Matt Trask

Mental Health For One

June 08, 2018 | 11 Minute Read

At WordCamp Kent, I had a small but rather attentive audience for my talk about Mental Health in Tech. One of the attendees, Paul, asked me what is out there for “solopenuers”. I had no idea at the time so I went off to look. And low and behold, there isn’t much sadly. But this isn’t stopping me, because I can offer tips and tricks that don’t require medical insurance or hours in a doctors office. Who wants to do that?

I think the best way to do this is to offer ideas of how to self manage your mental health. Unfortunately, with Obamacare, more mental health resources were made available. I say unfortunately because when the current administration is done screwing people with pre-exisiting conditions over (seriously, this affects me the most), they will probably tackle this next. So check it out, I believe it is mentalhealth.gov. It’s a decently nice resource.

Before Work

So we spend 5 days (most of us anyways) at work. Whether you work at home, or in an office, its easy to lose track of how to handle things. I’ll split it up between working from home and working from an office in the next section. So the first thing I do when I wake up is drink a cup of ice cold water. The health benefits are that you essentially jump start your body, and the cold water hydrates cells in your body, and removes toxins that have built up the night before. After that I take my doggo out for a walk. I try to get a mile in, or at least 2,000 steps. Its all heat dependent since I live in the South, and it can be 6:30 in the morning and its already 80 degrees out. I try to wake up a few hours before work so Im not rushed making breakfast and I will use some of the time to check bank accounts and email and accomplish at least one goal in the morning. I try to listen to some sort of podcast as well, since that gets my brain going too. Lately it has been something related to financial independence. The YNAB (You Need a Budget) podcast is fantastic for short episodes, think around 4 minutes on average. Listen Money Matters is great for an hour long session.

Before I shower and get dressed for work, I try to do 15 push ups and 15 sit ups. Nothing crazy, just simple things you can do in your bedroom but it gets or keeps blood flowing around and gets your metabolism up and working too. A common theme I’ve noticed in my pursuit of mental health greatness is working on being healthier. It’s been a game changer.

To Work

Since I work in an office now, I can either drive or bike. I used to be able to “bird” it, but the city took that away from me. Bird’s were electric scooters that could range 15 miles or so. It was a great alternative to driving or biking because I could take one the 3 miles or so it is to the office and be outside.

If I am driving, I usually keep going with the podcasts. If I am biking then headphones are a no no. I wanna be able to hear if a car is gonna hit me. But thats besides the point. One of my favorite things is biking to work. Now I do put on the lyrca and all that jazz, but for a reason. Like I said earlier it’s the South. You take a shower, dry off and start sweating again. It’s ridiculous. The jersey and shorts help me absorb sweat and keep work clothing clean. And its a pain yes to add more weight to the bag I use, but the trade off is worth it: the blood flowing, the wind in your face and the sun hitting your skin all helps create (at least for me, but the science is there) a more positive attitude. The vitamin D from the Sun is essential to our mood, and sadly we don’t get much anymore, so I take any chance I can to be outside now. Biking also gives me a chance to do some thinking and some planning. An added benefit: people say hey to you when you are out riding and you dont have to deal with traffic. Or at least I don’t, I live by a greenway and got lucky that my office is right by the greenway. I spent 2 minutes most days in traffic before hopping on the greenway. But even when I am in traffic, I am usually to the right and not trying to keep up. All of this to say, if you can take an alternative way to work, do it. It’s more effort but you get vitamin D, you get to see some friendly faces and you get to remove some stress from not being around idiot drivers.

At Work (Office)

At work, I try to do a few things. One: keep my headphones on and loud. Drown out noise. I rotate through a ton of music, but lately its been The Decemberists, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, and Sylvan Esso. Nothing crazy, its mostly acoustic stuff but its calming. I keep a liter Nalgene bottles, one of those supposedly indestructable bottles, at my desk and try to drink at least 2 during the day. I’ve personally tried to kick soda (doing a meh job), and I only drink coffee black. A thing about coffee: the caffeine can linger in you for 12 hours, so I try to cut myself off before 11am. Sometimes I go over, but I try to keep it sane. Another thing I do is take walks. It helps me think through problems and gets me up and away from the computer. Sitting does horrendous shit to our bodies, so trying to get up for extended periods is great. If you can, get your boss to buy you a standing desk. We are getting some (finally), and at my last job we had them. I noticed that if I biked in and immediately set it to standing I got so much accomplished in the first few hours. It helps if you can get a standing pad to stand on as well. Amazon or Target has them cheap and they help your spine. The one seemingly bad habit I have is that I will buy lunch 3 days a week (we get it catered twice a week). I do it because it gives me a reason to get away from the office and also spend more time with the team bonding. $10 a day is a worthy trade I think.

