My mental health stack - everyday things I use for my mental health

As this year's Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, I thought I'd write a quick post that's more hands-on and practical. I'm also writing this as a kind of gratefulness meditation.

There are plenty of solutions out there which help you focus on your mental health explicitly. Mindfulness apps, meditation helpers - you may have heard about them, used them and even benefited from them. For this post, I'm trying to think of something a bit different. A mindfulness app, or a self-coaching tool, may be useful to diagnose problems and start working on solutions - or will also help you build a kind of space in your day where you explicitly go to work on your well-being.

But there is also the day-to-day, minute-by-minute business of living. And to go about this, one app or one voice is no longer enough. As I sit down to prepare this list, I try to stay mindful of two sources of inspiration.

0. re:stacks - Foucault and JavaScript

The first source: Michel Foucault's "Technologies of the Self" is a series of lectures, now freely available online. I'll leave it to you to discover all it means for your own context. For me, the key message was this: power changes humans through "technologies" - from actual gadgets and machines to subtle mind tricks and vast models of thinking. But it works for everyone: you can appropriate these technologies, and use them to create your own power in your own life. It's never 100% Big Brother, and never 100% Self-Made Man - and since antiquity, we've been busy inventing these technologies for our selves.

The second source is a metaphor of the tech "stack". Just as we've nearly always needed more than one program to serve our computing needs - and just as we're ending up today with "stacks" of connected solutions (it probably takes at least 3 web frameworks to show this page to you...) - so in our lives we now use "stacks" of apps, behaviours, ideas and habits to get by.

Enough introduction. Make of the above musings what you will, and steal what works for you from the list below.

1. Strava + Beeminder + Stickk

"Instead of chasing what might make you happy," M. said, "sometimes it's worth protecting that which makes damn sure you're never sad."

I am never sad when I am running, or cycling, or Zwifting. There is a visceral connection between my heart rate and how good I feel about my day. And if you want to make sure I'm in a foul mood, you only need to make sure I can't bike or run that day.

But I am also very, very good at making excuses. Sabotaging this mechanism until the day is done and my blood feels sluggish and I am angry with myself and everybody else for having sat through it.

So these three tools are the triple-lock gold-star insurance for getting my ass in gear. Strava records my workouts (the feed is now hidden; I've nothing to prove, and this year I'm not racing anyway). Strava links to Beeminder. Beeminder records my commitment to X workouts per week, and charges my debit card 5 dollars every time I go below my goal. Stickk does the same - every week without workouts, it charges me 5 dollars. Except it then sends these 5 dollars to the National Rifle Association.

Skipping workouts isn't just my slippery slope to sadness, then. Now, when I skip them, I am also poorer, and I help fund the NRA. Yes, it's excessive. But I've lived with myself long enough to know that I need ridiculously complex setups for some things - so that I'm not tempted to mess with them.

Speaking of which...

2. Alarm Clock 1 + Alarm Clock 2 + anti-oversleep social media post

Days are unpredictable. We live in a place where a sunny evening feels like a gift, too precious to turn down. Our projects go from really quiet to really busy overnight. And then, the energy levels, and the desire to do things together whenever we can - while remaining introverts.

This means that I decided to wake up earlier, every day of the week. I get to spend 2 whole hours before the rest of the world wakes up and catches up with me. That's "me time" - for reading, workouts, writing, being alone.

Except... I hate waking up. And I'm good at making excuses for that, too.

Here's how it works for me so far. Alarm Clock 1 is gentle and quiet - my sports watch buzzes on my wrist, without waking M. up. This isn't a lot, but that's okay. Alarm Clock 1 has only one job - get me to Alarm Clock 2.

This one's the Bad Cop. The app is called "I Can't Wake Up". Goes off 3 minutes after the first one, on my phone. Starts beeping immediately, and gets louder pretty quickly. And it can only be switched off by scanning a QR code - a sticker above my desk.

I could (and did) just go back to bed at this stage. Except there's the scheduled post. I set it up in Buffer, to get sent each morning 15 minutes after wake-up time. The post declares that I overslept, and promises that I'll PayPal $5 to the first 5 people who respond to it, as a penalty. This is the social media post that, ideally, never gets sent. Every morning, after I'm done disarming my Alarm Clocks, I also need to switch on my laptop, log on to Buffer, and edit the post's scheduled date. I push it to the same time, following day. Save. By now my brain is sufficiently awake to stop screaming, "DUVET. PILLOW. NOOOOW".

So you know now that I'm prone to excuses and self-sabotage when it comes to workouts and getting out of bed. Any guesses what I'm like at work?

3. Boss As A Service

At first, even I thought that this was a bit too much.

