I am really bad at relaxing.
Sure, most people’s vision of traveling full-time is some carefree life at some lovely destination. As someone who can’t be lured to a day at the beach, this sounds entirely unappealing. But even (normal) people I’ve spoken to who love laying in the sand concede that it does get old after a few weeks. Or months. Or after the first year.
Part of it is probably the pace we’re starting out at and how good we are at rapidly shifting gears. My life may have slowed down a tiny bit when I moved from Brooklyn to Toronto, but it was still going at a frantic pace.
When I started out traveling, I maintained this pace without even thinking about it. Four separate plans in one day? Of course. I had a separate to-do list for every day of my life.
My first few stops were cities where I’d already been to every tourist destination and was quite happy to skip anything that didn’t feel deeply compelling. I spent a month in Montreal and didn’t go to a single museum (really? who am I even?). But I was still running around and hosting out of town guests (with permission). My focus shifted from going to every museum to checking out all the cool bars and restaurants and seeing all the things on foot, despite the snow. Which was absolutely gorgeous.
Then there was New York. And Chicago. And Boston. And Toronto. Go, go, go. It was exhausting.
I was living my normal life but I was also traveling full-time. Which is, in itself, a lot of work.
The thing that allows us to keep up with our jobs and an active social life and enjoying all the things a particular city has to offer without collapsing under the mental energy of it all is the sheer number of things we do on auto pilot.
There’s nothing quite like traveling to blow up your auto pilot system. Cue: decision fatigue.
Life without auto pilot
Last summer I started a new refrain: just tell me where to be and when and I’ll be there.
This became my new method of making plans with friends. Texting them to tell them to make plans with me.
I used to be that person who loved planning activities. I prided myself on it. I don’t think anyone who’s met me in the past two years would have any clue that this side of me exists. I either force them to come up with a plan or I pick the first spot that pops into my head.
As someone who loves Yelp, it seems strange to look at choosing a bar to go to as work, but when I’m constantly in a new neighborhood there are simply too many new bars in new cities to choose. It becomes tedious, instead of something fun.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten a little bit better about this. I have enough well-traveled foodie friends that this has become a nice excuse to reach out to them and ask for recommendations. I save them on my map and then when I’m looking for a spot I just go to the nearest pin.
Where am I sleeping tomorrow?
Living an untethered life is incredibly freeing, but it can also be a little overwhelming. Every time I get an email from Trusted House Sitters with new sits I go through a series of questions for each enticing sit. Does this work with what I’ve already planned? How would I get there? Does the house have a spot for me to work? What are my chances of being selected? Sometimes there’s sleuthing to see if I could get to a grocery store on foot.
It’s a lot of fun. I love the possibilities of it all. But sometimes it can be a bit much. Especially when I’m weighing multiple sits that conflict with each other and trying to build an itinerary. Or if plans have changed and I’m trying to fill a specific gap of time in a specific geographical area.
Most people choose a new home once every few years. Or there are those people who die in the same house they were born in. I’m in a perpetual state of home shopping. Anyone who’s tried to find a new place to live knows how much work that can be, even if it’s also kind of fun. Okay, a lot of fun. I love house shopping, but it’s exhausting fun.
This isn’t specific to house sitting. Anyone who’s spent week after week picking hotels, choosing vacation rentals, arranging home swaps, or finding CouchSurfing hosts knows just how much work it entails.
How do I turn this thing on?
Every hotel room seems the same, until you go to turn the lights off.
It’s pretty rare that I have to ask a homeowner how something works or google it, but these are things I never think about at home. At this point it seems like I’ve encountered every coffee maker and washing machine in existence. It can be surprisingly difficult to find a broom or a vacuum cleaner, which we are keen to tuck into strange out of the way places that seem obvious in retrospect. Which cleaners are safe to use where? What cabinets am I free to open and which feel like snooping? How much olive oil is too much to use?
Most of these things got easier quickly as I learned what questions to ask of my hosts and learned the ropes. But it hasn’t changed the fact that cooking dinner in someone else’s house — or doing anything in a space you don’t know — takes more brain power than doing it at home. I’m constantly looking for things at a different grocery store or figuring out where the local pharmacy is.
At this point I’m used to it. And I love checking out new spaces. But there’s a certain thrill of coming back to a repeat sit (or a friend’s place) and knowing where all the light switches are.
What goes in my bag?
Anyone who’s ever packed an overnight bag understands the agony over packing. I spent so much time debating what to bring in my carry-on pack. Then I downsized to a personal item on a lark for a cheap flight. I’ve been living out of a personal item ever since.
