How Cheese, Fiction, and Sunshine Helped Me Become An Idea Machine

Most of my life is spent on my Big Hamster Wheel.

Keep going, keep working, keep getting sh*t done, keep being a taxi for my 3 kids, keep fixing things around the house I have neither the tools nor skills to fix. Your life is probably similar.

And for most of us, our one chance to take a break from our Big Hamster Wheels is on vacation.

I would always look forward to having the headspace to think through my next career steps, come up with article ideas, and daydream about big life changes, all because I’d finally have no work to-do list.

But of course, I’d then go ahead and create a whole new Vacation Hamster Wheel of:

  • packed itineraries, early-morning starts;
  • QR Codes, train timetables, and Booking Confirmation emails;
  • monuments and museums to visit.

But not this year.

This year we decided to embrace doing not very much at all on vacation, staying 10 days in a house with a small pool in the South of France.

I want to share four things I did differently that allowed me to have the most relaxing vacation I’ve had since we had kids. This, in turn, led to ideas (good, bad, and ugly!) flowing out of me like never before, and gave me the mental clarity I’ve craved for years on where I want my life and career to go.

#1 — Today’s Itinerary: Don’t Make An Itinerary

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When you spend a ton of money on a vacation, you feel you need to make the most of every day, doing as much ‘Stuff’ as possible.

On previous vacations:

  • My wife and I would overfill our itinerary;
  • The kids would eventually mutiny;
  • I’d explain just how much you should be enjoying all of this, you damn ingrates.

Yeah, good times.

So this year, we had very little in the way of a daily itinerary for the 10 days. We booked a family kayak trip one morning around St Tropez, scuba lessons for my two sons one afternoon, and we went on a day trip to Nice and… that was about it, really.

Most days involved eating, drinking, reading, chatting, swimming, and relaxing.

I even reacquainted my pasty Irish skin with the sun’s rays and have come home with what, in a certain light, without your glasses on, could even be described as “a hint of a suntan”.

But I’m not going to lie, the first couple of days of Operation No Itinerary were hard:

“I should be doing something… isn’t there a nearby town we should go explore? Should I write some articles? Should I make a work plan for the week I get back? Should I read a self-improvement book?”

By Day 3, it was as if a long-dormant part of my brain had been switched back on. Suddenly I had clarity on:

  • where I want my life to go
  • what I want to focus on in my work life in the coming years and
  • where I’ve been wasting time and energy recently

It was astounding, while the sheer volume of ideas for articles, videos, business ventures, future vacations, and home improvements meant I needed something else on hand…

#2 — I Didn’t Trust My Memory

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It’s weird when you suddenly have enough headspace for some of the many random ideas you have to become fully-formed plans.

Your brain just casually walks up to you and says:

  • Here’s where you want to be career-wise by year-end and in 3 years (I think I was interviewing myself as I sunbathed);
  • As great as you are, here’s how to be a better Dad and husband;
  • That spare room at home, you should do this with it;
  • Here are dozens of ideas for articles to write and videos to make;

The key thing I did, and that I’d recommend to you, to make the most of all these ideas was to get a cheap notebook, “un cahier” in French, which I was amazed I still remembered from 1993, to scribble everything down in before I forgot.

This admittedly DID add something to my to-do list one day, but the list then just had “Buy pastries and a notebook” on it, which, all things considered, was pretty doable.

#3 — Leave The Chef’s Hat At Home

Normally when we rent a house I do the cooking, as I do at home. This is a pain in the ass and adds to the list of things I have to do each day.

This year we mostly just grazed on stuff that didn’t need to be cooked, that we bought in the little stores in the town we were staying in:

Bread, cheese (oh so much cheese!), olives, veggies, dips, cold cuts of meat, rotisserie chicken, fresh fruit, wine, local beers, weird flavored chips/crisps, and hummus.

It was awesome. Why didn’t I think of this before?

  • my mood was better as I didn’t feel put upon, having to cook for everyone each day;
  • no meal planning and extensive grocery lists meant even less to do each day;
  • I gained zero weight because I was still controlling portions (well, maybe not of the wine and cheese…) and there was very little processed food in our diets.

Recognizing I had been jumping onto a Vacation Hamster Wheel again with cooking was the key to changing my behavior.

More time and a better mood meant more relaxing, more thinking, and more ideas captured in my wee French notebook.

#4 — What Do I Actually Like Reading?

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With so much time on our hands, we all did plenty of reading on vacation, having made a pact to put our phones away for the bulk of each day (no mean feat with 3 teenagers, let me tell you!).

I haven’t read fiction in years, mostly because I felt that reading non-fiction was somehow a better use of my time. Any free time could be used to be even more productive by learning more things, right?

But from all the self-helpy non-fiction books I’ve read, I couldn’t tell you what I’d learned or ‘taken action’ on.

I decided this year to read purely for joy and indulgence, and that meant some fiction. But what fiction did I even like?

Thankfully I chat daily with a couple of dozen wonderful coaching clients, who always teach me so much about all sorts of random stuff in between me helping them with the thing they’re actually paying me for…

I got tons of recommendations from them, and picked a mix of heavy and light stuff:

  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kundera just died so I felt I owed it to him);
  • Some of whatever we call the male version of easily-digestible Chick-Lit (man messes up life by being a dumb man, man learns a valuable lesson, man lives happily ever after).

Whereas reading non-fiction books designed to improve or fix some aspect of my life made me focus on my faults and just added to my Must-Do list, fiction switched on wholly different parts of my brain.

Losing yourself in a book is one of the great, underestimated joys of life.

You’re taken on an adventure, your imagination is fired, your storytelling abilities and vocabulary improve, and you arguably come out at the end having learned more about life than any self-help book could have taught you.

I wish I’d seen the light earlier. Feel free to recommend more fiction in the Comments!

Doing Nothing Isn’t A Waste of Time

Listen I know it’s not rocket science to understand that we should chill the f*ck out on vacation, it’s the application we struggle with. NOT having a packed itinerary each day feels like a waste of time and money.

But the true waste of time and money is coming back from your vacation feeling stressed and tired, having had zero headspace to work through the tangle of plans, ideas, and problems you have on your mind.

  • having zero itineraries other than eating easily-prepared food (copious amounts of cheese is optional!), and relaxing;
  • having a readily available way of capturing the ideas and solutions you come up with; and
  • allowing fiction books to fire your imagination and take you on an adventure,

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