I’m halfway into a month long trip through the Balkans and so far we’ve visited cities in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. I’m writing this from the balcony of our beautiful Airbnb apartment in Skopje, Macadonia. In a couple of days we’ll be heading to Sofia and then leaving the Balkans to explore Turkey.
Travel is something that lots of people dream of and I’m mindful of how fortunate I am that I can take part of the summer break between my second and third years at University to visit places. Especially in areas with a lower cost of living and favourable exchange rate it’s possible to travel and live extremely cheaply — today we had lunch at one of the most expensive looking cafés in Skopje and it cost roughly two pounds — but you still need some money to get to wherever you’re travelling to.
What you don’t need, though, is a lot of stuff.
Last year I wrote about how I took a similar month-long trip and lived out of a 25l bag plus my satchel.
This year I’ve got a 22l bag and that’s it. It’s a Patagonia bag that’s surprisingly poorly made and isn’t really designed to hold a lot of stuff. I’ve got everything with me in it.
The one thing you hear consistently about travel is to find everything you want to take and halve it.
Regardless of how adamant you are that nothing else can go, this is always true.
I’m taking roughly a third less stuff than last year. We’re only going to be in hot countries so the bulky jeans and jumper have gone, and my rain jacket never really came in that useful — if it’s tipping it down you typically don’t want to go outside — so that’s gone too. I’ve also cut down slightly on tech. When packed up I’ve got a couple of litres of capacity spare in my bag. I thought I did a pretty good job of cutting down to only the essentials.
Yet, if I could leave items at home right now, I would. Still got too much stuff. Not in a “man I must be impractically minimalist” way; I just have items I literally have not used. Tech is the culprit here, with spare camera batteries, my external battery pack and some miscellaneous but bulky camera gear fitting into my packing cube and not ever leaving. It’s easy to pack stuff “just in case”, but the just in case scenario is often so unlikely that it’s not worth the trouble.
This is my last year with the extended University holiday and whilst I fully intend to travel regularly whilst I’ve graduated, I’ll probably move away slightly from student-style backpacking.
Wherever you’re going the same rules always apply, though. There gets a point where it’s impractical to be able to halve what you’re taking, but seriously consider the usefulness of every item you take. If it’s unlikely to get much usage, leave it at home.
You’ll thank me when you’re able to walk off the plane, bus or train and straight into seeing the busiest market wherever you’ve just arrived at has to offer.
I undertook an awful lot of adventures in 2014 and it’s mildly crazy that we’ve got to July and this is the first adventure post of the year. Still, doing one’s degree and getting as much work done as possible provides a reasonable excuse.
The Strasbourg Adventure was a joint trip with University of Warwick’s BrassSoc and WindOrch. We spent four and a bit days in Strasbourg and two days in Colmar, a beautiful town about an hour to the south.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Strasbourg, but it’s a very nice town indeed with a beautiful old town and plenty of character, but also the European Instititutions off to the edge of the city. We played a concert in the huge atrium of the European Parliament building which was extremely enjoyable.
Unsurprisingly, the price of alcohol was of concern a group of students, but Academie de le Biere had fantastic (if still a bit expensive) cocktails which almost made up for the slightly ridiclious price of a pint. Local wines were pretty good too (and much cheaper). We did a tour of a vineyard which is worth doing if you can get into the hills away from the city.
Colmar is much smaller than Strasbourg and we visited mainly because we couldn’t book a hostel for the whole week in Strasbourg itself. Four days was kinda enough to see Strasbourg, though, and moving on to Colmar ended up being an excellent move. The town centre is very small but very beautiful, with “Little Venice” being a particular highlight.
We didn’t really stay in the town centre on any of the evenings, but on a late-night photography mission on our last day I wandered through the town centre and the bars were bustling and looked very nice indeed.
First adventure of the summer is done. I’m headed off again in a fortnight to South Eastern Europe and Turkey, which I am very excited about. Pics are below.
I wrote last time about how I’d written a hell of a lot of essays over the Easter break and literally doing nothing else was kinda a novelty for me. I also predicted I wouldn’t get as much done with University life to distract me.
In a surprising turn of events, I was wrong.
I actually did more work, and a lot more work at that. I attribute this more or less exclusively to my usage of the Pomodoro technique. A number of my friends have adopted it and now also swear by it and it seems to more or less be the ultimate productivity technique.
