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!

P.S. I just launched a new weekly newsletter (<–check it out!), which is how most of you found this post. If you are subscribed via WordPress instead of Mailchimp, however, all you get is blog posts and none of the other goodies. If you want it ALL, subscribe below and all will be right. No spam, ever, just more fun!

Do You Want to Run a Business, Or Do You Just Hate Your Job?

One week to go at the engineering office!

Ten years ago, I left my safe engineering job and swam into the dark waters of self-employment. No steady paychecks, no health insurance, no 401(k) matching. Just me, a degree I owed money on, and adult anchors like a mortgage. I’d taken zero business classes and didn’t know a P&L statement from a TPS report.

Cooly, a steely-eyed Texas Gunfighter, I assessed my unique position based on my skills, what I enjoyed doing, and what the world needed. Success soon followed, along with a shiny Camaro.

YEAH. FREAKING. RIGHT.

Another day in the trenches of Office Space.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 10 years of self-employment, it’s that nothing is easy, but the end result surrrre looks nice. Whenever I hear “you’re living the dream,” it always makes me think: do you want the uncertainty and headaches of building a business, all with no guarantee of success?

Along the way, I went from coveting the lifestyles of certain people in my life and in the media to realizing that, whoa, behind that curtain in Oz lies so much work, worry, and stress. Trade offs, always.

To dispel any notions of overnight riches, here is the real story of my journey. It’s full of doubt, mistakes, inch-by-inch progress and plenty of setbacks. YAY! I begin as a morose engineer and (eventually) claw uphill to a place where I run my own business and am lucky enough to have the time and money to choose how I spend my days…but first, shit gets real.

Choosing to spend my time in places like Glacier National Park!

The Unvarnished, Damn-That-Sucked-Sometimes Path

After college, I strap on a backpack and leave the country for the first time, exploring the world for a year. Small-town Idaho boy on the loose! (I live on savings from working multiple jobs through college.) I gain more self-reliance than during my four years of college, plus traveling is FAR more interesting than differential equations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay much…(Ok, anything.)

Along the way, I meet Chelsea in Prague and follow her to Portland. I get a full-time job as an engineer. Two months into the job, I’m miserable. Forlorn in my cubicle, I stare at my pictures of exploits in 35 countries. Two weeks off per year?! If I’m lucky, I only get 4,680 weeks in my entire life!

The entitled millennial in me wants freedom and money, RIGHT NOW. C’mon world, I’ve done nothing to earn it, but I want it. No, I deserve it.

First date with Chelsea! If I can do a handstand, there’s no way working full time is necessary.

I start reading books like The Four-Hour Work Week and blogs about self-employment. (My reading list from those days is a study in cracking a code: real estate investment, entrepreneurship, The Millionaire Next Door.) The gears start whirring. I’m working long hours and downing Subway sandwiches at my desk. Meanwhile, Chelsea is starting a real estate career. Supportive partner to the core, she says, “Hey, talk to James, the finance guy in my office.”

James advises me to keep my sweet, secure engineering job. I’m earning $55k/year right out of college, far more than I’ve ever made. It’s 2007 and the housing market is teetering and everyone in the industry can feel it.

Advice be damned! I get a lending license. I have zero finance training, but I want to become the Green Lender, the sustainability finance dude.

I’d totally trust this guy with my money! I mean c’mon, he’s got a green shirt, rides a fixed gear bike and has big hair. #trustworthy

Friends are my first marks; somehow, I don’t screw things up TOO badly. I do a deal here or there on the side for a year, focusing on my own personal projects on my computer’s second monitor. (Alt-Tabbers out there, let’s just say I was quick on the draw.)

The condo market in Portland peaks. We’re sage investors, so we buy a condo. “We’ll flip this and buy a house next year,” we tell ourselves, toasting our good fortune. The condo drops 40% in value. #realestategeniuses

Mid-2008, I leave my engineering job. Adjustable rate mortgages explode like time bombs, flak spraying the markets. Whatever – I’m SO stoked to quit.

The market crashes. There are approximately zero point zero clients buying homes. Whaaaat am I gonna doooo?

I’m no dummy, so I focus on core business development strategies: rock climbing and biking. For months, I avoid doing the work to get started, living on savings. Road trips to beautiful places STILL don’t pay much, it turns out…

Thinking deeply about business development in the City of Rocks.

Hard at work on my business plan with my friend Don on a ride around Crater Lake.

A Journey to the Dark Side of Business

A college roommate and I are both casting about for business ideas. We start a tech consulting business (neither of us are qualified). One of our favorite biz names includes “Techasaurus Rex.” (Sigh.)

We shutter T-Rex when my roommate finds a multi-level marketing (MLM) business called LocalAdLink, which aims to compete with Google AdWords. With a failed MLM in college, surely I’ve learned there is no such thing as easy money and that MLMs are shady and sharky.

I jump into the MLM full-force. Craigslist posts, recruiting, “ground-level opportunity…” All the bullshit. We make a few dollars, mostly from other people joining. (Rule #1 about most MLMs: the product is secondary. It’s all about recruiting people to sell the product for you, a pyramid paying people at the top. Gimme a P, gimme an O…PONZI SCHEME!)

After a month or so of this BS, my biz partner finds another, shinier “opportunity” called Lightyear Wireless. It’s another MLM. Chelsea, the far more intuitive one in our partnership, sees right through it. No way am I jumping into this one – c’mon Dakota. Dean’s list engineering student, world traveler… Common sense says that…

Headlong, I dive into recruiting for Lightyear. This one goes well; recruiting is easier, money to be made. Ground floor opportunity again, baby! (It’s always ground floor.) It’s a cold winter and I’m working in our uninsulated condo. Curled at my feet is an archaic cat Chelsea rescued from the street. Her name is Annie and she’s the sweetest, most decrepit kitty ever.

Annie spends the last days of her life asleep by the space heater, croaking out meows for a pat. Her waning moments parallel the sunsetting of my MLM days. I read a professor’s article about MLMs and email him. He confirms my theory that I’m not actually putting efforts into a real business. That small nudge is all it takes.

Me and old Annie hanging out. (Side note: No way I’ve ever had so many pics of me sitting in office chairs in one blog!)

The Only Way to Make Money is to Create Value

I realize there is no easy way to make money without hard work and that it is time to buckle down and create value. It’s a hard lesson, and I feel stupid and embarrassed. Why don’t they teach these lessons in school instead of trigonometry?! I’m also lucky to only waste a few months of my life on MLM scams. To anyone considering them, here’s my odious advice: move on immediately.

My timing is unreal. The housing market collapses and the government rescues big banks. Not to worry: all my old engineering colleagues are pulling down great money. None of them will lose their jobs in the teeth of the incoming recession. (“How’s the new biz, Dakota?”) Remind me why my dumbass Millennial, want-the-world-on-a-silver-platter self left a solid, respectable job with upward mobility?

I scattershot my approach in mid-2009: selling search engine optimization, hawking website design for a company, learning web design myself and building niche websites, joining a couple teams pitching grants in the sustainability marketing realm, and teaching a class on sustainability at a local college. (Funny enough, I’d forgotten ALL of these until going through Gmail for this blog!)

My shifting intentions force me to refocus and buckle down on my real estate finance business. I brainstorm ideas about green building and sustainability, reach out to build relationships, and finagle presentations to Realtors who are listing efficient, green homes. The federal government offers a first-time homebuyer tax credit to rekindle the swooning economy and people start buying homes again…but I still have zero clients.

I’m freaking out. My savings are dwindling and my meager stock investments are cratering. I’m a saver by nature and hate living without a safety net. That cubicle and monthly paycheck sound miiiiighty fine. Free lunches and a Christmas bonus? Sign me up. (I’m in The Dip, as Seth Godin calls it.)

I’m somewhere in the trough of sorrow/crash of ineptitude…

Changing Tides!

Momentum! Chelsea refers me some clients and I build relationships with Realtors. Two of them are a progressive team that sense opportunity with a review platform, Yelp. I’m intrigued (and desperate).

Referrals trickle in. I finally start making some money. Not a lot, and it feels unstable, shaky. Still, we’re frugal and it’s enough to cover my expenses. (Mostly because I’m not into the expensive sport of mountain biking yet.)

Ohhhh but I WILL be into this sport… (Photo: the talented Scott Rokis.)

So much trial and error. Does this marketing work? Can I offer classes about technology and a paper-free office and get referrals? (Yes.) Some business relationships blossom, others dead end, time wasted for no pay.

I’m learning the hard way that efficiency and effectiveness are different beasts. I can spend all day working efficiently on things that don’t deliver revenue! (“Maybe I’ll sort my contacts into groups and delete old archived emails.”)

I’m working hard, harder than I EVER did as an engineer, and the payoff is uncertain at best. Still, Yelp reviews are coming in and I’m seeing a glimmer of hope. (Essentialism is a great book that helped me focus on what mattered.)

Curveballs, Always Curveballs

I receive a job offer that is too good to refuse and become the Sustainable Finance Director for a local nonprofit. I’m tasked with developing relationships with organizations to push forward the green building market. Do I land my fledgling mortgage business? Hell. No. I double down and work harder.

Adding fuel to the fire, I commit to a budget of $200 per month to invite engaging, curious business professionals out to lunch or coffee. I build my network and meet dozens of driven people who are creating and contributing to what makes Portland a fantastic city. (The book Never Eat Alone is a significant influence on my approach.)

For 1.5 years (early 2010 to fall 2011), I’m pinning it, full throttle. Flights all over the country presenting on sustainable finance, meetings, work work work. My mind never rests, stress cascading off me in waves. I’m thinking about work from eyes open to head on the pillow. I lie awake at night thinking over difficult conversations, tactics, possibilities, risks. I’m so much fun to hang out with…

Kauai vacation (to elope!) in 2011. Not shown: me working half of my freeeeaking wedding trip.

It’s an exciting, exhausting, unsustainable pace. Only my morning bike commute, lunch runs and the climbing gym keep me sane. Chelsea is also working nutso hours on her business, so our time together is limited. Trail mix dinners over the kitchen counter, yum.

Breaking point. I have to choose. (Choose Yourself James Altucher says!) I leave the nonprofit and invest in my own business in fall of 2011.

Own or Be Owned by A Business

Positive reviews of my work on Yelp continue to drive new clients my way. My work is gaining steam and 2011/2012 are insanity. I’m pulled in 700 different directions. In no way do I own my business; it owns me.

Chelsea and I get married. Even though we don’t have kids and her business is booming, she leaves paid work, opting to support my fledgling business and focus on creating an awesome life for us . (Check out Radical Homemakers.)

We joke that she’s our Ambassador of Fun, but more accurate is that she’s consciously making our lives well-rounded and deep through community building, travel planning, and (eventually) a focus on veganism. To this day, it’s the best decision we’ve made to improve our quality of life, forge new paths and ways of thinking.

Chelsea brings the fun while I rethink cycling and ride two rental bikes in Arizona.

In many ways, we have it so, SO good. However, like a dam overloaded while cranking out electricity, the cracks are starting to show. I’m stressed and edgy. Is this effort worth it? We start dreaming about living smaller and dig into the tiny living movement. What if we live in a mother-in-law unit and rent out the main house? I could dial back my work and stop thinking about money all the time. Wait, wasn’t that the plan four years ago?

We take a roadtrip in fall of 2012 to “decompress.” I spend the entire time working and more stressed. (Where’s a wifi signal?! We’re losing reception!) It. Is. Miserable. We spy a Vanagon on that trip and almost buy it on a whim. Instead, we start researching camper vans. Four months later, we spring for a new Sprinter van. A new chapter opens.

Two contract employees I rely on are yanked out from under me. I’m terrified, but make the leap and hire my first full-time employees. (My guiding principles stem from the book Let My People Go Surfing by the founder of Patagonia.)

We’re in contract on a new house. WAIT. I realize I want to break free, to roam, to feel that footloose feeling of travel from my days in New Zealand, Russia, Laos…

An all-time travel moment: we switch boats on Inle Lake (Myanmar) and learn how to paddle like the locals.

Hanging off the back of a tuktuk in Laos in 2006 with my buddy Eric!

The Life Pivot

We turn on our heels and hatch a new plan: a 4-month van trip from Portland to San Diego. I focus on finishing our van buildout, of planning and execution with freeeeedom as the goal. At the end of 2013, we drop our kitty Oliver off at the in-laws and head south.

The van doesn’t have any running water and there aren’t any interior lights. We are ecstatic. Nature and creative time fill our days. Chelsea and I spend more quality time together than we have in years. We decide four months is wayyyy too short a trip…

I’m working remotely. It’s flexible, but not enough. We crunch some numbers and make another leap: I’ll refer all my clients to my staff. The goal: trade time for money. It’s time to own my business, not be owned.

I’m terrified it will fail, that my hard-fought efforts to build a business will crumble. The risk feels worth the potential reward – what’s the best that could happen? I make the leap.

