I’m always looking for ways to restore my wonky work-life balance. We’re all capable of working too hard, but I often teeter on the edge of burnout and as a freelancer I really feel the pressure of having all my responsibilities on my own shoulders. Also, when your home and office are the same place, it’s far too easy to blur the boundaries between work and rest spaces, making switching off even harder.
My mental state is constantly lifting and dipping and this winter has been one of the dips. I’ve struggled to be inspired and have felt exhausted at times, despite sleeping well. I throw myself whole-heartedly into my work, but then it ends up taking over and my body has to force me to stop.
I was messaging my good friend Jeni about this recently and she sent me a post by Nicola Jane Hobbs, who’s a stress and rest researcher. Nicola defines rest as “anything that makes our nervous systems feel safe enough to switch off our stress responses so our minds and bodies can move into a state of recovery, restoration and growth.”
There are many different types of rest and Nicola says we should match them to the kind of stress we’re feeling: “I like to ask myself: What type of stress have I experienced today? What kind of rest do I need? If we’ve been in a loud, overstimulating environment, we can offer ourselves sensory rest with loose clothing and gentle music. If we’ve been busy all day working through our to-do lists, playful rest – romcoms, board games, making pizzas – will help us recover.”
This really resonated with me because my concept of rest had been purely physical. I consider myself lucky that I’m a heavy sleeper, but sleep is only one of the ten distinct types of rest that Nicola outlines in her post:
Physical rest – sleep, stretching, mindful movement
Playful rest – anything fun and unproductive eg watching films, board games
Ecological rest – walking, wild swimming, car-free days
Altruistic rest – giving without expecting anything in return eg volunteering, random acts of kinds
As much as I try to move away from my to-do list and take breaks, it doesn’t happen as often as it should. Rest isn’t indulgent. It’s not generic either, and should be tailored to our needs.
A big problem area for me is my eyes. If I’d been born a century earlier, I’d have written my book on a typewriter or even by hand. Instead, I spend the majority of each working day staring at a screen and have the headaches to prove it. Using Nicola’s model, I should increase the amount of sensory rest I get, so one of my resolutions for 2023 is to take more breaks with my eyes closed, use a heat mask, and write more by hand. It’s slower, but kinder to my eyes and so much more fulfilling.
Mental health is as important as physical health and I’m pleased it’s gaining more awareness in mainstream media, but there’s still not enough. Making little lifestyle changes like focussing on different types of rest is a way of integrating mindfulness into our daily routines.
I hope you find these tips as useful as I did. Some day maybe I’ll take my own advice and look after myself a little better. One step at a time!
I’m currently writing my first book. It’s a Slow Travel Guide to northeast Scotland, which will be published in spring 2023. The book covers Aberdeenshire, Moray and the Cairngorms National Park, so basically a huge chunk of the country! My daily routine has become a contrasting blend of emailing accommodation providers, walking, writing copious notes and staring at maps until my head swims.
This is the biggest project I’ve undertaken so far and it’s very easy to get lost in the Big Picture. I’m learning the key is to break it down into chunks. Each field research trip is a week long and during those weeks I have a list of castles, stone circles, museums and reserves to visit.
I need to be as thorough and detailed as possible, so when the book is written it will read as though I’m giving a guided tour to someone wearing a blindfold. I’ve never written in this much meticulous depth before and it’s a rewarding challenge. During my master’s degree I was told to ‘show don’t tell’. With a Slow guide, it’s a case of including heaps of both.
Because the project is all-encompassing, other things have slipped into the background, including this blog. When I was studying for my undergraduate degree I had a delicious amount of time on my hands. My blog was abuzz with updates because it’s all I had going on outside of my assignments. What simpler days they were! Now everything I write has a destination – nothing is free just to keep the blog ticking over.
