Productivity Tuesday: Not What I Had Planned (What my less than successful backpacking trip can teach you about writing)

by Kellee Weinhold, Unstuck Productivity Coach

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I went backpacking with friends this Memorial Day weekend. The plan was to do a 5x5x5 mile triangle. One night at the first lake. Two at the second and then back to the car.

It didn’t quite work out that way we planned it. Which is pretty much just like writing.

How Writing is Like Backpacking, Lesson One: Planning matters.

I was more than a little anxious about this trip. I have not been hiking much this year and I had done absolutely no pack hiking as prep. Last year, I was planning a two-week Pacific Crest Trail hike and was extremely careful to prepare, hiking increasing distances near where I live with a pack. I have autoimmune issues that make carrying 35 pounds on my back challenging even on a good day so I needed to understand the potential outcomes. But that was last year. This year, I told myself I was just too busy to do the preparation required. I packed my pack and hoped for the best.

We set out on Friday afternoon, found the trail head with no problem, and we were off! From the looks of it, we were golden.

This tale of backpacking as metaphor for writing will make one thing perfectly clear: Setting off into unknown wilderness without an overabundance of preparation for what’s in store is not a good idea.

Setting out on on a big writing project without the proper preparation — ie: an outline; an argument; a clearly defined stopping point and ultimate destination — is guaranteed to deliver misery at some point. For us, that point was 10 miles in. More on that later.

How Writing is Like Backpacking, Lesson Two: Worrying Will Not Change the Outcome.

Worrying about what might happen gets you nothing but a stress cloud enveloping what would otherwise be a perfectly pleasant experience. For me the self-inflicted stress included: How would my body hold up? What if forgot something important? What if I wake up tomorrow and I’m too stiff and sore to do Day Two?

You are no doubt aware of the writing equivalents: What if it doesn’t get accepted? What if I made an error? What if I missed a key piece of literature? What if I am not smart enough to do this?

If I had left my hiking “what ifs” unchallenged, I would have trudged along in a miserable state for the entire five miles. Instead, when I caught myself in an anxiety “trance” of what ifs, I paused the thought, took a deep breath, put my head on a swivel to enjoy the scenery and started an internal chant to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know it…”

“I am backpacking in Oregon with my friends. I am backpacking in Oregon with my friends. This is such beautiful country. I am here to enjoy it. I am backpacking in Oregon with my friends!”

The song was my way of reminding myself that right in that moment, I was fine; and if I stayed present, I could enjoy it. And I did. I saw wildflowers and pine trees and chipmunks and clouds giving way to blue sky, and I left human noise pollution behind. I was able to rest in the silence.

When we can separate ourselves even briefly from the nagging self doubts and questions, we can be present in the experience of writing and relax into the exploration.

You may instantly think, “But writing is not relaxing! I hate writing!”

Here’s the thing. I can pretty much guarantee you that you don’t hate writing. You hate all of the stories you have created around it. So when you get freaked out about what may come of your writing, come back to the present. Stick with the actual words on the page. The intellectual challenges of your project NOT the imagined negative outcomes.

Ah, if worrying were the only barrier to stress free experiences. How easy it would be to stay happily on course, But no. When anxiety takes a seat, comparison is always willing to jump up in its place.

How Writing is Like Backpacking Lesson Three: Comparison is the Thief of Joy.

“They are faster than I am.” “They are fitter than I am.” “They are enjoying this more than I am.” “They have more time on the trail than I have.” Blah. blah. Blah. blah.

Sounds a lot like when we latch on to comparison with our colleagues, doesn’t it? They are more productive than I am. They are more successful than I am. They write faster than I do. They understand the theory better than I do.

What is the value of comparison? Seriously, what good does it do us? (Spoiler alert: none.) Certainly, it didn’t help my back hurt any less. It just as certainly won’t help your project move forward. But it damned well might stop it.

As we clicked off miles and comparison tried to take control, I had to once again coach that negative attachment brain back to the moment: We were on the same path, covering the same distance, carrying the same loads and in the end, we would— all four of us — set up in the same camp next to the same lake to see the same moonlit sky and the same jaw-dropping sunrise. (I mean if everyone else had gotten out of bed in time.)

So, I added to my internal “I am backpacking… melody:  “Thank you feet, you’re doing a good job! Thank you knees, you’re doing good job! Thank you glutes, you’re doing a good job!”

I can tell you that my body was a lot more responsive and happy with that message than it was with “You’re miserable and slow and stupid for doing this.” (All gross lies and exaggerations by the way.) We were all walking our own paces and stayed well within each other’s line of sight.

