Find Your Place of Flow with Sarah Starrs
On recovering from burnout and why living in Liverpool has re-energised and inspired her, and allowed her the space and flow she needs to be creative.
Today, I’m delighted that my guest is Sarah Starrs, a freelance virtual assistant, a writer and the host of The Girl Gang Conversations podcast. First and foremost, she’s a storyteller and in all of her works she hopes to inspire “me too” moments and help people feel less alone. Sarah is currently training to become a Qoya teacher and is writing a book about living an embodied life. Sarah Starrs talks about living in Liverpool and how it has re-energised her, given her a place of flow, inspired her and allowed her the space she needs to be creative. She also shares some struggles she had with burnout and how she dealt with it.
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Welcome to the show, Sarah.
Hi, Clare. Thank you so much for having me.
Great to have you here. This is a podcast about living in the city and how to thrive in an urban setting. Where are you living right now?
I’m living in Liverpool. You can tell my accent is not English although I’ve been mistaken for being Irish a few times recently so apparently I have a weird hybrid accent, but I am Canadian. I moved to the UK at the end of 2013. I was living in London then my husband and I moved to Liverpool at the end of January.
How are you finding it?
I love it here so much. It was funny because I hadn’t been to Liverpool before we decided to move here. We knew we wanted to leave London and we’re looking at a few different cities. As a freelancer it was just a matter of where my husband found a job. He found a job in Liverpool and we’re getting all set to move and came up to visit for the first time. It’s just been a wonderful synchronicity that we love it as much as we do. It seems to really fit our lifestyle in this season that we’re in right now.
How would you describe Liverpool in three words?
I’d say it’s vibrant, friendly and compact, compared to London anyway.
Tell us about your favourite walk that you’ve discovered in your new city?
We live maybe a five or ten-minute walk from a glorious park called Sefton Park. To get there, you walk up our little street, which is all lovely terrace houses, and then turn on to the High Street and then you turn on to Lark Lane, which is just a really charming street that’s full of little independent restaurants and shops and cafes and that kind of thing. You walk up there to Sefton Park, which is just a little bit bigger than Victoria Park in London. It’s got a three-mile perimeter and it’s full of duck ponds. There’s a place called the Fairy Glen with a little waterfall, all kinds of blooming trees and bushes and little gardens. The lakes are all full of ducklings and swan babies and all of that right now. I just love it there. It feels like a little oasis. We go get a tea on the weekend and walk through the park. It’s really lovely.
How do you carve out time for stillness and calm in your city life?
I really struggled with this in London. At first, I found it really energising. I had such a buzz living in the city. I was still able to find that balance. I had a meditation practice in the morning and I journaled a lot and I had those rituals that still brought me a sense of stillness. After going through a period of burnout and I had a mental health crisis a couple of years ago, my needs and our lifestyle changed a lot, my energy levels changed a lot and I was struggling to find that balance in London anymore. It was a really difficult realisation to realise that it wasn’t a very good fit for me or for us anymore.
In Liverpool, I find it so easy. Like I said, we’ve got this big, beautiful park near us. We’re just a short walk from the river. We’ve got a lot of more space and natural light in our house. For me, my life feels a lot more spacious, so I don’t need to put a lot of effort into creating that stillness or that space. It’s just in contrast to what my life was feeling like in London. It’s just here.
Before we even moved here, I started restructuring my life in a pretty massive way. I had to be really honest given the health challenges that I’d had about what my energy levels really allowed and how much space I needed for rest and rejuvenation on a regular basis. I really cut back my work hours and started freelancing because before that I’d been going a mile a minute. I had a full-time job and had many, many projects and a business on the side. Just really scaling things back, really getting clear on what was important to me and saying no to things a lot more. Then I started to create that space and then it’s just been so much easier I think to implement and live in a real way since we’ve moved to Liverpool.