I’ve struggled with work/life balance for years. For me work has a nasty habit of becoming life. If I go for a walk I’m thinking about new places I could include in the book or looking for new photos to share to Instagram. Last year this took me close to burnout. Wildlife was everywhere I looked and for a while it lost its charm. Something I had grown so attached to had become almost a chore and I hated that I’d let that happen.
I think this is something all freelancers have to deal with. Working from home has lots of benefits but it also means your office is your home, and switching off takes real effort.
Recently I’ve taken up ice skating again. I used to love skating when I was younger but because I didn’t know anyone else who could do it, I eventually stopped going. Luckily I had yeti feet as a child and they haven’t changed in the last ten years so my old ice skates still fit me.
There’s a rink in my local town that I didn’t even know about so I had a go. Obviously I was rusty at first, and the fear of falling on my tailbone (here I speak from painful experience) held me back. But with each visit I got comfortable quicker and now it’s become a passion again.
I’m by no means an expert – I skate for the sensation, which is the closest to flying I’ll get with my feet still on the ground. I find it so therapeutic, almost meditative, and better yet it doesn’t require any screens. My dry eyes get a break and I get lost in my thoughts, gliding weightlessly in repetitive circles.
I realised it’s the first true hobby I’ve had in years – something completely unrelated to work that lets me switch off and be in the current moment for a change.
When the weather warms up I’ll return to sea swimming too. I started this last year and experienced similar benefits to skating – no screens, no social media, just my own thoughts and a sensation of floating. Maybe it’s significant that my two forms of escape are different states of water.
I’m hugely proud of this book commission and I know that the moment I hold the finished product in my hands, every minute of stress and fatigue will be worth it. However, to reach that point I need to care for myself. I haven’t been very good at that in the past, but I’m learning.
I couldn’t help a slight eye roll when I read the shower of adjectives on the cover reviews of this book: “powerful… inspiring… mind-blowing…” But it actually ended up being all of those things for me, even the last one.
If Women Rose Rooted is a combination of three topics I care strongly about: nature, women and Celtic mythology. I’ve been directly involved in the first of those since childhood – the natural world is the basis for everything I do, both professionally and personally. But the other two have slowly gained momentum in my mind since moving to Scotland.
In 2019 I was earning minimum wage in the town I grew up in. It was where I’d gone to school, met my best friends and spent every weekend, but I didn’t belong there anymore. I didn’t realise just how much I didn’t belong there until I stayed with my parents for a week in their new house in Moray, northeast Scotland.
After days spent walking along beaches and through forests, spotting red squirrels, stonechats and grey seals, I returned to England with a crash. Scotland had shone a harsh and revealing light on the current state of my life. My writing had dried up, the camera was gathering dust, and most importantly I wasn’t happy.
One morning before work I sat in my car in a multi-storey car park and cried. Proper ugly sobs. I splashed my face with cold water to stop my eyes puffing up in front of the customers.
I felt a toxic mix of emotions: disappointment about leaving university and returning to the same place I was in before; physical and mental discomfort from spending eight hours a day staring at the same four walls, not making any progress in my career whatsoever; longing for a place currently out of reach; and shame that my situation was a lot better than some and I should be grateful I had work at all.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling of displacement, like I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Scotland was beckoning and each day the pull grew stronger. I made a playlist of inspiring songs and that worked for a while, but I knew in my gut I had to move.
And the universe, being its freaky-deaky self, confirmed that for me when the shop I was working in closed and we were all let go. Everything in me lifted – I swept up my belongings and bolted north.
The effect was immediate. Words flowed out of me, I took hundreds of photos and I walked for hours through my new home. Now, 21 months later, I feel rooted to land for the first time in my life. I’ve developed a fierce love for the place I’m in and the inspiration I soak up from it. I’ve found my home.
Last month I saw If Women Rose Rooted in the library, its back to the wall so its front cover faced me as I browsed. It had been on my list for a while so I gave it a go. Several pages in I felt the strange sensation of someone I didn’t know seemingly talking about my own life.
