There are the obvious hiking things that appeal to most everyone who is human and not outdoors averse: communion with nature, the reward of an arduous climb that leads to a breathtaking view, the chance to “unplug,” wildlife.
I love all these qualities, but there’s something else, too: meditation. On solo hikes, within the first fifteen minutes a sensation overtakes me. It’s both physical and emotional, and it starts in the center of my chest and blooms outward to my shoulders. It catches me, and it almost always surprises me until I recognize it and feel silly for having forgotten it would happen. I don’t analyze or examine it, I accept and enjoy it. Oh, right! I say to myself: peace.
Not sure about your daily life, but chances are it’s as peppered as mine is with interruptions and distractions. In fact yours might be worse; since I work at home and have no children, I actually can catch a few uninterrupted hours on most days—a luxury, I know. But of course I mostly perforate these hours with my own toddler brain.
I send a work email and check Facebook. I get on a work call and pull up solitaire on my phone (I find it calming to move the cards methodically from one pile to another, bringing order to pixelated chaos, and I’ve made a pretty convincing argument to myself that it actually helps me pay better attention to meetings from which my mind might otherwise wander). I turn to the second page of a study I’m reading for work and reply to a Hangouts message from my boyfriend. I get up for a snack. I go downstairs for a cup of coffee. I check Facebook.
I hope none of this sounds horribly irresponsible to anyone, because you do it, too: I see you on Facebook.
Of course, in the midst of the frittering, I manage to get work done. I meet deadlines; I handle responsibilities.
It’s just so damn fractured. The idea of an attention span feels comical, suggesting wings, soaring, distance. With me it’s more of an attention blip. That is, when I actually do attend to any one thing for anything approaching a length of time, it’s an anomaly.
Our diminishing and pitiful attention spans are all over the news lately—here, for example, and here. Just this week, I signed up to be part of an experiment on focus, called Infomagical, with WNYC’s podcast “Note to Self.” I get a challenge via text each day, designed to help me meet a goal (there were several to choose from; I picked “be more creative.”) The idea is that a week of challenges might help participants rebuild the ability to focus, which in normal life I simply don’t seem able to do.
Except … except while hiking. Out on the trail, there aren’t any arm-waving interruptions. There aren’t whole menus of choices for what to do next. There aren’t scores of decisions to make about how to spend the next few hours, half hour, 30 seconds: I simply have to step until it’s enough, and then step till I return to the car.
Recent research has linked decision-making and willpower, finding that our resources for both come from the same fixed pool. Sleep, rest, and sugar replenish this pool, but make no mistake: it is finite. With all the possibilities we have, we make dozens of decisions every single day, all day long. Many of these decisions are about where to direct our attention: Keep reading this chapter or reply to that email? Get snack now or finish writing this paragraph? Respond to colleague’s instant message or maintain concentration on the task at hand?
Check Facebook or not? Check Facebook or not? Check Facebook or not?
Each time we pick, we draw from a shallow pool of willpower-and-decision-making resources, and once we deplete it, it’s gone. Hence willpower isn’t something we can simply will to strengthen. Rather, we can better gain control and meet our goals by structuring (hacking, rigging) our lives, through planning, to minimize decision making.
The beautiful thing about the trail—the lovely thing about nature and wilderness that I’m far from the first person to point out—is that out there, such life-rigging is moot. AT thru-hiker memoirs all describe the singular beauty of such a low-decision life. When you boil it down, each day you make just two simple choices: when to start hiking and when to stop.
I realize these decisions don’t fall very high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, but maybe focusing a little bit lower down is just what someone as attention fractured as I am—as we all are if we admit it—really needs.
So, back to that Infomagical series. The first day’s challenge was single tasking—doing just one thing at a time, all day long.
If only my hike had started already, I’d be way ahead of the game.
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