That sounds like an important realisation that you had. You mentioned that you did used to have a meditation practice back in those really hectic, busy days as you were entering burnout. What practices do you have now that serve you well?
I was really keen on having that really structured morning routine before: the meditation followed by the morning pages followed by the green smoothie. You could probably tell I was in this very type A, having a routine, having a schedule, getting all the things on the to-do list done. Now, I just feel a lot more flexible about just having a slow start to the morning. My husband, his commute is so much less than it was in London. We eat breakfast in bed together every morning. He gets up and makes tea and toast and we can eat that really slowly in bed. Just spending a little bit of time writing or reading before either of us has to get up to have a shower.
I’ve been thinking recently that I potentially would like to have even just a five or ten-minute meditation practice in my life again. It’s partly the pregnancy brain probably but I’m just like in a little bit of that social media scrolling, a little bit foggy, a little bit scattered headspace and just bringing a little bit more intentional mindfulness back into my life. It feels like a really good thing to do right now. It’s not as much that I have a very set routine. I just feel like I have a really good toolbox of practices: meditation, journaling and creating a sense of ritual around the moon cycle, which is something I really believe in, and around my body’s own cycles. That can really vary what the practices look like from week to week. I like to give myself a little bit more space to flow with that rather than have the five-point plan of, “If I do these things in the morning, life will be glowing and great.”
It all sounds very familiar. I can relate to the striving and doing it and wanting to achieve. You mentioned about the social media scrolling. Tell us about your relationship with social media and how often you use it. You inferred that you might want to change your approach to social media or the timing of when you use it. Tell us about that.
I really love social media. Like I said, I moved to the UK in 2013 and I didn’t know anyone here. My network of blogging and Twitter ended up really becoming a big part of how I’ve made friends here, real life, see them all the time or a huge part of my life friends. You and I connected at first on social media. There are just so many people in my life who have become a real part of it through social media. It’s not dismissal of the value of social media but I have found it like even my relationship with different platforms has changed over time. I used to be really active on Twitter and loved having conversations with people there.
Now, that still exists and there are people who are still doing that in a great way and building great community there, but more and more it seems like it’s a place where people are scheduling really promo-y things. I found myself less on Twitter, really just liking on Facebook and Facebook groups sometimes and on Instagram. I love Instagram because it melds well with my love of social media and photography and writing this little mini blog post in the caption. I was posting on there every day. Now that I’m 39 weeks pregnant, I’m not posting on a social media every day.
The thing that I’m disliking right now is that I’m finding this phase of pregnancy really challenging in that I am having a great deal of physical discomfort. My brain is pretty fried but I have all this creative energy. I have all these ideas of things I would like to do but that I can’t execute so there’s this tension and frustration. I end up lying on a couch and just bouncing from one social media feed to the other. Whereas I’d probably be better served turning on an audio book or just closing my eyes and lying in silence for a little bit.
I do find there’s this frustration in me of wanting to do things right now that I don’t feel like I have the brain power or even the emotional energy to do and so I’m just bouncing between. I’ve realised that I’ve just shut down Facebook and I’m opening it up again. Just bringing a little bit more mindfulness to that. I do like to go on my different accounts a few times a day and look at updates and those kinds of things. Right now, as I am spending so much time on the sofa, it’s feeling a little bit compulsive. There’s still nothing new on there, you were just on it. Just creating a little bit of space there.
That’s really great. That leads in really nicely to one of my next questions, which is how comfortable are you with being bored?
There’s a great Fran Lebowitz quote. I don’t really feel like I get bored in the sense that I have a very active imagination. There’s always something playing out in my head that I can think about. There’s something that can stimulate me mentally usually. I guess I am finding a little bit of boredom right now in the sense that even if I’d like to go out for a nice, quiet walk and there are sometimes when I can really only walk up the street and back because I’m having such bad pain on my legs from hauling this little baby around, which is temporary. I’m finding sometimes that I feel like I just don’t want to watch any more Netflix and my brain can’t quite cope with this book right now.
