8 Tips For Using Running As a Productivity Booster

running tips productivity

Photo by *~fer~*

There is a certain type of activity that is my absolute favorite for clearing the mind for some really productive thinking. It has the ultimate blend of physical activity, low mental resource usage, and a change of atmosphere. A perfect storm for some good ‘ol fashioned subconscious problem solving. Nothing adds a shot of productive thinking to the day like a spirited run.

Running is a pretty automated procedure. Your legs probably know what to do on their own, so the only thinking needed is when you’re planning your route. Other than that… just set those legs to autopilot and let your subconscious go nuts on a problem.

While I’m no expert on running, I have been fairly successful competitively at it over the years (high school track and cross-country, and later running the Boston Marathon). Here are some tips I’ve discovered throughout the years that can really make your running times perfect for getting a leg-up on thinking creatively and solving problems.

  • Start with a problem. Many times I’ll find that if I start the run thinking about the problem, by the end of the run I’ll have it solved. No joke. Having something for your mind to wrestle with at the very beginning of the run is a great way to start your run on the right foot (pun).
  • No headphones. I’ve found that while headphones are great for giving you that extra adrenaline, music forces you to focus on the music and not whatever is in the back of your mind. Try running without them or listening to music that doesn’t have lyrics (classical, jazz, etc.) to really improve focus.
  • Pick routes you know. The less your mind has to think about where you’re running, the more resources it has to process whatever has been stuck in the back of your craw.
  • Quiet routes. Running on trails or quiet back roads allows you to focus less on distracting surroundings (honking cars or nasty exhaust) that can keep steal your attention.
  • Appropriate weather. Try running at times where the weather is optimum. If you run during the heat of a Summer day, odds are you’re not going to have a pleasant time. Planning for the weather is an easy way to eliminate distractions.
  • Keep the pace manageable. Don’t plan on doing a lot of productive thinking if you’re going to be pushing yourself to the limit. The only thing on your mind will be how much you’re in pain if you’re having a really hard time breathing. The whole lack of oxygen bit can really hamper good thinking.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. While this is kind of a no-brainer anyway, it really makes a difference with your train of thought. If it’s really cold outside and you’re in shorts and a tank top, your thoughts probably aren’t going to be much deeper than “It’s cold it’s cold it’s cold it’s cold…” etc.
  • There’s always next time. Don’t think that every time you run you’ll start to brew mind-blowing ideas. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. But don’t worry, it wasn’t a total loss. You’ll feel better when you go back to work that day.

A great running environment can really give your mind a comfortable place to really crank through some nagging problems, or even give you that next great idea. Not to mention that you’ll feel energized and healthy afterwards, which is a great side effect too.

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  • Ivan February 27, 2008, 10:20 am

    The first two tips: “Start with a problem” and “No headphones” are right-on. I’m not a big runner, but when I have some big problem in my mind, the first thing I do is run. Usually I’ll have a solution by the end of the session, but if I don’t, I’d have worked through some of the negative emotions. In terms of the headphones, it’s a great way not only to pay attention to your inner self, but also to sounds that normally you wouldn’t pay attention. Especially for routes far from traffic, you can find some peace just by listening birds sing.

  • Art Gonzalez February 18, 2008, 2:09 pm

    I agree with this problem-solving tip. The only thing I don´t agree with is the “No Headphones” suggestion. Some uplifting music in the background while considering solutions has been very helpful for me. Also it helps if you pose a well defined question to yourself so that your mind works intensively in finding you a solution.

    Thanks as always for the great suggestions.

    Art Gonzalez
    Check my Squidoo Lens at: Quantum Knights

  • Jon Bischke February 15, 2008, 8:28 am

    Interesting article. When I was training for my marathons I found that listening to an audiobook or podcast was actually one of the best ways to spur new ideas. Even if I was kinda zoning out I’d often come up with something new if I had something playing in the background. It was one of the things that led me to start LearnOutLoud.com because I felt there was an opportunity for more people to “learn on the run.”. :)

  • Fort Myers Photographers Leap Year Photography February 13, 2008, 9:42 am

    Great post! I always enjoy running to clear my mind and think of new ideas. As a fort Myers photographer it also helps to find new locations for photo shoots, so my camera phone gets used for this often. Although the only running I like in the summer is on Sanibel Island in the surf of the beach… otherwise it is just too hot!

  • Ren Garcia February 12, 2008, 11:51 pm

    I would like to add a some caveats for us senior citizens:

    Running on concrete pavements is tough on the knees and lower back. Better to run on grass or unpaved ground.

    Right type of sneakers (running vs basketball, walking, etc) cushions the impact better.

  • Chris Cade February 12, 2008, 4:57 pm

    I just wanted to add a comment that while I understand the point about running in places you know because it frees the mind, and I completely agree with that, there’s also the flip-side of that which I also agree with.

    Running in places we are less familiar with forces our mind to observe and take notice of our surroundings. This active mode of observation will sometimes result in us spontaneously discovering new tangents, ideas, or trains of thought that ultimately help us to be more productive.

  • Josh February 12, 2008, 9:43 am

    I just read a few chapters in a new book called “Spark” in B&N the other day that is devoted to the subject of how exercise makes your brain function better. I didn’t read much of it, but the book uses scientific research to describe we think better when doing exercise. It parallel’s your article here quite nicely, as it gives the “why it’s best” for thinking and your’s gives the “how to do it”.
    I hope to buy and write a length review of the book soon.

  • Chrissy - The Executive Assistant's Toolbox February 12, 2008, 9:20 am

    I’m training for a marathon (for the first time ever!) and it’s been surprising how mentally stimulating it has been. I love the extra time I have each night to just be alone with my thoughts. It takes almost no concentration to keep the legs moving so I’m free to consider anything and everything else. On Saturdays, my team does big runs together and we have a “no headphones” rule which makes the experience even more profound.

    I really enjoyed the article – first time I’ve ever related to an article on running! I’m so excited!

  • Kai February 12, 2008, 6:45 am

    I definitely second that opinion about letting your mind run wild while running.

    I have experienced similar effects while swimming. Our team was training extensively for the championships while I was still in school. A lot of the time I could solve math problems while counting the tiles on the floor.

    Floor-Counter was a often-used nickname for the swimmers at our school ;)