A conversation with Mandy Lam

(Part 2 of 2 in The interviews from my perspective)

27 — Mandy Lam

rabbit. hat.

This conversation with Mandy was the first time I tried simply recording a long conversation [which we published with almost zero editing]. I had been talking to people on our team about trying this form of recording, but at some point, you just sort of have to jump in the pool.

I don’t remember where or when I first met Mandy. I don’t remember if someone said, “you should interview Mandy.” “Who?” “Mandy, over there— here, I’ll introduce you.” …or maybe we first met training. I really don’t recall. But I do recall that after a conversation we were like, yeah, let’s do an interview. At some point. Somewhere. Somewhen.

Then a few more conversations. Then a few stories at Gerlev, and then we were at the 3rd Évry Move event and we were like, we better make time for an interview…

Aside: I promised snapshots and stories… not coherency.

So after dinner one evening, Tracy, Mandy and I kicked our feet up in a hotel room overlooking the fountain in front of the Évry Cathedral.

…and talked for more than two hours trying to decide what to talk about in her interview. Two terrific hours of great conversation. We kept looking out from the 4th floor, with the big window swung open wide to the warm night, and thinking, “This is Évry. We’re just casually chatting about communities and life and everything… in the middle of Évry.”

…and the huge water fountain in the plaze sounding like a waterfall.

…and we really should press record soon.

“…ok, so, we’ve now been talking for 2-and-a-half hours. We should maybe press record soon. Maybe.”

Finally, I was like, “fuck it. ready?” and I hit record… and then we talked for another two hours. We recorded this sleep-drunk sort of rambling conversation, and the whole time I’m thinking, “omg this is going to be so bad. No one will ever want to listen to this.”

Weeks later, I finally listened to it.

There’s a team of people behind the podcast and they always want to know how each interview went. I bet you’ve heard the phrase, “like pulling a rabbit out of your hat,” used when—with a touch of panache—you manage something akin to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

rabbit. hat.

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The interviews from my perspective

(Part 1 of 2 in The interviews from my perspective)

This ongoing series of posts will contain my memories and thoughts from the interviews which I have been doing for the Movers Mindset podcast.

You can—obviously—listen to each interview. But in this series I want to share things about the interviews. I realized that I have begun to tell stories about the interviews, and people are fascinated by those stories as much as by the interviews themselves.

And so I want to share snapshots—imagery and ideas conveyed through storytelling—from the interviews. The podcast is about, among other things, sharing stories and for every interview I have at least one great story I want to tell.

Stories from before the interviews, or after. Or the people in the room you didn’t hear, or beautiful spaces I get to visit, or the time of day, the light, the vibe, the orgin-story of how I first met the guest, how they affected my life or my journey, …

I’m already 27 stories behind and even the most cursory romp down memory lane has brought countless stories to mind.

So, Craig, “Is there a story you’d like to share?

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Heating with math

Something a little different today: I’ve been considering switching to heating with gas and I recently ran some numbers.

tl;dr: I will be continuing to heat with solid fuel.

Preamble: We have already deeply insulated our attic, upgraded insulation in the walls which were opened during some remodeling, and replaced all windows and doors with modern versions. (Our house was originally built in 1954.) This is the obvious first place to begin improving heating your home.

Electricity: My electricity costs $0.0758 per kWh. I can basically turn on my electric baseboard heaters and this is what I’d pay (per kWh) to heat our house.

Methane: This is the proper way to heat a home in northern climates. Unfortunately, “street gas” is not present in my neighborhood. One block over, yes, here, no. They would install it for me… if I’m willing to pay the entire cost to rip up the street and put in the gas main.

Propane: Chemistry geeks know that propane has about 12% less energy per molecule compared to methane. But generally speaking, appliances (my gas cooking stove, a gas heating appliance I would need to buy/install) can be adjusted to burn either fuel. Anyway. I already have a small propane tank that serves my cooking stove, so I would “just” need a larger tank — possibly MUCH larger, possibly so large that safety ordinances would require me to put it underground. Anyway. My propane costs me $5.999/gal — if you know about petroleum, this is an incomprehensibly high number. Meanwhile, 1 gal propane = 27kWhr of energy. And a gas heater (I’m imagining replacing my wood stove with an appliance that sits in the same space) is effectively 100% efficient at turning that gas into heat. So simple math shows that propane would cost me $0.222/KWh — about THREE times the cost of electricity.

