Juggling It All

One of the guys I mentor is in life setup mode and is juggling an incredible amount of obligations and hobbies. When I observed this, he asked me to list them…and was surprised to hear such a long list.

Yup. Sometimes we boil away in the pot and don’t realize how overwhelmed we are.

This reminds me of a quote from Oprah: “You can have it all. Just not all at once.”

There is time to dig deep into many things in our lives, but scattering our energy all at once doesn’t allow deep diving, potentially creating dissatisfaction. Embrace the seasons for what t

Which brings me to this wonderful poem that Austin Kleon shared awhile back. Substitute anything you enjoy for the three…and then choose two.

You Want a Social Life, With Friends

by Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends.

A passionate love life and as well

To work hard every day. What’s true

Is of these three you may have two

And two can pay you dividends

But never may have three.

Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–

To find the time to have love, work, and friends.

Michelangelo had feeling

For Vittoria and the Ceiling

But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets

Wrote all day but had no lockets

Bright with pictures of his Girl.

I know one who loves and parties

And has done so since his thirties

But writes hardly anything at all.

playing outdoor chess in Christchurch

Playing life like chess

How approaching life with a chess mindset helps focus us on achievable goals

Playing chess in Christchurch, NZ as a youngster back in 2005.

After enjoying chess in my youth, this winter I returned to playing online with friends. The nuances of the game and geometric beauty of the positions fire my brain up.

Whoa, I sound like a chess nerd. YES.

One chess concept is called “working backwards to forwards.” Basically, you picture the achievable checkmate type based on the pieces you have (e.g. a knight and a rook). Then you work backward to the moves needed to achieve the goal. Different pieces, different type of checkmate.

What if we applied this to our lives? We all have unique constraints (e.g. work, family, pets, skills, finances, desire for particular activities). How often do we look at our available “pieces” and think, “My achievable goals are ____.”

Personal example: both Chelsea and I are hankering for long-term travel. We also have an 18 YO cat who requires frequent care, including subcutaneous fluids every other day. He’s going to live another 10 years at this rate, so we need to readjust.

Just like I can’t checkmate an opponent with only my king and a knight, I can’t currently can’t travel with Chelsea. If I beat my head against the idea of long-term travel given my pieces on the board, frustration descends. Checkmate…on me.

Instead, I reframed things. We’ve traveled a ton and we’ll do it again. I can still bikepack with friends or take solo van trips, which I always enjoy. When I’m home, my piano beckons from the living room and Bend is a fabulous place to live and recreate.

Knowing the constraints helps me eliminate “ohhh, I wish I could do ____” and narrow it down to “this is what I can accomplish now.” I’m finding that it’s quite useful.

And when I get back to Christchurch for an outdoor chess rematch, I’m gonna be ready.

Tips for New Cyclists

My first post-college bike. A fixie (sigh), aka no gears. I’ve learned things since.

The writer Austin Kleon posted recently about buying a bicycle (his first as an adult) and getting obsessed. He’s a total beginner, so he put out a call to his readers asking for tips.

I’ve ridden my fair share of miles on a bicycle (30,000+ by last count), so I decided to weigh in. I pulled from many arenas: daily commuting in the rain in Portland, cross-country bike tours, mountain bike day rides and longer bikepacking trips…but no unicyles.

Here’s my response:

YES TO BIKES! Careful, you’re going to be planning a cross-country tour before you know it.

You can ride a bike without a bunch of fancy gear, but the right equipment makes it a) far safer c) more practical for errands and c) comfortable. As a long-time cycling fan(atic) who has ridden tens of thousands of miles on roads and trails, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Get a rack and some panniers to haul stuff like groceries and books to the bookstores. Ortlieb makes the best panniers IMO. (I’ve commuted and toured the world with mine for 10,000 miles with zero problems.)
  2. Get lights that can blow cars off the road. Front and back. 600 lumens front and a cherry bomb rear are perfect. Check out these reviews.
  3. Get a sweet bell like a Spurcycle. Pedestrians and other cyclists know what to do with bells, but ON YOUR LEFT makes them step left. Always.
  4. Get padded shorts aka a riding chamois…AND get chamois butter to rub on said bike shorts and nether regions before rides. That stuff is magic for reducing saddle sores, especially for new riders.
  5. Study basic bike maintenance. Learn how to change a flat and tune up your shifting as a bare minimum. Lots of bike shops offer them and YouTube is your friend.
  6. Always have chain lube on hand and use it frequently. Finish Line is excellent.
  7. Find your city’s best bike routes and stay away from cars as much as possible. Learn those routes so well you don’t need to look at a map.
  8. If you need a map, a phone coupled with Quadlock’s products are the bomb. Mount your phone on your bike so you can follow Google Maps hands-free.
  9. If you want to get faster, find experienced cyclists to ride with. Go get your ass kicked trying to hang on their wheel.
  10. Get a bike rack so you can take your bike anywhere you travel.
  11. Find and support (if you have the means) your city, region, and state bike advocacy groups. Great sources for maps, routes, bike info, and events, plus they’re likely the groups fighting for bike infrastructure. (Someone added this to my list and I stole their excellent idea!)

#bikenutalert

There are of course many more ideas, but this will get you rolling!

california coast

Hard choices, easy life

Anytime stress rains down, I feel pulled to chill beach vibes. The ocean always grounds me.

It’s been a full-on start to 2022 in Traipsingville.

Drama for my business, tenant trouble in a rental property, a couple of minor surgeries for Chelsea, and more.

Curveball after curveball. My dad reassured me that I’ve always excelled at hitting, but wow.

Along with my “this is why I get paid” mantra, I also returned to this one:

Hard choices, easy life.

You can sit and watch a situation in your life grow increasingly difficult. Or you can choose the harder, better choice, the one your future self will thank you for.

Step up to the plate and smack those damn curveballs.

Pick up the phone and make the tough business calls.

Say goodbye to a bad tenant.

Get the surgery for the belly button hernia you’ve had since birth that flared up when your pushy husband made you hoist a heavy solar panel up to the roof. (SORRY, CHELSEA.)

Just do it.

None of those actions are easy. They require confrontation, research, stress, and potential conflict.

Ah, but the result? An easier life, back on cruise control until the next fork in the road.

A stronger, more resilient business.

A stable rental property (screw that, we’re selling ours…which is even harder).

No more worrying about a physical ailment.

Hard choices, easy life. The way through is action.

Onward.

Laughing with troublesome friends

Austin Kleon shared this 2-min video of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama laughing gleefully during an interview. At one point, Tutu is asked,

“What is it about your friendship that allows you to have this extraordinary joy?”

He ponders a moment and says, “He’s always troubling me…” and then cracks up.

I just love that. Because what’s better than a friend (or life partner) to laugh uproariously with one moment, then turn around and be intellectually challenged by them in the next?

(Clearly this is my interpretation of what Archbishop Tutu means.)

Some of my closest friends come to mind. In fact, I’ve realized I struggle to get close to people who can’t both go deep and be humorous. An interesting filter for who I invest time in.

I am oh-so-very biased here, but I couldn’t agree more with the below line. It’s from the co-author on a book about Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama spending a week together called The Book of Joy.

“Having worked with many spiritual leaders, I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.”

Douglas Abrams

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Forget goal setting, invest in skills

Goal: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail. Skills to do it? Acquired over many years.

Ah, a new year! A fantastic time to hate the old us: let’s whittle away our bloated physical bodies, quiet our ping-ponging minds, change our crappy jobs, and eat celery while taking cold showers and doing pushups.

Meh. I don’t buy it. Can’t we just be happy with who we are and still be on a personal growth path?

Maybe that’s why I loved Mark Manson’s recent thoughts on goals vs. developing skills. As he says,

“What are you improving at? What are you learning and gaining?

Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve in the new year, ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at that I’m not?” Then get to work on it.”

Mark Manson

Goals are things you want to accomplish. Skills are things you DO. (Which, incidentally, can help accomplish goals.)

Want to lose weight? Skill: learn how to cook three healthy meals.

Want to make more in-real-life friends? Skill: Learn how to be more vulnerable and listen better.

In the past, I’ve prioritized freedom and flexibility over a strict schedule. Game for an outdoor adventure or a friend hang at any time. Benefits, yes…with the downside that I wasn’t consistent with skill development.

Last year, I booked weekly Italian/piano lessons and committed to drawing consistently. I didn’t miss a day of studying my Italian flashcards with Anki and slowly but surely learned 4,000 vocab words. Thanks to that, I made tangible and incredibly satisfying progress. Small, consistent efforts lead to real skills.

I’m not as available now, but the tradeoff in schedule flexibility is 100% worth it. Now the days where I barely play music or skip a drawing session feel incomplete. I can’t imagine going back to the old me.

Which reminds me of this quote from Stillness is the Key…

So: to hell with goals. What skill can you commit to developing this year?

I’ll go first: I want to improve my portraiture skills, so I’m starting 2022 with drawing a portrait every day in January. Gawwwd they are hard!

A young Franz Liszt (composer and virtuoso pianist).

The power of sharing your thoughts online

Have you ever considered sharing your thoughts publicly via a newsletter, blog, podcast, or vlog? Based on my experience doing so, I can heartily say make. it. happen.

Why? Well…

Publishing Traipsing About for the past eight years has added so much richness to my life. Almost 100 newsletters and 200+ blog posts in, things just keep getting better. (By things, I mean my T. Rex drawings, not my jokes.)

T. Rex tries to brush his teeth

I have good friends who initially found me through Traipsing About. A cousin I’d never met randomly read my Italian citizenship blog post and I discovered a whole side of my family I didn’t know existed! (Pretty sure they’re New Jersey Italian mafia.)

An extra bonus: writing consistently keeps me connected with friends and family. They witness my antics and keep tabs on me even when kids and jobs make staying in touch difficult. It sparks email exchanges and connection. Sure, Facebook and Instagram kiiiinda work, but it’s not the same depth as longer-form media.

There’s power in putting thoughts down and sharing them publicly. It clarifies things in a way that a private journal sometimes can’t.

I’ve gained so much from following others who also share their thoughts and struggles, so it’s satisfying to be part of that great internet diaspora and pay it forward.

I also love getting random emails from you when I share things I’ve screwed up learned. It fascinates me how my personal experience with money, travel, relationships, or social media use can impact someone if it hits them at the right time.

People want to hear what you’re thinking. Put it out there! Substack has free newsletters, podcasting can be done with a $40 microphone, YouTube only requires a smart phone, Twitter takes 37 seconds to sign up…

What better time than now?