I do think that a lot of people’s discomfort with boredom comes from discomfort from being alone. They confuse the two. I used to really have that. I needed to be stimulated by something all the time. I’m quite comfortable now for the most part being alone with my thoughts. That can be a form of, I don’t know if entertainment is the right word, but its own stimulation. I do find that in this period of really low energy that it is difficult to just feel like, “I should be working on my book. I should be going for a walk. I should be doing this,” to get out of those “shoulds” which I thought I’ve banished so many of them. It is tricky when you’re feeling bored and when you’re alone with your thoughts and you’re bored, to not let some of that rise up to the surface. There’s a trickiness that I’m dealing with there.
The reason I asked that question is that I think many of us urbanites find it really, really difficult to be alone with our thoughts and to allow our thoughts to roam in those moments that might be boring. Those spaces in between in the day where you’re may be waiting for your bus or your train or you’re stuck in traffic or you’re in line at the coffee shop. These for me are moments of fantastic creative sparks and connection. That might be that I have a brainwave and a great idea and a fantastic insight, it might be that I have a beautiful moment of eye contact and exchange a ten-second hello and proper eye contact with one of my guys in the local coffee shop. That sets me up and I go on my way.
Often, we clamp down, we resist. We’re uncomfortable with being alone with our thoughts. That’s where these mobile devices that we all walk around with are amazing and fantastic because they’re portable entertainment devices that mean at no point whatsoever do you have to be uncomfortable or bored. I actually really believe strongly in embracing the power of boredom and opening up to those spaces, those very small micro spots in our day.
I believe also that when I was really struggling with burnout – I was having terrible insomnia over a long time and chronic back pain – lot of the insomnia was related to the fact that when I collapsed into bed late at night, my brain was whirring with all of the stuff that I was trying to process and all of the emotions and the feelings and the ideas and the frustrations. I haven’t allowed space for those during my day. Every waking moment was filled with some kind of stimuli. It’s not easy, sometimes it’s quite difficult to be alone with your thoughts and have to confront how you’re feeling. Also, I really believe that these are moments when we can feel calm. We can feel connected to ourselves and to our community and just allow connections to emerge.
I agree with that so much. It’s that cliché thing of the ideas coming in the shower or wherever you’ve got that free space where you’re not bringing your mobile phone. If you’re constantly plugging those little holes with your mobile phone, then there’s no time for those ideas to bubble up. It wasn’t really even intentional but I often stopped taking my phone out when I leave the house recently. That’s mostly because I got an iPhone 7 Plus and it’s too big to fit my pocket and I don’t always want to carry a handbag. It’s funny that the kind of shock that brought to my mother-in-law and my husband is like, “Why aren’t you bring your phone out when we go out for dinner?” I’m like, “We’re really walking down the street and I’m going to talk to you guys the whole time. I don’t need it.” We’re so attached to it. We’re so used to being, “Let’s Instagram our dinner,” or to look something up or just to plug that hole at the bus stop.
I do think that the more that we can create some boundaries for ourselves around that, I find that it really helps to reclaim some of my attention. It’s a shift from being bored to just being a little more curious, which is something you talk a lot about. The things that you can notice when you’re walking and you don’t have your phone glued to your hand and the ideas that can bubble up and that connections that you can make can be really surprising. It can be a nice shift to experience. It’s compulsive, I think, how often I reach for my phone.
I agree. This technology is designed to really enhance the way we live, but it’s also designed to make us keep going back for those little, mini endorphin hits. You just mentioned there about connections and ideas. How do you find your relationship with the city? I know it’s a new city to you and your family. How are you finding it in relation to your creative inspiration?
