On doing nothing vs. being productive – Travel (and Corona ) Insights Series #4

Somewhere along the coast of the state in Bahia, crashing waves, beaches framed by palm trees, and sunsets that were postcard-worthy, my third workaway volunteering placement was challenging myself on different levels than I expected. I was contacted by a host of a small bed and breakfast right by the coast, telling me he needed help asap. At the time, I was traveling in the area around Rio the Janeiro and I ended up taking a (very rare) flight up to this area, to be there as fast as I could. This was a place I would not return to; however, looking at my insights, I can see that I learned a valuable lesson from it.

I also feel that these reflections come at a good moment and there are so many parallels I can draw towards our current situation with COVID….

Here are the two posts I wrote in December 2018 about this place:


So how’s my trip been, recently?
A good week of traveling left me feeling out of sync with the routine I have been trying to establish over the last months (yoga, meditation, online work&study)
(…) Going to the next volunteer place, I was hoping for some tranquility and stability, which yet hasn’t been that easy to find. It made me question how I could use my skills in this place and how I could create a schedule/routine in a place that is way too flexible for me. Bad internet was just the tip of the iceberg and left me feeling unproductive, having time on hands and nothing to fill it with.

So I’ve been looking for the positive in all this.
Trying to connect more with myself than the internet, realizing that I can find a lot of answers by just listening to my inner voice.

Accepting that sometimes in order to move forward, you might have to take a step or two back. That progress isn’t linear but will have ups and downs.

That it’s not all about what I do and achieve. But about being and how I show up in life. How I take these challenging moments and what I make from them.

After all, this is what I wanted to get from this trip: Growing as a person ❤️
And I am grateful to have some beautiful scenery to make me realize how grateful I can be for my life at this very moment.

Leaving workaway (volunteer placement) #3 in Brazil.
This placement has been one of the most challenging ones I’ve been. As a volunteer I’ve felt out of place and not fitting into the organization because it was hard to be of help and to know how to do things the way it was expected (but not communicated).
(…) I was on the verge of quitting. But somehow I decided to go through with it. Week 2 brought some improvement and the fact that I was able to work some shifts in the kitchen and practice my Portuguese with their magnificent cozinheira made a big difference.
(…) Luckily being there with other volunteers helped, because even though we were not similar in most ways and sometimes being with them felt challenging, I still found companions who stuck together with me through this situation for better and worse. I managed to channel my focus on the beautiful beaches, the amazing breakfast and lunch our cozinheira produced, practicing my Portuguese with the staff and my yoga spot under a palm tree and flowers

In some way, my situation over there was a little bit like these days, with the exception of the quality of the Internet. I did not have to follow social distancing at that volunteer placement, but I was stuck in a remote place with nowhere to go except for the beach (no grocery store or restaurant within walking distance, just an accumulation of beach huts and resorts)—it kind of feels like where I am living right now. The only thing to do was and is to go for a walk or to stay indoors.

And you know what? That is what I’ve been wanting for the last months and also during my travels. I was already travel-fatigued after 2 months of traveling at the point that I wrote the above. This might come as a surprise to many of you, however, I had never set out on this trip to bump around from place to place. I envisioned myself at a few volunteering placements, having some peace and quiet and staying in one place without doing much sightseeing. One way or the other, I did get lured into the backpacking lifestyle and partly liked, partly hated it…. I’m saying this so that you might understand that life being at a slow place and me not being able to go anywhere is just what I need right now. I talked with other friends who are leading a similar lifestyle to mine and they admitted to finding themselves in the same position. That when you have the opportunity you go, go, go because it would be a waste not to! Even though deep down, all you want to do is curl up in a comfortable bed, read a book, sleep, or binge-watch Netflix.

Therefore this time in many ways has brought me what I needed without having to justify my actions… until I got to this stage now and which I will write about below.

Let me say that I realize that I’m in a position where I don’t have to take care of 4 kids and a husband who are suddenly all at home 24/7 and which would not even make me think about what I wrote below. Everyone’s life is different and some people might not have any extra time on hand. The idea I’m presenting below might still resonate and you might be able to take in an aspect on what this extraordinary situation does to our life.

The dilemma doesn’t only refer to me but also to what I heard my friends talk about or the messages of the posts I could see on social media.
At the beginning of the self-isolation phase, I noticed people being either happy about having so much free time or wondering what the hell to make out of it.

During the past weeks, however, I’ve seen more and more people (including me) struggle to be unproductive and associate this as something concerning and unnerving. Many of us, including me, have tried to find something useful to do, so as in not to ‘waste’ this time given to us. It made me feel almost stressed. I was trying so hard to set up a full-day program that I felt more worn-out and unsatisfied that during a regular week in my life. I was battling procrastination, instant gratification, wanting to do ‘more’ and not knowing where to start. Starting on five different ‘projects,’ then losing motivation. I felt all over the place and not at peace.

So, eventually, I had to guide myself back into spending my day with moments where I would deliberately do nothing – and that was (and still is) really really hard to do.

In my definition, that means being present but not thinking about what to do next. Not running through your imaginary to-do list. Not trying to compare me with other people’s efforts and achievements during quarantine times. Not having every single minute of my day filled, trying to achieve something.
Instead, being present and only present in that one moment (also outside of my daily meditation, which had been a ‘thoughts-overloaded’ ordeal for a bit)
Doing nothing is pretty much impossible (we are always breathing, right?!).

So I was looking for these ‘pockets’ in my day where I could drop everything for a bit and either didn’t carry out any conscious action or did something (in my eyes) ‘unproductive.’

I managed to tone down my multi-tasking and started going for walks without my phone, which was difficult but also incredibly liberating! I started looking at the trees and how all the buds were turning into leaves and flowers. I suddenly felt such an intense eye for detail, even more than I already thought I had. I smelled the spring air, the pebbles of the beach underneath my feet and took it in just by myself without taking pictures to post later.
I also put my phone away while I was eating and stared at the plants on my terrace instead. There was so much peace suddenly within me.
I started feeling annoyed by all the clutter in my life – digital non-sense that I was devoting my day to.
Also, sometimes, I would just lay on the couch and be there. This brought me some more meditative moments in life, not just when I’d deliberately sit down but just when getting on with my day.

And then there were days when I just lay in bed, read a good book and binge-watched Netflix (A Coisa Mais Linda, my go-to series for listening to Portuguese and getting those Rio vibes back). I had not done that in years and letting go of the productive me for a day was so fulfilling. It made me recover energy that I felt I had lost and gave me the motivation to, e.g., write on this blog the day after.

I also eventually realized that I did neither have to nor want to renounce my daily routine completely.
My personal life has seen constant changes over the past two years. It would have been easy to feel like the ground was pulled away from underneath my feet. Keeping my routine (which is merely about 2 hours of my day) has helped me frame my day with an official ‘start’ and ‘closure.’ My routine had helped me stay on track when I didn’t have much to do and felt like wasting my life away. It had also helped me in days when everything seemed overwhelming and I didn’t know where my head was. Knowing that I have a structure, the one that stays no matter what happens during the day, has helped me find some feeling ‘safe and secure.’

In my opinion, the challenge is not to ‘over plan’ the free time of my day but to leave enough time for unexpected circumstances happening, ‘pockets’ of nothingness and moments of spontaneous creativity and flow.