Keep a daily blog

Well, that backfired.

But let me back up. I wish I wrote more. Relatively speaking, I’ve done a lot of writing over the years: sketches, a few murder mysteries, short stories, a couple of hours of stand-up of varying quality, co-authoring of a TV show, contributions to a book or two and a semi-devised script for a promenade show at a dubious pharmaceutical research facility as they were beginning human testing. You know, the usual. But all that writing is spread thinly over an uncomfortable number of decades, which is because each time it’s like getting ink out of a stone.

I just find it difficult to put my mind to it. I’ve always found it hard to share the writing process with another, but unfortunately I also lack the discipline to write on my own. All my essays, stand-up, scripts and other odds and sods have been written at the last possible minute, with the deadline forcing my hand. Douglas Adams famously managed to operate on that basis, and perhaps, were I significantly more talented, I might be able to get away with it as well. Unfortunately I need to work really hard at it, and as a result I generally feel like everything I’ve ever written isn’t quite finished or good enough to be published.

There’s a pretty well-known challenge faced by stand ups and comedy writers, which is that something that seems pretty amusing in your mind suddenly becomes dull and unfunny when you try and get it down on paper. Like having an abstract notion of a sculture in your head, then sitting down with a big block of stone and a chisel, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. In my case I don’t want to start tapping away with the chisel lest the results be disappointing; even in this digital age, turning an idea into words feels somehow permanent. And let’s face it, in writing and comedy, the results usually will be disappointing. It takes a while to craft the words just so to best communicate the core joke or idea, and the first few drafts are probably going to miss the mark.

Here’s another unnecessary analogy because I’m on a roll. If your pure, brilliant idea is a steak of flawless kobe beef, then the writing process is trimming, cooking, seasoning and serving it up with various accoutrements, all of which can detract from the original ingredient. It’s tempting to keep that pure idea in your head, rather than risk screwing it up by developing it. It’s a kind of perfectionism, which in writing is just another form of writer’s block. For me it’s an excuse not to write in the first place.

I think part of the solution, for me, is just to develop the habit of writing regularly and frequently. A good stand-up might write ten jokes and throw nine out; the important thing is to make it habitual and get to a place where ideas can just flow. That’s where blogging comes in. Posts are updated frequently (generally), and the bar for quality is lower. Not that blogs are inherently badly written or anything like that, but I think people expect them to be a little more rough and ready, a little less polished, than your average essay or newspaper article. The odd typo or unrefined turn of phrase isn’t going to be a big deal, and that means less time spent on the bits I dislike, such as editing, and more on the original ideas and first draft, which I enjoy.

So obviously you’re reading this on my blog, about my weekly lifestyle changes, and I should probably explain that the idea for the blog came first. The weekly challenges were, partly at least, to give me something to write about. Not that I’m not enjoying all those little life-style changes, which occupy considerably more of my time and energy than writing each of them up, but the idea came about when I was trying to think of a way to get me writing regularly again.

I’d always intended to spend one of my weeks focused on the blog itself one way or another, switching from weekly to daily updates to up the challenge, but I hadn’t been able to figure out logistically how to make it work. This is after all a blog about doing weekly challenges, and if the weekly challenge is to keep a blog, and I then write a blog about it, well, that’s all getting a bit meta and self indulgent, and it was already pretty far down that path to begin with.

…which has never stopped me before, so let’s go. And by happy coincidence, I missed seven weeks of blogging because of the birth of my second child. I kept up the actual weekly challenges, but fell well behind on writing them up. So this week’s challenge was to write daily blog posts.

I have a few writing goals planned (including this and writing a short story), so this seemed like a good time to check-in with David Scullion, a good and time-generous friend, and the most motivated, prolific writer I know. I asked him about writer’s block and how you maintain motivation, but he was singularly unhelpful in that regard. Turns out that’s never been his problem.

Writer’s block? Not really, no. Lack of motivation? Hell no.

I don’t think I’m rare in this either. Most of the professional screenwriters I know are hugely motivated and don’t have time to get writer’s block. Don’t have time to get it?! Yep. That’s not a valid excuse for a missed deadline so it HAS to be worked through.”

(Read the full conversation with David Scullion here.)

Well, that rings true. Lack of time is my go-to excuse, especially now I have two young children. Give me 15 spare minutes, and I’m going to spend them sitting down watching TV or fiddling with my phone, thinking as little as possible. I also spend all day every day in front of a laptop at work, and opening it back up once I’ve wrestled the kids into bed and cleaned up the kitchen requires discipline that I apparently lack.

Still, that’s the whole point of doing these weekly lifestyle changes. They’re not particularly big, challenging things, just little ways to prompt me to find new habits and get to things I’ve wanted to for ages. So I found the motivation in those tired evenings, and wrote daily blogs for a week.

