A week or two after I left Skimlinks, a year ago now, I first encountered this problem: that it’s hard to get things done in London sometimes. I mean, its great for networking and selling and having meetings… but it’s awful for getting focused work done.
Most companies opt for open-plan offices, and more and more companies are moving to the homogenous forced “coolness” of WeWork-type spaces. I know I was a huge fan at Skimlinks of having everyone co-located together. I loved the energy, the camaraderie, the ease of getting collaborative tasks done.
However, once I left Skimlinks and the superiority of my large corner desk in our large open-plan office, I started to encounter problems when I wanted to get some work done. My home just wasn’t big enough to have a dedicated office, and I loathed using my dining table as my desk, particularly considering that I used a super large Apple monitor, which destroyed the feng shui of my lovely home.
So I sought out places outside of home I could set up camp and work productively. And to my horror, I discovered how poor the options were. The thought of sitting in the middle of a row of people, in the middle of many rows of people, in a busy cacophonous open-plan office, filled me with dread. How would I ever get work done here? How could I do anything with privacy? How could I be properly inspired?
You may well be asking: what on earth was I working on, if I had just left my job? Well, it turns out, quite a lot! I had all these online courses I wanted to do, books I wanted to write, new business ideas I wanted to flesh out, movements I wanted to begin… And for the first time in a decade, I didn’t have an executive assistant helping me with admin and coordination. So… I was oddly frustratingly busy for someone no longer with a full-time job, and to my increasing annoyance, I found myself working constantly on things that didn’t matter. I felt my life starting to sap of its meaning. Working hard is hard, but at least it gives you easy meaning. Not working hard was harder, as I watched my days pass in a sea of life admin, pointless meetings, trivial entertainments.
That was when I first came up with this idea of remote co-working spaces, that let you get away from the craziness of cities and closer to nature, to escape both the online and offline distractions of one’s normal city life. It was one of many new business ideas I found myself playing with in my first few weeks of leaving Skimlinks.
Thankfully, before I could accidentally find myself immersed in another decade-long intense business mere moments after leaving my first, I departed for some adventures I had cleverly booked weeks earlier. Off to meditate at Esalen, eat in Oaxaca, chill in Puerto Escondido, climb Machu Picchu, soak up Colombian jungles, I went. And I learnt that time away from one’s life, alone, to contemplate, relax, and read, resulted in an avalanche of creativity. I found myself writing madly so I could capture all the glorious ideas, thoughts, and insights I was having, freed finally from the constraints of “normal” life.
Once back in London, I entertained the idea of an easy life just doing some portfolio work: be a VC, sit on some boards, do some consulting… it was so tempting in its ease, and would have been quite lucrative. But… after a few months of helping other people achieve their dreams, I realised – however meaningful that may be to others – it wasn’t for me. I felt that gnawing dissatisfaction that I wasn’t focusing on achieving *my* dreams. One of the many reasons I decided to leave Skimlinks was that – after 11 years – I felt I had learnt so much that could be channelled towards solving some of society’s challenges. I felt I had a duty to the world, and to myself, to work on something meaningful and valuable.
But what did I care enough about, into what would I be willing to dedicate the next decade of my life? I mean, I cared about a lot of things, as it turned out, which is why I spent a lot of the past year spinning in circles. But the one that I felt I could actually do something about, that matched my skills and interests, was solving my very first problem post-Skimlinks. Creating spaces – both physical and intellectual – for people to dive deeply into things that mattered, to connect with nature and beauty, and to feel inspired enough to contemplate and rest deeply.
It was in talking to some friends about these burgeoning ideas that I was recommended “Deep Work”, the wonderful book by Cal Newport, as well as Essentialism by Greg McKeown. These two books have deeply shaped the last few months of my life, and possibly many months (and years) of my future. They have made me realise how important it is not just for individuals, but for humanity and our planet, that we learn again – and make time for – how to focus deeply on a small number of really important things, and they include not only work initiatives but personal life initiatives too.
For me, I felt I was drowning in a sea of very pleasant triviality in London. I needed a way to easily disentangle myself, create new positive habits, and focus on a small number of things that really mattered to me. So I did the only thing I knew could help me achieve this. I left London.