Firewood: This is MUCH harder to compute. First off, I have to estimate how much energy is available in the wood I’m burning; that’s affected by species of wood, and how it’s seasoned and stored (because the MORE water in the wood, the more heat is “lost” to vaporize that water and send it away up the chimney.) Some factors to consider: Where I live, there are several readily available “fuel” species of trees that are sustainably available. I’ve found a reputable supplier who is not hauling it long distances and provides me the right sizes etc for what I want. I also have the absolute best imaginable way of storing the wood in “cribs” that expose it to air drying while having it under cover.

So I’m guessing 20 million BTU per cord. (A cord is a stacked, pile 4 feet tall, with a foot print of 4×8 feet. Technically, it’s a pile of 4-foot LONG logs, 4 feet high and 8 feet wide on the ground. A true wood heating system is a separate unit outside that is meant to take 4 foot long logs. I purchase ~16″ pieces split, which still makes the 4×8 foot print computable. I digress.) Good fuel species can be up to 30MBTU/cord. So I’m being conservative with 20.

20M BTU is 5,861 KWh. I pay $300 per cord (fellow Pennsylvanians just twitched because that is pretty expensive — 225 or 250 is typical — but this is excellent wood species, all cut and split to the correct sizes for stove fuel, delivered early in the season, and dumped exactly where I want it. As usual, I digress. So math happens leading to $0.0512 / KWh. Even if I figure-in that the wood stove is only 80% efficient (we have a great stove made in Scandinavia which really does exceed 80% efficiency when operated correctly), that only bumps the cost up to $0.0639 / KWh.

Update in 2019: My electricity costs $0.07039 per KWh. (That’s down about 1/2 cent.) I’ve a new firewood supplier, with the price down to $225 per cord. That’s $0.038 / KWh, and still only $0.048 / KWh at 80% stove efficiency.

And finally some references…

http://www.propane101.com/propanevselectricity.htm
http://worldforestindustries.com/forest-biofuel/firewood/firewood-btu-ratings/

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Simplicity in 2018

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2017/11/06/spiritual-disciplines-simplicity/

Paring down one’s possessions and schedule are go-to ways to seek simplicity because they are outward, accessible, concrete actions that produce fairly immediate results. Their weakness, when practiced as their own ends, however, is that they lack a set of overarching criteria for how they should be carried out, as well as intrinsic motivation for following them through.

Practicing outward moves towards simplification, without this set of criteria, is like placing spokes in a wheel, without connecting them to a hub.

Simplicity needs a heart, and its center must be this: having a clear purpose.

~ Brett McKay

Throughout 2017 I’ve been slowly paring down. Fewer physical things sure, but also changing out some things and hobbies and projects and people. Can I eliminate one? Can I replace two of something with a simpler one?

I’m a “systems” person. I get things done via the observe, orient, decide, and act loop. For 2018 I’ve no delusions of rewiring my brain and kicking all my systems and processes to the curb.

I’ve realized, (far too recently,) that I need to take more time to “zoom out” and to take the time to consider how the really big things in my life fit together. Do they fit together? What if some really big component of who I am — even if it’s a great, fine thing — doesn’t fit with the rest of everything? What should I change; everything else, or that one great, fine thing?

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I do love to spend the indoor, chilly, winter season thinking about the big picture — and now, perhaps a bit more of the really big picture.

Goodbye 2017! I will look back on you fondly.

MEMENTO MORI

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§14 – Precommit

(Part 26 of 27 in Study inspired by Pakour & Art du Déplacement by V. Thibault)

The devil is in the details?

On one hand pre-committment gives you the power of hindsight; the power of having a higher view point– the executive-level view. You can sort out all the nuances and make an objective decision. But the downside is that you’re intentionally surrendering the ability to make flexible, quick decisions down the road when your day-to-day passions might lead off in a new direction.

Do I want to be sacrificing following my passions?

I’ve attempted — sometimes even “done” :) — big projects where I’ve invested a lot of time up-front thinking, planning, and then started off on the journey. But later, in the midst of the journey, I started to have doubts. Not small, nagging doubts, but well-founded, objective doubts. When that happens I’m faced with letting go of the sunk cost of the prep work that went into the pre-committment. I start thinking, “Look at all this planning I did. Look at how far I’ve come! This doubt must be unfounded.” And suddenly all my pre-commitment is working against me. Granted, the original intention of the pre-committment is to make it easier to achieve my goals, but it can pile on sunk costs, or worse, pile on guilt, which never serves me.

In the end, it seems I simply have to know myself: These days, a 30 day challenge is something I can probably do, but 100 days will probably become a drag.

The devil really is in the details.

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§5 – Sleep

(Part 5 of 8 in Changes and Results)

Q: I’ve been entirely preoccupied by a most frightening experience of my own. A couple of hours ago, I realized that my body was no longer functioning properly. I felt weak, I could no longer stand. The life was oozing out of me, I lost consciousness.