Here’s to the amateurs

Beethoven bad portrait
Early drawing efforts in an old notebook my mom gave me.

In today’s full-tilt culture, amateur often carries a negative meaning. If a hobby doesn’t morph into a monetized side hustle, what’s the point?

Take drawing, for example. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw something beyond stick figures. To test the waters, I’ve sketched almost every night this year. Then I text a photo of my creation to my college roommate, Eric, who is doing the same.

I’m a total noobie. Eric, a long-time artist, is amazing. The contrast between our drawings is, errrr, obvious…

But you know what? It doesn’t matter! We crack each other up, share moments from our daily lives, and flex our drawing muscles in the the process. I’m improving, slowly but steadily.

It’s like getting a cardio workout while playing basketball: if you’re having fun, it doesn’t feel like a w.o.r.k.o.u.t. Try feeling that way during solo wind sprints.

Amateurs have it better

The word amateur has Latin roots in “love.” In both French (amateur) and Italian (amatore) it’s not about skill, but love and passion.

Compare that to the stress of professionals. I’ve read about pianists whose nerves are so bad they throw up before performances! I may get some nerves while playing for friends, but I tend to keep my dinner down.

Historically, the amateur was considered to be the ideal balance between pure intent, open mind, and the interest or passion for a subject. The gentleman scientists (think Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin) were amateurs in the best sense of the word, following their curiosity whichever way it went.

Those guys set the bar high, but they didn’t start out discovering gravity or evolution. Initially they looked at falling apples and studied mollusks.

Me? I study dinosaur mobility.
(Every T. Rex hates the sit and reach test.)

Why is art different?

What I find fascinating is that people spend their time on so many activities where they’re distinctly amateur without feeling a pressure to make money. Chess tournaments, local 5k running races, strumming the guitar. Few people get paid for those hobbies.

But creating physical ART?! No way, dude: that’s a waste of time. Maybe it’ll be worth it if I open an Etsy store or sell an NFT?

PFFFFT. I enjoy drawing (and writing this blog, playing piano and so on) because they’re satisfying and fun creative outlets, not a source of income. I don’t have to think about marketing, customer acquisition cost, or…

Sorry, I drifted off with all that boring business crap. NONE of which I have to do as an amateur!

The next time you’re going deep on a hobby and someone asks when you’re turning it into a business, be proud of your amateurishness. Remember, nothing wrecks an enjoyable hobby like turning it into work.

Whoa, what happened to Amelie’s eyes? DOESN’T MATTER, I’m an amateur. BOOM.
Amelie, take 2. Ignore the (amateurish) watercolor seep through… Still having fun!
making soy yogurt

Sharing the Mental Load

At some point in the past decade, I read an eye-opening article about how mental load, the invisible labor involved in handling a household and family, is usually carried by women. It suggested that for those of us without it, mental load is the water we swim in, unseen and natural, the actions helping the household hum along without a hitch. 

My initial reaction was, “That’s not MY situation. I love my wife and value her time the same as mine. I’m a woke-ass 21st Century Man! I read Brené Brown!”

How wrong I was. 

Looking at my to-do list versus Chelsea’s simply astounded me. Mine was simple; hers ranged from shopping lists and thinking about Christmas cards and gifts to cleaning the house and writing departure checklists prior to trips. The sheer quantity of things on her mind scorched my brain. (It still does.)

I won’t describe mental load further: this brilliant cartoon does it perfectly. 

Taking the Red Pill

In the classic movie The Matrix, Neo is offered The Red Pill, a dose of unalloyed truth that exposes reality. It ain’t pretty.

Realizing I was swimming in the water of Chelsea’s mental load was my Red Pill. Luckily, I immediately understood that and jumped right in to help.

NOT. My first reaction was defensive and bristly, pointing out allll the things I helped with. “I take out the trash, I fix stuff, I… ummm.” 

Like many men, I overestimated my contribution and it took many conversations and personal honesty to scale that wall and see the truth behind it: I had gotten lazy and accustomed to the comfort created by someone else. 

Sure, I’d created a business that supported us. I worked out and DID stuff, but I did it all outside the house. At home, I was actually quite useless. Sure, I’d install a bookshelf or change a bike tire, but Chelsea contributed far more in terms of who did most of the necessary house chores. 

No surprise that I had this mindset. Looking back, I noticed this widely accepted uneven task distribution everywhere: in the books we read, the popular culture references we absorb. For me, it was even present in my grandparents’ relationship as my grandma served my grandpa hand and foot as he read the newspaper.

This isn’t medieval times: we Westerners are in relationships built around love, not the need to heal a political rift with a neighboring kingdom. If I valued Chelsea’s life energy equal to mine, things needed to change.

Don’t Ask “How Can I Help?”

Surprisingly, asking “How can I help?” without offering suggestions didn’t actually help. It simply made me an unpaid, unskilled intern wandering around asking for projects. This made everything harder on Chelsea, who had to spend MORE time on each task because she had to talk me through it. It wasn’t even worth having the free labor!

I’d joke about being terrible at doing dishes/cleaning/cooking, but I was dodging the simple reality that I wasn’t willing to carry my weight or put in the time to learn simple, useful tasks.

Now I can see why some women throw up their hands in frustration and let their partners sit around and be served. Learning is messy and slow and watching ineptness is difficult to stomach.

Instead of asking, “How can I help?” start by paying attention. The best interns observe, learn about their field via research and talking to employees, and then show up with a list of ideas for how they can contribute. They see a pain point, then ask if addressing that might be useful. The same applies on the home front.

People currently carrying the mental load, take note: your partner is going to fail miserably at things. They’re going to make the kitchen look like a Jackson Pollock painting when washing the dishes and wander around grocery stores like a poorly-programmed robot when they first start doing their share of the shopping.

Although you’ll be justified in a few exasperated sighs and an occasional “I’ll just do it, get outta here,” your help and patience will maintain enthusiasm during their learning process.

It certainly did to me. With Chelsea’s help—and lots of patience—I expanded my skills. I noticed things the house needed, started refilling toilet paper when it ran out. I made bad meals, bought the wrong kind of broth at the store, and did a terrible job cleaning our bathrooms.

But I improved!

Fundamental Levels of Adulting

At some point, our mommies stop wiping our butts. We get jobs and pay our own car insurance, but somehow some of us forget there are other understated skills involved in adulting, skills that make us more independent.

Part of my transition to adulthood, the one I didn’t think I needed, consisted of learning how to shop and cook for myself and how to be totally fine if Chelsea had a family emergency across the country. (Without her needing to leave me food in the fridge.)

I’ve been contributing much more. From adding household staples to Anylist and throwing sheets in the laundry to handling food shopping and cooking more, I try to anticipate household needs. I even clean bathrooms, and they don’t need to be (re)cleaned after me!

I made mistakes and asked Chelsea a lot of questions early on—especially in the kitchen—but now I can hold my own.

I’ve learned that household tasks are skills, not just demeaning labor that’s below me. My appreciation deepens when I spend the time and effort on them. Especially cooking! These days, I can host a four-course dinner party for six and all Chelsea has to do is set the table and prep some beautiful flower arrangements.

It’s empowering! Now I’m oh-so aware of the imbalance I see in relationships around me, which makes me admire my male friends who are bucking the trend and cooking, handling childcare, and contributing in other ways.

Of course, anyone not experiencing mental load wants to maintain their kingly status, whether mindfully or without thinking. Hot meals, a clean house and not worrying about life logistics? Sign me up. Wars are fought over maintaining power and the status quo. 

Do I prefer cleaning bathrooms to playing piano or going for a bike ride? Not a chance.

Still, if we value our partners and want to support their best, most-fulfilled life, we owe it to them to step up to the plate and swing at some curveballs, even if we whiff at first.

I’m not ready for my own cooking show yet, but making delicious vegan soy yogurt sure is fun.

The Benefits of Sharing the Mental Load

It’s easy to think, “oh, that’s beneath me…” But someone in your house is doing that work, and you’re choosing to be in a romantic relationship with that person. 

Why is your time worth more than theirs, regardless if you earn more or do “more important” work with your time. An hour is an hour is an hour. What dreams is your partner side-lining—or unaware of—thanks to carrying a large share of the burden? 

In our case, the answer became painfully obvious once I started doing my share. Chelsea now commits to animal protection and social justice causes. She helps organize conferences and retreats, host potlucks and women’s groups, does political canvassing. She gardens and hikes up a storm with friends.

She also feels comfortable lying on the couch after a long hike while I make dinner and clean up, because she doesn’t feel like she has to use all her free time productively. As a result of me being less of a child, she can kick back and use the time that’s rightfully hers to work on her dreams as well as to relax.

And that gives a whole new meaning to doing those few tasks, no matter how “beneath me” they might subconsciously feel. The way I look at it now, not doing my share is akin to actively stopping Chelsea from doing something she likes. 

I wouldn’t do that, so scrubbing toilets remains on my weekly to-do list. Figuring out the logistics isn’t always easy, but the idea of giving each other a gift of time by consistently showing up for the mundane moments as well as for the shiny, fun ones makes it all worthwhile.

Taking the First Step

Sure, I could survive on my own before—on a diet of burritos and stir fries—but now I’m capable in the kitchen and helpful with household tasks. It didn’t happen overnight, it wasn’t easy, but what’s the value in supporting your spouse while gaining life skills for operating confidently and independently? Priceless!

I started small. I considered how I could help out. I got shooed out of the kitchen. Trust me: the help will eventually be appreciated.

Excuse me, gotta go. Time to go load the dishwasher. Which I still suck at. (I try, really!) But I’m not giving up.

——

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bikepacking colorado trail

Sayonara, Instagram: Why I Left Social Media

I remember the glee and rush of dopamine from my first hits of Instagram in 2012. People cared about what I shared! (And not only my biggest fan—hi, Mom.)

Beyond travel blogging I cranked out in 2005 during a world trip, Instagram was my first foray into sharing creative work with strangers. It encouraged me to put my own personal touch on a place, an experience, a vista. Filters, yeahhh.

Our three-year van trip coincided with the platform’s rocketing popularity, so although I was new to the ‘Gram and Chelsea wasn’t comfortable with the look-at-me approach, any photo with a van, a #vanlife and a pretty view yielded hundreds of likes. AND LOTS OF DOPAMINE.

