Stop scrolling, start doing: 10 creative and practical skills to hone in self-isolation

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Coronavirus. It’s taken over our lives, swamped our news feeds and it’s hard not to get obsessed. If you’re finding yourself checking for instant updates every 10 minutes, it may be time to dial things back. Here are 10 great reasons to get off your phone and back into life, with a full range of fun and challenging projects to keep your mind off the bad news tsunami out there.

  • Grow your own wall garden

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    There’s something so satisfying about growing your own veg. Even if you only have a tiny backyard patch to your name, there’s no excuse not to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.

    “Small spaces are actually brilliant for growing fruit and vegetables as they are usually enclosed by walls or fences, giving them similar growing conditions to traditional, walled gardens – just on a smaller scale,” explains gardener Lucy Chamberlain in the book Step-by-Step Veg Patch.

    “[…] Small spaces are particularly productive in towns and cities, thanks to the ‘urban heat island’ effect,” she continues. “In essence, large buildings provide shelter from the wind and also absorb heat during the day, which is radiated back at night.”

    To cultivate your backyard wall garden, you need to be creative with your choice of storage and crops; go for veg such as climbing runner beans, cordon tomatoes or cucumbers that require minimal space. Think about how you can use hanging baskets, trailing crops and free-standing wigwams to encourage growth at different levels.

    Remember, even if you don’t have any outdoor space at all, you can still join the party by growing salads, herbs or microleaves from your windowsill. Find out more about creating a vertical garden here and here (for larger edible crops), or growing windowsill herbs here.

  • Get to grips with HIIT

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    HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is a great way of keeping in shape with minimal space, time and equipment. Short bursts of intense activity will burn fat and keep you on your toes. They’ll dial your exercise regime up a notch without having to sign up to bootcamp.

    Dr Rangan Chatterjee is the author of Feel Better In 5, a guide to 5-minute healthy habits that are “short enough to be able to fit into your busy day yet long enough to ensure that you can get real benefit from doing it”.

    For those who already have a good level of fitness, he suggests this advanced HIIT workout for an extra daily challenge. Rotate between burpees, shoulder taps, squat jumps and mountain climbers (look up online tutorials if you need pointers on any of these). Do each exercise in sequence for one minute at full intensity then rest for fifteen seconds between each one.

    We also like the look of his 5-Minute Kitchen Workout, which gets a load of core muscles kicked into gear in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.

  • Master the art of French cooking

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    Love butter? Love French culture? Then now may be the moment to tap your inner Julia Child; the American chef who spent her formative years in Paris.

    French cooking gets a bad rap for being over-fussy and complicated, but it needn’t be that way. “Somehow the rest of the world has forgotten how delicieux French food can be,” says Rachel Khoo, chef and author of The Little Paris Kitchen. “French flavors and techniques needn’t be out of reach of the everyday home cook.

    “Living in Paris, I eat and cook everything from simple everyday suppers to big gourmet dinners,” she adds. “Just because they use fancy words like ‘jus’ or ‘blanchir’ doesn’t mean you have to have a Michelin-starred kitchen to cook great French food.”

    While it doesn’t have to be complicated, the clear bonus of French cooking is that it’s all about the good life: combining joyful flavors with the sheer elation of eating (no guilt or diets here). Get started with eggs en cocotte (a winning brunch idea), croque madame muffins or chouquettes, which Rachel describes as the “choux-pastry cousins” of profiteroles and éclairs; “light, airy puffs covered with nibbled sugar”. We’re sold.

  • Upcycle old pieces of furniture

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    If you’re anything like us, you’ll have bits of furniture in your apartment that are well past their sell-by date: but somehow you haven’t got the heart (or the funds) to replace them.

    My friends: upcycling is here to help. You can transform old coffee tables, chest of drawers or wooden lamp stands into entirely new pieces, using techniques such as stenciling, gilding or distressed paint. There are so many styles to choose from too, wherever you want classic, contemporary or boho chic. And don’t even get us started on color.

    “Don’t be shy to use colors,” says decorative paint expert Annie Sloan in her book Annie Sloan Paints Everything. “Colors scare most people and suggesting that they use colors can conjure up a circus like array of hues, so they err on the side of caution and end up with a lot of neutrals, which can be disappointing.”

    Bold pops of orange, deep greens or primrose yellows can do wonders in terms of lending fresh energy to a space, and you only need a little of it (on a footstool here, or a cabinet there) to make a big impact.

    Check out Annie’s two-colour distressing technique in action, or discover some more beginner’s refurbishing tips here.

  • Declutter your life, on and offline

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    “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” – So says Marie Kondo, in her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.

    According to the Marie Kondo method, if clear out your stuff once, properly, you’ll never have hassle tidying up again. That’s because, according to the Kondo philosophy, the majority of our mess issues come from clutter and too much stuff. So, get rid of the stuff and you get rid of the problem. More importantly, you also free up head space to think clearly again, and make decisions without being weighed down by the physical heft of too many belongings scattered all over the place.

    Devotees of the Kondo method swear to its revolutionary effects, but it takes some commitment. This is a large-scale project that involves going through every category in your house (clothes, books, paperwork and more) and giving away or chucking out whatever doesn’t “spark joy”. If you have a bit of time on your hands, it’s the perfect challenge to tackle.

    You can do the same with a digital clearout, too: going through emails, files, photos and more that are clogging up your storage space. More on the Marie Kondo method here and digital decluttering here.

  • Try out some wild baking

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    At a time when escapism is in short supply, naked fire cooking lets you unleash your wild side while (hopefully) not breaking the rules.