Picard: You fell asleep.

sigh Sleep. Sweet. Rejuvenating. Blissful. …when you can get it.

Preamble

There is a huge amount of information about sleep available on the Internet. Over the years, I’ve collected a wide range of references upon which I’ve based my actions and opinions. I do this for a lot different topics, and I have a companion web site where I collect all the health related information I’ve found. In the case of Sleep, please see Sleep Quality, Light Sensitivity in the Human Brain, and Magnesium and Sleep over on Hilbert’s Library.

Darkness

I sleep best in complete darkness.

Long ago, I had no idea that light was messing up my sleep quality. Light is everywhere in modern life: it comes from windows, from doorways, from the alarm clock’s LED numerals, from the blinking LEDs on the WiFi router. But, after a lot of reading, and over ten years of experimenting, I’m convinced that light is enemy number one.

Sure there are other things which will wake me, (noise, movement, etc) but light is pervasive. Light is subtle. Light is insidious. Rage! Rage against the light!

So the goal for me is complete darkness.

Aside: Yes, I’ve considered using a sleep mask to cover my eyes. However, the human brain is broadly sensitive to light, so I’m not convinced a light mask is as good as a good old-fashioned dark room. See Light Sensitivity in the Human Brain.

My life is organized around the time on the clock, so I do not have the luxury of arranging my sleep around the sun’s rise and set. Therefore, I needed to manipulate my environment. When I began hacking my sleep at our apartment, my first light source to tackle was a street light that completely illuminated our bedroom through a high window in our cathedral ceiling. I had to buy a tall ladder just so I could climb up and cover the entire window with cardboard wrapped in velvet. Although we only had nearly-useless mini-blinds on all the other windows, this first light-reduction hack made an improvement in my sleep quality.

When we bought a house, the bedroom was the first room we remodeled. We set it up to be PITCH BLACK. The alarm clock is dimmed, there are no chargers or electronics in the room, and I added black-out curtains to the windows. Each night, when I first lie down to sleep, I cannot perceive a difference between having my eyes open or closed. (Of course, by the middle of the night, my dark adapted eyes can easily tell the difference.) If I step out of the bedroom in the wee hours of the night, the rest of the house seems so bright! There’s a light on the smoke detector, all the windows admit outside light, the microwave’s clock, the standby light on the TV, and on and on.

So my first suggestion is to get as close as you can to pitch black. Change things, move things, buy things, whatever — sleep is the most important part of your life.

The alarm clock

Initially, I had a generic alarm clock… beep beep beep BEEEEP! There’s nothing like waking up with a shot of adrenaline and cortisol to start me off on the wrong foot for the day.

First, I changed to an alarm clock which played music, but it had blindingly bright green numerals. Eventually I read about alarm clocks which have a bright light which slowly — over a half hour — fades up to fully illuminate the room. (Search for “Philips HF3470”; It’s discontinued, but it will get you going in the right direction.) Some mornings, the fact that “the sun has come up” in the room is enough to wake me up. But usually, the alarm clock proceeds to an audible alarm, and ours urges us by playing various tweeting bird sounds. (If I wasn’t so deaf, the light would probably wake me up enough to hear the actual birds outside.)

When to sleep

If you have all the above under control, you can technically sleep at any time of day. But there’s a catch: You need time to physiologically wind down before going to sleep. If it’s bright daylight when you want to sleep, you’ll need to craft a dimmed, calm space where you can relax and wind down. (But not where you actually sleep, don’t lay on the bed to wind down. More on not making your bed a multi-use space below.)

Consistency in sleep times is key. There are physiological processes which occur in the body which are not under conscious control. The body works on habit (and environmental cues) and it’s sluggish about changes. Wonky work shifts that make you change your sleeping patters are not healthy; if you’re into that type of work, just realize you’re trading your quality of life to accomplish your job. Be sure it’s worth it.

Remember: For me, sleep is the most important thing in my life. Work, play, scheduling, consistency… these are all things I’m will to work on, hack on, and change, to improve my sleep schedule because poor sleep leads to a poor life.

Temperature

Slightly cooler works for me (and agrees with what I’ve read.) But it doesn’t seem to matter too much. As long as you’re comfortable. But if the temperature is consistently UN-comfortable, you need to correct that.

There are obvious ways to hack the temperature, (e.g., air conditioning, a fan,) but you can also hack the general room environment. Figure out where the air moves through the room. (For example, if air normally moves from your open window to the door, move your bed to be near the window.) Get creative and sling a hammock across your room and sleep close to the floor, (where it’s cooler in summer, or closer to the ceiling where it’s warmer in winter.) Find the room with the best sleeping temperature and move your bedroom there.

