Several weeks ago I made a very small change to my bike rides that immediately improved my skill as a mountain biker.
Within a few minutes, I was a better rider.
I didn’t expect to see a difference, and it was surprisingly apparent. The change was something small, but if you’re focused on building technical skills, you may be overlooking this as much as I have.
Want to improve your skills? Cut the distractions.
Here’s the backstory: For two and a half years, I wore headphones during nearly every bike ride. I was riding predominantly trails in the forest, without having to worry about cars whizzing by. According to Strava, that’s been 303 hours. If I listen to podcasts on Stitcher, the speed is usually 1.5 speed. If it’s audiobooks on Audible, it’s usually 2x speed. It’s a safe guess to say that since 2014, I’ve listened to ~450 hours of material. That’s a whole lot of learning I’ve been doing about fitness, business, personal development, finance, politics, and so much more.
Those days are behind me.
About a month ago, I was riding to from Harlem to MFF in the rain. This wasn’t a planned rain ride but rather a, “It looked clear when I left the house” ride. As I passed under the George Washington Bridge on the bike path, my headphones stopped playing Pod Save America. It happened without warning and they wouldn’t turn back on, so I assumed that they had filled with water. I found another pair of on Amazon, this time with waterproofing, and placed my order.
Amazon is fast, but they’re not that fast. I was heading out for a trail ride the next morning and much to my chagrin, I was going to be riding without additional educational material. That’s a first world problem, right?
During that ride I was in wonderland. I had taken the Red Pill.
It amazed me that simply by not listening to headphones, my ability to ride had improved. I was sharper in my steering, looked further ahead, and choose better lines. This free skill-upgrade was fantastic.
So, I did it again. And again. After a few rides, I was hooked. Or rather, unplugged. When I arrived at the trailhead, I would shut off my headphones, mute my phone, and silently slip into the woods.
In those first few weeks, it was a free upgrade in performance. Now, it’s become something more. This new normal makes for a far more rewarding experience than my rides of yore, and that excited sense of performance been surpassed by the calmness of the entire experience.
When every sense is dedicated to the task at hand, the bike’s use as a mode of transportation is dwarfed by its ability as a vehicle of transcendence.
It’s been a month since I’ve worn headphones in the woods, and it’s as if I’m visiting my home trails for the first time. The woods sound different – they’re actually way louder than I thought. I see far more colors than I used to, and there are smells in the forest that I’ve been oblivious to in the past. Sometimes, riding without headphones has made me a slower rider, as I take the time to enjoy the view rather than mashing pedals without pause.
Everything about this is an improvement to me.
Our modern model of self-improvement is about action steps, things to add to our to-do lists. What if the action step was doing less?
Create a space free of distractions. Replace multitasking with monotasking. Your text messages can wait until after your workout. That TV show will be there when you’re done with the cooking. Please, don’t text and drive.
When we’re fully immersed in the task at hand, we have better experiences. Senses are heightened, perception is more clear. In the big-picture view, isn’t that what it’s all about? We exist to build upon our previous experiences, to surpass our previous limits. Right now the progress that I’m seeking is that of intimacy, of becoming one with the experience itself.
Sometimes that’s as simple as not wearing headphones.