2014’s Resolutions: How Did They Stand Up?

This time last year I published a similar ‘Annual Review’ style series of blog posts, the third and last of which was a forward-looking piece, aimed at setting a few resolutions to overcome the previous year’s ills.

It’s been interesting reading back over these words, because I didn’t pin those resolutions to my wall, nor revisit those commitments on a regular basis. Yet now I take the time to reconsider them, they seem to have been pretty effective over the last 12 months in changing the way I’ve approached things.

Do More Short Adventures

On the theme of adventuring, I decided to be quite specific about my goals for the year:

I hereby commit to spending a minimum of 3 of the next 12 months on the road, in whatever form it might take, including at least one respectably sized bike trip.

This was really a note to myself to take every opportunity to go on short, spontaneous, fulfilling adventures during 2014, rather than waiting for the ‘ideal’ big expedition to turn up.

Another thing I’d noticed is that it’s very easy to delay putting trip ideas into practice or opt out of other people’s suggestions, because there are always more urgent things that need to be done now or scheduled for later, and having fun can always wait until tomorrow, or next month, or next year.

I’d been guilty of this inertia throughout 2013, and it had weighed heavily on my mind. In remedy, I spent almost four months on the road during 2014 undertaking four significant adventures.

Quantifications aside, I’ve felt much more in balance with my priorities as a result, and the world hasn’t stopped turning as a result of being out of email contact for a few weeks at a time. And I’ve reaffirmed one basic fact about myself, which is that travel and adventure are as crucial to my mental well-being as vitamins and minerals are to my physical health, so this is one resolution to make a permanent lifestyle fixture (as if I needed reminding!).

As for a ‘respectably-sized bike trip’, I dropped everything in May to pedal the length of England, originally with the idea to do it on a super-low budget, but in actuality without any money at all. This was a spontaneous journey with a whimsical idea behind it, yet it somehow became (in many people’s eyes) the most interesting bike trip I’ve done to date, and enormously rewarding on a number of levels.

You never know unless you try, do you?

Slightly Vague Writing Resolutions

Last year’s resolutions surrounding writing were slightly thin on the ground and not particularly concrete, and so it’s been difficult to judge my efforts in this area. (Note to self: make clearer resolutions this year!)

Make TomsBikeTrip.com More Useful

One major ongoing aim was to expand the ‘resources’ section of this blog, which would entail publishing more articles on topics related to the ins and outs of cycle touring. These articles would be thorough, of course, but generously seasoned with my personal belief that things like planning, routes, fitness, shiny kit, lots of cash, etc., are all optional extras when it comes to bicycle travel, and that all one really needs to do is get a bike and ride it somewhere.

The results, now I look back on them, are none too shabby. Among others, the following articles have proven popular this year:

The most popular article of 2014, pleasingly, was How Far Can You Go On A £10 Touring Bike? (Answer: A Surprisingly Long Way) — though it was still overshadowed in visitor numbers by the ever-popular What’s The Best Touring Bike? article from a couple of years back. Seems that magpie-like obsession with shiny bits of metal just isn’t going away.

I also test-rode and reviewed a number of popular touring bikes from across the spectrum, including the Surly Disc Trucker, the Ridgeback Expedition, the redesigned Kona Sutra, and a mid-range model from the increasingly popular Oxford Bike Works. Tim and Laura were also good enough to review their Ridgeback Panoramas for the blog.

So in terms of publishing helpful content on this blog, it’s actually been a pretty good year — and, hopefully, an even better year for the folk who’ve found it useful and who are now merrily planning or undertaking bicycle trips of their own, which is, of course, the whole point of all of my rampantly-idealistic keyboard tapping.

As a result of publishing all this useful information, the blog’s audience has grown noticeably over the year, with almost 800,000 visits to the site’s pages from visitors in 211 countries and territories (I must confess I didn’t even know so many existed), and an 85% increase in newsletter subscribers (by far the best measure of how many people really give a toss about what I have to say). I suspect that the growing popularity of cycle touring and cycling in general has something to do with it too.

I’m encouraged by this; as much as I shy away from statistics, things like this are evidence of resonance, reassurances that I’m doing at least something right.