Different mattress and sheet surfaces will feel cooler or warmer, so experiment to find what works best for you. Different types and extent of clothing obviously matters, but have you actually experimented to see how what you wear (or don’t wear) affects your perception of temperature?

Comfort

In general, splurge on things for your bed: Mattress, sheets, covers, comforters, pillows etc. Buy the most comfortable mattress, and the sheets you love to slide into. Then go another step and buy two sets of the sheets you love. (When you change the sheets you can strip and immediately remake the bed with clean linen.)

Improve the psychological comfort of your bed. Make changes, and build habits, which make the bed a comfortable, inherently relaxing, space. Room details such as color (hint: darker hues and blues are relaxing), lighting and general “busyness” of the room all have a subtle effect on your mood.

Slightly less obvious is to make your bed every morning. It doesn’t have to be fancy with specific folds or tucks, just make it up to whatever your definition of “made up” is. Later, each time you see the bed it will look inviting all made up, and you’ll look forward to peeling it open and sliding in.

Because it is a large, clear, open, space it will generally attract — but especially if you make it up each morning — random items throughout the day. Pay attention to what ends up on the bed and find proper homes, or invent systems, to keep those things off the bed. (For example: Clothes go ‘here’, worn-but-still-wearable items go ‘there’, pets are excluded by closing the door, put a chair in the room for sitting when dressing, etc.)

Avoidance

I’ve read various things about avoiding blue light in general, computer screens, TV, etc. But I’ve found that simply avoiding whatever it is that “winds me up” is sufficient to not sabotage my sleep. So, while I will look at my computer or phone near bed time, I don’t go to web sites or apps where I know I’ll get sucked down the rabbit hole. Instead, I’ll read through news feeds, e-books, or review my personal productivity systems and to-do lists. A lot of being able to readily fall asleep is related to my thinking-brain being relaxed. If there are things on my mind then I find I’ll be stuck laying awake in bed.

Eating

As with everything here, the key is to figure out what foods, and what eating times, affect your sleep.

I try to avoid eating within a few hours of going to sleep.
(In another part of this series, I’ll talk about intermittent fasting.) I find that I can sleep very well after a meal, particularly if I’ve had a couple hours for my digestion to get started.

What I’ve eaten also has a huge impact on my ability to fall asleep, and on my sleep quality. Too many sweets, or almost any amount of alcohol, to close to bed time will affect my sleep; I can fall asleep, but after an hour or so I find I’m wide awake. Same thing if I drink too much coffee. I’m pretty sure the stimulants (sugar, caffeine) and depressants (alcohol) affect my ability to reach the deeper sleep levels, and so I wake up instead of sleeping deeply. There’s a tremendous amount of information available about food and diet. Related to sleep, it’s worth looking into issues of digestion and experimenting to see what works for you.

Magnesium

There is solid evidence that Magnesium deficiency can cause sleep problems (restless legs, muscle cramps and more.) It is also a well-known relaxant. So that’s doubly suggestive that Magnesium (reading, experimentation, supplementation) could be very useful in improving your sleep. See Magnesium and Sleep.

Technology

There’s a lot you can do in terms of tracking sleep with things like Fitbits and Beddits. (Tracking is part of the “quantified self” movement.) Here again, the goal would be to measure something (sleep duration, quality, presence of sleep apnea, number of sleep cycles, etc.,) correlate that with how you feel and how it affects your life, and then make adjustments to your sleeping environment, habits and life in general. I did a small amount of tracking with a Fitbit. (I didn’t like the blindingly-bright green lights it uses for the pulse sensor. That’s how dark it is where I sleep.) But, for the period of time when I was tracking my sleep quality, it certainly helped focus my attention and efforts on improving my sleep.

Mental Activity

If I have too much on my mind, I sometimes have trouble falling asleep. When I first started working on my sleep I wasn’t yet journaling. Years later I started journaling and I found that emptying my brain in the evening was a wonderfully relaxing way to prepare for bed. Over the years, it became clear that as my time ran out each day, sitting down consistently to journal was difficult. So these days, I don’t regularly journal in the evening. (Instead, I write as part of my morning routine.) But sometimes I will journal to empty my thoughts if I feel that I’ve too much on my mind to readily fall asleep.

Room Usage

Don’t do anything other than sleep in your bed. Don’t read in bed, watch tv, or use digital devices. Whatever you do regularly, that is what you’re training yourself to do in that space. Have a “going to bed” routine, and turn out the lights.