On top of this like-induced rush telling me to love it, I also thrilled at the opportunity to meet driven, compelling people. The possibility of meeting intriguing people in-person initially hooked me.

And yes, hooked is absolutely the right word. Instagram felt irresistible. My good intentions to set boundaries with the app and post in the mornings and respond to comments (aka check likes) in the evenings spilled into, no, flooded, any free moments I had throughout the day. 

Perhaps you know the compulsion to pull your phone out during any pause, or while wandering around the grocery store? (Chelsea calls me frozen when I stop mid-activity with my head buried in the phone.) What about pausing a conversation at a party ostensibly for a bathroom break, but really because you haven’t looked at your phone for an hour? Yup. I’ve done that. Sigh.

Coming Down

Gradually all these moments added up to significant screen time. When my iPhone time tracker started alerting me to an hour a day, sometimes a worrying 10+ a week, I started thinking of all the skills or knowledge I could have gained in those 500 hours a year instead. Learn piano? Speak another language? (I tried not to think about all the video games I played in my youth.)

Surely a path existed to deal with this like an adult? I experimented with digital minimalism and setting boundaries. App timers, deleting the app…all of it. I took three months off the ‘Gram one year, six months another. Like an addict, I kept coming back.

I also struggled with the ephemeral nature of Instagram. Google doesn’t index IG posts, so I was creating short, useless information relative to writing long-form blog posts. When I blog, some of my newsletter audience reads and shares what I’ve written. The true power is the cumulative build of people finding my site via search, where posts get ongoing traffic years later. Because of that, the time and effort I put into blog posts feels useful and far more satisfying. In comparison, writing Instagram posts felt like a blip; a #LOOKATME moment.

I want to be clear: I don’t think Instagram (or social media in general) is wrecking humanity. It features beautiful long-form work and astonishing photography. Social movements surface on it, people get discovered, businesses grow. Friendships blossom. 

This is simply my reaction and experience, although I don’t seem to be alone in thinking this way. Popular self-development writer Steve Pavlina actually walked away from a large social media following with an explanation that resonated with me:

The thought of investing another decade in those services made me cringe. I feel that these services were interesting to try, but I don’t expect that continuing to use them would be a serious growth experience for me.”

And if that’s not a good reason to leave, I don’t know what is. Do I want to be good at posting on Instagram or foster other skills?

By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free Traipsing About newsletter for posts like this, plus future outdoor adventures..that I won’t be posting about on Instagram.

Making the Cut

What it really boiled down to for me was asking myself WHY I used Instagram vs. what it was COSTING me.

If you think of what something is costing you vs. what you’re gaining from it, you might decide not to use one of the newest kitchen gadgets that are launched every 12 seconds and stick to stirring soup with a spoon. Or, in more general terms, you will not use a tool just because it’s new and everyone is talking about it. Whatever the example, a cost vs. gain analysis is illuminating. Here is mine for Instagram:

  • Why I used Instagram
    • Positive first: a creative outlet for my photographs, short videos and tidbits of writing. Inspiration. Entertainment. Opportunities to connect in-person with inspiring people (unrealized most of the time, whereas I’ve met and befriended many blog readers).
    • Negative: Validation that I was doing something interesting or worthwhile. Easy to feel falsely productive creatively.
  • The cost of Instagram
    • Hundreds of hours consumed each year with no tangible skill development.
    • Prioritizing “friends” with large followings over “normal” people.
    • Distracted by my phone while around Chelsea, my family, friends.
    • An out-of-control feeling. Those software engineers are smart AF and know how to keep us jacked in.
    • Pulling creative time away from longer-form projects for quick, easy hits of dopamine.
    • Loss of downtime for my brain to spin, dream, create new thoughts. Instagram, the great solitude killer.
    • No control over the platform or its algorithm changes. When I blog, I own my work.

After this, the only argument standing could theoretically be that I could miss out on meeting captivating people if I left. Except there are so many other ways to do that. When we first moved to Bend, I played ping pong with and befriended the inventor of the Quik-Clamp systems that I use all the time for projects. That doesn’t happen via Instagram.

Similarly, I met my friend Martin outside a sustainability conference in Portland, bought him lunch, and he became a close friend. If I’d merely asked for his Instagram handle and then liked his photos for a few years, we’d likely still be acquaintances and he wouldn’t leave lasagne in my fridge when I return from a trip.

The way I look at it, there’s an opportunity cost for any time we spend connecting with people, no matter how we do it. The ultimate decision is whether we want to go wide but shallow, or reach fewer people and have a deeper connection with them. I used to go with option A and spread myself incredibly thin with friends, maintaining a dizzying communication load with social media in the mix. I “knew” a ton of people I’d likely never meet in person, at a cost to my personal time and deeper connection with people around me.

My experience with Instagram (and all social media) echoed what Sherry Turkle describes in Reclaiming Conversation: “Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

I’d rather encounter the demands of friendship than suffer something shallow (at best) or fake (at worst).

The Other Side

Pulling the plug wasn’t easy, but I left Instagram in fall of 2019. Then I stopped posting publicly on Strava, followed by leaving Facebook. No more social media for me. Tear off one Band-Aid and the others are easier to remove.

The result? Better connection with fewer people, of course. Also, more time for new hobbies. I learned how to play the piano and speak Italian. I’m dabbling with drawing. (It’s all mind-bending difficult, and yet so satisfying.) Even better, I’m spending time on things I care about without wondering what others will think. I do it for me, not for an audience. Sure, I blog about trips and share thoughts via my newsletter, but the intention and long-term usefulness feels different. It suits me.

Do I occasionally feel a pull to share a moment? Of course. However, leaving social media helped remind me that I already KNOW when a view is beautiful or a bike trip is badass. I don’t need a thumbs up or a heart icon to tell me that.

These days, I prefer dopamine hits from a sunset on a bike trip or by laughing uproariously with a friend over a dumb joke. For me, that’s #incredible.

One of my happy places: a sunset descent while bikepacking the Colorado Trail.
Beethoven portrait sketch

Ditching a Self-Bullying Mindset

monteverdi composer sketch portrait
As part of learning to draw and reading about music history, I’m doing a quick daily portrait of a composer. Here’s opera pioneer Monteverdi and his badass beard.

I’m one of those Type-A people who enjoys filling a 30-day calendar challenge with X’s. Solidly motivating for me, or at least a simple reminder to practice my Italian!

Recently I saw a challenge with a different take: a repeating loop of “do activity, get less awful.” (Paraphrased.)

I found it funny…until Chelsea pointed out how that mindset is essentially bullying myself. Which hadn’t registered at all for me. 

In fact, I often beat myself up for falling short of self-prescribed expectations. I want to be GOOD at things. But what does that even mean? 

If we think we’re not “good” at something, is there a finish line? There’s always someone more skilled at a hobby, richer, fitter than us.

How freeing would it be to drop all (or at least most) comparisons and be happy with our efforts and current abilities simply for the joy of the activity? Enjoy the journey, not the results. Draw composers because the process entertains me, not for the finished sketch.

Would you trade it all?

Reminding myself how much effort and sacrifice goes into proficiency – much less mastery – of anything helps me gain perspective. As Ryan Holiday writes, would you permanently swap your entire life with someone – negative and positive aspects – to have their talent?

I sure wouldn’t trade all my hours of travel and outdoor adventures for portrait drawing ability or the wizardry to play Beethoven piano sonatas. (Welllll…how many hours are we talking here?)

This felt like a powerful reminder that approaching life’s activities with a negative mindset – “I’m not good enough, so I need to improve myself” is a recipe for life-long disappointment. “I’m bad at piano, so I need to practice” pales for long-term motivation next to “this process is satisfying and I’m excited about learning it no matter the progress.” I want to practice the latter.

What if we talked to ourselves the way we talk to a best friend? Supportive. Inquisitive. Loving us for who we are and celebrating us as a human being, not a human doing. If we can do that for our closest friends, surely we can do so for ourselves.

I’m still aiming to put the X on the calendar to keep my streaks alive. And also to feel fine if I miss a day or struggle with a piece of music.

Practice–>Enjoyment–>Practice–>Enjoyment. That’s a loop I want to be in!

******

P.S. Check out this podcast with Jim Loehr from minutes 25-30 for more insight on our inner voice. From the chat: “Would you broadcast what your inner voice is saying on a Jumbotron?”

Beethoven portrait sketch
Beethoven! Looking a bit stern and with six fingers because hands are impossible to draw. Just ignore the bike flying over his head.
Pandemic hair

Begone, 2020! Looking Back at an Intense Year

2020 in a nutshell. (Choking haze courtesy of wildfire smoke.)

Good grief, how do I write about 2020 without sounding like a jackass? It served up so much: social unrest, wildfires, the election battle. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, THE F’N PANDEMIC.

Talking about what I experienced and learned this year feels self-indulgent when people are hurting and the damndemic rages on. Still, 2020 marked a dramatic shift in my life and so here goes with a look back at my year.

If nothing else, I promise a picture of my ridiculous covid hair.

So Much to Do and See

I kicked off 2020 with PLANS. My friend Mason’s generous gift of an all-you-can-fly pass on United burned bright in my pocket, group workouts and friend hangs cranked along, van and bikepacking trips beckoned…

So much potential fun. And also a repeat of the same activities I’d enjoyed since we moved to Bend four years ago. 

I’d ridden faster and longer, trained harder, learned how to ski. But what was next? Shaving a few seconds off my Strava times, climbing a harder route at Smith Rock, a trip to a new place?

What more could I learn from those things? 

Since college, I’ve experienced three distinct phases: business-building, travel, and this most-recent, intense athletic activity. In Bend, land of fit people, I was surrounded and supported by people whose primary focus was outdoor pursuits. Now, I felt a pull away from those things.

I needed a shift, a reset.

Well, screw you, COVID. I didn’t need quite this big an intervention, you scurrilous virus!

Lockdown Arrives

Pandemic lockdowns felt like a Tasmanian Devil’s tornado at first – everything in disarray, all plans nixed, everything unsure. Initially, life felt surreal. We scrambled to buy supplies, sort out food, and help our families do the same. With no kids and remote work, our dislocation was nothing compared to others, but like most everyone, we were affected.

My energy verged on mania, with a long daily checklist to help me focus and stay productive, dammit. No downtime! I used the SPAR accountability app and rushed from activity to activity. “If only I could do pushups while meditating and stretching!” It wasn’t healthy.

At least our hair was…interesting. Thanks for the calendar, Jules!

