Breaking habits/Forming new habits

For quite a few months now I’ve had the words “The key to a better life really is as simple as sitting and thinking about things” written in big letters in marker pen on a piece of paper on the corkboard on my bedroom wall. This refers to the fact that probably since I was in my early 20s (I’m 37) I’ve occasionally spent time sitting somewhere quiet and just letting my mind wander. When I do this, it helps me with things like remembering the things I need to do that day, remembering friends that I’ve not seen for a while, and I often find that I’ll accidentally solve a problem I’ve been having in my life, or come up with a new idea for something. I guess some people would say this sounds like meditation, but I’ve never really thought of it as that because it was just something I started doing because I felt like before I knew anything about meditation. In recent years I’ve looked into mindfulness and tried it a tiny bit, and some element of that has coloured what I do now when I sit down for a mind wander. This process tends to result in me having a much clearer head and suddenly I become much more productive and sociable, and in the years since I’ve been suffering from depression, from just doing this once I probably end up getting more done in the following few days that I would otherwise do in a month.

About a year ago I finally admitted to myself (closely followed by my counsellor) that I’m addicted to the internet, especially facebook. Now I think about it I’ve probably spent an unhealthy amount of time looking at computer screens since I was a child, before we even had the internet at home (can you imagine? It makes me feel about 100 just saying that). I’ve always resisted getting a smartphone because I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea for me, so I guess some part of me has known that I had a problem with the internet for a long time, I just hadn’t properly faced up to it. Since admitting my problem I’ve discovered the concept of the Cycle of Change, which is most commonly used in relation to addiction but can be applied to anything where you want to change your own behaviour. My interpretation of the cycle is essentially:

Admit you’ve got a problem
Think about doing something about it
Do something about it
Maintain a change in behaviour

I’ve gone through this cycle quite a few times now where I’ll do quite well at limiting my use for a period then something will happen that will cause me to relapse. It could be being ill, being really tired from a physically demanding work day, or just running out of willpower. The next thing I know it’s weeks later and I realise I’ve slipped into my old habits and I have a moment where I say to myself “shit, what am I even doing? I really need to get off the internet”. Then I’m motivated by my lapse to take action again. The theory is that each time you go round the cycle you learn something that you can use to do better next time round, and you get quicker at realising you’ve lapsed and doing something about it.

The reason I’ve talked about both the seemingly unrelated “meditation” and the internet addiction is that I remembered something I’d read a while back in book called Willpower for Dummies (found in a charity shop, surprisingly good). It says that it’s much easier to actively decide to do something than it is to not do something that’s a habit. So instead of trying not to go on the internet, I decided I would commit myself to trying to do at least 30 minutes of “meditation” a day, knowing that when I do this I’m much less likely to spend significant time online that day. I heard somewhere (probably a TED talk) that it takes 8 weeks to form a new habit so my current goal is to try and meditate for at least 30 mins a day for 8 weeks and hope I can make it a long term habit.

To Tube or not to Tube

A few weeks ago (maybe longer) I decided I would try and start making YouTube videos, and I even bought a cheap webcam. I wanted to share my experiences of mental health difficulties and other aspects of my life, as no-one else really seemed to be doing that and I thought it might help me and other people at the same time. I came across a few popular YouTubers who’ve made a couple of videos where they’ve talked about their mental health, but I couldn’t find anyone who had a channel that was specifically about that from the outset. I think anyone talking, especially publicly, about their mental health is a good thing for the general way in which mental health problems are viewed by society and that many people feel ashamed to admit they are struggling as it’s still widely seen as a sign of weakness.  Now I’ve thought some more about it I feel like me making YouTube videos probably needs too much planning and headspace for me to actually do it, even tho I was planning for it to be fairly raw and honest. So for now I’m just going to try and post to this blog more often (ever) and maybe I’ll graduate to video at some point in the future.

A post without a cause

Tim Urban of Wait But Why, in a post that I can’t find right now says that if you want to write a successful blog you should “always be jabbing” which is a boxing metaphor he basically uses to mean that in between the really good well researched and well thought out posts it’s good to try to write frequently even if you don’t have a huge amount to say. Clearly since I’ve not written a post in about 2 months, I’m not doing very well at exercising that theory. I think one of the big reasons for that is that I’ve just come to the end of quite a long lapse in my battle against Internet addiction. That’s also why I’m writing this now at 1am, because I’m 4 days into a concerted effort to spend a lot less time online after having a “wake up” moment. One of the side effects of this is that because my head is clearer my brain is much more active and so I’m having trouble getting to sleep. So I got up, made a cup of tea and decided to write a blog post on whatever came out of my brain.