Napping

For me, I can take a half hour blink-nap in the afternoon without it missing up my sleep. (A blink-nap is where I’m thinking, “I feel like I need a nap,” I lay down, blink, and a half hour has elapsed.)

Next up…

A few things I have not tried…

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Podcast Backstory

Why doesn’t someone…

Hopefully, you’ve discovered the the podcast project. (Originally it was called “Parkour, They Said”.) The original project was entirely based on the written word and was inspired — ironically — by podcasts in general.

In late 2015, I was lying on the floor slow-roasting myself before the wood stove. I had stumbled onto a new-to-me podcast — yes I remember which one, no I’m not telling — and I was starting from their first episode. The episodes were horrible, but I knew they would get better, since a recent episode is what had drawn me in.

But listening to those early episodes left me with a litany of ideas:

I can’t even understand them with this crappy audio. Why aren’t all podcast episodes fully transcribed and available?

But honestly, no one would read the entire, long transcript of this horrible ramble-session. Why not break that large interview apart into its basic themes? Then people can read the entire interview, or just a part.

Why not have a standardized set of themes on the site? Then the “chunks” of the interview can be organized under those themes, and people can read just the material on a particular theme.

Why not add translation functionality? That’s way better than a podcast because people can read the interviews in many languages.

So wait, why bother with podcasts at all?

Why not just open it up with a form where anyone can write anything? Then people can contribute their writing in any source language, and the site then facilitates communication by translating everything to/from every language.

…and why not make it a generic project, conveying whatever everyone contributes? Well, what would we call that? It’s just a collection of whatever it is that people have to say…

“They Said”.

…and why not make several sites, each on a particular topic. How do we name and label each site?

“Parkour, They Said.”

(Bully on you for reading this far! You now know that the “Try Parkour they said, It’ll be fun they said,” meme is not in any way related to “Parkour, They Said”. :)

What could possibly go wrong?

I know, right… that whole project above is a TERRIBLE idea. (I’m not being sarcastic.) There are at least two, major problems:

  1. Writing is hard. People don’t like to write. Actually, it turns out that writing well is also very much harder. It’s as if one could make an entire living if one could write well. :P So this project’s success depends on… Oh, that’s a problem.
  2. The way the project works, and its purpose, are not the least bit obvious, and the name is downright obtuse. Worse, the name uses a wonky grammatical construct, (“topic, more information”) which is uncommon generally, and a straight-up Unicorn in spoken language. And the meme does not help. So, go ahead, say, “Parkour, They Said” out loud. Did you manage to convey everything about the project? Oh, that’s a problem.

But, whenever I spent 10 minutes blabbing about the project, people seemed to think it was a good idea. (This was probably the conversational equivalent of Beer Goggles on my part.) So, after many months of talking about it, we built it anyway.

“You should write something for Parkour, They Said!”

“Huh? What?”

I spent more than a year, randomly in my spare time, talking about the project and trying as politely as possible to repeatedly nag a few hundred people into writing. I learned at least two things:

  1. Writing is in fact really hard, and people already know this.
  2. “Parkour, They Said” is a strikingly unhelpful name for an already non-obvious project. If the project had been called Snorklewacker, (yes, yes it is, yes I did,) it wouldn’t have been any harder for me to explain, or any harder for everyone to remember. And just for the triple-bonus, start in the hole, difficulty score, we put it on a “.world” domain.

Surprisingly, a number of people actually managed to write some really interesting things. This made me very happy.

“Craig, why don’t you just make a podcast?”

I really like talking. (Everyone who knows me just laughed and thought, “collossal understatement there Craig.”)

Via a perfect storm of things not worth the deep dive, I wind up in a ton of fun, wide-ranging, interesting, and educating conversations. That’s not just me being hyperbolic; I regularly find people glommed onto my conversations. (I literally have a new friend who — their words — “was just eavesdropping the shit out of that conversation”, and we started talking when my original conversation partner moved on.)

People — often the people who were eavesdropping my conversations — started saying “that conversation should have been a podcast episode.” So the idea of making a podcast was gaining some footing in my head space.

But, I have a problem. It’s called shiny thing syndrome, or ADHD, or whatever. (“Get off my lawn! We didn’t have all these fancy acronyms back in my day.”) So I was really, REALLY, determined to not add “podcast” to my list of things to do. I already had this crazy “Parkour, They Said” web site sucking up time.

In one last-ditch, Herculean effort to avoid the inevitable, I started offering to help people write by recording Skype calls and passing them the transcripts. I think I did three recorded calls before I had convinced myself that-

oh! SHINY!