As weeks rolled to months, I settled into a balanced, less frenetic routine. I trimmed back the items on the checklist and stopped using SPAR. I kept meditating (I’m at 280 days straight!). We launched our Great Garden Project, which consumed giant swaths of spring.

I identify strongly as an extrovert, but strangely, spending time alone felt good. I didn’t freak out. (Chelsea watched me for cracks, straitjacket in hand.) I recentered, turning the energy inward. I stayed physically active, but devoted far fewer hours to time outside and more time at home being creative. When I did venture out, I left the headphones behind and let my legs and mind spin.

Whereas in the past I’d have chafed at such a low-key life, focusing time on life-long skills like cooking, music, writing, gardening, and reading filled me with satisfaction. I made soy yogurt and cashew cheese, learned about pea varietals, dove into the Circle of Fifths. It was fun, challenging, fresh!

Giving Myself Permission to Do Different Things

In 2017, I met a blog reader from Washington named George. He’s built his own houses and welded the porch railings; dinner was served on a table he’d built. A meal that included bread he’d baked in a brick oven and wine he’d made with local grapes. You get the idea.

Yet he’s not homebound: every year, he and his wife Patti journey to places like Colombia to bike tour for a month or two. Then they return home to tend their homestead, nurture their giant garden, see friends and family, and cross-country ski.

In short, the picture of balance.

After a recent newsletter of mine, George emailed me:

“Your process of evolution intrigues me. Learning new things is the life-long adventure. Shifting from a tech-savvy, adventure shredder, van man, and blogger, I find your discoveries considerably more valuable now.”

It’s gratifying to know that someone I admire noticed – and appreciated – my evolution. Even more so because after we landed in Bend, I felt constrained by the previous focus of travel and van life and also afraid of losing blog readers not interested in my new life.

However, nobody wants to be stuck in a niche when it’s not their reality, especially with a passion project. For me, the newsletter helped refocus my creative energy and share thoughts other than travel, a richer, more authentic side of me beyond “adventure #vanlife MTB shredder.”

Hanging with George outside one of the homes he’s built.

2020 Realizations

I suspect 2020 will represent a turn in the road for many of us. Here are a few specific things that greatly improved my life during this very challenging year:

Ditching Social Media

I finally admitted to myself that I use social media (especially Strava, an athletic community) partly for connection, but mostly for validation. I wanted people to know I was an athlete, that I did hard bike rides.

I’d considered dropping social media before, taking breaks, then returning for more dopamine doses. Closing my accounts freed me up to do whatever I wanted without thinking about sharing it. I can’t emphasize enough how empowering this shift has been! 

As a huge bonus, the time I spent on social media now can be invested in creative projects.

Doing More Household Work

This is a topic worthy of an entire blog post, but in short, for the past few years, I’ve aimed to contribute more to the household and decrease Chelsea’s mental load (<–link to a fantastic comic).

This includes cooking more often, handling food orders and grocery pickups, and trying to anticipate the needs of the household without asking Chelsea what needs to be done (a task in itself, I’ve learned). 

All things she’s disproportionately handled while I enjoyed the fun things in life. When I started thinking about how I was basically being lazy and my life partner was shouldering an unfair share of the burden, I started making changes. 

I certainly prefer bike rides to cleaning toilets, but feel way better about myself as a husband and human.

Letting Go of My Business (Even More)

In the face of roiling financial markets and so much financial pain, I’m tremendously lucky that my business did ok this year. I feel for people who couldn’t go to work or HAD to work in unsafe environments.

We experienced dislocations – like many people, my employees lost their childcare and the whipsawing markets created tons of drama – but we were able to weather the storm. I’m grateful for that.

I’ve delegated a lot of my work over the years, but clung to certain tasks. Right before the pandemic arrived, I took a deep breath and handed a few seemingly important items off…and encountered no issues whatsoever. I can only think, “Why the HELL didn’t I do this earlier?!”

Realizing (accepting) that I was not particularly special and many people could handle those tasks only took me six years. #businessgenius For anyone running a business, I urge you to honestly appraise your role and what tasks can be delegated. This will allow you to focus on your true value and the unique abilities you bring.

Better Connection with Family

Prioritizing connecting with family stayed center stage this year. Thanks to phone calls and Marco Polo, I’ve talked more frequently with my parents than ever before. Maybe even more than when I was a teenager!

Beyond that, Chelsea and I stuck with a 3x/week FaceTime exercise routine with her parents. A perfect way for all of us to stay strong and also connect.

Creating Our Dream Spaces

Anyone else go big on DIY projects in 2020? From a massive backyard garden to Chelsea’s indoor jungle and other home improvements, we finally invested time and money into a house!

In the past, we’ve always had other priorities – trips, friends, activities, maybe we’ll move somewhere new –  so this commitment to a property is different. We’re saying, “We love our town and our life here and we’re going to stay.” It feels good. 

(Disclaimer: if there’s another pandemic, we’re buying tickets to New Zealand!)

The results of our labor on the garden project! This was just a lame lawn before…

Consistent Creativity

On top of the DIY projects, I invested many hours into creative pursuits this year. Ranging from music to cooking to writing, I spent many enjoyable hours pretending I was Beethoven immersed in learning and projecting.

Chelsea’s birthday gift to me of a digital piano launched a passion for music that is only deepening. I’m enjoying music theory classes through Skillshare and have practiced piano for hundreds of hours. (Just 10 minutes a day is 60 hours a year!) For a sense of my infatuation level, last night I fell asleep with chord progressions in E minor swimming through my brain.

On the writing front, I fired up my basically-defunct writing practice and published 25 newsletters and a dozen blog posts in the second half of this year. Committing to consistency isn’t always what I want to do, but cracking myself up with dumb jokes, developing a satisfying body of work, and connecting with all of you makes it so worth it.

To anyone considering a creative project, all I can say is start now! Your future self will thank you for making the effort to build life-long skills. It’s hard to believe I’m seven years into blogging on Traipsing About and I’m glad I’ve stuck with it all these years.

Looking Forward

I’m inspired when I think about these small changes cascading into other opportunities to learn and explore my creative side. Ebb and flow, seeking that ever-elusive balance. 

Like George said to me, “Learning new things is the life-long adventure.”

And with that…onward!

Browder-Ridge-hike-Oregon
And don’t you worry: we still enjoy getting outside. (Browder Ridge trail)

BUH BYE to this stinker of a year. Here’s to vaccinations and a better 2021. Happy New Year!

Guacamole Mesa views mountain biking

Posturing Ain’t Pretty (and Other Desert Teachings)

Guacamole Mesa views mountain biking

The area around Hurricane, Utah is a tumultuous riot of steep, rolling rock, an outdoor playground. The expansive views and fine winter weather create a dream destination for desert lovers, including mountain bikers sick of snowy home trails.

In January 2020 P.C. (pre-COVID), I’d journeyed to the desert with my friends Paul and Eric in search of sunshine and temps over 35 degrees. I’d quickly figured out how to pronounce Hurricane – Hurr-UH-CUN – and so far the only trip negative was Paul’s penchant for hiding in surprising places and scaring the bejeebus out of me, an immaturity battle I quickly escalated. (Eric wisely steered clear of our asinine antics.)

However, I generally prefer my heart-palpitating moments on a mountain bike. (Earmuffs, mom.) To that end, we beat my bike rack to death on the rutted dirt road to Gooseberry Mesa, a fabulous piece of terrain overlooking the surrounding valleys. Astride our bikes, we pedaled the undulating terrain, a natural skatepark for bikes.

Gooseberry Mesa mountain biking

At the bottom of a particularly steep rock, three guys – clearly experienced, with all the cool gear – were “sessioning” or repeating (and failing) the same move. As I rode up, a break in the action presented itself, so I gave it some gas and clawed up it.

I stopped at the top and one of the trio yelled, “Hey, have you ridden this before?”

“Nope. I’m from Oregon.”

Long pause.

“What kind of tires you got?”
“Minion DHFs.”

“OHHHHH…”

Commence excuses. Justifications. Posturing. Typical tough guy BS reinforced starting in childhood. Anything to help these three guys feel ok that I, a root and dirt rider from the PNW, might waltz onto their terrain and ride something they couldn’t.

Rock climbs Guacamole Mesa mountain biking
Picture a rock move like this, but about 2x steeper, with a turn. So awesome.

Paul and I exchanged glances as the guys spouted excuses – one had tired legs, another was on a new bike, and of course one owned the wrong tires. It was like I’d grabbed their ego voodoo dolls as I pedaled by, then smashed them in my Magic DHF Tread.

Never mind that Minion DHFs are best known for loose, wet terrain, NOT for rocks. If I’d sported Teflon tires, these guys would have said I could slide my way up the rock.

We left their empty excuses behind us and vamoosed to the viewpoint. Enjoying lunch with a spectacular vista, we forgot the guys…until they rolled up again. Sigh.

Little Creek Mountain biking Utah
Endless vistas… (Little Creek Mountain’s Big Loop trail.)

One of them immediately blurted, “I rode it.” It wasn’t genuine pride: it was an ego looking for affirmation. I pictured a kid seeking a gold star.

In the inimitable fashion of posturing males (takes one to know one), the guys blathered on about their trip. Paul, who suffers no fools, pointedly walked away to enjoy the view and his PBJ in silence. I briefly hoped he’d turn around and scare the crap out of the guys, but social decorum prevailed.

Luckily, they left soon enough, echoes of excuses and pathetic tire tread marks the only proof of the brief interlude. Well, that and our laughter at their ridiculous comments. We adopted “If only I had a DHF” for any mistake for the rest of the trip, on the bike or off.

Even with the sour aftertaste, I love experiences like this for an opportunity to learn. Those three riders remind me to steer clear of a) excuses, especially to random strangers, and b) posturing versus letting performance speak for itself.

All a work in progress for me depending on the day. I’m not perfect and will slip up, so perhaps I need a frequent reminder of this 15-minute episode in the desert.

I’m hoping that tattooing ‘DHF’ on my forearm will suffice.

Gooseberry Mesa
Gooseberry Mesa viewpoint! Hope my parachute works…
Rock move Guacamole Mesa mountain biking
Eric playing around on Guacamole Mesa while Paul looks for the levitate button on his bike.
Guacamole Mesa mountain biking view
More Guacamole Mesa magic. Ahhh, the desert.
Little Creek Mountain biking Utah view
Paul searches for the paraglide button on his bike on Little Creek Mountain.

