Monthly Archives: August 2016

No experience needed. Why making things can make a real difference to your mood.

When did you last make something? (A fuss doesn’t count, nor does a bed.)

I’m talking about physically assembling something. Putting together the pieces that are needed to create something new. Bringing something to life.

Your grandparents wouldn’t believe the world you live in, where food often comes pre-prepared – sometimes even pre-cooked. Where you don’t buy coat-hooks at the hardware store, but instead take home a mounting panel with the hooks already attached to it.

We’re not even very likely to make our own entertainment, resorting instead to sitting in front of the TV.


Yet when we do actually make something ourselves, there can be a tremendous rush of pleasure, even if the result isn’t always completely perfect.

Of course it takes longer to make something than it does to buy it ready-made. And thanks to weird economies of scale that I don’t always get, it can even cost you more to buy the parts or ingredients than it would to purchase something already finished.

But nothing can replace the quiet satisfaction of baking a cake or a loaf of bread. Or building some bookshelves. Or creating a hand-made greetings card for someone you care a lot about.

OK, I know you’re too busy today to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But making something doesn’t necessarily mean making something on a grand scale.

There really is a big emotional return from making something from scratch. Today could be the day to do it.

Amuse the blues away. Look for laughter opportunities, particularly on gloomy days.

Some people in life are natural joke-tellers. Others (like me) love a good joke but are pretty hopeless when it comes to delivering them.

But whether you’re a dab hand with witty repertoire or not, I’m sure you enjoy a good laugh.


They say that laughter is the best medicine, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend relying solely on watching episodes of The Simpsons if you contract malaria, there’s no doubting that laughing does you good. It usually makes you feel good too.

Helpfully nature has given us the ability to laugh when we see or hear something funny, even if our mood is otherwise low.

This can come in very handy when you’re in a rocky state and don’t feel like doing all the other things you know might do you good (get exercise, socialise etc).

Books of cartoons have worked for me in the past. As have videos of favourite funny films and TV shows.

You won’t feel like getting them when your need is greatest so keep some supplies handy.

I’m not joking. (Sorry, you knew that was coming.)

Twice as nice. Promise yourself a reward after you’ve done something that already makes you feel good.

One of my favourite cartoons appeared in the New Yorker in 1993. A couple of dogs are in conversation, and the one sitting at a computer declares: ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’

I’ve always loved it, and it seems I’m not the only one. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” (Conde Nast TagID: cncartoons005912.jpg) [Photo via Conde Nast]
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” (Conde Nast TagID: cncartoons005912.jpg) [Photo via Conde Nast]
Now to the best of my knowledge, dogs tend to spend little of their time on the computer (although who knows what they get up to when we’re not looking?) but they can be trained to do some other pretty impressive stuff.

And the trick, apparently, when trying to persuade a pooch to adopt new behaviour is to reward them when they do.

Maybe this works in humans, too? And more particularly perhaps in you?

Very possibly there’s something you could do today which might help you feel better, but ordinarily you’d put it off because it feels like too much effort.

A bit of exercise, say (a short walk would be fine). Writing a thank-you letter. Tidying some clutter at home or work.

If so, why not think like an animal trainer? Complete the action, then give yourself a reward. It doesn’t have to be substantial, just a little something that will pep you up. A biscuit, say.

Preferably not a dog one though.

When you feel stuck, come up with as many solutions as possible, even though some will be ridiculous.

Unless it’s something incontestable like ‘how many hydrogen atoms are there to each one of oxygen in a water molecule’ or ‘which side of a slice of buttered toast always hits the floor if you drop it’, very rarely is there just one right answer to life’s questions.

So when you’re faced with problems and challenges in your own life, whilst it can be tempting to rush off with the first solution that springs to mind, it often pays to think things through more carefully—although not so carefully that you never move from the weighing-up phase into the action one.


When I worked in advertising I learnt that one key to solving problems creatively was to know that the more ideas you came up with, the more likely it was that just occasionally you’d strike gold, and at the very least find a solution that stood a better than even chance of working.

Generally the best strategy seemed to be to write ideas down as soon as you had them – then put them out of your head so you could move on to the next one.

When someone asked me a question about this the other day, I realised that I’m a great proponent of cracking challenges by writing down as many solutions as possible.

Get them down on paper. Move on to the next idea. Then (the important bit) go back to sift through the possibilities and run with the best of them.

It might not be possible to make up your mind immediately, hence the advantage of capturing it all on paper.

If there’s something bothering you, why not start by listing a few options?

When you’ve too much on your plate, just do what you can in 30 minutes. Then stop.

You’ve got too much to do. We all have too much to do.

But you only have one life. Only so much time to fit in everything you believe you’re supposed to do.

I often struggle with this myself. The amount on my To-Do list really is never-ending. If I could work 24-hour days for the next year, I still wouldn’t have checked everything off.


Sometimes I let this get to me. But most of the time I think it helps to ignore those nagging worries about The List, and simply to get on with living in the moment, getting done what I can today, and knowing that tomorrow’s another day—another chance to tackle another batch of stuff.

I can’t always block out the big picture worries for long, but putting in an hour at a time seems to work.