It has been almost 2 months now of solid travel. I have another 6 weeks to go. I loaded up Lancelot (my car) and Lumi (my beloved puppy) and drove to Avallon in France and stayed in a lovely village, then drove back to the English countryside, then drove to Portsmouth, caught an overnight car ferry to Bilbao, then explored Basque countryside, then drove to the Pyrenees and stayed in the foothills surrounded by donkeys and cows, then drove to the Bordeaux countryside and stayed in a chateau, then left Lumi with friends and went to Tulum, Mexico for a week, then back and stayed in Bordeaux town, then San Sebastian town, then a remote tiny stone cabin in the middle of nowhere Cantabria (where I spent 3 days sick in bed… not fun), then drove to La Coruña to leave Lumi with another dog-sitter while I flew to Girona to organise the next ICE Summer Trip (a conference for 100 entrepreneurs) then back to La Coruña, and finally, finally, by driving to here. Here. To this magical stone house on top of a wooded hill on the north-west coast of Spain.
Being away meant I could easily and politely decline the many invitations to well-meaning events I would have otherwise gone to in London. I could easily decline the many requests for calls and coffees to “pick my brain” on a topic. Driving as often as I was, and dealing with trip admin as much as is inevitable with this much travel (and living on a budget) meant the truncated amount of time I could actually spend “working” had to be focused on what was really essential. Everything else was pushed back. It was liberating.
I have read more books in the last 2 months than I’ve digested in weeks. I’ve spent my many hours driving listening to podcasts or audio books. I have gotten to connect and bond with my puppy, and enjoyed watching her experience sand and sheep and rivers for the first time. I have had more time to talk to my parents, and have focused on a smaller number of friends and really invested in connecting with them more often, albeit via voice calls rather than in person. And I’ve gotten to work steadily on initiatives I care about and that bring me joy.
And that brings me to today. Today. My first full day of FLOWN. What is it? It is deep work retreats in beautiful spaces, where people can connect with nature and themselves, while focusing on projects that matter to them. While eventually I would like my own FLOWN properties, for now, I’m finding beautiful villas and houses in rural places, and I’m converting them into deep work spaces with the tables, lumbar support, monitors, white boards, power cables, yoga mats, picnic blankets, etc that I’m travelling with in Lancelot. I’m providing everything so guests can just focus on working and thinking and learning and resting, and I ensure they eat well, exercise, explore, and are stimulated.
I began in Galicia. I tasked my mother to help me find a beautiful place and she found this place. And it was love at first sight. The owner is from London, married a Spanish woman, and has done an extraordinary job converting a derelict stone house into a palatial stone manor, with splendid gardens full of little nooks and crannies.
I’ve set up what I have been calling “Deep Work Nooks” all over the garden, in pretty shaded spots with stunning vistas. Each nook has a table and lumbar-supported chair, a little card, flower and vase, and a post-it note pad. I also have two “Yoga & Meditation Nooks”, both inside and outside, furnished with yoga mats and chairs. I have a “Library & Learning Nook” where I have all the books, musical instruments and games I’ve brought with me. And I have crafted an agenda and process to help participants focus and be held gently accountable for their goals for FLOWN.
I’m here in Galicia for 2 weeks, and have some more spots from 5-16th June, and then again from 24th June to 14th July. If you’d like to come on a FLOWN trip, just pick 3+ nights you can attend and let me know ASAP.
The guests I currently have here are doing interesting things like working out how to write their first book, solving a challenging operational problem at their company, and preparing content for their new website. It makes for incredibly interesting conversations at the end of the day when we stop working, as guests share not only their current projects but their life experiences, dreams, and challenges.
I don’t know where this will go. I’m spending a lot of time thinking through possible permutations. But more than anything, I’m trying to learn from these experiments, see what works and what doesn’t, live the experience myself so I can develop a strong gut instinct, and talk to locals to get inspired. We’ll see.
But the process is enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s nice to have human company again (sorry, Lumi), and to be working on something with purpose and focus. At the very least, it’s a lovely experience.