Is this all there is?

The holidays are over; normal life is resumed. We are heading towards Blue Monday, the third Monday in January, the alleged day of the year on which most people tend to be most miserable, and for which there is no scientific evidence at all. (I’m happy to be proved wrong.) Nevertheless there is a sense that people are ground down by the lack of sunlight at this time of year, the absence of anything to look forwards to after Christmas, with work or school to resume as normal, and perhaps left to reflect on having spent money over Christmas that they didn’t really have on things they didn’t really want. What can cheer us up?

I enjoy Christmas, but as I said in my previous post I don’t make too big a thing of it, or overdo things. Even so I am left feeling both a bit empty apart and full of dread. The rest of the year stretches ahead. Maybe I’ll go away a few times. I might enjoy a few days in the sun in summer. I might finish writing a book or two. But soon the days will start shortening again, and then it will be my birthday. Another year since the last one. And not long after that it will be Christmas again. A year nearer old age, a year nearer infirmity, a year closer to death. And so the cycle repeats.

People tell me that this is a negative, depressive way of looking at things, to which I say: this is exactly what it means to be depressed! “Normal” people often appear to think that a person who says they’re depressed won’t have any symptoms.

I realise too that I am luckier than most: I’m in relatively good health, I achieve some fulfilment in my work, and I’m not struggling to eke out a tough existence doing a biring repetitive job (which is one of the things I dread most in the world). That knowledge doesn’t help. I feel lonely and I feel alone, an alien on the sidelines watching everyone else enjoying life and finding meaning in mundane things, helping giving their children a good life, or comfort in their God.

I can’t even imagine what meaning there could be to make up for the grind of everyday life. THIS is all there is.

An interesting seeming paradox then is my Kurzweilian obsession with life extension. I don’t think there is in fact a paradox: who wants to go to a football match if you know it’s going to be abandoned because of a water-logged pitch after ten minutes? Part of my ennui is because it hardly seems worth starting anything if I’m going to be dead in forty years. (Again, please don’t tell me this is crazy messed up thinking.) I’ve got to rush to finish writing my book on consciousness and the next one on weather and psychology because bits will start falling off me in a few years. So yes please, sign me up for freezing my head, having my blood vessels cleaned by nanobots, neural implants, and uploading my intellect to cyberspace. To paraphrase Woody Allen, I don’t want to become immortal just through my work, I want to become immortal through not dying. Life extension would give my life real meaning.

Scientific progress in the quest for eternal life is one of the few things that stops me from killing myself at this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas comes but once a year – thank God

I am no grinch who wants to steal your Christmas. In fact I love many aspects of it; I love the lights, the colours, a nicely decorated tree, an opportunity to drink champagne before lunch, and thinking about the turning of the seasons as the winter solstice at last arrives. But I don’t feel the joy of anticipation and the frenzy that many people, perhaps most people, apparently feel. It is one of many events, like parties and family gatherings, where I feel like an alien.

Why do people get so worked up about Christmas? Maybe I’m very lucky in having such a good life that I don’t need special days; maybe it’s because I don’t have children; maybe because I’m not so conditioned by the insane advertising that tries to force us to think the event is the most important thing ever. Or maybe it is because I’m an insane alien. Sure, it’s nice, but the reaction of nearly everyone else seems so over the top  to me, particularly given that most ignore the religious aspect. (Indeed usually the more religious people are, the more restrained they are about the commercial aspects.)

It is seen as opportunity for many to “let their hair down”, and have fun, a good “blow out” for a day or two. But why just one day? Why can’t our lives be full of meaning and pleasure all year round? Why can’t it be Christmas every day?

I know of several people of whom it is said “they live for their holidays”, among which I am including Christmas. I find that sad: the remainder of their lives is so unpleasant and has so little meaning that they’d rather they didn’t happen, but instead would pass as quickly as possible until the next special day. At this time of year it is almost impossible to get into Marks and Spencer’s food hall, and that’s assuming that you can park within ten miles to get in; what are you doing the rest of the year, shoppers? Where are you? What do you do the rest of the time? And why are you such bad drivers? I am supposed to be antisocial and depressed, yet I think your situation is the sad one. One day of joy and gluttony, three hundred and sixty four of misery. At least in good years I can manage five days of joy and only three hundred and sixty of misery. (Bugger leap years.)