One glaring problem with all of this has come to light in recent months, however. Our interests are bound to evolve, if not change, and more so in the last year than ever before I’ve felt compelled to do more — and write about more — than bicycle travel alone. Indeed, in the last 12 months, I’ve jumped headfirst into whitewater packrafting, long distance trekking, horse riding, and even motorbiking (yes, you heard that right), all in the name of challenging myself to engage with adventure in all its forms. Because ultimately I want to learn and grow, and there’s a limit to how much anyone can learn by repeating the same action over and over again.

I’ve felt unable to write and publish on these topics to the extent that I would like to, because I’m aware that a lot of readers here simply won’t be sufficiently interested to read it. At the same time, I know that plenty of readers are interested in the adventures and the work that I do on a tangent from cycle touring. And I need to write on these topics. (Most writers write because they, well, just have to. It’s something like an addiction.)

So rather than take TomsBikeTrip.com, slap a new logo on it and force everyone to read about everything ever, the time has come to begin a separate, parallel blog to serve as an outlet for everything else that falls under the umbrella of adventure, travel, writing, filmmaking and blogging (and ranting, obviously). This blog will remain, and I’ll continue to develop it, but in a more focused and ultimately more useful way.

When this happens, then, you’ll be able to read one or the other of the two refocused blogs, or both, depending on your interests. (Or neither, of course. I wouldn’t blame you.)

Publish An eBook

During the first two months of the year I wrote and published one of the most mind-numbing books I hope I’ll ever have to write: Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring.

I get so many questions about equipment, you see, that I decided it was time to unload everything I knew on the topic into a single resource. By selling it as a digital download, I could also help pay the bills with it. A nice model — if it worked.

The drudgery of actually creating the thing was worth it. Tons of people have written in since it was released publicly in April last year to say how useful it was, and to suggest improvements and updates for the next edition. Some even said that they enjoyed reading it for the writing alone. Which was very nice of them indeed.

Not only that, but the eBook has far exceeded my expectations as an ‘asset’ (to use tedious business-speak). Though I haven’t run any real numbers yet, I’d estimate that a good 50% of my financial needs in 2014 were supported by that single eBook. Turns out that it’s possible to make an acceptable living by sharing one’s expertise with people who need it! Who knew? And why did I leave it so long? (Probably because I needed to hit rock-bottom financially — see 2013’s Annual Review — before I would take finding a solution seriously.)

If you’ve bought, read and been helped by the guide, by the way — thank you. My hope is that we’re all winners in this equation.

Produce And Direct At Least One Film

On the shelf, right now, I have the footage, the vision and the desire to make two adventure films.

The first would revisit my and Andy’s Mongolia ride in 2010, which already exists as a series of four remarkably average short films. I would like to retell this story as a single feature with a stronger overall narrative, making the most of the absurdity of the endeavour and of the nuggets of comedy genius (all Andy’s) that reside within it.

The second would be the film of my and my brother Ben’s ride down the U.S. West Coast in 2012. Adventures aside, it’d be the story of two siblings getting to know each other again as adults, as well as Ben’s story of post-breakup therapy and recovery in the form of a long journey. It’s a very human tale. (Yes, it has a happy ending. No, it won’t be called Janapar II!)

My 2014 resolutions, then, included:

directing and producing at least one [film] by the end of 2014.

But I didn’t make either of these films in 2014. Instead, I went off and shot the footage for another two films instead! Idiot!

One of these projects has actually come to fruition, however: the film that Leon and I have called Karun, and which we spent most of October editing in a dingy Soho basement. It currently exists as a 15-minute short film, telling the story of our attempt to descend Iran’s longest river by human power. And — oh! — it premieres this very evening at the Vue cinema in Leicester Square, at the opening gala of the 2015 Adventure Film Festival (tickets here)! And, and, it’ll be touring the UK in 30 cities over the next few weeks (tickets here)! Blimey, it’s all happening!

This just about covers my resolution. But it still leaves the question of when the other two films will be made… not to mention the film we’ve just finished shooting in Patagonia, and the feature-length version of Karun. So that’s four films on the shelf, now, instead of two.

I really need to do something about this. Film editing takes time, facilities, creative collaboration, and a totalitarian-style lockdown on the working process. So this year I’ll need to look at ways to engineer these things.

