Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com A Guide for Anxious Humans Wed, 26 Sep 2018 08:12:18 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 Exhausted and Unproductive? This Might Help http://www.walkingoncustard.com/exhausted-and-unproductive-this-might-help/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/exhausted-and-unproductive-this-might-help/#respond Wed, 26 Sep 2018 08:12:18 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2986 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

As a kid, I never understood why adults were so slow. Surely it would be more natural to run around and bounce and clamber – what was wrong with them? Why were all adults so lazy?!

Now I’m (allegedly) an adult, I get it: We’re …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

As a kid, I never understood why adults were so slow. Surely it would be more natural to run around and bounce and clamber – what was wrong with them? Why were all adults so lazy?!

Now I’m (allegedly) an adult, I get it: We’re not lazy… we’re just exhausted.

That seemingly infinite energy just isn’t there anymore. Inspiration comes and goes as it pleases, and it’s hard to predict whether I’ll wake up and feel like climbing a mountain, or if today I won’t make it out of the house.

Even worse… it turns out adults are supposed to use this highly unpredictable energy supply to actually get things done.

(I can’t help but think that a more sensible design for humans might have made the children lethargic and the adults energetic, so it’d both be easier to look after the kids and adults could be more productive. But I digress…)

For a long time, I saw it as a frustrating fact of life that each day was a lottery. Perhaps I’d be full of motivation and would write 5000 words, or a song, or find a bunch of new clients to code websites for. Or perhaps I’d fritter the day away fruitlessly tapping at a keyboard without achieving very much at all.

But last year I came across an awesome idea by Naomi Dunford which changed the way I relate to these energy fluctuations entirely.

Don’t Fight It…

In Naomi’s original post (which I absolutely recommend reading), she says that high energy days—”flow days”—and low energy days—”ebb days”—are simple facts of life, and we’re better of accepting them than fighting them. She compares attempting creative work on an ebb day to someone insisting on going to the beach on a freezing cold winter’s day.

Her recommendation is incredibly simple: save low-energy tasks for low-energy days, and high-energy tasks for high-energy days.

When I heard this, something clicked into place for me. Previously, I’d treat a low-energy day as if I had personally failed. I’d imagine that everybody else in the world was successfully powering through their to-do list while I failed to dent mine. Naturally, this self-criticism only made it harder to get anything done… which further fed the negative cycle.

It’s freeing to treat ebb days as an inevitable fact of life, like the weather, rather than as an indication that there’s something wrong with me. Even better – working with the ebbs and flows means I can get a lot done no matter which kind of day it is.

Make a List of “Ebb Tasks” and “Flow Tasks”

In practice, this means keeping a list of “ebb tasks” and “flow tasks”. Flow tasks require creativity and energy, while ebb tasks are busywork: replying to emails, data entry, mindless editing, chores, etc.

Most mornings I begin by attempting whichever “flow task” is my current highest priority. If it goes well, great! I make progress on my highest priority.

But if it becomes obvious that I’m struggling, I allow myself to acknowledge that it might just be one of those days when I physically can’t do anything creative. Instead of insisting on sitting on the snowy beach, I immediately switch over to my ebb task list and start on whichever chore feels most doable.

This means I still get something done, no matter how I feel. Occasionally this even triggers a feeling of accomplishment, which gives me the inspiration I need to switch back to the trickier flow task.

If Possible, Save Busywork for Ebb Days

Importantly, implementing this system requires resisting the temptation to spend precious energy on busywork.

On those rare mornings when I wake up brimming with creativity, I’m often tempted to knock out a bunch of little tasks before I start on the major project of the day. It feels like a good idea to clear out my inbox, do some laundry, and clean my office before I get started, but I have to remember that I could do those jobs anytime.

If I can, I’d rather save ebb tasks for a day when I can’t do anything else.

There’s Never a Single Solution

Of course, this technique doesn’t solve every problem, but I’ve found it to be a useful tool. (It’s also worthwhile trying to create better conditions for having more flow days, by doing things like getting enough sleep, eating well and physical activity.)

No matter what we do, we don’t get to live with a boundless supply of infinite energy, and there will always be times when we must delve deep into our reserves. I hope this idea helps you use your reserves more effectively.

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How Tiny, Unconscious Habits Can Lead to a World of Pain http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-tiny-unconscious-habits-can-lead-to-a-world-of-pain/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-tiny-unconscious-habits-can-lead-to-a-world-of-pain/#respond Fri, 14 Sep 2018 10:07:51 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2984 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

“Look after yourself,” suggests a well-meaning friend.

“Um, thanks…” I respond—but privately, I bristle. What else am I going to do?! Not look after myself?

And yet… I absolutely need to be told this, because every single day I fail to take care of myself …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

“Look after yourself,” suggests a well-meaning friend.

“Um, thanks…” I respond—but privately, I bristle. What else am I going to do?! Not look after myself?

