It’s time to shut out anxiety and say ‘yes’ to opportunities while we can

kayak thames
Sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow – and remain open to spontaneity Credit: Howard Pugh (Marais)/Howard Pugh (Marais)

2020 has made a mockery of long-term planning for my partner and me. Our dream trip to New Zealand was cancelled with three days’ notice; a documentary that I have been developing for a decade was shelved; and our wedding was postponed until (hopefully) next year.

Travel quarantine has made things even weirder: when lockdown finally lifted, our pre-booked holiday to Ibiza was back on the cards, only for it to be snatched away again when Spain was red-listed. We then switched our flights to Croatia, and made it back the day before that quarantine was announced.

Just as long-term planning becomes futile, short-term planning has become vital: our local pub often reaches its newly-reduced capacity, so “popping out for a pint” requires pre-booking online. National travel is trickier too: when I tried to get home from York on Bank Holiday Monday, I had to wait three hours before I could get on a train, ­because new Covid guidelines limit passenger numbers.

We happily tolerate these minor frustrations because we understand their importance to public health. But it leads to a defensive mindset, in which it is safer to just do nothing, because that’s the only way to avoid disappointment. Don’t plan anything, in case it gets snatched away; and don’t be spontaneous in case logistics are too hard.

This mindset can spill into everything. Last week, we had planned to visit a friend in Kingston, who had recently bought some second-hand kayaks. But, it was raining hard, with the possibility of thunderstorms. What if we went all the way there and it was too unsafe to go out on the river? 

We became frozen in indecision: do we head to Kingston and risk being disappointed again; or do we stay at home for another evening on the sofa?

I reasoned that, with the nights starting to lengthen, and autumn already in the air, getting outdoors was only going to get harder. Besides, we could handle a bit of rain and, if the risk of lightning got worse, we would just have to find something else to do. Unlike the enforced disruptions of Covid, it was only our own timidity that could stop us this time.

The moment we got on the train, we knew that we had made the right choice. We were only going a few miles down the tracks, but lockdown has made us all a bit reticent, so even small journeys can now feel like an adventure. 

By the time we put the boats in the river, the sky had cleared and the water was flat. It was the first time that my fiancée had been kayaking on the Thames, and she loved it, paddling under the bridge as a train thundered over, and passing the swans as they prepared for sleep. 

We only had 30 minutes on the river before it got dark, but by the time we hauled ashore, we were completely refreshed. The debates and anxieties of earlier seemed ridiculous and we knew that, no matter what was taken away next, we would always have the joy of that evening on the river. We even ­managed to find space at a pub for a post-paddle pint.

It’s easy to put things off until some indeterminate future, and I won’t wax lyrical about the values of saying “yes”. But I might recommend that we say “yes” for now, because we don’t know when opportunities might be snatched away again.

When it comes to planning, the best approach that I’ve found so far is to block out time, but be willing to change plans at the last minute. “Spontaneous forethought,” as I like to call it. If you’re lucky, circumstances will drop extra time in your lap, so you better be ready to make the most of it.

With three hours to spend in York, I rang my mate Wisey, who lives in the countryside nearby. 

“I’ve just started bee-keeping,” he said. “Fancy checking out the hives?”

So we suited up and, for the rest of the afternoon, I learned about the culture of a colony, and handled frames full of pollen and late-season honey. It was far more fun than an extra few hours at home, but I had no idea it would happen until I rang Wisey that afternoon.

The kayak and the bees have been the highlights of my year: one nearly didn’t happen, and the other appeared out of nothing. So, watch out for complacency and keep an eye out for spontaneity. You might just get some honey.

How has 2020 changed your perceptions of spontaneity? Are you more likely to say yes or no to impromptu plans? Comment below.