“Hello, I’m Craig Constantine…”

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A Traveler’s Mindset

(Part 4 of 4 in Parkour Travel)

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

~Lao Tzu

A traveler’s mindset is the foundation for being a successful traveller and for being a good guest. I didn’t set out to develop any particular mindset when I began traveling. I simply started traveling, and only much later did I realize my mindset had changed.

In my Travel Gear series, I describe my habit of reviewing after each trip. While I began by reviewing the things I had packed for each trip, I soon realized I was spending more time thinking about what had gone well, and not so well. As I examined my mindset, I was drawn to experiment and refine, to try more challenging trips, and to push my comfort zones.

Which brings me to my traveler’s mindset:

Plan
Be flexible
Be positive
Move forward
Slow down

Plan

To be good at planning requires knowledge, but not simply knowledge of my destination. Rather, I discovered it was most important to have knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses. For the things I am good at, the situations where I’m comfortable, in these areas I can do less planning. But in areas where my skills are weak, or situations where I’m uncomfortable, there I need to focus my planning.

Here’s an example of a strength for me: I’m not a picky eater and I have no dietary restrictions. So I never worry about food, and I hardly ever plan meals; Wherever I travel, people eat and there is food. (I’m happy to fend for myself, help cook, or team up with others.) So in the realm of food, a sufficient level of planning for me, is to carry a plastic spork.

Here’s an example of a weakness: It bothers me when I’m late for scheduled things, or when I miss out on things because of transportation. That it bothers me is my weakness. Until I can overcome that weakness, I try to avoid transportation issues. That means I prefer to be responsible for my own transportation whenever possible. I’ll be the person who coordinates buying the plane tickets, figures out the train schedule, or rents the car.

The next component of good planning is to know my bookends. In any trip, there are firmly scheduled components, such as major transportation legs, or an event being attended. Bookending is the idea of planning out as much of the time and actions leading up to the scheduled item. Once I’ve planned my bookends, I’m free to do any level of planning — including “none” — between the bookends.

After the bookends I search for unknowns. This is basically a litany of questions that I’ve learned to ask myself: Do I have my passport, visa, and host’s address for immigration control? Do I need foreign currency, working credit card, or cell phone data plan? Does my phone even work on the local cellular system? Have I sorted my transportation from the airport? If my phone dies, what must I have on paper (plane ticket, host’s address for immigration, host’s phone number)? Do I speak the local language, or do I have some needed phrases written down that I can point to when searching for help? Do I know the weather? Do I know the laws and customs? Do I have the necessary electrical adapters? The more I travel, the more I think to ask myself, and the more things I might plan for to avoid problems.

At this point I have a skeleton plan. I can convert my bookends into a basic itinerary and pass that to my hosts, and to my family members (who invariable love that they will know where I will be.) I can use my skeleton plan to coordinate with others traveling with me. People with less travel experience, who couldn’t setup a trip of the same complexity level, will be able to join in; They can match transportation (plane tickets, etc.) to my bookends and coordinate with the same (or different) hosts, and so on.

Finally, when talking to my hosts, showing that I’ve done some planning helps them understand I’m not going to show up and expect them to take care of my every need. I can also ask open-ended questions like, “I’ll be in city on date, with some free time. Any suggestions?”, to fill in other parts of my travels.

Be flexible

I should be accepting of change. That’s obvious, right? But I have too often been the stick in the mud, and I have too often seen inflexible people cause friction. The bookends in my plans are the inflexible parts of my travels, and knowing them provides the security that enables me to relax and be flexible the rest of the time.

I try to never be that person who responds negatively to suggestions without having an alternative. My personal rule is to never say, “no,” to a suggestion unless I have an alternative. I had to learn to either get off my lazy butt and go with the flow, or to take the initiative to plan and suggest. Meal planning is the easiest example. When I get hungry, I don’t wait for someone to say, “lets get food, how about X?” and then I’m all, “No. Meh. No,” to each of their ideas. Instead, when I get hungry, I make up a plan for food, and then I say, “I’m getting hungry. What about X?” Maybe there’s another plan they had in mind, and I get to practice being flexible and rolling with their plan.

I think of planning as a sort of currency: If I want to have an opinion on the question at hand, then I have to buy-in with some planning. If I’ve done no planning, then I’m not entitled to an opinion, and I should be maximally flexible to adapt to the plans of others.