And yet… I absolutely need to be told this, because every single day I fail to take care of myself through dozens of poor, tiny decisions.

The Catalyst: Ouch

This May I experienced the worst neck pain I’d ever felt; so agonising that I looked back fondly on the time when I’d merely had all four wisdom teeth extracted at once.

And, just like every injury I’ve ever experienced, this pain occurred for stupid reasons.

(Other past reasons have included: a banana, a gentle pre-game warmup, and a fishfinger.)

(Not all at the same time.)

As usual, I didn’t hurt myself trying anything flashy or cool, I simply existed. Many small factors added up: Months of poor posture. Too many days hunched over a keyboard. Not enough breaks. Accidentally sleeping in a weird position. Ignoring warning signs. Over-exercising. Not respecting the recovery.

If I’d handled any of these differently, then I might have had a slightly stiff neck for a day or two. But all together these little factors sent me desperately crawling to a doctor for a cocktail of (extremely welcome) painkillers.

Small Things, Important Things

After a bad experience like this, I’m always highly motivated to prevent anything similar happening again.

But what changes are there to make after an injury without a clear, single cause?

Perhaps if I’d been testing home-made human wings, there would be an obvious lesson: find another volunteer to test them first don’t attempt that at all. But what’s the best way to address many factors which are individually not a big deal?

I suppose the good news is that this means I don’t need to make any big changes. Simply taking occasional breaks to stretch would likely have prevented this. Is it worth putting in that extra effort to avoid a fortnight of agony? Absolutely, yes.

Unfortunately, there’s some corresponding bad news: in some ways it’s harder to make such tiny changes to our habits. These behaviours built up over time because I fundamentally didn’t value good posture enough to put in even this minimal effort. I need to change my underlying values in order for a new habit to stick.

Luckily, recent events have very much convinced me of the value of good posture, so it’s been easy to motivate myself to act on this change in values. There’s two parts to this action: 1) notice when I’m doing something small that will come back to bite me later, and 2) to do it differently.

Could I Have Done This in Advance?

Having learned a painful lesson, changed my underlying value, and taken action to make the new habit stick is all very well. This particular problem hopefully won’t recur… but what about preventing it in the first place?

Could I have known in advance that these poor work habits were going to have painful consequences – and soon?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s not as if I didn’t know I ought to take breaks and work more healthily. I just didn’t believe that the consequences could be so severe and so rapid.

Perhaps I ought to generalise the lesson: it’s not enough just to stop this particular pain from recurring. Are there any other little decisions I’m making which may have consequences later?

Small Decisions Matter Everywhere

Indeed, there are lots of areas beyond health which operate like this. Small decisions add up in every area of our lives.

If you were feeling poetic, you could make a good argument that our lives are nothing but an endless succession of little choices. Every day I have to decide whether I should I take a proper lunch break, to socialise and recharge, or to skip lunch entirely and squeeze in more work.

I wouldn’t consciously choose to prioritise work over loved ones, but thousands of tiny unconscious choices of an hour here, an hour there, can mean exactly that. Whatever we choose in small matters adds up and morph into habits, and these habits form our true decisions about how we spend our lives.

All habits become invisible to us very quickly. For example, I barely notice my morning routine anymore – it just happens. And unless I consciously recognise what I’m doing, and put in the effort to change it, it will continue just the same.

Ideally, I would pay attention to as many little decisions as possible, and try to make a habit of varying them so I keep my habits comfortably balanced.

The Flip Side

However! Before we all dash off to do the opposite of everything we normally do, remember that the opposite of a bad idea is often a different bad idea.

In this case, the opposite of “constantly ignoring a tiny problem until it adds up to a big one” is “needlessly monotoring ourselves to get every tiny decision exactly right.”

Needless self-criticism is an easy trap to fall into, especially if–like me!–you’re prone to anxiety and perfectionism. But there’s no need to fall into a funk every time we fall short of perfection. Perhaps I worked a whole day today without taking a break. That’s fine. I’ll just have to try harder to remember tomorrow.

I’m aiming to live in a comfortable medium: being conscious of tiny decisions and trying to make better ones, but without expecting perfection.

What Small Decisions Do You Make Every Day?

It might be worth considering what habits you are currently building through small daily decisions. Is there anything you’re neglecting? Or something you’re choosing every time which might be a better option only sometimes? How about your balance of priorities: are you unconsciously spending less time on aspects of your life that matter to you?

When it comes to making a change, remember that it won’t stick unless it flows from your underlying values: what values are you promoting through the decisions you make?

Change doesn’t have to be a big deal, but replacing even one habitual small decision with a better one might save you a world of pain in the future.

Oh, and take it from me: if you’re working at a desk, stretch more often.