“I am sitting in a car,” the author Sharon Blackie writes, “outside an ugly office building in a small town… for which I have absolutely no affection. I have no affinity for this part of the world; my internal compass points north and west, and my feet literally feel as if they are in the wrong place.”
It’s in this moment that Sharon hears the Call. Unfortunately for her it comes in the form of a panic attack, but it was this experience that beckoned her to change her life. A year after that incident, she spent two weeks in Ireland and writes: “For the first time in my life I felt as if my feet were in the right place.” The parallels with my own situation were undeniable.
Memories of my own Call came flooding back. I count myself extremely fortunate that my own experience of what Sharon calls the Wasteland was mild and brief compared to hers. I’m grateful that I recognised what I needed to do and was able to do it a lot sooner.
So my new roots continued to grow in Scotland. I was in a place I felt I belonged to – one that resonated with me. After walking the same trails over and over, I picked up on seasonal changes happening around me. I followed the rhythm of the tides and learned where yellowhammers might be and what time of year to expect long-tailed ducks. I tuned into this amazing new place, and that is the essence of Sharon’s book.
“Once up a time,” she writes, “the people of our Celtic nations knew that our fate is inseparable from the fate of the land we live on… There is a Gaelic word for it. In Irish, the word is dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas. It expresses a sense of belonging to a place, to a certain area of land; it expresses a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place.”
I was born and raised in England but I have both Irish and Scottish lineage and feel drawn to wild Celtic places. I was pulled north to the windswept coast of Moray and I already feel fiercely protective of it. I spend every day working on something to do with nature, whether it’s writing, photography or filmmaking, but I still feel a sense of helplessness that I’m not doing enough. Our planet is sick and I want to do more, but I don’t know what.
Once again, Sharon Blackie leaned out of her book and seemed to speak directly to me. One of the many incredible women she interviews is Scilla Elworthy, who founded an NGO to initiate effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers, and co-founded Rising Women, Rising World – an international community intent on building a world that works for everyone. She’s been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When speaking to Sharon about her work with Rising Women, Rising World, Scilla says this: “Investigate what breaks your heart. Then ask yourself whether that is where your passion lies, think about what your key skills are, marry the two – then you have your initiative.”
When hearing the Call, leaving the Wasteland and restoring balance to your work, health and daily life, it’s important to find the unique part of yourself that you can bring back to the world.
“It is easy to get disheartened,” Sharon says. “So many of us go through stages of feeling helpless, or believing there’s nothing that can be done. But there’s always something that can be done, no matter how small… The Journey is about accepting that we each have a responsibility for the way we live our lives, for our footprint on the planet.”
Reading that was another comfort, especially as COP26 is still present in my mind. No single person can save the world, but we can all make small changes and inspire others to do the same.
Author and needleworker Alice Starmore, another of the women Sharon talks to, says: “It’s hard to care for what you don’t know.” I aspire to educate and inspire people through words and images, and I will continue to use them to celebrate and encourage the protection of nature.
And even though I’ve been watching and studying wildlife in some form for most of my life, there are obviously still things I don’t know as well. The world of plants and trees is still largely a mystery to me, as are moon cycles, stars and geology. To set my new roots even firmer in the ground, I need to continue learning about the land I belong to and share it with others.
In all the Celtic myths and legends Sharon shares in If Women Rose Rooted, the women knew the land and were deeply connected to it. In our pursuit of progress, we’ve forgotten the importance of being rooted and we’ve lost touch with our heritage.
There are many cyclical elements to Celtic tradition and these circles still surround us today – day and night, the lunar cycle, seasons and tides. Instead of a circle, we’re currently living on a straight line which cannot be maintained. Rediscovering our history and stories will help curve that line back into a circle.