(The collaboration part is quite exciting; there are several people I’d love to work with who are about to receive some very prospective-sounding emails…)

Work & Life

Re-reading the draft of this post has really reminded me of the successes of 2014, which has been valuable and affirming. Perhaps it was just end-of-year melancholy that caused me to focus in my last post on some of the negative aspects of the year just past.

Having said that, the issue of discontent and anxiety is not going to disappear simply because I happen to be in a good mood on the day I’m writing about it again.

There are lots of things that these feelings don’t have to do with. Financially, things have never been healthier (or, at least, never less unworkable). And in terms of spending my time on Earth in alignment with the things I care deeply about, there’s little wrong in that department either. I’m happy in my marriage with Tenny, I’ve seen my family regularly and enjoyed their company, my friends are as close as they can ever be given my itinerant lifestyle, and I am in good physical health.

What remains then, is my work. As you may have noticed, this post so far has dealt almost exclusively with activities and projects that I’d classify as work, insofar as they require me to sit down and graft on a daily basis. Writing and filmmaking as byproducts of adventure are fantastic things to be called work, but work they nonetheless are. And they dominate my time and my thoughts to what I’ve realised is an unhealthy extreme.

And I think that it’s the borderline-obsessive focus on work that’s beginning to get the better of me. When I look at a typical day, it will usually involve spending several hours writing several thousand words: book chapters, blog posts, articles for publication, and of course email, which accounts for hundreds or even thousands of words daily. But it’ll also involve several hours of sitting at my laptop in which, at the end of the day, I can produce no evidence of having been used effectively, which leads to me wondering exactly what is happening to a significant portion of my time.

When I lie on the beach in Australia and think about it (hey, thanks, perspective), part of this must be the return of the ever-pervasive puritanical mindset — the ingrained belief that life is about work, that harder is better, and that the rewards will come in the distant future (once heaven, now retirement). The belief that leisure is laziness, that time not spent producing or creating or earning is time wasted. It’s a belief I inherited from the social background against which I grew up, one I thought I’d jettisoned, but one which seems to have made a reappearance over my last three years in the UK.

The thing is, I’ve known for bloody ages that this outlook is a fallacious one, or at least a socially constructed one, whether engineered by the string-pullers (as the conspiracy theorists believe) or simply an outgrowth of a competitive economic system based on scarcity and inequality (as claimed by an increasing number of clever-sounding economically-minded people). It doesn’t make us happy; it just keeps us busy. It encourages us to forget about the present in favour of constantly keeping up with where everyone else is heading.

I mean, I’m self-employed, for goodness’ sake. I sit in the cafe with my laptop for a living — at least, that’s what it looks like. And yet I still find myself sucked into a working routine of long hours and short breaks, seemingly for the sake of matching the routines of the people around me. I said in my last post that I didn’t want to be someone who blamed the social environment for my woes, but I also can’t ignore that I’m an inseparable part of the social environment, and that I’m not immune to its influences.

But it isn’t just that. I’m also aware that I’m not a very good employer for my self-employed self. I’m rubbish at telling myself when something is good enough and that it’s time to move on. I’m rubbish at sending myself home on time. I’m rubbish at prioritising the right things. I’m rubbish at preventing a productive day from descending into a horrendous cycle of email- and social-media-related procrastination.

And I’ve failed, time and time again, to reduce my own working hours in order to free up time for the things I know I neglect in life — the passions I’ve let slip, the friends I should call, the things I wanted to try but haven’t got round to trying… and most of all those luxuriant blocks of time in which I should have absolutely nothing to attend to except that which pops up in front of me, which may well be nothing, in which it is nothing that I should be spending that time doing instead of yet another something.

This isn’t about doing less work, but about spending less time on it, making the time I do spend on work really count, and then — rather than habitually wasting the time I’ve freed up — using it wisely elsewhere. Exploring the area. Forming new friendships. Checking out local meetups. Learning to surf. Reading — my biggest and most neglected passion. In short, doing things that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with overall contentment and balance in life.

Oh, it’s all good fun, this ‘living’ lark, isn’t it?

How’s your year shaping up, anyway?

The next post will feature some actual, concrete resolutions for the year to come. After that, expect more details on that Ultimate Expedition Bike I’ve been talking about…