Sewer Trenches Versus Carpal Tunnel

The project! My brother provided me with an Official Construction Sweatshirt, though clearly what I needed was a haircut.

Most weeks of my life yield few concrete results. Phone calls and piano practice, emails and payroll approval, bike rides and socializing leave a scant real-world trace.

When the results of our work hours are digital detritus, carpal tunnel and bad posture, tackling physical projects is even more valuable!

Two weeks in October delivered on said physical labor. While helping my brother build a second dwelling on my parents’ property, I did the following:

  • Dug a deep 200’ sewer trench with a backhoe, plus lots of (cough too much) hand digging.
  • Laid sewer pipe in the trench (hopefully the closest I’ll get to WWI-style warfare).
  • Cut out downed tree branches after a windy ice storm.
  • Installed a door to keep skunks out of a barn utility room.
  • Scraped off kiln shelves for a pottery firing.
  • Ran electrical wiring for the building, sank 8’ grounding rods, and installed an electrical panel.
  • Put up siding, cut and installed trim, installed a heat pump, moved four pallets of hardwood flooring in a snowstorm.
  • Somehow convinced two city inspectors the above quality was good enough to sign off on. (No bribes were paid.)
WAY more fun than mountain biking!

That non-comprehensive list is off the top of my head. At each day’s end, I’d drag my exhausted ass up the stairs, practice piano for 12 minutes, call Chelsea to say goodnight, and faceplant into bed.

I don’t share this list to brag. (HA, some of you are probably pitying me!) Instead, looking back, I’m amazed by the sheer volume of tangible work we accomplished in two weeks.

Doing Real Stuff

Laying pipe in a muddy trench is certainly not on my bucket list. But you know what? Chunks of labor with physical results are SO satisfying. From building out our van to installing solar panels on our house to my recent efforts, I love a good project.

Our backyard garden remodel is a prime example of this. Rather than spinning out this spring with the quarantine in effect, Chelsea and I launched headlong into creating her dream garden.

Yegads did we labor, converting a fugly backyard lawn into planter boxes, paths, and ornamental plantings! Our reward: voluminous quantities of vegetables and a relaxing sanctuary for us. Totally worth it.

Hard work on my parents’ property felt even more transformative.

My 1870s miner father and brother as a snowstorm rolled in.

Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain

My efforts on the building will help my parents age in place. When my brother and his family move into the main house, my nieces and nephews can grow up with Grandma and Grandpa around. As a bonus, my brother receives childcare support and a beautiful property for the kids to rampage on. How can I not feel good about contributing my sweat (and occasional swear words) to that?

Sure, I missed a few bike rides and my piano playing suffered. Yeah, my body is tired. WHAT.EVER.

From changing out a light fixture to full-scale home construction, the sense of accomplishment and satisfying glow from a solid DIY project pays dividends far down the road. Rather than a sense of dread, I see it as an opportunity for well-rounded living and feeling capable.

While I don’t want to work nonstop on DIY house projects – this effort wore me out – the results fire me up and balance out my cushy life. Nothing like contrast to make me appreciate what I’ve got!

Even if contrast is provided by hours in a muddy sewer trench.

****

Pictures!

The reason I was scraping kiln shelves: My mom made these beautiful new planter pots for Chelsea’s indoor jungle.
My brother getting it done.
18 degrees, but finished the electrical!
Excavators: 128x more fun than a shovel!
Parting shot: In case you’ve always wondered what the inside of a sewer pipe looks like…

The Wonderful, Trying Adventure of Bike Touring

Ahhh, nature. Traffic, wildfire smoke, and 95 degrees.

What does adventure, a much-belabored word, even mean these days? Fools far crazier than Chelsea and I rode bikes across the country…in 1880. On wagon trails. Not breaking new ground here, Magellan!

Adventure is so relative. For some, it’s a visit to their ancestor’s land; others, a trip to Cabo; for new parents, the first hiking date in months; for my friend Graham, it’s scaling the world’s highest unclimbed peak (NOOOPE).

For me, it’s not about unexplored exterior terrain. (Antarctica is cold, dude.) It’s searching for unexplored regions in ourselves. What’s new, challenging, different?

After 10,000 miles of bike touring, further pedaling these days offers fewer teaching moments. But in 2014, we dove headlong into our first tour and learned so much about ourselves and each other.

The bike tour prompted major positive shifts in my relationship with Chelsea, upended my work-life balance for the better, and changed my outlook on engaging with difficult endeavors.

Halfway and about to cross the Mississippi River.

The Bike Trip Idea Germinates

Like many of our life pivots, the bike tour germinated from Chelsea’s explorative spirit. Previous short tours with friends whet her appetite and a three-day birthday bike trip from LA to San Diego beckoned a longer tour.

Four months into our van trip, my work was fully remote for the first time. Most importantly, we’d finally focused our energy on aligning with important core values of freedom and self-development, not chasing the all-mighty dollar as I’d done for five years.

The touring seed grew into a towering beanstalk idea of a bike tour across the U.S. I’d never biked and camped before. Neither of us had ridden more than three days in a row.

What the hell. Let’s do this!

(Cue planning and logistics. Driving from California to Idaho to park the van at our parent’s house. I’ll skip further boring details.)

(How we pictured bike touring…) Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier looking practically fake!

Ah, Memories

Pedaling from Idaho to Maine still generates rushes of nostalgia. With 2020’s vagaries nixing travel and canceling plans, I’m reminiscing since this week marks six years since we reached the Atlantic.

In no stretch of the imagination is bike touring easy. Luckily, like initial forays into love, hormone-addled fights and sulking disappear behind the sweet memories of holding hands and first kisses. Even chafed butts and boredom and headwinds and hunger and traffic and exhaustion fail to tarnish the experience of a first bike tour. The patina creates interest!

The more-common reality: Scorching heat and scenic hay bales in Montana.

This wasn’t our light-and-easy romantic European first date. Bike touring chiefly featured solitude, us and endless pedal strokes across America. Which, it turns out, is a big.fucking.place. I’d never drive across it: WAY too far.

Hundreds of hours to pedal away thoughts, consume endless quantities of food to fuel biking all day, swear at headwinds, feel intimidated by the distance remaining, then wake up surprised (and a little disappointed) in New York because the Atlantic Ocean lay a mere week away.

Soaring above New York in a 1946 Piper Cub seaplane with a generous local we met.

This is Different

Euphoria buoyed the first few days of pedaling. The rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington, moose chomping next to our favorite rails-to-trails route in N. Idaho. Purple sunsets and satisfied grins after a hard day’s pedaling. Maine or bust!

The heat closed like a vise on day three as we climbed over Thompson Pass into Montana, temps sizzling to 100 degrees. Nothing wipes an exuberant smile away like a frying brainpan.

Rolling hills of Nebraska. Soy and corn, corn and soy, wheeee.

If the adventure starts when things go wrong, how wrong do we hope things get without reeeeally wanting it? Tales of woe create the best stories, but do we wish for them?

Can we channel Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard when he quipped, “Let the adventure begin!” after his expedition’s only map blew out the airplane window above far-east Russia?

Our less-crazy trip still presented opportunities for feelings. Straight-up fear when a Nebraska thunderstorm spiked lightning as we raced for safety, my hand pushing on Chelsea’s back. Simple amazement pedaling up the gorgeous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier. Disillusionment at the smell and terrible sounds coming from pig farms in Iowa.

bike touring soy
Variety, the spice of life! Or soy beans for miles.

Unlike the cocoon of a car, you can’t hide on a bicycle. If it’s hot, you sweat. Wildfire smoke chased us in Montana and freezing sleet pummeled us over a pass in Vermont.

The smells, the heat, the dust, the thirst. You can’t floor it to escape: a scant hour in a car requires a solid day of pushing pedals. You’re there, present. For better or worse.

Some people say, “Any day outside is better than a day in an office.” To those flippant philosophers, I counter with a 99-degree day in the endless cornfields outside Wahoo, Nebraska, big rigs blowing by.

I’d happily trade an air-conditioned workday to skip pedaling narrow highway shoulders! Clearly I need to keep meditating.

Downshifting trucks are the best white noise for camping.
Sleeping at truckstops makes scoring an opera house hotel in Iowa even sweeter! (I’m in the turret!)

Fun Versus Satisfaction

No parent I know says, “We expect raising kids to be 100% fun!” Similarly (and infinitely easier), no extended physical trip features entirely flat bike paths, grazing moose, and lemonade stands when you’re thirsty.

Instead, we step into the most satisfying journeys of our lives anticipating adversity’s onset.

For better or worse, crucible moments transform us. Fleeing lightning storms with Chelsea comprised but one trust-building moment. Her fears about my impatience and competitiveness tainting the trip evaporated and hard moments forced us closer.

Dealing with my business mid-bike tour also revealed operational weaknesses in need of fixing. Hard, fundamental shifts still paying us dividends.

Stuck between the hammer of hard moments and the anvil of life, I’ll accept a few of Thor’s blows to affix me to another human or temper personal shortcomings. Quitting enervating jobs, ditching vampire relationships, seizing scary-yet-exciting opportunities, pushing ourselves via hard physical trips – we earn our stripes via hard stuff.

I aspire to flip back through my life’s storybook and see the full gamut of experience. Not all eye-popping sunsets and coasting downhill; rain in my face and sweat in my eyes on the uphill side. Frustration. Sadness. Fear. All of it.

kancamagus pass
Freezing Vermont sleet, a narrow road shoulder, lots of traffic, and a big pass to climb. The hot soup and warm fire at our host’s house this evening never tasted better!

The Bittersweet End of a Journey

Looking back, beautiful landscapes and people’s incredible generosity eclipse the glaring bulb of solitude and hard work. A ride in a deathtrap seaplane over the changing fall colors of New York. Leading a phalanx of burly bikers at Sturgis Rally. A grinning Iowa couple’s hospitality and a huge spread of food for two ravenous cyclists.

Sturgis Rally bike touring
“Put an engine on that thing!” This photo from Sturgis Rally will forever be one of my favorites.

So many more… Tales of round-the-world touring from Barry and Elise in Vermont. Waiting out all-day thunderstorms with Chelsea in a Nebraska hotel and gobbling down vegan ice cream sandwiches until we were sick. The real magic of a trip (of life!) is crystallized by small moments.

A week from our trip’s terminus in Portland, Maine, we considered continuing south to Florida. Hard work and perspiration aside, the simplicity of a hard day of pedaling creates satisfaction and (slow) tangible progress, mile by mile, across the country.

