Walking on Custard and the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com A Guide for Anxious Humans Tue, 15 Jan 2019 09:06:15 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.9 A Simple Idea to Help With Repetitive Anxiety http://www.walkingoncustard.com/repetitive-anxiety-tally-system/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/repetitive-anxiety-tally-system/#respond Tue, 15 Jan 2019 09:06:15 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2979 [content: a quick tip for repetitive anxiety]

In the past, I’d regularly get trapped in the exact same worry over and over.

Often, it would be health anxiety. For example, I’d experience a symptom of some kind. And I’d immediately imagine that this symptom was coming from the worst possible cause. Perhaps a pain would …

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[content: a quick tip for repetitive anxiety]

In the past, I’d regularly get trapped in the exact same worry over and over.

Often, it would be health anxiety. For example, I’d experience a symptom of some kind. And I’d immediately imagine that this symptom was coming from the worst possible cause. Perhaps a pain would be in my leg, and I’d think “that’s a blood clot, travelling to my lungs to kill me”.

For the rest of the day—week? month?—I’d struggle to concentrate on anything else, constantly fighting to keep my attention from the impending doom.

After years of living through this exact cycle, I realised I wasn’t learning anything. It was just the same thing, over and over and over again.

So, I started a tally chart.

Each time I DIDN’T die of a blood clot—and, so far, this is literally every time!—I added a mark to the tally. I simply kept count of the cycles.

After a few months, whenever I experienced a similar pain, I’d remember the chart. I’d recognise that this was just like every other time. The symptoms were no different. So this was most probably the same thing again.

My brain stopped jumping straight to the worst case scenario, and the most likely scenario—”it’s just a passing pain”—felt more real. As a result, the anxiety was reduced… to the point that I no longer experience it.

This technique isn’t magic, and it didn’t solve anything on its own. (I was also doing lots of other work to unpick the habit of catastrophising.)

But it helped.

By the way, I’m not saying I was wrong to worry about this! After all, blood clots (and other objects of repetitive fears) do exist! But it wasn’t helping me to assume that every single weird pain I experienced was a blood clot. My feelings and fears ought to be in tune with reality, and I was blowing them out of proportion.

This little technique simply helped get my emotions into proportion with reality.

It may not work for everyone, or for every situation, but if you find yourself in a similar cycle of “repetitive worries that never turn out to be true” then perhaps keeping count of the times you’ve passed through the cycle might help.

If nothing else, it’ll remind the brain that “hey, we’ve been through this cycle a few times before”. It might even increase confidence that this time we actually should take action or seek help. Sometimes, that is the right thing to do!

As ever, feel free to disregard the idea if it doesn’t sound relevant or helpful.

I hope you’re having an excellent day ❤


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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How to Recover After a Setback http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-recover-after-a-setback/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/how-to-recover-after-a-setback/#comments Sat, 05 Jan 2019 08:43:47 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=3002 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

This year I’ve experienced a constant stream of setbacks, of varying degrees of seriousness: minor administrative life hassle, major family tragedy, missed career opportunities, painful emotional entanglements, idiotic breakages, unexpected financial demands.

At times, it’s felt as if the universe was sending me regular doses …

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wer glaubt dass schweigen probleme löst by Daniel Wehner, on Flickr

Original Photo © Daniel Wehner, Daniel Wehner on Flickr.
CC BY 2.0

[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

This year I’ve experienced a constant stream of setbacks, of varying degrees of seriousness: minor administrative life hassle, major family tragedy, missed career opportunities, painful emotional entanglements, idiotic breakages, unexpected financial demands.

At times, it’s felt as if the universe was sending me regular doses of deliberate punishment.

Each problem on its own wouldn’t be so bad. Especially since I recognise that I’m actually pretty lucky—I have my life mostly together, along with strong coping strategies and a solid support network.

But when problems come thick and fast—and, this year, another one kept appearing before I’d had time to process the last one—it can be too much for anyone to handle. When you’re already struggling, the smallest setback can tip the scales and dump thousands of final straws onto the camel’s back*.

