Normally when I go jogging, which I sort of hate, I’m tuned in to an iPod or something else that takes my mind off the fact that I’m bored, out of shape, getting older, and would rather be doing just about anything else. And even though I still refuse to go to a gym, I recognized myself immediately in this New York Times story about people who multitask at the gym to avoid having to think about exercising.
But a few weeks ago, I began to feel differently about distractions. It happened when I started jogging on a trail on which distracting myself didn’t seem like the best idea — the trail is fairly desolate, leads to the middle of nowhere, and has been the scene of at least one recent and very bad crime that I’m aware of. I also wanted to keep my ears open to hear the amazing creatures living along the trail — not only the ones I want to see (hawks, jackrabbits, roadrunners, golden eagles, egrets) but especially the ones I want to avoid (rattlesnakes, bobcats, coyotes). And I knew I couldn’t hope to glimpse (or outrun) any of these animals if I was plugged into an iPod.
And somehow, with nothing to distract me but the sagebrush and the sky and the heat, I actually enjoyed that first jog. Thinking it had to have been a fluke, I went out again, iPodless, and enjoyed it even more. And, just like that, now I actually look forward to heading for the trail instead of finding excuses not to.
I think this NYT story spells out exactly why: instead of a chore, it had become my downtime. As the article notes, “when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.” In other words, I had a problem, and the first step was admitting it: I was addicted to busyness. And I’m far from alone.
In case you’re wondering whether you’re not getting enough mental downtime, here’s one of those “do I have a problem?” quizzes for you:
- Do you check your smartphone for email/voicemail/Facebook/etc. before you get out of bed?
- Do you email/play games/text/tweet/etc. when in line at the post office/bank/wherever?
- Do you do a million things at the gym/while exercising to take your mind off the fact that you’re exercising?
- Do you often feel overwhelmed, time-strapped, snarky?
- When you sit down to write, do you feel… A) inspired and focused; B) scattered and stressed?
If you’ve answered “yes” to the first four and chose “B” for the last one, you’ve got a problem. (For the record, so do I.) But there is hope for us. All we need to do is unplug a little bit.
So I’m taking a few baby steps in that direction. I’ve begun daily meditation. (The “daily” part lasted only a week, but remember: recovery is a process.) And I’ve all but abandoned my iPod. I’ve made an effort to cut back on the multitasking; whether it’s talking on the phone or checking email, I do one thing at a time, and one thing only. And ever since, I’ve had more writing epiphanies, more useful ideas, better creative energy, and more focus. While we busy people always think we can’t afford not to do a lot of things at once, remember what Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist, said in the Times article about multitasking: “People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves.”
I took this photo one morning after meditation, and I look at it often. It reminds me that slowing down in life doesn’t mean that I’ll fall behind but that, in the end, I’ll come out ahead.