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I've found that when I'm used to a certain route while on foot or on the bike, I tend to have my thoughts drifting away and becoming less attentive, usually leading to dangerous situations and sometimes even accidents involving other road users. It's dangerous and I'd like to avoid it when I start to take the bike to my current job.

What methods can I use to stay attentive and not get distracted by my own thoughts while riding?

  • 1
    If you have time for your thoughts to wander, you can concentrate on going faster. My commute has Strava waypoints that I focus on doing faster any given morning/evening. Gives me something to focus on so I don't stare off and ride into a tree/car. Also, there's deer/rabbits I have to look out for in the morning... – Michael McGriff Apr 21 '17 at 18:48
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    @MichaelMcGriff sometimes the limit is the flow of traffic - roads round here are too narrow and the lines of sight too short to start passing cars when they do more than about 15km/h, which is boringly slow to ride. The back of a van doesn't give much visual variety either. On different roads speed is good, it's just not always possible. – Chris H Apr 22 '17 at 6:55
  • Make like an aeroplane pilot and actively scan the surroundings more. Focus on the road, then the left side, then the right side. Sometimes look behind you too. – Criggie Apr 22 '17 at 7:05
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My mind also wanders on too-familar routes, so here are a few things that I consider helpful or have been told about.

  • Having some (even minor) alternative routes may help; you may want a system for choosing which one to take based on which roads are busy. Taking this to extremes you can map out your city (thanks Criggie; also see if openstreetmap can use the data, or play with veloviewer tiles)
  • Some goals to compete with yourself might also help -- they help you to concentrate on the riding even if not the traffic. I tend to slow down as I lose concentration, so thinking about being quick helps. The sheer physical effort of some of these helps to leave the thoughts behind. Some goals could be:

    • Total time
    • Time between 2 points (Strava segments, for example)
    • Maximum speed on a particular stretch
    • Getting up the big hill without stopping/in a particular gear.
    • Trying to keep your cadence (pedalling rate) up is a good one - choose a lower gear than you might by instinct.
  • A particularly good goal if your roads are rough is to minimise the number of potholes you hit. This requires you to know whether it's safe to swerve thus to know what's coming up behind.

  • Combined with this, you can practice bunny-hopping over damaged bits of road, or lifting the front wheel over even the tiniest cracks.
  • Alternatively you might try keeping count of how many bikes overtake you vs. how many you overtake.
  • This isn't one for me but making words/phrases out of the letters of the numberplates of cars that overtake you can help keep your eyes on the cars themselves.
  • I found my handlebar mirror helps -- once I got used to having one, glancing in it became a habit (and in fact with it I can see cars coming up behind out of the corner of my eye). In turn, knowing that someone is approaching makes me keep up my awareness.
  • I assume you don't have headphones on (that would be a bad idea). Practice using your rearview ears -- try to work out what's going to pass you next and how wide/fast from sound alone. Some people like bone conduction headphones which at least don't cover your ears.
  • Count +1 for each car you pass and -1 for each car that passes you and you win when you get to +10. -10 means pay more attention to the road (thanks Criggie)
  • Good suggestions Chris! – CardMechanic Apr 21 '17 at 18:24
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    Additional ones - counting +1 for each car you pass and -1 for each car that passes you and you win when you get to +10. -10 means pay more attention to the road ;) – Criggie Apr 21 '17 at 23:08
  • I sometimes wear bone-conduction headphones on long rides - an older version of aftershokz.com/collections/wired They allow me to hear the world with some background music. – Criggie Apr 21 '17 at 23:12
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    Mixing up the route is great - I had a personal challenge to cover every "main" road in my city, according to google maps. criggie.org.nz/pictures/bikes/bigmap-1451260301.jpg I'm now working on the minor roads. – Criggie Apr 21 '17 at 23:28
  • I don't understand how distracting one self by counting things or puzzling number plates helps stying focused (in fact I think, it does not). Instead of dreaming about the last holidays you dream about funny number plates or gambling with numbers, but you still miss the traffic signs/light (esp. altered right of way) or the little children between the cars. Switching the routes is a nice rule though. – try-catch-finally May 24 '17 at 11:29
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I've had a few close calls (mostly with other cyclists and curbs) when I got too used to a route. Here is what I do to keep my focus on the road:

  • counting cyclists (and their female/male ratio - to determine if it is Spring enough :))
  • practicing bunny hops on small cracks
  • exploring new routes or trying to choose the one with green wave
  • practicing wheelies on climbs if there are no cars around

(I would have commented these to Chris's answer if I had had enough reputation. Sorry for the separate answer.)

