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.

My favorite mindfulness & productivity apps

I love apps. Those small products have made my life easier, more productive and helped me stay on track of what I want to do (unless YouTube is luring me into its deep net of videos)


DownDog
My favorite yoga app. It is an app, where you can customize your yoga sequence in several different ways: length or session, kind of session (Hatha, restorative, aerobic…), area to focus on (back strengthening, core, …).

I use the paid version to use even more of the features and often download the sessions that I really liked to use at a later stage, i.e. when I don’t have wifi.

The start page of the app with the options to create a personalized yoga practice which is never the same even if you keep the same parameters!


Insight Timer
My meditation app of choice. The free version is more than sufficient and you can find guided meditation sessions as well a detailed timer to time your meditation session and potentially underlie it with music, gongs, etc.


Goal Tracker
My personal favorite to help me keep track of my daily routine. Whether you want to remind yourself to journal every night, do your morning workout or work on your Spanish: The app lets you set a ‘goal’ that you want to accomplish in certain frequencies (once a day, once a week,etc.) You can get notifications or simply check for yourself in the app what you still need to get done. Once done you can set a nice checkmark, Like that you have an overview of your weekly and monthly progress. I have found it has helped me stick to my ‘habits’ that I usually have at home. And seeing my goal turn from a nice blue to black and finally read when not keeping up with up has motivated me to keep going 🙂

(–> also see my post ‘Having a routine when traveling‘)


Daylio
This app is sort of a digital journal. It asks you every night how your day has been and you can fill in the information in the form of little signs, showing which actions, e.g. work, reading, relaxing… you did. You will also give your day an overall smiley that shows your emotional state and can add notes explaining everything. I like thinking about my overall mood of the day, especially if I had something stressful happening because it makes me rethink, how big of an impact that situation really had on my overall mood.


Wunderlist
I’ve tried many different to-do lists and ended up with one
. You can set a task and a time to get reminded to do this task and also set repeating reminders for things you have to get done every day. I have to admit I’m not sure how I’d remember all my to-do’s without this app (otherwise I might still have sticky notes all over the place!)

EDIT: Wunderlist is sadly no longer available. I’ve been trying out other to-do apps and there’s a ton of great apps out there! The one I’m enjoying right now is called Bright To-Do


LastPass
Are you using the same password for every account you need a password for? Or are you used to clicking on the ‘forgot password’ section? I struggled a lot trying to remember all my passwords until I finally got a password app. You have a master password needed to enter the app and from reviews, it seems to be very safe. I might still have the German mindset of never give out your data so I still don’t put my complete password but only something that reminds me of it. At least all the information is in one place. 



What apps make your life better?

My favorite apps when traveling

Long gone are the days when I was first traveling and smartphones weren’t glued to our hands. Love them or hate them, they have enhanced my travel experience a lot and lessened the hassle of not knowing where I was or what certain words in a foreign language meant (not that that wasn’t fun at times, but there is always enough hassle to keep a traveler filled with adventures 😉 )

Below are a few of my all-time favorites. I am an app-junkie and my phone is filled with productivity apps but these are a few I appreciate especially when traveling:


maps.me
What would I do without you dear maps.me? You have saved me in countless situations where I went off-trail on a hike by myself without a clue on how to find back. This app has made hiking so much easier and reassuring. It works pretty well in most places and offline (NOTE: don’t forget to download the map per area. To do so, zoom into the area you’re traveling to and maps.me will ask you automatically whether you’d like to download the map. If you don’t do it it won’t work and the areas you usually most need it in are in signal-free areas, believe me) 

The GPS might take a few seconds to find your current location but usually get it eventually. The amazing thing about the app is that is shows almost all hiking trails I’ve ever been on (I’m not talking the major ones but also the ones that started in someone’s backyard and went to places no one had heard about) The app gives you the time you need to complete a hike as well as the altitude you are going to cover. The time needed for the hikes is usually very generously calculated and just to be more correct I’d check my second favorite maps app ‘Google Maps’. 

I still believe Google maps is a necessity. I use it for checking the ratings of places, distances, etc. Maps.me does a great job in hiking trails (google comes nowhere near) but for other concerns, I’d stick with this maps app as it is the most extensive and accurate.


