Slow Down, Get More Done

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Saturday 8 October 2016

Slow Down, Get More Done

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying "Look deep into nature, then you will understand everything better". Certainly nature is one of our greatest teachers and for us this is certainly true of the mountains we love to visit. The mountains are a powerful, magnificent and dynamic environment that on our human timescales can appear so still and unchanging. Perhaps that is partly why we find them so captivating and love to spend so much time among them. In fact, since returning to the Swiss Alps it is precisely that love for the mountains that has led to another important lesson, or perhaps I should say reminder. That is, the importance of slowing down in order to thrive and, perhaps counterintuitively to our modern minds, get more done.

As I reflected recently, during our time on the Adriatic Coast we received an important lesson in letting go and accepting past choices alongside the importance of fully committing to future decisions. It was a welcome insight and we left Italy feeling both rested and excited to return to the mountains before winter arrived. Our intention and commitment was to enjoy the mountains but also keep our focus on other areas of self care that we'd realised had often slipped over summer, like good sleep, journalling, daily meditation etc.

Yet like moths to a flame within 2 days of arriving we had embarked on an overnight hiking expedition which was then followed by more strenuous hikes/runs as we felt generally anxious, or perhaps panicked is a better word, to make the most of the time we have here. We were like kids in a sweet shop, the sun was shining and we wanted to gobble up as much outdoor, active time as we could before the snow arrives and we have to move on. Yet all that activity and emotional stress started taking its toll in other areas immediately. We began eating less well than we could have done (too much and too late at night), having interrupted, restless sleep and arguing with each other over the most trivial things for instance. The rate and size of our change in mood was frightening and intensified by the fact our minds were telling us that 'you should be happy, you're in the mountains!'

Why and how, we caught ourselves wondering, have we gone from relaxed, restful and loving in Italy to grumpy, tired and distant in just 7 days in a place we both love to be? What's going on?

We knew that in part there was still some residual regret at having left these very mountains in August. Despite the letting go work we had done in Caorle returning to the Val d'Anniviers had thrust the beauty and scenery we adored, and had foregone in order to travel elsewhere in the height of summer, in our faces. But this was just a small shadow, largely dissolving under the gaze of awareness. No, there was more too it than that.

It took us a few days, involving some dark moments and shouting, before we sat down to journal and get to the bottom of it. But we did and it ultimately led to a reminder of an insight we'd had long ago, right at the start of our adventures.  Almost 2 years ago now we wrote about 'holiday mode' and how it wasn't possible to sustain that level of activity or intensity on a longer adventure and retain a healthy balance in other areas of life. What was happening this autumn back in the mountains was very similar....we were fighting the end of summer by trying to stay in 'summer mode'.

I started this post by saying that nature is one of our greatest teachers. For example, we live in a world of seasons and the animal kingdom adapts with the flow of those seasons. Some animals hibernate, others migrate, still others spend their summers preparing for the lean times ahead. Historically we humans did the same. We've read about mediaeval monks operating different summer and winter timetables, accepting that they would simply get less done in the darker winter months. In a world of candlelight and only open fires for heating it was, frankly, the only way to proceed.

But modern life has largely eliminated the need to slow down. Artificial lights, central heating and stimulants like sugar and caffeine are available in abundance in the world we grew up in. Not to mention TV, radio and social media. The concept of slowing down in winter has, for most of our lives been an alien one to us. The only winter slowing down we'd experienced was getting a few extra days off work at Christmas time and many people aren't fortunate enough to get that. We even have a medical diagnosis for people who report feeling tired in the winter of the northern hemisphere - SAD or Seasonally Affected Disorder. We label a natural shift in the bodily rhythm as a medical condition!

For us, however, having spent a large part of the past two and a half years tapping into a simpler way of life and removing a lot of artificial stimulants from our diet and lifestyle our bodies have become more attuned to the cycles of the day. Take our thru-hiking experiences. We slept when its dark and wake at sunrise. Or our food intake. We've noticed for a while now how much smaller our appetites become in hot weather. Some days we have hiked 8 hours on a single melon and felt satisfied. It has been a real gift to be able to live as we have for so long and in doing so start to get back in touch with the cycles of the day.

What was happening, therefore, in our haste and panic to extract as much outdoor time as possible from our time back in the Alps before winter, was that we were overruling our internal calendar. Right when our bodies were sensing shorter days and colder weather we were trying to fire them back up to high summer speed. The result. Tiredness, anxiety and frustration.

The solution. Well for us it has involved planning. As intellectual types there's nothing like writing down a table to help us stay on track. While others might dobthis more intuitively, we took note of all the things we like to do and/or need to do (like studying, writing, hiking, resting, speaking with family and friend etc.) and gradually sketched out a realistic overview for our week that includes each item in balance but respects the shorter days.

I'll write more about the plan we have come up with in future as we continue to refine it further. But as an example we now have 6 different types of 'ideal day' which we can use to make up our week plans. Some days we still spend together hiking, but on others we might be working independently on personal projects or perhaps on communication that is important to us. As I said I'll go into more detail in future.

But that's all well and good you may say, for two people who are currently not in paid employment and divide their time largely between travel, self reflection, study and projects that have personal meaning to them. How does this apply in the world of 9-5, 40 hour plus work weeks with kids to look after? It's a valid question.

Its a question I can only answer by looking back on my own life before we chose to travel. Typically I'd be up around 5.30 (sometimes earlier due to my health issues), commute to work for my standard working day, commute home again in rush hour, firefight issues at home or at the property we rented out, force myself to the gym to run intervals listening to loud music on the treadmill, pick up a pizza and cheesecake on the way home, then sit behind my desk trying to finish some private consulting work we also did on the side. Then go to bed to sleep a few hours before repeating the cycle. Weekends looked similar but with more emphasis on private work and all driven along by copious sugary tea and snacks, hence the compulsive exercise addiction.  Esther had a similarly crazy timetable only lacking in caffeinated tea or coffee which she's never enjoyed, but which ultimately lead to her developing ME/CFS after not respecting an illness and allowing her body to recover (the work schedule, not the lack if tea I hasten to add).  No wonder we needed to take some time out to realise these lessons.

Had I known what I know now, learned through travel and slowing down, I could have at least made time for a 5 minute meditation in the morning, not eaten a big meal late at night to allow my body to sleep better, switched off the computer 30 minutes earlier and read a book before bed, made time for a single 15-20 minute relaxation exercise in the afternoon or even not gone 100% crazy hard in the gym at every visit. I believe these small changes could have made a huge difference to me back then.

Frankly even acknowledging that this might be a source of extra tiredness in winter in the first place has helped. Certainly for us this insight immediately relaxed us by providing an answer to why we felt so crappy in the first place. Making a plan and remembering not to fight our bodies is making a difference now, but just being able to relax and understand why we needed the plan has helped because emotional stress can be just as tiring as physical stress.

And do you know what, in just a few days since making our plan we already feel we are getting more done. While our first week here flew by in a dizzy whirlwind and its hard to pinpoint exactly what we did with our time, the past 4-5 days have felt full, productive and restful.

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