5 Unusual Habits That Actually Changed My Life

Mar 27, 2017    /    philosophy

My life is an unusual one, I know.

The obvious strangenesses are the fact that I travel full-time with my dog and my partner, that I run my own freelance writing business from the road, that I have no desire to ever own a house or, heaven forbid, have a baby. I also hate driving and find big cities boring and think Spain is overrated and that a lot of the things everyone seems to take for granted are actually false.

So, I’m a bit odd.

Which is totally fine by me.

And, actually, my oddnesses extend beyond the big things.

Because I spend a lot of time questioning things, asking if the norm, the status quo, the prescribed path actually works for me. I try not to just do things by default.

This questioning that has led me to a lot of little lifestyle experiments over the years.

Like the time, back when I was living in one place, when I used to pick a topic every single year that I knew very little about and devote my time that year to learning as much as I could about it. One year, I chose wine and read and swished and sniffed and tasted. Another year, American football. Instead of just watching the Superbowl half-heartedly, I learned the rules and the players. I picked a team and went to the local team-supporting pub to watch every game.

Or the time I decided to “travel” my hometown. I made lists of attractions that locals typically ignored and tourists fawned over. I sought out hidden gems. I pretended my city was some exotic place for a few months.

There’ve been a lot of those little experiments, most of them fun for a time and then somewhat forgotten. But there are also a few little lifestyle shifts and experiments that have stuck with me, become habits, and truly changed the way I live.

1. The no-alarm-clock rule.

Most people in western countries live and die by their alarms. We schedule our days, our work time, our wake time, and our sleep time. We jolt ourselves awake with tones or music, static or the radio.

But what if we didn’t?

Around the time that I quit my full-time job, I also quit my alarm clock. Gave it the ol’ “it’s not you…actually it is you,” speech. And I started slowly, surely, letting my body adjust itself, finding the times it naturally wanted to sleep and rise. Once it wasn’t required to live on a certain schedule, my body would—I hoped—find its ideal rhythm.

What I found is that (perhaps unsurprisingly) over time my body synced itself up with the sun. When the sun went down, I started to get tired, to wind down. When the sun came up, my body woke me naturally.

It’s been something like six years since I’ve used an alarm clock regularly (I do still occasionally use one when there’s an early morning flight or train to catch, but other than that I abstain) and turns out it was a great decision. I’m less tired (usually). I get way more done (turns out I’m a big morning person and letting myself wake naturally and early means getting a lot done in those early hours). And—the big one—I stopped having early morning panic attacks, something that was happening alarmingly often when I woke to the blare (even the turned-way-down blare) of an alarm.

2. Ditching my cell phone.

So, maybe you can imagine getting rid of your alarm clock, asking your boss for more flexible hours, ditching the prescribed schedule—but what about your phone?

After a few months of full-time travel, I ditched mine…and with excellent results. Firstly, how much do cell phones cost now? A nice smartphone itself is at least a few hundred, right? And the average monthly cost is up to something like $140. That’s $1,680 per year, not including the initial phone cost and any upgrades or overages.

$1,680. I could live off that for a whole month here in Croatia. Or Slovenia. Or Italy. In 10 years, that turns into $16,800. What could you do with an extra $16,800?

Even without the massive cost savings, there are other benefits. When I lived in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland—a place known for its 72 waterfalls and towering mountain peaks—I’d stroll through the center of town and watch all the tourists engrossed in their cell phones. Looking at maps. Texting friends. Checking in online.

None of this is a bad thing, but they were paying a whole lot of money, spending a lot of precious time, to be in the Swiss Alps and they barely glanced up. I, on the other hand, spent my time counting waterfalls as I walked, taking pictures of wildflowers, thinking.

And that’s the thing: not having a cell phone means living in the moment.

It means when I’m out hiking, I’m out hiking. When I’m having coffee with a friend, I’m focused on that person, that moment, that experience. I’m not checking in elsewhere. It helps me separate work and play, to connect with exactly what I’m doing when I’m doing it.

“But what about if you get lost?” People ask. “What about emergencies?”

To that, I answer that both phones and Wi-Fi are not hard to come by. Lost on my way to an Airbnb, I stop into a cafe and either get online to send an email or call my host via Google Voice (at the cost of a few cents) or ask to use the cafe phone for a local call. Sure, it’s not as convenient as whipping out your personal tech concierge, but those few less-convenient detours (which happen maybe once, twice a year) save me $16,800 every 10 years.

And don’t forget that cell phones are a relatively new thing. My family had a single cell phone we shared when I was in my teen years. I don’t think we had one at all before that. They weren’t even invented until the ’70s and were not in widespread use until well after that.

Obviously not everyone can go without a cell phone. If you’re a doctor on call at the hospital, I hope you have one. But for most of us, having a phone attached to our hips isn’t a life or death proposition. And designing my life in such a way as to not be constantly connected, always on call, has made me feel much more deeply connected to my real, non-virtual, moment-to-moment life.