At the same time, I had to learn to avoid “false flexibility.” That’s when I used to agree to go with the plans of others, but then quietly — or worse, passive-aggressively, or even openly — dissing the experience once underway. An example of this, which I see too frequently is when people think dinner is going to be an inexpensive, quick meal, but the group’s opinion shifts and everyone suddenly heads to the expensive brew-pub. People then get grumpy about the expense. Too bad! Learn to be flexible. If money is that important, then you had your chance to counter-suggest; “Hey guys, I need to eat on a budget. Can we get food for like $15?” (And really, if you want to have an I-need-to-eat-on-a-budget opinion, you should buy-in by doing some planning to find a possible spot.) But once you’ve agreed to go with the plan, you should spend the money and enjoy it; Or peel off entirely. Never be the passive-aggressive jerk who goes along and drags his feet the entire time.

The easiest way for me to begin learning flexibility was to directly plan to be flexible. I sometimes plan blocks of time intentionally left open. (“Friday, until bookend begins at time, I will wander around the city.”) This taught me to be comfortable with big swaths of unplanned time. It taught me to be aware of my surroundings and helped me learn to adapt to the opportunities that arise.

Planning to be flexible also has a subtle effect on my hosts and others traveling with me. If I say, “I’ve nothing planned today.” This creates an unspoken, subtle suggestion that perhaps I’m hoping my host will fill in some things for me to do. The unwritten sub-text might be, “I’ve nothing planned today, can you entertain me?” But instead, if I say, “I’ve planned to spend the day wandering around the city,” this still leaves open the opportunity for my host to suggest activities, but it also makes it clear that it’s equally fine to simply leave me to my own devices.

Be positive

It took me a long time to develop a positive attitude. The big turning point was when I came to understand the Fundamental Attribution Error. The error is that we tend to attribute the causes for other people’s actions to themselves, (that driver cut me off because he’s an aggressive narcissist,) while tending to attribute the causes for our own actions to external circumstances, (I cut you off because I’m making up time lost to some unavoidable delay I encountered.)

There’s debate in psychology circles wether this attribution error is “fundamental” in the sense of being an inherent trait of how we think, versus just being a very common way of thinking. Regardless, I found it was pervasive in my thinking, and practicing thinking about what I was thinking was a fruitful exercise.

Lessons cautioning against this sort of attribution error appear in many places, including:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

And from Epictetus:

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?

As I traveled more frequently, I learned the power of positive thinking. Initially I began by using sugar-coating positive thinking, “I’m going to have fun!” But that is weak medicine. Over time, through intentional and conscious practice, I learned to use positive thinking to dig deep for actionable items: What can I do to solve this problem? What is good about the current situation? What can I say now that would express my appreciation for what this person has done? What can I do with my spare time now, which would create a fun opportunity for all of us later?

Being positive also appears in the way one commits to choices made: not the choices themselves per se, (to go to this event or not, to take on a responsibility or not,) but the way in which I express those choices. Sure, making choices takes time, as I have to consider options, weigh existing responsibilities and allocate free time. But, when it comes time to choose:

Everything in my life should be a, “No,” or a, “Hell yes!”

Simply saying, “Yes,” is not commitment; it is in fact a, “No.” Saying, “Yes,” but not realistically planning, is in fact a, “No.” Unrealistic planning, not allocating money or not allocating time, are more variations of, “No.” On the other hand, “Hell yes!” is the passion and fire that make life worth living. That is what I mean when I say I must be positive with my decisions.

Move forward

I tend to move forward, towards the next scheduled thing. This cultivates an attitude of forward momentum and is closely related to the idea of bookending. Generally, wherever I am, if there’s no specific reason to stay, I’ll move forward, and the closer I get (in time and space) to the next thing, the more I relax and slow down.

For me, 15-minutes-early is, “on time,” and on-time is “late.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be exactly 15 minutes; the longer the journey, the earlier I plan to be. Something like 20% seems to work well — so an hour early on a 5 hour drive. And I don’t mean “the map engine says five hours, so I’ll leave six because I want to stop for lunch.” I mean, five hours on the road, plus an hour for lunch etc, that’s a six hour journey. Then I add 20%, leaving about 7 hours of travel time. When you’re padding in this much time, everything becomes a leisurely journey!

When I travel with others I try (gently) to get them motivated and moving early enough. Only then do we find we have enough time to move at a leisurely pace — to pause for a cup of coffee, to stroll down the side streets — without worrying about wasting too much time.

Once I started thinking about momentum, and moving forward, I found I was visualizing my next actions. “I should do laundry. I should get up early tomorrow and do my laundry. I should shower now and go to bed, so I can get up early and do my laundry.” Invariably, the more I think ahead, and move forward — physically move towards the next thing, or just pick off tasks I can do now, rather than later — the more I find myself with free time and flexibility.

Slow down

Which brings me finally to the best part: Slow down, leave space and enjoy life.

