walking on custard

Compulsively and Without Joy

23 May 2016

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

The Big Lebowski is one of my favourite movies.

I could go on – at length – about why. Although I’m not going to, so this GIF will have to suffice:




One quote from the film that’s always stuck with me is “compulsively and without joy“.

I’m not sure why, perhaps there’s just something about the wording. For whatever reason, the phrase wiggled its way into my brain and has lived there ever since.

And I’m pretty pleased about that, because it turns out this particular quote is useful.




I do a lot of things automatically. We all do. Our brains are basically habit machines – they find a set of behaviours which more-or-less work, and then they repeat them automatically, unless there’s a LOT of evidence they ought to change.

For our many good habits (breathing, eating, smiling, whatever), this is a good thing.

But each of us doubtlessly have some bad habits too. Do you ever find yourself tabbing back-and-forth between the same few websites? Or flicking around tv channels endlessly, looking for something to watch? Checking the fridge?

In short, do you ever repeat the same old activities over-and-over, over-and-over, over-and-over… compulsively, and without joy?

I do.




The phrase “compulsively and without joy” is helping me to recognise these behaviours when they happen.

Sometimes when I’m stuck in a Facebook-Twitter-News-Facebook-Twitter-News website loop, the phrase “compulsively, and without joy” suddenly bubbles into my awareness and I realise what I’m doing.

Thanks to this, I’ve set myself a rule:

If I realise that I’m doing something “compulsively, and without joy” then I HAVE to stop.

That’s my rule. No compulsive, joyless behaviours allowed.*

So far, I have a 100% success rate of stopping. Apparently, I can’t convince myself to continue with an unhelpful habit when I’ve admitted to myself that I’m doing it totally joylessly.

“Why am I checking this website, again? Oh…”

I have a much lower success rate for noticing the bad habit in the first place. That’s the tricky bit. Sometimes I check my phone ten times before I realise I’m just on autopilot.

But I’m confident I can get better at that, too.

Why don’t you try it? Keep an eye out for things in your life that are “compulsive and without joy” – and see if you can stop whenever you catch yourself.

Good luck, and much joy to you.




* NB: I’m not using the word ‘compulsive’ in the sense of OCD-compulsive here, but in the weaker sense of ‘joyless habits’. I suspect that the idea behind this post is more useful for things like habitual phone-checking than for stronger compulsions.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

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