Working Remotely

In a past job, I worked remote in Atlanta for a company in Nashville. It was great, never had to deal with traffic, never had to get dressed, never had to be anywhere by a certain time. But I noticed that time blurred together, especially post 5pm. It was worse because I used my own computer so my open source projects, side projects and work were all in one place and it was hard to create a boundary. I was fortunate I could afford a 2 bedroom apartment in Atlanta so one bedroom was my office. Unfortunately I didnt have a TV or anything, so my main hang out was the office. So I forced myself out of there as much as I could. I had a solid balcony/patio so I would pour a drink and enjoy the patio with some music to create a boundary. Another thing I did was institute a rule that twice a week I went out to a coffee shop in the morning, a new place for lunch and a coffee place for the afternoon. It had the benefit that I wouldn’t lose contact with the world and I got to explore a little bit with my freedom to work anywhere. I love coffee shops so it was exciting to find new ones in Atlanta. My boss was also great in the sense that he got me into cycling and would push me to use lunch time as a way to go out and ride. I would routinely ride 20 miles or so in Atlanta exploring around, hitting personal records and training. It was a huge stress relief for me in the middle of the day to go out and ride. It helped more that he would hold me accountable to riding and make sure I did it. It really meant a lot to me.

After Work

In my younger and more vulernable days, I spent nights coding. I did it because I got a late start into the world of programming and felt I needed to catch up on things. I forgoed concerts, movies, trips and more in order to try and get to a level of confidence. What a horrible idea that was. I still code at night, its a passion, but I try to do less and less. Nights now are spent reading, cycling, walking the dog to new places, baseball games and more. Life is too short to spend it in front of a computer, and it keeps me more mentally sharp.

What can you do for yourself?

I talked about a lot of things I did that work, and they may work for you, or they may not. Lets recap and add a few more:

  • Find a hobby that takes you outside.
  • Water first thing in the morning.
  • Find ways to get out of the house.
  • If you work from home set boundaries
  • Buy a computer for work and a computer for personal use if you are self employed. Or at the very least, create seperate profiles and time control your work one. Unless the internet catches fire, it can wait till the morning.
  • Eat better. McDonald’s is tasty, but it sucks for you. Broccoli sucks but its great for you.
  • You aren’t drinking enough water.
  • Do you need that third glass of whiskey or fifth beer?
  • Coding is great, so is seeing the sun set from a mountain top.
  • Find things that cause your heart rate to increase.. biking, walking, jumping jacks.
  • Buy a standing desk. If you can’t afford one (they are pricey), get risers from Target or Amazon.
  • Don’t forget to have fun.

What to do when things start to suck

Inevitably things will start to suck. Anxiety creeps in as a client is like “yo playa, where is this thing I asked for like 5 months ago”, or a ticket has you so stumped at work that you ask for help and your boss is just like “duh its this”. Depression can set in, and it does more in the winter when the Sun disappears (the only thing I hate about the winter), and you need to get past it cause you have work to do, or a dog that doesnt understand why you want to lay in bed all day.

In the case of anxiety, I usually try to remind myself everyone has been where I am and I was hired with the knowledge that I am not the greatest programmer ever. But its hard when you spiral out. Thats when I take a walk, or spend five minutes trolling reddit for funny gifs or something. The Decemeberists tend to be the music I go to when I wanna lose myself since they have great story telling songs, and it usually works wonders.

As for depression, thats the harder one to dig myself out of. When that happens, I immediately put on my cycling stuff and get out there. I use whatever caused my depression as my reason to attack a big hill or push myself to sprint harder on a straightway. I use depression as an excuse to get out of the apartment for an extended time. Maybe just go up to the coffee shop and get a drink or something.

Everyone is different in this regard, and this is what works best for me. I can tell you that as I’ve added more exercise and movement, I’ve felt better each day. That in combination with cutting back on coffee helps sleep come so much easier. Another thing is that I try to express appreciation to friends and make sure they know that I appreciate their friendship and I enjoy being around them. It makes people feel good when they are appreciated and it makes them know that at least one person cares about them as the world burns around them. So tell someone you care about them, that they matter. Words have a bigger impact then you think.

Till next time.

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