The Pomodoro Technique, darling. That’s Italian. Essentially, you work in twenty five minute segments and then take a five minute break.
It’s very simple, really. You set a task for the twenty five minute session and then remain completely focussed on the task for the twenty five minutes. When the timer is up, you pack all of your procrastination into the five minute break, get a cup of coffee and start again. After four sessions, you take a longer break of fifteen to thirty minutes.
It works for a number of reasons:
Students are very bad at procrastination. This is essentially a cure for procrastination.
With a task set for the session, you’ll make sure you get the task done. The ticking timer adds the time pressure that makes you work faster and get the job done.
You get to know how many sessions each task should take, so can quickly see whether you’re on, ahead of or behind schedule. If you’re having a slow day, you can recognise this early and fix it.
To get started all you need is a timer on your phone and a piece of paper to note down how much you’ve done. That simple.
A bunch of really awesome apps have sprung up based around making the Technique easier and more accessible. I started off just making a tally of what I’d done in my notebook and using TomatoTimer to track sessions, but this wasn’t too great a method.
If I forgot to tally after completing a session then I’d often only realise later and not be sure how many sessions I’d done in total. I also wanted extra analytics like what time I started work in the morning and afternoon, which I’d often neglect to note down.
My friend Charlie introduced me to the solution which solved all of these problems: Pomotodo. There are web and mobile versions, although I’ve only ever used the web version. It’s free with an optional “Pro” upgrade that adds a couple of extra features. It’s really neat.
Start the timer and you get your twenty five minutes. When the time is up you enter what you’ve been working on. You can use #hashtags here to categorise your different projects, which Pomotodo will sort your work by and produce cool charts (see above) which show you where you’re spending your time. Only after you’ve told Pomotodo what you were working on does the break timer start, meaning if you’ve not achieved everything you wanted in that session, you can take a couple of extra minutes to get the work done. I found myself doing that a lot in the couple of days before my exams.
Pomotodo, as the name suggests, has a to-do list built in, but I’ve virtually never used it. I’ve written about my fave to-do list apps before and I still prefer Remember The Milk for organising what I need to do. Pomotodo still has a way to go before it’s a really great to-do list manager as well, but that doesn’t detract from it being pretty awesome for managing Pomodoros.
Staying focussed for a handful of sessions is relatively easy, but after twelve or sixteen sessions it can be a struggle maintain focus for the twenty five minutes at a time. Working out a routine and making it as easy as possible for you to get the most done is one of the most important things for effectively using the Technique long term.
I’m happy writing and designing late into the night but I tend to be most productive in terms of straight-up getting things done early in the morning. I also need about eight hours’ sleep so I’m not tired and can actually concentrate, so something had to give. I’ve never really got up early at Uni asides from when I’ve had to, but that had to change. I read a bunch of blog posts about getting up early, including something Syed wrote nearly two years ago that was especially helpful.
“Getting up early” is a lot easier said than done, though, and to be honest I was struggling. I did two things that were especially helpful: starting to use Sleep Cycle so I could better track how I was sleeping and stopping using my phone right up until I went to sleep. Sleep Cycle showed me to get up before seven I needed to be in bed by half ten and asleep fifteen or twenty minutes later. I made those changes and I started getting up earlier. I also stopped having breakfast and then getting going with work in favour of taking breakfast to my desk and starting straight away.
I even incorporated Headspace into my morning routine and started doing that regularly, something I’d not done for a couple of months.
Sleep quality was probably the most important thing for me, but it’s closely followed by “staying sharp”. ie, making effective use of the five minute breaks. For me, that meant getting away from the computer and usually heading to the kitchen. Coffee after breakfast and lunch, tea or water in between. Also fruit. And also more chocolate biscuits and cookies than I should probably admit.
Creating the conditions for getting stuff done, though, was vital for me for getting the most out of the Technique.
So what’s next
This was really interesting to do. I finished my exams on Monday and I’ll be honest I have not been adhering to anything I’ve written here since. There are a couple of months before my final year at University starts, though, and plenty of time to do cool stuff in the meantime. I’m looking forward to putting this back into practice.
