It’s a beautiful morning in Vietnam. It’s barely 08:00am yet it’s already hot; a haze of humidity sits low on the neighbouring hills. I’ve left my room at the guesthouse to perch on a sun lounger beside the river and write. Everything around me is the most luscious shade of green. Even the river appears green, reflecting the plant life that thrives along its banks.
I’ve tapped out the same sentence only to delete it and then re-type it about a dozen times now. So, I’ve decided I’m simply going to give myself over to the words and let them come out without over-analysing everything. I keep telling myself that writing consistently here is something that’s really important to me and then…I don’t do it. I don’t do it because of a number of reasons: I don’t make time for it, I put too much pressure on myself to write ‘essays’ or I over-analyse every word. Yet writing is also how I make sense of my feelings and the world; it’s also how I organise the thoughts in my head.
It’s been almost six months since I left London to cycle from Istanbul towards Singapore and I’ve fallen in love with the simplicity of life on the road. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do; there’s always something to do when not actually cycling from A to B for several hours a day. Sometimes I’m surprised by how little ‘free’ time there is, although I’m aware those several hours of cycling a day is free time in itself. However, time off the bike is usually spent doing destination research, route planning and organising visas. It’s spent doing bike and camping kit maintenance and the laundry still needs to be done. It’s spent trying to keep up with family and friends. And of course, there’s still general life admin that needs attending to, like being a responsible landlady and managing my finances because well, adulting.
I like the order of things though; I like how everything has its place, there is no excess stuff. I like that there are often minimal options in terms of what to eat and where to stay – decision making made easy. I like my basic beauty routine and find living with a limited wardrobe and hand washing and mending my own clothes to be immensely satisfying.
Despite leading this much simpler day-to-day existence, there still aren’t enough hours in each day to do everything I both need and want to do, which can leave me feeling anxious and overwhelmed at times.
This is mostly due to what I’ve brought with me: Old habits and repeat patterns and the same things that have always tripped me up. Like underestimating how much time something will take me and trying to do too much, rather than doing less and being more focused. I also find myself doing the same things repeatedly – even when those things aren’t really working – and are actually keeping me from doing the things I continually say are really important to me.
And whilst I didn’t leave London to ‘escape’ anything, it did create an opportunity to strip my life bare and actually shine some light in my dark corners. Yet I must confess that despite knowing better, I’d secretly hoped some of my old habits and repeat patterns would magically disappear when I hopped onto my bike. It’s so easy to believe that if we run away, we don’t have to take the unwanted pieces of ourselves with us, but it’s not true. The location may be different – but me, you – remain the same.
So, I’ve been doing the deep work of looking closely at every area of my life. At what’s working, but specifically, at what’s not working. Which means asking, “Why not?” and “What am I willing to give up?” I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions, lately. I’ve been tracking my bad habits and repeat patterns and all the ways I trip myself up and I’ve been figuring out what I want to do – but even more crucially – what I realistically can do about the things in my life that aren’t working.
Because whilst I acknowledge that cycling for several hours a day isn’t quite the same as going to work, it has taught me that there’s always going to be something screaming for my attention in the ‘free time’ I do have, that there will always and forever be the same amount of hours in a day, and if I want to be my happiest and healthiest self whilst also achieving my dreams, then there’s still more I need to let go of.
Confession: I’ve been here before. What’s different this time is I’ve finally accepted that I simply can’t do everything, much as I long to. Plus I love those hours on the bike; when I’m cycling I’m focused, there are none of the usual distractions fighting for my attention – such as email, social media and an overwhelming ‘do to’ list – I feel clear and peaceful and content and alive. I’m being, rather than doing.
Call me greedy, but I want more being in my life, regardless of whether I’m travelling as I am now, or living a more conventional day-to-day existence. I also know that whilst I adore freedom and spontaneity, I thrive when I have a routine and some structure in place, even when I’m on the move.
I’m assessing the big, bold dreams I have for my life but mostly I’m digging deep into the detail and looking at how I can create an even simpler, slower way of living, too. Which means getting clear on what my most basic, non-negotiable needs are and what I need to do to meet them. For example, I continually neglect getting enough good-quality sleep, even though I know it affects me physically, mentally and emotionally.
