Miniskills Monday: Urge Surfing

Levelling Up and Productivity, Resources

This is a series I’m starting, primarily for my own benefit – where I commit to researching, applying and exploring one mindfulness/mental health skill in depth that week. Or heck, maybe I’ll look into other skills in the future. How exciting.

Anyway, today’s entry is on a technique called Urge Surfing. This is a mindfulness skill pioneered by the psychologist Alan Marlatt, who worked extensively in addictions – however, I learned about it from the book The Happiness Trap. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been lax at applying this one recently.

Why is Urge Surfing useful?

US is a great skill to answer the question of what you’re actually meant to do instead of compulsions, or when your Rat Brain goes a bit crazy trying to jump back on the wheel. Under Marlatt’s view, any urge, compulsion or addiction can be thought of primarily as physical sensations in the body. They are akin to a wave in the way they peak, crash and eventually, subside altogether.

Instead of trying to distract yourself, do something or argue with yourself to make a thought or feeling go away, you tune in to the urge. You embrace it.

The urge may not go away, and indeed will probably reappear quite a few times. But this way you aren’t giving in to the craving or the compulsion, and eventually the intensity will lessen over time.

How to Urge Surf:

  1. Bring to mind of an urge or compulsion you want to engage in right now. It doesn’t have to be a big or overwhelming one – perhaps simply an urge to eat a piece of chocolate right now. Just because.
  2. Tune in with your body, and notice where you actually experience the urge. Your stomach? Your back? Your jaw? Find the place where you notice it the most. The location might not be the most obvious.
  3. Focus on that physical sensation in particular; examine it. What does it feel like? A pressure? An itch? A restlessness? Can you pinpoint where it is? Does it have a colour, a smell, a defined shape? Could you draw an outline around it? Does it ebb or flow, or is it constant?
  4. Notice whatever comes up. Whatever thought, feeling emerges, take note of it (non-judgmentally).
  5. Use this focus on the physical sensations to help you ride the urge. Within time, the urge will probably start to weaken. However,
  6. If the urge starts to become overwhelming, then return your attention to your breath for a few moments. When you can, return to the sensations.

My mindful goal for this week:

My issue is always setting too many goals at once and setting myself up to fail. So for this week I’m just going to practise noticing a single urge: the urge to use my phone.

The interesting thing about this urge is that I will eventually need to engage in this action. For example, I don’t want to check my phone right now but I will need to read my messages or email at some point. That’s okay. But with this situation, I hope to engage in my values to help me.

I might have the urge, but right now I value the work I’m doing more. As such, I won’t check my phone until X time. Importantly, I need to stick to the time I decide on so that I’m not then just delaying an urge to engage in later, but making decisions based on what I want.

Why am I so cruel to you? (An apology to my brain)

Rat Brain, Self Care


Dear Rat Brain,

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally realised that I’ve been horrible to you lately. Cruel, in fact — and maybe that’s been going on longer than I’d like to admit.

You can see it in the previous posts on this blog, even. These were always meant to be compassionate letters to myself (or my “thinking brain”, so to speak). It was meant to be a practice in self love. Or something like that. And yet the patronising tone is right there from the beginning. Dear Rat Brain, why can’t you write? Dear Rat Brain, why can’t you deal with criticism? Why don’t you act the way I want you to act… Or how I think other people want you to act?

I think I know better than you. I talk down to you, constantly. How can you panic about this stupid, small thing? How dare you do… what rat brains do?

How dare you do exactly what I taught you to do?

Even though I’m the one pushing you on and off the wheel, I still find something to fill the silence left when you stop spinning. I don’t know how to cope just yet when you’re not on your wheel. I don’t know how to handle being happy, or being good at things, or being praised, or realising I’ve done okay. It’s not perfect, so it’s worthless.

All I can say is, new situations and a sudden uptake in my stress levels made me revert to old habits. But just because cruelty is habitual, doesn’t make it okay. All that tells me is that I’ve made a deliberate practice of being awful to you (myself).

And one might wonder how I could possibly claim to be a compassionate and loving friend or family member, if I am deliberately choosing to treat any entity with this kind of malice and hatred. If someone was outwardly a kind and generous member of their community, but secretly went home and told their spouse or child they were a piece of shit for hours… That is not a kind and generous person.

We are the sum of our actions towards everyone, not just the ones we think “deserve” our respect and love.

That includes Rat Brains. That includes ourselves.

I’m sorry. I’ll try to be nicer.

(re: the rat drawing this week – I finally unearthed my tablet. It’s sketchy but so is my brain right now. Maybe it’ll improve alongside my mental health skills…)


Why Can’t You Deal with Criticism?

