How to reduce stress and worry: Ten lessons from travel

.Reduce stress and worry: Cruise ship

We all struggle with stress and worry to varying degrees. But I’ve noticed something quite telling: I stress and worry far less when I’m on a trip. It doesn’t even have to be a relaxing cruise or beach getaway. Any trip tends to work.

Oh sure, there’s always some concern about making connections, staying healthy, or getting to that newly-discovered-but-now-my-favorite-in-the-world gelato shop before it closes. I mean, some worries are legit.

But overall, when I’m away from my daily routines, I also tend to avoid the accompanying concerns that frazzle me. Some of it is obvious: Most of my trips, particularly abroad, are vacations. If my vacations are causing stress and worry, I’m not doing them right. And if that happens, then, well, that’s just one more thing to stress and worry about.

However, I’ve discovered other reasons why travel lessens my stress and worry and have started to apply what I’ve learned to life at home. I’ve found I’m routinely less troubled when I follow these lessons and remember that worry is merely an act of the imagination. Hold worry up to the light of day and you realize that it is only a figment of one’s fertile imagination, no more real than a daydream, no more likely to happen, in most cases, than a bad hunch. It’s something within my control. And yours.

So keep that in mind as you consider these ten lessons from travel that will help you reduce stress and worry at home.

  1. There’s always another train. Few “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” are. If you miss one, no need to stress and worry: There’s usually another. You may have to wait for that next train or opportunity, but in the waiting you may learn something you would have missed had the original option happened. Plus, there’s greater value to downtime than you may realize
  2. There’s always another route. Rarely is there only one way to do something or to go somewhere. We default to what’s easiest and familiar and when that doesn’t happen, we stress and worry. But we learn better and acquire new skills when we’re forced to figure out a new approach, a different pathway to our destination or goal. We cease to stress and worry as much because we’re too busy enjoying the quest or creative problem-solving inherent in travel and in the most rewarding of activities at home.  
  3. The worst mistakes make the best stories. When you realize that travel disasters result in great tales later and a greater sense of achievement and overcoming, you learn to embrace the so-called failures and mistakes. Similarly, you’ll stress and worry less at home when you take on an attitude of adventure in all you do.
  4. Who you’re with matters more than where you are. A great travel companion can make a bad place fun. An annoying travel companion can ruin the best place. Experienced travelers understand this. But the same principle applies at home. Want to stress and worry less? Curate who you spend time with. Don’t give up on friends who need a little extra attention. But also, don’t spend your time with consistently negative people who drain you. Your trip — and your life — is too short.
  5. Out of sight, out of mind. On a trip, you connect better with locals, with your traveling companions and most of all, with yourself when you unplug and only use your phone for directions or travel-specific purposes. Checking in periodically with home is fine, but trips allow you the chance to see what life is like free from 24/7 connectivity. Practice staying off your phone on a trip and, once you get over the initial shock to the system, you may find that your stress level decreases as a result. Most of us don’t realize how the constant state of connectedness (or our perceived need for it) keeps us both distracted and anxious. Take what you learn on a trip and apply it at home. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport is a helpful resource if you want to understand just how much of a toll your smart phone is taking on your life and what to do about it.
  6. The news you don’t know won’t hurt you. If you can’t completely unplug from social media on a trip, try to at least avoid checking in on the news. It’s amazing how less stressed you’ll feel when you’re away from politics and other divisive information. Again, see how you can apply what you’ve learned on a trip to how you digest the news at home. Maybe slow down, read an actual printed newspaper or get your news from other sources like radio. Or maybe, as on a trip, give up the news completely for a while. You’ll find that the important issues still filter in through friends and other sources. But when you consciously adjust how much you consume the news, you begin to realize how much that news may be consuming you (and adding more stress than you realize).
  7. You’re not indispensable. Being away from and unconnected to work for a week or two (or three) can initially freak you out. How will anything get done while you’re gone? But most of us learn that everyone manages just fine without us. Just that awareness can reduce your worries on your trip. It may also help you take yourself a bit less seriously at work once you return home.
  8. There’s a reason they’re so happy. When my son was 13, he returned from a trip to Guatemala with a surprising insight. He couldn’t believe how young kids who lived in a garbage dump there were happier than most of his friends here in the US. “They had practically nothing whereas my friends have all the latest video games and gadgets.” What those kids in Guatemala had was each other; a strong sense of community and belonging. They used their imaginations to turn trash into toys. This isn’t to diminish their hard conditions. Instead, it’s to note that maybe all the stuff we own may be owning us and creating more stress than we realize. Learning to be grateful for all you have goes a long way in helping to keep it all in perspective.
  9. A rolling stone gathers no stress. Travel involves movement, but at home, we can feel stuck, in our jobs or in our lives. Research shows that stress doesn’t come from hard work. It occurs when you work hard but see no results. Travel teaches you how to stay flexible and how to focus on small wins that provide a sense of momentum. At home, if you get stuck in one project, shift to another right away. This isn’t multitasking where your concentration is fragmented as you flit back and forth between projects. Instead, it’s a way to keep you progressing, concentrating deeply on one project until you hit a wall, then shifting to another and so on. This approach, like going from sight to sight on a trip, tends to energize rather than stress you.
  10. Your worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Enough said. Just remind yourself of this the next time you’re head-tripping over all the things that might go wrong. And in the unlikely event that the worst-case scenario occurs, see point 3 above.