The week itself went pretty well (don’t worry, it all falls apart in a bit, failure-fans). I wrote six articles (plus the write-up of the week), one a day, though spacing out the publishing.  Here they are:

And that’s where it all fell apart. Having spent a week writing every day, with a bunch of posts queued for publication, I felt like I was ahead and relaxed. For several months. I kept doing the weekly lifestyle changes, though not every week, and I have a lot of scribbled notes and stories, but the blog lay dormant.

I’ll write about the year as a whole, and that general failure, shortly. Within the next three months, for sure. Maybe four.

Write every day. Every day. For 5 minutes. For four hours. Every single f–king day. Write. Read. Repeat.

Yeah, all right, stop going on about it Dave.

  • Difficulty: Mederate. It takes discipline to get started, but gets easier as it becomes a habit.
  • Worthwhiliness: Moderate. If you want to be a writer, this could be an excellent enabling habit to get into. For me it backfired, sapping my motivation.

Seriously, go read my conversation with David Scullion. It’s a stream of conciousness that gives rare insight into the mind of a quasi-lunatic, and it’s packed with good tips for writers of screenplays, novels and more. Win-win.

Header image by Drew Coffman


Conversation with writer David Scullion

Part of the point of taking on these weekly mini lifestyle changes was to give me something to write about here. With that aim in mind, and planning a few writing-themed challenges too, back in May I bounced some questions off screenwriter, author and old friend David Scullion.

I wanted to ask him about his process, what inspired him and how he dealt with writer’s block. He was singularly unhelpful on that last point, but for interesting reasons, and he had a lot of great advice. Read on…

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast! Who are you again? Yeah, my memory is atrocious, so I won’t lie to you; I have literally no idea when I decided “I shall be a writer!”

I have always been creative and enjoyed entertaining. Recently I was searching through some old boxes of childhood shit at my parents’ house and found an old comic I’d written when I was about eight. It’s called “Rad Magazine” and formatted like The Beano, featuring dozens of different sketches from “Ginger the Cat”, “The Ghastly Ghostly Gang” and the tastefully-named “Fat Man”.

I went from writing and drawing comics to acting and writing in little sketches on the Scullion family video camera (now all lost to the damp-loft disaster of 2004) which included informative bonkers TV show ‘Scully News’. Then I moved onto writing pulpy horror novels…

My move to screenwriting came during a final batch of novel writing. I’d sent my latest ‘masterpiece’ to the usual 500 agents and publishers, printed and sent by post, literally funding Royal Mail for years. Usually I’d receive silence as a reply or a generic rejection letter or a ‘cease and desist’ letterbomb… but in the space of one week I received two personalised letters!
Rejection letters, but still! Actual handwritten words! Eeek! Thrills abound etc…

They both generally said the same thing; “write screenplays”. Why?

  1. Presumably so they wouldn’t have to receive another one of my huge packages containing terribly-written horror shite…
  2. They liked ‘some’ of my writing: the pace, the dialogue, the characters and the general story. It was just the ‘description’ that was… lacking. Or missing.

And with hindsight they were damn right – I couldn’t be bothered to write about the ‘feeling’ the kitchen evoked or what the contents of the fridge meant to the main character. I just wrote “There’s a knife rack and a clock shaped like Mickey Mouse’. I drew a scene, not an evocative passage of novelesque literature.

That week I packed away my novels and began writing for screen. And I haven’t looked back.

Well, I have looked back… and stolen ideas vigorously from my back catalogue of utterly shitcakes unpublished horror novels. No idea is worthless. Even Paul Blart.

What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Did you learn anything from early experimentation?

Yeah… this terrible memory of mine doesn’t help!

I wrote a few plays at university, but they’re lost on some floppy disc drive, probably hiding in a museum somewhere with my Amstrad and Monster in my Pocket toys.

The first full screenplay I wrote was for a sitcom called RETAIL, which I based around the HMV I was working in at the time. HMV? Wow, we seem to be having a real history lesson today! Listen up, kids – later I talk about C&A, MFI, the haunting demise of Woolworths and a magical place called ‘Blockbuster Video’, which sold something called a VHS.

I learned a LOT from writing Retail, about collaboration, runtimes, concept, tone, character and the small fact that you DON’T need to write the entire series in advance… Only the pilot and the series ‘bible’.

Lots of lessons there, including one that’s quickly becoming a theme in this interview; never give up and keep going or – in less polite terms – “Don’t stand around in a pile of your own shit. Move on and make something better. Or stand in crap. See if I care. Crap stander.”

Why are you drawn to horror in particular? Ever considered romantic comedies?

Why Horror? Why not? Oh, because it’s demented and horrifying and WHY CAN’T YOU JUST WRITE SOMETHING YOUR MOTHER WOULD LIKE, DAVID?!