Evernote 
I have always been a big fan of taking notes of everything that comes into my head so being able to have all notes in one app and organize them into notebooks felt like a dream come true. It’s a very minimalist app, no frills, but that’s why I like it. I am paying to use the app’s offline option as well as being able to use it across several devices. You can also ‘clip’ whole articles from the web and add them to the app.


Currency converter
Whoever has traveled to a country with a different currency knows what I’m talking about. I’d always recommend checking the rate you’re made to pay at your accommodation with what you were told you’d have to pay. Often when you reserve something, the price might be in your local currency, so make sure you’re actually paying the price displayed in your booking confirmation (unfortunately I’ve often been tried to get overcharged this way). Show your booking to the receptionist, open the currency converter and show them what the price really should be.


dictionaries
Traveling to a foreign country can be daunting when you don’t speak the language. Dictionary apps have helped me communicate in a few words, clarified situations, helped me read menus, etc.

Google Translate usually does a good job and there is the possibility to download an online dictionary. Personally, I found having a unique app per language pair to be more accurate. It also depends on your usage of the dictionary app. dict.cc, for example, allows you to save the words in a ‘folder’ where you can review and study them later, flashcard style. 
One major advantage of Google Translate is it’s camera function. It lets you take pictures of the foreign text of e.g. a menu and then translates the whole text into your target language. It’s indispensable when you’re in countries such as China, Japan and Korea.


Hopper
This app was recommended to me by a friend. It basically tracks the flight prices for a certain route and gives you advice on whether the price might change in your favor or not and whether it’d be better to book now or later. You can save the route you’re looking into and will get alerts once prices go up or down. Highly recommended!


Speedtest
With South-America having very questionable internet-connections in many places, I started using an app to test the Wi-Fi speed at places, sometimes before I’d even book them (by visiting the place, asking of the Wi-Fi password and then testing the Wi-Fi speed). It helped me decide, whether I wanted to stay at a place and whether I’d be able to carry out video-calls (Skype, Zoom – note that zoom might work better with a slower internet connection). If you need good internet for work or other important things, get the app. It’s also useful to check the connection your data connection has as that can also vary greatly.


Skype
I’m sure you all know Skype for video calls. That’s what I’d been using it for years until I realized one day that there is a second tab where you can call phone numbers all over the world, landlines, mobile phone numbers… This is a paid service but it’s very affordable. To give you an example, calling customer service in Canada and being on the phone for half an hour costs me less than 50 Cents. You can check the exact rates per minute on their website but they’re often less than 2 Cents per minute… I usually charge it with 5 USD and it lasts me several months.

I also just discovered that you are now able to get a local phone number through Skype for several countries so that people can call you back. I haven’t tried that feature yet but it looks promising.


Couchsurfing
The place if you’re looking to connect with people in your area. Originally, this site was designed to find hosts all over the world where you can ‘stay for free’, however, there are also local events, such as language exchanges, pub crawls, hikes… The app has a ‘hangout’ function where you can find people in real-time to hang out with.


Podcast Addict/YouTube Premium/Kindle for entertainment
You’re going to be spending a lot of time on buses, at airports, border crossings… make sure you have some offline content for those often ‘tedious’ waiting times. I love having different media available as reading or watching videos can be very difficult to do during bumpy bus rides.

NOTE: I haven’t used mobile booking and reservation apps, because they are using up too much space on my phone and the websites work just fine for me. For more information on how to book accomodation and transportation, particularly in South-America, have a look at my post Accomodation and Transportation in South-America.


I hope you found this insightful. What are your favorite apps for traveling?

How I set up my routine (and am keeping it up)

In my previous post, I wrote about my daily routine that helps me feel anchored in my traveling life.

I realized after talking to a friend that I never wrote about how I actually set up this routine and how I came to solidify it.

So how did I get started?

For me, it was important to fully understand why I was attempting to create this routine.

Did I want to learn a language just for the fun of it or was I going to apply it somewhere? Did I want to pick-up yoga because it seemed like a ‘trendy’ practice to do or because I actually knew it would help me?

Whatever the reason, it was very helpful to keep the effects of my new habit in the picture as that would motivate me on days when I didn’t feel like getting things done.

However, … In our busy lives who has time for another ‘to-do’?

As Duolingo reminds me once a day – if you find time for Instagram then you can study 10 minutes a day.

I think often people feel intimidated by putting another to-do on their list.

