This post was triggered by a text message from my son: “Another one for the AM reading list. And should we believe it?” followed by a url. My son moved to a distant state over three years ago and on the several occasions when he has visited since then, we generally fell into a pattern of rising early, brewing coffee, then sitting with our iPads working through our respective RSS lists. One of us would occasionally share a comment on what we’d just read and that would often launch a discussion, sometimes just about the article or comment, sometimes more far reaching. In any case, those visits have been some of the more cherished recent moments with my son. So I knew the link would be something special.
The link brought up an article from the New Yorker titled: Why Walking Helps Us Think, which made the case very well. I responded to my son with an email with the subject line “Coincidence” and the following text: “In response to your text this morning, here is a quote from my journal just yesterday: ‘On my walk this morning, I had lots of thoughts about this topic. And most of them have dissipated into the ether. It occurred to me that I could use my cell phone as a dictation device—the dictation app—then play it back into the Google app when I get home to transcribe it. The best result is probably gibberish with an occasional thought worth pursuing within it; the worst is that my self-consciousness talking to myself would completely stifle any output at all. Maybe the lapel mike on the earbuds would make it look like I was actually on the phone; that would be a little less intimidating? Okay, what have I got to lose. I guess I will give it a try.’” He responded, “Great minds… I was taking a small reporters pad and pen with me for awhile to jot down ideas. Now I use the Do Note app. It’s part of the IFTTT suite and allows for sending notes to Evernote (or other integrated apps like email) w/ a single tap. Not great for lengthy discourses, but generally captures enough to recreate (resurrect?) the idea later.” What struck me was the timing of his text. We had talked about this topic, I’m sure, on several occasions and were once again on the same wavelength. I decided it was a good omen, and I had to follow through on my thought to give it a try.
On my next walk on Friday morning, I was hurried so I passed on the recording. But then on Monday I had no excuses. So I got out the earbuds for the iPhone and tried out the integrated mike. It seemed to work well, but I couldn’t really tell what state the phone was in with it in my pocket. I didn’t really want to record my whole walk; that would mean listening to an hour of mostly heavy breathing to get a few gems of ideas worth revisiting? Not really an attractive proposition. Well if I was going to carry the phone, I might as well just pretend I was on a call. So that’s how I started out. About ten minutes into my walk, I had, I think, about five minutes of recorded ideas. It really was difficult to tell. I wasn’t completely familiar with the working of the Voice Memos app and the LCD screen was barely visible in the bright daylight outdoors, so trying to decipher the buttons was a challenge. I managed to replay what I had recorded—I wanted to be certain that I was in fact capturing my words in a way that I could retrieve them. All seemed good so I proceeded to start recording again. And in the process, I managed to overwrite what I had already captured. So at the end of an hour walk, I had ten and a half minutes of recored thoughts. I transcribed the thoughts when I got home and made an effort to remember the thoughts I had overwritten. The former was easier, but I think I actually came up with most of the latter as well. The other thing I discovered then was that when the phone is not in my pocket, it is not recording steps. I have in the past used different apps to track my walk—to see if I am meeting the daily challenge of 10K steps. Since Apple added the Health app, I’ve just relied on it since it counts steps and stairs whether you want it to or not. So I had captured a few thoughts, I managed to reconstruct the ones I had overwritten, and I lost credit for more than half of my walking efforts? Not really a big deal since I seldom pay attention to that number anyway, but…
I went back and reread the New Yorker article. One thought I missed on first reading now jumped out at me: “Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” And just as those ideas start to appear, I grope for the technology, fumble with it trying to get it into a ready state, and completely kill the process creating those innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Okay, I haven’t made a real effort yet to master the use of the technology for this application. But it is nonetheless true my expectation is that the technology should be simple enough that I can just use it intuitively and reap the benefits. I certainly do that with the phone feature set on the device and I haven’t really had to think about or practice that usage.
So what is your experience? Do you try to capture your thoughts sometimes? Do you have tried and true mechanisms for doing so? Am I expecting too much from the technology? Should I just suck it up and commit to spending more time practicing to get the results I want? Should I relegate the learning that comes from reflecting on my thoughts to time at my desk when I can capture my thoughts in writing to analyze them and just enjoy the fresh air and the “parade of images from the mind’s theatre” when I’m out on my walk? What do you think?