I didn’t expect so much to come pouring out of me when I started writing this. It’s rare for a book to affect me so deeply, but with so many parallels between Sharon Blackie’s Calling and my own, I found myself stunned at many moments while reading this book. I would recommend it to any woman who has lost her way or recently found where she needs to be. We all have work to do, but with each small step we can make change.
I’ve struggled with work-life balance a lot in the past. Freelancing has many advantages, but it’s difficult to leave an office when you live in it. My living and working spaces are blended together and I find it hard to switch off. Weeks have gone by where I haven’t taken a full day off, and sometimes I work long into the evening just to get another job done.
After following this pattern for the past two years, it’s no surprise that I often teeter on the edge of burnout. Earlier this year it got particularly bad. I was exhausted and lost control. Wildlife filled me with dread, not joy. It became almost a chore, linked to deadlines rather than passion.
I realised that wildlife was overwhelming me. I couldn’t even switch off with social media – Facebook and Instagram were plastered in birds. I finally started paying attention to self-care, which up until then had been a luxury rather than a necessity. My work-life balance was shot, but once I was aware of that I could work on sorting myself out.
I kept my little crisis mostly to myself. I certainly didn’t share it publicly – I thought it might make me look unprofessional. But the truth is, mental health is as important as physical health and I knew I shouldn’t bury it. I wouldn’t be alone in this and I thought maybe other freelancers might benefit from my experience.
I want this blog to be honest, and for the past few months it’s been sporadic and a little rose-tinted compared to how I’ve been feeling. As well as the adventures I get up to around Scotland, I want to share tips and advice that might resonate with others. So here goes: three tips for a healthier work-life balance.
1. Celebrate your successes
Freelancing can be lonely. I spend almost all my working week alone and the majority of my projects are my sole responsibility. It’s easy to get swept up in struggles and stresses, but dwelling on the negatives is damaging.
I found this idea on a post by Sarah Townsend from @thecopywritersday – all you have to do is write a list of things that are going well. It can be successes at work but it can also be a great book you’re reading or a morning ritual you enjoy. I tried it and ended up writing more than I expected. Here’s my most recent list:
Some are more frivolous than others, but it doesn’t matter. Concentrating on those wins shifted my perspective and the things stressing me out suddenly looked less intimidating.
2. Find an unrelated hobby
Part of the reason I was burning out was because I was overwhelmed by work. Wildlife is my greatest passion, but it reached a point where I couldn’t go for a walk without taking photos for Instagram. My enjoyment of wildlife was at risk because it had become my entire existence. I needed to do something unrelated so I started embroidery and wild swimming. One is a new skill, the other is great exercise, and neither requires a screen.
Embroidery is naturally repetitive and takes a lot of time, but seeing a piece of art come together one thread at a time is so rewarding. As for swimming, I get a rush of energy every time I take the plunge and it puts me in an entirely new environment. Watching waves ripple at eye level and feeling kelp brush against my stomach were totally new sensations and I was addicted straight away. After each swim or embroidery session, I return to work refreshed and with my love of wildlife still intact!
3. Declutter your surroundings
This is the trickiest of the three for me but it’s something I’m really trying to do more. The most obvious form of clutter is physical. Because I work on lots of different projects at once, I have an unfortunate habit of stacking books, papers and boxes on the floor around my desk and before I know it the carpet’s disappeared. ‘Tidy home, tidy mind’ is a cliché for a reason – it’s pretty accurate. Nowadays I try to work on one project at a time, so there’s less stuff around me at once and I can concentrate more effectively.
Decluttering can also include less tangible things. Scrolling through Instagram is a good example. I’m certainly not trying to suggest boycotting social media, but limiting its use is a good habit to get into. Recently I’ve started having a look at lunchtime and again in the evening when I’ve finished work.
An article on Becoming Minimalist uses a swimming analogy. It’s the idea that when you swim in a river, it’s impossible to catch up with all the water that’s already gone downstream. You simply enjoy the water that surrounds you at that moment, and the same can be said for social media. Have a paddle, then get out of the water. And if you can, have a paddle in actual water because that works wonders!