In other words, no matter how “slow” your writing feels, you’ll eventually travel the exact path as every other author who finishes and delivers work, with the same exact endpoint: submitted. It’s not how fast you write; it is arriving at your chosen destination intact that counts. So, be kind to that brain that is working so hard. Congratulate and celebrate everything that is getting you there!

How Writing is Like Backpacking Lesson Four:  Shit Happens and Real Life Consequences Exist.

We set out on our second day with sunny skies, a clear path, and nine hours until sunset with only 5 miles to cover. Piece of cake.

Within 3 miles, we were in more than the “patchy snow” the ranger station had promised, without a clear path to return (long story.) Carry on, we must. The patchy snow became patchy bare ground and at mile 4.5 we lost the trail entirely.

We knew could not stay at our intended second campground, and we had already made the decision to hike back out to the car, but we had to FIND the intersection with the return trail.

We couldn’t go back. We couldn’t find forward. And we could only imagine where the way out might be hiding.

What did our little band of wanderers do? We followed protocol: STOP: Stop. Think. Observe. Plan. We stopped. We ate and drank water. We visually mapped where we would walk (in pairs) to look for the trail. We used a compass and our navigation skills. In a relatively short time, we found the trail intersection.

See what I am saying about it being like writing? Sometimes you get straight up lost. You can’t see where you took off from. Can’t see the end. You are stranded in the murky middle. And just like backpacking, the answer to being lost is stop, refuel, assess the situation and remember the resources that, in your increasing confusion, are easy to forget that you possess.

One more thing. That 30 minutes of losing our way (only 5 of which was continuing to walk) could be the entire focus of the trip: OH MY GOD, WE GOT LOST! But the other story to tell is that we were never actually lost, we were a little off course. And we had plenty of resources to survive until we figured it out. Use your resources, your colleagues, your advisor, your internal compass to keep heading in the general direction until you can spot the path again.

How Writing is Like Backpacking Lesson Five:  Overdoing It Kills Momentum.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, our five-mile sunny Saturday stroll became 11 miles, and a few hours became six hours and 50 minutes.  A three-night backpacking trip with three 5 mile legs had turned into a one night backpacking trip with one five mile leg and one 11 mile dog leg in the snow. Not at all what we planned, but what we had. And we did it.

Here’s the thing though. That extra 5+ miles in snow on incredibly uneven ground, meant something different to me in my body than my fellow hikers.

It meant that they decided to snag a room in a weird mountain hotel to look for adventure the next day. It meant I went home to an epsom salt bath, cbd oil and my own bed. Three days later, my body is still exhausted. I waffled and second guessed myself for a full day about whether to show up for our regular four-mile hike the following Tuesday. I sat in bed that morning completely unclear about what was exhaustion and what was an unwillingness to be uncomfortable again.

And we are back back to writing, again. We all have different levels of tolerance, everything from how long we can sit in the chair to how many hours a day we actually can devote to writing, but no matter who we are, we have a limit. When we go over that limit —and trust me when I say that binging is always over the limit— we will pay a price. When we write ourselves to exhaustion, our brains and bodies will reject the idea of returning to the work.

Yes, the goal is not see how much you can write in a single day, but how steadily you can write day by day. But, even with the best of intentions, we can also get ourselves in binds that require over doing it to get out. Once we are there, the goal becomes to slog through to the end while accepting without shame that it will take time to recover, i.e. We are allowed to coast for a bit until we get our mojo back.

But not too long.

How Writing is Like Backpacking Lesson Six: Sometimes You Just Have to Suck It Up.

Eventually, I put on my shoes and I went for my morning walk/hike with my friends. It was less than pleasant. My knee was twingy. My legs were TIRED. Still, getting back to exercise was the right choice. I had to once again face my limitations, but I wasn’t going to do myself any harm. Time to pick myself up and start moving again.

It’s easy when you have a challenging experience to focus on how hard it was instead of what you accomplished. It is far too easy to spend hours asking, how did this go so horribly awry? Easy and a waste of time and energy. Go ahead and ask the question to discern what you would do differently the next time. And, then remember, that is what matters: The next time.

This time was hard. It took you awhile to recover. Ok. That’s good. Now, when are you going to get back on track? What will you do in advance or accept letting go of to be ready and willing to make the journey again.

Writing is going to be harder than you expected sometimes. If you keep trudging along, you will eventually make it through it. And, you will be tired. And, you can still pick your slightly the worse for wear self up and start walking/writing again.

Because the only way to experience the journey is to be on it.

(And, for the record, it is a helluva lot less miserable with good company.)

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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