I had a mission. A bold one. It was to go away to a beautiful rural setting, and find focus and flow so that I could achieve a number of deep work tasks. I intended to learn French. To learn to play the ukelele. To do yoga and meditation every day. To read the literal crate of books I brought with me. To prepare the design and first MVP experiments for my next business. To find solace and happiness… and achieve world peace.
I guess it is probably not a surprise to anyone that I didn’t achieve much of this. Any of this. Well, some of it, I guess, but it is was neither easy nor as pleasant as I thought it would be.
Turns out, driving 10 hours from London to Avallon in one stretch is a long way. The actual time driving in a car wasn’t too bad, about 7 hours, but we had lots of stops along the way, and a Channel Tunnel to navigate with a car. However, when you aren’t used to driving, and you have your beloved mother telling you for weeks how perilous and dangerous it will be, you tense up and drive on red alert, which just isn’t healthy to sustain for 10 hours. I arrived physically and mentally wiped, and found this heavy exhaustion lasted throughout the next day too.
Then, I discovered that my large collection of sun-dresses and sandals would *not* come in handy, as it was much colder than I had anticipated, and it either rained or was heavily overcast almost every day. I didn’t realise the extent to which my mood is a direct reflection of the weather I’m exposed to, and I found myself subconsciously mirroring the grey dullness of the sky above.
Then, I discovered that despite my distance from London, I couldn’t get very far from it virtually. I had a barrage of emails and calls and tasks to attend to, which all took longer than I anticipated, and made it difficult for me to focus on any deep work task I’d set myself. These London distractions were made all the more frustrating as they consisted of dealing with really shitty customer service from Vodafone (2 hours on the phone with 7 people, and NO RESOLUTION), and a bunch of other dull admin work. The end result is, I found it hard to do any substantive work, and this escalated my frustration levels.
Then, on top of the physical pain my body was in after the long drive to Avallon, it was further exacerbated as I did not set up my workstation right. The prettiest spot was on the grand dining table overlooking the pretty garden. I had loads of room to spread my stuff out on, and it was close to the kitchen and the backdoor. However, it meant sitting on a backless wooden bench, which rendered my back pain even more horrific.
Then, I found dealing with the solitude challenging. I don’t mind being alone, I’ve done a lot of travel on my own throughout my life, and I’m happy reading books in a restaurant alone. But 10 days of it, of not being able to talk in English to anyone, of failing miserably to speak in my very basic French, I started to go a bit loopy. I’m an introverted extrovert, and I really need the company of others to rejuvenate and feel connected to life. Without it, and some of the darker corners of my mind start to gain traction over my more sensible centre. Thankfully, I have a collection of thoughtful and kind friends, who peppered me with messages and calls, which kept the darkness at bay.
However, this connection with the world was a double-edged sword, as it also broke my concentration and focus. It was a very welcomed and appreciated breakage, but it did mean I finished the 10 days without as much to show for my experiment as I hoped.
It was not all a failure though. There were two days when the sun broke out and beamed upon the world benevolently. And I took hold of those days with both hands and lived them hard. One of the days I lay my picnic blanket in the garden, and played my ukelele (badly), read my book, and did a lot of really creative thinking on my next business. Lumi was in heaven, running around the garden, barking at the gardener who was quietly planting flowers behind me. It was blissful. Another of the sunny days I took advantage of and went for a drive around nearby villages. I had seen posters for a comic book festival and thought “what the heck!” and went to it, stopping off at a number of pretty villages along the way. It was sunny and idyllic, and I revelled in the simple joy of exploring the French countryside in Lancelot (my car).
I also managed to find company in unusual ways. As coincidence would have it, a friend from London is now going out with an acquaintance who happens to own a chateau about 1.5 hours from Avallon. And they were having a medieval feast 7 days in. And once a mutual friend pointed all this out to us, I ended up driving over to spend a very unexpected and surreal night surrounded by 100 people in medieval gowns eating a grand feast. And another day, while having breakfast in a quaint teahouse, I got talking to a genial older couple who have a holiday house in the forest not far from Avallon. After we got chatting and they found out I was alone and clearly in need of company, they invited me over for tea. I spent a very pleasant few hours chatting to Claude and Jean-Christophe in their special house in the woods.
On the 10th day it was time to drive back to London, where I had some work and an “unconference” to attend in the English countryside. It was as bad a drive back as the drive there, more so, as it accumulated pain onto an already broken body. For the next few days I almost wept in pain due to the ache in my body… thank goodness for my massage therapist and osteopath… and for the lumbar support for my car seat I immediately bought upon my return.
So what did I learn about my 10 days in Avallon?
- Finding flow and achieving deep work is HARD. Just going away isn’t enough.
- Going away where you are entirely alone the whole time isn’t ideal. I need time alone to do my deep work, but decompression is pleasant in the company of others that speak your language.
- Being alone and open to new experiences leads to unexpected and delightful encounters.
- Aligning your schedule with the weather, so you are doing creative and pleasurable work when you are most optimistic.
- Ergonomics – in a car and at your desk – is absolutely paramount. Physical pain destroys creativity and happiness.
- Travelling with a puppy is easier than I thought (especially in France), and makes for wonderful company.
- It is easier and more special to do deep work while away from your normal life. If you can get over the shock to your system, and apply discipline to your day, some great achievements that carry depth to them are possible.
With this newfound knowledge and insight, I now prepare for the next phase of my adventure… Bilbao, Pau, Bordeaux, where hopefully I can build upon what I’ve learned. Off we go, Lumi and Lancelot!