Then there are the things that I keep saying are really important to me, such as prioritising my relationship and giving my family and friends the attention they deserve – instead of allowing myself to get caught up in life and work. Yet there’s only so much time and I’m also committed to showing up for my big, bold dream: Writing my book. Can you see how easy it is to constantly feel like you’ve never got enough hours in each day to do everything you both need and want to do, so you find yourself feeling anxious and overwhelmed? And I’m sure anyone with children, a demanding career, pressing financial issues, a sick parent/partner or child must feel this tenfold. However, you still have needs of your own and nobody wins when you’re unhappy and unhealthy and anxious and overwhelmed.
Whatever your situation, if there’s something keeping you from living your happiest and healthiest life and doing the things you say are really important to you, then this is deep work worth doing. So, I’ve shared the questions I’ve been asking myself and the approach I’m taking in order to honour my needs and choose my wants, in the hope that you find something of use here, too.
You can travel the whole world your entire life, but some things will forever remain the same – like old ways of being that no longer serve you – until you’re ready and willing to release them.
– – – – THE DEEP WORK – – – –
1. I’ve been asking myself questions and writing my answers down so I can see clearly what I’m trying to achieve, prioritise accordingly and then create a plan.
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” – Most common regret of the dying.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” – Annie Dillard.
2. I’ve been tracking bad habits, repeat patterns and all the same things that have always tripped me up. They’re so much easier to identify when you write them down. For example, I’ve tracked how frequently I say I’m going to spend an hour working on my book, only three to four hours later I’m still furiously typing away. Yet I know it would be better to write in shorter bursts and to also divide my time between my priorities.
If you want to understand your habits and how to change them, I recommend reading ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change’ by Charles Duhigg.
3. I’ve also been asking myself if there’s another reason why I frequently stop doing something that’s really important to me. The reason for this is I believe we stop doing certain things because we’re afraid, so this is a chance to identify your fears, which creates an opportunity for healing.
4. I’m tracking how much free time I have each day/week/month. That way I know how much time I really have available to do all the things I want to do. Until now, I’ve just been guessing!
5. I’m creating a Daily Practice based on my non-negotiables. James Altucher is funny and wise and attributes his failures and successes to whether or not he’s following his Daily Practice.
6. I’m looking at all the things I keep saying are really important to me and considering what I want to achieve in the next year – plus the actions I need to take in order to do so – and I’m prioritising according to importance.
7. Now this is where things get hard: I’m also asking, “What am I willing to give up, in order to have the life I keep saying I want?” (Based on a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert). This is one of the most important steps because if there’s one thing I know, there will always be So Many Things I want to do and say “Yes” to and yet, there will never be enough time for All The Things, so I must choose.
8. I’m planning; I’m making conscious decisions about how I spend my energy and time to ensure they’re focused on the things that really matter. I start each month/week asking:
Then I write down what I’m going to do and when. Writing down what you’re going to do and when is a powerful way to embed new habits. Plus writing down everything you plan to do can sometimes make it obvious that you’re trying to do too much (Um, hello. That would be me).
Also – this too is important – I’m not trying to change everything at once; that’s not realistic or sustainable. A much better approach is to focus on changing a maximum of three habits at a time. Right now I’m focusing on sleep, family and writing (which includes journaling daily and working on my book). When you focus more on less you set yourself up for success and in doing so, you grow confident in your ability to put new habits and practices into place.
9. None of this is set in stone. I’m in the ‘assess and reassess’ stage. I’m assessing what I did and what I didn’t do and the reasons why and looking at how much time something actually took me versus how long I predicted it would take, etc.
10. Finally, whilst creating new habits and practices requires discipline and I’m holding myself accountable for following through, I’m not beating myself up when things don’t go to plan. If you put a plan in place and it’s not working, consider asking if it’s really because of who you are as a person (typically our first thought) or because the plan isn’t right for you…
Please note: This isn’t a ‘perfect’ set of steps that will miraculously change your life overnight, should you choose to follow them, nor are they intended to be. I’m not trying to teach anything here. I’m simply sharing the work I’ve been doing in my own life lately in order to honour my needs and choose my wants. Hopefully you’ll find something of use here, too. Please take what resonates with you, and leave the rest.
© 2019 Esther Zimmer