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A month of trying Headspace

Let’s set the scene. It’s just over a month ago at Luton Airport. I’m waiting to get on a Wizz Air flight to Budapest. As with all budget airlines there’s a massive queue. As with all budgest airlines nobody’s entirely sure why there’s a queue, but the wisdom of crowds dictates everybody joins the queue regardless of whether they actually want/need to be in the queue or not.

Again as is inevitable with budget airlines there are more people queuing than there is queue space so the queue snakes out into the terminal building, criss-crossing with another queue for another overflowing flight and then doing the same again. People are trying to work out where the hell their queue starts and trying to get past in every direction. We seemed to be standing in a spot where everybody who had a buggy wanted to run us over/get past. It was a little bit stressful.

My friend James who I was travelling with pulls out his phone, loads up an app and starts having a little meditation sesh in the midst of all this chaos. It actually seems to work and James is the most chilled person in the building. I figured I gotta get me some of that.

The app James loaded up is called Headspace and it advertises itself as:

Headspace is meditation made simple, a way of treating your head right. Using proven meditation and mindfulness techniques we’ll show you how to train your mind for a healthier, happier, more enjoyable life.

This would usually be the kind of thing that gets my BS detector singing loudly, but given James was doing it — and he has a much more sensitive BS sensor than I do — I figured I’d give it a go.

I didn’t realise at first, but Headspace offers a suite of apps which more or less duplicate the functionality of its website. The app is available on iOS and Android and Headspace.com has the same content. The handy thing about the app is having it with you everywhere (obviously), so I probably don’t see myself using the web version.

Once you’re signed up and ready to go, you make a start with Headspace’s introduction series, Take 10. This is the only part of the app that’s free, but it serves as a really neat introduction to the whole concept and will basically tell you if it’s something that’s going to work for you or not. James figured he could manage without the guidance the app provides after doing it for a couple of days, but I’ve found it really useful so I’ve stuck with it.

You’ve got to really concentrate for Headspace to work; you kinda get as much back as you put in. At first I found it kinda eh, but a couple of days in I really started to enjoy doing it. This stuff actually works. After Take 10 you need to buy yourself a Headspace subscription to continue. It’s kinda expensive, so for the moment I’ve just got one month and if I’m still using it at the end of the month I might get another twelve, which is a fair bit cheaper per month. I’ve even cancelled my Netflix subscription I don’t really use anymore so it’s compatible with my budget.

The to-do list chronicles

I’ve long struggled to find the “perfect” to-do list solution. The “Getting Things Done” (GTD) methodology has never really striked me as any great secret — it’s literally just writing down what you have to do in small enough chunks that you can then tick them off and feel like you’ve achieved something.

Still, it does work. You would think putting a very simple tickable list into an app or just writing it down on a piece of paper is the simplest thing anybody’s ever done, but apparently it’s something massively complicated that has spawned a whole industry of innovative app-makers.

Yet, I never really liked most of them.

I think I first started using to-do list apps when I was about twelve as a way of organising my homework. The smartphone was yet to be presented to us by Mr Jobs so I wrote all my homework down on paper (we call them homework diaries here in the UK) and then got home and transferred them to my computer. Thoroughly inefficient and probably entirely pointless, but it was a start. My app of choice? Remember The Milk.

My First Remember The Milk Tasks

The tasks above are some of the first tasks I stored in RTM, back in early 2007. I hated learning Latin.

I did actually use it relatively consistently for four years straight and I can see from the archived list of my competed tasks I came back to it just as I was starting Uni around this time last year. I only stuck with it for about two months this time though.

What I’ve always really liked about RTM — and still really like — is the way you can add tasks and use a series of keyboard shortcuts to add priority, due date, repetition, lists and tags.

So to produce a task “Write ‘the to-do list chronicles blog post’” with a priority of three (I used to have everything priority one cause I need to do everything on the list, but if everything’s priority one it might as well be lowest by default. Clever, eh?), on the list #Personal, due today I’d enter:

Write 'the to-do list chronicles blog post' !3 ^today #Personal

That’s it. I’ve tried out more or less every to-do list app I’ve found and none of them have that simple functionality, so I keep on coming back to Remember The Milk.

For the bulk of the last year I’ve been using a slightly simplified version of Bullet Journal, which I first read about on LifeHacker last year. It’s kinda neat and I do actually really like it; you get a notebook, block out days and then use different types of bullets for appointments, reminders and things to do. Small Moleskines or Field Notes work best as you can take them everywhere (the downside being you have to take them everywhere, cause it’s only in paper form).

My Bullet Journal in action

You’re meant to write out a huge calendar, keep indexes of what you’ve done etc etc, but I keep mine simple. I just use it as a short term calendar and for simple tasks I’ve got to do that day.

