The Joy of Wandering, in Imagination and Reality

Field trips for the body and mind

Place and space have long mattered to me, even more so during the last 12 months of restricted movement. Community and social spaces have been largely off limits, and the notion of the workplace has significantly changed for many of us too. For me – a large chunk of work time is currently spent in front of a screen or a sketch book. I count myself very fortunate to be able to squeeze in occasional studio visits when possible, and my work for Sutton Community Farm is an important connection with a group of lovely people and customers.

Beyond the farm work – which takes me fleetingly across Surrey and South London – travelling has almost completely disappeared. I’ve not been into London since we managed to briefly escape the UK for a holiday last summer, a holiday during which I continued some reflective illustrative journalling, sparked by some deep work on mindfulness with my GameShift colleagues.

An extract from a concertina sketch book travelogue, started in July with GameShift, continued in France, then slowly concluded over several months back in the UK.

Since returning home – our physical horizons have shortened. For example, although I walked over 500km during March and April this year, I don’t think I’ve been more than 10km from our front door on foot. It’s been strangely lovely – a sort of long distance micro exploration. During this time I’ve satisfied any desire for distance by wandering in imagination – visiting far off places while barely moving a muscle.

Wandering In Imagination. One in a series of imagined suburban landscapes, spontaneously sparked during a session of Chalk And Talk.

The regular local walks bring me closer to the little things. I’ve watched spring arrive in a totally new, close up way this year. As a kid I was a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, and my interested in bird watching has been rekindled. Nuthatch, woodpecker, wren, robin, goldfinch, and as recently as last Friday – a beautiful rare encounter with a goldcrest, which sat on a tree branch just inches from my face and sang to me.

Colours too. I’ve seen leafy shades of green I never knew existed, and the sparkle on the River Wandle feels very alive. I’m bringing some of these memories back into the studio and thrashing them out onto sheets of A3 card, using my old RSA membership card as a blade with which to move the paint.

The freedom of movement in these hastily scored panels is a lovely counterbalance to my sketch book work, which is often much slower, more deliberate.

Leaf shots. Photographs from a local field trip walk in preparation for a recent Chalk And Talk workshop.

I’m distilling much of my recent explorations into a submission for the 2021 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The work is taking the form of a spell book – a series of visual incantations centred around my recent on foot local adventures. I notice I am much more aware of the process behind this submission than in previous years, and I can’t help but wonder, maybe after more than a decade of creative practice I am finally learning to go with the flow, to walk like an artist?

Spellbound : An extract from a larger work. From left to right we can see a meditation spell, one half of a woodland walk spell, and a crucible incantation.

Foot note: Chalk And Talk is a crucial part of my creative practice. It currently takes the form of a drop in drawing session once a fortnight on Wednesdays at 1pm UK time. If you’re curious about how creative practice can help you think and do things differently – please join in.

Stepping Off

I’ve walked a long way since I first wore my Fitbit on December 27th 2014. 13,992,079 steps, or 6,606.28 miles if you prefer. I can only recall forgetting to put it on once or twice since then, one of those occasions being when Carole and I enjoyed two and a half days walking a section of the South Downs Way. All those unrecorded steps, lost into the ether. More importantly, what a fantastic walk we had!

For a while, My Fitbit was helpful in encouraging me to be more active. For a while. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my growing discomfort in realising that when I responded to various Fitbit challenges I ended up walking primarily to win the challenge, not to enjoy the walk. At that time I consciously broke a 40 day streak of walking at least 10,000 steps a day, feeling satisfied that I’d noticed my dysfunctional behaviour, and stopped it.

The following two weeks were filled with walking for all the right reasons, and if anything, breaking that streak freed me to walk even further, and enjoy it even more. Sunday morning just gone, as I sat admiring my previous two weeks efforts, it dawned on me that in breaking that streak, I’d not so much broken the pattern of behaviour, just shifted it slightly.