Try applying these lessons from travel and see if it doesn’t help in reducing stress and worry at home.

 

Waiting for the cake

Chocolate CakeThe plane from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia lands around 1:30 p.m.

“We have about two hours here,” says what I presume is the grandfather, in the seat across the aisle from me.

“I’m ready for lunch” says the 11-or-so-year-old boy kitty-corner to me, who turns around and perches his hands and chin on the headrest “Kilroy was here” style to address his grandfather. The elder man seems not to notice. Instead, the grandfather carries on a discussion with what I guess to be his wife regarding the logistics of the stopover and the birthday of a relative in their final destination.

“I’m ready for lunch,” repeats the boy.

More adult conversation.

“I’m ready for lunch.” The now familiar refrain isn’t a demand or an example of tween entitlement. He makes his declaration in calm, measured tones.

Three more times.

The grandfather, in an adroit demonstration of multitasking, keeps his focus on his wife but mentions that they likely have enough time during their stopover in Atlanta to grab some lunch.

The grandson ceases his mantra, turns back to face the front of the plane. A long pause. Then, he turns a quarter of the way back so that he’s facing the aisle where no one is yet standing (we’re still taxiing across the runway in what feels as if we’re spending more time driving in this plane than flying in it). In the same level tone of voice but with a dreaminess that was lacking in his lunch remarks, he says to no one in particular, “I can’t wait to eat chocolate cake.”

*******

Personally, I can get pretty jaded flying almost every week for work. I find myself making comments — hopefully only in my head — about “amateur hour” at the airport, especially this time of year when Spring Break is underway. And it is always underway somewhere it seems, from the end of February (how is that “spring” anywhere?) to early May. People who clearly have either never been on a plane or at least not for some time shuffle around the airport dazed and distracted, like someone texting as they walk. Only these travelers walk eyes up, glancing around in a whiplash manner as they try to find their gate, wandering child or missing composure. They make for tricky obstacles to navigate around at the airport and challenges to on-time departures on board as they try to get a suitcase that exceeds the carry-on restriction by at least 50% into an overhead bin that was already full back during Zone 2 boarding.

Travel snob? Spoiled elite traveler? Not a very nice person at airports? I’ll own the first two but I still try to put people over efficiency. Unless I’m late for a flight. Then, it’s probably three for three, alas.

But then, on that endless taxiing across the tarmac, I overhear this conversation. And suddenly, all the hassles and judgments of travel and travelers melt away. Because in that boy’s single sentence, I remember what it’s like. The long journey. The pinched cheek by an aunt with too much rouge on hers. All the adult chitchat and maybe, hanging out with cousins you rarely see. And then, the cake and all it represents.