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What I’m Doing in July 2018 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-im-doing-july-18/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-im-doing-july-18/#comments Fri, 06 Jul 2018 10:53:47 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2969 [post status: a brief life update]

When  Walking on Custard came out in 2015 (aside: I cannot believe that was three  years ago! What on EARTH is happening to the flow of time?!), I needed some sort of online home.

I considered all kinds of wild, imaginative ideas, like interactive websites which would act as companions to the …

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[post status: a brief life update]

When  Walking on Custard came out in 2015 (aside: I cannot believe that was three  years ago! What on EARTH is happening to the flow of time?!), I needed some sort of online home.

I considered all kinds of wild, imaginative ideas, like interactive websites which would act as companions to the book, somehow procedurally generating both entertainment and life advice…

… but in the end I realised that simplicity was definitely the best option in this case. So I set up this basic WordPress site, and voila: a place where I can muse about anxiety and life without having to put in much effort.

A simple blog that exists is better than an all-singing, all-dancing web experience that doesn’t.

And this place has served its purpose well!

I’m constantly surprised at how many people manage to stumble into my little corner of the internet, AND at how many of those people bother to send me lovely emails about articles which resonated with them. (They can’t ALL secretly be my mum, right?!)

Anyway…Now that my new book is nearly finished (I’ll be sharing more on this soon, in case you haven’t heard already!), I’m starting to think about improving my online home.

I’m still planning to keep this blog as a hub for all my mental health and happiness-related musings, but I’d like to use some (not all!) of those more imaginative ideas I abandoned all those years ago.

And so, in between making the final edits to the novel (argh, please send help!), I’m coding a whole new website from scratch. There’ll be some fun collaborative games for visitors to play, and I have plans to gradually expand it as the years go by and future books and other projects get released.

(I also have some ludicrously ambitious ideas around interactive augmented reality phone experiences, but those might need to wait a lot, lot longer.)

What else am I doing?

Honestly, those two projects could easily expand to fill 100% of my time, but in keeping with my earlier post, I’m also taking steps towards finding some awesome, inspiring and satisfying regular work to add to my mix of activities.

And somehow I’m also juggling my social life and all my regular weekly or monthly work commitments, AND enjoying the heatwave here in the UK.

Why am I telling you all this?

Really, I’m not. This post is to tell myself. I’ve been feeling frustrated by my apparent lack of progress, but when I sat down this morning to analyse what I’m doing, I realised I’m actually taking great steps forward towards many of my goals at once.

Lots of these goals require a long wait for the payoff – I can confirm that writing a novel is the absolute worst way to receive short-term gratification – but there will be a payoff eventually.

And whether it’s a new website, a new novel, a new work situation or something else, I’m not far off several large payoffs at once.

Since I’m committed to sharing these frustrations rather than bottling up, I thought I’d quickly post about it. Most of the time we just see the end results of other people’s work: their new book, their new abs, their new yacht*, or whatever.

I don’t actually have any friends who own yachts but I’m very open to acquiring some, so feel free to get in touch…! 😉

But reaching any goal requires an investment, and I want to share some of my investment at this stage. In a few months (hopefully), I’ll be posting about the new book, the new site, the new work, and I’ll be able to look back at today and think “there was a time it felt that I’d never make it to this day, but I did”.

And hopefully next time I’ll remember more easily, and get better still at just putting one foot in front of the other and making my way towards where I want to be.

Hope you’re having a lovely summer!

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You Probably Need to Do This One Thing More Often http://www.walkingoncustard.com/you-probably-need-to-do-this-one-thing-more-often/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/you-probably-need-to-do-this-one-thing-more-often/#comments Sun, 01 Jul 2018 09:05:16 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2951 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Do your attempts to be kind to yourself ever backfire?

I’ve noticed lately that my moments of self-generosity are occasionally actively unhelpful to me:

“Fine, I’ll watch another episode.”

“I’ve worked hard, I don’t need to exercise today.”

“If I eat a second dessert… then …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Do your attempts to be kind to yourself ever backfire?

I’ve noticed lately that my moments of self-generosity are occasionally actively unhelpful to me:

“Fine, I’ll watch another episode.”

“I’ve worked hard, I don’t need to exercise today.”

“If I eat a second dessert… then I can free up the time that I would have spent eating it later! Genius.”

None of these things are bad, of course. (In fact, I am a tremendous fan of being entertained, resting and eating sweet treats –  and I’m even happy to multitask all three, if necessary.)

However, there’s a common theme here:

When I choose between two ‘Goods’ (exercise versus consumption, say), I regularly justify taking the easier path. Over a long enough period of time, I end up neglecting important activities entirely.

Sometimes this neglect becomes obvious. If I stop working or exercising it doesn’t take long for me to notice.

But there’s one neglected need which I can go a long time without detecting: retreat.