I went on to enjoy a day of Fitbitless hard graft in the garden, and today I’m on my way to Liverpool to attend an event about mental health, minus my Fitbit. I appreciate the initial nudge my 2014 Christmas present provided, and I’ve certainly had my money’s worth from it, but we’re through. I’ll keep walking, blissfully ignorant of precisely how far, and without accumulating any more ‘badges’. The data is no longer helpful.

As an aside I’m left wondering, in a workplace environment where we’re encouraged to gather more and more data, rather than blindly following the herd, should we be asking more questions of each other? Questions like:

  • Why are we collecting this data?
  • What will we use this data for?
  • How long do we need to collect, use, and keep this data?

I used to think it was fine for employers to gather pretty much any data on their workforce. Now, I’m not so sure. Just because we can measure stuff, does it mean we should?

Footnote: I’ve now deleted the app from my phone and asked Fitbit to remove all my data from their systems. No going back. A friend wrote to me saying, ‘I applaud the abandonment of the prison bracelet. The Quantified Self is dead, long live the Qualified Self.’

Experiments in Wellbeing

Integrating wellbeing into a productive working life.

Wellbeing is a subject which interests me, it’s something that gets a lot of airtime, and it’s a broad brush heading under which sits lots of different stuff. I first realised this when I was asked to give a talk on the subject for Morgan Lovell and their clients back in 2013. As part of my preparation, I asked people on Twitter: ‘When you hear the term wellbeing what pops into your head?’ The answers were many and varied, and included words like ‘belonging’, ‘balanced lifestyle’, ‘flow’, ‘good health’ and much more besides.


At the event we discussed the subject of presence, and found that over two thirds of people in the room read and responded to emails whilst away on holiday. Overall, people didn’t think that working while being on holiday was a good thing, yet they felt compelled to do it. We talked about other aspects of work life balance and flow, and a strong feeling emerged that busyness gets in the way of wellbeing. I can relate to that notion and yet it also feels a bit like an excuse to me. ‘I’m too busy to look after myself’. Really?

‘Our People Are Our Greatest Asset’

Rarely does an annual report and accounts get published that doesn’t make some grand statement about the importance of ‘our people’. Do we really mean it? The prevailing culture and behaviours at work often have a lot to do with how, and even if we can weave wellbeing into our day to day habits. I’ve always found it odd that we persist in being OK with taking fifteen minutes out of the day at regular intervals to kill yourself, sorry – I mean smoke a cigarette, but the notion of going for a walk for the same amount of time, to clear your head, or think through a few ideas, is somehow seen as skiving on company time.

Maybe this recent piece in The New York Times, which talks specifically about some of the benefits a group of volunteers (for a study at the University of Birmingham) derived from regular 30 minute lunch time strolls, will help persuade the more cynical among us? Maybe, and yet it is worth noting that:

…tellingly, many said that they anticipated being unable to continue walking after the experiment ended and a few (not counted in the final tally of volunteers) had had to drop out midway through the program. The primary impediment to their walking, Dr. Thogersen-Ntoumani said, had been “that they were expected by management to work through lunch,”…

Is it only me smiling at the thought of management expectations being described as an ‘impediment’?

It’s Easy For You To Say…

By now you might well be thinking, ‘it’s easy for him to pick holes in the way we work, he doesn’t have to actually do this stuff on a day by day basis’. And to some extent you are right. I appreciate that as a consultant, I am not bound so tightly to the hamster wheel of seemingly endless back to back meetings, and some of the other things which become expected in a larger workplace, and I also appreciate, from my own experience both in corporate life and beyond, that there are times when work is really busy. I like being busy. I like deadlines. I like getting stuff done, just not all the time. I simply can’t be useful, and productive, and good company all the time, and I don’t think you can, either, can you?

What Next?

In the Autumn of last year, I came to a decision. I will make a conscious effort to integrate the practice of wellbeing into my life through a series of small experiments, and see what I can learn from this. I will share my learning openly, and you can ask me anything you like about the experiences I share. My intention, in addition to understanding and hopefully improving my own wellness, is simply to explore the idea that wellbeing, and meaningful, productive, even busy work, are not mutually exclusive. More to follow soon…