I hope those folks — especially the boy — had a great lunch at the airport. I hope the birthday was a wonderful event for all. And I hope the chocolate cake tasted as good in reality as it did in that boy’s mind on the plane.

It all makes me think I’ve been on too many planes myself lately. There’s more to life than flights or travel or even work. There’s family and home. Arrival and lunch. And somewhere, after a long journey, maybe a piece of chocolate cake waiting just for me.

 

 

Toledo, extroverts and travel

Extroverts and travel - The Beirut bar

View from the bar at The Beirut restaurant in Toledo, OH

Ever watch any of the popular travel videos? If you do, you’d get the impression that travel is the domain of the extrovert. Extroverts and travel just seem to go together. There’s one guide yakking it up with a local merchant. Or another sharing insights with a group of other tourists. And wait! There’s yet another ingratiating herself with a group of men playing backgammon on the street. They make it seem as if meeting strangers is as easy as ordering fast food.

And perhaps it is. Unless, of course, you’re an introvert.

*******

Toledo, Ohio isn’t someplace I’d likely visit on a vacation. But on a recent work trip to there, I discovered much more than I anticipated. The city itself has an interesting feel. Although its’s been through a lot (it’s only an hour drive south of Detroit and shares that city’s manufacturing highs and lows), there seemed to be a sense of guarded optimism, a refusal to let terms like “rust belt” define it.

After a long day of meetings on this trip, my colleague Josh and I decided to expand our search for a dinner location beyond the Sonic and Bob Evans near our hotel. We went online, read some reviews, found a well-rated restaurant, The Beirut, and were soon on our way there for some Lebanese cuisine.

The parking lot was full and the place was packed – on a Tuesday evening. Good sign. The hostess asked if we wanted to wait at the bar. We followed her to two of the remaining three seats there. A moment later, she informed us that the wait would be longer than planned, but if we liked, we could order and eat there at the bar. That worked fine for us.

Sammy, the bartender (and I suspect, co-owner) quipped with us as we ordered what turned out to be an exceptionally tasty dinner, in my case, succulent pieces of steak on a bed of amazingly good hummus.

Shortly after our food arrived, a couple squeezed in at the bar beside us, the wife taking the remaining bar stool, the husband standing. We began chatting: dinner or drink? Just drinks…tonight. They normally come for dinner on Thursdays. Where you from? Locals. You? Seattle. The husband soon took over and led the conversation.

Josh and I had already felt at home there. But soon, we were like regulars. With minimal prompting on our part, we learned from the couple about the state of the auto industry, about their trips to Europe and Asia, about their son who had once played in a band and traveled the country and about how the actor Jamie Farr (whose character Klinger on the old MASH TV series hailed from Toledo) still does charity work in the area.

As I finished my meal, Sammy asked if I liked it. I held up the plate and commented that I would have licked it if I’d thought I could have gotten away with it. Everyone laughed and Sammy informed me that it would have been completely acceptable. Somehow, with all the good cheer and camaraderie evidenced here, I believed him.

Eventually, we had to leave. But as we started to get up, the husband continued talking, telling us of all sorts of places to see there in Toledo. Behind him, his wife gestured with her hand in a sockless sock-puppet fashion silently mouthing, “Talk, talk, talk.” I sensed this was a familiar, but loving, routine.

Finally, between our movement toward the door and his wife’s now more vocal imploring, we made it out but not before we were invited to go sailing with them if we were ever back there on a weekend. After all, they reminded us, we could find them there every Thursday.

*******

That evening taught me a great deal. Not only about Toledo, but also about how even introverts can gain unique insights into a place through the words and stories of others. But how, if you’re an introvert, do you do this? Find out next time when we explore more about how to get the most from travel, even if you’re not the most extroverted person.

 

5 ways to improve your curiosity

Improve your curiosity: curious cat

Curiosity may have killed the cat (a curious phrase) but here’s the good news: You’re not a cat.

