What I learned and decided
A year ago I moved with my girlfriend to a cabin at the foothills of the mountains. We did not leave our jobs or live off the grid. We did not become digital nomads or entrepreneurs. We have been working remote at our same jobs as before. These are knowledge work in advertising and marketing.
This is what I have learned after one year of working remote from a cabin in the mountains:
1. I am not going back to the city
Before we moved my girlfriend spent a month agonizing about it and fearing we will regret it. We had a good life in the city. We lived in the city center but in a relatively green area. We had plenty of social venues nearby and a nice walking area. Friends and acquaintances dropped by often. My commute was 14 minute by bike. We feared we were giving up a lot by moving to the countryside.
All our fears were for naught. The move is better than we ever hoped. The downsides are so small, they are insignificant compared to the upsides.
I am happier and calmer
Than I ever was in the city. Just looking at the view relaxes and inspires me. We hear birds, cows and dogs instead of loud TVs, cars and construction work. We smell flowers and sometimes cow dung instead of diesel and smog.
Whenever I get angry or frustrated or sad, I can look outside or take a walk in the grass. I cannot help but feel grateful and calm when I do this. It does not make problems go away, but it snuffs out emotional turmoil.
It is a dream. We play badminton in the yard as 5 minute work breaks. We eat outside with a view better than any restaurant in the city. In warm months, I walk barefoot in the grass.
Each day is different. It is sunny and cloudy and misty and rainy and snowy and hot and cold and windy and calm. Some weather is pleasant, some is unpleasant. But I feel in tune with it. In winter everyone in the house felt less cold than we should have. Being outside so much got us used to the temperature as it was getting colder. In the city, by spending most of the time in temperature-controlled environments, your body never gets the chance to adapt. Which brings me to the issue of health.
I am healthier than in the city.
There is more energy, more calm, less anxiety, less brain fog. We go to sleep easily and get up even more easily as the sun shines through the roof window. Everyone in the house has fewer skin problems. I have to cook and do additional chores on top of work, yet it still feels I have more ‘left in the tank’ than I used to have in the city.
The decision to move was partially driven by a thorough analysis of the beneficial impact living in nature would have on our longevity and health-span. I wrote about it here. The conclusion was we gain 9 years of life by moving here versus remaining in the city.
Now I believe those 9 years are an underestimation. I did not expect the calm and energy. I think the benefit is greater.
On top of that there is the ‘neighborhood’.
We live next to acres of forest on one side. We go running on a ‘backyard’ loop of about 7 kilometers that goes through two different forests, a dirt road, a spring, a paved road with houses, and has views of three mountain ranges. Then there is the mountain in front of the house. A quarter of an hour by car takes us within the natural preserve. Trail running it takes me 2.5 hours in summer to reach the summit at 2500 meters altitude.
We go running in summer and ski-touring in winter at least a couple of times per week near the home. This is forest bathing supercharged with physical exercise.
Overall I believe we are living closer to the way Homo Sapiens evolved to live: in nature, constant movement, exposed to the elements. This is why we are healthier, happier and calmer. But we don’t have the downsides of our ancestors as we have the full comfort of a modern heated home, electricity and store bought groceries.
2. Socializing more than in the city
A big fear people have about moving to the countryside is isolation. This is probably even higher after the lockdowns. We had this fear as well before we came.
The surprise was that this is really not a problem. We live in such a beautiful place that everyone wants to visit. We see friends and family less often than when we lived in the city center. But each visit is longer. People stay for a couple of days instead of a two hour coffee or meal. We do activities together. We walk around. It forges deeper connections than casual chit-chat.
When COVID-19 was really bad, we did not have visitors inside the home. But friends still came and we went on walks, hikes or just had coffee in the yard. Now we are fully vaccinated and cases are low, so it is not a barrier any more.
3. Remains amazing
As a city dweller, you never get fully used to a great location in nature.
Humans have something called hedonistic adaptation. This is a fancy way of saying we get used to our situation. You imagine you will be happy if only you got a raise, promotion, sportscar, fancy clothes, latest iPhone, girl you like, whatever. You get it and then after a short time you are back to your original state of (un)happiness. We adapt to the situation no matter how good it is. This is an adaptive mechanism that keeps us always striving for more and better.
Hedonistic adaptation did happen to us.
I surprise myself sometimes being annoyed at many small things and blaming it on living here instead of in the city. Like two weeks ago the water started having a slightly unpleasant smell and color. Turns out the well had been contaminated due to heavy rains. We did not drink the tap water here, only washed with it. So it was only a bit inconvenient because of the unappealing smell and color. However I was thinking unhappy thoughts about it. I was comparing it to city life where this would not happen (in my mind).
The reality is this was a minor issue. We drink and cook with water that we get from a nearby spring. Our health was not really in danger. Overall we still have better water than in the city. It was just my human brain evolved to find problems instead of gratitude.
At the same time, I don’t think we will ever get completely used to the place. Every day I take at least one picture of something beautiful I see around the house. Either the view or a plant or some perspective of the surroundings. We often sit outside and look at the mountain because it remains awe inspiring.
So you do get used to it. But not completely. We are still in awe every day
4. More focus
Offices are awful for any deep or creative work. Open spaces with many colleagues are one of the best ways to prevent your mind from focusing.
City environments are good at distracting you as well. They are full of people whom you want to ignore, but your unconscious needs to observe. They are full of artificial things, sights and sounds that you unconsciously struggle to process. They are loud. Walking down many city streets it is so noisy you cannot hear yourself think.
The flat where we lived was relatively calm. We still had a neighbor who laughed so loud we heard him and another who turned the TV loud enough to hear.
Here I see nature.