I’ve just got back to University having been at home for the last four weeks. In those four weeks I wrote about sixty thousand words for four essays. The essays are three thousand words each, but reading and notes for each one drags the word count up.
I’ve written and thought a lot about “habits” and what I’m going to do different this year, but the experience with these essays has been quite enlightening. I’ve been focussed on these and nothing else. Tynan had a post a while ago on how you’ll do a task best if it’s your sole focus, and that certainly seems to be the case.
Tracking how much work I get done each day I’ve got a sense of what I need to do in order to be as productive as possible. I focus much more in the morning, so going to sleep earlier and getting up much earlier has ensured I get more done in the morning. Work can trail off mid-afternoon, but if I change location — ie go and get a coffee — I’ll stay focussed for longer. Early evening I tend to get little done and I’ll spend a long time doing it, so I won’t do any evening work and relax instead. And get an early night so I can get more done the next morning.
It’s been really interesting trying to get these essays done. I’ve basically done nothing else and whilst it’s unrealistic to expect me to be able to do that when I’m at University when I’ve got a social life to distract me, it’s definitely been a valuable learning experience.
Last year a friend who’d been at Oxford for a couple of months at that point said to me I get why terms are only eight weeks. Nobody could handle it if they’re any longer.
Tomorrow I have the last of my contact hours for this half of term and then I’ve got a week and a half off for reading week. I’ve got horrible man-flu and to be honest I quite fancy a rest.
Whilst stuff is go it’s very easy to focus on the stuff that needs to be done immediately and leave the stuff that isn’t immediately pressing but you’d still like to get done for a later date — or just leave it indefinitely.
Little breaks are handy for recapping and working out what actually needs to be done.
A month ago I wrote about my habit-buliding goals for 2015 and how I was going to use a simple tally to keep me on track with buliding habits for the things I wanted to do, but didn’t need to do right that second.
At the end of the first period I’ve completed approximately half of what I set out to do. Fifteen Headspace sessions, four runs, eight word-writing-sessions and a book.
Half is not really ideally and half is effectively the product of me not really getting particularly hooked into actually completing what I set out to do. I tried to “bulid habits” and basically I’ve just not done very well.
In part I think the goals weren’t great; for February I’ll be aiming to publish rather than just write and I was a bit overambitious with how much I’d go running, especially when it’s so cold.
But, February is a new month and a new opportunity to kick on and start getting things done. Maybe next month I can manage a whole three quarters.
I was writing an incredibly long and prose-driven post about how I ended up getting my kinda rubbish laptop replaced with a shiny new Macbook last week and whilst the contents were useful it wasn’t particularly interest. So here’s the same information but condensed for your convenience.
I bought a laptop eighteen months ago, recently the screen broke on it.
The manufacturer wanted me to pay quite a lot to have it looked at + whatever it’d cost to get it fixed.
The place were I purchased it claimed I only had a one year warranty.
Repeatedly stating what the place where I purchased it from’s legal obligations were eventually got someone to speak to a manager, who approved me getting a new laptop to the value of the old one since they don’t sell the model I originally bought anymore.
I ended up replacing my kinda crappy laptop with a Macbook.
That’s more or less all you need to know. I had vague knowledge about the EU insiting on two year warranties for all electrical products so did a search on that, and turns out in the UK one has up to six years which is handy.
Just being insistent that it doesn’t matter the product is “out of warranty” eventually got me somewhere and saved me having to get the laptop fixed at my own expense. It would seem I was meant to be informed about what my rights are, but clearly that didn’t happen.
So the next time your laptop or phone breaks, check Which’s website and spend an hour on the phone to wherever you bought it from. Worth it.
I really can’t stand articles “written by a teenager” that every now and again go viral. These articles — written by real-life teens (the main selling point here) — give you the definitive outlook of all teenagers with regards to social media.
I was recently a teenager. I am admittedly a year out of touch, but that still makes me relatively well qualified to comment here.
Here are some pointers:
“Teenagers” is not a single homogenised group who all think exactly the same way, all use their phones and laptops in exactly the same way and all think in exactly the same way.
“Teenagers” refers to a literally everyone between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. During that period teenagers grow up significantly; it’s probably one of the most significant six-year periods of their lives. There is absolutely no way you can draw generalisations about nineteen year-olds that still apply to thirteen or fourteen year-olds.
