On not making plans, impromptu whisky sours and bathroom dining.

Last week I asked my sister what she was most looking forward to doing when she moved into her new house. She answered straight away: “Eating dinner in the bath.”

Her words came back to me today and made me smile, partly because of the absurdity of her answer and partly because of what it represented. Having dinner in the bath is really living life on your own terms: doing something other people think is crazy just because you want to.

This week I had lots of things that I thought I should do. It was supposed to be a quiet one, time to catch up on sleep, do my laundry, clean, tidy, write and reflect. But as soon as I arrived back in Oxford on Sunday night I received a text message: do you want to go for shisha? Which of course turned into shisha and wine and a late night.

On Monday night I ended up having a pub dinner and conversations that lasted until it got dark. On Wednesday night a throwaway remark by a friend – “I haven’t had a whisky sour in ages” – saw us camped out in a cocktail bar for most of the night. I returned home and collapsed on my bed. “Oh shit,” I thought as the room span around me. “I needed to do that laundry.” But it turned out I didn’t, because I wore a running bra under my work clothes today and nothing bad happened.

I have a nasty habit of trying to schedule every moment of my life in advance. I plan, I make lists, and I turn down fun to cross things off them.

This week has shown me that I can relax a little: not plan anything, not set expectations. Wonderful things can happen when you leave space for a little spontaneity. You’ll still do the things that matter (that laundry is in the washing machine as I type) but there’s a lot of things that don’t.

I’ll get more sleep when my friends aren’t in town. I’ll write when I feel inspired, not when I feel I ought to. This might lead to more infrequent blog posts but they will be the ones worth reading. Or it might not, because you don’t know what will happen when you leave space. It is okay to do whatever the hell you want to do in the moment, even it that’s eating dinner in the bath.

The trap of self improvement

I have a confession to make: I think I might be happy. I’m not sure exactly when and why it happened, but the knot of anxiety that sat in my chest for years has disappeared. Obviously I still have moments of feeling a bit tired, or stressed out, or irritated about something. But underneath these surface emotions I feel bizarrely content.

I say bizarrely, because being a project person, I’m used to always working on something. But now, I seem to have lost my drive. I’m happy to just lounge around chatting to housemates or watching DVDs. And although I think I should feel bad about this lack of productivity, I don’t. Which makes you wonder what the point of so called “self-improvement” projects are if you feel better about yourself when you’re not doing any.

Because there are a couple of things that are acting as blockers to my happiness, and they’re both connected to an idea that is supposed to make you happy.

  1. I still stress out about food. I would love to eat a piece of cake, or an ice-cream, or a heavy meal without beating myself up about it afterwards, but I can’t. I put on a good show of non-disordered eating, but that’s because I don’t let myself buy any food that I enjoy enough to binge on. Because the mental anguish that follows eating half a box of chocolates isn’t worth eating the chocolate in the first place. Which is nonsense, because it’s not as though I dislike how I look or fear putting on weight. It’s because I’ve internalised a load of rubbish about how not eating chocolate makes you a better person.
  2. I stress out about spending money and owning things. While initially helpful in getting me to think about what I need (or don’t need) and what kind of life I want to have, all that minimalist blogs seem to do now is make me feel guilty for owning as many things as I do. Which definitely isn’t the author’s intention, but I always want to be the best at everything I do, so reading about people doing simplicity “better” makes me feel bad about myself.

But getting rid of things that do give me pleasure or depriving myself of things I can actually afford to buy is as likely to make me happy as eating less or making myself throw up the things that I do eat. It might make me think I’m in control in the short term, but it isn’t the answer to long term happiness. I’ve spent years on various projects, some of which have improved my life, but what I’ve realised is that that self improvement doesn’t make you as happy as self acceptance does. We don’t have to be always striving for something better. Sometimes, this is it, and it’s great.

To me, acceptance is about:

  • Spending all morning in bed reading without feeling bad about not going for a run or cleaning the kitchen.
  • Enjoying that second helping of pudding without worrying about what it’s doing to your body.
  • Writing blog posts when you feel inspired and not because you feel obliged to stick to a schedule.
  • Knowing that you have enough goal setting in your professional life without bringing them home.
  • Letting yourself off the hook. You don’t have to live up to anyone’s standards but your own. It’s okay to be that bit chubbier than you possibly could be, or for your house to be a bit messier. Happiness will make yourself and your surroundings a million times more beautiful.