In terms of every day items, I’ve been quite pleased with my selections. I did replace a black V-neck sweater with an identical black V-neck sweater in a different wool blend because the original one was too warm. Which felt silly, but it’s totally worth it when I’m wearing that sweater every other day for an entire season.
Other things that were meant to be temporary have stuck around. I bought that green plaid shirt on clearance at H&M because I wanted a plaid shirt that I hadn’t stolen from my ex (okay, she gave them to me willingly, but they all started out as hers). I don’t particularly like it, but it’s fine. And now I’ve worn it multiple times a week since I bought it last August.
The things that I actually stress over are the specialty items. My Canadian Winter Coat versus my casual spring jacket. Do I bring a bathing suit? What about a cocktail dress? And shoes. I’ve been passing through New York and Toronto often enough so far that it’s been easy(ish) to plan ahead and leave things for the next time.
This has taken up way too much of my mental energy. As much as I hate shopping and think I like the things I already have, my experience with the plaid shirt suggests this is wasted energy. I’m an incredibly average sized person who doesn’t really care about clothes as long as I’m comfortable and not embarrassed by how I look.
In the future I can borrow something from a friend (like I did for New Years Eve) or pick something up on the way. One of the cocktail dresses in my regular rotation was picked up at Goodwill for under $5 for a party that night we’d just been invited to. Going shopping won’t kill me.
I have a friend who travels without a firm plan. He hitchhikes. He’s incredibly charming and very tall and seems to do just fine. I sort of assumed that getting back into the groove of traveling would mean traveling more like him, ie. not planning everything weeks ahead of time.
Instead, I’ve gone in the other direction. At this point I have house sits planned through next year. Sure, I have a few spaces in my schedule so I can indulge my whims, but mostly I’m committed. It feels really good to just sit back and not think about planning anything else for a while.
I’m learning the ways to travel that work the best for me and my style of working (and my neurotic nature). Alternating familiar cities with new places. Short adventures between long sits. Giving myself time in a city where I don’t know anyone after I’ll be spending a lot of time with family and friends. Time in the countryside to work uninterrupted.
My CouchSurfing experience taught me to arrive in each new place with one or two things in mind that I really wanted to see, but to otherwise go with the flow. I’m constantly weeding out activities that I just feel like I should want to go to. The world is full of beautiful and interesting things, but it’s okay to not see all of them.
I don’t know if I’ll ever learn how to relax, but the pace of my days has changed. Instead of jumping from one thing to the next (and somehow fitting work in!) I generally do one thing each day. I meet someone for lunch. I explore a new neighborhood. I go for a hike. I visit a museum. It helps that I usually have a few weeks in each place, but there are still plenty of things I miss.
There are endless numbers of cool things to see. Every place has interesting things. I don’t need to see them all. And, let’s be honest here, when I see 100 things in two weeks I don’t really remember them.
It’s funny to have an easier time staying in to read in a city hundreds of miles from home than in my own apartment. It’s hard enough to tune out the siren call of FOMO in my own city, it’s even harder on vacation. Doing things to the point where I’m exhausted and overwhelmed isn’t fun, no matter how cool it might seem in the photos afterward.
Everything involves work
The thing is, traveling is work. Making decisions is time consuming. Deciding where to go can turn into a constant stream of thoughts running in the background for weeks. Nomadic life involves many more decisions than living a life in one place, where you can get carried along by comfortable routines.
I’m incredibly lucky to usually be choosing between good options. I’m hardly complaining about how hard it is to be a digital nomad. Most days I have those cheesy moments where I’m walking the cutest dog (they’re all the cutest) from some beautiful park to an incredible house and I’m just like how is this my life?! Or I’m eating an amazing dinner that someone I’ve just met has cooked for me and we’re laughing like we’re BFF and I’m overcome with how magical the world can be. I’m rolling my eyes so hard as I type this, but it does feel like I’m living my best life.
That adage that “find something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is bullshit. Everything worth doing is work. Things that don’t require at least a little bit of suffering aren’t fulfilling, it’s part of the package.Everything worth doing involves work Click To Tweet
When I first joined my nonprofit, I didn’t realize how much marinating in human suffering was getting to me. I was too busy being thrilled to work on a meaningful project, freed from the bureaucracy of previous clients. It was only when it totally overwhelmed me that I realized how much of an impact it had on my life.
The strain of decision fatigue is the same way. I was having such a great time traveling, I didn’t realize how much of a toll it was taking.
Sometimes the solutions to a problem manifest as soon as I acknowledge a problem. As soon as I realized how stressful constant decision making was, it became pretty easy to start protecting my time and my mental energy.