The first thing I was commissioned to write was an episode of a Children’s TV series. I’ve written Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Drama etc… but Horror is definitely the genre I prefer to play in and am happy to be pigeonholed into*. That and comedy.

The two projects I’m working on now are both Horror-Comedies (Dearly Beheaded and Hipster Massacre) so it’s definitely a genre/subgenre I’m comfortable with.

* Pigeonholing has got to be a sex act of some sort, right? If not, then someone should make one up. Hey! You! Blog-reader! Put your suggestions in the comments section below. Yep, I’m sabotaging Brendan’s blog. Fill it with dirtiness! Do it, or I’ll pigeonhole you…

Right. Sorry about that. Why horror? Man, that’s such a long answer that it’d take a giant blog post to read…

Wait. What’s that? I’ve already written two Blog Posts about that on my own Blog? Well wadda you know!

  1. Why Horror? A discussion about Horror in general, and then my specific love of it.
  2. What made ME specifically like Horror? This blog is my origin story. Kind of. Includes pictures of “Rad Magazine”, so it’s goddamn unmissable!

You back? Good.

One addendum to that: I’m also an evil little psychopath who eats the homeless. With a side helping of Chihuahua pie. That’s why I like Horror. I AM horror. Or something.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer? (ever suffer from writer’s block? or lack of motivation?)


The biggest challenge I have is time. Or – more specifically – a giant lack of it.

Writing takes time. I’ve been doing it for YEARS and am still working full time in an office job (you know, in order to live and stay clothed and buy The Walking Dead comics and food and other essentials). I have so many ideas and am desperate to find time to write them, but life gets in the way.

I write on lunch breaks, in the toilet, on public transport. I’m writing this on the London Underground between Leytonstone and Oxford Circus. Thankfully I have the most patient partner in the world. She tolerates a lot of ‘forced alone time’ while I tap away in the next room all evening and weekend. She’s a f–king saint.

I have taken annual leave days from my day job to take meetings, write or (like Tuesday just gone) do a read through of a script in development!

Friendships suffer too. I don’t see my friends nearly as much as I’d like and spend moretime with producers, script consultants and directors than I do my own family! But most friends and family members are understanding and other simply send me a dead pigeon in a box (the correct way to officially sever ties with a friend).

Writer’s block? Not really, no. Lack of motivation? Hell no.

I don’t think I’m rare in this either. Most of the professional screenwriters I know are hugely motivated and don’t have time to get writer’s block. Don’t have time to get it?! Yep. That’s not a valid excuse for a missed deadline so it HAS to be worked through.

Also… they love it. Writers love writing. We have to. It’s not a chore, it’s a passion. An obsession. Something we NEED to do. It’s impossibly frustrating at times and sometimes difficult to face it… but it’s a need. If a person doesn’t have that need, then this industry ain’t for them. Because writing your own stuff is the easiest part (not easy – far freakin’ from it – but easiest!). Wait until the notes come in, producers get involved, directors give thoughts. Then it’s really work, which is why you have to love it. It is hard. It is frustrating. It is your time.

And writer’s block? It exists for sure (I’d never deny it) but like I’ve never been there. Like Mongolia. Never been there, know it exists.

Got any tips for overcoming writer’s block?

How would I get over it? Write anything. Anything at all. This blog post. A shopping list for a fictional character. A totally different film / play / sketch etc… A short story. Another scene from the same script. A suicide note. Write something ELSE because that block will dissipate.

Also, PLAN. Make sure you PLAN your work. Most writer’s blocks occur because the script wasn’t planned well in advance and you find yourself in a place which often means one thing; immediate rewrite of everything you’ve done so far. Planning eliminates a lot of story and character arc problems that may appear later on. I plan in detail a script before ploughing into it, and it makes the writing SO much easier and fluid.

But that’s just me. Not everyone plans.

Other ways to break a block? Go for a run. A walk. A swim. Have a fight with an imaginary goat. Or – if it’s really stopping you writing – ask someone else for help. Get their opinion. Share your problem. Halve it.

But keep going. That’s always the answer. Persevere.

Any advice for me (and others like me) as a wannabe writer?

So much advice… but one piece? Read scripts. Once a week at least. Especially in the genre & format you’re wanting to write in. Read read read.

Amateur stuff and professional stuff. Work out which scripts fly by and which are horrible, trudging reams of endless boredom. Work out why. Understand what made the script enjoyable or frustrating or unreadable.

Scripts are not hard to find online. Ask other writers if they have any (I’ve got loads of pro scripts kicking about) or jump on forums online. They’re easy to get hold of.

And write every day. Every day. For 5 minutes. For four hours. Every single f–king day. Write. Read. Repeat.

Anything you’d like to plug?

The hole in the ozone layer? *coughs* Hello? And that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Well, no bucks. Starbucks once. Yeah…

You can plug my Blog! Which I forced you to plug anyway. Twice.