*with hindsight, putting all those straws on scales above a camel was an avoidable mistake

How to bounce back better

So perhaps it’s a major design flaw in the universe, but everything doesn’t happen exactly the way we want, at the precise time we would prefer. What’s funny is that even though I know this to be true in general, I’m still terribly surprised whenever any particular setback shows up. Whether a minor inconvenience or a major depressive spiral, I’m often left reeling by unanticipated obstacles.

I’ve recently decided it’s time to develop an improved process for recovering from such setbacks.

My existing process is… not great. It includes elements like cursing, shouting, looking sadly out of windows, complaining, binge-eating, and thinking about writing terrible poetry (but never actually inflicting that on the world, mercifully). I don’t recommend any of this.

Of course, what you need to do will depend entirely on the particular circumstances of whatever setbacks come your way. But here are some lessons I’ve learned lately, which will hopefully be helpful to you too:

1. Let Go of What Might Have Been

It’s easy to imagine a universe where this setback didn’t happen. You got the job, or secured the date, or you didn’t drop your wallet on the way to work, or you packed your suitcase better so you didn’t break your laptop during a five-minute walk down a flat street (this particular one might have happened to me very recently).

But we only get to live in one universe, and it’s this one. Unless we’re able to learn specific lessons from these regretful thoughts (like: pack your suitcase more carefully in future, you fool), then they serve no purpose.

We must accept that this setback happened—which is far easiersaid than done, particularly for larger setbacks. Acceptance is tough, and everybody’s process will be different. I find it helpful to consciously sit and feel the emotion (regret, sadness, anger, frustration)—then clear my thoughts, breathe, and acknowledge that the bad thing has happened and there’s nothing I can do to change that—I can only change my response to it.

2. Ask: Can It Be Fixed?

With the initial wave of emotion out of the way, it may be possible to see a comparatively straightforward solution.

Sometimes things are simply over—a failed job application is going to stay failed, and turning up at their office to desperately sing the company song isn’t going to improve things.

But if we’ve received an unexpected bill, or broken something, or upset somebody, then perhaps we can simply take action: pay the bill, fix or replace the thing, or have a conversation to clear the air. Sometimes the situation may not be fixable, exactly, but perhaps it can be improved. If there’s some practical action to be taken, then do it.

The sooner we put the difficulty behind us, the sooner we can get on with our lives. (And ignoring a lingering problem will only make things worse.)

If there’s not an immediate action to be taken, it may be helpful to revisit the “let go” stage above. For a big setback, it could take many revisits.

3. Find Support, if you Need It

If you’ve stubbed your toe, you might be able to vent via a pithy tweet or a text. But if you’ve suffered a serious setback, don’t be afraid to lean on friends, family or even appropriate professionals for help. Carrying it alone only makes it harder to deal with.

Perhaps it would help to find somebody who’s been through this themselves. For example, after your first rejection from a publisher, it might be reassuring to hear from a veteran writer that this is totally normal.

It often feels as if we’re the only person ever to suffer a misfortune, which is why it’s so valuable to build community to share our joys and struggles with.

4. Find Some Joy

As famous comedy character Alan Partridge says, we need some positives after a disappointment.

It doesn’t have to be big, but finding some joy will distract us from the desire to wallow in self-pity and remind us that there’s still some good in the world, even if this particular good thing didn’t work out this time. Time for a treat, scheduling something to look forward to, taking time with a friend or family or pet, or whatever will cheer us up.

5. Reconsider Your Goals

Persistence is often crucial, and—once we’re ready—it’s good to get back on the horse and try again, aiming to achieve whatever it was we didn’t quite manage this time.

But sometimes a failure is a good moment to reconsider the direction we’re travelling in. Do we actually want this thing, or have our priorities changed?

There’s no need to go too deeply into it; too much questioning can be paralysing. However, a few minutes of reflection is always helpful for allowing ourselves the possibility of change.

6. Take New Action

Hopefully we’ve accepted the loss, done our best to improve the situation, found some support, and done some nice things to cheer ourselves up. Now it’s time to look to the future and actually take action to get whatever we want.

That might mean applying for more jobs, rebooting or replacing a project, finding another date, whatever it takes. If there’s something we want, and it’s worth trying (again) to get it.

All Our Problems Are Solved Forever (Ha!)

Obviously, I’d like to wish you a life free of setbacks, but we all know that’s impossible. I’m trying to move forward in the certain knowledge that more things will go wrong… and that hopefully I’ll be better placed to handle it when they do.


