Where Your Attention Goes

Sabrina Little ponders how the singular focus that running requires allows us to take time away from the distractions of life.

By on March 20, 2024 | Comments

Sometimes, when I run, I write. I don’t try to, but it happens. Ideas arrive in rapid succession, and I race home, in a feeble attempt not to drop any.

It is a weird phenomenon because, when I re-read my essays, I can identify where the ideas came from geographically. They hang on trees on the far side of my neighborhood. They line flowerbeds or stretch alongside sidewalks in storm drains. The longer I live in an area, the more ideas are perched out there in mailboxes and on driveways, getting rained on or covered in snow. Every time my family moves, I leave those idea sites behind and forge new ones elsewhere.

Of all the things I love about running, I love this the most: It affords me the space to think. I know I am not alone in this. Movement is such a big part of the writing process for so many of my friends that I think Office Depot should sell shoes alongside paper.

Running path with single tree

The act of running requires that we focus on one singular thing: running. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Running and Attention

By and large, our lives are not structured to support sustained reflection. We wear headphones, rather than sit in silence. We have watches that alert us of news stories, and we answer emails all day, instead of confining them to work hours. We confuse productivity for meaningful work and fill our time with tasks. Then we conclude our days with Netflix — very fun, yet not great for thinking. It would be easy to make it through a day without much critical reflection at all.

We may be curious about the consequences of living in a world like this — busy and full of digital distractions, where our interactions are mediated by devices, and where we spend our free time transfixed by glowing rectangles. We might wonder whether there are character costs to living in this way. And we might be extra grateful for the space running affords us to be outside, running and thinking in our sneakers.

There are a few reasons why the attentional space that running offers is valuable.

It Gives Us Space to Wonder

My students often tell me they don’t wonder about things anymore; they just Google them. These are not the same thing! Google is a source of information, but wondering is connected to wisdom (1). Do we need wisdom? We do.

Wisdom permits us to order ourselves to good ends. It helps us to discern what has value, and who we ought to be. It helps us to examine whether our running is well-ordered or is undermining higher goods in our lives. Sure, we have information. But what is true, good, or beautiful? What is worthy of our attention? Google can’t answer these questions. We need wisdom for that.

Running provides the space to wonder in a world that is exceedingly loud. Wisdom begins in wonder. That is a good reason to run.

Path with trees

Wisdom begins with wonder.

It Offers Practice for Staying in Place

Recently, I tried to answer a work email while running. It went about as well as you might expect. I hit a curb and wiped out on a sidewalk, tearing my pants. R.I.P. to my favorite pants. May they Rest in Pants.

Double-tasking while running is (unfortunately) impossible. Take it from me and my pants. But this is a gift where character is concerned. Interestingly, remaining on task, absent other diversions, compels us to participate in an ancient strategy for character formation, called stabilitas loci, or staying in place.

Stabilitas loci was a strategy employed by the desert fathers, a group of ascetic hermits who lived in Egypt from the third to seventh centuries. It is a practice in endurance — training our “physical frailty and fickleness of will” to remain on task (2). When you want to quit or do something else, you resist. You stay.

Stabilitas loci helps us persist without being turned aside by rogue emotions and other distractions. This helps us in our running. More significantly, it prepares us to ‘stay put’ through hard conversations and in the substantial commitments in life that really matter.

It Is Restful

Often, students enter my classes on their phones. Then, they exit on their phones and walk across campus on their phones. Some of them have such an intemperate relationship with their devices that they fail to make it through a lecture without clicking on them. This is cause for concern.

High smartphone usage is correlated with sleep deprivation, low cognitive control, and academic decline (3). It is associated with increased rates of cyberbullying and self-harm (4). High reliance on smartphones is also significantly correlated with loneliness, back pain, and depression (5). And, while we are inclined to pick up our phones to take a break, they do not provide real rest. They just add stimulation and compound our stress.

The data is clear. We need to spend less time on our devices. If athletic practice helps us put our phones down, then that is a reason to embrace sports—any sport, running or otherwise.

Running path through trees

Quiet spaces allow time for reflection.

Final Thoughts

On nearly every account of character, attention matters. Our thoughts, feelings, and habits of care are indicative of the kinds of people we are. We might wonder, then, about the plausible impacts on our character of living in a world that undermines attention at every turn. Thankfully, running provides the space to undo some of these damages. If I needed another reason to run, here it is.

Call for Comments

  • How much thinking do you do while running?
  • Do you find yourself searching for distractions while running?


  1. Plato Theaetetus 155d; Aristotle Metaphysics 982a-b
  2. R.K. DeYoung (2009). Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, p. 97.
  3. Elia Abi-Jaoude, Karline Treurnicht Naylor, & Antionio Pignatiello (2020). Smartphone, social media use, and youth mental health. CMAJ 192(6): E136-E141.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Daniyal, M., Javaid, S. F., Hassan, A., & Khan, M. A. B. (2022). The Relationship between Cellphone Usage on the Physical and Mental Wellbeing of University Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(15): 9352.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.