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!