Biking As Downtime and Other Musings on Overproductivity
I’ve noted before in this space that I have a slight tendency to overdo. The world offers up lots of kudos for this. In fact, I just won an award you might attribute to overdoing, in a way (the 2010 YWCA Women of Achievement Award for Volunteer Community Service, which was an incredible honor and this isn’t meant to diss the award!).
Joining, doing and leading are lifelong habits of mine. At the same time I’m pretty fiercely dedicated to downtime, some of which is cleverly disguised as biking for transportation or for "exercise" (fun).
This didn’t used to be the case, mind you. I used to just add more and more and more and more and more (you get the idea) to the list. I’d end up feeling overwhelmed, feeling as if I’d failed people to whom I had made a commitment because I hadn’t done everything that I knew I could bring to the cause.
Note that most of the time the only person who knew there was “supposed to be more” was me. I have a deep-seated tendency to, as we like to say around our house, should on myself. I should have done this, I should do that. And there are so many good causes you should help!
Somewhere along the way I decided to stop saying yes to everyone who asked so I could be more present for the ones to whom I had already said yes, including my family. I tried to perfect a response along the lines of, “I can’t give it what I want to be able to give and I’m not willing to settle for less.” Much to my amazement, it’s okay to say no and (as far as I know, anyway) I haven’t lost any friends or broken any furniture.
And now for biking, as the title promised.
Biking can be a discipline to which you bring all the shoulding and compulsive over-achieving possible. (I know this because I’m married to someone who trains for bike racing.)
Fortunately for me, I’d already outgrown some of the Western world’s thinking about athletic achievement thanks to a yoga practice of several years. In yoga, where you are in your practice is where you are. Force it and you’ll snap a hamstring (which makes a sound like a rifle shot, as I know from painful firsthand experience).
Settle into your practice, though, instead of striving constantly for “more” and “should” and “better” and “perfect”; bring everything you have into that moment; and you will have a deeply satisfying experience that uses every cell and fiber in your body. (And you do improve so that ambition thing gets satisfied eventually.)
Biking is much the same way. Like yoga, it provides a wonderful practice opportunity for mindfulness meditation. Riding in traffic is particularly good for this. You pay attention only to your cycling, drivers and vehicles around you, pedestrians who may step in front of you, road conditions, and the other factors that affect your safety.
There is no cruise control on a bike, no “set and forget.” The street that one day is dry and bare may have a touch of frost the next morning so you have to brake a little sooner. If you’re riding with the flow of traffic you’re constantly adjusting pedaling pace to maintain a safe distance as drivers speed up mid-block, then hit the brakes at the next red light (the world needs more hypermilers). And like yoga, the more you do the better you get.
This may sound like a lot of input. Compare it to a workday with ringing phones, people coming into your office with questions, the email notice blooming constantly in the corner of your monitor, a dozen or more tabs open in your browser--and I actually have two monitors at work, not one, so I have twice the real estate in which to create screens full of competing projects.
Paying attention to only one purpose--riding my bike--instead of dealing with multiple purposes and priorities is incredibly relaxing by comparison.
When I ride my bike I’m completely in the moment. At the same time I have created a space in which I cannot be distracted by electronic technology, thus improving my ability to focus. Much as it may amaze some of my online acquaintances to realize this, I do not actually tweet every five minutes.
When I think back on the commute I used to have, driving from Coeur d’Alene to Spokane and back every day, the only thing I miss is my local public radio station. But even that provided constant stimulation—I was never without some kind of input.
Around 50% of all car trips in the U.S. are three miles or less. This is ridiculously short—the engine doesn’t even warm up. But on a bike that distance takes about 15 minutes, a wonderful length of time that lets you clear your head and make some space in your life.
Biking is downtime, a precious commodity in our plugged-in, wired, always-on world. And it’s fun.