Sometimes you’ve just gotta do it!

It works. Somehow. There are new headaches and surprises with the people I hire to cover my client load, but also mental space. Less money, more time. As a business owner, at some point hiring and delegation are key if you want to pursue other passions. The timing is never right. Scary. And also life-changing.

We celebrate the new flexibility with a bike tour 4,100 miles across the U.S. I only work a few hours per week on the tour. The decision to leave my engineering job is finally vindicated. This is the reason I started a business, not just to make money!

Two more years of travel follows, followed by the ability to choose where we want to live (Bend!) and sculpt our lives along lines true to our values and priorities. It’s never perfect – I’m still a Millennial, dammit – but the effort feels worth it.

A strong community AND outdoor fun: the perfect mix. 

The Journey Continues

Almost five years from our initial launch in the van and a decade out of the cubicle, I’d forgotten many of these trials. Writing this was a stark reminder of the truth: creating a business is HARD work, often filled with drudgery, dead ends and stress.

What seemed like terrible timing at the outset was actually luck, since I started in the murk of a recession and shot out on the upswing with a lean, nimble business. Even now, there’s no certainty of success. With the housing and stock market overheated again, who knows what will happen! Whatever. I’m confident in our ability to adapt, learn, live frugally, and create income if needed.

One thing’s for sure: I’m glad I didn’t buy a Camaro. I’d rather own a camper van.

YEEEHAW TO VANS AND SELF-EMPLOYMENT!

Why I Became A Wilderness First Responder

“Uh, Dakota, I’ve got fascia showing here,” John yelled. He ditched his bike by the trail, squeezing his left forearm.

Closer inspection revealed a wide 6” long gash that John could barely hold closed. A sharp stump protruding into the trail had hacked away some serious organic material (aka arm). Blood bubbled merrily away; white fat was visible in the cut.

Three months ago, my reaction is AHHHHHH, followed by: Stammering. Fumbling. Dropping everything. I was a liability in any medical situation, whether in the backcountry or at home.

But not this day. Thanks to a Wilderness First Responder class, I was prepared.

Instructors demonstrating a head-to-toe examination on me.

Accept That Things Can Go Wrong

“Be comfortable being uncomfortable,” our instructor Mike told me during a post-class hangout. This is a guy who has climbed Denali, Mt. Rainier, and big mountains in South America over 100 times. He’s an understated badass.

Be comfortable. Being uncomfortable.

Shit happens when you’re engaged in outdoor activities like mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, trail running and all the other sports I enjoy. People fall off bikes, tumble off a trail, take a fall climbing and slam an ankle (a college friend created a mini-epic in the Needles with that one). Stories abound.

My friend Andrew on the infamous Heinous Cling at Smith Rock. Nothing like climbing 30 feet above your last bolt. Gulp.

If we want to play outside, we must accept things can go wrong. They WILL go wrong. Sure, it’s easy to pretend all will be ok, but I’d rather prepare for that eventuality. There’s comfort readiness.

For years, I talked about taking some kind of wilderness medical training, but never made it a priority. The time. The cost. Excuses. A couple injured friends last year (one snapping an ankle on a mountain ride in Bellingham, another on a jump trail) finally pushed me over the edge. Chelsea and I both signed up for the class.

A multi-pronged rescue getting Tom off the trails after he snapped his ankle in Bellingham.

What is a Wilderness First Responder?

Enter the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class, pronounced Woofer. In nine days and 80 hours of instruction (full-on immersion!), we went deep on wilderness medicine. The WFR is a step below an EMT certification and teaches a rigorous framework for assessing someone in need of medical attention.

From broken bones to cardiac conditions to a focused spinal assessment to psychological issues to communicating clearly via radio/phone with other medical teams, we covered hours of useful skills. Between classroom lessons, we practiced a dozen scenarios with various trauma and medical conditions, hammering home a mindset for approaching adverse situations we might encounter.

The handy Patient Assessment System (PAS).

Learning a Focused Spinal Assessment in class. We’d then practice in live scenarios.

Until recently, something as simple as Chelsea cutting her finger with a kitchen knife threw me into a tizzy. I’d rip open bandaids (usually the wrong ones) and do nothing right. WFR training teaches a process to follow, a checklist for evaluating a situation. Clear-headed, systematic confidence is at the root of their teaching.

Most scenarios were quick, 30 minutes with head-to-toe exams to practice the WFR evaluation framework. Some were more in-depth, including a mock night rescue scenario in the woods where we ended up using jackets, trekking poles, medkits – anything we had on us. We stabilized a compound fracture, handled a seizure, and stayed warm in near-freezing conditions. (Pro tip that a team member taught me: tea candles are long-burning fire starters.)

Scenarios like this were excellent for under-the-gun training.

Staying warm during a night rescue scenario. That fire was very necessary!

Takeaway: even a short hike can lurch out of control, and it’s usually at the end of the day when everyone is tired and thinking of hot food and a shower, not where their next foot placement is.

Another big simulation was a Mass Casualty Incident rescue where a Jeep and ATV collided and six people needed rescuing. We set up a a central command, coordinated with medical personnel, stabilized injuries, then hauled them around on steep, rocky terrain for rescue by helicopter.

IT WAS CRAZY. We didn’t know how many patients were out there (our instructor secretly recruited his children to be victims) or where they were. Various rescuers even “passed out” or overreacted. But the 26 students wrestled the situation under control and made it happen. All of us walked away thinking, “Hey, I can do this!”

Mass casualty incident. Our instructor’s kids were convincing patients!

I Don’t Need This Crap! I Don’t Even Like the Outdoors

Many of the scenarios we talked about in class were not extreme sports accidents. A relative clearing gutters falling off a ladder at a cabin in the woods. Slips off hiking trails looking at the view (my mom did this at Smith Rock a week after the class and scared the hell out of me and Chelsea). Someone with heart problems collapsing a mile into an easy waterfall hike. A kid getting bit by a rattlesnake on a rafting trip. It could happen to you.

The WFR is for anyone who spends time in the outdoors; the rough rule is that if you’re an hour from a hospital, you’re in a wilderness scenario. If you come across someone groaning and semi-conscious on a hiking trail, you know how to help them. That’s empowering!

Practicing splinting a broken leg with typical camp supplies (jackets, sleeping pad).

Learning bandaging! This is Tagaderm, a magic breathable layer that stays on a lonnng time.

Rescue Is Far, Far Away

Maybe you’re thinking, “Why bother with this stuff when a search and rescue (SAR) team is a phone call or SOS signal away?” Good question.

Judd, a guy in our class, does underwater cave exploration as a (serious) hobby. He’s mapped never-explored caves all over the world, from the South Pacific to Madagascar. Sometimes he spends 18 hours straight underwater using an astronaut-style rebreathing apparatus. His stories of “mishaps” in scary places were a biiiit sobering.

You’d think his personal rescue story involves international waters and a foreign government. Nope! He was skiing out-of-bounds at Steamboat Springs, a day like any given Sunday. A nasty fall broke some bones (and his back). Even so close to the resort, with experienced friends, he wound up overnighting in the snow in a shattered state before a rescue team arrived. Knowing how to stabilize a situation like that is important.

SAR teams are usually volunteers. When a call or distress signal comes in, they first evaluate whether it’s an actual rescue scenario. (Often, it’s not.) If it is, they have to rally gear and people, set up a base camp, assess the situation, and get a plan rolling. When a litter or backboard is necessary, you need 18 people to form three groups of six for hauling people out. On rough terrain, it is HARD to move an injured person in a stretcher, as we found out during scenarios.

Chelsea gets hauled up steep rocks in a backboard to practice an overland carry. It’s hard work!

At the end of the day, rescue is hours (or days) away. Pushing SOS on your SPOT transceiver might feel good, but knowledge for stabilizing a situation or taking matters into your own hands is key. Splinting a broken arm or taping a severely sprained ankle and hiking to the car is often faster (and definitely cheaper!) than waiting for the helicopter to show up.

As our witty instructor Dan told us, it takes Diesel Power: Dees feet got you in, dies-el get you out!

WFR in Action

Back on the trail. John holds his arm; I bust out my trail medkit. I almost forget to put on my nitrile gloves (first step before helping a patient), but remember last-second. *Snap snap*, ready to go. It takes a dozen Steristrips and some finagling to close the wound, but we get it.

GNARLY PICTURE ALERT: SCROLL PAST THE NEXT PHOTO IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH.

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I definitely would have freaked out seeing this before the WFR class! John’s arm was gnarly. Here it is just prior to stitches after all the dressings were removed. Gnarly, yes, but better than when there was blood pouring from the wound.

A gauze bandage, plus tape wrap, and things are looking better. Final topping: John’s elbow pad, a snug cover to hold everything in place for the ride out. An hour later, he’s at urgent care getting a dozen stitches. WFR win!

What strikes me is what I didn’t do (freak out). John knew I’d taken the class and trusted that I knew how to proceed. Rather than a potentially gnarly wound bleeding profusely with miles to pedal out, we rigged a tight, secure bandage sufficient to get my buddy to urgent care.

John with his bandaged arm. To his credit, he laughed and joked through the entire bandaging process.

The backcountry is a dangerous place for us soft-bodied humans. We aren’t designed to fall, overheat, freeze, twist, bang, scrape or otherwise smack into our environment. No matter how prepared we are, there’s always risk. (That’s what makes outdoor exploits exciting!)

A couple months out from my WFR class, the maxim “Be comfortable being uncomfortable” keeps resonating. By investing in skills like wilderness medicine, primitive survival and orienteering, we equip ourselves to explore the world and push our limits in various environments.

This is for you, your friends, and any stranger you come across in need of help. I’m planning to continue my education in various outdoor skills, and I encourage you to as well. The person who needs your help in the future will appreciate it.

The WFR crew!

Resources

If you don’t have time/cash for the full WFR, check out Wilderness First Aid classes. At the very least, a CPR/basic first-aid class is worth your time. Many employers will pay for you to take the classes, especially if you work as a guide or are in the field frequently.

A few links:

There are other companies and classes, but since I only have experience with NOLS, I’ll stop here.

By the way, I received no compensation for this post. I wrote it because I now realize how ill-prepared I was in the past and I don’t want anyone to feel that way if something bad happens during an outdoor adventure. Here’s to excitement AND safety outside.

Rappelling off a multi-pitch climb at Smith Rock. ONWARD!

Downshifting from Van Life

I’ve aimed to write this post for over eight months. (All photos in this post are from that time frame too!) It’s for anyone dreaming of traveling long-term, and also for those living that dream wondering, “Will we do this forever?”

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As long-time readers know, Chelsea and I launched our van trip in fall 2013 for a four-month jaunt down the coast of California. “FOUR MONTHS IS SO LONG!” our friends opined. “Don’t forget Oliver,” said Chelsea’s parents as we dropped our fuzzy companion off for cat-sitting.

Little did we (and my unsuspecting in-laws) know we’d live the van life for three years, not four months.

Backpacking with Chelsea’s parents in the Jefferson Wilderness last July.

The Magic of Full-Time Travel

The excitement of travel pulled like a large planet’s gravity. We easily fell into an orbit that took us to 18 countries by van, bike, and plane. I freed up time and mental space by hiring more people for my business, extracting myself from day-to-day client work. It was a scary leap with a real chance of disintegrating into a broken heap. (At least we had the van!)

Things worked out.

Patrick rappelling off a route at Smith Rock.

So we traveled. It was relaxing, simple in many ways (open calendar, every day!), creatively inspiring, a sabbatical from many of the responsibilities of “adult” existence.

I dove into photography and writing and built this blog. My random musings somehow attracted a million visitors and allowed us to meet many adventurous people who eschew the (typical) American Dream.

Many readers are in our shoes, professionals tired of living someone else’s narrative of “success.” They’re flipping the bird at the 9-to-5 and proverbial picket fence and heading out to find open space where the wind sings through trees or roars over the desert landscape.

I met Rich and Esther at a trailhead in 2016. “Hey, I know your van!” Here’s Rich a year later zipping down Xanadu, a sweeeet trail with sweeter views near Leavenworth, WA.

We chewed up mountain bike trails, then 7,000 miles of roads while cycle touring the U.S. and Europe. New York and Santa Cruz each distracted us for a month, as did studying Spanish in Mexico, roadtripping Iceland, and volunteering at a farm sanctuary.

Our travels also strongly focused on people. We spent quality time with our families and developed friendships all over the globe. I regularly stay in touch with buddies from our travels and see them around the states.

Making a snowman with my nephew, Sam. He then crushed me at a snowball fight.

 On the Road…Forever?

At one point, Chelsea asked me, “I wonder if we’ll always be nomads?” At the time, the answer felt like a resounding yes.