Is it really that “work” you have to do really so unpleasant? It is clear that many people have really unpleasant jobs. It’s manual labour and repetitive, boring jobs that would get to me. Being an academic was good; working on a checkout sounds dreadful to me. Most jobs are in between. Yet the people who do them don’t seem that unhappy; they have friends, they chat, the time appears to fly by for them, although I would hate it. I am left confused. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I am the unhappy one who is depressed. Is there some causal relationship here that I’m missing?

Is the experience of Christmas much worse if you are very depressed? I have been alone a few times on Christmas Day and it’s not nice. There are several good sites (here is another) talking about how Christmas and depression “don’t go” together. It is hardly surprising, because there are few things more depressing when you’re depressed than happy people.

If you are crazy about Christmas, good for you. I’m not trying to demean or cirticise you; I sometimes wish I could join in more easily. I’m simply saying that there are some of us who are cut off from normal life. I wish I could, if only once a year, let my hair down, as they used to say, but probably no longer do. But a very Merry Christmas to you!

Finally, a few notes. First, I am in the process of updating my website, so there might be a few hiccups along the way. Second, a little shameless self-promotion: my novel, Fit for a King, is available from Amazon for Kindle on special offer over the festive season for £0.99 here, or $1.32 on Amazon.com here. You can buy a paperback version if you prefer. A novel about how to be sane in an insane world.

Getting the words out

I’ve been silent because I’ve been busy. I have found that writing my “great work”, The Science of Consciousness, is good for my mental health – although whether I’d be able to write at all without a certain level of mental health is a moot point. Writing gives my life direction and purpose, and structures my day. The amount of work involved makes a mockery of any notion of being “retired”; writing is fulltime job. Consciousness is the most difficult subject I’ve ever written about: to paraphrase the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland “an awful lot has been written on consciousness, mot of it rubbish”; why do I think what I’m writing isn’t rubbish too? I suppose you can only do your best and then just hope. I’m not going to fall into the trap that many psychologists fall into, of equating consciousness with attention, or even just visual attention. I recognise it’s a big, difficult topic.

I have been reflecting about why I have found this writing so enjoyable and so therapeutic. Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s because I really want to do it. I would probably write it even if I didn’t have a publisher and a contract. The only downside of a contract is often a fairly tough deadline – but if I didn’t have a deadline I almost certainly would work more casually, so it’s an advantage as well as a curse. (And usually the deadline wouldn’t be so bad if only I had started earlier.)

In the odd spare moment that I have, I wonder if my mood would be as good without this purpose. As ever there is circularity: doing stuff makes your mood better, but you have to be well enough to be able to do any stuff in the first place.

Of course in the end I will die (unless I decide to have my head frozen, and even then I expect eventually to die regardless) and eventually my books will go out of print, and I will be forgotten. At this point I envy people with children; they will live on through their genes. As others have observed, our lives are like stones thrown into a pool, causing ripples to spread out. Eventually the ripples fade and it is, for most of us, as though our stone was never thrown into the pool.

When writing a book I try not to think about it too much. I have 150,000 words to deliver before the summer. If I think of it in that way, the task is an enormous one. So I break the task down into 1000 words a day (number of words left divided by number of days left, allowing Sunday off – or rather do those jobs that have accumulated in the week) come what may. I think deciding to miss one day is a slippery slope; of course choosing to miss one day wouldn’t make much difference, but it’s easy for that one day to become two, and before I knew it, a month would have gone, and a 1000 words a day has become 1250. And then there’s reading, researching, and checking. You have to treat it like a job, or any other job I suppose, and just get on with it. I know there’s no point putting off starting to write every day because I know that it has to be done regardless, and starting at 5 pm is much more miserable and difficult than starting at 9 am. I still procrastinate a bit first thing, but I gather many writers do. I think it was Derren Brown who said something like “all self-help books just boil down to – just do it”. If you’re writing a book, writing an essay, or just have to mow the lawn – get on with it now.

Also on the positive side, I have had three outputs this week, and nothing lifts my heart more than seeing my name somewhere.

First, the second edition of my book, Talking the talk: Language, psychology, and science has just been published by Psychology Press. See:

 

 

This book is a gentle introduction to psycholinguistics, the science of how we produce and understand language. I still think the first edition was the best thing I have ever written (so far).

Second, I had a letter in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday about futurology, robots, AI, and the implications for the economy. I’m a pessimist about these things:

 

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Rather to my surprise, it generated a great deal of interest. There were letters in reply (none of which really addressed the problem, I thought) and offers to write about the subject elsewhere. I think the future is a pretty scary place, and although I would have loved a laptop with fast internet connection when growing up, it could be that I have lived in the best of times – a rather optimistic conclusion for someone as usually as negative as me.

