Running provides two psychological benefits. First is improvement in mood. This short-lived phenomena, also called “runner’s high,” is caused when certain chemicals are released into the bloodstream by physical activity. For me, it inspires feelings of largess, which my kids often exploit. The second benefit is the long-term improvement it makes in self-esteem. But the greatest benefit for me is that running is an incredible source of creativity.
I’m not sure what the biological dynamics of this are (a client with an M.D. says running is a form of meditation), but I do know it has two dramatic results. One is the “Ah-Ha!” factor.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I have been stuck on a design or business problem, and after a nice long run, have returned to find a creative solution staring me in the face,” says Don Weathers, who runs PodHammer.net.
“Running is a way of tapping into the subconscious; it’s like ‘sleeping on it,’ but much more predictable.”
Running is also a great idea generator. During almost every run, new ideas on a host of subjects just pop into my head. They are not all great, of course. They’re also a lot like dreams – if I don’t write them down as soon as I get back, they vaporize and are gone. Noting them in my log when I return lets me go back later and weed out the silly items from those with substance.
My business partner saw me out running one day and told me that if I didn’t keep my head up, I might get hit by a truck. I told him that if I didn’t keep my head down I was sure to twist an ankle. It struck me that this, too, is true of product development. We work hard to keep our heads up, to spend time out in the field with end users, trying to really understand who we’re designing for and what the product needs to do. And we all have brainstorming sessions, trying to jump-start the creative process.
On the other hand, just as improvements in fitness come from sustained effort, some of our most creative breakthroughs come from plain old hard work. It is often the case that a few more hours, or days, focusing on a problem will yield that dramatic innovation our client is looking for. In many ways, managing the design process is about finding a balance between the two.
One of the most gratifying changes running has had on my lifestyle has been its effect on business travel. Rather than dash from car to plane to taxi, to hotel, to client conference room, I now inject a run into almost every trip. Trotting off to new places in new cities has given me remarkable new perspectives about life on the streets, ecology, architecture, and local culture. It has also scared the hell out of me when I’ve ended up lost in a place I don’t belong.
Being lost is not a good feeling, either in a strange city or in the design process. But will we get the results we seek by sticking to predictable paths? We use teams and technology. to reduce risk and get products to market faster and faster. But in such a controlled attempt to do no wrong, are we giving ourselves and our people every opportunity to get it right? Are we paying lip service to innovation, or are we really supporting it with time, tools, and money? Are we taking the quickest way out just because we’re uncomfortable finding a way through?
The ancient Greeks believed that art had a cleansing effect on the emotions of the audience; that watching a play or listening to an epic poem first generated feelings as dramatic tension built, then released them as the work achieved its climax. They called this process “catharsis,” but it’s something we all experience when we finish a particularly hectic project, or come up with a really good idea. Creative people, in particular, are catharsis junkies. For me, it’s a feeling much like “runners high.” So running not only helps come up with good ideas, it helps me appreciate the process.
I recognize that running is only one way to get these benefits and that there are many ways of jogging our creative impulses. Running does it for me, but if whacking a golf ball, or karate kicking rings your chimes, go for it.