I think the sense of having a greater sense of spaciousness here. I don’t think that you cannot have that spaciousness in London. I’m not going to be one of those people in London who hate everything north of London and then the people outside of London who hate London. I don’t hate London at all. I love it. I’m so excited for all the times that we’ll get to go back and visit. It’s a magical city. I’m not at all saying that that’s not possible there. My life used to feel really spacious there and then it didn’t anymore and it was time for us to make a change.
The fact that things feel so much more spacious here, like our finances are easier because things are so much less expensive. It takes a lot less time to get places so our schedule can fill a lot more spacious. We literally have more physical space. All of that has been really beneficial to my creativity just in terms of creating more of those pockets where the things can bubble up, when you’re not worrying about money, when you’re not spending as much time commuting. I started to feel a little bit boxed in physically even by our apartment in London because what we could afford was quite small. It was beautiful but it was quite dim in terms of natural light. There’s just this real opening up here that feels very creative to me.
Also, even though London is huge, especially if you’re experiencing burnout or any kind of low energy, it’s very easy to get sucked into staying in the same area all the time and walking the same places. Just being stimulated by all of this newness here has definitely been really good for my creativity. It’s funny, I have a new blog that I want to start and I have all these ideas for the book that I’m writing. It’s hard not to be hard on myself for not executing them all right now but I do know that my energy will come back.
Also, you’re about to have your first baby. It’s a pretty major thing!
Maybe it won’t come back for a few months but I’m taking a lot of notes and I feel confident that all that creative energy is going somewhere. Sometimes if you’re in a big city like London, just going to a Tube stop you’ve never been to before and walking around or going on a little weekend staycation or weekend away somewhere close by. Even if it’s not a massive change, just that little bit of change can be so good for your creativity. Liverpool is a really creative place and the newness of it has been great for my creativity.
How about your relationship with your neighbours and your local business owners and your community? Have you started to establish any connections there?
We haven’t met our neighbours too thoroughly. I do need to go talk to them because we’re planning to have a home birth and I don’t want to traumatise them. That will be an interesting way to introduce ourselves. Literally, our next door neighbours, we haven’t really spoken to too much. Liverpudlians are probably the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Canadians have a reputation for being friendly but they’re [Liverpudlians are] so friendly. It’s just quite a different experience. There’s a woman who works at the central train station who has become really friendly. She could see I was quite distressed one day. I had really severe back pain and was just struggling to get myself home. She just sparked up a conversation with me and helped me with my bags. Now, whenever I see her working there, I felt really chatty with her, with the businesses on Lark Lane, even people at the grocery store. It’s just a way different experience if people stop and talk to you way more than they do in London. People are just so friendly and go out of their way to chat with you. That’s been really nice to have that sense of community. Again, I think that can happen in London, it does, but these people are so friendly and outgoing. It’s been really, really lovely.
Liverpool is one of my favourite cities. I think that is in large part because the people are just so fantastic and open and fun and all those lovely things. The reason why I asked about those connections is that I think many of us live in cities, I happen to be from London but I know lots of people who’ve come from smaller places, they’ve landed up in London and they’ve really relished the anonymity and the possibility to reinvent themselves. At a certain point that can tip into feeling quite isolated or that you’re quite lonely and there can be a sense of lacking a community or craving a community. You have to be really, really deliberate to seek out those communities but I think it is possible when we are deliberate about that.
That’s why I ask all of my guests about their relationship with their community and the people that are living and working near to them because I think it can really enhance our day. It might be a very brief exchange, a moment of kindness or just being seen because so often, in the Big Smoke, we’re all racing around being very busy and important and we don’t notice each other. It’s a nice thing to just take an extra ten seconds to acknowledge that the other person is there, lovely things can emerge, in my experience. We often miss this because we’re in such a hurry to get from here to there.
