I’m an active hiker. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire it is not uncommon to encounter a trail that features rock formations that are best negotiated by using your hands and scrambling up on all fours.
The secret is once you start the scramble, keep moving up the rock face without stopping until there is a flat place to pause. Your hands and feet are much smarter than your thinking. They know where to go without any conscious direction.
If you pause out of fear and try to mentally calculate your next move, freezing in place in terror can be the result. Our fear places an invisible boundary on the trail. Analytical thinking has no place in these scrambling situations. About all it will do is spoil part of your day.
Although the trails in the Whites are very rugged, the accident rate is amazingly low given the volume of hikers. Whether you scramble up with ease or mentally think yourself into terror, the odds are overwhelming that you will complete your hike safely. The only difference will be your experience of the journey.
Life is often like scrambling up a rock face. Once we have decided to go forward it is best to just keep moving until there is natural place to pause.
Consider just a few of the ways we place boundaries in our path and make our journey through life much less pleasant than it could be.
We switch task. There really is no such thing as multitasking; we are switching between one task and another. Despite what we’d like to think, numerous studies have shown that we switch tasks poorly. Every time we stop and switch there are start-up costs. And while those costs may not include terror, they sap our productivity and introduce stress. Consider this:
An American study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology found that it took students far longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks – in fact, they were up to 40 per cent slower.
The same study also found multitasking has a negative physical effect, prompting the release of stress hormones and adrenaline.
This can trigger a vicious cycle, where we work hard at multi-tasking, take longer to get things done, then feel stressed, harried and compelled to multi-task more.
Studies by Gloria Mark, an ‘interruption scientist’ at the University of California, show that when people are frequently diverted from one task to another, they work faster, but produce less. After 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people report significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.
Life is uncertain and sometimes things don’t work out. Psychologist Aaron Turner has observed that he used to be scared of flying. He got over his fear of flying by realizing that life itself was dangerous. Many of our daily activities present a small chance of a disastrous accident, yet we go about them without giving that small chance much thought.
While we may go about our daily driving or other risky activities without much thought, we often give a great deal of thought to how our current life’s path might work out. This mental activity is almost always counter-productive.
If I sit down for a writing session, processing thoughts about how many people will read my writing will sap my creativity. If I am giving a talk, focusing on how I am being received will cut me off from internal wisdom I could receive, and my talk will fall flat. If I wake up in the morning mentally rehearsing a conversation that I need to have with my boss, my end of that conversation may not be responsive to the needs of the moment. If I am preoccupied with thoughts about how my children will grow-up, I may over control their actions and deprive them of learning needed life skills.
In all these cases, as on a hiking trail, there is a current of life that wants to come through us; our analytical thinking can do nothing more than dam the flow of life. Yes, there is a place for analytical thinking. It is good, for example, to prepare for a hike and to select a trail appropriate for your skill level.
In the conclusion of Walden, Thoreau observes:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
Much of our daily mental processing is not required to “advance confidently” in the direction of our dreams. While that idea may insult our egos, it is the secret of a happy and productive life. We don’t need to steer. Putting our head down and doing our work will help us pass through our own “invisible boundary” and yield unexpected, often extraordinary outcomes.