I felt the same. I actually started this routine while I was working full-time and simply continued it when I started traveling. And I’d honestly say that keeping it up whilst traveling was almost harder. Why? Because the rest of my day wasn’t as structured as it used to do so it was harder to build my ‘personal routine’ around days that had no structure.

Anyway, when I started, I decided I wanted to meditate regularly, do exercise (i.e. yoga) and study Portuguese regularly (other practices came to the list at a later stage).

If you are new to meditation you know how it feels. You sit down, set a timer for 30 minutes (because you read somewhere that that’s the length people meditate for) and 30 seconds in you glance and your timer and think ‘What! It’s only been 30 seconds?’ How do people do this?’

I think it’s important to remember that like everything new that we’re attempting in life, a routine is also a step-by-step process and the first step is often the hardest. Once you make that step and then commit to your routine, over time it will be much easier to follow through.

So I started small. Really small.

I started with meditating for 1 minute. Which felt like forever for my racing mind. Eventually, I got used to the minute. That meant making the next step. I increased the time to 5 minutes, then 10…. You get the idea.

I also quickly realized that attempting to create three habits at once wouldn’t work. I tried and failed. So, first things first. At a small scale. Eventually, once I felt the habit started to form, I’d add another practice.

When I then eventually started adding yoga to my routine, I practiced for 10 minutes. That seemed like forever in the beginning (I’m can be impatient at times…). I increased it to 12 minutes eventually once I started feeling comfortable doing any yoga at all and making myself get up early for it. I increased the intensity of my practice and the time. Currently, I am practicing 30 minutes every day which to me feels the right amount of time and I can really feel the benefits, especially by being consistent.

Finally, Portuguese. I started with 5 minutes of studying on Duolingo. And if I was too tired for that (which is almost too much of an excuse), then I’d at least watch a YouTube video for a few minutes that was related to studying Portuguese (‘almost’ the same as watching TV after all). The most important factor to me was that I went through with it!EVERY DAY!

I wanted to create this consistency in life that starts feeling second nature, just like brushing my teeth. And like this over time I also increased the time for studying.

Again, all this time I used my ‘goal tracker app’ that I talked about in my last post and reminders from different apps. And as mentioned, after a while, I just got used to my daily routine, so I don’t need the reminders anymore.

How am I keeping up this routine?

Let me first say that the two challenges I found for not sticking to my routine were time and motivation.

I won’t have time to do all this’.

I just don’t feel like doing this today. I’m going to give it a miss‘.

I had these thoughts a lot in the beginning. Yet, they have become much less over time.

If I really don’t get motivated, I try to go back and reduce the time I had set for my task. I’ll meditate for a minute if everything fails and do yoga for five or just some simple stretches. The most important point for me is consistency!

I think it’s better to do something for 5 minutes fully concentrated, than 30 half-hearted.

If time is the issue, I try to get creative as in where I could squeeze in my practice in a shortened way.

  • I might study Portuguese for a few minutes, when I have ‘waiting time’ for a bus, friends, a call…
  • I might meditate in bed or take a moment when I’m in some nice, quiet surroundings and just take a few mindful breaths or put up a guided meditation before I go to sleep.
  • To meet my exercise habit, I used to walk the stairs at school or offices or at the subway. I still believe it’s one of the best exercising lifehacks, especially if you the number of steps is high 😉
  • I had a friend who did yoga in the staircase of her work during breaks! That’s what I call true commitment and dedication.

Having said this, I have also learned that life happens and there are times when I really wasn’t able to go through with it. Then, the most important thing is that I focus on getting back into the routine and not slack by thinking ‘ah well another day of missing out on yoga will be ok’. That’s when I have to catch myself. It’s about being honest to myself in whether outer circumstances prevented me from keeping up or just my inner motivation.

Last but not least, I constantly evaluate my ‘routine’. If I notice that I don’t get it done, then I look into why that is. Time is not always the problem. It’s more often a problem of motivation: ‘This is too exhausting for my brain at this hour‘ or ‘I don’t think I really benefit from this right now‘. I adapt it if necessary and might scrape some practices. I don’t want to force myself to carry out my routine but still enjoy it and see its long-lasting effects! I’m doing all this for myself and not because someone else makes me do it after all 🙂

So, I hope that helped explain where I’m coming from with this routine. This is just my own experience that I’ve built over time and I hope you can find your own! The benefits can be amazing!