5 things I’ve learnt from not buying new clothes

  1. Mostly, we shop because we can and not because we need to. It’s easy to go out and buy something new when you feel as though you don’t have anything to wear. But also, it’s been quite easy for me to put something together from what I already own. After a “but I have nothing to wear!” meltdown, it takes about two minutes of looking through my wardrobe to find something that I do have to wear. I’ve learnt to stop and think like a rational person, trust my style (rather than faddy fashions) and that throwing money at a problem is not always the best way to solve it.
  2. It’s easy to hide behind new clothes. The times that I’ve broken or seriously considered breaking my no new clothes resolution is because I’ve had a date or a job interview i.e. an occasion where I’ve been trying to impress somebody. Obviously people do judge on appearances, but real confidence comes from your self-esteem and not from a hot new outfit. Within a few days it will become an old outfit, and then you’ll have to buy another to get a new boost. Having to show up in old clothes has been good for building a new kind of confidence.
  3. It’s easy to fix things. Without the option of replacing them I’ve adjusted clothes that didn’t fit anymore, sewn up holes and basically done all the mending that’s been on my to do list for years. It wasn’t as difficult or take as long as I thought it would. It’s quite empowering to realise you don’t have to pay someone else to do this, or pay to replace something. Consumerism is a choice.
  4. Less is more. Weirdly, not buying new clothes has led to me giving more stuff away. It’s as though not constantly adding to my wardrobe has given me the space I needed to evaluate it properly. Instead of solving my lack of inspiration by buying something new, I’ve had to answer the question “why don’t I want to wear this?” Slowly, I’m getting rid of the things I’m not excited about wearing and feeling as though I have more to wear and not less (I guess because I now just see all the good stuff).
  5. You can convince yourself you need anything. But most of the time we just don’t. Not buying new clothes hasn’t been an inconvenience at all. I’ve managed to find myself outfits every occasion that’s come up. Not shopping for new outfits has saved me time, money and headspace – instead of worrying what I need to shop for I know I don’t do that and make do with what I have. There might be something I do need eventually, but having to make do with what I have has made me realise that I could probably keep making do indefinitely. Which is actually a little bit surprising.

What being ALIVE means to me

This post is part of the ALIVE in Berlin Blog Tour, which is spreading the power of ALIVENESS to the masses. Alive in Berlin is a global gathering devoted to personal transformation that takes place on the 30th and 31st of May 2014 in Europe’s most exciting cityThe event will bring together world-class experts, visionaries and change makers from a variety of communities and disciplines. Together, we’ll explore the common threads that connect us and make us come alive. To learn more and join us, click here.

If you’d asked me what makes me come alive a few days ago I would have said something different to what I’m about to say now. In the middle of a hectic week of parties, gigs and lunches with old friends I would have said: “Inspiring people, amazing music and great wine.” These things will still sometimes make me feel at the top of the world, but after a solid six days of them you can start to feel the opposite of alive. Today, I feel alive again because of ten hours sleep, a five mile run and all day by myself to think and to write.

So, to recap, what being alive means to me is: partying all night but getting loads of sleep, being around great people but spending time by myself, indulging in rich food and alcohol but eating light meals and running a lot.

Yes, you heard that right. What being alive means to me is a lot of contradictions, because life is messy and confusing. But if you don’t let this bother you too much, it can also be a hell of a lot of fun.

Part of the fun for me is about learning about myself and what makes me come alive. By making a note of when I feel most inspired I’ve been able to change my life to include more of these things, and less of the other stuff.

Some things that make me feel alive are:

  • Realising that I can make something I thought I’d have to buy. For me, craft is massively empowering. That feeling of having made your own necklace, dress, scarf or lampshade: something that’s uniquely you. Something that you haven’t had to rely on the exploitative practices of a corporation for, or made to feel as though you’re the wrong body shape because it doesn’t quite fit properly.
  • Hanging out with a true friend. You know the one, where you can talk for hours and still not want to go home. One of those friends who inspires you, makes you laugh more than anyone you know, who is there for you when things go wrong and celebrating alongside you when they go right. You always leave thinking “Why don’t we do this more often?”
  • Finding the answer to something I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ve learnt not to panic about not knowing the answer to a question: what I want to wear to an event, what I’m going to blog about next week, what I want my tattoo to look like, how I feel about a particular person, whether I should apply for a different job. Whatever the question, I know I can’t rush the answer and I know I can’t listen to anybody but my own intuition. I might not know what to do right away but if I give myself enough thinking time it’ll suddenly come to me –  in the shower, on a run, or first thing in the morning – and the “that’s it!” moment makes me come alive.
  • Running further than I’ve ever run before (and enjoying it). After a few years of running about four miles three times a week I’ve started to push myself further. Sure, it might be more difficult, but the feeling of having run further than I’ve ever run in my life before (and thought I would be able to) far outweighs any physical discomfort.
  • Hearing that first guitar chord of a favourite song. Whether I’m in the audience, in my car or dancing in my kitchen.
  • Stepping out of the airport or train station into a new city. I love the feeling of opportunity that travel brings: the chance to explore a new place, meet new people and try new food.

As some of the things that make me feel alive things contradict each other, I’ve learnt to balance them. I had a busy social week last week, so this week I’m planning to spend more time alone: reading, creating, and going to bed early. It might not be sound very cool but being cool isn’t what being alive means to me. Being alive is knowing myself, embracing opportunities, being okay with not knowing all the answers, and most of all enjoying the ride.

On the link between bravery and minimalism

The theme of bravery has cropped up in a lot of contexts lately: being brave enough to not worry about what others think of me, to start putting myself forward at work, and to articulate what I want out of any given situation.

Today I’ve been thinking about the links between bravery and minimalism. To me, minimalism is about being brave enough to commit to what I know I want and get rid of everything else. Hanging on to things that aren’t important to you, out of guilt or habit or fantasy, isn’t committing to what’s important to you. Owning things ‘just in case’ is my way of not making decisions.

More and more I’m becoming certain about what I will or won’t read, watch, wear or spend my time doing. But when I look around my room I can see plenty of things that don’t fit into that.

I see jewellery that I have never worn, but was a gift from someone I care about and therefore feel obligated to keep. Problem is, all it’s doing is making me feel guilty that I don’t wear it. But true friendships are not based on giving presents, and the best people will not care whether I still have the necklace they gave me for my birthday three years ago. What am I afraid of?

I see books I feel I should read but never want to. I should be brave enough to admit that I am not the kind of person who reads about politics or economics in their down time. I read fiction and watch E4 sitcoms. This doesn’t make me a less interesting or less intelligent person.

I see DVDs I will never watch again, but feel I need a “DVD collection” to help communicate who I am or to make buying the DVDs seem like less of a waste of money. I am not my film collection (I am not my fucking khakis).

I see shoes that I spent money on but I do not wear. Because you can only wear one pair of shoes at a time, and I’m wearing them, and they’re comfortable. I need to stop buying heels I won’t wear just because they’re pretty, or in the sale, or in a charity shop. I need to be brave enough to admit that yes, I spent a lot of money on those and haven’t worn them yet. But what makes me think that if I haven’t worn them in the last six months I’ll wear them in the next? And how does keeping them in the bottom of the wardrobe make them less of a waste of money than giving them away? Admit the mistake, donate, and move on.

I see clothes and jewellery that belong to a past self, with different tastes. I should be brave enough to admit that I’ve moved on, am a different person and will never go back.

I see dresses that are too small for me. They make me feel guilty for eating ice-cream and cookies. Enough said.

William Morris famously said that we should have nothing in our houses that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. I would add ‘or carries some kind of weird emotional baggage.’ Because when we own things that we don’t use, have outgrown or are keeping because we think we should, they tend to prey on our mind, even if only subconsciously. I want nothing in my home that I haven’t consciously decided to keep because it adds value to my life now, and not because it once did or might do in the future. I want to be brave enough to make decisions based on what I want, and not what I feel I should. Lastly, I want a living space that reminds me that I’m confident about who I am, and just as importantly, who I’m not.

A simple guide to happiness

When I started to simplify my lifestyle about seven years ago, it wasn’t in pursuit of happiness.  As I student I started to experiment with non-consumerism as a reaction to the things I was learning about the world. I stopped buying new clothes as a learned more about sweatshop labour and the amount of textile waste that gets put in landfill each year. I became a vegetarian to cut my personal carbon emissions. I made an effort to borrow rather than buy things I needed, and reduced my air travel to try and reduce my impact on the earth.