(I’m using the word ‘retreat’ because I recently discovered this beautifully inspiring YouTube channel about meditation and retreat, but the terminology doesn’t matter. I’m talking about taking time out for nothing but quiet reflection – whether you think of it as meditation, or prayer, or simply silence, isn’t important.)

Filling Time is Addictive

Retreat is important because without it I slowly but surely become overwhelmed.

This is because I’m addicted to filling my time.

Whenever I go on holiday I take my laptop, and I bring along work I can do while I’m away. There are always articles I could write, book ideas to explore, websites to design. It seems a shame to not maximise using my time, right?

Normally, I never actually do any work during these holidays. But my laptop is always there, lurking and emitting a near-tangible cloud of constant guilt.

This need for retreat isn’t only about holiday time. Pretty much every moment of my daily existence is filled with something – apps, work, friends, socialising, tv, youtube, social media, articles, learning… and so on.

Like I said, none of this stuff is bad*. But it is relentless.

Just as words without space become noise, a life without downtime becomes overwhelming. Our human brains need space and time to process and catch up and rest.

* (Admittedly, the global jury is out on whether social media is good/bad, but it does have its occasional good points, too.)

Taking Time Out

This overwhelm sneaks up on us, perhaps as a low-level feeling of disquiet, or as a background drone of stress which saps our energy.

I know I should do something about it, but I struggle to justify taking space and time purely for retreat. This seems ludicrous, since I spend most of my time working entirely in my own space, and I rarely have to answer to anybody else.

Unfortunately, it appears that I am a surprisingly cruel boss in this respect.

Of course, I’m not consciously trying to be cruel. If anything, this problem arises from good intentions: my brain doesn’t want me to fall behind, so it forces me to keep pushing forward… constantly.

Until it gives out.

I’ve known for a while that I’ve been neglecting this aspect of my life. I used to have a disciplined meditation habit, which helped me remain mentally healthy (or healthier, at least). Somehow this habit slipped and dwindled until it was just another thing I wasn’t quite doing properly.

Finally, last month I snapped and booked a few days for a proper retreat – the first in years. I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty about it, or to believe that I ought to secretly use the time ‘productively’.

Instead, I allowed myself to simply recharge. I spent a few days in an old abbey, wandering the countryside, eating delicious food in remote country pubs, and resting.

I came back refreshed and ready to be more productive than I have been in a long time.

My brain often opposes the idea of retreat because it doesn’t directly solve any of my problems. But this is like my brain objecting to charging my phone because “recharging doesn’t make any phone calls”.

Retreat isn’t supposed to solve our problems. Instead, it recharges us, so we can solve our issues more easily.

Build Retreat into Life

Sadly, it’s not always possible to find days to wander the countryside without any particular agenda. (Though I have vowed to consciously make time for this sort of retreat more regularly in future.)

Instead, I’m aiming to take steps to create more space in my everyday life: defining hours when my phone will be on ‘airplane’ mode, setting reminders to take occasional quiet time, and resisting the temptation to berate myself for ‘not constantly working’.

Retreat doesn’t have to be a big deal, but – for me, at least – it’s a need which I have to meet.

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Freedom vs Security http://www.walkingoncustard.com/freedom-vs-security/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/freedom-vs-security/#comments Wed, 20 Jun 2018 09:10:10 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2948 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Today: some thoughts about life decisions.

But First: Let’s Talk About Fourier Transforms,

[WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MATHS! (It’s optional, so skip it, if you like.)]

A few months ago, I was making a decision, and every time I thought about it, a mathematical analogy …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Today: some thoughts about life decisions.

But First: Let’s Talk About Fourier Transforms,

[WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MATHS! (It’s optional, so skip it, if you like.)]

A few months ago, I was making a decision, and every time I thought about it, a mathematical analogy sprung to mind.

You might have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says (broadly) that the more precisely you measure the position of a particle, the less precisely you can measure its momentum.

(Occasionally this gets paraphrased as “you can either know where something is, or how fast it’s going, but not both.”)

This isn’t just a weird fact about our ability to measure, and it’s not even restricted to particles. It’s just that this phenomenon is easier to notice at the particle level.

In fact, this is a fundamental reality. In mathematics, it’s related to an operation called the Fourier Transform. (Very) basically, this operation is part of the translation between position and momentum. If you have lots of precision to start with, you end up with a fuzzy result after:

Figure: The world’s least accurate graph. A precise measurement becomes fuzzy after applying the Fourier Transform (blue arrows), and vice versa.

In other words, you physically can’t have high precision on both position and momentum at once.

(I am very much rushing this explanation, so it is not entirely accurate, but it’s accurate enough for the purpose of this post. If you want to understand better, these two videos explain the mathematics in fantastic, intuitive detail, and without all the hand-waving inaccuracy.)

Anyway, let’s go back to my life…

The Last Few Years

I’ve spent the last few years writing books and articles, doing freelance programming, giving comedy talks about mental health, and doing standup comedy.

