Mountain Bikes and Singletrack Focus

I’ve been mountain biking for a decade and a half. Seems crazy, but knobby fat tires have been a part of my life since the early 2000s. When I started, 29ers weren’t a thing, single speeds were the province of those crazy few animals who needed an extra challenge, and there was still a debate between full-suspension and hardtail bikes. Sure, having a spring – remember, this is the dark ages the air suspension setups weren’t common yet – helped smooth out the trail, but the loss in efficiency slowed you down. Everyone knew that.

Then someone decided to test this out. If memory serves, it was Giant Bikes around 2001-2002. Giant had two cross country (XC) racing bikes: their hardtail and dual-suspension. Most of their competitors had a similar lineup. Two models, both were super light, both had been engineered for speed.

Giant put men and women from their pro team on a loop course with both bikes. Team members would ride one lap with one bike, then switch, then repeat. They collected two important pieces of data: the actual time on the lap and the perceived effort from the racers.

Across the board, the pros thought they had been faster on the hardtail bikes. Across the board, they were wrong. They had perceived the bumpy ride – the feedback – of the hardtail bikes as proof that they were moving faster. Each root and rock they bounced off of gave them feedback. They were moving, and so fast they could barely maintain control. By contrast, the dual-suspension bike soaked up the rocks and roots keeping the wheel planted on the ground. This lack of feedback was perceived as slowness.

I love this story. It underlines something I’ve seen time and time again. Lack of feedback makes you think you’re moving inefficiently. That feedback comes in a lot of forms: rocks and roots on a mountain bike, how many unread emails you’ve got waiting in your inbox, or how many reactions to posts you’ve had since your last check.

The key here is that they thought they were moving faster, but in reality they weren’t. I know people who thrive on a phone (and now watch) that’s constantly buzzing. They feel connected. They feel alive. Like the pro mountain bikers before them, they often misread the constant feedback as proof they’re being efficient.

A stream of constant interruption might work for the Jack Dorsey’s of the world, many of us need a bit more space to gather our thoughts. That constant feedback that “life is happening and you’re a part of it” is fragmenting our attention. It’s drawing our focus away from the deeper, more meaningful work that we’re capable of.

My reading and listening this year has forced me to re-evaluate what I let grab my attention. I now have all notifications turned off on my phone, save the few things that I intend to allow as interruptions: SMS, phone, and so on. Social networking tools have all of their badge numbers and push notifications turned off. My home screen has only the apps I intend to use every day and the second screen has a handful of large buckets that all of my apps are stored in – the largest of which is the catch-all Extras.

I activated the do-not-disturb feature of my phone while writing this. Those few notifications that have come through (I just checked — there were a couple) will still be there when I’m done. This let me focus my attention on getting these thoughts down and edited into a cohesive post.

Interested? Set aside some time during your day for focused work. Turn off your phone and cut wifi. Even better, change your location to some place where you don’t have access to wifi at all to avoid all temptation. Figure out what you want to tackle, then dive in. It might seem odd at first, but having stretches of time to focus, intently without distraction is a huge productivity booster.

I’m not suggesting anything new on the technology side, but maybe this tale will help you reframe the issue and realize it’s pretty universal.