I’ve been on a walk around the world for over three years. During the day I walk, at night I camp, and in the morning I start all over again. On a grand scale my movements each day are almost imperceptible, like an inch worm reaching and contracting, and yet somehow I’ve crossed the Sierra Madre, Andes and Pyrenees mountain ranges on foot. I spent weeks in a sweltering jungle, desolate desert and half a year battling a vicious bacterial infection. So far I’ve covered more than fifteen thousand miles.
It’s an obvious enough statement, but something I’ve understood and began to apply to other aspects of my life only recently. After a glance at a map I knew walking around the world would take at least five years, but during the first year and half of my journey, as I walked from New Jersey to Perú, I walked as though the finish line was just around the corner. I walked eight hours a day, covering the distance of nearly a marathon, every day for months. The only days I walked less than twenty-four miles was when I was laid up with stomach problems from ingesting bad water. On my three-month walk through Mexico I took only a single week of rest.
My perpetual haste was partly because a roof over my head was a luxury; I had just enough money to pay for food. But also because if I didn’t hit twenty-four miles I felt as though my entire day fell short. The self-imposed rule of twenty-four miles a day had me sleeping in less than ideal places. As the sun neared the horizon I’d often find a good hideaway to set camp, check my step counter, see I only walked twenty-three miles, and force myself to keep walking. Occasionally I’d find a new place to camp just a mile or two later. More often I’d be searching for a place to sleep until sundown and need to settle somewhere exposed.
I remember one instance in Mexico in particular. I passed a large forest a couple hours before sunset that would have made ideal camping, but instead of calling the day a bit early, I decided I could get in a few more miles. I searched into the night for a place to sleep, only to tuck myself into a graveyard beside a main road into town. People were passing all night long. Their voices bounced between gravestones, making it seem as though someone was always closer than they actually were. A soccer match broke out across the street and for hours I laid on my tarp with eyes wide open, paranoid a stray ball would appear beside me and the man searching for it would discover me.
I managed a few good hours of rest once everything died down, but I paid with aching muscles due to stress and lack of sleep. I walked an extra six miles by passing on the forest but lost more than six miles the following days as my body recovered.
It took dozens of uncomfortable nights until I learned it was better to end my day early at a hidden campsite where I’d get a good sleep, rather than of forcing myself to reach some arbitrary threshold.
As the months passed I peregrinated to Panama City, into Colombia, across Ecuador and into Perú. By then I found a rhythm. My body was up to the challenge of walking twenty-four miles a day, I knew how much food to bring, how much water to carry and had become a phenomenal talent at judging potential campsites and knowing when to stop.
Having mastered the most pressing challenges of my journey, my mind found more frivolous ways to keep engaged. In coastal deserts of Perú my passion for photography bloomed. It was one of the most stunning landscapes I’d laid eyes upon, but I was wholly incapable of capturing its beauty in a photograph.
Walking stretches of isolated road I fantasized about all the photography books and tutorials I could consume if I were settled in one place. I knew if I could just cram the knowledge in those books into my head then I’d be able to take the perfect photograph.
But the weeklong cram session I dreamt of wasn’t an option. I was always on the move. To cross the desert I put in long days. There were times when I had shade and cell service to watch tutorials but I had to learn one drop at a time. And even when I reached a hotel and had time to study, I was too tired to stay focused longer than twenty minutes.
I took photographs every day and somehow, without the weeklong cram session I dreamt of, I became modestly pleased with my photography by the time I reached Chile.
Unfortunately, once I put more focus on my photography, the more pressure I put on myself to improve it. Photography was no longer just something I happened to do, but something I aspired to perfect.
I yearned for better gear. Everything I read online talked about the newest cameras taking sharper photos faster and how I could achieve an utterly dreamy bokeh if only I drop three thousand dollars on a lens.
I thought I was only an upgraded kit away from being the photographer I dreamt of and I wanted to satisfy that desire immediately.
But the very nature of my walk around the world hamstrung my desire. Not only was shipping camera equipment to me a logistical nightmare, but every piece of equipment added more weight I’d need to carry over mountains and across deserts.
So instead of better equipment, I turned to productivity podcasts for answers. If I couldn’t have better gear I’d have to find ways to become successful faster and with less effort than everyone else. An endless array of podcasts promised new ways to shave a few more shreds of inefficiency out of my day. But the more I listened, the more unhappy I became. Each moment not stuffed with an active attempt at personal development was a moment wasted.
My photography was improving, as was my writing, but not fast enough, never fast enough. I felt guilty listening to comedy podcasts or sitting too long without reading.
I thought that when I resolved my need to cover twenty-four miles a day I was finished setting unsustainable requirements of myself, yet somehow found myself in pursuit of the white-whale that is a perfectly efficient life.
Thankfully, walking is a powerful form of reflection and I was walking most of each day. I didn’t stay at the height of my unhealthy obsession long.
The inherent problem with productivity media is that it implies process is only important in that it gets you to the end result. The process is something to be trimmed, refined and burnished until it’s a featureless chrome pipeline propelling you to success. But so long as you’re not there yet (and you’ll never be), there is always something else to maximize.
There is no end in the war for increased productivity because the war extends into your mind. You can always be thinking better thoughts, more productive thoughts.
But that’s an anxious way to think. From New Jersey to Uruguay I walked both thirty-six miles in a day and six miles in a day. Still, I covered ten-thousand miles and became the eighth person to walk the length of The Americas.
There is no perfect day. You will not achieve everything immediately and all at once. Take it one day at a time. Walk twenty miles, maybe eighteen. Find a good place to sleep. That’s enough. Be content.