And yet, like any frequent activity, the shiny luster faded from full-time travel. What started as a sort of sabbatical turned into a repetitive daily orbit of logistics. Traveling went from stimulating immersion in new places to shallow dips into too many places, voyeurism without involvement. Even a few multi-week stays and volunteering felt too short.

 

Paul dives into Waldo Lake on a chilly October day. Yes, that water is as cold as it looks.

We missed community and tired of constantly saying goodbye. We met adventurous and stoked people, but interactions were short-lived. Was it possible to create a traveling caravan of friends who rolled around together, we wondered…?

Instead, we dug deep in a short time period with people, talking life, traveling, unconventional choices. Then travel inertia – gotta keep moving! – or common courtesy to not overstay our welcome would grab hold. We’d exchange hugs, talk about plans to meet in the future, and point our wheels toward the distant horizon.

Enjoying the views off NW chair with my buddy Robert on Mt. Bachelor. That’s Sparks Lake and South Sister in the distance.

The Travel Pull

When I questioned why I wanted to keep traveling, I unearthed four primary reasons:

1) Daily access to the outdoors
2) Momentum (we’re moving and therefore must keep moving)
3) Positive reinforcement feeding my ego (people saying “wow, I’ve always wanted to do that!” or “you’re living the dream!”)
4) That we COULD travel full-time, so we should (right?).

Not if it no longer fed what we sought to do or how we wanted to grow.

Of those four aspects, only daily outdoor access made sense anymore. Chelsea felt this earlier than I did and was ready to land in one place.

There’s a metaphor here about hanging onto something…

I’ve seen this shift in dozens of travelers. Friends with big social media followings or a popular blog often hit a point where another new place didn’t ring their bell anymore. Posting online starts to feel forced, a job rather than a joy. Their social media profiles blinked out, blog posts shifted to every few weeks, then quarterly, then gone.

I was no exception.

A magic, strenuous day on Angel’s Staircase in the N. Cascades.

Figuring out where to park the van was the hard part. When we’d return to Portland for visits, I felt trapped by the big city. The combination of gray days and no quick access to nature dragged on me. I was depressed and irritable, frustrated with concrete and traffic.

During our travels, we eyed mountain towns in the west as potential places to pop out landing gear and stick around for awhile. Santa Cruz, Boulder, San Luis Obispo, Bozeman. There was always a reason a place didn’t feel right.

Enter Bend, Oregon, the seat of Lifestyle Awesomeness. We’d visited the surrounding area a fair amount, but never dug into the city. After traveling Iceland and Canada in 2016, we rolled the van into Bend to rent a friend’s place and see how things shook out.

Sunset at Old Mill on the Deschutes River in Bend.

How It Feels to Be In One Place

Over a year later, our new homebase is Bend! We sold our Portland home and bought a house in Bend in a quirky, connected neighborhood.

People don’t randomly wind up in Bend. Most work hard and create the opportunity to live here. We’ve discovered new friends are available and prioritize investing in friendship and family, time outside, health, travel and giving back to the community. We’re loving the strong community of active, positive, engaged friends and the easily accessible outdoor magic.

Cookbook club! Get a bunch of friends together and cook amazing food from one vegan cookbook per month. It’s that easy!

Thanks to prioritizing access to and preservation of public lands, Bend is an outdoor playground with miles of singletrack for mountain biking and running, skiing on Mt. Bachelor and world-class rock climbing at Smith Rock. If there’s a downside to the town, it’s minor growing pains as it goes from small to medium size. Sometimes there’s a 3 min wait at a roundabout! (NOOOO.)

What makes Bend resonate for us isn’t solely the outdoor wonderland. For a mountain town, there’s a lot going on. Music, coffee shops, kombucha makers and breweries galore (not that I drink beer!), unlimited festivals in the summer, all the running and biking events you’d ever want, and a growing business hub are just a sampler.

The open space we created for traveling shifted easily to other arenas. A natural organizer, Chelsea spearheaded things. She joined the board of a local vegan nonprofit, started a plant-powered running group and cookbook club, and filled our calendars with marches, fundraisers, and political events. In a year, we’re more involved in Bend than we ever were in Portland.

Plant-Powered Runners! This crew is awesome.

Rallying friends at our house for the Jan 2018 Women’s March in Bend.

On top of that, I’m finding myself more active in Bend. This is thanks to the strong outdoors scene and access to everything I love to do so close to our door.

I spent 2017 in a mix of physical activity (perhaps too much!), joining events with Chelsea, and investing energy into my business. This year, I’m aiming for less work and more creative time and travel, plus weekly Plant-Powered Runners outings, big dinner parties, and community events. I’m surprised how easily time traveling is filled with other satisfying pursuits.

How can you not get outside with this 30 minutes away?

So What’s the Plan, Yo?

This city is a stellar fit for us and we’ve decided Bend is our home for the foreseeable future. We’re rooting, but we will still step off into sweet adventures.

“Are you selling the van!?” people have asked. No. Freaking. Way. Too many climbing areas the van needs to visit! I also need it to scope out the trails around Crested Butte, c’mon! A trip to Wyoming and Idaho is already slated for May.

My shredder friend Jeremy launching off Trail #3 at Cline Butte with the Cascades in the background.

We’re kicking around an idea for another bike tour; the idea of long climbing trips to Greece, Spain, or Mexico makes me salivate. These travel boots aren’t even close to done walking!

This is a shift to a lifestyle we talked about for the past few years. We’ll dig deep into community and still water the seeds of travel when we feel the itch. By spending months in Bend mixed with trips near and far, we’ll polish both sides of the travel and home coin.

A snowy Crater Lake during a week-long mountain biking van trip to Southern Oregon.

Van Life as a Mindset

The social media tag #vanlife represents freedom from a staid, boring existence. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to it. We’re repeating the paths of anti-establishment parents back in the 1960s. This time around, though, people can work remotely, freelancing from Yosemite, writing software code from Moab, or editing science papers in a ski resort parking lot.

Even if Chelsea and I aren’t traveling in a van full-time, #vanlife carries into the way we live. For me, it’s a mentality as much as a way of life, encompassing adventure, minimalism, and an open-minded, flexible approach to travel. It’s an examined, intentional approach.

About to examine the downhill on Fuji Mountain near Waldo Lake!

This is a new phase, and not the last. I expect continuing shifts filled with moments for play and exploring, time for growth and building, space to give back, and occasionally the chance to do it all. There’s no playbook for this version of the American Dream, just an evolving patchwork quilt called life. A stitch here and there adding new experiences, a rearranging of the patterns as needed.

It’s about the adventure of living a balanced, exciting life of play, community and contribution. Full-time travel no longer lit us up, so it was time for a shift. We all need to weave together pleasure, purpose, and pride. Done correctly, it creates a strong rope to hoist away toward a happy, satisfied life. That’s our aim in this next stage.

The ever-evolving book of our lives continues. The Bend chapter continues with rip-roaring satisfaction and fun. Instead of “going places to be moved,” as Pico Iyer describes travel, we’ve landed and sunk both feet in deep, toes gripping, arms wide.

It feels great.

We’re still having fun!

***

Have you traveled long-term and felt the pull to land somewhere? I’d love to hear how you handled the shift from full-time travel to a rooted existence.

Goals Are So Last Year. This Works Better.

A bit quiet on the blog recently! We spent December digging into snow sports in Bend and hanging with family for the holidays. In other news, a podcast interview we did called “Creating a Life of Adventure” was the #1 show for 2016 on The Startup Sessions. If you’re new to Traipsing About, it’s a great way to get to know us.

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Ready to dive headfirst into the new year? It’s a time of reflection and goals to better ourselves, to keep growing. So why do many resolutions belly flop off the diving board of good intentions like an ungainly kid at summer camp?

“Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners,” says Scott Adams, creator of the comic Dilbert, in his book. This sounds flippant coming from a guy who draws pointy-haired cubicle workers, so allow me to explain.

Losing weight, that famous New Year’s resolution, is a goal; eating right is a system. “I want to travel” is a goal. A system of saving money or developing work you can perform remotely is a system.

Goals are great, but without a concrete system to underpin and support them, it’s all just talk, aspirations that wither beneath the hot sun of real life. Find a person who is successful – by any definition – and most are focused on systems, not stand-alone goals.

It’s full-on winter around here. Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the AT (alpine touring) skis to pick up take out for dinner!

From Wishful Thinking to a Business System

Early in my business career, I set arbitrary monthly revenue goals based on nice-sounding, random numbers. Turns out there isn’t a fairy depositing money in the Bank of Wishing. As the saying goes, wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first. Neither pays the mortgage.

My forecasts only worked when I laid a foundation (system!) beneath my aspirations and took concrete action. How many weekly presentations and meetings could I schedule? From those, how many potential clients would I talk to? Using actionable items, I built a solid understanding of how many people I needed to speak with to make a certain amount. (Yes, there were spreadsheets.)

Revenue increased, and also grew more consistent. As a benefit of implementing a system, I found confidence and peace of mind; if I did the work, success followed. From simple groundwork, I didn’t have to worry about revenue whipsawing like peaks and valleys in the Alps.

Day One alpine skiing at Mt. Bachelor! We almost look like we know what we’re doing…

Hanging with C’s bro on Mt. Bachelor. Goggles and face masks make one look so serious…

One Way to Organize Systems

To be clear, I’m not advocating for scheduling every second of our lives the way Cal Newport prescribes. (I’ve tried that and it wasn’t for me.) Time for the mind to wander and drift is important. My life isn’t a system – borrrrring – but my personal goals are (usually) supported by one.

When I need to crank out projects, I break things down into bite-size pieces using the Secret Weapon. This is simply Evernote coupled with the Getting Things Done method, and it serves as my external brain.

For recent updates to our Sprinter van, I used sub-projects. “Install water system” had components like “order sink” or “find water tank drain plug.” A big, nebulous goal languishes on a to-do list until the zombies attack. (Then we need chainsaws, not planning!)

The same applies to anything we seek to achieve. Be it business, physical ambitions, books we want to read, or a big personal project, systems rock.

Cruising XC ski trails with buddies.

Using Systems for Physical Pursuits

I’m currently focused on three primary physical challenges. Two have specific goals; all require systems.

First, I’m aiming to push my rock climbing abilities to new limits. (Specifically, leading a 5.13 sport route outside.) Can I achieve this by unfocused climbing a few days a week at the gym or Smith Rock? Perhaps…

It’s a hell of a lot more likely to happen if I dig into a periodized training plan that removes overthinking and guess work. It’s not a grind, it’s a plan, and I still have fun. (Except for hangboard workouts. Those are simply hard work.)

A system takes decision making out of the daily actions. Follow a step-by-step plan and find greater success than where we start. Even if I don’t crank out a 5.13 next year, I’ll make considerable gains.

It’s not all snow around here…Smith Rock still has fun to offer in the winter!

I’m also focused on a consistent, balanced strength and mobility system. Since I want to stay active for years to come by investing in my body’s 401(k), I need a system. Focusing on Gymnastics Bodies allows me to bike, climb, run and ski (a new hobby) without injury. With 30 minutes per day, I’m maintaining a strong foundation for the physical challenges I want to pursue.

Lastly, I signed up for a 100-mile mountain bike race in July called High Cascades. That’s more than twice as long as any mountain bike ride I’ve done and will likely take over 10 hours to finish.

This requires a training regimen containing endurance and speed work, plus dialing in my hydration and food plan. It will take work, but if I follow the plans I lay out, I’ll have fun, learn a ton, and have a solid shot at success.

Dawn patrol skate ski session near Bend. Skate skiing is proving to be a) an incredible workout and b) very technique-heavy!

Get Your System On

As you’re reflecting on 2016 and eyeing next year, think about ambitions for 2017 and beyond. Take aspirations and build support lattices around them. Tell friends about your plans (or maybe not); make a bet that you’ll stick to it; allocate a reward for hitting your target.

Enjoy the day-to-day plan, training and focus that’s necessary to slowly build toward success. Think about what your future self would thank you for and start the long-term projects. The days are slow, but the years are fast!

As 2016 wraps up, are there systems you can put in place to build toward ticking projects off the bucket list?

Hiking Pilot Butte with my folks, views of the Cascade Mtns in the background.

Chelsea and fam showing off their ski skills.

Road trippin’ to Portland to for a visit.

Views to the west from Mt. Bachelor.

Cutting Back on Social Media Distractions – Experiment Results

Lake Louise

I recently wrote about an experiment to claim control of my tech and social media life. Some tweaks worked, some didn’t. After 1.5 months of testing, here’s a quick update on the success (or failure) of those four goals.

As a good stress test of this, we spent October living in (and loving) Bend, followed by a week in Portland. We also tacked on fun days in 93-degrees-in-November Los Angeles for Farm Sanctuary’s anniversary gala, a fabulous event. (“Not traveling” is relative for us, I suppose.)

