[ Edited January 2019: All Roads Lead to Machynlleth was written at the end of 2016, during a period of my life that I found stressful and overwhelming. Yet looking back, I think it illustrates the power of travel to shake us out of bad habits and routines, and offer new paths to explore. There is no overnight cure for stress, but constantly and consistently striving for improvement—and occasionally disconnecting in order to recharge—can work wonders! ]
Between a never-ending stream of emails, running a handful of social media channels on top of my day job, work at work and work at home, my time no longer felt under my control. Instead I felt increasingly caught and bound by the World Wide Web. This prompted me to flee to the middle of Wales—for a few days at least—and luxuriate in a world without television, radio, news, or WiFi.
Looking back over this time, the thing I missed most about a connected life was not emails, Facebook, or staying up-to-date on current events, but rather the ability to get answers to questions at the click of a mouse. What did the Welsh word Llan mean?* It was everywhere: Llanbrynmair, Llanwrin, Llanuwchllyn. Ditto sheep: how many were there in Wales?** A desire to look things up and find answers was my overriding wish, and I was relieved that it was curiosity that drove me, rather than addiction to the dopamine hit of something new.
Although I was only away for four days, I found myself identifying a number of areas in my life that I needed to change to help lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed and to allow me to regain control. Some of these are standard bits of advice that have been handed down through the ages, but it was only seeing their effect for myself that I was able to take them on board. Others are perhaps more specific to me—but I’m sure you can adapt them as you see fit!
I know that incorporating these lessons into my daily life will take some time and effort; after all, breaking old habits isn’t easy, but it’s something that I will be working on as we enter the New Year. But don’t call them resolutions! Rather, these are ways for living, something to strive for on a constant basis, rather than items to be checked off a list.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a change of scenery. It was no surprise that my mind had been feeling increasingly claustrophobic as, until recently, my day consisted of going from office to home office, one computer to another. But in the wide open spaces of mid Wales, I could feel myself relax both physically and mentally.
Research backs me up on this: “eco-therapy”, i.e. walks in nature, have been shown to reduce depression and boost moods. So if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, consider going on a walk somewhere green. You don’t have to go far: a local park can do the trick just as well as Wales! As for me, it helped to rekindle creativity and remind me that horizons stretch beyond the edge of my desk.
Over the summer, I found myself dealing with an increasingly hectic work schedule. To cope with the stress I began to visit the office café to help myself to a slice of cake. After all, didn’t I deserve it for all the work I was doing? And baked goods are my Achilles heel; cakes laden with delicious icing or melt-in-your-mouth chocolate brownies or cookies fresh from the oven can send me scrambling for a plate and a cup of tea to go with them. But as a daily coping strategy? Not healthy, not cheap, and not good for the waistline.
But while in Wales we had delicious, simple home-cooked meals with Helen, and it was a useful reminder that real food can nourish the body as well as the soul. MrElaineous has started a new habit of cooking from scratch one day a week, and I will work on planning my meals better to avoid the temptation on offer at the office café.
[Edited to add: Once reducing plastic was added to the mix, this proved very effective at reducing both my waistline and wasteline!]
Exercise for the sake of it is foreign to me. Before escaping to Wales, I couldn’t remember when I had walked for the sheer enjoyment of it instead of just getting from point A to B. Yet walking in Hafren Forest or along a slightly soggy hillside in Staylittle showed me the power of mood-lifting endorphins, and it’s probably no surprise that when I returned to my normal life, it was walking in nature that I chose to pursue. Indeed, it became the subject of my first eBook!
I admire people who can give up favourite foods or beverages, but I don’t want to be one of them. There are so many delicious things out there that give me joy (see above re: fresh cookies), that the thought of completely depriving myself of them makes me sad—which defeats the whole purpose of this list. Instead, I am striving for moderation and balance; easier said than done perhaps, but I think a worthy goal nonetheless.
This can be substituted for anything you enjoy, but for me making time for something I had been ignoring—reading purely for pleasure—is high on the list of priorities for re-thinking my schedule. I’ve written before how a good book can whisk you away to another world; I can’t disappear into the wilds of Wales on a regular basis, but my Kindle serves as an excellent form of transport.
The craze for adult colouring books that swept the nation a few years ago is perhaps a manifestation of the innate desire to make something. After all, the focus that comes with creation can quiet the mind and lift one’s mood. Whether it’s writing (my creative drug of choice), painting, knitting, pottery, music, photography, gardening, or something else entirely, seeing something go from an abstract idea to a real thing—be it a blog entry, scarf, or flowerbed—is incredibly rewarding.
As an introvert working in an open-plan office, I find my energy levels dropping throughout the day like a character’s life meter in a video game. The noise, the hustle and bustle, and the interruptions all wreak havoc with my internal wiring. Finding ways to build moments of peace and quiet into my schedule will be #1 on my to-do list once I return to work. And, according to Susan Cain’s Quiet, which helped spark an introvert revolution, even extroverts can benefit from some alone time.
Until recently, my daily schedule involved waking up at 5:30am to get ready for work, going to work, then coming home to turn my attention to my assorted side projects. Going to bed at 11:00pm or midnight was the norm. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s no wonder I was exhausted and craving escape!
Ensuring I make time for sleep and not “just one more” item from my to-do list has become a priority, and I’m trying to stick to “offline by 9:00 and in bed by 10:00”. Okay, it doesn’t rhyme, but it’s not a bad mnemonic!
Research has shown that a steady diet of news and social media can have a negative impact on your mood. The former in particular has been known to raise my blood pressure so I have found it better to limit my daily exposure news and politics. This is not about burying my head in the sand, but rather protecting the finite amount of energy I have. Focusing my attention on things I can actually do something about—rather than ranting and raving or worrying about something that I have no control over—is an easy win.
Obviously not every stressor can be avoided, but I am trying to do better at planning so that I can minimise and mitigate the fallout, rather than be in a constant state of firefighting. This means I have some tough decisions ahead of me since juggling three side projects with a full-time job is simply not sustainable. But recognising that I have options—and a choice in how to handle them—is a powerful step towards putting me back in the driver’s seat.
Finally, the importance of shaking up one’s routines cannot be underestimated. Unplugging, getting out, and enjoying something new can expose you to different perspectives and far-reaching views, spark creativity, and, at the very least, add an enriching experience to your memory banks. I certainly can’t wait to get out more in 2017 2019, and take my life in a new direction.