Additional resources that I recommend:

1. Coincidentally this week one of my favorite Personal Development Podcasters, Kara Loewentheil released an episode that she called, the ‘Infinite 1%‘.

In it, she describes the huge difference between being at 0% of our goal versus 1% and how making the first percent is the biggest step we can do towards 100%.

2. I recently read ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg and was glad to see that I had actually figured out many of the things he mentioned by myself already. I do think it’s a great read if you want to dig deeper into the science of ‘building long-lasting’ habits.

My daily routine – what keeps me grounded when traveling


Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement

James Clear



If you’ve read my previous post about ‘searching for a home’ and being a little travel-fatigued, you might wonder what I do to feel some sort of stability in life (if you haven’t read the post, find it here).

‘Commited’ is probably not an adjective you’d use to describe a traveler, however my commitment to certain practices are exactly what helped me have some feeling of stability and some anchor over the past year. The one thing I have been resorting back to constantly has been my routine

You might think why on earth would you want to have a routine when you travel?

Isn’t traveling all about being free and doing whatever you want?

I agree but I have learned that having something ‘constant’ in my life to hold on to can be very grounding and reassuring. It’s like a base that I’m standing on from which I can then go and explore instead of just floating around.

Having traveled for a year at an earlier stage in life, I also knew that I wanted to get more out of this year than the previous time. Yes, I wanted to do whatever I wanted, but I also wanted to make sure that I kept up the practices and the routine from my regular life that I knew were good for me. I didn’t want to interrupt my progress in those aspects which is something you can forget too easily when you’re in the ‘every-day-is-different’- lifestyle of a traveler.

One of the most important aspects for me was my morning routine. Maybe you’ve heard about people getting up way before everyone else and how they take that time to get started in the day. I can only say that it’s been life-changing in the way I work on my routine. Getting up 30 min before my usual alarm has given me some very precious extra time!

So, despite traveling, I decided I would do my best to keep up my routine or adapt it to my current needs.

Yoga and meditation have played a major role in this and I’ve worked hard to keep up that habit. It can be tricky finding a space to do yoga, and I had to learn to overcome the thought of ‘everyone can see me, that’s embarrassing’. I have done yoga next to the reception desk, the hallway, on the floor between all the bunk beds and wherever else possible. That time in the morning is very valuable to me and often when things don’t go well during the day, I try to think back to my morning practice and how I successfully started my morning. I also like to journal in the morning to get whatever is lingering in my mind out and on paper. And being the language nerd I am, I already study on a language app right after I wake up (language learning works best in the morning or evening I think – your brain has to work a bit more but what you learn really sticks!).

Also, I found that my morning routine is the easiest to stick to when traveling or even in general. Unless II hav to get up earlier than usual, say to take a bus or head out on a tour, I cam usually set that designated time aside, which is often harder to find or to remember in the middle of the day.

I do, however, make sure to complete some practices during the day as well. Smartphones, as dependent as they can make us, have amazing resources. 

I use my phone a lot for language learning and thus study Portuguese at least 30min a day during the afternoon.

My evening is usually ‘catch-up-time’ if I didn’t get some things done I had planned to do. I like to journal again and often end up on a language-learning app (who would have guessed…)

How do I keep myself accountable? Back to my smart little helper, my smartphone and an app called ‘goal tracker’ (I am an app junkie ;)…). You basically make a list of the things you want to get done regularly and then check them off every day. At this point, I don’t use the app anymore to remind me of what I want to do. I know naturally what I want to get done every day as I’ve created strong habits and do these things without thinking about them and without really having to motivate myself to do them. However, it gives me a nice overview of how consistent I am because there will still always be days when I will not do everything 😉

I’m not perfect.. 😉
also some goals are only once a week like my self-coaching, PD means personal development. Also this is not my full list but there’s only so much you can get on a screenshot

As I mentioned in the beginning, during my first trip, I wished I had had a bit more of a routine. These days I know how to start my day which is a very reassuring feeling as the rest of the day is often in the unknown. I like knowing that there is a frame that I am constantly working on in which I can then paint a new picture every day.

update: I wrote a part 2 to this post: How I set up my routine (and am keeping it up) Check it out for more ideas on productivity and building long-lasting habits!