This challenge wasn’t about perfection. I knew there would be some modification to my initial plan, though I didn’t end up changing much. I’m surprised how passionately people respond when this challenge comes up. “Oh, I really want to do something like that!” It seems many of us realize the time drain or addiction that our devices can create.

A splendid day outside.

A splendid day in Yoho National Park.

With the election behind us (and piles of uncertainty ahead!), I’d wager social media time skyrocketed for most of us. Chelsea and I are inspired by the activism and positive energy we’ve seen pour forth – it’s awesome to see friends who never post about politics adding their voice to the mix.

Now is an important time to come together and let our voices be heard. I also think it’s necessary to compartmentalize the noise and only take in news and social media in chunks, which has only reinforced my commitment to this experiment.

The famously-high first bolts at Smith Rock always keep me focused...

The famously-high first bolts at Smith Rock always keep me focused…

Here’s how my four goals played out…

A weekly digital Sabbatical: Phone off and computer off on Saturday.

I’ll start off with the fail. Frankly, the digital Sabbatical I attempted to do every Saturday did NOT work for me.

There’s just too much communication in my life on weekends, ranging from coordination of outdoor activities, plans with friends, texts to Chelsea (“hey, I’m gonna be 2.5 hours late getting back from a bike ride”), or answering calls from tenants. Turns out my phone is an integral part of my daily life.

Luckily, in combination with the three items below, a digital Sabbatical turned out to be less necessary. Without the distracting pull from my phone, I’m far more present on Saturday. To keep boundaries on social media, I’ve opted to not post on Instagram or Facebook on the weekends.

All in all, an interesting experiment in being completely disconnected with too many potential headaches or trouble relative to the gain. I’m fine with that.

Saluting the Canadian Rockies! Pretty sure it was Saturday.

Saluting the Canadian Rockies in Banff! Pretty sure it was Saturday.

A no-phone rule during meals and in the bedroom

This rule is GREAT. I feel far more connected to people when I’m sitting down for a meal. Beyond that, there have been zero times when any texts or phone calls were so time sensitive that they couldn’t wait 1-2 hours.

Not having my phone by the bedside first thing in the morning is fantastic. On top of my usual reading, I’ve made a habit of firing up my Kindle in the morning and wound up reading over a dozen books in October.

Rather than reading on my phone, I bought a used Kindle that I am enjoying vs my phone. It’s also nice to signal “no interruptions please, I’m reading,” rather than the mixed signals looking at my phone. (Which used to mean I was just screwing around on social media!)

Morning sunrise in Yoho National Park, no cell signal allowed.

Morning sunrise in Yoho National Park, no cell signal allowed.

Deleting social media from my phone

This. Is. AWESOME. In the past, I’d grab my phone to flip through various feeds juuuust to check in. Now, my phone only has functional apps or (boring) work email on it, so I spend that time doing something else. (Even if it’s just standing in line talking to the person next to me.)

Gramblr has worked well for Instagram. Even though I’ve been riding, running or climbing almost every day since we got to Bend, I haven’t felt a daily pull to share. I haven’t posted a photo of the van in almost two months! *gasp*

I’ve definitely experienced moments where I wish I had social media to pull my attention away from boredom or as a distraction. Instead, I’m forced to face whatever I don’t REALLY want to be doing and just take care of it, which I think is a positive change.

Hanging with new friends at Lake Louise.

Hanging with new friends at Lake Louise. (First photo in this post is of Lake Louise also.)

Deleting personal email access my phone

Ahhh, silence. My phone is no longer a source of to-dos. By time blocking and only responding to personal email on my computer, I no longer stand frozen in grocery stores tip-tapping out a (slow, misspelled) response.

As a side effect to this, I’ve also backed off on responding to work email on my phone. If I’m away from my laptop, I’ll scan through email here and there, but unless it’s time sensitive, I just handle it later.

I highly recommend this tweak for anyone who separates their work and personal emails. Less time thinking about email is better time spent, if you ask me!

Smith Rock: My new backyard climbing playground and all-around beautiful location. Sunset turns the Crooked River into a perfect mirror of the red rock walls.

Smith Rock: My new backyard climbing playground and all-around beautiful location. Sunset turns the Crooked River into a perfect mirror of the red rock walls.

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All in all, I’m calling this experiment a success. I feel more focused, better connected to people when I’m with them, and I’m reading a lot. Other than the digital Sabbatical, which didn’t work with my lifestyle, I’m planning to incorporate all the tweaks as permanent changes.

Here’s to finding some space to shut down devices and spend quality time with friends and family this coming week. Happy Thanksgiving!

If you’ve tried any social media or technology diets, what has stuck and what didn’t work for you?

You thought I'd go an entire post without a mountain biking shot? HAAAAA. Here's my buddy Paul enjoying a perfect day on Cline Butte in Central Oregon.

You thought I’d go an entire post without a mountain biking shot? HAAAAA. Here’s my buddy Paul enjoying a perfect day on Cline Butte in Central Oregon.

An Experiment in Decreasing Social Media Distractions

Fresh air and big views in Waterton National Park!

Noise has tugged at my concentration lately. Not voices in my head (I’m used to those), but comments, likes, and a gravitational pull from my phone.

I’ve felt myself twitching to check in, to scan through social media. My phone feels like a distraction scalpel, slicing away my ability to focus.

This has happened before, but this time, rather than my drastic measures of both 2014 and 2015 – when I completely checked out of social media for six months – I’m aiming for a more nuanced approach. After all, I meet and stay in touch with adventurous, fun people through Facebook and my Instagram account. I don’t want to shut that down.

Meeting (and hiking with) rad new friend in Canada!

Hiking with rad new friends in Canada!

I love connecting with friends and always look forward to hearing from people. This isn’t about removing that contact. Instead, I want to be completely present when I’m with someone in person. Too many times lately I’ll be talking to Chelsea while scanning my phone and will just stop mid-sentence, losing my train of thought, or else find myself texting or checking email during a meal.

I can’t just tell myself, “No social media except during these times of day.” It doesn’t work. I need a stronger obstacle than just moving an app to the 2nd screen on my phone. It’s similar to putting chocolate chip cookies out of sight versus not buying them. If they’re in the house, I will find and eat ALL the cookies.

To curb the frequent distractions, in September I added some structure to my tech life. These are tests, and I’ll report back later regarding how things are going. I will say that I already feel less distracted and present, which is exactly my goal.

Who needs a phone when you've got boxes?

When I was a kid, we played with boxes, not smartphones. Oh wait, this was only a few weeks ago.

My four experiments:

A weekly digital Sabbatical

Phone off and left behind, computer snapped shut and in a cabinet. More time to explore the outdoors, hang with Chelsea and/or friends, build something, read, or dig into other creativity. Maybe I’ll learn how to cook something besides stir fries and burritos! (*Cue Chelsea fainting in surprise*)

A no-phone rule during meals and in the bedroom

No more pulling my phone out mid-meal to check a text or Google some random fact. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll just look that up,” or “Check out this photo!” The distraction continues and the conversation thread unravels.

Beyond that, I’m also no longer setting my phone on the table during meals. Leaving a phone in sight signals to my companion that I’m present and engaged, but ONLY until some other communique shoulders its way into our conversation. I don’t want that. Prior to meals, I’m putting my phone on do not disturb and banishing it to my pocket.

The same applies for phone use in the bedroom. No more: my phone (and Chelsea’s) will spend the night recharging in another space. Since I read all my books via my phone, I’m going to pick up a cheap Kindle for nighttime reading, which is probably better for my eyes anyway.

High on the Devil's Thumb in Banff with Lake Louise behind us.

High on the Devil’s Thumb in Banff with Lake Louise behind us…with phones off.

Deleting social media from my phone

Facebook was relegated to computer-only long ago, but my Instagram use warrants adjustment.

I still want to use Instagram, just not on my phone. To accomplish that, I downloaded the free program Gramblr, which facilitates posting from my computer. (Update 10/25/18: Gramblr is defunct, so I’m now using the much-better Web for Instagram Chrome extension.) I edit all my photos in Lightroom on my laptop anyway, so this streamlines things.

I can scroll through IG and FB feed from my laptop, though I’m less likely to impulsively do so. I’m already spending that time on things like writing, reading, watching mountain biking videos (KIDDING), or editing videos and photos. The shift in my distraction levels was immediate and dramatic.

Phone stuff, on the other hand, fits into moments like grocery shopping, standing in line, driving, eating… What was a handy tool instead became an ever-creeping amoeba eating away moments of silence or solitude. As Lewis C.K. has said, sometimes we just need to be alone and not constantly bombarded by information.

Deleting personal email access my phone

No more scanning Gmail during “down” moments. I’ll be on top of work stuff, but personal emails can wait until I’m at a computer.

This is a two-fold victory: I won’t be pulled to check email all the time, and it is more efficient to respond on a computer versus pecking away on my phone.This isn’t an Email Commandment. I’m not setting time parameters like, “Ye shalt only look from 8-8:15 pm.” Simply removing the capability to look at email on my phone is enough to result in time-blocking, efficient email processing on my laptop.

No time to think about Instagram or email riding terrain like this. (Black Rock Mtn, Alberta)

No time to think about Instagram or email while riding terrain like this. (Black Rock Mtn, Alberta)

I love technology and I’m not deleting my interaction with social media or technology. My phone just won’t be the epicenter for me.

I’m 12 days in and at times, it honestly still feels strange. When I use my phone, the twitch to flip through various feeds and open my email (just for the heck of it) remains.

And yet, my desire to look at my phone or scan Instagram/Facebook is already fading. The mind rewires quickly. I think (hope!) this experiment will become a permanent addition to my life.

How do you deal with curtailing technology and social media overload in your life?

Loving a tech-free day in the highlands of Iceland.

Loving a tech-free day of hiking in the highlands of Iceland.

Investing in Your Body’s 401(k)

Surveyors Ridge Oregon

This post is inspired by a podcast interview I did with The Consummate Athlete. Check it out here! Topics ranged from my daily habits to navigating van life to benchmarks for my personal fitness to why I love ping pong as much as shredding rocky trails on my mountain bike.
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I didn’t “exercise” as a kid. Like most people my age, I simply played. Exercise was climbing trees and running around. There wasn’t a routine or plan – it was simply part of my daily lifestyle.

Then came the years of sitting at desks at school and lifting weights so I could smack a baseball over a fence. (And impress the ladies). I could bench 285, but I couldn’t touch my toes without my eyes bugging out.

Zip forward three decades and here I am, recently 34 years old. I’m still very active, but the range of motion in my hips, shoulders, and other joints are closer to a rusty Tin Man than my younger self.

As I head toward the Land of Middle Age, my goal is to stay active in many sports. To achieve this, I’ve realized a haphazard approach to fitness and flexibility won’t suffice. It’s going to take more of a concerted effort.

Exploring Oneonta Gorge in Oregon.

Exploring the Oneonta Gorge in Oregon…with icy toes.

What Are Your Fitness Benchmarks?

The esteemed mountaineer Conrad Anker does two things every year to encourage staying in shape – run a marathon and climb El Capitan in Yosemite. This got me thinking about what my personal fitness barometers might be. I encourage you to do the same.

Rather than a couple big goals, I opted for specific items along the lines of the Presidential Fitness test we did as kids, with some other sports mixed in. My baseline goals – ones I want to be able to do anytime, anywhere – are:

  • 50 pushups
  • 15 pullups (no kipping!)
  • 15 dips
  • Hold a plank for 2 minutes without shaking like a rabid rattlesnake
  • Touch my toes with straight legs
  • Run ten miles
  • Ride a century on a road bike OR 35 miles of gnarly, physical terrain on my mountain bike
  • Swim a mile straight (in a pool)
  • Lead 5.11 climbing routes
  • Beat my friend Jaysun at ping pong (I love the outdoors and adrenaline sports, but for some reason also find a ton of joy in the focused fun of this sport)

While we’ve been landed in Portland, it’s been easy to maintain these. Most can be done while traveling, though it depends. Some will atrophy during long, single-activity trips like bike touring, backpacking, or eating large servings of carrot cake for three months. Others are a starting point – if I’m planning a long climbing trip, I’ll get after it and hopefully be cranking on 5.12s by go time.

I’ve also enjoyed benchmark Crossfit workouts as an excellent way to test overall fitness, not to mention a damn fine workout when I’ve only got time for a short workout. I’m not a Crossfitter and have never been to their gyms, but my favorite test is one called Cindy. It’s 20 minutes to complete as many sets as possible of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 air squats. If don’t splat on your back in a puddle of sweat afterward, you are a cyborg.

All that’s nice, but what about staying limber? That’s where mobility work comes into play.

Oneonta Tunnel Oregon

.Exploring an old tunnel in Oregon.

Mobility Training (Ok, Stretching)

Lately I’ve also incorporated a mobility practice into my life. I don’t want tight hips, shoulders, ankles, and forearms limiting my performance in the activities I enjoy, and this is the ticket for that.