Instead, after 4,020 miles and 82 days of biking, we dipped our front tires in the Atlantic Ocean, snapped the obligatory success photo, and shipped our bikes home. Future touring awaited us, but the first one remains special in my memory.

Our adventure featured euphoria, exhaustion, accomplishment. A mix of pain and pleasure, fear and joy, commitment to a journey, and to each other.

Was it difficult? Hell yeah it was. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

End of the road in Maine!
bike tour U.S. map
Our route. 4,000 miles and three months of pedaling.
columbia gorge storm

Dealing With Emotional Lightning Strikes

A moody day overlooking the Columbia Gorge.

When I get hit in the head, I morph from Calm Dakota into Dak the Destroyer, Wannabe Viking Marauder.

Take the time a college roommate (Chelsea’s brother) tagged me in the head with a rubber ball as I studied for an engineering test. RWWWARG. Dak the Destroyer grabbed my chunky TI-89 calculator and angrily launched it for a direct, ship-sinking missile hit.

I instantly regretted it…like I always do when my brain short-circuits, overloads my reasoning facilities and proceeds to impulsive action.

Of course, we don’t want to do this. Yelling at a friend, reacting strongly to a partner’s comment, creating a rift at work – ideally, we avoid these things like they’re thirsty 12-pound mosquitoes.

Training for Lightning Strikes

I love Brene Brown’s rule for these situations: if her face is hot from anger or shame, she doesn’t “text, talk or type.” No interactions while she’s flooded and the filters between brain and mouth are broken. (Oddly, she doesn’t mention chucking calculators.)

In electronics, capacitors are devices that soak up a spike in current when things go awry. Rather than melting wires and arcing all over the place, it’s an energy vacuum cleaner. SHVOOOO, dangerous energy sucked into safety.

I think of Brene’s “no texting, talking or typing” as a technique to load a personal capacitor. It allows us to absorb emotional lightning strikes, defuse intensity, and safely return to normal operation.

Whether we’re hammering a reply to an inane Facebook post (“I can’t even believe this?!”) or unloading on our partners before we fully process a situation, remember the capacitor buried deep inside us.

First, we safely store that energy until we can release it without burning ourselves – and others. Then (and only then) we air the hard conversations that are worth having.

But aim for mild shocks in those conversations, static electricity style. Not vicious lightning, the scorching, hateful kind. That we defuse, let it ping around in our personal capacitors before we release it on others.

The Good News: We Can Improve

I haven’t thrown a calculator for years, but I still make mistakes.
One (lame) excuse is that I worked construction in high school. Let’s just say that calm, calculating behavior is an uncommon approach to dealing with feelings on job sites… Swearing or destroying a wall? HELL YEAH.

Still, how we deal with personal lightning strikes isn’t the important thing. What matters is having some plan for when things go awry.

Here are a few things that build my personal capacitance as I soldier on, chipping away at old habits and reactionary ways:

1. Meditation

After five months straight of daily meditation (<–not-so-humble brag), I still can’t levitate for an hour or slow my heart rate to 10 bpm. However, I like the concept of non-attachment to thoughts – hey look, a thought, neato – without diving deep into it. (For great meditations, check out the app Insight Timer.)

2. Practice Tough Conversations:

As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”

You probably aren’t an emperor (or are you?!), but it’s powerful to recognize that people will do frustrating things. (Check out The Daily Stoic for an easy entree to Stoicism or the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

3. Calm Role Models

Seek out quiet, powerful leaders who teach us to be better. For example, Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing inspired my approach to business. For a comprehensive take on leadership, I also recommend The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Personal Capacitors For The Win

Next time lightning strikes your romantic relationship, during a work meeting, via a tough friend conversation, or just someone on Facebook who you immediately want to throttle, pause for a second.

Silently repeat NO TEXT, TALK OR TYPE as your personal capacitor diffuses the lightning strike. Take a deep breath and let the red color drain from your face. Let reason return. THEN engage.

Just don’t hit me in the head. Because then all bets are off.

Creating A Productive and Balanced Life During This F’n Pandemic

Hello from our Bend Compound! Wherever you’re reading this – an apartment in Spain or NYC, a van in the woods, a house with bored kids tearing your walls down – I hope you’re thriving as much as possible given a worldwide pandemic.

A meme that struck home for me: “Introverts, put your book down and check on your extrovert friends. They’re not ok.” Some of my buddies must picture me, extreme extrovert that I am, straitjacketed and rocking in a corner.

Surprising both Chelsea and myself, I adapted quickly and am quite content. No straitjacket needed! (She’s still watching me daily for cracks to show though.)

Hard at work building the planter beds that Chelsea has always wanted.

A Quick Identity Pivot

Home-bound and content are NOT words that describe me. However, when I realized this pandemic was sticking around for the unforeseen future, it required a shift in my identity and priorities.

It took some effort to reorient. Thanks to a generous friend’s gift of a flight pass on United this year, I’d spun travel and adventure plans spanning the globe. Social time consumed large chunks of time and energy. Mountain biking season approached.

POOF. Just like that, all put on hold for who knows how long.

To ensure I possessed the stamina to weather this without cracking, I needed to make the most of this forced isolation. Banging my head against the wall and wishing for things to normalize wasn’t going to change much!

This quote from a Sarah Blondin meditation struck home:

When faced with great change, we must trust what comes budding forth. We must quickly release our grasp on the old and familiar in order to plant our new garden. Resisting change is futile. The longer we fight our current and therefore only reality, the longer we remain in limbo, trapped somewhere between the past and the future, far from the present.

I spun out a bit in March, then decided to focus on alive time vs dead time, seeking the positives in this upheaval. That mindset is working well for me to stay happy, productive and balanced during this pandemic. (Details at the end of this post about my approach.)

Oliver has finally accepted me into the family. It only took 15 years.

Let’s Just Say It: This Is Crazy

To say there’s stress in the air because of COVID-19 is an understatement. Helping our families be safe, canceling plans, sorting through business headaches, figuring out the precautions we need to take. It’s heavy.

At first, I found myself spiraling deep into NewsLand, gripping my computer as the stock market careened groundward trailing smoke and flaming 401(k)s. We’re not out of the woods yet (by any means), but the sense of chaos has lessened.

I find it darkly fascinating how fast the shift to a new normal happened. Initially I was overwhelmed with the enormity of state and country lockdowns. Now I wonder how reopening will go. Without a vaccine, when will I feel comfortable in a shiny metal tube hurtling through the sky with other people or sitting in a restaurant? 2022…maybe?

I’m swiveling my head like an owl to take in varied opinions about reopening. I understand (and support) that some people have zero options beyond reopening their small business to feed their family. Facing economic ruin, I’d do the same. Personal values (e.g. individual vs. collective outlook) play into it in a big way, so of course it’s nuanced, touchy ground.

There’s a line though. I find it difficult to identify with people holding signs saying I JUST WANT TO RACE (a motorcycle) or who must get their hair cut at a salon. Sacrificing personal leisure and vanity is the least we can do right now, so I’m surprised at the lack of stamina. Perhaps the philosopher Blaise Pascal was right when he said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Haircuts are overrated anyway.

I fear that reopening too quickly without listening to public health experts creates potential for COVID-19 to stick around. Will it become like school shootings, barely making the news unless there’s a huge NYC-style outbreak, collateral damage from “more important” needs like the economy?

The Stockdale Paradox comes to mind: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

As a small business owner, I’m lucky as helllll to be doing ok. I feel for those in the travel and restaurant industries – ouch. However, this crisis wields far-reaching potential effects, so who knows how this plays out. I started my business deep in the 2008 trough and rode the wave up, but every tsunami crashes at some point. Every smart investor I follow is writing UNCERTAIN TIMES over and over.

And yet Chelsea and I are the lucky, privileged ones. I’m immensely grateful to keep working remotely and merely curtail socializing, travel and big outdoor adventures. Whoop de doo, small, smalllll price to pay. To all those on the front lines – be it hospitals, grocery stores, food supply chain, sanitation – a bow of respect and solidarity. Thank you.

Finding the Silver Lining

On a more positive note, without any social engagements or travel, there’s a LOT of freed up time. Using the aforementioned concept of alive time, I decided to take advantage of this.

For me, that means building new skills and following my curiosity. For example, what can I add to my toolkit for future goals (such as an outdoor planning and navigation course I am currently taking) or just make me a more complete human (learning how to garden)?

We’re cueing off an astronaut who lived in isolation in space for a year: have a schedule. You know, beyond “Work. Freak out at the news. Eat. Sleep.” Ours isn’t a strict timetable though. More like guidelines.

To help accomplish that, Chelsea had the excellent idea for a list of healthy habits and fun/productive things to accomplish each day. We each have a list where we check off items, then wipe our slates clean in the morning.

I recommend doing this, both for the routine it creates and for instilling productivity in otherwise shapeless weeks (months!) that blend into one another. I don’t always get to everything. However, it’s motivating and a nice steering wheel to grab when I start spinning out reading bad news or dreaming about my business cratering into a smoking pit.

It’s not a static list – I occasionally add or subtract things – but core items stick around. My goal was to hit the physical, mental, creative and “gotta do it” tasks. Here are some of the things on my list that I find valuable.

Finding solitude and zero COVID on the fire roads west of Bend.

My Daily Healthy Habits Checklist

General

  • One Thing – choose ONE task to accomplish each day. This could be as simple as “place online food order” or “build one planter bed.” Whatever you want it to be!
  • Checking in with family and friends – Daily conversations with my family and friends. My goal is always to talk about anything BUT corona.
  • Helping with Chelsea’s list – given how much she handles, it’s the least I can do.

Mental/Creative

  • Meditation – I’m using the Insight Timer app. Ten minutes a day, sometimes guided, sometimes not.
  • Writing – I’m loving daily prompts for journaling, most recently from Wild Writing. I find it generates far more introspection than “here’s what I did today.”
  • Chess – after years away from it, I’ve rekindled my love affair with chess. Such an absorbing intellectual challenge.
  • Guitar – daily practice using the excellent, affordable site activemelody.com.
  • Reading – I’m feeling a strong pull toward the natural world and got absorbed in the books Braiding Sweetgrass and The Hidden Life of Trees. That and some far-reaching sci-fi!
  • Masterclass.com – Loving this! Classes taught by people at the top of their field. Here’s a few I’ve dug: chess (Garry Kasparov), negotiation (Chris Voss, FBI negotiator), cooking (Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse), writing (Niel Gaiman, Malcolm Gladwell). Oh, and Masterclass is offering a gift a membership for a friend right now. Such a great value.
  • Cook something– for two months, we haven’t eaten anything we didn’t cook ourselves! These seitan jackfruit ribs are deeeeelicious.