Only one laptop was 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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Why Goals Aren’t Enough—You Need to Set Directions Too http://www.walkingoncustard.com/why-goals-arent-enough-you-need-to-set-directions-too/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/why-goals-arent-enough-you-need-to-set-directions-too/#respond Wed, 12 Dec 2018 15:43:44 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2994 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Recently, I caught up with a friend I don’t get to see often enough. Neither of us were in a Major Life Crisis, so we were doing that thing where we swap minor problems back and forth—everything from busyness to boredom to the various …

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Directions by Luis Marina, on Flickr

Original Photo © Luis Marina, Luis Marina on Flickr.
CC BY 2.0

[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Recently, I caught up with a friend I don’t get to see often enough. Neither of us were in a Major Life Crisis, so we were doing that thing where we swap minor problems back and forth—everything from busyness to boredom to the various ways our ageing bodies are mysteriously misbehaving.

Naturally, we share that delightful human instinct for wanting to share solutions we’ve found. But after the conversation, I reflected on the advice we’d swapped, and I realised we had mostly both been talking to our past selves, rather than each other.

We were sharing things that had helped us, as opposed to things that we thought would actually solve each other’s problems. For example, imagine saying something like:

“Yoga helped me so much… you should do yoga too!”

There’s nothing wrong with this. If something helps us, it’s only natural to want other people to try it too.

But what you get out of yoga might not be what I would get out of it. Perhaps you loved it for the quiet reflective time away from the busyness of life, while I really need a vibrant new community. (Of course, yoga can be both, but that’s not the point.)

Instead of focusing on the object which helped, it might be better to explain why it helped:

“Yoga helped me [connect with a cool community / become stretchier / spend more time with rubber mats]. Is there an activity which could help you in the same way?”

Instead of pointing my friend specifically towards yoga, I could help them meet their underlying needs.

I realised I could give better, more personalised advice if I focused on why something might help, rather than on what my recommendation was.

This idea stuck with me, and I found myself applying it in other areas of my life.

Finding a Underlying Direction…

I feel like I’m constantly revising what I’m aiming to achieve. At any one time, I’m juggling a few different projects, and my goals can usually be expressed as “finish this, then finish that, then finish the other thing.”

But if I focus on why—on what grander, deeper purpose the goal is supposed to achieve—then my perspective broadens and I realise there are many more options open to me than I first perceived.

For example, imagine I wanted to star in a local amateur musical. I practice, I work hard, and eventually I go to the audition and do my best.

If I didn’t get the part, I would be sad: I failed to meet my goal.

But if I look deeper at my underlying goal—my why—I might see that, actually, what I really wanted was to get out of the house, to meet some people, and to improve at performing. This part was only one specific way I could have met those needs. Now, I can look for another activity—or activities—which fulfil those underlying desires.

If we can express why we have a particular ambition, we can usually find multiple paths to achieving it.

Instead of ‘goals’, I’ve come to think of these whys as ‘directions‘: not a single, specific future, but a whole host of potential futures which all contain something I desire.

… So You Can Move Toward Concrete Benefits

Directions have another advantage over specific goals: we don’t have to complete them in order to see the benefit.

Let’s take another example. Imagine I had the ambition to own a yacht. (It probably won’t be surprising that this isn’t an example from my own life.)

Like before, I could look for the underlying needs I’m trying to meet. Perhaps I want to show off, or to spend more time on boats, or simply want to have more excuses to say the word “yacht.”

Even if I don’t make it all the way, any movement in this direction still brings me the benefit of more disposable income.

It also encourages me to search the broad space of possibilities which move me in this direction. Focusing on the end result—the yacht—doesn’t suggest any concrete actions. But thinking about this direction suggests specific, attainable actions:

  • “I will spend less this week”
  • “I will find temporary, part-time work”
  • “I will write 500 words on my novel”
  • “I will find another three clients for my business”

Thinking about the direction naturally leads me to smaller, more achievable goals, which themselves help me meet my underlying desires and needs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having goals, but sometimes it helps to zoom out and consider what the point is. This process might help you revise the goals, or it might help you achieve them.

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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/#comments 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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