The other thing that Tim Urban says is that basically in the early days of writing a blog a lot of your posts will suck, but don’t worry because you’ll get better with practice. This post definitely qualifies as “practice” but at the moment I don’t see it as much different to (from?) an extended version of writing thoughts on facebook, but this feels much more expressive and liberating. A huge amount of what I see people posting on facebook now is links to things that other people have said or created rather than the poster’s own thoughts, and it seems like when I share a thought it often gets no response. That’s probably 50% people reading it and thinking “whatever” and 50% Facebook filtering it out or it just getting lost in the noise. Writing things on here I seem to care a lot less if anyone is reading it (party because I’m pretty sure no-one is).

Anyway I’m feeling really good to have a clearer head and be a lot more conscious and decisive about how I’m spending my time. It turns out giving myself the space to get bored means that I’m much more often thinking “what shall I do now?” rather than just defaulting to scrolling my feed and reacting to notifications. What hasn’t helped is that for the last 3 months I’ve been working on building up some FB groups as a way of promoting my business, and it’s really easy to get stuck in a loop of responding to the next notification and the next and the next, interspersed with needlessly checking how many people have joined so far (every 10 mins). So I really have to use a lot of self control to try and limit how many times a day I check what’s happening with that while still making the progress with it that I want.

Useful link: How To Achieve Ultimate Blog Success In One Easy Step

The Thin Blue Line: A comedy of its time

While being stuck in the house with a stomach bug the last couple of days, it was a nice surprise to happen across the 90s comedy The Thin Blue Line on YouTube. I’ve quite enjoyed watching it but at the same time it struck me that it’s quite a good example of where things were at in the mid-90s in terms of the representation of gender, sexuality and ethnic origin (The series aired from 1995-96). It’s sort of like you can see they were trying, but at the same time having one foot in the past.

Here’s the make up of the main cast:

Inspector Raymond Fowler: White male, 40-something
Constable Patricia Dawkins:  White female 30-something
Constable Frank Gladstone: Black male 50-something (Trinidadian origin)
Constable Kevin Goody: White male 20-something
Constable Maggie Habib: Asian female 20-something

Detective Inspector Derek Grim: White male 40-something
Detective Constable Robert Kray: White male 30-something
Detective Constable Crockett: White female 30-something

In terms of ethic origin I think it’s actually unusually mixed for the time, to a point where it feels a bit constructed. What’s really interesting is the portrayal of sexuality. Kevin Goody is probably one of the campest characters ever to be on TV, but is apparently straight. His implausible attraction to Maggie Habib not being reciprocated is a running gag. I’m pretty sure the only reason the character isn’t gay is because the BBC probably thought the audience wouldn’t cope with it. There are a couple of jokes in the early episodes surrounding characters being offended by the suggestion that they (or in one case one of their literary heroes) might be gay. At the same time one episode features a character who isn’t at all camp and turns out to be gay, and this isn’t given any negative connotations. DI Grim is clearly homophobic, but the script avoided these two characters interacting.

Throughout the first series, CID consists of 3 characters, one of which (Constable Crockett) is female. Crockett’s first name is never mentioned, she doesn’t actually speak until episode 4, and is mostly mute for the rest of the series. A few times there are even situations where she and DC Kray are jointly given orders, where her lack of response is conspicuous, with only her male colleague giving a (lengthy) reply.

I feel like there should be a conclusion to this but I’m not sure what it is. Would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Pointless questions

It’s funny how in a lot of conversations people ask questions that are seemingly irrelevant. The obvious one that springs to mind is that when discussing a music festival the default first question seems to be “where is it?”. Now unless the person asking is about to travel to the festival in question, the answer is neither interesting or useful, and is sort of a conversational dead end. Even if the person who brought it up did so because they’ve recently been to said festival, the chances are quite high that they either won’t know anyway, or won’t be able to remember in any more detail than “in a field less than 3 hours drive away”, partly because unless the local scenery is particularly beautiful a music festival’s location is probably the least interesting thing about it.

This subject came to mind because I was in my local Chinese/Chippy and the guy in front of me in the queue was asking at the counter if they served anything that was vegan, which was a difficult conversation for both of them, and seemed to have left them both confused. Anyway I asked the guy if he knew that there was a vegan chippy nearby. He said he didn’t and asked me where it was (which in this case was useful and relevant) and thanked me for the information. Then he confused me by asking “how did you find out about it?” which I wasn’t really sure why he wanted to know. I told him I wasn’t sure and mentioned I have some friends who are vegan. Afterwards I realised that the answer was probably actually “by driving past it at least once a week” which I’m not sure would have been useful information to him.

Another example that’s become gradually less common over the years but is still observed among the older generation is when answering the phone to someone who’s calling from a mobile is to ask them as the default first question “where are you?”, which although in some cases is useful information, the answer is generally neither interesting or useful.