We all know we need to stretch more, warm up better, blah blah blah. Well, it still matters. Paraphrasing an Olympic strength coach: “If world-class power lifters are using their limited training time to stretch EVEN THOUGH their focus is strength, why aren’t you?” Fine.

I’m not the best at regular stretching, but have found that triggers work best for me. (I do one thing, then immediately do the desired activity afterward. e.g. Eat breakfast, brush teeth.) To accomplish this, I integrated a mobility practice into something I already do frequently: reading.

A number of books inspired this, most recently Ready to RunI also drew on an interview with an Olympic gymnastics coach and incorporated his fundamentals program. There’s no magic pill though – it still takes work. Most of us, including me, have so much body memory in the wrong positions that it’s going to take consistent, focused effort to repair the damage.

A great day on the trails of the Columbia Gorge. Photo: Scott Rokis.

Working on tight hamstrings in the Columbia Gorge. Photo: Scott Rokis.

The good news is that many mobility exercises provide entertainment for your partner. Chelsea routinely has laughing fits when I’m struggling through an ape or crab walk. Even with her antics, my mobility is improving after just a month of 10-20 minutes per day and I can actually picture the day when doing the splits won’t put me in the hospital.

If you’re like me and have tight hamstrings, hip flexors, and shoulders from biking/running/hunching over a device, these are my favorite exercises. You may dig them too:

  • Couch stretch – no, it’s not reeeeaching for the T.V. remote from the couch. Do a lunge with your rear knee on the ground, then reach back and lift your foot until it touches your butt. Shriek loudly, then relax until your eyes stop watering. Two-four minutes each side a couple times each day will change your hip flexors from twangy to the envy of all the ballerinas you know.
  • Deep squats – my ankles and hips are both tight. Until a week ago, sitting in a squat with heels on the ground resulted in me toppling over backward. My goal is a full squat with feet flat on the ground, and two minutes a few times a day is moving me forward.
  • Table top/crab pose – great for shoulder flexibility to stretch the pec minor muscle, the one in our chest that is constantly constricting as we hover over our glowing devices. Lots of variations on this – just Google “pec minor stretch”
  • Jefferson Curls – I’d never even heard of this exercise, but it’s the #1 recommendation from Gymnastic Bodies. It’s basically a weighted standing forward curl to bring back curvature and flexibility in your spine. My hamstrings and spine are in love with this stretch.

Do those four exercises consistently and I bet you’ll see great progress. I choose 2-3 each day and do them while I read books or blog posts, prior to a climbing session, or after a bike ride or run.

Mt Hood agrees that June alpine rides are the best. (Surveyors Ridge)

Taking a break during a ride near Mt Hood. June alpine rides are the best.

When I hear about older athletes who are still crushing it, consistency is the dominant theme. By staying on top of mobility and regularly exercising, they avoid injuries that sideline many athletes for big chunks of time and require starting over. Day in, day out, they take a few minutes to bang out some pushups or pullups, stand instead of sit at a desk (standing desks are magic for better posture), or choose stretching on the floor while watching a movie versus sinking into the couch. The small things add up over tie!

I write about this as both an accountability statement for myself and a reminder that it is TOTALLY possible to stay flexible, strong, and active as we age. I see it as an investment similar to saving for retirement. With a few minutes per day sunk into a Body 401(k), hopefully I’ll be pulling out returns for many years.

Zipping along perfect trails at Post Canyon.

Zipping along perfect trails at Post Canyon. Here’s to more of this for a long time!

Crowdfunding the Fair-Haired Dumbbell

Hanging with the old Ford

In 2007, I was a fresh-faced engineer working my first job after graduation and a year of travel. Flush with cash relative to years of penurious living, I wanted to invest my money, and not in old project cars like the above.

My reading list at the time was full of books about Warren Buffett and other money managers. Armed with tactics, I thought I could beat the market. I spent hours each day poring over stock charts, pretending I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t. When the 2008 financial meltdown nuked the market, I got hammered with (most) everyone else. Unfortunately, I had to sell at the bottom to free up cash after quitting my job, locking in the losses. My brilliant wife held onto her stocks through the chaos and came out way ahead.

What We Do Now

Eight years later, my investing style is much different. We mostly invest in index funds and via the stocks of a few companies whose services we use and like (e.g. Amazon, Netflix, Apple). I prefer set-and-forget weekly or monthly auto-investments through Wealthfront. This allows me to rarely think about the market crashing, burning, or whatever strong words the news uses for a 1% daily change. THE SKY IS FALLING! BUY GOLD AND PALLETS OF AMMO!

We also invest in what we know: real estate. Specifically, real estate in Portland, refuge for water-starved Californians searching for sub-seven-figure properties.

The problem is that single family real estate is a long-term play and requires managing the property, finding tenants, and being actively involved. On the other hand, commercial properties require a ton of cash to access or you have to buy a generic real estate investment trust (REIT) that holds shopping malls in the Midwest or office buildings in Florida. *Yawn*

As an alternative, we recently invested in a fun, different building named the Fair-Haired Dumbbell that breaks ground soon. A local developer (and cool dude) named Kevin Cavenaugh from Guerrilla Development is the brains behind this idea. They’ve done other interesting, successful projects in Portland, and this latest will house creative professionals on Portland’s east side. Update July 2016: Here’s a take on the project by the New York Times.

A digital mockup of the proposed Dumbbell. Photo credit Guerrilla Development.

A digital mockup of the proposed Dumbbell. Photo credit Guerrilla Development.

Why Do You Care?

We invested because we support Guerrilla’s mission to keep Portland awesome/weird and not just build boring structures with no zing. The exterior skin is a pattern by an Italian designer. Crazy, ugly, cool? At least it’s different.

Secondly, the Dumbbell is one of the first buildings in the country to use crowdfunding for part of its financing.

To do this, Kevin and Guerrilla Development worked to create an SEC-approved “Regulation A” offering. Basically, it’s a Kickstarter-style way to fund $1.5mm in equity in the Dumbbell. This allows someone to invest as little as $3,000 and get an 8% return from a chunk of the building profits. Certainly $3k isn’t chump change, but where else can you invest in a building for so little?

Sound intriguing? Check out Guerrilla’s investor page or watch their fun video about the project and why they crowdfunded it. We believe in this project and have recommended it to a number of friends. (Heads up that due to SEC regulations, this is only available to people who live in Washington, Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington D.C.)

I don’t benefit from writing about this, but merely love that crowdfunding opens commercial real estate to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. I think (and hope!) we’ll be seeing a lot more of this type of financing structure in the future.

Dig this kind of article? Email me if you’d like to hear more about how we invest, what services we use, and other financial-related writing. If you’re into it, I may write more like it in the future.

Holding $50 USD each (in Laos currency) with my buddies Keif and Blythe in 2005. #poortravelingstudent

Holding $50 USD each (in Laos currency) with my buddies Keif and Blythe in a trip overseas in 2005. Yep, my shirt says COLLEGE and I wore glasses back then. #poortravelingstudent

A First Date in Prague

Meeting in Prague

Today is special. Ten years ago to the day, Chelsea and I met for the first time.

In Prague.

At the time, I was studying abroad in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Ok, mostly having fun.) Chelsea had just moved to Portland. Through an introduction from her brother, my college roommate, she and I wound up chatting online, then Skyping.

An offhand comment from me about traveling in Europe resulted in her booking a plane ticket to fly across the Atlantic for a first date. It was my bushy fro that wooed her.

I know, I know - I'm a serious charmer.

I know, I know – I’m a serious charmer.

We united in a square in Prague and kicked off a month journey through red-roofed Czech villages and Croatian islands with spectacular views and free house wine. Just in case we didn’t hit it off, Chelsea brought shirts emblazoned with FUN, the theme of the trip. She also brought fake buck teeth and temporary tattoos with sayings like Girl Love to embarrass me.

Turns out that we liked each other.

Two months later, she was back in Portland. Meanwhile, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia with my brother. (A story for another day.) Then Chelsea soldiered through a long trip to meet me in Beijing to kick off our second date – 2.5 months exploring the far reaches of SE Asia from China to Thailand.

Top of a holy mountain somewhere in SW China.

Top of a mountain somewhere in SW China.

Let’s just say traveling together 24 hours per day is a quick way to get to know someone. We decided life together would be fun, so I got on a flight to Portland and moved in with her.

Since then, the saying about time flapping its wings has proven true. We’ve worked hard on businesses, dug into a community of friends in Portland, and built a life together. There were small trips, all woven into a busy work, social, and city life. The end of 2013 was major life shift when we headed out on a “four month” van trip that continues to evolve and has transformed how we aspire to live.

Alright, you caught me - this one is from a day exploring Vietnam by scooter. Everyone needs a pink umbrella while scootering...

Wait, that’s not our van! Exploring Vietnam by scooter in 2006. Pink umbrellas for rain protection are mandatory.

We get along well, even in a small space like a van or pedaling thousands of miles together, but we’re not perfect. There are fights, misunderstandings, and moments when she tells me to go for a run or force-feeds me to send my Hangry Alter-Ego (NARG) into retreat. (Check out my Happy Wife Happy Life post for tips on keeping it together on the road.)

Still, I figure we must be doing something right. When I think about it, there’s one thing that’s the bedrock of our successful partnership:

We never stop learning, or more importantly, being open to what the other person is learning.

It’s as simple as that. There are books about the five love languages, techniques on non-violent communication, and plenty of expensive therapists available. For us, continuing to learn, exploring the world, and growing keeps life interesting and aligns us on a path together.

Hanging with our favorite lambs at Farm Sanctuary.

Hanging with our favorite lambs at Farm Sanctuary.

To celebrate our ten year anniversary of meeting with a fitting gift, I dug deep into our photo collection. First, I picked over 1,000 photos of the two of us, starting April 5, 2006. Shots of us laughing, hiking, hanging with friends, doing handstands, wearing hats sideways, riding bikes, and all the fun of 3,650 days as a couple.

Then I made a photo mosaic with Mosaically using those photos to create a big print to surprise Chelsea. The shot I chose is a goofy one from our wedding day wearing those original FUN shirts. When you look at it from afar, it’s a portrait of the two of us. Upon closer inspection, it’s a 1,000 tiny moments we’ve spent together.

One of my favorite shots, now built from 10 years of fun moments.

One of my favorite shots, now built from 10 years of fun moments. (Here’s the original.)

After all, what is a relationship but a compilation of the moments shared with someone you care about? When I look at this print, I think of not just the times Chelsea made me smile, laugh, or feel special. I also dream of the expanding landscape of our lives, how many more adventures we will have, and how much we’ll learn and explore together. We’re just getting started.

Chelsea, thanks for being my life partner. Here’s to filling the next mosaic with many more photos of us sporting temporary tattoos or doing handstands. I love you.

I finally found a place to use a dorky wedding photo! It's amazing what those photographers can talk you into...

Yesssss – I finally found a place to use a dorky wedding photo! It’s amazing what those photographers can talk you into.

Digging Deep with Happiness Through Subtraction

Columbia Gorge Munra Point View Hike

Ten million self-help books exist, all promising to improve our lives. Many focus on a strict schedule and the addition of various tasks or practices: Meditating, exercising, time scheduling, eating well, always smiling, never complaining, being a perfect person…

Just turn into a robot and BOOM, life becomes easy.

Except it doesn’t work for most of us, including me. Changing multiple variables usually creates overload and a short circuit back to old habits.

A Different Approach

I prefer happiness through subtraction. Cut out the activities and habits that create misery, then add back things that make you grin each day when you open your eyes.

I was introduced to this concept by Nassim Taleb’s book AntifragileHe writes:

Happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept…the pursuit of happiness is not equivalent to the avoidance of unhappiness. Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy, but what to do about it.

Unfortunately, humans are terrible at guessing what will make us happy. We are great at figuring out what makes us miserable though! As Francis Jourdain said, “One can furnish a room very luxuriously by taking out furniture rather than putting it in.”

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

Subtract the Unhappy

Start with basic activities that make you unhappy. Perhaps it’s feeling guilty about a caffeine addiction, loathing daily mind-numbing conference calls, or the overwhelm of emails stacking up like Tetris blocks. What are the root causes of those things, and would eliminating them add considerably to your happiness?

Maybe we need caffeine because we’re exhausted each morning. But why are we tired? (New parents, you know why…sorry, but I can’t help you there!)

Was it from staying up late flipping through social media, or not sleeping well because computer screens churn out mind-stimulating blue waves? (Try Flux to address the latter; Apple’s new OS incorporates this idea.) Cutting social media or computer time after dinner might result in better sleep, decrease the need for caffeine, and create a cascading positive effect.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Hitting inbox-zero feels great, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory since doing so in a hurry often creates more work. There’s no faster way to build giant email chains than a quick email. (Try Cal Newport’s technique to fix this.)