These years have been great fun… and very challenging. I’ve found a routine which – mostly – works for me. But I’ve gradually become less and less settled, and it’s been increasingly clear since I finished my latest novel.

This makes sense: I suddenly have a lot of extra time to reflect, which is always dangerous. The most natural path would be to continue as I am – perhaps start another book, find another programming contract, and book even more talks. But I didn’t want to assume that the path I chose a few years ago was automatically the right path for now.

So I’ve taken a few weeks to chew over the possibilities, doing some temporary coding work, but no new huge projects: only fun work which would teach me some new skills.

The whole time I’ve been exploring what lies beneath the unsettled feeling, and gradually I’ve realised that it’s about freedom and security.

More of One, Less of the Other

I love the freedom of my current life. I get to choose which projects to work on, which clients to work with, and find places to speak.

But this freedom has downsides: most obviously, I don’t have the regular income I used to. This is fine, but it has the potential to be exhausting over a long time. It feels as if I must keep putting in effort just to remain static… and if the effort stops, then I fall behind.

I think this deep unsettlement is my brain trying to tell me it would prefer a bit more security.

Easy, right? Problem solved, I can just do that, and never have any problems ever again, li-

Wait!

Oh. All of the options which will bring more security entail giving up some freedom. I’ll have to take a job, or a long-term contract, or be less picky with clients, or something. And the parts of my brain which desperately want this freedom are in conflict with the parts which want security.

This is why the image of Fourier Transforms keeps resurfacing in my mind: I can have lots of freedom, or lots of security… but not both.

(Yes, okay, I admit that perhaps see-saws would have been a more accessible analogy, but if you can’t nerd out about mathematical concepts at Puttylike, then where can you?!)

There’s a Middle Ground

For a brief time I felt stuck, as if there were only bad options: continue with the anxious grind of complete freedom, or declare failure, give up on my dreams entirely and do something else.

You might recognize my old friend “extreme thinking” in that description of the situation. For some reason, my human brain assumes all compromise is total capitulation. Instead, I could, for example, take a part-time job, and trade some freedom away for a little more security.

Changing my approach isn’t the same as declaring failure, either. It just means I’m recalibrating the amount of freedom/security which I want at this point in my life!

Takeaways

Here are the reminders I’m taking forward for next time I have to recalibrate what I’m doing with my life:

  • There will be a next time I have to reconsider what I’m doing
  • Just because I’m already doing something, doesn’t mean I have to keep doing it.
  • Sometimes I need more freedom, sometimes I need more security – I have to choose what balance I want right now
  • Rebalancing isn’t the same as failure
  • Maths is cool, even if I’m terrible at explaining it

Currently I’m seeking some very cool part-time work which will give me that security (while being fun, challenging, interesting work!) while leaving me space to work on the next book and continue to give talks. I hope it’s useful to you to hear about this process, as messy and unfinished and full of catastrophic thinking as it is. At the very least, it’s hopefully good to hear I don’t have everything all figured out – I always find it reassuring to remember that I’m not the only one who isn’t quite sure what they’re doing!

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How to Choose the Right Path When There are SO MANY POSSIBILITIES http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-choose-the-right-path-when-there-are-so-many-possibilities/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-choose-the-right-path-when-there-are-so-many-possibilities/#comments Tue, 01 May 2018 08:29:14 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2843 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.

The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.

The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done my best to make sure any information I was sharing was reasonably accurate.

As a means of handling this anxiety, occasionally I mixed in a chapter of flash fiction. This was such a relief! These random chapters about wizards and aliens and talking flowers didn’t have the same obligation to be correct – in fiction, I could make up anything I liked.

Idly, I dreamed of someday writing an entire novel… a whole project free from this pressure, a project where there were no rules.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Of course, it turned out that having no rules was also horrible… just differently horrible.

I’d never anticipated what this complete freedom would feel like when I experienced it for real. It was dizzying. The absence of rules suddenly felt vertiginous, and terrifying.

Should this character go to this place, or that other one? Should they fight, or should they make up? What if the magical shop got burned down? Or trampled by a robot army? Or what if an eloquent snake turned up and played the trumpet?!

“PLEASE, SOMEONE, HELP ME! GIVE ME RULES, I CRAVE STRUCTURE!”

Unfortunately, nobody could give me that structure, mainly because it doesn’t exist. Unlike with non-fiction, there’s no “right answer” to what a story should be. Changes may make a story better or worse, but – in theory – even a radical genre shift and a sudden talking snake could be made to work.

(That example came to me randomly, but I’ve just realised that the bestselling book of all time actually begins with a talking snake, so it’s certainly not automatically a bad idea…!)

The point is that there’s no one story I could write. There’s an infinite series of possibilities, even within one, particular story.

Irritatingly, I found myself missing my old frustration of being pressured to find the ‘correct’ answer. At least there usually was one, and I could generally be sure when I’d found it.

