Why Less is More: How To Actually Make The Most of Your Time Abroad

What do you get when you mix a short attention span, an unrealistic and never ending “to-do” list with a serious case of FOMO and a healthy dash of anxiety? You get a Bernadette (¡soy yo!), who often does the most.

What do you get when you place a high-strung, ambitious, and unfocused Bernadette, who does the most, in Spain for two years? A hot mess, that’s what.

I’m dramatic, so to be clear, my version of “hot mess” isn’t on par with Lifetime’s version. But my definition of hot mess does include some key disappointments and failures to launch or land—not because I was lazy or unmotivated (except when I was), but because I was probably busy doing something else. Out of the various lessons I have learned, and continue to learn, long after my first round as a Morena en España, none resonates more deeply, or presents as frequently as doing less will net you more.

As we all know (or hope to know in the future), moving abroad is a wonderful, yet dizzying experience. There’s an infinite list of experiences to have while living abroad—from making international friends, mastering the language, globetrotting as often as fiscally possible, and learning the nooks and crannies of your new hometown, to starting a business, romantic endeavors, and participating in the culture around you. These are just some of the encounters you may choose to have, and not including the activities you must engage in, including your hustle(s) to pay the alquiler (rent) and gastos (bills), the time and effort to sustain your ties to home, general adulting, plus for good measure, the endless stream of paperwork and appointments necessary to maintain your legal immigrant status.

Given these competing demands on your attention taken  within the context of a limited time of living abroad, it’s easy to get caught up in feeling as if you must do all of these things, almost all of the time. It’s even easier to become overwhelmed by actually doing it all, which will likely result in you running yourself ragged, robbing you of both the time and energy to actually appreciate your expatriate life.


So... you do the most...

Part of the problem is that pesky, unwritten rule in the Expatriate’s Guide to Awesomeness, that emphatically commands you to make the absolute most of the incredible privilege to live abroad. Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is the Expatriate’s Guide to Awesomeness something I literally just made up, but that that said “rule”, usually in the form of a long checklist cycling through your head, demanding you Eat, Pray, Love Under the Iberian Sun, is the ultimate set up for disappointment.

I am here to tell you, DO LESS. You. Cannot. Do. It. all.

Don’t believe me? I did it all—because I “had” to work 3 jobs because #bishesneedmoney, and I “had” to go out when I invited because #bishesneedcultureandtapas and I “had” to date because #bishesneedguapos. I had to do it all, right up until I found myself at the four months into my second year in Spain, in the midst full blown anxiety attack during lunch break at school. The worst part was after having talked myself into calming the eff down, I had to finish my work day in a school full of children. In addition to that very pointed and rather unpleasant wake up call, that list of what I should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve done better, if I had known, taunts me to this day. So, basically don’t be like me. Do less, let go of those lists,  and live abroad better. How, Sway? Glad you asked.


Now, how to do less...

Seriously. The only things you really need to do are pay our bills, stay black, and die.

Prioritize your wants and needs in a list, and then scratch those down to three each.

Seriously. The only things you really need to do are pay our bills, stay black, and die.

So consider what experiences you truly want to have while abroad, and then think further on what you hope to gain from them. Will they change your perspective? Teach you something? Connect you to the people and culture around you? Or will they just be a good time that will become a hazy memory? I know the party scene in Spain is epic and by all means, werk, Lord knows I did. But also be mindful that there is plenty of fun outside of partying.

Your list of wants may include dating, socializing with friends, and improving your Spanish. I’ll be generous and consider travel, like work, as a need, but don’t forget that self-care is a must!

Be efficient with your time, and combine some of your efforts. There’s no place quite like the intercambio. Bring your friends, go and make new friends, practice your Spanish, flirt shamelessly or stealthily, push past your comfort zone; kill several birds with one regular weekly outing. Got a group of friends that you like to hang with without interruption? Make a friends night of it, and if you can do it at your (or their) piso and save some euros, you’re still making memories, while hoarding cash for travel too.


Learn to say “No”.

As the poster child for FOMO, I know how hard this can be. Saying “no” seems diametrically opposed to the whole concept of being open to new things and adventures, especially while abroad. But saying “yes” to tapas (again), automatically means saying “no” to something else. Missing out on things is an inevitable part of life and that includes life abroad. So if saying “no” to something means a “yes” to self care, or stashing much needed coins, or something less flashy but more enriching, exercise your best judgment, not your weakest impulses. Choose a night or two when you’ll make yourself available for dates, but don’t date every week. Do not skimp on self-care—you must take the time to listen to your own spirit, which cannot be heard over the noise of being busy all the time.

While watching Insecure with some vino is great, does it make you feel calm, renewed, and reconnected to your inner self? That is the purpose of self-care, and if you haven’t yet, try exploring yoga, meditation, journaling, or some form of artistic expression—I personally love those coloring books for grown ups, and post Madrid anxiety attack, I found relief and restoration in Bikram Yoga. It literally changed the course of my year in Madrid, because it taught me to prioritize myself over my “have to” list, and I was much better for it.


 Last but not least, leave space for spontaneity.

Spontaneity is often the best kind of adventure, and it would a shame if you missed it because you were too busy doing something else. No matter if you’re abroad temporarily or indefinitely, if allow yourself the time and space to both discover and nurture the most important parts of yourself, awesomeness is sure to come.

1 Fear of Missing Out.

2 Guapos are sexy men, and bad bishes such as myself enjoy the company of sexy men. I don’t actually “need” them, but alliteration sells...

3 unless the DJ is spinning hip hop and reggae, in which case you must always werk werk werk werk…

Bernadette is true Jersey girl — impatient, unfiltered, and infamously averse to mayonnaise. Her affinity for the finer things in life include high-end leather boots, jamón ibérico, and all things bourbon. She and her miniature poodle Kona, currently reside on the wrong side of the Atlantic in Baltimore, MD. But Madrid is their spirit city, and they plan of finding their way back in the future, this time for keeps. You can find more of her work here.