The accidental body double

This sounds like a really weird euphemism but I promise you it's not

Last time I wrote about what I’d consider success to look like for this self-improvement malarkey. One measure was posting once a week; the other was getting art done.

So it was shocking to realise that I’d blown right past my weekly posting deadline —  where the hell did all that time just go? — and that I hadn’t got much art done at all since my post went up.

I was deeply annoyed at myself. What was the point of gathering several dozen people around to watch me fall at the first hurdle? Of course, I had excuses. I always have excuses! The secret, shitty, generally no-good thing I alluded to having happened last time I updated continued to happen for a solid week and it sucked up both my time and my energy.1 Then there was the mental load of watching much, much more terrible things happen to the poor people who were impacted when Cyclone Gabrielle smashed into New Zealand.2 On top of that were my house jobs and my dad jobs and the house jobs my dad and I did when he stayed for a few days, and on top of that, my actual job jobs.

It was a lot. It is a lot. I needed to get some art done, not just for the newsletter or my poor, patient clients, but for my own mental health. So, instead of using ChatGPT to churn out a newsletter3 — a constant, terrible temptation — I made a dubious decision.

“Fuck it, why not,” I wrote, on Substack’s odd little feature that allows writers to chat with their subscribers. “So here’s a weird idea: I’m going to post a pic when I actually sit down and do some art then turn off notifications and smash out some painting while listening to a podcast and then once I’ve got an hour or two done I’ll come back to this line I’ve chucked out and see if I’ve got any bites. This isn’t a technique I’ve read about or something, it’s just a way to keep myself accountable to actually putting my fucking phone down for once.”

And you know what? I actually did it. I put my phone down – far enough away that I couldn’t easily reach it or think about it — and I did a painting for about an hour and a half. Once I’d started it was easy to keep going, as is so often (infuriatingly) the case. I wondered if anyone at all would see or reply to my chat and when I came back I was amazed to see tens of replies. People liked it, and they liked the idea of connecting to help each other get shit done.

It was then that I realised that, although I hadn’t thought of it at the time, I absolutely was doing a self-improvement technique I’d read about.

I’d been body-doubling.

(Way to gaslight your readers, bro.)

An image of a poster for the film "Body Double". The text reads: Craig Wasson Melanie Griffith "Body Double - You Can't Believe Everything You See."
Body doubling probably has nothing to do with “Body Double,” the 1984 American erotic thriller film directed, co-written, and produced by Brian De Palma.

Body doubling isn’t a new idea, but it is a new term. The idea is simple: you reach out to someone and you do work together. Obviously, study groups and writing circles (check out my friend Jackson’s great idea for a writing group!) and the like have been around for centuries if not longer, but recently, people with ADHD have embraced the concept and taken it online. There are body doubling Slack groups and Discord chats and TikTok livestreams and even Twitch streamers who will broadcast their day job to you so you can join in. Of course, because we very much live in a Society and the grim-dark future is now, you can even pay a monthly subscription to join a permanent Zoom call where people just kind of work at each other.

I am extremely dubious at the prospect of coughing up $20 a month for what sounds like the worst possible version of Netflix, which only has one show called The Office, except the office is an actual office. Luckily, free options are abundant. You can literally just call a friend on the phone, or use the software of your choice. If this concept is new to you, but sounds like it might be useful, I encourage you to give it a go. While body doubling may sound profoundly awkward —  “Hey, want to jump on a call so we can not talk with each other?” —  it turns out it works really well, for a lot of people, and thanks to you, I can safely say it works really well for me. I’ll be doing it again.

So there you go, one self-improvement in the bank. As always, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary.) Do you do stuff like this? Does it work for you? What weird methods do you employ to deal either with unpleasant tasks, or pleasant ones that your brain inexplicably baulks at? Let me know in the comments – I love hearing what you have to say and I read all of ‘em. We have the beginnings of a really thoughtful, keen community here and that is a Good Vibe. Who knows, if people are keen maybe we could even get a regular Cynic’s Guide To Self Improvement Body Doubling Session (that acronyms to CGTSIBDS, so let’s think of a different name) going on.

Oh, and you may have noticed that this email is shorter than my usual lengthy exercises in reader patience. What do you think? Shorter emails more often, with a big one from time to time, or long periods of silence in between book-length self-help manifestos? I’m leaning towards bite-sized, but as always, I’m keen to hear what you reckon.

Speaking of comments…

There was some absolutely incredible discussion in the comments of the Webworm newsletter that kicked this whole thing off. I wanted to take some time to detail some of the excellent insights and ideas people had so that’ll be the next post, I think. In the meantime, I just want to reiterate that my intention is to keep this newsletter free. Paid subscriptions are both helpful and appreciated, but for now, the best thing you can do for the Cynic’s Guide is to share it around. If there’s someone who you think might find it valuable, hit the “Share” button down there. Or, you know, embrace your inner Boomer and just forward them the email.

  1. Thank you for reading The Cynic's Guide To Self-Improvement. This post is public so feel free to share it.

    The family and I are fine so please don’t worry. Also, I like footnotes and wanted an excuse to put one in. Expect to see lots of them.

  2. I wrote about the cyclone and the people who work to make climate change worse at my other blog thing, The Bad Newsletter, which is another excuse for this one being late.

  3. I want to get ahead of the game on this one: despite my long-running interest in getting AIs to write stuff, I think the way AI is being rolled out is a net bad for writers, and so this newsletter contains no AI writing. If I ever use AI to write anything, I’ll make sure it’s thoroughly flagged and identified as such. Having said that, writing this footnote has given me for a great idea for a post in which I investigate if ChatGPT can write a self-help book, so you’ll probably see something on that.