If you wanna see an amateur writer’s journey, tracking it from amateur to something a bit more than amateur, then it’s worth a look. Warning: it does contain sarcasm, contradictory advice, swearing and one epic rant about an infuriating cinema experience I had…

So there you go. Huge thanks to Dave Scullion for his candour and willingness to spend some of his valuable writing time on me and this self-indulgent project of mine. As well as his blog, check out his website where you can find a biography and lots examples of his work and projects, some of which were mentioned above.

Gluten free

Gluten, a protein found in barley, oats, wheat and rye, is in a bad place right now. Gluten-free seems to have somehow become aligned with healthy diets. You stumble upon cafes lined with bamboo, smelling of grass, with a sign in the window that avows no trans fats, no artificial ingredients, no GMOs, no MSG… and now no gluten. Regardless of any argument about the others, gluten stands out.

The argument seems to be that we’re not designed to eat it, and it messes us up. Here’s a fairly representative quote from a website I suppose I should reluctantly link to that came up when I searched for “the problem with gluten” that takes that route.

Our distant ancestors ate almost no gluten grains.  Grains started to be cultivated only ten thousand years ago, and even then, only in some parts of the world. The American continent, for example, had no gluten grains until they were introduced a few hundred years ago.

OK, lady who is wearing a doctorly lab-coat but isn’t a qualified doctor.  Sure, maybe, but that’s also true of most of the food lining the shelves of the average grocery store.

Modern wheat is also very different from the wheat that grew in the Bronze Age and before because the United States genetically modified the grain to contain a higher percent of the wheat protein under the misguided premise that it would “feed the masses better” and be more nutritional. What they did not realize was the digestion of this protein was too broad a step for our genetics to go from hunter-gatherer and expect the body to genetically adapt to a higher concentration of this protein in the grain.

The recurring notion that our diet was somehow “right” when we were hunter-gatherers, and that since then we’ve been struggling to “genetically adapt” is clearly nonsense. Hunter-gathers didn’t have that diet because it was their favorite dish on the menu at a fancy health food restaurant.  They just ate what they could find, and that varied dramatically according to the local flora and fauna. Bob and his family over on that side of the hill lived mostly on berries, while Jill and her family dined on fish caught from the local stream, and Patel and his family munched on crispy bits of BBQ dinosaur[1] from the hunt. Since then our diets have improved immeasurably. Well, improved overall; we’ve also invented many more ways to make food unhealthy. But we now live considerably longer lives than Bob, Jill and Patel, who were all dead by the age of 7, after living what was, by the standards of the time a long life, and meeting their grandchildren.

Many of us have simply not yet adapted to tolerate grain, unlike ruminant animals that live off grasses and grains.

That’s obviously not true. I mean possibly you might say that relatively few people are genetically predisposed to have a reaction to gluten proteins. That’s not the same thing.  In fact, if you want to be accurate, you might say “the vast majority of us have adapted to tolerate grain”. And throwing in the comparison to ruminant animals is disingenuous, implying that we lack the required digestive apparatus to eat gluten. We don’t merrily munch the kernels off stalks of wheat in the fields, and cows don’t go in for a grilled panini.  It’s a false equivalence. It would be like saying “we’re simply not yet adapted to swimming, unlike fish”. Sure, we don’t have gills and scaly fins, but most of us seem to manage to make it work. Ultimately where I’m going with this is: we’re a really adaptable species.

But hey, a lot of people are turning to gluten free diets these days.  It’s become something of a health fad.  This week, then, I adopted a gluten free diet and spent some time researching what it’s all about.

The villainization of gluten is a weird one. There seem to be a growing number of people who believe gluten-free is somehow a better diet. It really doesn’t take more than a few minutes of googling for authoritative sources to learn that it’s not going to help you lose weight, and it’s not generally healthier. The ingredients used to replace gluten tend to be higher in bad stuff like high-glycemic carbohydrates, and lower in good stuff like protein and fiber. Without gluten around to help the ingredients bond together, more other ingredients are added, like fats and xanthan gum (which by the way is a highly efficient laxative, prank fans, and itself a trigger for allergies). Food otherwise lacking in flavor is pumped up with sugars and flavorings. The resulting gluten-free alternatives tend to be higher in calories than the original recipes. Sometimes a lot more.

You’re considerably better off just eating a balanced diet. If you’re trying to lose weight, try eating a bit less, cutting back on high-glycemic carbohydrates, and exercising more. If you’re trying to improve your digestive system, just eat less processed crap. There’s an obvious exception to all this of course: those who for medical reasons actually can’t tolerate gluten. Those people should definitely cut gluten out of their diets. In fact, more broadly, if something makes you sick, you should stop eating it.