    “For me, wild baking represents freedom,” says fifth-generation baker and food writer Tom Herbert, in his book Do Wild Baking: Food, Fire and Good Times. “Not in a melodramatic, chest-beating way but as a break from the routine, a chance to re-engage and connect with nature, good food and people.”

    Even if that means just you and your flatmate gathered round a fire pit on a tiny patch of decking, that’s good enough. Wild baking is a sensory experience, which means it’s all about relishing the moment. It’s that feeling of freedom as you huddle round the flames with a glass of red wine, or listen to the snap-crackle of sausages grilling in the early evening air.

    You don’t necessarily need a campfire for your wild cooking adventure in your backyard or garden: you could also use a fire pit, or a charcoal BBQ. And you can cook up grub in all kinds of ways: on a stick, in the embers, in a pot, or on grill.

    Find the whole idea a bit daunting? Get started the easy way. Tom suggests baking potatoes (toss them deep into the fire, cover with embers and leave for an hour) with lashings of butter and melted cheese, corn on the cob (leave all leaves on and push under embers for 15 minutes, then serve with butter and salt), s’mores (toast until golden, then sandwiched between chocolate biscuits) or popping corn in a baggy foil parcel (drop on the fire and you’ll hear when they’re done).

    It goes without saying that you should beware and follow all relevant safety steps with this kind of activity, as well as taking care of the environment. Grab some more inspiration here.

  • Learn some simple bushcraft skills

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    From food foraging to shelter building, bushcraft skills can be really useful to know – and not just if you’re stuck out in the wild for a month. Things like purifying water, first aid or land navigation are the very definition of being a fully-equipped, capable human being; yet few of us bother learning them beyond childhood scout groups.

    Flash Pack’s resident adventure columnist Ed Stafford is here to put the situation right, with a new series of kitchen bushcraft tutorials. This bite-sized sessions let you top up on your essential skills during this weird time of lockdown, isolation and social distancing.

    First up, by popular request from his audience: knot tying. “To be able to tie a knot is one of the basics in life,” says Ed. As he says, it’s not absolutely vital that you know how to tie a knot, but it does help you tackle various different life situations (car-towing, climbing, first aid, tent pitching) with confidence and competence. See Ed talk through four basic knots here, with more bushcraft lessons to follow.

  • Give creative journaling a go

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    Creative journaling has boomed in recent years, with trends such as the bullet journal taking over our Instagram feeds.

    Writing things down has been shown to ease stress and trauma, in part because it helps people process their feelings, and gain an element of distance/ control over difficult emotions or events. Add in an element of creativity such as illustration or coloring, and the therapeutic effects increase.

    So it’s easy to see why creating your own sketchbook filled with sketches, quotes or positive thoughts might be a boon during stressful times. And you may also have a bit more time on your hands right now to invest in such a process. This is all about channelling a mindful and meditative activity. It allows you to express yourself and speaks directly to your personal experience.

    It’s not just about the mental health side of things, though. You can also use bullet journals on a more practical level, to organize your schedule exactly how you like it (see an example here). Check out more creative tutorials here, here and here.

  • Print your own tote bag

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    Everyone needs a tote bag these days – even if you’re not actually going out, you can use it to haul groceries from A to B. And crafting your own makes the satisfaction of wearing it all the sweeter.

    Screen printing is a really great way of customizing your bag, with an impactful design that’s fairly easy to achieve. “Being able to develop a piece from a simple design into a finished, printed item and see the results almost instantly is one of the many reasons why I love printing,” says Cornwall-based artist Erin Lacy in the book Beginner’s Guide to Screen Printing.

    Erin uses elements of her Cornish seaside surroundings to inspire her prints, creating motifs such as a sea shell, a swallow or a sailing boat. You can do the same with your setting, wherever you happen to be, to make the whole process that little bit more meaningful. Follow screen-printing tote bag tutorials here and here, or find a slight twist on the formula here. If you get really good, you could even sell your wares on Etsy or similar.

  • Mix up some mezze

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    Anyone who’s travelled in the Middle East will know just how life-affirming a mezze feast can be. And even with the food limitations that may be going on in your local supermarket right now, mezze is such a broad school of treats that you are bound to find something you can make. It’s super-flexible when it comes to how easy or complicated you want your cooking to be, too.

    “At its simplest, mezze can be a bowl of gleaming olives marinated in lemon juice and crushed coriander seeds, or a blend of roasted nuts and seeds tossed in salt and dried thyme,” writes Ghillie Başan, author of Mezze: Small Plates To Share. “At its most elaborate, it can be a lavish feast comprising a myriad of little colorful dishes, each the bearer of something savory or sweet, but always utterly delicious.”

    In its essence, mezze is about welcoming visitors into your home and making them feel good through the simple art of hospitality. And, while you may not be able to have your guests right now, you can hone your skills in the meantime – using your flatmates, your partner or just yourself as a tester (a feast for one is the best kind of feast, in our humble opinion).

    Plus, the whole process will let you channel your wanderlust at a time when actual travel is out the question. Get started with delights such as golden halloumi with za’atar, vine leaves stuffed with aromatic rice or filo cigars filled with feta, parsley, mint and dill. On the drinks side of things, opt for Moroccan mint tea or why not give honey raki, a go? Fun times ahead.

    Images: Alexey Ruban, Awesome Sauce Creative, Bench Accounting, Chase Kinney, Cherry Laithang, Curro Mali, Dieter Kuhl, Estee Janssens, Jonathan Pielmayer, Louis Hansel and Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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