Rock climbing is physical problem solving, a process of continually resisting of gravity (and physical harm). In a way, it's a kind of controlled falling. Similarly, design is a kind of controlled failing, ever climbing towards a "certain" goal without any certainty at the start of the process of how the end product will really look.
In both sports, there is a dollop of artistic Yin in our risk-filled Yang, and a similar level of required focus in how you fulfill the work without harming yourself—whether through willful distraction or negligence.
When I was first hauled out to a mountain pass and handed a climbing harness, I remember tapping the dangling bag clipped to the back. "What's this for?"
"That's the chalk bag," one of my friends said, placing white tape around his second knuckle. "You use it to keep your grip when you start sweating."
During that first fateful climb, which consisted of clutching at the rock face in abject fear, I reached my hands back into the chalk bag frequently to keep them powder-white. I left a trail of dust visible for miles around on that rock face. My assumption at the time was that if I began to sweat, the chalk would immediately protect me from losing my weak, precarious grip. Also, I'd noticed that my friends were using their chalk bags to mark the most efficient route that I couldn't yet "read" on the rock with my limited experience.
That was 15 years ago. Nowadays, I watch closely when people expend the energy to chalk their hands every few feet up a face—not only because it's something I recall from my first days as a rock climber, but also because it makes me think about efficiency and focus in both design and in life.
Unless you're a sweaty person, the time necessary to remove a hand off the rock face and drop it back to your chalk bag to "chalk up" is energy stolen from your motion upwards—that is, if you aren't resting or scanning the rock face for possible angles on how to flow further towards the peak. As climber John Long says in his very well-written book Sport Climbing,
"Focus on the CLIMBING, not on FALLING. Realize that a thought can determine how you approach and deal with everything. Choose and use your thoughts and emotions to your advantage.... A common pitfall is tunnel vision, where a climber will only see what is just under his nose. Open your eyes and mind to possibilities, and you'll likely find a solution—like a foothold to the left or right. Always scan the rock for options. The wall will reveal secrets providing you stay open and receptive to sometimes improbable answers."
Climbers that are just learning the ropes often clench up when they're stuck. Within a few minutes, their clenched arms and legs begin to shake—what's called "the sewing machine." This shaking happens to expert climbers too, when they're climbing hardcore routes that require a lot of nuance and strength... it doesn't always mean you're about to fall, but it's a major warning signal if you don't have much stamina.
When caught into these types of scenarios, using the chalk bag can yield a quick refresh for tired arms and an unfocused mind. You bring your hand back to the chalk bag in what is called a "shake out." This forces blood to flow back into your pumped arms, as you wiggle your hand downwards, then dip into the chalk bag to dry out your fingers. At this point, you have the energy to groove upwards through another set of holds, until you're expended again and need to take another rest.
I find that when I consider my habits in my first few years as a designer, I spent a great deal of time "chalking my hands" when trying to deal with design problems that were outside my experience or comfort level.
I would sit at the computer and doodle a logo or take a stab at a web page layout. Then, I would go through the CD collection at the studio to try and find just the right soundtrack for the next hour of Photoshop comping. Tack onto that a quest for a decent cup of coffee, chatting with my studio-mates, checking my Yahoo email, and leafing through CommArts for some form of inspiration, and a good two hours of the day was burned up in trying to distract my mind from the active work at hand—to loosen up those ideas that happened to be lodged in my subconscious, I believed at the time.
This process wasn't working for me... the work I was generating was just middling to good.
At the same time, I was spending more and more time climbing, and starting to progress into the 5.10+ to 5.11- range. Each climb became exponentially harder, as my partners and I were struggling with sketchy routes, many seeming to lack critical holds and other types of information that could be read off the rock.
One particular route in Great Falls, I just could not surmount; at one key point that seemed impossible, I would freeze and scan for foot placement options, and in that second I would lose my grip and slip right off the rock face.
"You're not being efficient," I recall one of my partners scolding me when I floated free the third time in a single climbing session. With her belay device, she was holding me up in the air so I could shake out my arms out and try to recover from the first third of the route, which was exceptionally pinchy. ("Pinchy" = consisting of tiny holds that require using only a finger or two to sustain a greater portion of your body weight.)
"I can't figure out where to move next," I said back, scanning the face from my position in the air.
"You should have looked first from the ground," she said. "You can't be efficient if you're making these kinds of decisions while you're on the route."
"I didn't know it would be so hard until I was up here!" I said, laughing. Then: "Hey!" She started lowering me to the ground without asking. (Big climber faux pas.)
"You know what?" she said to me. "You should start over. And before you start climbing again, you should spend a few minutes plotting your whole route up the rock."
I did what she said, and within a few minutes, I was at the top of the pitch.
That day was very formative for me, both as a climber and as a designer. The route you're imagining in your head might be wrong, and you'll have to adjust it as you go. But what's most important here is that you have a mental map in your head to begin with. Sure, you might need to improvise while you're flowing through the route, and end up scrapping the whole plan due to new information.
But if you don't have any understanding of what it takes to get from the ground to the top of the pitch, and you haven't climbed a few thousand pitches before, chances are it's going to be a struggle to even understand what problems exist through the climb before you. The more you climb, the more apparent the most effective route becomes as part of your muscle memory. You expend less time pre-planning the climb and more time moving through it via pattern recognition. You can start to cheat.
But even in those situations, you need to be focused 100% on the rock. Each steady, sustained movement leads to another movement. You can't be taking constant, minute breaks to chalk up your hands—that should be a byproduct of being tapped out or emerge from a need to assess how the problem has changed while your work is in progress. When you're in the midst of a well-formed flow, the chalk breaks serve the purpose of planning the next flow, rather than as distractions.