My Dad is a coeliac (celiac while he’s in the US), which sounds like a vegetable that would be wonderful when sprinkled with nutmeg and roasted, but actually means he can’t process gluten. There is no cure, and the only effective treatment is to cut out gluten. That is annoying. Happily, there are plenty of recipe books and alternatives, and life goes on. The average grocery store seems to have figured out that it’s helpful to label what products are gluten free, which is great. There are also an increasing number of gluten free products now on the shelves, which is fantastic for celiacs but probably a bad sign for the general population, reflecting general ignorance about what gluten actually is and the health benefits or otherwise of cutting it out.

Still, it makes my life easier as I try a gluten free diet. I ate gluten free Kind granola, which was delicious but calorific, and gluten-free burritos which were OK. Bread was dense yet crumbly.  I tried a gluten-free pasta from a local farmer’s market which was pretty tasty, but not as good as the regular stuff. That’s basically what you get with gluten-free foods that are positioned as alternatives to regular glutenfull products: they’re just not as good. They lack texture, and tend to taste a bit chalky, I assume from the rice flour. Eating only those gluten-free alternatives would be a bit like being a vegetarian and only eating veggie imitations of sausages and burgers.  Better to go for recipes that never had gluten in to begin with.  My wife does most of the cooking in our house (by preference and superior aptitude, not subjugation and gender stereotyping) and kindly picked out some suitable recipes, which were great.

I’m happy to get gluten back – I particularly missed good bread – but I had an interesting week trying it out, and if i were a celiac, I know I could eat well. Reading the nutritional information of food packages is annoying, and it’s amazing where gluten crops up. Would I recommend it by choice? Nah.

  • Difficulty: Moderate. Lots of good labeling and choices in the supermarket now, though it’s not exactly fun.
  • Worthwhiliness: Low. Unless you’re actually intolerant, in which case it’s essential, this is not a great idea on a long-term basis.

Header image by Lauren Tucker

[1] I was obviously joking about Patel and the crispy dinosaur meat, by the way. He ate it medium rare. Patel is a classy guy.

Clear out mobile phone apps

I think at some point I might retroactively add a category for “life laundry”. There are so many things in our modern lives that pile up and add distraction or mental baggage. There’s a place for passions and hobbies, of course, but most of us now exist surrounded by reams and reams of stuff we don’t really need or have time to make use of. Everything piles up: email, regular mail, tasks, clothes, social media, software, half finished projects, boxes of junk in the garage or attic. Just as it’s healthy to clear all the unused clothes out of your closet once in a while, it’s healthy to reduce things down elsewhere as well.  It gives you a bit more space to focus.  Reduces that mental baggage I mentioned earlier.

One of the smallest and yet most prolific areas of clutter in my life is mobile apps. Hundreds of the little buggers have somehow marched onto my iPhone and taken up residence (and the same would be true for Android, if I were using that… this post is brand and device agnostic).  The why is obvious; apps are generally very cheap, if not free, there’s a vast array of wildly diverse little curios, and they’re really easy to install with a couple of taps and the time it takes them to download and unpack.

Unlike most of the other things I mentioned apps don’t take up any physical space, but they make up in other ways. They occupy your screen, put distractions permanently in your peripheral vision, clutter your phone when you actually need something, eat up the capacity you might otherwise have wasted on thousands of pointless photos and, in some cases, drain your phone battery.

cluttered iphone appsThat picture, up there, that’s my iPhone. I make it 142 apps, quite a few of which are buried in ugly iOS folders. I’m not holding this up as a particularly extreme example, in fact am sure I’m merely average; no doubt there are people out there with thousands. I think iOS limits you to 9 screens, with many folders on each. I bet someone has hit the upper limit without trying. But still, it’s a lot of clutter.

I hold on to them for several reasons. If it’s an app I regularly use, fine. Sometimes there are apps I rarely use, but do want for those occasional occasions. Also fine. The rest though? There are a lot of other apps that I keep because they’re great, even though I will never use them again. Plants vs Zombies is a brilliant game I completed years ago, for example, and which now has a sequel, but which I keep around just in case I want to break out the melonpults and smash some coneheads. I never will. There are those apps I think maybe one day I will actually need, like Hotel Tonight or Color Cap, and would regret deleting. There are apps that are pointless but flashy gimmicks I hold on to purely to show other people how cool I am.  Then there are games I got bored of, but hadn’t quiet finished, so can’t bring myself to remove for lack of resolution.  Those that I paid for, and didn’t like, but kept around because I paid for them. And finally those I should have deleted months or even years ago, but cling onto for … well, for some unknown reason.

I also have a whole folder called “unused”, full of those mandatory Apple apps that can’t be removed (the immortal Stocks app makes me want to switch to Android), but also quite a few more that I just put there as a halfway house rather than evicting them for good. Appurgatory.