Sadly I’m notebook-less at the moment as whilst in Vienna I poured coffee all over my Moleskine, basically ruining it. Once I’ve got myself a replacement/when I’m back at Uni I’ll be back Bullet-Journaling.

The moral of this story, then, is that the GTD methodology is bloody obvious, nobody’s made the perfect to-do list app yet and in a horrible twist of irony, me, the person most likeliest to be using technology for everything out of more or less all my friends, has gone back to pen and paper. Your move, internet.

What to look for in a youth hostel

A good hostel can make or break your stay in a place. I’ve just got back from a month of staying in hostels so I’d like to consider myself relatively well qualified when reporting what one should be looking for in a hostel.

When I first started my travels I was staying in places I’d booked whilst back in the UK. These places were often:

  • cheap
  • half an hour from the city centre by public transport
  • had decent reviews for quality etc.

My approach was often find a place we wanted to go on Hostels International, sort by best rated and then book whatever that place was. Price and quality were prioritised over location.

This was a mistake.

As soon as we were done with the places I’d booked from home we started looking at location first and not really caring about everything else. Anything on HiHostels isn’t going to be terrible, so your lower bound on quality isn’t really that bad.

Waiting for the tube in Budapest

Being in a central location means you don’t spend a chunk of your day travelling between the city centre and the hostel — time that’s limited cause you’re probably not spending that long in the place; you might be paying a little bit more for the hostel per night, but you then don’t have to spend anything on public transport to/from the hostel.

It’s also a lot easier to dump your bags when you’re arriving/leaving and the central hostels are usually a lot busier, so you’ll find it vastly easier to meet fellow travellers. Like a good hostel, meeting cool people who know the neat places to go can make or break a place.

So location is important.

Breakfast is often included in places, but more often than not it’s a piece of bread and some horrible orange juice type thing. Not really worth bothering about; you’ll find yourself having to buy something anyway. The hostel was stayed at in Verona offered you a piece of bread and butter and some tea or coffee, served in a bowl. The tea was absolutely stone cold and utterly disgusting. We didn’t bother with breakfast there again.

Breakfast at one place we stayed

The pic above was one of the better breakfasts we had. As a genearl rule, basically just don’t expect much from breafasts.

Also don’t expect much from WiFi. Places where the WiFi works in the rooms will say “OMG WE MADE THE WIFI WORK THROUGHOUT THE BUILDING”, but if it just says “free WiFi” expect to have to sit in the lobby to get your internet fix.

I’d initially planned on Skyping my parents and backing up my pictures to Google Drive, but it become fairly apparent fairly quickly this just wasn’t happening. Coffee shops are a much better bet here.

One thing that is worth looking at in reviews is if there’s any mention of plugs. As a general rule there are never enough plugs but expect a room to have a couple — not enough for everyone. That’s pretty standard.

What isn’t okay is if there are no plugs in the rooms. This more or less means you’re without your phone for the duration of your stay in wherever it is that doesn’t have any plugs. It doesn’t have to be a hostel deal breaker, but it’s something worth knowing. Hostels aren’t going to advertise “no plugs!!”, so look out for mention of this in reviews.

Washing facilities are relatively standard, but in all but one place we went to the cost was prohibitively expensive/ridiculous. Don’t bother, take some travel wash and do your washing in the sink.

That’s your lot. In a nutshell, find somewhere with a good location and you won’t spend much time there, so how good it is doesn’t really matter. You’re welcome.

Living out of a backpack

Two days ago I got back from a month-long backpacking trip around Eastern and Central Europe. We started out in Budapest, before moving on to Bratislava and Vienna and then heading north to Prague and Berlin. From there we headed almost in a straight line down to Munich, Innsbruck and Verona (with Venice as a trip from there) and finally we headed across the top of Italy to get to Genoa.

I didn’t take much, as I wrote about whilst I was planning the trip; in the end I had one 25l backpack and my trusty satchel. The picture below shows everything that was in those bags:

All my stuff for a month

So two relatively small bags for a month.

Yet, almost immediately I had this feeling of man I have too much stuff. My friend James who I was travelling with had a single 20l bag, meaning whenever we had all our stuff with us moving on to a new city, there was no problem carrying everything around all day — cause everything didn’t amount to much.

Me? We’d arrive in our exciting new destination and I’d want to make a three or four hour round trip to the hostel we were staying in (which was inevitably waay outside the city centre), which is kinda a problem when you’re only staying in a single place for twenty four hours.

So I decided I definitely had too much stuff.

To prove my point I even didn’t really use a couple of the bulkier items from my bag. My jumper? Wore it once. Rain jacket? A friend of mine we met up with in Prague used it more than I did. Don’t get me started on the sleeping bag liner I thought it’d be a really good idea to bring.