It’s almost a skill and a value that’s been lost. You think of how people used to bring a casserole over when someone moved into the neighbourhood or you’d go introduce yourself to your neighbours. Now, I just feel like you’re so used to people being in their bubble that it would feel like an imposition almost to do that to someone, which is quite sad really. On another note, going back to social media, I’ve been lucky in both London and Liverpool to really quickly make friends and form a community because I had a community on social media and then some of those people lived in the city that I moved to. That’s happened incredibly quickly in Liverpool with a few women who were in the same Facebook group as I was. We connected and they took me out to brunch when I first moved here. They’ve just become a wonderful, really close knit group of friends right away. That’s a really wonderful thing about social media that’s prevented me from feeling isolated. I think often people even feel uncomfortable with the idea of reaching out and saying, “Would you want to grab a tea?” to someone who lives near them. In my experience, that’s always been really welcomed with open arms from the people that I’ve reached out to.
What I’m hearing though is also that it’s important to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to say, “I’m new and I’m a bit green in this place. Help me settle in.” Tell me a bit more about that.
I did it quite intentionally when I was moving to London. I knew a few bloggers that I already had a relationship with. We’d talk to each other about the things that we’d written via Twitter, so we had a little bit of a relationship. I just reached out and said, “I’m moving. Would you be up for grabbing a cup of tea? I’m not going to know anyone,” and people were really receptive to that. Lots of people, even if they already have friends in a place, most people would love to meet new people but also most of us are a little confused about how to make friends as adults because the opportunity is out the window and you’re not in school anymore. You cannot be exposed to new social circles unless you really seek that out. Everyone was really willing to do that and it just grew from there, meeting people through other people.
Similarly when I was moving to Liverpool, I had posted in this Facebook group, which is a bunch of women all across the UK, just asking if anyone who did live in Liverpool who was familiar with what neighbourhoods might be good for my husband and I to checkout houses in and let them know some things that were important to us. It ended up being the same neighbourhood came up again and again. Absolutely, it’s our favourite part of the city that we moved in to. It just so happened that there was a few of them who had started to meet up once a month for brunch. They’ve just been the most welcoming women in the world. They threw me a baby shower that was amazing after only knowing them for a few months.
I just think when you’ve already gotten to know someone a little bit online, like you probably seen them post their breakfast on Instagram or maybe they posted something really vulnerable on their blog or you really loved how they were tweeting about something to do with the election or whatever. You’ve already got a lot of that shared values and shared interest. You know what you can dive into. You already know a bit about their lives. You can really form connections really quickly that way I think because once you do meet up in real life you already feel like you do know each other.
With reference to both London and Liverpool, will you tell us about one of your favourite hidden gems in each of these cities?
There’s a really weird bar right around the corner from Broadway Market called the Last Tuesday Society. I don’t know why that comes to mind. It’s not somewhere that I really frequented regularly but it was such a funny place to take people to if they are from out of town or if you knew they had preference for their macabre and the gothier side of life because it’s disguised Museum of Curiosities and this little weird cocktail bar all in one. There are all sorts of taxidermy and weird stuff that he likes. It’s such an interesting place. It’s got a lot of personality and he puts on these big balls once a year as well. I don’t know their location. That’s an interesting place to check out. I don’t know that I know any hidden gems in Liverpool yet. The Fairy Glen in Sefton Park is worth going and sitting and reading with your book if you’d like.
It sounds pretty magical.
Just the fact that it’s called the Fairy Glen, it’s really lovely and relaxing. The sound of falling water I think is one of the most relaxing things to go and sit there with a journal or a book or just with your eyes closed or with your camera. It’s lovely and there’s lots of places you could have an adventure afterwards. That’s a lovely little place to check out.
Just a quick question then about your creative rituals and superstitions and habits and traditions, are there any particular things that you always do before you sit down to record a podcast interview or write a post or when you’re developing the ideas for your book?
I go really back and forth on this from being really ritualised specifically around writing to assuming all ritual. I’m really a huge fan of Steven Pressfield and especially his book The War of Art. The most important thing is to just show up consistently and to keep working every day even if the output is not very good or you sat there for an hour and you got a sentence out. That showing up is where the magic is. Something I’ve been experimenting with a lot recently though is just getting into a place of flow and feeling really aligned with what I’m doing before I sit down to do it.