Actually, excuse me for a moment

…right thanks for waiting. I just needed to change the name of that folder from “unused” to “appurgatory”.

Seeing as most apps can back up settings and saves to the cloud, and can be re-downloaded at any time for free, there’s really no excuse. Time to do some uninstalling.

I would would use iTunes to go through them, if iTunes wasn’t bizarrely, inexcusably dreadful. How the company that designed the iPhone and iMac also designed that dreadful, unintuitive mess of an interface I will never know. It’s got incrementally better over the years, but I’m still dismayed anew whenever I boot it up. So the manual route then: delete them one by one.

I came up with a rough system, partly to force decisions but also to drag this out so that I would have enough to justify a week’s worth of blog post. I put everything in folders on late pages and then, over the week, moved any app I used back to the front. By the end of the week I could see what remained: all the unused apps I probably don’t actually need. One by one I picked through them and uninstalled whenever I could.

All in all, I managed to remove 57, reducing the clutter by more than a third. It’s a nice feeling, actually. I know they’re only little curved-edged icons, occupying only virtual space, but en masse they manage to produce mental clutter. I like my phone stripped down to what I actually need. OK, “need” is relative. But stripped down to the things that I actually use, at least.

I thought I’d find myself re-installing a few, in the week that followed, with a little uninstallers remorse, but no. They have stayed uninstalled. turns out I really didn’t need them.

I really recommend having a clean-out like this, though my process was unnecessary faffery. Better just to work your way through, one by one, and be rigorous in deleting anything you can find an excuse to. Would probably only take 20 minutes. The battery on your phone will thank you.

  • Difficulty: Easy. Just take 15mins and be strict about what you need.
  • Worthwhiliness: Medium. It’s a good feeling to clear out what you don’t need.

Header image is by Blake Patterson.

Push ups – part 1

When I set out to do a year’s worth of weekly mini lifestyle challenges, there were a few things that I wanted to do but that didn’t fit the format. One of them is push-ups. I could set out to do push-ups every day for a week, but it’s not going to be enough to have an impact, and since it takes up so little time, it’s something I can easily sustain in a way that I couldn’t with a major diet change or another form of exercise like distance running. So, I’ve given myself the goal of doing push-ups every day for the whole year.

Need to make something very clear, because otherwise this challenge sounds very underwhelming. When it comes to push-ups, I am really quite remarkably weak. If you put me and Superman in a room, we would both be of normal strength, on average. A year or two ago, without understatement, I would struggle to do more than one push-up. I could probably manage two, but Superman would have to pick me up off the floor. And that’s assuming he’s still in the room and hasn’t buggered off to extinguish a fire at an orphanage with his super-breath or something, the big show off.

My goal is to build up my strength so that I can do a lot of push-ups, but I needed to factor in my inability to do them at the start. It’s not something where I can just say “OK, I’m going to do 20 today”; it would be physically impossible for my weedy muscles (wusscels?).  I decided the best way to do it would be a kind of push-up escalator, whereby I would do a set number of push-ups every day and increase the count by one each week. That way I start low and realistic but hopefully by the end of the year I’m doing something genuinely impressive.

Having a toddler has improved my arm strength considerably, what with all the picking him up, and swinging him around, and saving his life when he falls from playground apparatus that’s really intended for older kids but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Four push-ups (still highly unimpressive, I know) is pretty comfortable now, so that’s where I started.  That means by week 52, I should be doing a daily set of 56 push-ups. Maybe I can speed it up a bit more and get to 60, which would be a nice round number.

It’s going well so far, as you can see in this clip where I’m dressed as Gaston from that Disney film.

Actually that’s not really me, it’s an actor at Disneyland. The real me is finding it a lot more difficult.  I’m currently up to 25 daily push-ups, which I’m quite proud of, but it started getting really difficult at around 22 and at the moment it’s hard to imagine making it to 30.

It’s not helped by the fact that I keep forgetting to do them on weekends and work trips, or just when my routine is off for whatever reason. I let them pile up, and catch up by doing multiple sets another day, so I don’t feel guilty, but the second and third sets in a day are particularly challenging, so that’s not going to be sustainable for long. Just going to have to start leaving myself notes around the house I guess.

My dog Kingsley is weirdly obsessed with me doing push-ups, and he growls then runs in circles around me whining, and sometimes runs under me, which makes it quite challenging to up the push. He’s a rescue mutt, so perhaps he had a bad experience with a push-up when he was on the means streets of LA.  At least he doesn’t have any interest in trying to hump me. If you’re reading this, Kingsley, don’t get any ideas.

I’ll revisit this topic with a new post once I either make it to the end of the year (and sets of 56), or fail at some point along the way. I might need some sort of fail mechanism that allows me to continue to the end of the year but without undermining the goal to build strength. Maybe if I can’t do 30, I can instead do three sets of 15 or something. Let me know in the comments if you’ve got a better ideas. But fingers crossed I don’t need it.