BAAS makes sure that you get another boss in your email inbox. Except you pay for the privilege of having one. This boss's job is to provide another layer of accountability.

The way it works for me is this: every Monday, after I've planned my week, I email a link to the task list. My "boss" acknowledges this. Throughout the week, I fill out the task list with evidence that I did the work. This one's tricky, and it depends on what kind of work you do and how you document it. I resort to self-destructing screenshots, making sure they're nothing confidential. The week ends, we debrief, and repeat next week.

If you've got your schedule and line management all worked out, then this might not be for you. But it definitely worked for me. It helps me to move away from the "procrastinate/panic" cycle towards something more stable. And if workload intensifies, it helps to have the accountability connected to these efforts. It's doubly important if you work remotely, I think - like I do.

I'd like to leave "doing more" to one side now, and talk about things that help me "do less".

4. / / /

It's difficult to pin-point the precise moment it happened, but it can't have been too long ago: I realised that news websites were making me ill.

Maybe it was staring at the front page of the Guardian - three blinking dots on three red "live" reports, two of which had headlines starting with "Outrage as...". Or maybe it was when I realised that the front page of what used to be my Polish news website of choice is now littered with headlines that are 100% badly-written clickbait - giving me no information, just FOMO.

And by "ill", I mean ill. Anxious, stressed, having to deal with IBS again, sleeping badly, distracted.

Website blocks are difficult. I'm using 3-4 computers on a daily basis, and need to access random things for fact-checks, and VPNs/Tor sessions go around any router settings with ease. So I needed something else to put in front of my eyeballs. A news replacement service, if you will.

The first two websites named above are distilled, plain-text versions of the news. Neuters is particularly helpful, as it gives me the whole planet at once. Brutalist Report is good for the headlines, but you need to scroll a bit to get to stuff that isn't tech- and US-centric. The layout is boring. The page is static. Good.

The latter two are websites which give me a dose of "positive news". I've enjoyed reading them, and sharing them with M. over lunch. They set the tone for a different, nicer conversation.

To those of you who would say that this is escapism, and that I'm not "truly informed" that way - let me reassure you that after 100 days of "Live and Breaking" outrage-generator coverage of war-du-jour and UK/US politics in an election year, "not fully informed" is EXACTLY where I want to be. I know enough, and have regained enough motivation & focus to do my own work & research.

5. SpaceWave - Cosmic Relaxation

A quick and heartfelt shout-out to this YouTube channel. The videos are long (2h) soundscapes, and they're incredibly good. They've been with me as I work, read, write, code, meditate. There's a sci-fi and cyberpunk feel, but also something calming and relaxing about them. In my earphones, they're enough to make me focused. On speakers, they're enough to change the way a room feels. If you need to block out any unwanted noise or signal - real or mental - give them a go.

6. Panda Rice Cooker

It's small and cute. It's got lots of modes, many of which I haven't used yet. It's easy to find spare parts. It cooks rice. It can cook me a whole meal while I work, and I don't have to watch it. It moves me from takeaways and highly-processed food to slightly more healthy cooking. It's nearly unfuckupable. And it can make me a vegan gingerbread dark chocolate brownie in 30 minutes. A quiet MVP around our kitchen.

7. "O, Unknown!" by Imaginary Authors / Juals fragrance candles

Many years ago, I spent an afternoon reading a little book about Feng Shui in the office, and then two days re-arranging my home workplace, and then two more days undoing all that work until I got it back to the way it originally was - actually usable.

Weirdly, the only message from that little book that stuck with me was the one about scents. On this, both M. and I agree - smell matters, and in a very Foucaultian sense, is a technology for personal change. Call it Feng Shui, or magic, or genetic conditioning, or confirmation bias... whatever the label, since the lockdowns and remote work, we've been negotiating our shared space and experiences, and fragrances help.

"O, Unknown!" was love at first sniff - three minutes with it, and I knew I could stop mourning for Cacharel's "Nemo" (although if you have a bottle of that you're not using... email me and state your terms!). I can't write about smells, so I'll just say this: this is the scent that makes me like myself more, and makes me want to hang out with myself, and I didn't think perfume (or much else, for that matter) could do that.

Juals ( is a small business from South Wales, two train stops away from us. Their fragrance combinations, for me, are just the right balance between fancy (ie over my head) and basic (ie not nice to live with). I know what their smell will do to a room, and I'm still enjoying the details of how it works out. Mainly, though, I'm grateful that Jual candles actually work: can't deal with non-smelling smelly candles any more.

Thanks for reading thus far :) If you think I could use an addition to my stack, or want to ask more about any of it, email is probably best these days: hi at vic dot work.

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