  • That's a good set of points and worth their own answer. If bunny hops aren't your thing (yet) or at least not in traffic (I can just about get the bike off the ground clipped in, with a high saddle and thin tyres), just popping the front wheel over cracks is good. – Chris H Apr 25 '17 at 7:32
  • Though note that in some places wheelies may be effectively illegal (along with riding no hands) if there are laws requiring you to be in full control. – Chris H Apr 25 '17 at 8:14
  • @ChrisH I'm not sure the bunnyhop/wheelie idea is a good idea, anyway. The problem we're trying to solve is zoning out and not paying attention to one's surroundings. Playing this kind of game causes one to focus exclusively on one rather irrelevant aspect of the surroundings and getting hit by a car because one was focused on some irrelevant task isn't any better than getting hit by a car because one was focused on nothing at all. – David Richerby Apr 25 '17 at 14:14
  • @DavidRicherby I know what you're saying. I'm too old to learn to wheelie but techniques for dealing with potholes that can't be dodged are IMO another matter. They can be practiced when you've got a clear road -- check thoroughly before you do and you've remembered to check. – Chris H Apr 25 '17 at 15:16
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TL;DR - Do intervals.

Although I have a few different routes I regularly take to work, 75% of the time it's just one route.

I find doing intervals very useful to keep the route interesting. If you know the route, including hills, flats and descents well, you can really aim to go full bore a particular section of it and then switch the bits you go hard on. Doing this also makes the slower rides on the same route more enjoyable and less painful!

I like to do efforts on a few of the hills I have on my commute, and though I ride them on a fixed gear, you could add another element by limiting yourself to certain gears for certain bits of the commute as an extra challenge.

Good luck!

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    This works in some areas (+1), but in others you don't have that much control of your speed -- junctions, cars, other bikes etc. Riding past slow traffic safely requires plenty of concentration anyway so your idea is one for the open stretches. – Chris H Apr 25 '17 at 15:19
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Loss of focus during safety relevant routine tasks is a very common problem in occupational research.

An example of drivers whose route cannot be altered to make it more exciting are train drivers. The method of finger pointing and calling (FPC) had been in use in Japan for decades. The train operator points at all relevant objects, for instance signals, and says what they see (eg "proceed signal").

A paper by Bhuiyan et al* also explores imaginary FPC. Imaginary FPC is compared to actual FPC with optical tomography of test subjects in a driving simulator. The paper suggests there may be some benefit.

Imaginary FPC is particularly useful to cyclists since we rather not take a hand from the bars in situations where attention is required due to an inherent risk. It is conceivable a combination of actual FPC and imaginary FPC increases your awareness of safety relevant objects and agents whilst cycling.

*Published in IEEE Pulse, May 2016, a peer reviewed journal.

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Not a bad thing, Nzall.

I believe you have enteted a mental state people called "flow". At this state you are most peaceful and creative, yet your attention is never drift off from the road. This is a healthy and most sought after state of mind.

I experience this every time I am riding on my own on a familiar route. Any issues I have in mind will come to light without consciously thinking about them. If there are no issues some ideas about life will emerge. I think people experience "flow" in other activitied too, EG, when cooking and joggng alone, and when they are skillful in it. But flow is more easily felt in cycling. Three conditions to enter flow;

  • you enjoy doing the skill
  • you are familiar with the skill
  • you are on your own

Next time do nothing special.; just keep riding. Your internal state will cleverly decide when you will enter the flow state again. Interedtingly, if you watch out when you will enter flow, it won't.

Happy riding!

  • That's an excellent point - how would you know if you were in this state vs completely zoned out? I'd observe there are occasional car drivers who are "inattentive" rather than flowing./flowed (is that the right way to say it?) – Criggie Apr 27 '17 at 0:47

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