To further prove my point I even repacked my bag entirely at midnight after getting home, taking out all of the “stuff” I didn’t use/didn’t need and demonstrating to myself how everything could have fitted in one bag.

It did actually fit in one bag and I could’ve gotten away with just having that bag.

So let’s recap. I’ve got a single bag and inside that bag I’ve got everything I need to live with. Clothes, towel, toiletries, tech, books etc. The lot.

As one does on a trip, I came home at the end.

I then had a whole room full of stuff. There was all this paper everywhere and all this stuff and man I have so much stuff or something. I have too much stuff or something.

I’ve long at least attempted to try and embrace the whole minimalism thing, but clearly I’ve just not been very good at it. Obviously in a home one somewhat needs more stuff, but stuff and minimalism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I’m going to have a massive clearout. I’m actually going to try and legit properly go paperless (bar one or two trusty Moleskines, obviously).

I’ve been using a relatively dumb smartphone for the last month and after getting my Nexus back my immediate thoughts were this is so big and why the hell do I have so many apps on this thing. I’m not planning on circlejerk minimalising and getting rid of my phone, but I’ll at least have a clear out of apps.

Basically, having too much stuff is annoying. It’s taken travelling around Europe for a month to prompt me to realise how much stuff I have, but if you can have the same eureka moment without spending a month in hostels, it’s probably just a little bit easier.

Network offline

In some large part because I didn’t really entirely get a choice in the matter, I’ve only been rarely with Internet for the last week or so.

The hostel we were staying in in Budapest *did* have Internet which was “available in all rooms” but didn’t work unless you sat in the café outside — and then only if you were lucky — and whilst the EU has kindly done great work in vastly reducing data roaming charges, they’re still pretty ridiculous so my phone has been acting exclusively as an MP3 player.

I’ve typically been online once in the morning with breakfast, again late afternoon and once more before bed. And, you know what, it’s actually been really nice. I don’t actually *want* WiFi in our room cause then I might actually use it the whole time.

One tends to read a lot of bullshit about how “learning how to disconnect made me better at talking to strangers on a Tuesday” (or that might just be my poor choice of RSS feeds), but it *has* been good not being plugged in all the time. And what’s more, it means when I *am* connected I actually make good use of that time cause it’s limited and when I’m not plugged in I’ve got stuff to be getting on with. Like, real life adventuring stuff to be doing.

At home going to sleep typically involves sitting in bed watching through my YouTube subscriptions on my tablet and then switching over to my phone to cruise Reddit or the news when I’m done and after about an hour I’ll finally be at a point where I can actually go to sleep. This “switching off” routine is kinda ridiculous. I’m twenty years old. I should be able to go to sleep.

Here, with my tablet on charge on the other side of the room and my phone a relatively useful Android 2.2 HTC, I can be all cultured and read for a bit but then I’ve got no choice but to switch off and get to sleep. One can be more “mindful” and there’s probably some science or something explaining how it results in better sleep.

And you know what? It’s probably right. I’ve been doing [Headspace](http://headspace.com) recently and reading up on mindfulness and whatnot, and this whole clear your thoughts, be less stressed thing? It’s alrite.

My minimalism out minimalists your minimalism

In just over a week I’m going on a massive trip around Europe with a friend. We’ll call him James cause that’s his name. This trip was first mentioned between us back in November and has been happening and then not happening since then more times than I can count.

But now it’s happening.

We’ve booked flights (but so far not anything else… yet.) and now we’ve been turning our attention to what we’re taking. To some extent I’ve been making preparations for stuff to take for ages. Six months ago I got a new camera; I bought a super-lightweight laptop with something like this trip in mind; I’ve been reading travel blogs and watching serial travellers’ YouTube videos.

And now we’re a week away from this probably-once-in-a-lifetime trip and I’ve decided not to bother with all the stuff. My laptop? It weighs 1kg but is too heavy. My camera? James has ordered a disposable camera off Amazon and is taking that. I seriously considered taking my old point and shoot from 2005 instead of my beautiful new DSLR. My phone? I’m leaving it behind, and whilst I wanted to take my old Sony Ericsson camera phone (back in the days when that was a very exciting legit thing), in the end I’m borrowing a fairly old HTC.

Then there’s bags. I’ve got a 65l proper backpacking bag I used a couple of times at school. Perfect for this kind of trip. Except, it’s way too big. We’re only taking four days of clothes each, a couple of essentials (toiletries, towels etc) and I’ll have my satchel for my camera, tablet and Kindle. James managed to fit everything in an absolutely tiny 20l backpack. I’m not quite going to manage that, but I comfortably fitted everything into a 27l pack. Literally half the size of the bag I thought I’d take. How #minimalist of me.

Yet, I was a little bit concerned that when we’re on the go and we’re carrying food and whatnot my 27l bag isn’t quite going to cut it. So I figured I should probably take less. After all, everybody tells you to take as little as possible.