Freelancing on my own was a huge step up from studying with the support of tutors. I’ve always worked well by myself, but I didn’t realise I’d need to adapt my lifestyle like I have. It’s a constant learning curve, but I’m working on it.
I hope this blog was helpful! Do you have any tips for a healthier work-life balance?
As someone who likes to potter around outside for hours while I write and watch the world go by, I’ve had to adjust drastically to my new lockdown routine. I describe my writing style as “immersive storytelling” – I go out and write about what I see to inspire other people to connect with their local wildlife. Over the past few weeks, it’s safe to say that I’ve struggled to stay creative. Although the restrictions are starting to ease in various locations, it is still difficult to get the access to nature that we all want and need.
It has been proven that being in green space benefits all aspects of our wellbeing. In 2018, a team from the University of East Anglia studied how the health of people living in urban areas compared to those who had more access to green spaces. They found that spending more time in nature “reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress and high blood pressure”.
While cooped up indoors, I began to think of ways to stay connected to nature despite having to spend the majority of my time away from it. I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by bringing it indoors. I don’t mean catching birds or dragging in trees, but gathering small mementos. I’m lucky enough to live by the coast and I make a habit of collecting natural objects that I find on my daily walks. Together with other bits and pieces that I’ve collected from different habitats over time, I’ve made a nature table in my home that brightens up a room and provides a bit of wildness while I’m indoors.
Whatever habitats you have access to, there will be something that would make a good addition to a nature table. The great thing about wildlife is that everyone has a different relationship with it. My favourite things to collect are animal skulls – a male roe deer skull is pride of place on my nature table. Every item jogs a different memory in my mind. As well as being pretty to look at, a nature table is great for other senses too. I enjoy the tactile textures of frosted sea glass and rough sea urchin shells. Simply picking up these objects lifts my mood.
Author and illustrator of “The Wild Remedy” Emma Mitchell has struggled with anxiety and depression for most of her life, but insists that nature plays a huge part in helping her feel better. In a recent Instagram TV upload she shared the surprising healing power of plants for improving mental health. Plants produce oils called phytoncides which help the plant fight pathogens, but these same oils can benefit us too. When we inhale or touch these oils, our blood pressure, pulse rate and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) go down. These small reductions can help us feel more relaxed and lift our mood. As well as house plants and garden flora, this also works with pots of supermarket herbs on the windowsill!
While plants appeal to our senses of smell and touch, one of the best senses for exploring nature is sound. A study at King’s College London found that listening to natural sounds such as birdsong improves mental wellbeing for over four hours. Recording snippets of audio on a phone during a daily walk is a great way to bring nature inside. Whether it’s woodland birdsong or crashing waves, natural sounds provide a relaxing background soundscape and, in my case, inspire creative thinking. For writers, it’s also useful to record any thoughts and observations you have while outside, so the details are fresh when you come to write them down later.
For those who can’t leave the house but have access to a garden, setting up some feeders will encourage more birds to visit and fill the air with their songs and calls. Another option is the brilliant Birdsong Radio app from the RSPB. This was launched after the huge success of the single “Let Nature Sing”, which for those who haven’t heard is a musical arrangement of some of Britain’s most loved but also threatened birds. As well as providing peaceful background noise, it’s a great tool for learning different bird calls. To listen to what specific species sound like, the RSPB website has small recordings on each bird’s profile.
The lockdown has forced us to change our usual routines and this has certainly brought its challenges. However, there is great enjoyment to be found in aligning ourselves to nature’s slower pace and exploring our local surroundings more closely. Despite the uncertainty, nature provides an opportunity to look after ourselves.
This article was originally published on Bloom in Doom magazine as part of my role as Nature Editor.
