Hijacking Sports for Creativity

idea white board

You are not alone: even the most creative people sometimes get stuck. You’ve thought all day about a solution but no idea is satisfying or close to creative. The mind starts to prepare for replacing the planned after-work training session with overtime. Don’t do that! Instead, try this workout routine which has often helped me.

“Generally, ideas pretty frequently come to me after or during a workout.”

I discovered by chance that I often follow a certain workout pattern before this happens; especially for solutions to challenges I have been thinking about for quite a bit.

Let’s be very clear: I don’t know of any scientific proof for this routine – it’s just an observation I’d like to give structure to. However, what I learned when doing so: it actually coincides pretty well with a more scientific description of the creative process.

Let me share the routine so you can give it a try, too.

The warm-up (Preparation phase)

So, instead of going for overtime, go to the gym – right after work. You’ll still be brooding over your puzzle.

Use the warm-up to mentally wrap it up – don’t think about potential solutions, just summarize the challenge’s key characteristics. Then draw a line: accept that you haven’t been able to find a satisfying answer yet and make a decision to let it go for now.

Also use the warm-up to plan the rest of your workout as you don’t want to think about it a lot later on. As all of this involves quite a bit of thinking, choose a warm-up program which is easy to execute.

I like to spend for example 10 minutes on dynamic warm-up exercises such as walking lunges, inchworms or upper back rotations.

Coordination work (Distraction phase)

The goal of this part is to do some exercise which demands your brain’s full attention. Distract yourself. It will help you to withdraw from the problem. I suggest some coordination training as it usually requires high concentration and focus. Ladder drills or simple crisscross jumping jacks, for example, are quite fun.

Distraction phase: Choose an exercise that requires all your attention.

Okay, ideally you are now in training mode, not thinking consciously about your issue.

The core workout (Incubation phase)

For the third and main part of your workout I suggest doing some endurance training such as rowing or running on the treadmill. It could also be something else but it should get your heart pumping, shouldn’t be mentally too demanding and should keep you going for a longer time (increase volume, decrease intensity). Try to seclude yourself from your environment’s impetuses. Get into the purest form of your ‘zone’ – a place of focus and achievement. Let your thoughts come and go. Why?

“This part of the workout attempts to set the stage and create space for the unconscious. It’s so powerful  – especially for creative problem-solving.”

It connects the dots in the ‘back-end’– something our logical ‘front-end’ thinking cannot do because it continuously wants to make sense of the world.

Rowing Frank final

Do what you want (Pleasure phase)

Depending on the time you have and on how exhausted you are already, you can now do some of your favorite exercises. Want to do some weight lifting? Great. Want to work the punching bag? Go for it. Push yourself and have fun (during all phases). That’s important, because then your body will release even more feel-good hormones that greatly benefit the creative process by triggering motivation and imagination etc.


Stretching and cool-down (Transition to Inspiration phase)

Okay, by now you’ll hopefully be exhausted. To finish your workout, take some time to cool down, lay on a mat and do some gentle stretching. Maybe get yourself inspired by some easy yoga postures such as the child’s pose. You have done it right if your brain feels ‘empty’ now (in a good way). I bet you know this feeling after an exhausting workout. This is again to give our unconscious some space.

This (or standing under the hot shower) is when ideas hit me most often. I have to admit that sometimes it doesn’t happen at all and I need to try something else or go for the ‘best bad idea’ I’ve had. However, I’m more than happy with my quota of success using this training pattern.

Body and soul are one!

What experiences have you had with sport helping your creativity?

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