Even if you could homogenise smaller age ranges, there’s no consideration of gender, social class, social status and so on and so forth. It’s relatively little coincidence that overtime I’ve seen an article like this it’s been written by a white male middle class kid.
The next time you seen an article written by a real teenager that tells you some startling fact about how teenagers use a single social network slightly differently to how they’re perceived to use said social network, and that teenagers actually use this other social network you hadn’t heard of in a way you don’t quite understand or expect, just remember it’s only relatively absurd to make sweeping generalisations about a relatively small group.
“Building habits” is all the range these days. Instead of new year’s resolutions if one is a cool kid one should have habits for the new year.
People like Leo Babauta write about habits, James Clear writes every week on habits and Lifehacker‘s posts on new year’s resolutions all advocate some form of habit building. So habits are the things that anyone who’s anyone is advocating.
I’m about to hit two years of sevenironcows and possibly one of the things I’m most proud of is deciding to name my annual here’s stuff I’ve done post “What I’ve Done/What Have I Done”. If you’re interested, this is what I wrote a year ago.
2014, I think, has been an excellent year. If in 2013 I learnt a lot, in 2014 I developed a lot. I’m a lot more confident, I feel better, I’m a lot more adventurous. I don’t know I’ve been more creative, but I’ve certainly continued to pursue my creative endeavours and developed new ones.
I said a year ago I wanted to travel more and that’s been a major success this year. I’ve visited a ton of places, with my major excursion being a month-long trip around Europe this summer. I went with my friend James and he was great at making sure I pushed boundaries of what I’d normally do and I’ve certainly kept some of that spontaneity and yes attitude with me.
Having done one backpacking trip I’m absolutely going to be doing more and I’m a lot more confident about going to more adventurous places. Next Summer I’m hoping to spend a much longer time travelling in one go, hitting Morocco, Istanbul and the bits of the Mediterranean I missed this year. Travel remains very high up on my agenda.
I’ve always vaguely prescribed to a kinda minimalist attitude, but living out of a backpack for a month really demonstrated how much stuff one needs. I’ve not been very good at really applying any of this thinking/philosophy/whatever you want to call it either at home or at my house in Coventry. I’d like to get better at that in 2015.
Along similar lines I started using Headspace at the same time as I started my European travels. I’d always been curious about meditation and it was definitely a very positive move to start doing it and applying mindfulness to everyday life. So that’s been a plus. Negative has been I’ve not been very good at regularly practicing, going in fits and spurts and never managing more than two or three days in succession.
I’m toying with the idea of being unnecessarily aggressive in goals for doing Headspace in 2015. Literally every day? It’d be an interesting way of doing it.
We’ve also reached the two-year anniversary of sevenironcows. I started this site up at the start of 2013 cause I wanted my own little space of internet and I whilst I initially planned on blogging once a week (and did so for the majority of last year), this year I’ve become less fussed about frequency of writing; I write a lot more when I’m at home and that’s fine. I would have liked to have published a couple more posts this year, but I’m pretty happy with my content output, especially the adventure posts.
University obviously dominates my entire existence during term time and the first term of my second year (ie the most recent one) was extremely busy. Being on the executive committees of both Warwick Labour and BrassSoc meant my evenings were always busy and whilst I like being busy and will always fill whatever quantity of time I have available with stuff, one can be too busy and I think I reached this point a couple of times last term.
I’ve been really enjoying my degree, though, and I’ve definitely allayed the fears I had before I joined that it would be a bit of a waste of time. Whilst arguably my learning about the abstract workings of capitalism doesn’t really help anybody, I at least find it interesting to better understand the world and whatnot.
All in all, good work in 2014 Alex. It’s been a very exciting year and I’m very much looking forward to what 2015 has in store. Onwards!
Like any self-respecting twenty-something geek I subscribe to a lot of blogs and use Feedly to collate all of them into a convenient single place (side note, I also use Press on my phone/tablet which is a really really nice RSS reader). Feedly is a pretty good at organising all of these sites into categories and naturally one of my categories is travel.
So I read a lot of travel blogs. Significantly more travel blogs than any other type of blog. Over the last couple of weeks with “best blogs of 2015 lists” making an appearance I’ve significantly widended my reading, too.
I read quite a wide variety of travel blogs and I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody has yet nailed the travel blog.