For now, it’s time to switch it up to 26. Wow, the floor is dirty in here.

  • Difficulty: Mild, then medium, then increasingly hard and possibly impossible
  • Worthwhiliness: High. Only takes a few minutes and builds a surprising amount of strength over time.

Header image by Robert McGoldrick.

Drink 8 glasses of water a day

I’m not sure where I heard this first, but I’ve heard it a lot: you should drink 8 glasses of water a day to avoid dehydration. And it sounds very believable. We all know that we need water to live, and that the human body is mostly water (95% by weight, in fact; it’s a wonder we’re not tidal). I think we all suspect that water would be better than soda or coffee or whatever else we’re drinking. And 8 sounds so tangible.  I’ve known a number of colleagues and friends who have carried around measured bottles or tumblers to get their recommended dosage of the clear stuff.  They’re smart people.

I bet I’m not alone in having vague beliefs about water, without quite being able to place the source, such as that drinking more water will make your skin clearer, or reduce insomnia, or help you lose weight, or make us think more clearly, or reduce the likelihood of some illness or other… though I can’t actually remember what illness.

And I’m sure there’s truth in there. I think we could all stand to drink more water and less of everything else, especially all the sugars in soda and juice – pointless calories that are processed by the body into pure diabetes (there may be some in-between steps, I’m not a doctor).

But over the years I have learned to be suspicious of things people commonly think to be true. “Wisdom of the crowd”? More like the “dumbsdom of the crowd”, laugh out loud. OK that doesn’t work, but the point stands. People have an awkward habit of believing things because enough other people believe it such that that it reaches critical en masse. Because it feels truthy, and because it’s memorable.

I’m also suspicious of this particular claim because it reminds me of the tragic story of Leah Betts, who was all over the news when I was 16, and highly formatively influentiable. She took an ecstasy tablet and died, and Britain’s newspapers just jumped on it as an example of the dangers of drug taking and the decline of moral standards and that evil drug dealers are coming for our middle class children, or whatever other moral panic would sell papers at the time. I was pretty innocent back then (and I suppose still am, having not taken any illegal drugs except perhaps drinking when I was 17) but even my computer-club friends and I were savvy enough to see that this was palpable bullshit. The fact that this one case made the front pages of all the newspapers only highlighted how obviously rare it was. Also the fact that eventually surfaced that the MDMA hadn’t actually killed her, water had. That’s the bit of information that sticks with me, and that’s why it springs to mind when I hear this “8 glasses” thing.

Leah had taken a pill then presumably panicked a bit and heeded the advice of well-meaning anti-drug advisories that “ravers” (sigh) should drink water to avoid becoming dehydrated. Unfortunately she’d drunk 12 pints (7 litres) of water, which resulted in something called water intoxication, ultimately killing her. I’m guessing water killed way more people than ecstasy that year. Just lacks a certain newspaper-selling quality, and isn’t quite so dramatic on billboards.

I’m not saying that we should all immediately replace all water in our diet with illegal drugs. I mean you can if you want to, I’m not the boss of you; but I would caution against it (and if you decide to, let us know how you get on in the comments section). Still, it’s one of the reasons I’m slightly cynical about commonly held medical beliefs without apparent evidence (I’m looking at you, homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement). In this case I blame the Evian lobby. Big Water, getting all up in our plumbing.

So I spent a week drinking 8 glasses of water a day, and did some digging around the health benefits.

First thing’s first: 8 glasses is a lot.  Sometimes it’s written as 8 cups.  Turns out that means pretty much the same thing – a cup is a little over 2/3rds of a tall glass so if you’re not filling to the top, there’s not much in it. Either way, it’s a lot of water. I found myself a larger glass that held about 2 cups, and fell into a routine of drinking one with breakfast, one with lunch, one with dinner and one last thing at night because I’d consistently forgotten about it until I went to bed. On the Thursday I forgot a glass and had to drink 5 the next day, all the while wondering when water intoxication kicks in.

Lessons learned? You’re going to be getting up a lot in the night. That’s it. No health benefits, no shiny clear skin, no better sleep… I couldn’t really find any benefit. I am not saying it is without benefits, and I am almost certain that I drank fewer unhealthy drinks that week, which probably lowered my calorie intake and gave me another day into old age with my real teeth. But nothing was apparent.

Meanwhile, it turns out it’s really easy to debunk this whole “8 glasses” thing. In fact the first two results from a Google search for “8 glasses of water” are two of my go-to sites for urban myths and statistics, respectively: Snopes and FiveThirtyEight.

FiveThirtyEight points to a National Food and Nutrition Board statement:

A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters daily in most instances. … Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.

