Spring is a time when many people are consumed with an assortment of chores around the house. The to-do list is often long and one’s mind is often stressfully thinking about the next item on the list while working on the current chore. While the drive is strong to get everything done as quickly as possible, it’s healthy to take a break, even if it is just for a couple hours.
I decided to take one of those breaks on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. I drove 20 minutes from my house up to the West Frisco Creek trailhead, turned off my cell phone, grabbed my pack, bailed out of the car and headed up the trail at a fast pace. My mind was racing even faster than my feet thinking about all those things on my to-do list.
A few hundred yards up the trail, I stepped off, looked up the dry hillside and told my brain to quiet down. Well, as you know, our brains just aren’t that obedient. Especially, our modern, electronically connected brains.
I recently watched a video on the internet (talk about being electronically connected) of a well-known psychologist/writer/speaker talking about focus. He spoke about a study that showed kids often send more than 100 texts a day without talking once on their phones. He then shared a story about speaking to veteran teachers who stated that their students are now having difficulty reading books that 20 years ago students had no trouble reading. The psychologist speculated that children are having a hard time reading because they have difficulties focusing due to the lifestyle changes brought about by electronic communication technology.
Interestingly, the psychologist also related findings that kids that spend a lot of time playing battle type video games have increased abilities to “hyper focus.” They have above average awareness and response to what is happening around them, which is a good skill for a job like air traffic controller, but supposedly are also a bit more “jumpy.”
Another intriguing study involved people using an app on their phones that dinged at random times. Every time their phone dinged, they were to write down what they were doing and thinking at that moment. The study showed that participants spent a little more than 50 percent of their time thinking about something else rather than what they were doing. Apparently, the participants were most focused when engaged in a popular intimate activity. There was no data on whether they stopped in the middle of that activity to write down their observations.
Also discovered in that study is that people who spent more time daydreaming were less happy than those who were more mindful. People tend to spend a lot of time thinking about stressful or negative thoughts. It’s not all bad for the daydreamers though, because we are also most creative when our minds drift off.
There are many different techniques to help improve focus and I decided to use one that I often employ when hiking. As I started hiking up the dry hillside, I focused on listening to each footfall. Then I shifted my attention to the sounds of the birds. My mind kept drifting off and I kept bringing it back.
Part way up the hillside several purple-blue pasque flowers bloomed among the pale, dry grass. Brown conifer cones littered the ground below widely spaced ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and limber pine trees. Patches of snow still clung to shady ground where the hillside curled north into a drainage.
Eventually, I reached the top of the ridge and then circled around to hike down the other side of the drainage. I sat down for a moment on the lee side of a tree to quietly enjoy the view. Within just a few minutes elk started walking out of the forest to cross the meadow below me. They showed no indication that they knew I was there. And my mind was happily focused on the moment.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.