Opposite Problems, Differing Solutions

It’s typical that I managed to get frustrated by two opposite problems. While both problems could be solved by simply “not writing a book”, let me share the solutions I found assuming you (foolishly) wanted to do such a thing.

The pressure of non-fiction has an obvious solution: patiently plodding on, and being thorough.

The vertigo of fiction also has an obvious solution, but I found it harder: CHOOSE.

The infinite possibility of the blank page is terrifying. So you have to choose something to put in it. A character, a scene, a place, a plot idea… as long as it’s something. This is your initial fixed point. From this, you can define everything else. Who else is near this character, or in this place? What happens after that plot point?

A story can’t exist without fixed points – at the very least, the hero must start out somewhere, and she must end up somewhere else. Once I fixed some ideas in place, I could be as creative as I liked with the parts in between.

These fixed points aren’t “right answers” in the non-fiction sense, but I could treat them as if they were. They made up the essence of the story I was trying to tell.

And this is the crucial difference: unlike non-fiction, fiction isn’t universal. War & Peace is no more the “right answer” than Harry Potter.

There Are No Fixed Points in Life Either

This fear of choosing what happened in my book mirrors the feelings I sometimes have about life.

Should I study this, or that? Live here, or there? Date this person, or another? The possibilities multiply outwards at a frightening rate. And, just like when writing a story, nobody can give us a “right answer.”

It’s not the right answer to move to New York. It’s not the right answer not to. Either choice is just a fixed point on the story we’re trying to tell.

Our life would certainly be different if we changed jobs, started a business, studied something else, moved abroad, got married, or any of the other possibilities which lie before us each day.

We can never know for sure which path is the best. There’s just the path we choose to take, and the many, many paths which we don’t. Whenever I forget this, I become paralysed.

But, hopefully, now I’ve done this through fiction, I’ll be better at doing it for real.

Do you ever look for a ‘right answer’ in life? What are the fixed points on your story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Wasted Time Isn’t Wasted http://www.walkingoncustard.com/wasted-time-isnt-wasted/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/wasted-time-isnt-wasted/#respond Fri, 20 Apr 2018 09:36:05 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2839 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

We can’t control whether to spend our time, only what we spend it on.

This thought has echoed around and around in my mind ever since I read the story of Opus 40 – a sculpture park created by one man over 37 …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

We can’t control whether to spend our time, only what we spend it on.

This thought has echoed around and around in my mind ever since I read the story of Opus 40 – a sculpture park created by one man over 37 years(!).

Part of me recoils in horrified terror at the thought of spending 37 years on a single project. Sometimes, 37 minutes can feel like a lot!

But I still find this story inspirational.

Harvey Fite’s story continued to itch at me after I heard it. I kept imagining how I might handle working on such an intimidatingly large project. I’m sure that almost every day I would wonder “isn’t this huge sculpture park a massive waste of time? Should I be doing something else?!”

I have no idea whether the sculptor struggled with these thoughts himself –this piece in the New York Times suggests that perhaps he did not – but it doesn’t actually matter either way. No project is so perfect that we’re never tempted by another, and what’s important is that Harvey Fite did it.

Harvey Fite’s time – like everybody’s – had to be spent somewhere, and creating his sculpture park was a perfectly good way to spend it.

Spending Time One Day at a Time

I think this suggests a healthy attitude towards time. The amount of time we intend to spend on a task–a day, a week, or 37 years–isn’t important: that time is going to pass regardless. The only question is whether we will have anything to show for it afterwards.

Sometimes the payoff is immediate, and sometimes it may take decades. All that matters is that there is a payoff.

But Wastes Aren’t Always Wastes

Of course, it can be stressful to believe that every single minute has to be accounted for. A healthy concept of “payoff” must be broad enough to include rest, leisure, learning and creating good memories with family and friends. Not all payoffs have to be economic!

Nor do we have to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy and stick something out just for the payoff we imagined we’d get when we began. Sometimes learning “this isn’t for me” is an adequate payoff for time invested.

Whatever the outcome, there’s no point berating our past selves. You had to spend that time somewhere, and you picked the best option you could see at the time.

There’s No “One True Outcome” to Rule Them All

When we look back and evaluate our lives, we will have a whole basket of things to show for how we spent our time. But there’s no “right” mixture of outcomes which have to be in that basket.

Was spending 37 years building a beautiful sculpture park the “right” outcome for Harvey Fite? The question doesn’t make sense. He chose where to spend his time and created something beautiful out of it. Any mixture of time spent on family, friends, big projects or smaller projects would still have been just as “right.”

You don’t want to be so determined to spend your time perfectly that you refuse to spend it at all. Just as your past self had to, you can only pick whatever option seems best right now.

Choosing NOT to spend your time isn’t an option, so you may as well spend your time on something (or some things) that feel right to you now.