So turns out the whole thing is a myth after all. 8 glasses is an arbitrary and likely inflated number, and you should just drink when you’re thirsty. One other major lesson, courtesy of Snopes: all drinks count towards your intake of fluids, including caffeinated ones.

the idea that one must specifically drink water because the diuretic effects of caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and soda actually produce a net loss of fluid is erroneous

They go on to explain why, with sources, so head over there if you care to read the details.

As for me, while this wasn’t particularly worthwhile, I’m not completely done with this water thing. Another week, I’ll try drinking only water, and I may also give the idea of drinking a glass of water before meals a go, as a way to reduce appetite and therefore eat less. I think both could be quite healthy things to do. But I’m happy to drop the arbitrary and unnecessary 8 glasses thing.

  • Difficulty: Mild
  • Worthwhiliness: Low, except as a way to reduce your consumption of other, less healthy drinks.

Header image by Derek Gavey

Travel light

I’ll come clear at the outset: this is disingenuous, because I am amazing at traveling light, so this is basically just an opportunity to brag. You’re going to be so impressed by my command of this essential and valuable skill, just like everyone else at the cool parties I am regularly invited to.

I travel a lot for work, mostly domestic trips here in the USA with one or maybe two nights away from home. I can usually get everything I need in a laptop bag, for a night at least. Shirts admittedly need patient ironing, but it works. Top tip: don’t take a laptop charger. Most modern batteries will do you 6-8 hours, which may be more than you need for a one-day trip where you’re in meetings some of that time. Two nights away, well, a laptop bag is a bit of a stretch, especially when there are suits and shoes involved.

I had a run of trips lined up, ending in a two-day trip, and a plan. It will help if you read the next bit while imagining you’re looking at blueprints on a table in a dark room, under a low hanging lamp, with some shady but cool characters who may have done time in prison but are nevertheless somehow endearing and relatable.

  1. Take only what I need. Not just the exact clothes, but everything else too. Two cotton-buds for two nights, and a mini tube of toothpaste that’s almost almost finished, packed in a ziplock bag. Leave the computer mouse at home. Remove unnecessary cards from my wallet. That last one was totally unnecessary, but I’m a completionist.
  2. Wear my suit on the flight. Much better than trying to stuff it in a suitcase, despite the willfully misleading name. Just be really careful not to spill any airline food in my lap.
  3. Wear a shirt too. Put it on over a t-shirt worn for the journey, then take it back off when I arrive. No harm and it’ll need less ironing too.
  4. One pair of shoes. No comfortable footwear for the flight. It’s an improvement anyway because you can kick off slip-on shoes, once you’re airborne and the passenger next to you can’t see your socks with the threadbare ankles.
  5. Pack socks with threadbare ankles. Take burner underwear. Neat folded clothes travel well, but bunched up laundry takes up a lot more space. So I’ll dig out the socks with the threadbare ankles, the shorts I’ve never really liked and a t-shirt I use for painting. That way I don’t have to bring them home. You’re welcome, hotel maid.
  6. Rely on my iPhone. Or Android, or other, I’m not being brand loyal here. But the point is it can easily replace books and other bits and pieces you might otherwise have taken, especially now you can leave it turned on during the flight.
  7. Dress like a drug mule. I draw the line at body cavities, but you can stuff a surprising amount of things in your pockets and on your person instead.

By following through on this beautiful dream, I managed to do a two day trip, maintaining professional dress standards, packing everything not just in a laptop bag but in a laptop case. A big folio thing just large enough for a laptop, a charger and some papers.

Sadly this perfect, amazing plan was somewhat undermined when I sat on the plane, buckled my lap-belt, looked down for the first time that day and noticed that there was a two inch hole in the crotch of my suit pants/trousers. My burner underwear was quite clearly visible. I waddled awkwardly through the airport and into a cab, and strode into a luxury golf resort with little shuffling steps until I managed to get to my room and ransack the drawers for that precious, formerly-misunderstood sewing kit. I spent the next hour or two trying to remember how to sew, before remembering that I have never known how to sew, and then watching YouTube videos about how to sew (a sentence which, I suspect, may tell you everything you need to know about me). I just about managed to restore some dignity to the trousers/pants I would need to wear for the next two days, then ironed everything I’d now gotten all creased.

Now, if I hadn’t been attempting this pointless exercise, would I have had alternate clothes? Probably. Would I have spent less time in that luxury resort in my room sewing and ironing, and more time luxurying? Sure. But it didn’t matter, because I had packed light. Yay! I’m the coolest!

  • Difficulty: Moderate, unless you’re an elite packer like me, and then super easy.
  • Worthwhiliness: Medium. Joking aside, it’s quite a handy skill, and it feels pretty good getting on and off planes without messing with overhead lockers.

Header image by dougww used under by-sa 2.0. Thanks dougww.