walking on custard

You Might As Well Do The Thing: How to Make Decisions While Anxious

3 Sept 2019

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

As a standup comedian who talks a lot about anxiety, I frequently get asked the same question: “how are you SO great?”

But after that, people often ask how anyone with anxiety can possibly do something as terrifying as standup.

For a long time this confused me, too. It’s not like I’m immune to the fear of public speaking. There’ve been plenty of times before gigs when my brain has tortured me with images of failure and humiliation. I’ve often wondered why on earth I do this to myself.

Eventually, though, I stumbled on the answer. (Or, at least, on an answer.)

If I weren’t performing I’d be beating myself up for not doing it.

I’d go to gigs and watch others and think “I could do that. I should be doing that.”

I’d feel guilty at wasting my potential, and it would suck enjoyment out of all other comedy for me.

In other words: if I’m going to suffer either way, I might as well DO the thing.

Once I realized this, it turned out to be a helpful heuristic in many other situations. Choices can become simpler when the emotional cost of not doing something is added into the equation.

Consider this highly scientific graph:

Doing a scary thing might involve a quick spike of ‘suffering’ (by which I mean the inherent anxiety or stress of doing it). But if I then spend every day for the rest of my life regretting not doing it, then the total amount of suffering might well be considerably higher.

(In graph terms, this means the light blue area eventually grows much larger than the area filled by the red spike, as time trundles on and I continue to beat myself up with regret.)

A Sucky Marathon is Better Than No Marathon

This works great for something scary which you can get over with (relatively) quickly, like a public speech or a parachute jump. But what if we’re holding off on doing something massive, like writing a book or becoming a lawyer?

Should we still just do the thing when there’s such a huge time investment?

The truth is that there’s no right answer. What matters isn’t so much which thing we choose to do, but that we choose to do something.

In other words, the only true waste of time is beating ourselves up for not using our time properly. If I spend fifteen minutes every day beating myself up for not getting ‘round to writing a book, then by the time I’m dead, I could have written a whole series. Even if the books were the worst ever written, at least there’d be something to show for all that accumulated time!

The trick is to commit one way or another: either do the thing, or let go of it. Beating myself up and not doing it is the worst of all worlds.

Decide, One Way or Another

If you find yourself suffering due to not doing something, try channelling that ongoing suffering into motivation to act.

Whatever it is—making music, painting, words, performance, cleaning your house, going for morning runs, whatever!—you’ll reap untold* benefits from that time you’re otherwise wasting.

* technically now I’m telling you about them they are ‘told’ benefits, but that doesn’t sound as good so…

Whether you land on “I’m going to DO the thing,” or “I’m going to let go of the thing,” you’ll be better off either way.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

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.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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