And third, finally, I gave a talk at Durham University on How to be successful in academia, particularly if you’re suffering from mental illness. I’m told it was very successful.

So a good few weeks. Success and achievements lift the spirits – just as you would expect. If you can, do something. But there will be times when you are too depressed to do anything. My advice, based on my experience, is to sit it out. Things will get better eventually, because they always have in the past. I promise.

 

Emptying the mind

It’s been a while since my last blog. Who would have thought that being self-employed would mean being so busy? I have been trying to focus on what’s important: my goals in taking early “retirement” from the full-time job have always been to increase my reading, thinking, and writing time.

But we live in a world of distraction. Distraction makes procrastination very easy. I even know of academics who have been encouraged by their “line managers” (what a repellent phrase) to “multi-task” their administration and research. I’m not sure at what level they’re supposed to multi-task – reading a paper while giving a lecture perhaps? – but we know that multi-tasking reduces efficiency: it just doesn’t work. Doing two things at once has a cost (which is why even speaking on the phone while driving increases the chance of an accident, let alone texting and driving). It also increases stress. And we know that doing important, creative work requires focus – you can’t carry out great research while students back their essays. I even have my doubts about one of those great sacrosanct beliefs in academic life that great teaching and research must go together: good teaching requires time, and research requires time, and you can’t be doing two things at once (see above).

I have tried to simplify my life, for peace of mind both for being mentally ill, and in order to be able to think more clearly. I have just been reading Timothy Ferriss’s excellent (if lengthy) Tools for Titans, and it is obvious that I am not alone in pursuing this strategy. Physical clutter is distracting – some of us even find it distressing. Mental clutter is just as bad, perhaps worse.

And how much mental clutter we all must have! How can you live in the moment when you are worrying about what you did wrong this morning and what you have to do this evening? How can you write well when your mind is on the telephone bill?

So here are some of the things that I’ve done to reduce mental clutter.

  1. Write down as much as possible. First I carried out a brain dump of everything I had to do, everything I was worried about, and everything on my mind. This task took a while, and I kept adding to the dump over a few days.
  2. Make structured lists. Over the years I have experimented with several types of list and time management systems. Now someone with an obsessional personality has to be careful of lists – they can easily take over and become an obsession and a distraction in themselves. I recently tried a complex system of email folders with tasks for doing today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this week, waiting for, and so on … (I am familiar with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system and implement a simplified version of it. I have tried dedicated software but am aiming for a simple solution.)
  3. To do. Currently I am using Apple’s Reminders, with several types of list organised by location and time. I am trying to keep it simple. I have tried complicated systems and apps and remain to be convinced that a to do list can be bettered. The important thing is that nothing gets lost, and that I know everything will be dealt with by the deadline. I don’t want to have to think about peripheral things.
  4. Removing distractions. Social media distracts us and increases mental clutter. I can’t go as far as some and remove myself completely from Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t want to delete all my email accounts (and I don’t think it would be a good idea for future employment possibilities). But I don’t need to check my email every hour. Emails generate emails. I have reached the fabled “Inbox zero”, partly by moving things I can’t do now to an appropriate folder. (Actually as I write it is Inbox 1.) There are some emails I can’t do anything about just now, either because they refer to future events or because I need to do something to be able to answer them – they are moved to a “Waiting” folder. I do feel bad about several emails in my “Weather” folder that I plan to get round to when I have time. These are questions about or suggestions for or things to add to my British weather pages (http://www.trevorharley.com/trevorharley/weather_web_pages/britweather.htm). I do feel a bit bad that people have gone to the trouble of writing to me, and I always thank them, but it’s not my day job, and my time is very limited, so I can’t process them all at once. Recognising that we have limited time is a big part of the fight. WE CAN’T DO EVERYTHING. And that means MAKING CHOICES. (Apologies for shouting these statements.)
  5. Meditation. Everyone says meditation is good for clearing the mind and improving mental focus and clarity. I though with my monkey mind find the process very difficult, and probably as a result find the benefits – so far – limited. I will persevere though. I am using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace site; I like the structure it provides and the implicit coercion. My jury is still out on meditation.
  6. Mindfulness. At all other times I am trying to be mindful of what I am doing now. If a distracting thought arises I try to push it away or if it is something I need to pay attention to add it to my list. It is easy though for obsessive people to get obsessed with clearing our minds, so we are for ever writing down minor thoughts. We all also occasionally at least need to plan what we’re going to do: living in the present doesn’t imply drifting.

