You have a spot in your local woods that you really love. There is a great rock or tree or meadow or something about this spot that lights you up. You decide to go there regularly, because it helps you feel calm, inspired, grounded, etc. If you’re very lucky, the magic of this spot won’t diminish, but most of the time it will. You’ll still love it, but every visit will deliver less of that transcendental charm. You will need to find a new spot.
It was Wednesday this week and I was stuck. We are enormously fortunate to have access to a little house on a mountainside in Vermont. We can isolate ourselves from other humans there AND explore the winter outdoors in something like ideal conditions (aren’t they all ideal?). One of the natural results of this opportunity to escape our suburban home is a lot of back and forth travel as we chase the weather, work around the kids’ school, and try to find windows in my wife’s relentless meeting schedule.
It disrupts our routines, albeit in positive ways.
So I found myself back home on Wednesday not sure how to move my life forward. I hadn’t run or ridden or hiked or skied in the morning, and so my mind was restless. I didn’t have the thread of an idea to follow into my keyboard. I just didn’t know what I should be doing, even though there was plenty to do.
I do well when I know what I’m supposed to do and when I’m supposed to do it. When I execute a plan, I feel comfortable that the results are usually good enough. I get outside. I get things written. I serve my small band of clients. I do some housekeeping, and getting those things crossed off the list frees me up to think about the things I want to do outside the confines of my schedule. It allows me to think and dream a bit.
The downside of living this way is that I become dependent on my routine and I push myself to conform to it, even when circumstances don’t properly allow, or it stops yielding good results. Worst case, I lose some ability to adapt to changing circumstances, which is where I sat, mid-day on Wednesday.
Habits and routines work best when the environment is static, i.e. when the ground isn’t moving under my feet. And because the ground is always moving, and I might be too engrossed in my routines to notice, I can be doing the wrong things even with the best intentions.
A good analogy might be: I’m running up a technical trail and have the habit of focusing on my footing, so as not to fall. Meanwhile the winter sun is slanting through the trees, casting silhouettes and making the snow shine. I fail to pause, even for a moment, to appreciate it. I’m too intent on left-right-left, piling up distance, achieving something nebulous like a decent mile time, and so I miss out on the mundane miracle of nature. My habits have blinded me to better options, to bigger things.
What I need to cultivate is what biologists call complex adaptive behavior. Routines are powerful, adaptability is enormously valuable, but they are opposing forces, aren’t they?
I remember talking to a guy who had recently completed Paris-Brest-Paris, the 1200km cycling event that tests the randonneuring skills of the world’s longest distance riders. He said that, at any point in the 90 hours you have to complete the course, you will have difficulties, but that ultimately there are only three solutions. Eat. Slow down. Or sleep. This is a pretty good metaphor for balancing routine and adaptation, I think.
The pedaling is my routine. Moving forward requires pedaling. The three solutions are, obviously, adaptations to the routine, ways to move forward that are less direct than simply pedaling at top speed. What is instructive for me in this simple example is that in the moment it can be hard to know whether to eat, slow down or sleep, because at the sharp end of endurance even simple decision making is difficult. And of course, PBP is mainly an individual event. It doesn’t contemplate the full complexity of our lives, which are subject to more distractions and disruptions and require far more complex adaptive behavior.
Eventually, on Wednesday, I found my way. I pulled out an old piece of writing, dusted and edited it. I stopped to consider how my routine could be adapted to the back-and-forth of our winter explorations. I willed my mind to accept a bit more chaos and to let go of a little productivity. Not everything worthwhile can be crossed off a list.
And as always, I related it to what I’m doing on a long trail run. I’m out there solving luxury problems, overcoming adversity I’ve manufactured for myself as a way to field test my adaptability. Then maybe, when I’m stuck in my life, I have the will and the tools to unstick myself and keep moving forward.