Anxiety, OCD and Other Brain Farts, Rat Brain, Relationships

Dear Rat Brain,

So here’s the thing: everyone has something to say. Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one, and we rarely want to see them.

You especially don’t want to see them. Keep that shit in your pants. Literally.

I know you think that curling up in a ball and pretending criticism doesn’t exist means it’ll go away. I know you think that people should be softer on you because you’re “sensitive” or “anxious”. People should keep their opinions about you to themselves in case you get hurt by it, even if their lives would benefit from you taking that criticism on board. Or rather, you should be doing everything you can to prevent others being provoked into sharing a (shock) negative impression of you.

It’s funny how you believe that’s true. Purely because that’s you’ve decided it is.

It IS funny, when you think about it. Criticism is basically like exposing someone’s vulnerable underbelly, and… Poking them in the side with a hammer.

And that person then proceeds to snatch the hammer, and hit themselves in the face.

‘Look what you did to me! How could you hurt me like this? You knew I was sensitive to hammers!’

My therapist calls this clean/dirty discomfort. The clean part is the poke. The dirty part is everything you tell or do to yourself as a result.

No one is forcing you to love yourself, or treat yourself with any respect. But do you have to hit yourself instead?

(Why’s everything gotta be dirty with you?)

The “problem” with productivity (part 1 of 2)

Anxiety, OCD and Other Brain Farts, Creative, Levelling Up and Productivity

I’ve always been one to obsess over the most efficient way to “get things done”. Literally – I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done when I was sixteen. It irrevocably changed how I approached my life, simultaneously calming my life, and introducing another level of chaos: am I doing enough? And am I doing it the right way?

Suddenly, everything that should (or could) be done was now an ‘open loop’, that needed recording in some way. I wrote everything down.

Next actions, project lists, someday/maybe lists. The weekly review.

I still do most of this now, particularly the weekly review. It’s often combined with the Bullet Journal or some flavour of the month gadget/productivity tip I’ve seen on reddit or Pinterest, or whatever.

Habit trackers, hydration trackers, book trackers.

The point of such systems is to create a structure, external to yourself, that you can trust completely.

And there’s the rub.

Like most things in life, productivity systems like GTD, Bullet Journal, Don’t Break the Chain, etc, are helpful systems.

It makes sense to write things down, because memories are notoriously unreliable. It makes sense to track habits, to give yourself a sense of accountability or keep a promise to yourself.

It makes sense to write down things you want to get done that day if they’re time sensitive.

I mean, isn’t that their appeal? Productivity systems just make sense: it’s a neat, quantifiable way to check you’re “on the right track”, and your life is “going well”.

However, if you are prone to taking things to extremes, perfectionism, or a sense that you need your life to be “just right” – as I am – such systems can trigger issues. As time has gone on, I’ve felt increasingly pressured by the very systems I made to help me out in life. It’s easy for the endless lists and goals and projects to become a stick to beat yourself with. Naturally, if you’re always focusing on what needs to be changed rather than appreciating what is going well, dissatisfaction is bound to occur.

Didn’t floss your teeth yesterday? Failure.

Didn’t achieve any of the goals you set yourself this month? Why do you even bother?

Made a spelling mistake in your journal/put the wrong date down? Oh boy

Again, the issue is largely regarding the rigid, perfectionist approach I’ve taken with these methods – NOT the methods themselves. That’s a deeper issue than productivity itself. Any tool can be destructive if you use it in a destructive, harmful manner.

Even so, there’s another problem I began encountering… And that is a consistent feeling of What is this all for????

Why am I doing all these things? Why do I care about doing these actions or ticking these habits off my list? Why do I care about anything at all?

I believe this sort of thinking comes from my shift from Goals Based thinking to Values Based.  In a nutshell, goals based tasks are dependent on achieving a certain outcome. I want to get to my target weight so I’ll do exercise. I want to be “good” at Mandarin so I’ll do some flashcards. I want to reduce my anxiety so I meditate.

Values based tasks, on the other hand, focus on why you want to do something, and how that helps you live life as the person you’d like to me.

To rephrase the above tasks from a VB perspective – maybe I exercise because I care about my body, or I want to have more energy and stamina to do other things I value. Maybe I practise Mandarin because I value learning things, just to learn, or so I can connect with family in that manner. Maybe I meditate because I value being mindful and checking in on my mental health.

Traditional productivity systems, I’m finding, neglect to truly acknowledge the why of an activity. You could write a blithe little inspirational comment next to your to do list if you wanted, but still: an unticked check box only represents that something was unfinished. It doesn’t take into account how values are a continual, minute to minute practice. You don’t just do it once and it’s over forever.

So what I’m wondering: is there a way to merge these two ideals?

I don’t know yet.

Until next time… where I will not have the answer, but might have stumbled a little further upon this personal journey of mine.