Why improve your curiosity? The long answer

Want to improve your curiosity? You may wonder why you need to.

The long answer is that curiosity is critical to innovation, improved processes and outcomes, greater discoveries, more creativity and better learning.

I heard a recent interview with an educational expert. She was critiquing our reliance on standardized testing. The interviewer eventually asked what alternatives are there to our current standardized tests. The response? Measure the single factor that contributes most to a person’s success in any job: Measure (and apparently there are ways to do this) their desire to learn.

If a person loves to learn she or he can succeed in any field. Why? Because that person will seek out and acquire the knowledge and skills needed. And guess what is at the root of this love of learning? Curiosity.

I told you it was the long answer.

The short answer

The short answer, at least to me, is this: curiosity makes life more interesting and without it, travel simply isn’t as much fun.

For me, curiosity turns everything into a quest to learn more. An exploration. A search of discovery. I find that when I’m curious, just about anything can be interesting. The world becomes one giant mystery just waiting to be solved.

Improve your curiosity in these five ways

So if curiosity is such a good thing, how might you cultivate or improve your curiosity? Try these five exercises:

  1. Learn to create space for curiosity.I’m starting with this important but often overlooked reality: Curiosity requires margins. When I’m stressed and preoccupied, I have zero interest in exploring anything new. Learn to create time just to wander and then to focus on something that interests you.
  2. Be just a little bit curious. Rather than attempting to go through a whole day in a curious mindset, take just 15 minutes to note what normally goes unnoticed. Pay attention to as many things as you can. Scab widely. But then – and this is the key to keep from being overwhelmed with data – go deep. Let go of those things or ideas that don’t grab you. Your goal isn’t just to be aware, but to use that as an entry point to becoming more curious about those things that interest and delight you.
  3. Be curious about what makes you curious. This is a great way to explore your deeper passions and interests, sometimes ones that you may not even be aware of. Your curiosity type will affect this to some degree, but ask yourself why some items, situations, people and thoughts excite you more than others. Pursue those and see where they lead. This is an important form of mindfulness: being aware of what piques your curiosity is something most of us never consider.
  4. Let your curiosity push you further. Don’t stop with your first question. Instead ask, “What’s the more interesting question behind the initial one? What’s the deeper curiosity behind the surface curiosity?”
  5. Make a choice to choose to learn, to explore, to discover. And then do so in a focused way. Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media can make us curious, but too often in only a wandering, even distracted way. I can waste a lot of time in useless curiosity or invest five minutes exploring a subject that deeply satisfies me. It’s an important choice we don’t always realize we have.

I once told a friend I wasn’t a detail-oriented person. He laughed. “We’re all detail-oriented in areas that matter to us.” He was right. Find those areas. Focus on those areas. Be curious about those areas and soon, you’ll not only be asking better questions. You’ll improve your curiosity.

And even more important, you’ll be discovering better answers and being curious as to what lies beyond those.

 

Design is…

Design is…what, exactly?

The question of what design is may not be one that keeps you up at night. But it is one that matters. As we move more and more into what author Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind as the “Conceptual Age” (which follows the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Ages) we’re all affected by design. And when I say “design” I’m not referring simply to graphic design or aesthetic functions.

To better understand what design is, take a look at the following graphic. It’s from Warren Berger’s excellent (but quirkily titled – I can never remember it when trying to tell others) book on the subject, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People.

Design is from CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People

As the above definitions show, design:

  • is hard to nail down,
  • applies to problem solving and planning, not just art-related work,
  • is something that all of us can do.

Let me comment on just three of my favorite definitions and look at how these apply to travel.

Design is “The art of making something better, beautifully.

Joe Duffy’s definition contains two key components: better and beautiful. Great design improves the function or use of something. But it can also improve the overall experience. With travel, we can “design” our trips by making decisions to choose wise risk over playing it safe, to stay present when everything inside us wants to shut down due to too much newness or to seek out what is beautiful even in places that, on the surface, may not seem that way.