So I started considering ditching the camera, fewer clothes, ditching the Kindle. I got my iPod Touch from 2009 out earlier to see what the battery was like so I could take a Nokia phone instead of the HTC. I was seeing how plausible it would be that I could pick up English-language books in the places we’re going to so I could avoid taking my own the whole way.

And at some point during all this I realised I was probably being a bit silly. Yes, travel light, but this is a trip I’ll probably never get the opportunity to do again. So don’t take crappy photos in the name of not taking a decent camera cause it weighs too much. Don’t get really bored on four hour train journeys cause you didn’t take any books cause they weigh too much. Don’t be silly. Don’t take the whole trendy minimalism thing too far.

My minimalism out minimalists your minimalism. I’m not taking anything on holiday.

Visiting Liverpool 2014

I kicked off my summer of travelling last weekend by heading to Liverpool with Uni’s BrassSociety for a “mini tour”. I’d never been and wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but absolutely loved the place and had a really brilliant time.

We stayed at the Everton Hostel which was relatively basic but made for a decent enough place to come back to in the evenings. Highlights for me included going to a gig at the Cavern Club (obviously) on Saturday evening and the actually-super-interesting art galleries.

I did, of course, snap some photos and I’ve stuck a bunch of them below.

Unafraid of being not so great

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I’ve just spent the last twenty eight minutes and forty five seconds of my life — time I’m not going to get back — listening to the first EP I recorded and released with my band Ellipsis just over three years ago.

In the last three-and-a-half years Ellipsis has released a stupid volume of music — something like five hours worth of stuff — and it’s all been recorded in my bedroom. Well, not quite all of it. Some of it was recorded in Will‘s bedroom and even other parts of both our houses! The point here is we’ve never gone into a “proper” studio, use extrodinarily basic consumer equipment and do everything ourselves.

We’ve come a long way since late 2010 when we first started. Our latest release from December last year actually sounds pretty damn good throughout, but the first EP we put out all that time ago… is a bit shit.

But it’s also really great.

This will make sense. I can marry these two ideas. Bear with me a sec.

The EP is badly produced, mixed and whilst some mastering a friend of mine did salvages it somewhat, you can’t get over the fact that a lot of it is horribly out of time, intruments are out of tune, some of it was recorded on Will’s laptop’s internal mic; to some extent it’s just inherently badly made.

But it really doesn’t care about its own limitations. Knowing nothing about mixing if something was too quiet I just turned it up a bit. Knowing nothing about recording software the whole thing was recorded in Audacity.

What matters was this was a really fucking ambitious record and not knowing better, we just made the thing. There was none of this “oh what will people think of it!!!!?!” crap that I deal with now — to the extent, you’ll notice, that I’ve not actually linked to this magical EP despite it still being on our website.

I’ve kinda talked about this before. To some extent I’m “scared to start” because I don’t like the idea of making public something bad, to the point my internal quality assessment process is so vigorous nothing passes it.

I talked about some plans I’ve got to launch a new blog a couple of weeks back and once again I find myself with the time to get it launched. Except I’m slightly concerned it might be shit, so I keep doing more and more prep and worrying about the tiny things instead of just getting it launched.

Version 1 of WPShout was made in an afternoon. So far this new blog has been “planned” for the last two and a half years.

The moral of the story, of course, is make things. And make really shit things.

No, UKIP isn’t “killing it” on Facebook

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I like politics and I like social media.

Political usage of social media is kinda an interest hot-spot for me and naturally I took particular interest in Ampp3d’s article UKIP are absolutely killing it on Facebook.

The general jist of the article is from what could be gleamed from the publicly-available stats, UKIP’s social media performance is significantly better than any other political party in the UK and all other parties are doing a terrible job.

I’ve just got a couple things I’d like to mention.

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Accidentally Hipster

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I think I’m having a mild identity crisis.

I say mild because I don’t really mind (at least I tell myself I don’t really mind); it’s more the bit about what other people think of me. Not that I mind, just so we’re clear on that. Nobody minds what other people think about them. Obviously.

How to put this.

I think I might accidentally be a little bit of a hipster.

Accidentally because obviously nobody likes hipster lest of all wants to be one, but I do have to grudgingly admit recent evidence (see: my life) would point towards me being a little bit of a hipster. I feel that especially as I’m approaching my end of year exams and we’re in a period of immense procrastination this is something I should address.

I’ve always thought “no I’m not a hipster; I don’t have the glasses”. Admittedly I have glasses with fairly thick black rims, but they’re pretty rectangular. Definitely not circular enough to be considered hipster. But — I did get my eyes tested over Easter and had I needed new glasses they would have almost certainly been bigger and rounder.

Had we gone down that road though, I would have been getting those glasses because I liked them, not because of my desire to be more hipster.

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