I see the dogs searching for food and barking at various things. I see the cows grazing and the birds flying. I see trees and mountains. The human brain evolved to process natural environment. This is why your incessant mind chatter quiets when you take a walk in the forest. You feel in tune with nature because you evolved to focus within it.
Living in this environment does wonders for my deep work. I estimate I produced twice the volume of work at probably 10x the quality compared to when I worked in the office. This was despite the chaos of pandemic excessive Zoom calls and uncertainty.
Much of work also feels simpler. Or maybe I feel I see it more clearly.
When it comes to writing, this focus has been essential. The book I am writing has become excessively complex and wide-ranging. I think that without this added focus I would have been completely lost within it. And I probably would not have even realized it.
5. Inconveniences empower
There are inconveniences for us living here. Many of them are specific to this house rather than to the countryside itself.
A big one is the heating. We have an old wood heating system. The boiler room is in a separate building. My brother and I are in charge of the heating. Each week one of us is responsible. That person has to make sure the heating station is working well, has enough wood, has fire, etc. This means going outside to it several times per day. Moving logs of wood from the pile in the yard to the heater itself. Keeping the fire alive within it. Making sure the wood remains dry by covering it when it rains and uncovering it to dry out when it is sunny. Solving the myriad of problems that appear.
The heating station is temperamental. The fire can go out unexpectedly. It changes depending on temperature, pressure, weather, etc. Each problem feels different. There is frustration and anxiety as we struggle with them.
More than annoyances
In winter if you are not careful and the fire goes out, it can be quite bad. The house temperature plummets. I remember the first time I woke up because it was too cold. I went to the heating station and the fire had gone out. It took me two hours to build it up again to something that could self sustain. All of this at 3 a.m. in minus 20 degree Celsius.
Then there are more mundane inconvenience. Food delivery does not come here so if I don’t cook, I don’t eat. If I did not buy enough groceries, I don’t have what to cook. The stomach does not care whether I have a four hour strategy presentation on that day. It demands food all the same.
All these inconveniences have a different flavor than those in the city. In a flat when something breaks, you wait for someone to fix it. It puts you in a passive role.
Here, we have an active role when it comes to our inconveniences.
If the heating stops, then we need to go fix it. If the water turns yellow, we go to the well to see what is the matter and then work to clear it. If mice get in the house (like they did), we look for the hole and block it. If something breaks, we need to act to fix it.
I believe this active role is beneficial in other aspects of life. It teaches us to take charge of what happens instead of suffering events.
6. More daily excitement
A big shock of us as city dwellers was how many animals die in the countryside. In one year we experience the death or disappearance of 13 puppies, one cat, two dogs, three rabbits, several pigs. All of these from around our home, not things we saw by the side of the road. It is emotionally jarring.
For example the dog in our yard gave birth to two puppies in winter during very cold temperatures. One died relatively young, but the other survived. When it was about 3 months old we were sure it was out of danger. Then one day we noticed it was gone. We searched for it. I found it near the home with bite marks. We drove it to an emergency vet. The vet said the bite seemed superficial and they could save it with surgery. One hour later they called that it had died. A hidden bite had punctured its lungs and it died from on the operating table.
There are other unexpected events of less traumatic nature. The horses escape and we try to coax them back. The delivery guy runs through the electric fence and we have to fix it. Mice get in the house. Bees nest in the roof. The car tires break unexpectedly because of the rocks on the road.
Surprises happen with regularity.
City life lacks these unexpected occurrences.
On one hand they are a pain because they need our time and attention. On the other hand life is unexpected in its essence. It’s probably better to deal with small surprises regularly and get used to uncertainty, than be floored when something big and unexpected happens.
7. Understand consequences viscerally
Many of the inconveniences and unpleasant surprises here can be prevented. If I protect the wood from humidity during the warm months, I will have good dry wood in the cold ones. If we buy sufficient groceries and I plan work breaks to cook, we eat well. If we put a warning sign on the electric fence, the delivery truck does not run over it. There is a visceral sense of cause and effect. This trains the mind to think of the long-term effects of our actions rather than instant gratification. I believe this is a priceless and disappearing skill.
In city life cause and effect are often disconnected.
Your flat is cold because five years ago the director of the city heating system stole money that should have been used for critical repairs and now the system fails. You have absolutely no control over this. Often it is even worse as events happen with no apparent cause.
This disconnect is an effect of urban living. Cities contain too many people, millions and tens of millions in the biggest. This makes them complex and complicated beyond our ability to grasp. Thus we don’t understand the causes of the events within cities. And at an individual level we have limited power to change them.
Of course living in the countryside is not a magical solution. We still have no control over national or global events. But on our property more often than not we can understand the causes of problems and work towards their solution.
The digital environment
The digital environment is also different. We have the same screens and digital platforms as in the city. Most of the online world right now is engaged in the attention economy. They are fighting to obtain your attention. This makes most of the Internet an instant gratification machine. It trains our brains to seek out instant gratification regardless of the long-term harm.
The difference here compared to the city is that the physical environment motivates us more to put the screens down. The view of the mountain is more tempting than the view of the flat building next door. We are more likely to look at it instead of the smartphone. We are more likely to indulge in the sensory richness of the grass, the plants, the animals, the view and the land, than we would be in a plastic concrete urban setting. This results in less time on screens.
The visceral feeling of consequences coupled with less time on screens trains the brain more towards long-term than instant gratification.
This is a second-order effect. I did not anticipate it. But it might be the most impactful yet. In our world, this long-term behaviour is a cornerstone habit towards health and happiness.
Move to the countryside if you can and work remote. If you cannot, change your situation to make it possible. The benefits are better than you can imagine.
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Bonus learning: there are lots of cows 🙂