When I talk to nervous new motorcyclists, I often encourage them to find “appropriate challenges.” It’s an idea inspired by one of my favorite psychologists, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.
In his research on engagement and enjoyment, Csikszentmihalyi found that we tend to be the most engaged, and have the most enjoyment, when an activity’s challenges match our skills.
If an activity is too easy for us, we get bored. But if it’s too difficult, we get overwhelmed and anxious. In the middle, we find a state of engagement and enjoyment, which Csikszentmihalyi called flow.
On a motorcycle, that balance isn’t only about enjoyment (though riding is fun!). Finding the right balance between skills and challenge is crucial for safety, specially for new riders. If you don’t challenge yourself, how will you ever learn?
But, for a long time, I struggled to explain what I meant to new riders. After all, the problem they’re having is overwhelm. How are they supposed to know what “too much challenge” feels like?
What does “appropriate challenges” mean?
The first time I let out the clutch and rolled on the throttle, I was immediately overwhelmed. I forgot everything I’d learned: I pulled in the front brake, but not the clutch. The bike stalled and I dropped it.
The rest of my beginner class didn’t go much better, but I muddled through and got my endorsement.
For months afterward, I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wanted to ride, but I didn’t feel ready for a motorcycle yet. One day, driving past the local Vespa dealership, I found the answer. I would get a scooter.
Riding my scooter taught me so much about being on two wheels. I learned how to balance, I learned how to navigate traffic. My body and mind acclimated to the feeling of riding. It was the perfect amount of challenge for me at the time.
Then, when I was ready for a motorcycle, I was able to learn to shift without getting overwhelmed.
I was lucky that a scooter turned out to be the appropriate challenge that I needed. But, that answer wasn’t easy to find. So how can I expect other new riders to be able to find appropriate challenges for themselves?
Mental Capacity and Motorcycling
The problem anxious new riders tend to have is that they are challenged too much, which overwhelms them so much that they can’t learn. One way to think about overwhelm is in terms of mental capacity — how much “room” we have to handle the tasks in front of us.
Our capacity for attention is finite — we can only handle so much at a given time. When you exceed that capacity, you get overwhelmed, and everything fails.
But mental capacity is also flexible. When we’re hungry, tired, or otherwise impaired, our mental capacity shrinks, and tasks that are usually easy take more focus.
And finally, the amount of mental capacity we need to complete an activity changes over time. With practice, tasks that once took focus become seamless.
The first time I learned to upshift, I had to think about each step. If I were to put a number on it, I’d say it took 90% of my mental capacity — not much room to handle anything else.
But now, all I have to think is “shift,” and my muscles make it happen. Now, it takes more like 5% of my capacity to upshift, which leaves 95% for other important tasks, like scanning, managing lane placement, and navigation.
Obviously, assigning numbers to these tasks isn’t an exact science. But it helps illustrate my central point:
To ride a motorcycle safely, you keep some mental capacity in reserve.
The 80% Rule of Mental Capacity
Let’s say you’re a new rider, and you’re going out with a group of experienced riders to hit some winding forest roads.
When you set off down the highway, you’re feeling pretty good. It feels a bit different to be in a group, but you’re handling it, and you’re having fun. Right then, you’re at about 80% capacity.
But then, you hit the forest.
You’re keeping up… barely. They’re flying through the corners, and you’re trying to keep up, but each one feels like a brush with near disaster. Now, you’ve reached 100%, and it’s no longer fun. It’s terrifying.
You’re giving everything you have to manage your current challenges. What happens when, around a blind curve, one of your group makes a sudden stop?
At 100% capacity, you’re one pothole or fallen branch away from overwhelm — and potential disaster.
Sure, your instincts could kick in. If they’re good instincts, you might be able to manage the obstacle without losing control. But on a motorcycle, relying on instincts — even good instincts — is the wrong place to be.
Keeping a cushion of capacity gives you room to handle new challenges that will, inevitably, arise.
For me, that cushion feels comfortable at about 80% capacity. At 80%, I’m pushing myself enough to stay engaged and learning. But I still have enough of room to take on surprise challenges.
The 80% Rule isn’t just for new riders
Whether you’re a new or experienced rider, the 80% rule is a useful tool, especially for managing fatigue on long rides.
For example, you’re riding a familiar but challenging road, but it’s the end of a long day and you’re tired. When you’re at your peak capacity, that road might have taken 80% — engaging and fun. But when you’re tired, handling that same road is pushing you up to 95% — almost dangerous.
One way to watch out for fatigue is to track how many surprises you encounter. These moments not only drain some of your energy, but they often mean your capacity reserves are running low.
One day, I was riding back from the Oregon coast on a quiet back road. There were dozens of blind corners, but I hadn’t seen another car for miles. It was hot, I was going on seven hours of riding that day, and I was getting a bit lazy.
I was starting to lean into one of those blind corners, when a semi cab barreled around the edge of that turn. It startled me so much, I flattened out my turn and had to get on the brakes to stay in my lane.
That moment made me realize that not only was I not paying enough attention, my fatigue had worn down my ability to pay attention. I was hot and tired, overdue for a break.
So I stopped at the next gas station, got myself a cold drink, and took a long break in the shade.
Push yourself, within limits
The 80% rule is about risk management, but it’s also about challenging yourself.
Learning to ride is a lifelong journey. There is always room to grow and improve as a rider. Even skills we’ve learned long ago need practice and repetition to stay at their best.
Spending 80% of your capacity for attention on riding isn’t nothing. If you aim for that level of engagement, you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to your own riding. And chances are, you’ll find areas for improvement you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
Riding motorcycles is fun, but it’s not just fun. It’s thrilling, it’s consuming. It’s a meaningful challenge that helps us find meaning in life.
Whether you’re a new rider or have decades of experience, I hope you keep chasing the challenge.