Interestingly, as I was half way through writing this blog, the following landed in my inbox and caught my eye (I know, I know):

http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Finally, we should think about whether it’s even a good idea to strive for an empty mind. Life isn’t that simple. Things are always cropping up, and surprises are always happening. Rather than avoiding shit we must learn to respond to shit in the right way. The more I think about it, the more important I think this point is: we will never achieve a perfectly empty mind. It’s our responses we need to change.

Have a good Christmas and New Year everyone. It’s a difficult time of year for people with mental health problems – if nothing else it’s so dark in the northern northern hemisphere. So just hang on in there.

Commitment and commitments

Some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us.

Such a perfect day – how often can we say that, even on those rare days when we are fit, well, and happy? I usually finish the day with a profound sense of disappointment, feeling that I could and should have done more that day, which means that I should have done things differently.

I have just finished reading Mark Forster’s Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done. I enjoyed it a great deal, and there were several thought-provoking points that stuck with me. I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title; I was hoping for an analysis of how really productive people actually spend their time (see below). Nevertheless Forster’s books are ones I would recommend to anyone interested in time management, productivity, writing, creativity, or generally living a better life.

I was particularly struck by this quote:

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I must admit I thought I hadn’t heard of H. Jackson Brown Jr. before (it turns out that he is author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, which was a bestseller in the early 90s), but I am now sure that I have seen some of his homilies on calendars and tea towels (“Drink champagne for no reason at all” strikes a particular chord with me). Of course the meaning of the quote is obvious and indisputable, but it really brings home how some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us. I accept a few people appear to need less sleep than others, but most of us need around seven to eight. Currently I seem to need seven; any less and I notice I really don’t function at all well. Saving on sleep is a false economy (sadly).

So that means I have 17 hours left after subtracting my sleep hours left every day, and let’s assume that a very successful person has about the same. But even the hardest working person must eat, exercise, shower (occasionally), dress, travel, perhaps shop occasionally, keep the house maintained, clean, pay bills, maintain social and family contacts, and so on. I outsource as many of these as possible, and try and cut back on non-essential activities, but there are limits on what you can do. You might be able to prepare two meals at once, but try going out without dressing. Please, yes try it. And maybe you can multitask a bit (although being mindful means to me that when you shower you focus on the shower and enjoying the water, not thinking about something else). So you end up with considerably fewer than 17 hours a day. I also find hard work, including writing and reading tiring, and there’s a limit on what I can that pushes the limit even lower.

Ah, but some will say, the people named in the quote were geniuses: they need less time to get big things done. Maybe. But what makes a genius? Thomas Edison observed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and the latest psychological research shows that he wasn’t far wrong. Success in anything takes real commitment. We now know that although native talent has a role to play in success, above a certain level of intelligence and ability, sheer hard work and the number of hours put in matters much more than most people think. Where do these hours come from?

Are you happy with what you get done? If not, then the key point that struck me after reading Forster’s book is if you want to do more of something else, you have to do less of something you’re doing now. What are you not going to do that you’re doing? I know it seems obvious, but on reflection it struck me as profound point: if I want to do more reading, writing, and thinking, I need to stop doing something else. What?

I probably do less “inessential” stuff than many people. I don’t watch much television; I don’t go shopping; I don’t play computer games; I am fortunate enough not to have to mow my own lawn; and I count writing this blog as work. I’m not addicted (I think) to email and social media, and although I enjoy food and cooking, I don’t spend too long on it, particularly since I’ve gone on my new “diet”, and I don’t spend as much time napping as I used after making substantial lifestyle changes to fight depression. What else can I give up? Perhaps it’s time for a time audit, but they’re quite a lot of effort and I doubt it will show I waste much time. My vices are reading the opinion columns of two newspaper, but that doesn’t take long, and keeps me informed, and occasional shopping on Amazon and iTunes.

In spite of all those I still feel I have too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I am not alone: most of us feel overloaded all the time. You might be one of lucky few who think they haven’t got enough activities to fill their days, but if so you’re probably not reading this article. We should be trying to drop things from our lives, but often we take on new stuff. We say yes to things that interest us, or yes to our managers (perhaps we have no choice), or we want to write another book or take up a new hobby. These are new commitments. But we start off already over-committed! So every time we take on a new commitment, we have to ask which of our current commitments are we going to drop (or reduce) to make room for the new one? I want to get back to playing the piano. So what should I drop that I’m currently doing, when I already feel under tremendous time pressure?