I’m sure it seems odd, but one of my most useful pieces of kit is an electronic kitchen timer. It’s flashing away in front of me right now in fact. I’ve given myself sixty minutes to do some writing, and have a target of what I need to get done before it emits its friendly little beep.

You’ve got too much to do. You won’t get it all done today.

So give yourself a target and block out a shortish chunk of time. You’ll probably surprise yourself when you achieve more than you thought you would.

As I just have. There goes the beep.

Spend time with others, even when you feel low. Especially when you feel low, actually.

It’s good to be with you for the next few minutes, and I hope you feel the same. Unless you’re hiding under the desk, we’re not together in person.

But most of us enjoy being in the company of other people. Even if at times we choose to be on our own. (That’s fine too, just as long as it doesn’t turn into the only thing you do.)

The trouble is—and we’ve spoken about this in the past—although it’s often the case that being around other people can give you a real boost, the obstinate part of your brain may try to stop you joining in with social situations when you’re feeling a bit ropey.


Crazy isn’t it? Logic tells you to accept invitations, to arrange to see a friend, or to pick up the phone. But the annoyingly pervasive emotional side of your thinking tells you not to.

What to do? Well perhaps, when the opportunity arises to spend time with others on one of those not-so-great days, ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that could happen if I ignored my emotions’?

I guess the answer is that you might get wherever you’re going, then could need to make your excuses and go home.

But (a) that’s not actually very likely, and (b) it really wouldn’t be that awful a thing to do if it was really necessary.

Why not try this next time you feel a bit rough?

Nine times out of ten, it works for me.

A helpful way to avoid burn-out is to put downtime on your Must-Do To-Do list.

Have you noticed how some people take pleasure in telling you how busy they are all the time?

Perhaps it’s a sign of our insecure economic times that they feel the need to be seen as Very Busy, but although bursts of intense activity can be OK there’s a lot to be said for not over-pushing yourself.


In fact it’s often the case that the more you try to squeeze in, the less you actually get done.

So are you giving yourself enough ‘spare’ time each day? Are you actually giving yourself any?

If you like to drive your life with a schedule there’s a lot to be said for planning down-time, periods when you’re not going to be frantically trying to clear your To-Do list.

This is not to say you’ll be doing nothing though, because perhaps you can occupy this time with the things that make life good.

Stop and chat to someone. Have a coffee. Walk round the block.

Above all, let go of the need to fill every second of every day.

Life’s for living.

Live it today.

The immense journey of a lifetime is actually a series of small steps, each one manageable.

You could think of your whole life as one giant project.

But when would you reflect on the project’s hopeful success? It would be crazy to do so only on the last day of your life. For a start, who knows when that day may come?

Surely it makes more sense to consider this one overall ‘project’ as being made up of many smaller packages, and to look back much more frequently at how you’ve done.


Keeping track of how you’re doing means you’ll have the reward of seeing how your mood is holding up when things are going well.

Alternatively if you’re not having such a great time you’ll have the knowledge necessary to take action, ideally before things get overly low.

In general I think it makes sense to live your life day by day, reflecting often on how things have gone and what you can do to maintain a positive state of mind.

So what can you do today that could make you feel more positively tomorrow?

Instead of ruminating on bad stuff, crowd out your negative thoughts by immersing yourself in something positive.

Do you think that you sometimes think too hard?

If you do, you’re not alone. Many of us spend too much time thinking (especially negatively) and not enough time doing. It’s an easy trap to fall into, particularly if your mood is low and you’ve ended up spending a lot of the day inactive and alone.

I’ve been there. You don’t feel great so you stay at home. You don’t feel like doing much so you slump in front of the TV or don’t get out of bed.

And then the over-thinking starts. The excessive worrying. The rumination.

There’s a great way to trick your brain into thinking less though, which is to completely immerse yourself in something that takes over all your cognitive capacity, drowning out the destructive thinking with something else altogether.

This happens for me whenever I spend time with kids.


They demand your full attention.

The point is, a whole slice of time goes by during which it’s impossible to fill your head with all the usual stuff.

Is this simply avoiding the issues? Well I don’t think so. When I go back into my normal routines the next day, I generally find I’ve got much greater clarity of thought.

If you find yourself thinking too hard it’s not always easy to tell yourself to stop.

It might be a lot more practical to crowd out the negative thinking with something else altogether.

Stop to check in with yourself, like a pilot running through the pre-flight routine.

Throttle? Check. Flaps? Check. Strobes? Check.

As a pilot prepares for takeoff, there’s a mandatory checklist to run through so nothing’s forgotten and everything’s tested.

Checklists make huge sense.


In fact in his book, ‘The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right’, author Atul Gawande (a surgeon) shows how briefly pausing to run through a task’s requirements before starting it has huge value. Saves lives even.

We carry mental checklists with us all the time, of course. Whether consciously or subconsciously it’s how you’re able to walk out of the house without leaving the iron on.

But you can think in mental checklist terms on other occasions too. Next time you’re sitting in traffic or lying in bed about to get up, why not make a point of asking yourself how you’re feeling?

Being aware of your state of mind is a first step towards managing it. Quite a big step actually.