3. Choosing to walk, walk, and walk some more.

Somewhere along the way, I realized how much I hate driving. Being on the road causes me a near-constant low-level anxiety. Not to mention how bad car exhaust is for the air we breathe or how much sicker people get when they don’t move their bodies. And so I made an internal pact with myself: if something was less than an hour away on foot, I’d choose to walk instead of drive. Even if I looked ridiculous.

I started this in the states, where I did look ridiculous much of the time. I walked 30 minutes to the grocery store and lugged my goods back on my back and shoulders through a neighborhood so unused to walkers that it didn’t even have sidewalks on half the route.

I walked to coffee shops and shopping areas. I walked to meet friends. And slowly, as walking became more second nature, more enjoyable, along the way, I started walking farther.

When I was in Belgium, I walked an hour and a half to get to a swing dance event and walked home again afterward. Despite the fact that Europeans walk a lot more than North Americans, my Belgian friends thought I was nuts. Still, I walked.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I got stronger and felt better.

I got more fresh air and had more time to think. I also discovered things I never would have if I was driving by. If you’re walking, it’s easy to stop and peek into a shop, around a corner, into a park. It’s easy to notice small things.

It also forced me to slow down the pace of my life…no more rushing in between meetings, planning activities back to back to back. I spread things out. I gave myself the gift of time.

And since I broke down the financials for you above, let’s do that again, too. On average, I walk about two miles per hour. So going somewhere an hour away means four miles round trip. According to a New York Times chart, gas is currently averaging about 13 cents per mile. Let’s say I do about 16 miles per week (I probably do a lot more, but let’s start there). That’s $2.08 per week. Not substantial (yet). Multiply it by the 52 weeks in a year and you get $108.16. Times that by 10 years and you’re at $1,081.60. Plus, you’re healthier (which also saves you money), more relaxed (this too), and have discovered more interesting things in your own backyard.

That’s not counting wear and tear and maintenance saved on the car and really not counting how much you could save if you have a partner and could turn this walking exercise into being a one-car instead of two-car family (average cost for car ownership in a year is over $8,000).

4. Seeking out my actual productive hours.

9 – 5. It’s the typical working schedule in the US. But is that really when we’re all most productive?

As I started letting my body wake naturally and sleep when I was tired, I also started experimenting with my work schedule, noticing when I felt productive, awake, energized, and when I felt sluggish, distracted, or unproductive.

Instead of forcing myself to work a set set of hours, I started working when I was most energized, alert, and focused and giving myself permission to shut work off or do easier, less important tasks in the hours that I was generally less focused.

For me, it turns out, mornings are my most productive time. I get the most done and have the best workdays when I rise early, grab myself a cup of tea, and dive into work straightaway, starting at six or seven or eight. By lunchtime, I’m slowing down a little, and by about two p.m., I’m toast.

For someone else, no doubt, the hours are different. Some people get tons done in the middle of the night and feel slow and off in the mornings. Others might find 9 to 5 to be just right for their rhythms. But whatever your most productive hours are, working within them is going to make your output better and—even more important—quicker, freeing up your time, which is the most valuable thing you have.

5. Upgrading the small things.

Overall, I’m a minimalist. I live out of a backpack. I don’t own much.

But over time I’ve realized that I can greatly increase my day-to-day happiness by making sure the things I do own are things that I love. I want technology that works flawlessly, clothes that fit perfectly, and even bars of soap that bring me joy every time I use them.

And so even though I’m all about saving money and living simply, when it comes to the things I do need and choose to own, I often upgrade. I buy handmade bars of soap from local markets because the texture, the scent, the story behind where I got them brings me joy every time I shower. I buy locally made jams and liquors, fresh baked bakery bread and butcher shop meat because I want every meal to feel like a celebration.

Buying lots of extra stuff won’t bring me joy (particularly since I have to carry it all), but upgrading the few simple things I do buy, that definitely does. It’s a way to feel rich every day without actually spending tons more money.


Do you have any unusual habits that have changed the way you live, your health, your wellness, your joy? Please share!

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18 Comments
  • MOTOWNGIRL2
    March 27, 2017

    Great article Gigi. Living in the moment is really a rare thing these days, but so worth it. I could hear a collective GASP when you wrote about not having a cell phone. But people’s lives are being sucked into those things! And loving the things you own, or using things that bring you joy. YES!

    • gigigriffis
      March 27, 2017

      I know, right? Anytime I mention the cell phone thing, people get this panicked look in their eyes. :)

  • Emily
    March 27, 2017

    Love this post! A couple thoughts from my own personal experience, if I may:

    1. While my husband and I did not find it practical to ditch our cell phones entirely, we do use GoogleFi. Our phones were $150 each and cost about $25/month for service. They work in most countries without any upgrades or international service activations. We have tested them out in Canada, Mexico, Western Europe (including the UK), and Morocco with no issues. We continue to be baffled as to why most people we know are paying hundreds of dollars per phone and another couple hundred each month for service – and then more every time they travel.
    2. We walk where we can and BIKE to work 7 months out of the year (more if weather allows – our commutes are 9 and 16 miles round-trip). Our kid bikes to school any day that we bike to work. We did the math and this saved us over $1000 last year, in addition to getting us all pretty darn fit with no particular weekday workouts other than the biking. :)

    EVERYONE should give some of the habits Gigi listed above at least an experimental try. Ditch the phone for one weekend or one vacation. Maybe try no alarms for that same time period. Ditch the car for a week (if you find yourself immediately grasping for excuses on why you can’t ditch the car, all the more reason to try it). Try new working hours. Learn a little about minimalism and see where you can downsize. This sort of thinking will rock your world. ;)
    Thanks for another great piece, Gigi!

