A Year Outside: The First Month

Emily Woodhouse Living Adventurously

On 31st December 2021, at about 10pm, my washing machine broke. The slightly odd rattle turned snapped into an un-ignorable banging, like a pneumatic drill. It was so awful that I turned it off mid-spin, managed to evict my clothes and decided to deal with it next year. It wasn’t exactly the finish to 2021 that I was imagining, but given the year I’d had it remarkable things weren’t falling apart right until the stroke of midnight.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with being outside. But it does. Firstly, it meant I stayed up later than midnight – after fireworks and a sudden spurt of inspiration on what I was writing. Secondly, it meant I had no way to wash my clothes in 2022. And if there’s anything you can call Devon in January, it’s muddy. So I set out slightly later than intended on my New Year’s day walk, in freshly cleaned trousers. The first of 365 days spent outside.

My Outdoor Reset

The idea of an outdoor reset has been creeping up on me. As an internet worker, despite all my hobbies and interests, my natural default is to be inside. Or specifically, inside in front of a screen. That’s what work looks like for me and thousands of other people. But I wanted to try to do the opposite. Technology is so advanced that we can pretty much access the internet anywhere. What if I tried to reset my default to outside instead? Would that even be possible? Would I be able to do my normal work outside, or end up cramming it into my evenings? Now I’m freelance, without anyone there to tell me what a work day should look like, I suddenly have the chance to find out.

Hopes for the Project

I have high hopes that this experiment will sort out a lot of bad habits I’ve sunk into over years of remote working from home. You know, rolling out of bed straight into that 9am meeting. Or starting work by reading emails under the duvet before I’ve even brushed my teeth. It’s fine to do it every now and again – a harmless novelty of not having to commute to an office – but I’m also aware it’s a deeply destructive habit to get into for everyday life.

So, I hope that by defaulting to outside I end up with a schedule that gets me out of bed early and feeling a little tired in the evening. I’ll also usually be forced to make lunch in advance, rather than go snack hunting in the kitchen at noon. The fresh air and exercise should help with my sleep pattern, headspace and mental health. Although I’m not 100% convinced. Either way it’s probably more healthy than spending all day hunched over a screen, moving from desk to kitchen and back.

I’m hopeful that by not having all day access to a laptop and desk, I’ll find a better work-life balance. Maybe I’ll feel like a commuter coming home and leaving work outside. Or maybe I’ll end up doing all nighters trying to get everything done in time, that I couldn’t do during the day. Plus with homogenous indoor days, I often find myself procrastinating or struggling to focus. I’ll find myself spending hours on YouTube – from house renovations to comedy skits. Or putting something off, kicking around in social media or my inbox and feeling like I haven’t achieved anything all day.

My mind has lately been a chaos. Unable to prioritise or decide what’s most important, I do the thing that’s in front of me. But I also don’t go out and do things for me – be it going for a walk or making a nice dinner – because I feel like I should be working. For example, I might spend 9am to 8pm working or procrastinating on a computer, avoiding the important but not letting myself free from the screen. Then I’ll feel guilty about not being productive enough, bad about spending all day inside and annoyed that I still haven’t done the thing I meant to. Reducing the time available might help me to focus. Prioritising daytimes outdoors might stop the guilt at pointless walks. Maybe.

How it went: January

On New Year’s Day, I left the house at 11am and spent a few hours on a misty, damp walk. I got thoroughly covered in mud and vowed to wear walking boots for the rest of January. Even the verges on the lanes were ankle deep in mud. It took over a week for the first cloud-free day of the year to appear. But when the blue sky and cold air finally arrive, it was like a weight taken off my shoulders. It was so refreshing to be outside.

My outdoor activities varied and the length of time I spent outside too. In the first week I was focussing too much on the exercise: on the going somewhere and the distance travelled. I had to remind myself that it was just about being outdoors. Anywhere. Anything else was a bonus. That way, I shifted from long walks to sitting under trees or on the step outside my house. Sometimes I’d write, other times I’d just sit and think. It was quite cold sitting still and sometimes quite damp. But I’ve started to get used to it (and how many layers to wear). If it rains torrentially, I go in the shed rather than the house. Or somewhere conveniently nearby and under cover. Or if I know the rain is due all day, I simply do a walk and get home early.

Usually I’m out from 9am to midday or maybe as late as 3pm during the week. Some weekends I volunteer with Ten Tors, so I’ll be out all day. If there’s a call out or MR training, I’ll change up when I’m out to fit with it. Or, if there’s loads to do, I’ll count that as my time outdoors and spend the rest of the day indoors. Although I can do some work outside (hand-written notes, emails on a phone), I haven’t managed to do the typing on a laptop outside yet. Sub-editing needs a screen but sometimes I can pre-write emails or batch them into one afternoon. I also spent 10 days of January in Shropshire visiting friends and family, plus doing some of the Shropshire Way in the week. Even that fitted into the pattern quite well.

I’m finding that there often seems like so much to do and little to no time to do it. No change there then, except that on the days I go outside I can recall what I did that day – at least the outside bit. I schedule all meetings for 3pm or later, so they don’t get in the way. While I’m walking I keep a pen and scrap of paper in one pocket, to note down things I need to do or look up or remember. I find that these come thick and fast while I’m moving but are easily forgotten as soon as I step indoors. Never mind look at a screen. I haven’t quite got to the stage where I always remember to look at and use my list once I’m inside. But I’m still new to this. Hopefully my handwriting on the fly will get better as the year progresses. (I have tried using memory games too, with mixed results.)

Lessons Learnt from this Month

  • January = boots and mud. No exceptions. I’m glad it’s not snowing in Devon.
  • I can slightly see why sit-mats are a thing. They’ve always been described to me as a symptom of middle age. But if you’re going with the intention of spending much longer than a lunch break sitting down, I can see why something dry to sit on would be useful.
  • I’m noticing tiny changes and details in the routes I walk a lot. Little things like a pub changing hands or a new sign post or someone’s garden. I guess I’m just spending more time physically in my local area and being more aware of changes.
  • I feel like I need a process for the transition from outside to inside. It’s easy to feel psyched for the day when I’m outside, then step indoors and proceed to waste the entire afternoon.
  • It’s also hard to know when to do house things (for new readers I moved house in 2021). Every time I turn my head something else breaks. It’s almost like the house is conspiring to keep me indoors. But leaving DIY until evening doesn’t seem to work – I’m too tired or want to spend the whole day on something.
  • Not much planning being done so far. Even just sorting out lunches would help a lot, and pre-planning what to work on each day. I used to be very good at that, hopefully organised me will come back.
  • It’s not fixed my sleep at all. While I was doing the Shropshire Way it did, but very quickly back to being unable to get to sleep in the evenings, as soon as I came home.
  • Being outside does give me a feeling of mental clarity that I don’t seem to have indoors. Not sure why really. Maybe it helps not having a ceiling?

So that’s an overview of my first month trying to reset my default to outside. But I’ve barely scratched the surface. Ask me questions! Would you do this? Would you try it even for a day? Can you empathise with the work from home funk I’ve got into?