So if you want to take on something new, or find more time, you first have to choose something to drop something you’re currently doing. Obvious perhaps, and easy to say, but much less easy to do.

Over-loading creates other pressures. Most people I know say they’re drowning in a sea of email. Many have hundreds (at least one chap I know is almost proud to say that he has thousands) of emails in their inbox. That’s obviously inefficient – I bet if you’re one of these people you’re wading through the same emails day after day, and often miss important, job-critical commitments. It involves handling the same piece of virtual paper more than once, often many times. And exactly when are you going to deal with the backlog? Most people say “one day”, but one day rarely if ever comes. (My favourite email tip is one I learned about some time ago – perhaps from a previous book of Forster: never answer an email the same day that you get it, unless the consequences will be really terrible – or, I suppose, unless you’re conducting a romance by email.)

Every successful person I have read about swears by their routine. I’ve talked about creativity and routine before. It’s a little tedious, perhaps, doing the same thing at the day after day, year after year, but successful people make time for their perspiration by sweating it out at the same time, every day.

Managing time is even more difficult for people with mental illness. Illness steals time. The unfairness of it all burns, but I think it has just to be accepted. We will never get as much done as “normal” people.

Finally, I am still very interested in my original idea of how some people to get so much done in a day. I would really love to interview an assortment of politicians, Nobel prize winners, Silicon Valley success stories, and business magnates, to find out what they do differently from me. Publishers and agents: if you want to commission such a book, please contact me! If you think you are particularly successful in life and have tips to share, please post a comment below or email me at trevor.harley@mac.com.

Oh to be an optimist

There are a number of ways of dividing up the spectrum of personality types; the Big Five model is the most popular, but there are others. Some people are born lucky: they’re optimists. How I envy them! Their glass is half full rather than half empty – when I look at my glass, I’ve just had a sip and it is already a third empty.
Although optimism-pessimism is an important personality construct in its own right, it’s unsurprising that optimism correlates with other aspects of personality. I consult my favourite book on individual differences, Maltby et al.’s (2013) text Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence, to confirm what we might have expected: that in terms of the “Big Five” personality factors, optimism is significantly positively correlated with extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and negatively correlated with neuroticism (see in particular Sharp et al., 2011). I’m surprised there isn’t a negative correlation with openness; how can you be open to new experiences if you expect everything to turn out badly? Better the devil you know.
Needless to say optimism is correlated with good health and well-being. Continue reading “Oh to be an optimist”

Nulla dies sine linea

 

sun rays

 

I have to finish the first draft of my book on consciousness by the start of November. I want to leave about two months for rewriting, clarifying, and improving the style. That means. 1339 words a day every day before 1 September to reach my target 160,000 words. (My writing software of choice, Scrivener, will automatically calculate the daily target based on your deadline and target length, and keep track of your daily writing total against the daily target.) There are probably going to be some days when something goes wrong and I can’t write, so I should be aiming for about 1500 words a day. I don’t know whether that sounds a lot or little to you; most days I have to read and think to be able to write those words, and I have to keep track of citations (not included in the total) as I go.

It would be easier if I didn’t have a day job too. Fitting writing in spare moments is difficult and stressful. Whoever thought that a writer has an easy life? At the very least it requires great discipline and great dedication.

When writing like this it is difficult to fit much else in to life. The mundane tasks are piling up. I really should wash the car, clear the vegetable patch, and change my energy suppliers, but such things always come last.

But the end is in sight. I finish the day job on 31 July. As of today that’s exactly 100 days.

Hopefully then things will be easier. But then there are these things called “holidays”. No wonder holidays can be among the most stressful of life events! Holidays for the writer and depressed person are interesting things. Words don’t get written unless you’re at the computer (or typewriter, or even with a notepad and pencil), and totals don’t wait for holidays. I suppose all self-employed people have the same problem – can we afford to take a break? It is though I think more challenging for writers facing a deadline. My current plan is never to stop writing, and write even in holidays and on Christmas day.

I suppose there is with every task a point at which it sometime becomes a chore, no matter how important the job and no matter how enjoyable it usually is. We just have to push on through.

A long time ago, Apelles the painter said:

Nulla dies sine linea.

Not a day without a line. The same applies to writers too. Even depressed writers. And setting some task for the day ahead, however small, and if possible doing it is of great help to depressed people in general.