Still, developing an efficient system to deal with email doesn’t address the core question: why are we getting so many emails?

We can be efficient, but at some point there’s too much to handle, or the work itself is mind-numbing. I faced this in 2013 when I received 5,000 emails per month (and sent 2,500). I was efficient, but even using canned (saved) responses and other templates only worked to a degree.

Drilling deep, I saw the source of my unhappiness wasn’t email. Instead, I was completely burned out from working daily with clients who asked for (and deserved) immediate responses. My solution was to hire staff to take over those duties. This lowered my income, but allowed me a more flexible schedule to focus on other things.

I still work daily, but incoming email has dropped to a fraction of the volume. It also isn’t as time-sensitive, so I can deal with it when convenient.

My solution is only one approach. For my industry, I didn’t see another way since automation wasn’t an option. Your situation is probably different, but figuring out the root causes of what makes you unhappy is a powerful place to start.

Tenuous ground on the way to Munra Point.

A day hike in Oregon.

Work unhappiness is only the beginning. We can apply happiness through  subtraction to all aspect of our lives, including friendships, food, and physical workouts that we dread. I hate indoor cycling, but will mountain bike until my legs fall off.

As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits wrote recently, “we fear only one thing really: not having control, certainty, security, comfort.” Cutting away activities that make us unhappy leaves us with fewer stress points. We can’t erase the fear of losing control or security, but blowing away negative chaff in our life gives us more energy to powerfully deal with the headaches that do come up.

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or down, don’t add habits to your life. Take to heart the old Swedish proverb: “Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.” What else could we possibly need?

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Simple Tools to Help You Focus and Be More Productive

Santa Cruz West Cliffs

It’s one thing to talk about cutting away busyness at a high level, but how we do it in our day-to-day lives? I suggest using simple tools to remove distractions.

This is no easy task. Most of us work on a computer (a.k.a. distraction machine) for large parts of our day and spend entertainment hours in front of glowing screens as well. Whether we’re at work or at home, how can we carve out the space to focus and think deeply?

As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.” Off the grid in a cabin is one method, but not everyone’s work allows that. (Mine doesn’t.) For those of us who must stay connected while maintaining focus and productivity beyond just answering emails, we can use technology to our advantage.

Here are some of my favorite tools or techniques and a brief description of how I use them to stay focused and remove needless distraction. My advice is to sample some of these for a week. If there’s a positive result, try creating a habit the same way you would with exercise or meditation.

Block the ‘Nets: Freedom

Freedom is a great program with one simple function — shutting off your connection to the internet. Simply select the duration and hit Start.

I use this as a formal start to trigger a writing or video editing session. This keeps me from researching minutiae or feeling stuck mid-project, only to end up wandering Internet Land for an hour.

After all, most distractions stem from the online entertainment expanse, a time suck where two hours we slated for a project whirls away down the toilet. Cue up Freedom when you need to sketch a design, write a memo, or perform any concentrated, complex task for an extended period of time.

Freedom

Track Your Time: Toggl

I quoted Derek Sivers in my busyness post: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.” Well, how do you know what’s devouring your time if you don’t track it? I had no idea until I started tracking my time via Toggl in 15 minute increments about five years ago.

This wound up dropping my hours worked — it’s amazing how a ticking timer keeps me focused. The best part, however, was that I knew where my time was going.

That awareness helped me determine the core efforts that yielded the best results (Pareto Principle again). I started outsourcing and hiring capable people to handle basic tasks (or those I’d mastered and could delegate) so I could focus on my the best use of my skills. Whether you’re an employee, a solo creative, or business owner, tracking your time is a game-changer.

If you think I’m crazy, I got the idea from Jim Collins, the business consultant and best-selling author of Good to Great. He carries a timer with him everywhere he goes. (I assume he doesn’t shower with it!)

Maintain Focus: Momentum

Momentum is a simple, free extension for your internet browser that helps keep your daily priority top of mind whenever you open a new tab. Instead of a list of favorite sites, news or a search bar to drag you into the quicksand of the interwebs, the new tab simply reminds you to keep on task. There’s also a nice picture and quote to make you feel all warm inside.

Momentum

Train Your Brain: Music on Repeat

I picked up this hack from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic. While I often listen to relaxed music (classical or electronic) when I write or edit video/photos, picking a single song and leaving it on repeat keeps me company while staying more in the background. (The song Shimmer by Tracey Chattaway is my current favorite.)

Shut Out Social Media: Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator

Can’t curb the twitch to scan through Facebook when you’re tired, bored, or cranking hard to solve a problem? This browser extension blocks your feed so you have to search for a friend to see what they’re up to.

I use this off and on, but have found that it helps moderate my desire to be constantly connected. If you aren’t feeling so hard core, try the StayFocused app instead, which limits the time you can spend on various websites.

I also highly recommend deleting all social apps on your phone. Spend the time you’d normally use flipping through Instagram or Facebook to allow your mind to just laze about, read a few pages in a book or even talk to a stranger next to you.

Outsource the Small Stuff: UpWork

Some tasks just aren’t worth doing yourself. Data entry, simple research, basic website coding and other work can siphon off hours of otherwise productive time.

My mindset is always to track my time and identify where I spend it, then see if I can automate a task. If I can’t, I try to outsource to someone who does it faster and better than I can. That could of course be an employee or delegated to a co-worker, but if you’re self-employed than a Upwork or other freelance sites are fantastic.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work.

Sometimes you need help to accomplish that mountain of work. (Mt. Shasta, California)

Keep Track of Passwords: LastPass

Websites are only making password criteria tougher. Six symbols, a number, and your favorite calculus symbol make it tough to remember any of them. Resetting passwords or getting locked out and calling customer service sucks, which is why a password vault is a necessity.

If you aren’t using one yet, my favorite is LastPass. I guarantee it will save you time and keep you on point rather than searching for that password iteration you left on a slip of paper somewhere on your desk.

Task Management: Boomerang/Google Inbox or Evernote

I’ve already written about The Secret Weapon, my organization and task management system for keeping my life on track and in balance. If that seems like too much, try using a simple task list coupled with either Google Inbox or Boomerang, an email plug-in whose features are built into Inbox or can be paired with Gmail.

Inbox and Boomerang allow you to “snooze” emails (i.e. hide them after picking a date for them to reappear). You can also set follow up reminders when you send an email, or schedule an email to send at a particular date/time. With Evernote as my external brain, I no longer use these two, but they are a great gateway to a full-blown task management system if committing to The Secret Weapon is too daunting right now.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

This guy obviously has things in balance.

Automate Your Finances

If you’re anything like me, you hate the process of paying bills. Believe it or not, many people still do it manually, which is why I’m bringing it up.

Take advantage of technology and automate your payments – credit card, utilities, cell phone, car, mortgage, and so on. Go through three months of spending and schedule every single monthly bill. You’ll recoup that initial time investment in a single month, plus not have to worry about when bills are due. Finance guru Ramit Sethi has a comprehensive how-to on all this; his 12-minute video will save you days of your future life.

***

Don’t start using all of these at once! My approach is to question why a tool is beneficial before trying it out. Too complex and it will take a lot of time to set up and then be forgotten. Simple is great.

We can accomplish more work, free up leisure time, and decrease stress by cutting out the noise. As the saying goes, focus is more important than intelligence. In our increasingly distracting world, I couldn’t agree more.

When you're done with the work, I recommend hiking someplace like Palouse Falls in Washington.

When you’re done with the work, I recommend hiking somewhere like Palouse Falls in Washington.

How to Escape the Busyness Trap

Santa Cruz west cliffs

Thoreau said it well: “It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?”

We bury ourselves in activities, put our head down, and toil away. Popping up to breathe years later, we look around and wonder where we are. This isn’t the life I wanted!

The new year is a great time to pause and ask ourselves, “do my daily activities support my dreams?”

I know this well because in 2008, I said yes to everything. Meetings. Networking events. Speaking engagements. Newly self-employed, I lacked the skills to turn away low-paying or difficult clients, much less good ones.

Starting out in business, we need the money, so we shoulder any available work. If life is a tree, branches of obligations grow haphazardly, leaves of busyness sprouting from those branches. The trunk, core dreams and goals, can stand forgotten.

It’s logical for us to create systems to maximize productivity and then accept additional clients. The risk is that the calendar dictates our days and we end up swimming relentless laps in an exhausting pool of stress.

For me, it all came to a head in the middle of 2012. I was doing well financially, but the effort consumed my mind. I struggled to stay present. My temptress phone beckoned during “free time” while anxiety gremlins roamed my mind at night.

I was overwhelmed, but a solution slowly evolved. Looking back, I see simple steps can help anyone fend off busyness.

A Santa Cruz sunset.

Walkers enjoy a perfect Santa Cruz sunset.

Acknowledging we’re too busy

It’s hard to realize our own misery. A line from Derek Sivers‘, one of my favorite thinkers, summed up my situation: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.”

My insightful wife guided me toward making a change; a partner, friend, or coworker may help you as well. Even with her prodding, it took awhile. Like many fundamental changes, the realization hit when the pain of staying outweighed making a change.

The difficult part was deciding which branches to chop from the busy tree.

Questioning the reasons why

It’s tough to escape the momentum of a plan set in motion years earlier. How do we slow things down?

A solution is to focus on asking why we do any action. We meet clients in-person. Why. We go to networking events. Why.

This process helps us identify work that results in wasted effort or tremendous headaches. Time tracking is a powerful way to quantify how we spend our hours. From there, choose the 20% of business that nets 80% of the goal — classic Pareto principle . My personal goal wasn’t just income: free time, lower stress, and revenue were equal tripod legs.

Since we often build success on a Foundation of Yes, this isn’t easy. Even when we can finally afford to say no, turning down an energy-draining client feels like throwing money away. Politely refusing referrals is flipping the bird to years of building connections. It seems wasteful, entitled, and even stupid.

It’s why a famous actor says yes to a movie they know is bad. To paraphrase Kevin Costner, “Who am I to turn away a role other people need so much?”

Yet no is the path to redemption.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Targeting bloated obligations and responsibilities

Saying no feels awkward at first, but we improve. We finish up tough projects and new work that better fits our wheelhouse fills the void. Building on that success to examine other facets of life like eliminating energy-draining vampires and possessions can further transform our world.

Continually pruning our obligations is an important ongoing action. Do this by focusing on hell yeah activities, those that speak to our core interests. If it isn’t hell yeah, say no. As a bonus, curtailing the chaos leaves more time for deeper, focused efforts that yield richer fruit.

Seeing new opportunities through a mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Redwoods in the mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Filling the space

Once we prune the leaves on the busy tree, new opportunities feel the warm sun and blossom. While I still run my streamlined business, now I also can say hell yeah to flowers of travel and a budding creativity I’d sidelined for years.

This is not an ode to laziness; hard work and perseverance are good for us. Saying yes to crappy jobs in high school trains our muscles – physical and mental – to strain through running a business. Those experiences are integral to our journey. We all need those struggles to better appreciate the fruits of future labors.

YouTube star Casey Neistat nails it when he says “success is measured by the amount of time we don’t spend doing things we hate.” Saying yes to everything results in unintentional busyness. Focus. Lop off a few branches. Take control.

As the year unfolds, ponder new goals and “required” schedule items. Ask why you’re doing them.

Then start saying no.

—–

P.S. Dig this? You might like the list of tools I use to stay focused.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet sunset on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet moment on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.

The Power of a Father-Son Road Trip

Father son trip

This article was initially published here on The Good Men Project.

Beneath a crescent moon in western Montana, I park the camper van among thick pines. My dad, who loves to sleep under the stars, lays out his bedroll. Bears (or mice – they sound the same in the dark) tromp through the woods.

“Can I have a metal bowl?” he asks. I hand one over, plus a spoon to bang on it. Bear Repellent Kit, check. Safety first! Our road trip is underway.

Growing up, we spent many holidays finishing home remodeling projects. When I wasn’t wiring our house or digging the foundation, I traveled on weekends for baseball or played video games. I mastered double plays and Warcraft II, but trips with my dad fell by the wayside.

These days, a few testosterone-fueled shouting fights from my teenage years linger as cautionary memories. Leery or not of how the trip will go, my dad and I are making it happen.

We kick things off by cycling the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park through a silent palace of views. Fading tamarack pines paint the mountains a dusky yellow in the perfect fall weather. The solitary few people in the campgrounds are the ones who love the quiet of shoulder season travel, so we fit right in.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass in Glacier on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass in Glacier on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Next is a hike on the park’s east side as clouds squat on the peaks, the only sounds our footsteps and trickling water. My dad’s knee, wrecked years ago thanks to ladder fall and increasingly hampering his movement, limits our distance. How many more times can he walk deep into the woods? Moved by that thought, he gets teary-eyed as we amble along. I do too as I write this.