Physical

  • Ping pong – YES. I bought a ping pong machine that shoots balls at me. Best $140 I’ll spend all year, I bet. One friend who shall remain nameless got one so I wouldn’t crush him after all this COVID crap ends. (You’re going down, Scott.)
  • GarageFit: I miss hanging with my crew, but I’m keeping the workouts going. If a bit more irregularly…
  • Physical therapy: This seems like a good time to fix those niggling aches and pains, right? I tore a ligament in my ankle taking a rock climbing fall in March, so this is a daily thing for me. I still can’t run, but it’s coming around.
  • Outdoor exercise: Bike rides or just a quick walk with Chelsea. Instead of mountain biking from crowded trailheads, I’m exploring new rides on my gravel bike with forays on fire roads and pavement to check out new loops and terrain.
  • Stretching and foam rolling – I often pair this with watching Masterclass or do it during a work call.
  • House projects – like many people (even you mobile van lifers!), we are digging into home projects that travel and socializing took precedence over in the past. I may even emerge from this as a competent gardener (gasp).
I feel like we dug the planter bed hole a little deep! (Not pictured: top trim edge, for all you perfectionists.)

C’mon, Do I Really Need This?

I bet a few of you are shaking your heads and thinking, “Yegads, how Type A can one person get?” I’d be surprised if not. I fought it initially!

Then I came around to the satisfaction and momentum building that comes from check check checking my way through a day. I left lame crap like “check email” off it because, well, I’m going to do that.

This is for the things I might skip that serve to move my life forward and stimulate my desire to get out of bed for another day in COVIDLand. (Way less fun than Disneyland: “One person at a time on the Gravitron!”)

I urge you to give the daily healthy habits checklist a shot. The result of this list is that every day, I never run out of things to do. I’m never bored. I wish there were more hours every.single.day.

There is always more to learn and additional skills to pick up. (A few more on my list: Sewing, local plant and animal identification, master gardener training.) Instead of wallowing in the news or whiling away the time waiting for “real life,” this is proving to be a productive, fun and creative period.

What positive things have you added to your life or how are you staying sane during this insane time?

And someday, Martin and I will get back to Smith Rock!

Let’s Talk About Money: How To Build A Strong Financial Foundation

Me rolling large in Laos in 2005! ($10 = lots of these bills.) Yes, I’m wearing a (free) shirt that says COLLEGE.

“What should I do with my money?” is a common question people ask me. They’ve snagged their first solid job or want to wipe out debt from student loans or credit cards. They’re excited to take the next step, and also overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options. Building a financial foundation sounds intimidating.

I love to share what I’ve learned from years of reading about financial topics, plus experience with living below our means and saving/investing. Nothing complicated, just concrete, actionable advice that I wish I’d received early on.

Rather than constrain these thoughts to individual emails, I decided to condense the ideas into a blog post.

This kicks off a multi-part series about getting your financial life in order. Referencing my favorite sites and resources, we’ll travel from deep in debt to launching investing to FIRE (financial independence, retire early) and beyond.

Today, I’ll start with the basics for setting yourself up for financial security down the road. All you van lifers (perhaps) have a head start on this, but I promise there are takeaways in here for everyone.

Getting Your House in Order

When you’re beginning your money journey, you need to build your financial house. And house construction starts from the ground up, not with choosing paint colors or light fixtures. Don’t get distracted with the fancy stuff when you need a foundation, walls and a roof.

Before you even think about investing any money, this means automated finances, ingrained spending habits, a safety buffer, and tracking those dollars.

It doesn’t make sense to heat a home that doesn’t have a door or windows. Investing money before you deal with credit card debt or nail down spending habits is the same.damn.thing.

Just Starting Out: Building the Foundation

Before you can run, you have to walk…but first you’ve gotta crawl. Luckily, you can learn from my mistakes!

When I got my first real job, I made the mistake of thinking, “F YEAH, IT’S TIME TO INVEST.” I was pulling in a paycheck, but after a year of overseas travel, I had zero savings and plenty of student loans.

I was living on a college student’s budget, so I wasn’t spending each paycheck. What did I do with the extra? It sure didn’t look like building a foundation; more like installing a fancy home automation system!

DAY TRADING. I was all over the Motley Fool looking for hot stocks. For suuuure Beacon Energy was going from a penny to $1.50 and Intuitive Surgery was headed to the moon. I was going to be RICH.

Never mind that a) I knew nothing about investing b) there are companies who hire geniuses to profit off over-confident idiots like me and c) even the billionaires who hire those geniuses often don’t beat the market.

Talk about misguided. I wasn’t investing, I was gambling.

With some losses (Beacon went to zero) and lots of reading, I managed to course-correct . Looking back, I wish someone had told me to do the following before even CONSIDERING investing money:

Treat ANY credit card debt or student loans like an emergency

Paraphrasing the mega-popular financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, debt isn’t something you work on. It’s a HUGE, FLAMING EMERGENCY. For almost everyone, pay off credit cards and student loans before you invest anything!

Use the debt snowball approach: aggressively pay down the highest interest rate credit card, then attack the other with those funds. Here’s another approach.

Automate your finances

Humans are amazing at increasing spending as their income increases. “HOLY BANANAS, I’M RICH!” screams our inner child after a raise.

When you get a raise, celebrate by doing something fun. Then get back to basics. Instead of spending all your hard-earned cash, set up a system for managing your money that saves money before you even have a chance to spend it. This blog series on automating your finances is da bomb.

Rather than (more) new shoes and (another) expensive dinner since you can “afford them,” put your money on auto-pilot. Each paycheck, allocate a percentage to bills, savings, investing, an emergency fund (see below) and specific funds like wedding/house down payment/travel.

Why? If the money never hits your checking account, you’ll never miss it. This is a Super Money Hack, especially as your income increases. Keep living low to the ground and spending in line with your hierarchy of values and the savings will stack up.

Cut Your Spending Where It Matters

The financial wizards at Choose FI have The 10 Pillars of FI for gaining control of the big expenses in your life.

Lower your housing costs. Do you HAVE to live in an expensive coastal city, or does it just sound cool? Forget that – do some geo-hacking! You don’t have to live in the Philippines as a digital nomad either. Boise is an affordable city with amazing outdoor access and there are other fantastic cities that cost far less than places like San Francisco, Seattle or New York.

Even here in Bend (by no means cheap), there are two bedroom apartments for ~$1,000 and house prices that Californians and Seattlites drool over. (Note: I’m aware of the very-real affordable housing crisis, but the impacts of people moving from expensive to relatively affordable locations and driving up prices is outside the scope of this post.)

At the very least, be open to either roommates or a small, affordable space until your money is dialed. However, don’t skimp on location if it means you’ll be driving a ton versus walking or biking. We lived in a 550sf studio apartment (the “itty bitty!”) right in the heart of SE Portland for a year and it was awesome.

Bike whenever possible. aka Get Rich With…Bikes. There’s a reason the IRS reimbursement rate for travel is over $.50/mile – cars are expensive! I’m no car hater and totally get their utility. (I’m driving one today to go mountain biking.) However, when biking or walking is an easy alternative, leave the car at home.

If you must drive, get a cost-effective used vehicle. Cars and their insurance/maintenance costs crush bank accounts faster than King Kong landing on Bank of America without a parachute.

Forget cable. Get Netflix, read books, start a social group, pick up a new hobby…do ANYthing but pay for an expensive cable bill.

Switch to cheaper cell phone service. From Republic Wireless to Google Fi, there are many discount resellers of Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile.
Once your debt is gone, use credit card rewards to get cash back or travel rewards. Pay off the balance each month. If you can’t control your spending yet, ignore this item like it’s a radioactive T-rex!

Carefully consider the value you gain from eating out. Go to restaurants when you really want to, not because it’s convenient. For example, Chelsea has an important standing lunch date with a friend that is worth the cost. I’d rather cook at home because it’s healthier, (usually) tastier, and cheaper. Plus my fledgling chef skills still need work…

Negotiate! Look at recurring expenses and ask “do I need this.” If the answer is no, see ya! Do you really need a shave club membership? Is the monthly subscription to a Game of Thrones costume box still serving you? If yes, ask “can I negotiate a better deal or change things up?” Phone call time!

For example, last week I called our internet provider and referenced a competitor’s intro deal. A five minute phone call yielded $11/mo in savings, PLUS they doubled our internet speed. I did a similar thing with my office lease.

Start an emergency fund once your debt is paid off

Whoa, all the value-based cost cutting worked and you paid off your debt? Now you get to stack some money.

Take what you were paying toward debt and roll that into savings. (Say you were spending $150/mo on credit cards. Immediately redirect that via your automated finances so that money goes to savings.)

Contribute to it until you get to 2-6 months expenses. (If you spend $3,000/mo, aim for $6-18k; put it in a money market account.) You’ll sleep better with a buffer and won’t have to tap into credit cards if your car transmission explodes or you lose your job.

Some people debate the need for an emergency fund. “That’s what credit cards are for.” I’d argue that until you feel totally in control of your spending, a cash pile is essential. The exact amount doesn’t matter, but having a buffer to handle big one-time costs is tremendously freeing.

Set up a financial tracking system for your money

If you don’t measure your money, you won’t control it. (I’d argue that you can’t.) I’m still surprised by how many people have ZERO clue how much they are spending.

That’s fine if you’re financially independent and can choose to stop working tomorrow. For everyone else, trust me – if you track your spending, it’ll help you save more. Notice I’m not saying create a budget. That comes later. Simply look at your spending each month!

I hear the retorts starting. “Too much time, I can’t possibly, you can’t tell me…” Whaaaaatever. You’ve got time!

Each month, I use Quicken to sync all our transactions and review our spending. This takes me less time than I spend texting my friends each day.

If you can’t invest that paltry amount in your personal finances, you’re not ready to get serious. The Home Shopping Network and the latest Danny Macaskill video can entertain you until then.

Resources:

I’ve used Quicken for almost two decades and love the ability to run varied reports. The Deluxe version is <$50/year. For simpler online tools, try Mint.com (free!) or YNAB (You Need a Budget).