Fighting procrastination: your life in squares

Yesterday I watched a hilarious TED talk about procrastination by Tim Urban. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post I’ve always struggled with procrastination and it’s effect has been amplified since I’ve been living with depression, so this really struck a chord with me. However the bit that had the biggest impact on me was right at the end where he makes a passing mention of the idea of giving yourself a constant reminder of the fact that the time you have is finite by using a diagram of your life split into weeks, assuming you live to 90. I thought this was such a good idea that I printed it out and stuck it on the wall on a blackboard so I can write my goals for the current week next to it.

In a way it’s quite daunting and makes me feel under a fair bit of pressure having my life laid out in such a stark way, but hopefully it’s going to help me get things done. It also really brings home the thought that you don’t actually know how many weeks you have left. It brings a whole new meaning to the term “deadline”. The more hopeful and less scary perspective on it is that all the people who’ve achieved great things also started with the same blank grid of squares, and how you choose to use yours really is up to you. Once I’d filled in the squares for the weeks I’ve lived so far I couldn’t help thinking it looked a bit like a Windows Defrag screen.

You can find more info on this concept and get hold of your own grid on Tim’s blog.

Internet addiction: admitting you’ve got a problem

This was written as a draft in May 2017.

It’s with a vague sense of irony that I find myself writing about this online. Spoiler: This is probably going to make for uncomfortable reading for most of you.  I recently finally admitted to myself that I’m addicted to the Internet. When I really think about it, it’s probably been true since I was about 15 (I’m 35 now). The realisation really struck me when I was watching a brilliant talk by Simon Sinek called Why Leaders Eat Last. Incidentally I highly recommend watching this as several ideas in it have had a positive impact on my life. Anyway, in the video he talks about smart phone addiction, and although I don’t have a smart phone the principle is the same and it really resonated with me:

“We’re told that if you wake up in the morning and you crave a drink, you might be an alcoholic. If you wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is check your phone before you even get out of bed, you might be an addict. If you walk from room to room in your own apartment holding your phone, you might be an addict. If you’re driving in your car and you get a text, and your phone goes beep (we hate email, but we love the beep, the buzz, the ding) You’ll be there in 10 minutes, and yet you have to look at it right now, you might be an addict. If you read it and it says ‘are you free for dinner next Thursday’ and you have to reply immediately, you can’t wait 10 minutes, you might be an addict”.

I’d encourage anyone reading this to think about how close the description above is to their own behaviour and consider whether you may have a problem. I’d guess that the vast majority of people have some level of addiction to their phone, whether they are prepared to admit it or not. I made a conscious decision several years ago not to get a smart phone, because although I hadn’t admitted my addiction I knew that I spent more hours on the Internet at home than I’d like to count and decided that having the Internet in my pocket as well wouldn’t be good for me.

As with any addiction, admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step. Admitting it to myself was a start, but saying it out loud to someone else was what made it feel real, and felt quite liberating. Being aware of it makes it possible to manage it and try to limit my time online, and I find myself much more likely to have a moment of saying to myself “what am I doing?” when I’m just killing time in the Facebook rabbit hole. Some days I do better than others, but I’m making progress.

For about 10 years now, I’ve found it really helpful to spend about 15 minutes at the start of the day just sitting quietly and letting my mind wander. It helps me remember things I need to do, people I’ve not spoken to for a while and generally gives me a lot more clarity and helps me have a better life. Despite how often I imagine that I do this, in reality I’ve mostly only done it every few weeks, but since I admitted my problem I’ve been doing it much more often as I make a conscious effort to do it rather than reaching for my laptop as soon as I’ve had my breakfast.

The other realisation I’ve had is that an Internet or phone addiction is actually an addiction to dopamine (always looking for the next hit, the next email, the next comment or like) and that the other thing you can get dopamine from is crossing things off a to-do list. Given how much spending time online has stopped me getting stuff done over the years, that feels kind of poetic. As someone who runs their own business this has been a really powerful realisation, because starting the day by checking my Facebook can easily be the start of getting nothing useful done all day.

Thinking back I do feel a bit sad for how much of my life I’ve wasted faffing about online. As someone who’s always struggled with social interaction it’s a safe and familiar environment where nothing is risked. Over the years it’s increasingly become my default when I have nothing specific to do, or often even when I do have something to do or somewhere I could be. With Facebook specifically I feel like it’s a big red herring, as it makes you feel like you are in touch with people but in reality you are mostly not having any kind of meaningful connection or interaction with people, and in my case it’s sucked up so much of my time that it’s actually made me a lot less likely to get out and see people in person and have those real life conversations and meaningful connections. So much for a “social network”!


Depression: Every day is a battle

I wrote this as a draft in Oct 2016 and it’s taken until now for me to have the courage to post it.