But while my journey started out as a political, all the above reasons are now secondary to why I live as I do. The reasons I rarely buy anything new, don’t own a television and walk or cycle to most places I need to go isn’t to stop doing damage to others. It’s now much more selfish than that. I’ve continued my trying to reject consumerism and live as simply as possible because the further along this journey I travel the happier I become. This was unexpected, but means my lifestyle changes are more sustainable because they don’t feel as though I’m depriving myself for the benefit of the planet. They feel as though I’m treating myself to better experiences. For example, I’d still call myself an environmentalist, but the main reason I don’t drive my car is because I want some fresh air and exercise, rather than because I don’t want to feel bad about carbon emissions (and a little bit because I don’t want to spend money on petrol).

Basically, I’ve discovered that rejecting consumer culture has made me happier.

  • Giving up magazines has made me more at ease with my body.
  • Having less stuff makes me less stressed, and gives me the freedom to move house easily.
  • Choosing to spend my money doing things with other people rather than buying things for myself (I work for a charity, I can’t afford to do both) has strengthened my friendships and connection with family members.
  • Not eating packaged food, and cooking a mostly vegetable based diet from scratch makes me feel healthier and seems to mean I can eat more than most people I know without putting on any weight (although I might just have a different kind of metabolism).
  • Making do with what I have forces me to be creative – with what I wear, what I make and what I eat.
  • Not having a television gives me more time to read, write and craft.
  • Cycling or walking everywhere means I exercise several times each day.
  • Making things to wear, things to give people, and things to decorate my house with saves money and makes me more connected to my possessions. I also really believe that the process of creation has therapeutic value – when I’m struggling with something I find it really helpful to work the issue through in my mind while doing something practical like knitting.

These aren’t just things that I do – they’re who I am. They’re also things I’m hoping to share more of in this blog. Because we all need to start talking more about the alternatives to a society that’s on the whole making people unhappy, unconnected and unequal.

On having no home

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Back in March I sold most of my stuff, loaded the rest into my car and got ready to live out of suitcase while I figured out what to do with my life. More specifically, whether I wanted to follow a boy across the world or start a different life on my own.

I’ve opted for the ‘life on my own’ thing. I’ve also learnt quite a lot about myself along the way. Mainly, that I’m really not cut out for being a nomad.

At first it was exhilarating. I enjoyed the freedom that came with having discarded a lot of unnecessary possessions. I also enjoyed the fact that I was doing things differently – “oh look at me being all quirky, by only renting where I work four nights a week, and spending my weekends travelling round the country sponging off friends and relatives.” I was feeling smug in my ability not to be tied down to somewhere I had to clean, pay bills and house stuff.

Then the novelty wore off and I stopped enjoying it. The reasons for this range from the mildly irritating (I want to wear this dress today. Oh crap, I can’t, I left it at my parents house) to the more distressing (I’m feeling sad and want to go home. But where is my home. I have no home!). Although even the mildly irritating things become less mild when they all add up.

Having said that, I’m glad things have worked out the way they did. I’m really grateful for the things I’ve learnt.

1. I have really amazing friends. I can be quite stubbornly independent: I don’t like asking people for help so being forced to has been incredibly humbling, rewarding and really made me realise who my friends are. I know some amazing people who, over the past few months, have always been there for me when I’ve needed them, both practically and emotionally.

2. Some things are important to me. Other things are not. Not always having everything to hand has made me realise what these things are. Weeks where I’ve been without craft supplies, running shoes and healthy food have driven me crazy. Things I haven’t missed include television, my bike and (surprisingly) books.

3. I need a nest. I had a moment the other day: I was tired, a bit miserable, and just wanted to go home and curl up under a duvet. But I didn’t know which duvet I wanted to crawl under. It wasn’t the one in the room I rent mid-week, it wasn’t at my parents house, it wasn’t any of my friends spare rooms. “I want to go home, but I have no home, ” I whined to my friend who very kindly let me crash on her sofa for a bit and brought me a cup of tea. Obviously, this happy-go-lucky always-on-the-move lifestyle does work for some people. But it doesn’t for me. I need security, I need my own space, I need a nest to crawl into at the end of ‘one of those days’.

4. I’ve had the opportunity (and necessity) to spend more time with my family. This has been awesome. But not something I’d have necessarily thought of doing anyway. I’ve planted vegetables under the watchful eye of my grandpa, been on long bike rides with my dad and had long conversations with my mum.

But now I’m ready for a permanent home.