Design is “The introduction of intention into human affairs.”

Michael Glaser’s definition reminds us that our best experiences – even the ones that seem accidental – usually involve some form of intentionality. For example, once when traveling on my own in Switzerland, I met a young man on a train who ended up inviting me to stay with his family for several days in the Interlaken region. I could never have planned on meeting him but I was intentional about being open to connecting with everyone I met on that train. And because of that mindset, that led to a conversation that led to an invitation that led to an amazing weekend with a local family.

Design is “Hope made visible.”

Brian Collins’ definition captures well the aspirational nature of good design. Great designers don’t focus only on function or even aesthetics. They seek to make the world better, one product, service or experience at a time. Our travel can do the same when we focus our trips on what we can do for, and bring to, others. “Hope made visible,” however, isn’t limited to just what we do on a trip or even to design.

It’s a great definition for travel itself.

 

It’s a nice place to visit but…

Frozen Fountain New York

What follows are photos I’ve taken on various trips to NY at various times of the year. Some are things you’d see as a tourist and some are less so…

New York is a nice place to visit but…

View from the High Line

View from the High Line

I love New York.

Usually for about a day.

I get to New York every two years or so for business. And each time, whenever I arrive, I’m like a little kid. I scan the skyline for outlines of familiar landmarks. I get caught up in all the things I could do here if I only had more time. I even, if I’m arriving at night by cab, look up to the warm lights of windowed brownstones and wonder what the people who live there are doing.

Playing chess in the park

Playing chess in the park

Once there, I usually sit through long days of meetings and, in most cases, enjoy a nice dinner with the client or with colleagues. And then I’m left with the after hours, the time when the stores (except for the tourist shops) and museums are closed. It’s too late to see much but too early for the nightlife of New York to kick in (as if my work-worn body and mind could remain awake that late anyway). So what do I do? I wander.

Store Display

Store Display

That first night of wandering is magical. Even familiar places like Times Square seem so full of life that I think, “What a great place to live.” And then, if I’m there for more than one day, I find that that same magic wears quickly. The next evening, Times Square is just another over-commercialized tourist trap.

Times Square

Times Square

It’s not just New York. Many locations are fun at first, but if you spend much time there, they lose their charm. They are a nice place to visit, until they aren’t. I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d discover new interests not available to the typical tourist. But I have no intention of finding that out. Instead, I treat New York like so many other places and leave thinking, “Nice place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.”

Cloisters Entry

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in NYC

But what if I did?

Instead of burning out on a place by exhausting all the tourist activities, here’s a new approach I’m going to try and I invite you to explore as well. If you’re in a location that feels stale because the touristic novelty has worn off, ask yourself this: What would I do if I lived here?

The Cloisters

I like the Cloisters (a museum of medieval art in north Manhattan) because it is such a peacefully different place.

It’s an intriguing question. On first thought, I start checking off all the things that a local can do that I can’t: meet with friends, take care of daily routines, visit special places I’ve only discovered by being a place for a long time. But then I think, “Okay, how do I translate those into something that I, as a traveler, might partake in?”

NY at Night

NY at Night

Some of this takes advance planning like asking friends for contacts in the city you’re visiting. Having a local guide can completely change both your experience of a place and how you think about it.

Central Park Singer

Musician in Central Park

Others simply require a bit of ingenuity and effort. You may not be able to take care of routine issues, but then why would you on a trip? Instead, what about hobbies or other interests? Find stores, museums, sporting venues, places to run, festivals or other events that align with your interests. A little effort goes a long way.

Finally, in terms of the “special places” simply ask around. Go online or ask friends or acquaintances. Ask the bartender in your hotel bar for his favorite hangout. Ask a work colleague about some undiscovered gem. Ask the concierge not for the best restaurant but the one he’d take a friend to from out of town or where she might go to on a first date. Simply asking the right questions can uncover a wealth of options.

30 Rock

30 Rockefeller Plaza

So next time you think, “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” think again. Think about if you did live there. And that can open up a completely new way to see what has become old and familiar.