish a project, it’ll be because I chose to stop, and not because I hadn’t noticed my project had changed gear and I didn’t keep up.

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