One of the most frustrating things about living with depression is other people not knowing, not understanding, or forgetting that every day is a battle for you. Sometimes a few hours, a whole day or even most of a week are a little less of a battle, but it’s still a battle.

I think one of the reasons I spend so much time fiddling about on the internet is that it’s safe and familiar, nothing is risked. I find it a real struggle to initiate being sociable with my friends, and often even to go to things I’ve been invited to. This avoidance of, or failure to be sociable is self perpetuating because if people don’t see me for a while, through no fault of theirs it really is a case of “out of sight out of mind”. My experience is that the less you initiate things the less people think of you as someone to be invited to things, it’s almost as if everyone has an unconsious “up for stuff” flag for everyone in their social circle which switches off if the flag isn’t used for a while. For me that’s the really hard part, because even before I suffered with depression I was quite disorganised, which is now amplified, and now there’s the added problem (which I think everyone feels to an extent) of avoiding initiating things because “what if no-one comes”. Also a lot of the time I’d just like to see someone for a cuppa and a chat, but always feel like I need to suggest an activity in order to spend time with people. So what seems to happen to me a lot is I get to a day or an evening where I have free time and either want to or feel the need to be sociable, but have nothing planned in advance. So I end up just texting people saying “what are you up to today/tonight?” which often takes a fair amount of mental effort, which is often only overcome because I’ve been spending too much time on my own and have got to a point where I feel desperate for company. The thing is, people like being invited to things, but are probably not so keen to be effectively asked “I need something to do, what are you doing that I can join in with?” because let’s be honest it’s not very flattering to think that someone is contacting you because they’re bored, rather than because they want to see you.

It also doesn’t help being single at 35, for two reasons. The first is that as I’m sure most people who are single will tell you, when you have friends who are couples, they tend to do things together with other couples, like have dinner together for example. They’re not purposely excluding anyone, it’s just sort of the natural order of things. The second is that if you are in a relationship all this stuff is easier because you automatically have someone to do things with.

I’m not really sure where I was going with this, I started with an idea but I seem to have gone off at a tangent. Ah well, I think most of it was worth saying. As is probably obvious from this post I’ve decided to take this blog in a far more personal direction, partly because I thought it would help me to write things down and partly because any small contribution I can make improving general understanding of depression has got to be a positive thing.

What’s this blog about anyway?

Over the last 10 or so years I’ve made a few attempts to start blogs that were themed to cover a particular aspect of my life, or subject that I wanted to talk about. For a while I had a personal blog where I intended to write about silly subjects and politics and a professional blog where I covered what I knew about social media and other related subjects and tried to stay well clear of politics. It turned out I found this categorisation too restrictive, and when I did decide to write something I spent ages writing and re-writing it trying to strike the right tone for who I imagined my audience were. Which is one of the (many) reasons why I rarely wrote on either. I also spent a lot of time thinking about what each of them should be called, as it seems to be the done thing in blogging to give your site an amusing or interesting name that suggests it’s theme.

In the end I decided that as someone who thinks about a wide range of things all the time, only way I was going to be able to express myself in any useful way was to not have a theme and just use my name for the site title. That way I can just write about whatever I feel like as the mood takes me, and here we are.

A series of small tasks

Since a couple of months ago when I tried to (almost) give up social media and generally spend less time on the internet, I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks. While there have been several that have stood out enough to be bookmarked one I watched this evening that particularly stood out was a talk by Stephen Duneier about how anything you might want to achieve can be broken down in to a series of small tasks and that you can achieve amazing things by just making small adjustments to your daily routine. He started on this path when he was in school and struggled to get good grades because he couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than 5-10 mins at a time. As soon as he stopped trying to fight his nature and broke everything down into small tasks that he knew were short enough for him to complete, he started to do much better, and has continued to achieve great things using this method throughout his life. As someone who has always struggled with procrastination I found this really inspiring. It’s really worth 15 mins of your time.

So my first change to my routine which I hope will help me to get more exercise, was to park my van about a mile from my house. The plan is that I’ll keep parking it in the same place and cycle to and from it. Although this will only directly result in me getting a little more exercise, the idea is also that when I want to go somewhere that’s not for work that I’ll be forced to cycle, or at least that it will be less of a faff to just cycle rather than cycle to the van and drive. I have a lot of trouble parking my van near my house anyway, and often can’t remember which street I parked it on, so at least this way I’ll always know where it is.

By coincidence, a couple of hours later (after I went to the pub for a pint of cider before cycling home) when I was looking for something else that had little to do with achieving my goals I discovered a blog post by Jeff Attwood where he advocates achieving success in your life by writing a blog regularly to a schedule that’s realistic for you, hence this post. I was especially encouraged by him saying that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing just write something and you’ll get better at it the more you do it.

How long my van stays parked away from the house, time will tell. Maybe writing about it on here will help me stick to it.