Trading Time

Perhaps I’m particularly dense… but this lesson about time is one I have learned and re-learned many times. I often listen to this song by Jeffrey Lewis, which reminds me that my time is guaranteed to pass no matter what I do, and I might as well try and have something to show for it afterwards:

I’m sure I’m not alone in worrying about how I’m spending my time. Let me know your story in the comments!

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I’m Anxious – What Do I Do Now? http://www.walkingoncustard.com/im-anxious-what-do-i-do-now/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/im-anxious-what-do-i-do-now/#respond Sat, 24 Mar 2018 10:41:56 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2813 Quite often, I get asked “what should someone do after they realise they’re anxious?”

There’s no definitive answer to that question – every person and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.

But there are a few ideas which might help someone figure out the next step for them…

First, …

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Confusion by QuinnDombrowski, on Flickr

Original Photo © Quinn Dombrowski, QuinnDombrowski on Flickr.
CC BY-SA 2.0

Quite often, I get asked “what should someone do after they realise they’re anxious?”

There’s no definitive answer to that question – every person and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.

But there are a few ideas which might help someone figure out the next step for them…

First, it might be worth acknowledging that simply recognising anxiety is the problem is a big step. It took me years of constant anxiety before I realised a) that wasn’t normal and b) there were things I could do about it. Even admitting the problem exists can be a relief!

After that, though, things can get very confusing. I was drowning in advice and options and strategies.

(Admittedly, this is better than drowning in anxiety itself, but when you’re already exhausted from being constantly anxious, it’s hard to make decisions even about what steps to take to make it better.)

If you’re in a similarly confused state, here are some potential avenues to explore.

Although! Please remember that these ideas may or may not work for you, and that that’s fine.

It just means that isn’t the right idea for you! It’s easy to jump into catastrophic thinking like “OH GOD THIS SOLUTION EVERYONE SAYS HELPS DIDN’T HELP ME; I’M A HOPELESS CASE; I’LL BE ANXIOUS FOREVER”. After all, that kind of thinking is what the anxious brain is really, really good at..!

1) Accept the Anxiety

In my experience, fighting anxiety only feeds it further. Thinking thoughts like “I hate anxiety! I wish I wasn’t anxious! Anxiety go away!” only magnifies it.

It feels wrong, but forcing myself to think things like “oh, hello anxiety, I’m totally relaxed about you being here again” is very helpful for massively reducing my anxiety. And this frees up energy to take other steps.

(I wrote a fairly silly post a few years ago which explores this dynamic a little more.)

2) Believe you can do something about it

One of my least favourite anxious feelings is the fear that terror will never go away, that I’m condemned to feel constantly afraid forever. But I no longer believe that is true.

It may (will?) require help – and the feelings may only be reduced, not eliminated – but hold onto the hope that you will not feel this way forever: feeling better is possible.

3) Acknowledge it’ll require some change

Clearly, continuing exactly how you are won’t help.

Something has to change; whether its some habitual negative thoughts, your environment, your internal chemistry, or whatever.

And any change requires at least a little effort.

This effort doesn’t have to be scary. It might be good to start with tiny, achievable changes – like taking a walk, or drinking some water, or breathing slowly for literally five seconds every now and then.

These tiny changes might just break the anxious cycle of ruminating on whatever your anxiety is currently fixating on, and from a slightly more relaxed position, a slightly bigger change might appear more achievable.

4) Find help

This is the big, obvious one. (This perhaps ought to be step #1, but I wanted to focus first on a few little things you can do yourself.)

It can be scary to talk to somebody else about anxiety for the first time. But, in my experience, people tend to react overwhelmingly positively to genuine requests for support.

(Of course, it helps if you’re already friends with the person and not, say, talking to a supermarket cashier at the time. Judge for yourself where is a sensible place to look for support!)

Whether it’s your friends, family, peers, colleagues, school pastoral support, a group you’re part of, a local charity, a therapist, a doctor, an online community, or anything else, it’s really helpful to find a place where you can be supported.

Of course it’s possible to achieve a lot on your own – there are tonnes of resources, blog posts, books, self-care ideas out there – but remember that working on anxiety isn’t a straight line from “ANXIOUS” to “NOT-ANXIOUS”, so it’s incredibly useful to have somebody you can vent to whenever you inevitably dip back down into “ANXIOUS”.

5) Don’t worry when anxiety comes back

Okay, saying “don’t worry” is admittedly a bit ridiculous. If I could just ‘not worry’, then most of my problems would already be solved!

But you know what I mean! Accept in advance that you can’t just flip a switch and fix everything.

There will be days when you feel better, and days when you feel worse.

The aim is to move towards having more of the good days, and fewer of the bad – but having a bad day isn’t a reason to freak out. It doesn’t mean all is lost, it doesn’t mean all your effort was for nothing, it simply is what it is: a bad day.