I’ve been really listening to a lot of Jess Lively’s podcast where she’s been talking about this and the idea that sometimes when we procrastinate, it’s not that we have no will power or are not good at what we’re doing or whatever; the things that we tell ourselves to beat ourselves up about procrastination but we’re actually not ready to do it yet. We’re not in the headspace. We’re not joyful enough to sit down and have the ideas flow. Just doing things like having a really slow morning routine and maybe making something delicious for breakfast and having a little dance party; those things that raise my energy, often going for a walk is that for me too, it just gets me into this place of flow rather than being really rigid about, “I have to sit down at 9 AM and do this.” If I’m in the headspace first, I can often do a lot more in less time than if I’d really forced myself to stick to a schedule.
Are there any particular places, whether that’s a location or a venue, that’s important to you for the kind of work that you do?
To be honest, most of it happens at our dining room table or at the big cosy arm chair in the bay window in our living room. I really love the idea of being someone who spends a lot of time writing in coffee shops. I haven’t found one here yet. I keep telling my husband this. Lark Lane is this beautiful street that I absolutely love. I’m like, “It’s missing the perfect coffee shop.” Even though there’s a lovely tea room, I want this more like lounge-y coffee shop space. Anyways, I’m very particular. I’m not sure that it’s actually the right environment for me to be writing in anyways. I just have this romantic idea of it. Mostly things happen at home and then I try and just get out for little adventures throughout the day.
One question that I always ask every podcast interview guest is: What are you curious about right now and why?
You’re asking this question, two things really jumped to mind. The obvious one is I’m very curious when our baby is going to be born and what that will be like, being new parents and how life is going to shift. There are a lot of stereotypes about what that will be like. It’s really interesting how much people want to tell you how you’re going to feel both throughout pregnancy and through motherhood. I’ve been quite concerned about, how I’m going to deal with sleep deprivation, will I be okay in terms of my mental health?
I met a couple of women recently who have had babies in the last couple of months. I’ve been talking about their experiences with them and sharing my fears. It’s not everyone’s experience, it’s particular to them, but they have both found that they haven’t been sleep deprived. They think that their babies sleep an adequate amount. That they’re feeling really creative and energised and they’re doing a lot of really great work right now. I guess I’m just curious about that, about how we can have more varied narratives around all of these different areas of our lives. Not just pregnancy and birth and motherhood but that’s been something I’m curious about, what my own little experience will be and maybe some different ways that we can open up and have more broad discussions and stop telling people, “You better sleep now because you’re never going to sleep again.” It’s really not helpful.
The other thing that I’m really curious about is this idea of alignment and flow and how I can still show up to my creative work and my client work in a really dedicated and diligent way, when I’m back from maternity leave anyways, but do it from a place that’s a little bit less structured and scheduled and allows for more of this sense of flow and alignment. There’s more flow and less effort, I guess. I’m really loving learning about the different ways that people talk about that in a metaphysical way. Also just for my own experience seeing that when I allow my body and my desires and my energy to dictate the flow of my day more than a set schedule and to-do list, how that can often even result in greater productivity. It takes a lot of dismantling of beliefs and patterns around what it means to work and to be productive. I’m really curious about all of that.
That sounds really, really interesting and I look forward to hearing and reading the next instalment on your reflections of these discoveries and experiences. Thanks so much for being on the Urban Curiosity Podcast today. Please tell us where we can find more about you and your work.
The easiest place to find me is at SarahStarrs.com. Potentially a new project will be linked there soon but we’ll see if I’m insane enough to jump into that. Otherwise, I’m on Facebook and Instagram, but I’m most active on Instagram, @SarahStarrs_.
Thanks so much and all the best with the next chapter of your life with your new family.
Thanks you so much.