Money Management is a Superpower

The magic of all these steps is that being debt free, automating your finances, having a buffer and knowing your spending habits is SUPER empowering. Celebrate because money is no longer your boss.

Now you’ll have cash in the bank in case of an emergency or if the economy tanks. Your credit cards are paying you with points or cash back rather than being a sinkhole of high-interest payments. You’re in control, and that’s a magnificent feeling.

Now what? Investing! Next time, we’ll talk about putting our hard-earned money to work for us instead of the owners of the fancy restaurant down the street.

Shutting Down the Noise – A Digital Minimalism Experiment

Devices pull at our time all day. They live in our pockets, tug at our thoughts, interrupt our conversations. We don’t naturally gravitate to digital minimalism.

Can our wimpy human brains beat the tech geniuses working to steal our attention? I say yes!

Traveling nine time zones ahead during our recent trip to Europe meant no emails, texts, or distractions until the evening. I found it so refreshing and calming that since returning home, I distanced myself from my phone’s siren song.

The goal: remove the temptation to look at my phone.

Rolling along dirt roads in pine forests near the border of Spain and Portugal!

Pruning the Noise Makers

On the plane ride home, I read Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism. He said exactly what I needed to hear about digital communication and social media: “What’s making us uncomfortable is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day.”

I easily ignore social media. I’m simply not drawn to it anymore. Thanks to bots and ads, the utility has decreased so much that checking Facebook or Instagram doesn’t even cross my mind.

Texting is a different beast. I’m a social guy with lots of people in my life: on any given day, I’ll text with 20+ different people. It’s an interruption cycle that’s hard to break because I didn’t want to leave people hanging.

Often texts turn into a conversation, not “meet here at this time.” According to my iPhone’s screen time tracker, some days that’s 1-2 hours of texting. (GAH. A part-time job!) It’s easy to control social media use by deleting apps from my phone, but TEXTING?

No. Way. It’s almost 2020: texting is like air. One-third of Americans and two-thirds of South Koreans would give up sex for a year vs. their phones!

A phone-free morning running the Enchantments!

What’s the Real Cost of a “Useful” Thing?

Texting has value and a function. It’s here to stay: I’m not deleting it from my life.

However, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Well sheeeeeit, if you put it that way… Damn you, Thoreau and your wisdom!

After a trial period, I’m keeping a new personal phone policy with the overarching goal to remove the desire to check my phone. My approach:

  • Keep my phone on Do Not Disturb or in a drawer most of the day.
  • Use texting for planning and logistics, not conversation. “Meet at the climbing gym at 5:30” versus “Hey, how are you? Here’s what’s up here…” (This one is HARD and required flat-out telling my friends about my new approach.)
  • Continuing to keep social media apps off my phone and rarely using the services on my computer.
  • Using my computer for anything that requires research or extended typing. (Writing emails on a phone is so time consuming!)
  • In general, avoiding the itch to look things up on my phone or use it for anything except mapping, useful apps like Trailforks or Libby (library app), occasional texting, and phone calls.

The result is that I’m not constantly interrupted by text messages and am spending far less time on my phone.

If spending less time on your phone doesn’t make you happy, then I don’t look like a dork in this photo.

What About Losing Connection With People?

I worried this might insert a chasm between me and various friends. Luckily, Cal addresses this:

“Being less available over text has a way of paradoxically strengthening your relationship even while making you (slightly) less available to those you care about… I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care most about.

Reading Digital Minimalism made me realize I sometimes misuse texting. Rather than concise logistics communications, I’d reach out to friends with updates about my life. If they didn’t respond in kind, I’d sometimes feel slighted.

However, if I was on the receiving end of things – long, one-sided information dumps – it often left me wishing we’d talked on the phone or met in-person instead.

My wise, hilarious friend Duncan showing me and Chelsea the secrets of matsutake mushroom hunting.

Our Brains Hate Texting

Paraphrasing the book, our intricate brain networks evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters, and social groups were small and tribal. Short, text-based messages and approval clicks are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect.

In other words, texting with your friends and commenting on their social feeds does little to strengthen our bond with them. We aren’t connecting when we text; we’re pretending.

No thanks. I’d rather have real, meaningful interactions. I’m willing to accept missing some events and having dead air between deep conversations. Who wants to learn about new babies and engagements via text or Facebook anyway?

GarageFit! Nothing like 14 degrees and a hard workout to feel connected, right fellas?

Decide What You’re Ok Missing

A line that spoke to me: “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”

Recently, I’ve focused on the activities and people I want to amplify in my life:

  • Undistracted time with Chelsea
  • Focused community building (GarageFit, men’s group, organizing friend hangouts)
  • Active physical time in the outdoors
  • Playing guitar
  • Reading and writing
  • Further streamlining my business operations
  • Fixing, installing, building and repairing stuff (bikes, house projects, van, helping friends).
  • Phone calls vs. texting whenever possible (even a four-minute call with a friend is surprisingly meaningful).

By choosing the things that create the most value, it reinforces my desire to keep my phone silent. A virtuous circle of tech minimalism!

Paul demonstrating nothing but focus while bouldering in Leavenworth.

Quick Results, But Still a Work in Progress

Short-term verdict: I’m loving it! I feel less distracted and present to both people and my thoughts. I’m connecting with friends in person or via phone calls. My brain is saying, “YES, this is real connection!”

Equally striking is realizing that few texts are time-sensitive. If people need you, they call! I haven’t missed anything of consequence by not looking at my phone.

Real Numbers

I quickly saw a sharp decrease in screen time and texting. My average daily phone use over the past week is just 40 minutes of screen time and 15 minutes of texting, FAR better than before. When I read a text now, it’s often hours later and it doesn’t turn into a conversation. A quick reply, done.

This ain’t perfection though. Noooo sir. Text conversations still happen. I get distracted, but I’m recalibrating and am confident I’ll only further improve.

Unless there’s a big hiccup, I plan on sticking with this method. The numbers don’t lie: a 5x reduction in my texting time in such a short time span is fabulous. Even better, I don’t have to fly to Europe to accomplish it!

How are you dealing with social media and digital communication saturation?

Enjoying no texts and the view at the top of Cutthroat Pass in the N. Cascades!

How to Make 2019 Awesome

Here’s my approach to creating a fulfilling, balanced, and adventurous new year. It’s a simple process that anchors me happily in the present with a lens forward and an appreciation for the past.

No resolution talk here. Zero discussions about fitness or reading a book a month are below. (The Daily Stoic Challenge or Atomic Habits can help you with those.)

Here’s the general idea:

  1. Map out the upcoming calendar year and fill in the big trips and bucket list goals first. The stuff for 2019’s highlights reel! Let’s call them Boulders of Awesomeness
  2. Add a few smaller ideas – the Stones of Excellence. Still fun, just not as committing for time/money/planning.
  3. Keep some flexible, close-to-home options for trips and day-to-day aspirations to pursue. Call these final items the Sand of Daily Happiness.

My favorite part about the Boulders of Awesomeness is that they anchor chunks of the year. Sometimes angst creeps in – “I haven’t done anything fun/exciting lately!” – and looking at the list helps me recenter. I can enjoy normal life without pangs of “time is running out!” hitting.

That leads to me relaxing and enjoying moments at home. I can look at my list and reminisce about recent fun and anticipate upcoming trips, experiences or projects.

Why Bother?

This technique avoids the “can’t commit to anything” thing that happens to me occasionally. Especially for people who are flexible (van life!) or self-employed, this method gives structure to the year without getting too rigid.

For example, here’s a screenshot from my 2018 list. Bolded entries happened and crossed off stuff is for later! From a Red Rocks climbing trip to Wilderness First Responder training to riding the Oregon Timber Trail to exploring Lake Tahoe, it was a heck of a fine year. I’m grateful it went so well.

The Detailed Process

It’s this easy:

  • Create a new document or Evernote file (my preference).
  • Flip through your bucket list and get stoked. These don’t need to be travel! One of mine for 2018 was “study blues guitar,” which I’ve focused on in December.
  • If you don’t have a formal bucket list, start one now! Think back on conversations you’ve had, Instagram posts you’ve seen, or online/magazine articles you’ve read (and maybe saved?) to jog your memory.
  • Since I have both a bucket list and my past year’s list, I go through each of them. What was fun/inspiring/awesome/fulfilling? I want more of that!
  • From those sources, pick 3-4 focuses, trips, or other ways to focus your energy (“cook more dinners at home” or “one date night per week” or “volunteer for __”). Use a different or bigger font for these.
  • Put them in the document you created and add potential dates. (Don’t use spring break for cooking at home if you’re going to travel to visit grandma!)
  • For weather-dependent trips or activities, line it up accordingly. While planning to ride the Oregon Timber Trail this year, I considered snow levels and forest fire trends and BAM, mid-July popped out. I don’t like to focus on January, when so many resolutions start out and then sputter along for a few weeks before fading. (Forget goals; this works better!)
  • Don’t be afraid to aim high! As Norman Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” There’s no air in space, so maybe that’s bad advice, but I still like it.

Stones of Excellence: Filling in the Gaps

So there are the large chunks of time to take time off work or block out a time period to dial in or acquire a new skill.

But what about weekends that slip away because you haven’t planned something out?

Same process, just with smaller projects. For example, last fall I listed a 3-day avalanche class, a trip to the Steens Mountains east of Bend, the Cascade Lakes Relay, and a trip to the coast. Listing them got me thinking about logistics and soon prompted me to sign up for the avy class and Cascade Lakes Relay.

Seeing the list frequently helps keep fun weekend escapes or learning projects front and center. I keep it as a shortcut in my Evernote file, but you could print it out and add things just as easily

I think of this list as intentions to fill in the space around the Boulders of Awesome. These can be in support of the Boulders – train for cycle touring, learn First Aid, etc.

The Sands of Happiness: Making Daily Life Fulfilling and Rad

From there, I try to fill in remaining gaps between major trips and weekend excursions. Ya know, the 50% or more that are work days, normal blips that don’t ping loudly on Life’s Radar Screen. How do you make those special?

Intention! Write down those things that make for a quality, engaged, fun daily life. Here’s a few of mine from 2018: weekly date night with Chelsea, playing guitar, leading GarageFit workouts with friends, and a monthly game night.

These can transform into a resolution-like concept (“30 min of guitar per day”), but don’t have to. Revisiting intentions is a powerful way to reset priorities without feeling like you failed on a resolution.

Annnnd that’s it! Hope that helps turn up your Awesomeness Dial for 2019. Happy New Year, everyone!

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