6) Perhaps choose a single improvement and work on it for a short time

It’s great that you have so many options for changing things, any of which might help with your anxiety! But it can also be overwhelming.

Should you aim for more sleep? A better diet? More exercise? Therapy? Meditation? Undoing a common thought pattern which gets you stuck in an anxious cycle?

Even listing all the possibilities can be anxiety inducing!

Try to recognise that you have limited resources right now (this is one of the sneaky ways anxiety traps you – it sucks up your resources so you can’t fix the thing that is sucking up your resources!), and resist the temptation to declare “I am changing my entire life and will live well FOREVER!”

Instead, perhaps choose a gentle, achievable commitment like “for the next couple of days I’m going to eat more vegetables”. Or take a quiet walk for ten minutes. Or notice when I’m stuck in an anxious loop. Or whatever.

Your brain might object, with something like “eating more vegetables won’t solve our problems!” And if so, your brain is correct! This isn’t supposed to solve all your problems. It’s merely supposed to help.

Thinking that any one thing CAN solve all your problems might even be part of the problem in the first place! We can obsess over finding the one thing that will fix everything, and just give ourselves new sticks to beat ourselves with.

(“I failed at my million self-improvements today, I’m terrible and deserve to be anxious forever” is an anxious trap I’m very familiar with)

Over time, lots of tiny helpful actions add up to increased energy and decreased anxiety. None of them individually solves anything much, but together they help us to feel better.

7) If you can, use the good days to work on the roots of the problem

When you have a good day, it’s tempting to stop putting effort into self-improvement (or whatever you want to call it).

Unfortunately, this can just lead to a cycle – feeling bad, so taking actions to feel better; feeling better, so stopping; then feeling bad again.

In the better times, it seems wise to spend some energy on deeper analysis – where did the anxiety come from in the first place? What’s the deep root of it?

This is hard work, and may well require assistance from friends or, ideally, professionals. But it’s this foundational work which leads to a more resilient life, and keeps us off the custard for longer.


I hope these thoughts might be helpful. This post isn’t exhaustive, or universal – some of it may work for you, some may not, and I’m absolutely sure there are plenty of aspects I’ve not touched upon.

But hopefully this can help you find a starting point when you’re confused.

If you have other tips for someone just figuring out how to begin tackling anxiety, then please share them in the comments!


No unachievable ambitions were harmed during the production of this post.

Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)

Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.

Like us on Facebook, for more thoughts on happiness.

Read the whole series on Anxiety here.

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The Examined Life Is Not Worth Living http://www.walkingoncustard.com/examined-life-not-worth-living/ Fri, 23 Feb 2018 14:13:40 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2820 “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

THOUGHT: The over-examined life isn’t exactly worth living, either.

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“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

THOUGHT: The over-examined life isn’t exactly worth living, either.

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What Am I Doing?! http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-am-i-doing/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/what-am-i-doing/#comments Thu, 25 Jan 2018 11:47:41 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2742 I rarely talk about my actual life on this site. So today, an update.

In short, it’s fine.

But, in long, there are two big projects to update you on:

Another Book – And This One’s a Novel

I wrote another book!

This one is an adventure set in the pre-life (a world …

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I rarely talk about my actual life on this site. So today, an update.

In short, it’s fine.

But, in long, there are two big projects to update you on:

Another Book – And This One’s a Novel

I wrote another book!

This one is an adventure set in the pre-life (a world like the afterlife, but before we’re born), all about the magical shop where humans choose what kind of person to be when they get born down on Earth.

Readers of Walking on Custard will recognise The Shop Before Life from the very brief short story… but it turns out there’s a whole world around the Shop to explore, full of mysteries to discover, and questions about life & death, and who we are, and who we become.

So far, the feedback has been absolutely lovely.

(If I may permit some mild showing off, one early reader said “I want to make fan art of it. it’s in my heart now.” – how gorgeous is that?!)

Im very excited for you all to read it, so stay tuned for more soon!

I’m Also Still Speaking

Of course, I literally speak with my mouth pretty much every day, but what I mean is that I’m still giving talks at interesting places.

For a while I’ve been meaning to share some pictures from a fun talk I gave at the EBRD HQ in London. It was a great day, with a delightful audience and some fantastic conversation around anxiety and managing our emotions.

As usual, every photo had me pulling a silly face, unnatural gesture, or often, both:

This is a POWERFUL GESTURE

And I’ve really enjoyed giving talks in schools, too – with many more to come in 2018.

If you would like someone to speak with humour about anxiety, mental health and happiness at your school, business, university, conference, etc, then please get in touch!

That’s The Main Bits

I am also toying with whatever the next big project will be now that The Shop Before Life is approaching the final stages.

But that will have to wait for another day.

Whatever you’re up to, do feel free to say hello – and I hope your life is going well too 🙂

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