We hike and I think of how mountain peaks are unreachable when we’re babies. Our parents first help us walk; later, they cheer as we wobble off on a bike down the driveway. Soon we can hike anything, heading off to forge new, independent lives. Then one by one, peaks and trails we scampered up become insurmountable until we lean on a cane or our own child to get up the walkway. These thoughts push me to embrace adventure in my life, something I’ve continually aimed for the last two years.

We stop at a cafe I fondly remember from a bike tour. Cowboy boots stuffed with light bulbs illuminate the interior; worn-out guns are screwed to the walls. Our waitress Jamie is frank and funny, a sparky woman with a tough story of escaping a bad marriage. She candidly shares and we listen. My dad leaves a 50% tip, saying, “I have a soft spot for people like that.” I was planning the same.

Taking in a view above a Montana valley.

Taking in a view above a Montana valley.

We scarf cinnamon graham crackers and talk about art, travel, stories from his past. Miles roll under our tires as tales crack loose from his mind. Forever grammar snobs, we pick apart historical signs and their poor grammar. (It’s lose, not loose, dammit.) We laugh about a “wildlife view” sign juxtaposed with a pumping oil rig.

I steer the van, but he holds the reins for our route and activities. We visit Charley Russell’s museum to see my dad’s favorite western art. At the Archie Bray ceramics foundation, we talk to resident artists. One woman left a successful teaching position to create art for two years. “Academic politics suck,” she says. My dad did the same when he left Chico State in the 80s to raise a family in Idaho and focus on his art.

I handle all the trip logistics, chopping veggies for lunch salads and picking up the tab for dinner, gas and campsites. It feels good to break his routine and spawn an adventure. How many times has he done these things for me? I ponder while making him a sandwich as we park overlooking a river.

On the east side of the Front Range of the Rockies.

On the east side of the Front Range of the Rockies.

Sometimes I fixate on the little things he does that drive me nuts, but now all I feel is a refreshing sense of calm. What matters is the opportunity to be here, spending time together. There’s no clock or itinerary dictating our travels and we are amiable and cheerful as we reconnect.

At the euphemistically-named Wildfowl Management Area, my dad chats with a taciturn old duck hunter limping his way back from the marsh. They talk guns and swap stories, then stand there a second before the hunter drawls “yeaaappp” to wrap up the conversation as only a seasoned outdoorsman can do.

My dad can shoot the breeze with grouchy ranchers, and he is also one of the most creative people I know. Conversations influence his art and he can work with any medium. He’s created ceramic and bronze monsters, a menagerie of ugly poodle tchotchkes, a broken taillight slideshow exhibition, colorful drawings on Sheetrock, and politically satirical face masks. He made Four More Years – a leering, trollish mask – when George W. Bush was re-elected.

We walked up to Old Faithful in Yellowstone and it immediately put on a show!

We walked up to Old Faithful in Yellowstone and it immediately put on a show!

He downplays his success as an artist, but when I pry, he recounts teaching positions and a scroll of workshops, fellowships and grants. And that’s in northern Idaho, hardly a bastion of funding for the arts.

I tell him I think artists are too hard on themselves. Amanda Palmer’s quote comes to mind: “You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” He did that with an ice sculpture that was on Good Morning America; the DNA helix in our front yard still turns heads.

His childhood was tough, whereas mine was full of love and present parents. “I’m sorry you grew up poor,” he tells me, and I respond with the truth: It taught me the value of hard work and helps me, a textbook Millennial, appreciate how wonderful my life is. I’m lucky to never had to “eat bitter,” as the Chinese say of experiencing hard times.

A silent Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

A silent Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

We comfortably spend time together in conversation and also in silence, me fiddling with my phone while he scribbles in an ever-present journal. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a picnic table in an old mining town, I ponder how time together can create rifts, but also channel healing powers through its currents. I’m grateful we didn’t put off this trip any longer.

“How would you like to spend your time?” I ask. He thinks a moment. “Reading, writing, making art, spending time in nature, and listening to people’s stories.” The circle is complete. After years of denying myself the joys of creativity, these days I spend my days immersed in those very pursuits. Like father, like son.

Tires spin and stories roll as the van ticks off miles of pines and plains toward the trip’s end. I make dinner as a full moon rises over our sparking fire. My dad finishes a story and pauses, then sums it all up with a long “yeeeeeappppp.”

He grins and I can’t stop laughing. Later, as frost nips the valley and the coyotes shriek at the moon, his earth-cratering snoring stumbles, then creaks to a halt. I know he’s lying there, loving every minute of this. I am too.

***

Want to see more of this journey? Check out the full video or read about the amazing old mining town of Bannack. More pictures below too.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

A big horn sheep spotted during a day in SW Montana.

A big horn sheep spotted during a day in SW Montana.

Yellowstone has the coolest colors.

Yellowstone has the coolest colors.

Closing out a day by the fire in Bannack State Park.

Closing out a day by the fire in Bannack State Park.

2015: A Year in Review

Sunset in Morro Bay, California

On Christmas Day, Chelsea and I talked about 2015 during a walk along the sea cliffs of Santa Cruz. Instead of throwing out new adventures and aspirations, we studied the rear view mirror.

We are currently landed in Santa Cruz enjoying the sunshine and excellent local trails. This stillness affords reflection on what we’ve done, seen, and experienced this past year. (To see what we’re up to anytime, check out a new page I added, inspired by Derek Siver’s movement.)

Sitting down to write after a few weeks off, I broke things down into four categories:

  1. Fabulous Moments
  2. What Went Well
  3. Things to Improve
  4. What I’m Excited About

This is also a chance to share some of my favorite photos from 2015. Let’s begin with the fun!

Fabulous Moments

Exploring Half Moon Caye in Belize

We kicked off 2015 by snorkeling and kayaking in Belize with Chelsea’s family. With warm blue water, incredible birds, and a friendly group of other travelers, (luxury) camping on this tiny island was an unforgettable trip.

Sunrise on Half Moon Caye

Mountain biking and building community in Utah

I can’t get enough of this red rock playground. I certainly mountain biked my legs off, yet my April trip through Utah was also about community.

I met up with half a dozen friends from Oregon, California, and Colorado, crossed paths with various blog readers, and built a friendship with the Keys to Freeze crew. There is nothing like spending time in nature with great people!

Porcupine Rim above Moab

Porcupine Rim in Moab

Cycle touring Europe

A highlight of 2015! If you are into cycle touring and haven’t experienced the car-free bike networks throughout western Europe, I can’t recommend it enough.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Over 3.5 months, we biked 2,500 miles through 13 countries, taking plenty of time to relax and explore along the way. Experiences like volunteering to help refugees in Salzburg, pedaling with buddies in Croatia, and exploring the deep history of the continent only whet my appetite for Europe.

We finished pedaling in Prague, a special place for me and Chelsea since we met there nine years ago for our first date. It was a treat to return to the romantic Czech Republic and walk down the cobbled, uneven streets of memory lane.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

Road tripping with my dad

I’ve wanted to take my dad on a trip for years. As fall colors faded and October wrapped up, we finally did it, rolling out in the Sprinter van to explore Montana for a couple weeks.

We cycled in Glacier and watched geysers in Yellowstone, then explored old mining towns. It was a powerfully bonding trip.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Things That Went Well

A stronger relationship with Chelsea

People ask us how we tolerate so much time together. (“I’d go nuts being around my husband all the time.”) While we have some tips, the summary is that long-term travel brings us closer together because it requires mutual support.

If there’s an issue on a bike tour, we’re the only two there to get through it – together. We can’t just sweep arguments away to be dealt with another day. Handling it immediately removes the potential for a tiny fight to fester and become gangrenous. Two years traveling together has bonded us more than ever.

Living a vegan lifestyle was easy

Shifting to 100% plant-based in 2013 felt like a big change. These days, it’s both easy to navigate and authentic to who we are.

We’ve traveled through 16 countries, eating amazing food and encountering great support along the way, all while living true to our values. As an added bonus, the selection of vegan options for yogurt, meat, cheese, milk and beyond continues to expand. (You have to try Miyoko’s off-the-hook vegan cheeses.)

If you’d like to try a month-long vegan adventure in the new year, Veganuary is a great free resource and community.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the US in Salem, Oregon.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the U.S. in Salem, Oregon.

Lots of reading

Immersing myself in a book remains one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m happy to say I read more in 2015 than in any other year. Picking up a book is like taking a class with an expert for free (via the library) or for the bargain rate of a $10 ebook.

Business more streamlined than ever

This year marked the first in nearly a decade where I didn’t work directly with clients. While less profitable overall, managing my business instead of client expectations is both less stressful and frees my time to pursue other passions.

I’m still involved on a daily basis, but my mental energy isn’t drained at the end of the day. It was scary letting go of the day-to-day interactions with clients, but remains one of my best decisions. To those of you deliberating over hiring someone, I say do it.

Pausing for a moment in Bryce Canyon

My friend Reese pauses for a moment in Bryce Canyon

Things to Improve

Less pressure on myself to constantly explore

The flexibility and openness of our lives sometimes creates a compulsion in me to string adventures together the way we did in 2014. While I’m (usually) aware of this, I still find it hard to be content just being instead of constantly doing. In February and March, I struggled to feel centered in Portland and mostly dreamed of leaving again.

Constant motion makes for an interesting life, but eventually it decreases my appreciation for an activity or location. This is not a good thing. While the list of places I want to explore is long, I don’t have to visit them all in the next two years!

The other downside of constant motion is that routines are tougher to uphold. Practicing the guitar or finding space for yoga is tougher (my tight hip flexors will attest to that). Focused time for deep work doesn’t just materialize; it must be a priority. Pausing in one place provides the platform for all of that.

This coming year, I want to embrace pauses as creative periods and time to reconnect with friends and the routine of a grounded life. Hopefully we can then launch into new experiences with vigor and energy.

Columbia River Gorge in the fog

Relaxing with a view of the Columbia River Gorge at sunset.

Writing more

I’ve consistently written here, and in 2016 I’m also aiming to write two articles per month for outside publication. This means I need to write more, a challenge I’m excited to take.

What I’m Excited About

More videos and interviews with people we meet

Until recently, I never seriously considered pursuing video. It seemed outside my sphere – photography and writing were enough. After creating a few videos, however, I’m hooked.

My primary desire is to tell better stories. Video is a perfect way to do that, and I’m looking forward to making more of them in 2016 and sharing them with you.

Our buddy Stevie from SprinterLife.com and her friend.

A perfect day in Yosemite at Vernal Falls with our friend Stevie from nomadlyinlove.com.

More music and art

No, not just Macklemore at full blast in the van. (Been awhile since we did that.) Guitar! I’m a few weeks into online lessons to finally crack through the intermediate-level swamp I’ve been mired in for ten years.

Chelsea is digging into watercolor pencils and is far too good already. I may give it a whirl, but I sure as hell am not sharing the result here. I respect you more than that.

Onward!

Here’s to looking back and congratulating ourselves on a year well-lived. For 2016, Neil Gaiman says it well:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

To everyone out there, thanks for sharing this journey with us, both on the road and on the web. I hope 2016 is full of adventure, growth, and creativity.

Happy New Year!

Grinning it up in Death Valley.

Two Years On the Road, a Podcast and Thanks

Sprinter lift off

Yesterday marked two years to the day since we fired up the Sprinter van and headed out on this trip. The picture above captures how excited we were.

The time, while highlighted by various adventures, has also freed me to invest in creativity through writing, photography and (lately) video. Another huge benefit is that traveling non-stop together and the mutual trust needed to survive (and enjoy!) long bike tours has greatly deepened my relationship with Chelsea. These past 24 months have been some of the most satisfying of my life as we’ve explored many places (<–map) via van and bike and reshaped the way we choose to live.

Fall colors in NW Montana as the tamarack turned yellow.

Fall colors in NW Montana as the tamarack turns yellow.

It seems fitting to share a podcast conversation Chelsea and I had with Paul at The Pursuit Zone. I bet many of you will enjoy listening to Chelsea’s side of the story instead of just mine! Her ideas for adventure frequently inspire our trips, and then I dial in logistics. I loved hearing her thoughts on the biggest challenges of our bike tours, plus what it’s really like to live in a van for months at a time.

Also, I’d like to say THANKS to my blog readers for all the positive feedback and support during the past two years. Who knew I’d make great friends through this site and enjoy writing so much? Sharing our adventures and meeting readers adds depth to our travels and contributes so much to the experience. I can’t imagine it any other way. A big high five to everyone out there, and please feel free to say howdy anytime if you’re so inclined!

Here’s the podcast. Below are a few of the questions Paul asks us, in case you’re wondering what to expect. Enjoy.

