By Andrew McConnell, co-founder and CEO of Rented.com and WSJ bestselling author of Get Out of My Head.
As I looked back over many of my more recent articles, a noticeable theme arose. Almost all of them referenced how the concepts in the article first came to me while I was swimming. This might lead many readers to wonder if I live my entire life in the water. I don’t, but I do get 10 to 60 minutes in the ocean each day.
For me, however, it raised a different question: Why? Given that I am in the water between 0.7% and 4% of my time, why did my ideas for articles seem to exclusively arise during this period? Digging into this question I gained yet further insight into the working of my mind, and of our brains more generally, that I thought worth sharing.
Exercise And Effectiveness
As someone who runs a company, many people might think that my daily swims are detrimental to my effectiveness. This time “away” from the business is time that should be spent working on the business.
As I researched this question, I found the opposite to be true. In a study of more than 1 million Americans, researchers found that “regular exercise reduced the number of days per month of poor mental health by more than 43%.” Why would my business benefit from me having more positive mental health? Because, as the World Health Organization finds, workplaces that promote mental health “are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.” The time “away” exercising benefits me, my employees, my clients and our business as a whole.
Exercise And Creativity
Fine, exercise might make me more productive, and increase the economic benefits to my company, but what does that have to do with helping me come up with new ideas for articles? This is where another benefit of exercise comes into play. It does not just help with physical and mental health and wellness; exercise has also been found to make you more creative.
A study cited by the World Economic Forum showed that “activity and creativity are linked.” In particular, “[s]tudy participants with active lifestyles proved more creative than those with more sedentary habits.” Being active, as I am while swimming, unlocks a part of me that might otherwise be closed off were I to spend my entire day sitting in front of my keyboard and monitor.
These benefits are not unique to me, or to merely coming up with new ideas for articles. The boost in creativity carries over into all that I then do, from ideas for new products and improvements on existing products to problem-solving when problems (inevitably) arise in the business to writing an entire book. This boost in creativity makes me, and my business, more innovative, and simply better.
And for those reading who are perhaps more exercise shy, don’t worry. The same study found that “extremely vigorous exercise performed no better than moderate exercise in boosting creativity levels.” You don’t have to go out and train to be the next Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky. You simply must go out and start moving.
A Quiet Mind
And in moving, why swimming versus running, walking or going to the gym? All are forms of movement and exercise, so why has swimming proven particularly impactful on my creativity and productivity? For me, this comes down less to what swimming offers as compared to these other forms of movement and exercise, and more down to what it doesn’t have, namely noise.
When I am on dry land, I am invariably in a live conversation or on a phone or video call. If not that, I am reading something; listening to music, a book or a podcast; or in some other way being inundated with new information. Perhaps this is not surprising given we are creating new information at a pace never before seen or countenanced in human history. For example, in 2017 alone we created more data than in the prior 5,000 years of human existence! And the pace of data creation is only accelerating. With so much information forming constantly around us, it is perhaps unavoidable that we end up being deluged with the same.
Or is it?
This is where swimming, especially ocean swimming, has been a game changer for me. It is a time with no headphones, with no other people, with no noise other than the rushing of the water past my ears. And in this period of “quiet,” my brain does something different. In her article, “Why ‘Stepping Away’ Increases Your Creativity,” Dr. Susan Weinschenk, explains why.
“If you keep your [prefrontal cortex] too focused on the ‘task at hand’ then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break… then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining.”
Swimming provides just this sort of break that makes the difference for me. That being said, you don’t need an ocean in your backyard to start accessing these same benefits. If you need a few tips for getting started and following through, here’s what I recommend:
1. Make time for it. We all know our days “get filled,” but what if they were only filled around what you already prioritized? Block time to get up and move or even exercise.
2. Track your performance. This helps you see both if you are staying true to your stated goal and if and where it makes a difference. If you see a noticeable positive difference when you move/exercise, you are more likely to stick with it.
3. Lower your bar. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good! You don’t need to train for an Ironman. Just start moving.
Knowing the power of exercise and movement, the benefits of taking breaks and the desirability of periodically quieting the incessant noise in your life, you can start crafting your own routines and rituals to tap into your own inner creativity and productivity.