    • gigigriffis
      March 27, 2017

      Excellent! So glad you brought up GoogleFi. I’m out of the cell phone loop, myself, at this point, but that sounds like a wayyy better option for people who do choose to have cells.

      Also, so much yes on the cycling option.

    • Helena
      March 28, 2017

      What is GoogleFi and how does it work? I’m an American currently in Mexico – my phone issues are soaking up way too much time and energy. Works for some #’s – not others, etc. I’d love an inexpensive travel worthy solution!

  • Sarah Grunwald
    March 27, 2017

    I write every single morning about nothing and everything. The Morning Pages. Started when I was 20 and they have never failed me. I like the idea of learning something new every year. Last year I dedicated my year to learning about personality disorders. It came in handy.

    • gigigriffis
      March 27, 2017

      Oh, I love that. A daily writing habit with no expectations.

  • Linda
    March 27, 2017

    I worked for the federal government for over 20 years and had to set an alarm in order to be where I needed to be when I needed to be there. After I retired, I stopped setting an alarm, and it has been heavenly. Now I find myself reading till the wee hours of the morning and not feeling guilty about it or watching the clock worrying that I won’t get enough sleep. That has led to the somewhat bad habit of long naps in the afternoon. Everything I’ve read says short naps are better. That’s one area I hope to improve upon!

    • gigigriffis
      March 27, 2017

      That sounds wonderful. I love the kind of books that inspire that kind of late night dedication.

  • Grace
    March 27, 2017

    Yes! Rules I live by:
    1. When I buy something new, give something away of similar or equal purpose.
    2. Only buy art, wall hangings, decor, etc, from local artists or people I know.
    3. Don’t own anything I can’t lift myself. I broke this rule for my couch.
    4. Try the odd item on the menu.
    5. Intentionally be confident. That doesn’t come easy for some of us.
    6. New adventure: Community Meal Prep. Make food, swap it.
    7. Travel at every opportunity, as budget allows.

    • gigigriffis
      March 28, 2017

      I kind of love #3.

  • J.H. Moncrieff
    March 27, 2017

    I love this post so much, and not just because it reaffirms my decision not to have a cell phone or a car. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “But you HAVE to have a cell phone to travel.”

    Thanks for confirming that I don’t. If you, someone who lives on the road, can manage without one, so can I. Great story about Switzerland too. When I was in Greece, I traveled with a group of people who ignored each other to upload photos or chat with friends back home. They were taking selfies of people they didn’t even know and spending all their time putting them on Facebook.

    Sometimes I really don’t understand the cell phone culture.

    • gigigriffis
      March 28, 2017

      For sure! People get really uncomfortable when the idea comes up, like you’re suggesting they could get by without their arm. When I remind them that the first people who climbed that mountain or visited that country or hiked that trail didn’t have access to cell phones, it takes them a minute to realize that’s true – we’ve become so attached to them.

  • Gerald Krezmien
    March 27, 2017

    I like everyone of them.

  • Sky
    April 5, 2017

    Wow. I can’t believe how much I can relate to this. I was expecting some ridiculous list mimicking every other self-help list but 4 of these 5 things are actually things I’m working on right now. The no alarm clock thing is huge for me. I developed a big anxiety related to having an alarm go off in the morning. I’m not sure if it was the noise or being jarred awake suddenly but I would wake up with knots in my stomach. If I had to be up early, it was even worse. My panic over missing the alarm would keep me awake all night or, if I did sleep, wake me up. This week I started keeping my cell phone out of my room. When I wake up, I have no idea what time it is and I don’t look at the time until I’ve gotten dressed. This morning I was shocked to realize I was awake at 6:30 – if I had my phone in my room, I would have stayed in bed, even if I didn’t fall back asleep. I haven’t figured out my best work schedule yet but it’s something I’m working on. I’m realizing that I’m best at different work at different times. Editing is a disaster at night but I love to write at night.

    I’ve been walking so much more since leaving the States – it’s kind of a requirement now that I don’t have a car – and since I have no idea how long I’ll be living in Costa Rica (and I moved here with a backpack), I’ve refrained from buying random stuff.

    Thank you for sharing these tips – they’re the most relevant I’ve read in a long time!

    • gigigriffis
      April 6, 2017

      I totally relate! I was having panic attacks when my alarm went off back when I lived in Denver.

  • gigigriffis
    April 6, 2017

    Another reason to think about ditching your phone: http://stopsmartmeters.org.uk/9th-grade-student-cress-wifi-experiment-attracts-international-attention/.

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