  • How did we meet?
  • What was the evolution to the start of our 2013 adventure?
  • How difficult was it to leave our old lives behind?
  • What is it like living out of a van for months at a time?
  • How did the idea for the 4,000 mile U.S. bike tour come about?
  • How difficult is it to follow a vegan diet while bicycle touring?
  • What were the biggest challenges and what did we most enjoy about our U.S. and European cycle tours?
  • What’s our advice for people that want to do a Europe cycle tour?
  • What are some tips for easing into a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?
  • What do we hope people get from reading Traipsing About?
  • Are we still having fun? (Spoiler – yes!)

What comes next? We shall see!

What comes next? We shall see!

Creativity and Fear, My Road Trip Companions

Kite boarding in Resia, Italy

The winds over the Cascade Mountains in Washington always punch airplanes around. As I sat in a 20-seat propeller aircraft during a recent trip, the metal creaked, the engines roared, and the pilot fought winds so strong the flight attendants stayed seated the entire time. (Never a good sign.) Luckily, I happened to be reading a book chapter about fear.

But I’m not talking about that kind of fear.

I’m talking about creative fear. The kind that stops you in your tracks and makes you say no, to shelve an idea, curb a project and stay safe. As Aristotle said, “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Liz Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, describes how she pictures any creative endeavor as a road trip with twins named Creativity and Fear. They’re always there, but she sets ground rules before the trip: Fear gets no radio station control, and definitely doesn’t get to drive.

Creativity, meanwhile, rides shotgun and picks the music, points out restaurants, and picks fun side diversions along the way, loving the ride. Yet through it all, Fear sits in the backseat with arms crossed and points out how stupid it was to take the road trip, that everything is going wrong, and whines about taking a pee break.

Lounging by a lake in Italy

Lounging by a lake in Italy

I fight fear every time I hit publish on a blog post or video. Blogging is easier these days since I’ve published 120 of them (how did that happen?!) without anyone shipping me off to the gulag for dissent. However, I’m a neophyte with video, so each completed work is a large percentage of my lifetime efforts. It’s a new arena where I’m equipped with a fork and spoon as I wish for a trident and lion-emblazoned shield.

Luckily, there are no other gladiators, and my life isn’t at stake. Just my self-confidence.

But hey! Learning with no expectations is good for me; video taps a different part of my brain versus writing or photography. Chelsea loses me for hours as I disappear into editing or drift off thinking about a fun angle for a shot. I know a well-done video when I see one – I think we all do – so efforts at this new endeavor frustrate me sometimes. But while these little video compilations don’t meet my vision for desired quality, they’re training, a method to figuring things out.

Ira Glass from This American Life said it well: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this…And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Every time I “finish” a creative project, a part of me still cringes because I know it’s not perfect. Making something feels like physical effort akin to scaling a castle wall, and publishing is tossing the work off a turret into the commons for all to see. Yet there, open and exposed, is where a project teaches me something. Readers email with support or (hopefully constructive) feedback, and I also ask for input from people whose skills I respect. (Brady, you wily film maker, you’re right – moving text and cross-fades are lame.)

If I don’t do that, there’s no improvement – I’d send text shooting across the screen and execute bad transitions forever. Instead, progress. Or at least it feels that way.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Just like this blog, which has expanded beyond what I expected when I started tapping keys two years ago, I have no idea how video will add to my life. Maybe it’s just a fun side project, a good outlet for my curiosity. Or maybe I can leverage those skills, our travel experiences, and my writing to tell stories about issues that needs attention. I felt too awkward to film the Syrian refugee situation when we were in Salzburg, but that is a perfect example of a story that needs to be shared.

Footage from our cycling trip in Europe is my current video medium. I’m parsing my way through it to learn new skills like decoupling video and audio for voiceovers, layering audio tracks, plus discovering free creative commons music sources. And while Fear sullenly plays Solitaire and Creativity babbles on about all the adventures around the bend, I’m enjoying the heck out of this road trip.

Check out my latest video – it’s a quick 1:20 and, I dare say, my cleanest one yet. Please let me know what you think!

What Refugees in Salzburg Taught Me About Speaking Up

Underground in Salzburg with Syrian refugees

During breakfast in Innsbruck, an American woman nearby leaned over to chat. Lamenting a canceled flight, she lowered her voice and said conspiratorially, “we drove down from Hamburg instead of taking the train because of, you know, all the Syrian refugees.”

I didn’t counter her comment. Later, however, I couldn’t stop thinking that I should have questioned the statement instead of avoiding confrontation and burying my voice.

What I didn’t say to this woman was that Chelsea and I had recently spent hours reading about the conflict in Syria. Or that we’d researched relief organizations and were heading to Salzburg with hopes of assisting the waves of refugees arriving via train from Hungary en route to Germany.

Why do people speak of others the way she did? The refugees leaving their homeland are fleeing civil war, taking only a couple bags of possessions. Meanwhile, this lady from Virginia sat next to her starched-shirt professor husband and followed up her bigoted statement with, “thank goodness the pool here is clean.” 

We learned that Germany, bucking convention, may accept 800,000 refugees by the end of the year (in comparison, the U.S. may take up to 10,000 in 2016). Now, however, German services were overwhelmed and they, along with other European countrieshad shut their borders, even going so far as to pause train service from Austria. Pedaling our way toward Salzburg three days later, we noticed a mile-long line of cars at the German/Austrian border as policemen checked vehicles.

Police block the entrance to the train platforms.

Police block the entrance to the train platforms.

Cut to the scene yesterday in the Salzburg train station. Tired families rested on any surface they could find; meanwhile, police officers blocked the train platforms. Suddenly a rush of people flowed by, mothers towing wide-eyed kids, fathers shouting and herding their family through the melee. A train was departing to Germany and the wall of police politely, but firmly, allowed a small number of individual families through. One group at a time climbed the stairs to seek their fate in the west.

We talked to a volunteer named Tomas who was providing coffee and tea for people. “The refugees live on rumors; they hear a train is coming, so they run to the platform. No train. Then one comes while they’re sleeping and they miss it. There’s no rest, no ease.” He ushered us past security and into an underground parking garage, the temporary home for hundreds of refugees who slept on folding cots or the ground. As unaffiliated volunteers, Chelsea and I helped out as we could.

Thin blankets and donated foam sleeping pads in the garage.

Blankets and donated foam sleeping pads in the garage.

I grabbed piles of thin blankets to serve as beds and laid them on the cold, dirty concrete of the parking garage. At the same time, I studied the refugee families coping with their situation. Teenagers in hip jeans flipped through their phones. Kids played with balloons or ran around, lost in their imagination; their drawings festooned a concrete pillar, a make-shift art wall. Parents mostly sat dully, perhaps storing their energy for the next rush to the train and a fresh chance to rebuild their lives.

We returned the next day. I kicked around a soccer ball with a tireless kid, then spoke at length with a few refugees. An Iranian man in his early 20s, a light and sound engineer, had applied for amnesty in the U.S. to escape persecution for being a Christian. Two years into the process, he left home and walked for days. Sick of waiting in Salzburg, he was considering striking out on foot for the German border and asked us if we thought it was possible to cross.

I also talked to a young Syrian, Muhammad, who had paid 2,000 Euros for a ship to Greece, then shelled out many bribes to navigate Serbia and Hungary. Twenty days into the journey, he aimed to make it to Belgium or England. When I commented on his red sweatshirt, emblazoned with the American stars and stripes, he said “I love America!” Then he showed me his phone’s red, white and blue case. My thoughts returned to the breakfast conversation with the American woman in Innsbruck.

Laying out blankets while a family passes the time in the background.

Laying out blankets while a family passes the time in the background.

I’ve encountered conversations like this too many times. The short (but unreal) discussion with a complete stranger in small-town Oregon who ranted about “the BLM and their damn gun-toting dykes” comes to mind. Or the man in Upstate New York who loathed gun control because he wanted to be able to shoot his cannon. Usually I slip into a friendly, aloof stance and excuse myself quickly. This latest chat, while relatively benign, reminds me that sticking up for others who are victims of hate and ignorance is necessary.

Dishonesty can wield the sword of an outright lie, but it can also fester in the silence of a truth unsaid. Not voicing an opinion can unwittingly condone actions or allow the speaker of hateful comments to believe their thoughts are held by everyone else. I’ve pondered this deeply since reading Sam Harris’s essay Lying during this trip, and Martin Luther King’s brilliant quote comes to mind: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Breathing the diesel fumes wafting through the underground shelter, I made a resolution. No more will I stand with a fake smile on my face while someone spouts hate or bigotry. It’s time to engage in a respectful, firm way, to tell my side of the story and share my opinion. I’m sure the experience won’t always be comfortable, but I’m hopeful that Oscar Wilde was correct when he penned, “There comes a time when speaking one’s mind ceases to be a moral duty, it becomes a pleasure.”

A big thanks to our dear friend Hilary Wang for inspiring us to get involved with this issue. If anyone would like to contribute to help the refugees, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is helping some of the four million people fleeing Syria; until October 13th, Kickstarter is (for the first time) helping fund raise as well. Google is currently matching contributions up to $5.5 million to UNHCR and other organizations.

What Would You Say to Yourself at 23?

New Zealand hitchhiking

I left the country at 23. It was my first trip outside the U.S., a solo, year-long adventure to explore the world.

That escapade fused new brain connections as I hitchhiked through New Zealand, played chess with my brother on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and met my future wife in Prague. The result (other than a lingering hatred of night bus travel) was a vision for my desired future life.

Ten years later, I am back in Europe as we pedal about. Nostalgia sometimes seeps through the mountain views or enters my mind during a meal as my thoughts drift back to 2005. The iPhone was still a secret project; MySpace was an unstoppable social network giant. Ancient history, basically.

Not that I frequently think about the past. Indeed, I usually ponder actions my future self would thank me for. I want him to look back on hard-earned skills and say, “that was so worth the effort.” Right now, however, the nostalgia bulb in my head shines the spotlight backward and I can’t stop thinking about the advice I would offer to my bushy-haired self at 23 (other than to cut the fro, bro).

Fro-style

One thing is certain: the words and advice wouldn’t simply be my own. I’d draw from books, blogs, commencement speeches, mentors, and kind-hearted people I’ve spent time with over the last decade.

Will I laugh and shake my head when I look back in 2025 at this list (probably through virtual reality goggles)? Maybe I’m entirely off the mark; it’s impossible to calculate the impact of this advice on my life. I’ll never know.

But if I had a time machine to 2005, I’d sit down across from myself, a cup of green tea in hand, and say:

  1. Embrace adventure. Don’t let the one trip around the world be your last big journey. Keep pushing your limits. “People get old when they stop jumping,” I heard on a recent podcast. Treat that advice literally and as a metaphor, launching fresh challenges, projects and skills that test your boundaries and keep you hopping. The best adventures will occur at the intersection of scary and exciting.

    The coast just south of Rijeka, Croatia.

    The coast just south of Rijeka, Croatia.

  2. Build the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect of you. Everyone feels fear. I sure do. It may stop you sometimes, but don’t let the opinions or desires of others constantly shape your life. Seek out projects that speak to you and dive in with everything you’ve got, even if others don’t agree. Think deeply about the top five regrets of the dying and use the results of those thoughts to guide your life.

  3. Pursue poverty in your 20s. It’s going to be hard, but turn down the starter engineering job with a salary high enough to allow handcuffing yourself to debt (over-valued condos, for one). Go after that travel video job you wanted. Live below your means, but eat better food (pasta and Mrs. Dash is not a real meal, dude). Build a variety of badass skills and focus on creative competency in many disciplines. Choose yourself and invest in constant learning. The intersection of those skills, your passion, and what the world needs is where the bubbling magic cauldron lies.

  4. Start a mindfulness practice. Chill the hell out, man. Enjoy a lemonade on a balcony and be present. I’ve noticed a consistent theme of successful people: space for reflection and mindfulness is a priority in their lives. Start a dedicated meditation practice (the Headspace app or guided meditations are great tools). Carving out time to just sit and watch a burbling stream counts too. As Pico Iyer writes, “In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

    Observation Point in Zion National Park.

    Observation Point in Zion National Park.

  5. Treat books as valued mentors. Keep reading. It’s free and will open you to new thoughts and let you shadow otherwise inaccessible people. Individual books have recharted the course of my life and served as pivot points. The Four Hour Work Week opened my eyes to a work world beyond the 9-5; Your Money or Your Life and the concept of time as a non-renewable resource sparked an epiphany. Biographies show me people at their best and worst, while fiction shows me the human condition. If I could choose one activity for the next ten years to shape my life in a positive way, continuing to read books on a variety of topics would be it.

That’s enough lecturing from this 30-something. What the heck do I know anyway? Maybe in 10 years I’ll be wise enough to not write posts like this! 

Get out there and live it up, young gun. It’s going to be a great ride.

P.S. Buy Apple stock in January 2009. And, most importantly, the way to Chelsea’s heart lies in being nice to her cat Oliver.

What would you say to your 20-something self?

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Loving the views (and dedicated bike path) on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.