On the last day of Birdfair, I was keen to escape the bustle and crowds of the marquees and explore the surrounding reserve. On my way out to one of Rutland Water’s many hides, I was drawn to a small crowd gathered around the BTO bird ringing tent, where a demonstration was in full swing. As I got closer, I saw two chiffchaffs poking their tiny heads out of the ringers’ gentle hands. One was a mature adult with smart plumage; the other was a scruffy juvenile, two thirds of the size of its companion. The ringers held out the birds’ wings, displaying a delicate and powerful fan of primary feathers. Both chiffchaffs sat still and quiet in the hand – if it hadn’t been for their blinking beady eyes they could have easily been mistaken for taxidermy specimens.
After all the measurements had been taken, the ringers asked for two volunteers to release the birds. To my surprise only two hands went up, one of which was mine, so I followed the ringer to an open spot away from the marquee. He told me to hold my hand in a loose claw then he gently placed the juvenile chiffchaff into my palm, its tiny head nestled between my index and middle finger. I closed my hand slowly and the bird wriggled. I couldn’t believe I was holding something alive and yet so small. Its body was warm and unbelievably soft. Carefully, I put the hand holding the chiffchaff down onto my other open palm and slowly released. For a moment the bird rested there and then launched itself into the air, disappearing almost immediately over the trees.
I felt what could only be described as a surge of pure joy as I released the chiffchaff back into the wild. It was a real Snow White moment and in that fraction of time I felt exceptionally close to nature. Getting to hold such a tiny and wild thing in my hand was such a privilege. As I made my way to the hide I noticed there was a minuscule downy feather stuck to the tip of my finger and I quickly stashed it in my phone case. Wherever that chiffchaff wandered now, I had a small piece of it with me.
Lucy McRobert lost her mother to cancer when she was sixteen. Although it wasn’t as easily recognised at the time, she feels she suffered from some form of anxiety or depression, which she unconsciously suppressed until university when she rediscovered her love of nature. It was this passion for wildlife that helped her overcome the grief she had kept concealed for all those years.
It’s been proven that spending time outside and connecting with nature improves mental state and wellbeing. “Just like eating a balanced diet and exercising helps our minds and bodies”, Lucy writes, “Wildlife and wild places help us to get active, encourage us to be more social, improve our confidence and creativity and help us cope with stressful life events”. It’s true that nature is free therapy, but it’s also true that with hectic schedules and mundane commitments it can be difficult to get outside, or sometimes even find the motivation to do so.
That’s where 30 Days Wild came in. During her time working for the Wildlife Trusts, Lucy set up the 30 Days Wild campaign to encourage people to do “random acts of wildness” for every day in June. Involvement has grown exponentially since the campaign began five years ago and encourages everyone to take part in wildlife-based activities, whether that’s noticing something new, sharing experiences with others or taking a more practical approach and making positive changes to the environment.
The campaign led to Lucy expanding 30 days into 365 and so came her beautiful new book, published earlier this year. The concept isn’t to climb a mountain or build a pond each day, but instead encourages us to take part in ways as simple as making a daisy chain or buying a reusable coffee cup. When broken down into small steps and prompted by useful hints and ideas, Lucy’s book shows that it’s easy to stay wild even in a technological world.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I signed up for 30 Days Wild a few years ago and abandoned ship within the first week. Now I see that I’d had my sights set too high. Sometimes it’s impossible to walk outside every day, so Lucy recommends stashing back-up plans up your sleeve, such as buying a new field guide or queuing up a Netflix documentary when you’re feeling lacklustre or just lacking the time.
Inspired by Lucy’s passion and eager to give the project another go, I purchased something I’d seen earlier at Birdfair but couldn’t think of anything to use it for. I’d spotted a beautiful hardback sketchbook with stunning artwork from Mandi Baykaa-Murray AKA “The Feather Lady” on the front, who paints extraordinarily detailed bird portraits onto feathers (side note: check out Mandi’s art it’s truly incredible!) Now I had the perfect reason to buy it. Day one: Start a wild diary.