I find I have a certain pace to my normal life, I know how much I can pack into a day, and how long I need to get from one place to another. But when I’m traveling, I purposely plan a slower pace. First of all, things often take longer than I expected, so things work out better when I’ve expected that by leaving extra space and time in my schedule. When things go as planned, or take less time then expected, I suddenly have time to notice things, or go on little adventures.

My entire traveler’s mindset leads to this, “slow down, leave space and enjoy life” end-goal. Unexpected conversations with new friends, a 10 minute walking tour of a neighborhood that’d I’d never have known to plan for, a spontaneous meal, a suggestion by someone that I’d have missed if I hadn’t been relaxing with free time.

In short, without my mindset, I’d miss all the good stuff, and end up simply travelling.

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§2 – Unpacking

(Part 2 of 4 in Travel Gear)

Every time someone was looking for something my grandfather would bark out:

Put it where you got it! It’ll be there when you go for it!

When I was little, I thought that was pretty cool. Turns out it’s a variation of the old adage:

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Unpacking begins with things having a place

In certain productivity and self-improvement circles there is an idea called Clearing to Neutral. Simply put, when ceasing work on something think ahead to the next time a task will be worked on, and eliminate as much start-up friction as possible.

Having all your travel and packing items in their place means packing for a trip is simply taking things out and putting them into your bag. (And perhaps some things should simply be kept in your bag.) That’s as close to zero-friction as possible. So clearing to neutral suggests I prepare for the next trip by immediately putting everything away.

So where to keep the stuff? The first iteration is to simply have a pile of things on a shelf, or in a drawer, where you know you keep “the travel stuff.” The next iteration might be a dedicated bag, or large box. But the best solution I’ve found is to use translucent plastic filing tubs. (For example, these filing tubs.)

These tubs are perfect; you can see what is in them and they are easy to handle. I have one which holds things I grab most frequently; for example, my micro-flashlight and M’Urgency kit. I have another tub which holds the less-used random stuff; for example, the replacement o-rings for my flashlight, those little toothpaste tubes the dentist gives me, refills for my cartridge razor, and my rarely used, travel laundry kit. When packing, I just pull the tubs out and grab what I need.

The tubs can be stored on a high shelf, on the floor in the back of a closet, or in the garage. Regardless how exactly you store your travel gear, it should have a dedicated home where things don’t get dirty, lost, or eaten by your cat.

Exploding

So now everything has its place, and I’m mentally prepared to spend time putting things away when I return. But I have a problem: When I return, some — often most — of my stuff is not ready to be stored.

I gave out a bandaid from my M’Urgency kit which needs to be replaced. The sheet from my sleep system needs to be washed. I lost a zipper-pull on my backpack that needs to be replaced. My flashlight needs a new battery. My razor needs a new cartridge. I need a new bar of soap. …and on and on.

Each of these issues is a very small thing to take care of, and it is tempting to leave these small tasks for later. But this is exactly the moment where a little work now leads to zero-friction later. This is where the magic of clearing to neutral shines. All of those little issues would slow me down — or worse, leave me in the lurch during a trip — when next I pack to travel. By taking care of them when I return, I eliminate all the friction and make packing a breeze when the next opportunity arises.

If I’m exhausted, I may simply set my bag down and go to sleep. But when I’m ready to unpack I explode everything in one place. I pull everything out and if it’s ready to store, (that is to say, it is ready to use again when I next travel,) I put it away immediately. If it needs something, I leave it in the exploded area. Normally, this is right in the middle of the floor, in the middle of a room. So the goal is to clean up the entire pile. Laundry into the laundry basket, or better yet, right into the washing machine. Get a fresh battery, change it and put the flashlight away. Grab a spare zipper pull and fix the backpack. Grab a bandaid and razor cartridges from the spares tub and fill up the M’Urgency and bathroom kits; then put them away. Zip, zap, done.

Aside: I clear everything to neutral. Years ago, my Hueco backpack came with spare zipper-pulls. I put them in a ziplock bag, with a 3×5 card that says “spare zipper pulls for Hueco” in the tub of less-used items. By the time I lost a zipper-pull, I had completely forgotten it had come with spares. But I knew that _if_ I had spare zipper-pulls, they’d be in the less-used tub. And there they were!

Using processes like this will expand outward into the rest of your life. I just used the last of the spare razor catridges from the storage tub to refill my bathroom kit? Add “razor cartridges” to the shopping list that we keep in its assigned place, so everything is on the list when someone goes to the market. Go to the market, buy what is on the list.

As you’re unpacking, sorting, cleaning, repairing, etc all your stuff, you’ll find you’re automatically reviewing; Which is the next part of this series.

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