Disciplined miles for an undisciplined mind: Running frees the mind to be more creative

Some of my most powerful and interesting paths forward are uncovered when I stop intentional thought and let the uncontrolled brainwork of my run take over

Credit: Dominik Schroder

My strides are more like shuffles as I breach the top of Mount Royal and begin the rapid decent down the other flank. The whip of the wind at this height is crisp enough to hurt. But skimming my eyes out over the city as it wakes, as the porch lights of the dark hours mix with the bath of morning sky light, I feel only lucky and strong and ready.

Running to work has become a practice — something I do frequently enough that it’s knit straight into the fabric of my day. I stuff clothes and lunch and the other particles of my daytime life into a backpack, bundle myself in whatever the pelting weather calls for, and out into it I go.

It’s sometimes hard to take that first step. Minus twenty and unplowed sidewalks and the throb of tired legs and 300 meters of up before any real down. On some days, there are no lack of whys.

But the truth is they disappear quickly. I love running to work! It kills two birds with one stone, letting me exercise and commute without taking more time than either would take on its own. It is glorious to watch the city awake. It energizes! The hardness of it sends me off to be bolder in other parts of my day. But mostly I love it because it takes my mind out into the tumult, where I stop intentional thought and any effort to calm the flitting of unprocessed ideas this way and that, and instead lean straight into it. The discipline of my run frees my mind to ideate in ways that I can’t force it to.

My work involves a lot of discovery research. I take unformed, vague questions and turn them into iterative investigations aimed at fast learning. It’s a lot like route-finding in unexplored territory — the expert navigator doesn’t have a better map, but instead a method for moving fast in hostile land that involves one part hair-brained hypothesis, one part learning from the weak signals that follow. Science is as much about creative ideation as it is analytical rigour.

And so I’m wracked with the challenge of trying to find practices to make myself more creative. I brainstorm, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. We activate different parts of our brains by visualizing, talking, writing, storyboarding, graphing, acting. These help, but the truth is that some of the most powerful and interesting paths forward are uncovered precisely when I stop intentional ideation and let the uncontrolled brainwork of my run take over.

Credit: Aaron Burden

For some, sidelong creative activity gives way to better ideation. Albert Einstein claimed that some of his greatest physics breakthroughs came to him while playing the violin. He wrote about the role of ‘combinatory play’ in creativity and innovation, arguing that intentionally interweaving seemingly unrelated activities from science, art, music, and sports fostered richer and stranger thought patterns.

For rappers, the practice of freestlying seems to foster creative freedom. Researchers recently found that lyrical improvisation re-organizes brain patterns in such a way to relax its executive control functions, allowing a greater number of novel ideas to sprout through the thicket of barriers that normally gets in the way.

In my experience, the gates are more likely to open when I settle into a solitary and physically demanding task, like my morning run to work. Rather than fertilizing my mind with adjacent creative play, I find the hum and struggle of running the same route over and over lets me take a backseat to the curious and amazing brainwork that is probably always at work under the surface of consciousness.

Researchers at Stanford University have shown that walking makes us more creative. For the period of our jaunt and shortly thereafter, our brains are more likely to engage in creative thought. Surprisingly, it isn’t the fresh air or the spectacular and diverse scenery of our walks that provokes this spurt of novel ideas — a person walking indoors on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall is just as likely to experience benefits as someone walking outdoors. In other words, it is the physical exertion and the repetitive nature of walking that helps, not the visual and respiratory stimulus of being in nature.

Credit: Frank McKenna

Head out into the storm and see where it takes you! Others have written extensively about practical strategies for running to work, so I won’t go down that path (for a few examples, see here, here, and here). For now, here are three suggestions to help you surface your own curious brainwork:

  1. Find solitude — I find my mind isn’t freed to work in its own way unless I’ve given it all the space I can. That means no headphones, no music, no podcasts, no television while on the treadmill. It also means no running partners. It’s okay if I’m surrounded by the hubbub of city noise. It just can’t be directly in my ears, with the intent of drawing my attention to something else. Let your run be a meditation.
  2. Seek low focus — The less you need to actively engage in decision-making, the better. I often repeat the same route on my morning runs. Over time, it turns into second nature. The more active thought you need to direct to your physical activity, the less room you give your mind to maneuver. Team sports can offer amazing exercise, but they usually require too much concentration and communication to allow you to settle into the hum your mind needs.
  3. Beware the temptation to log your novel ideas in the moment— When I first realized that my runs often led to unguided ideation, I wanted to capture it all in the moment, lest I forget it all before I arrived at my destination! I tried voice recordings on my phone, scribbled notes tucked into the laces of my sneaker, and other scrappy strategies. But the problem was that the more I tried to capture, the less I actually saw. The conscious effort to monitor and intercept novel ideas meant that the executive function of my brain never really shut off. Not having a net at the ready does mean that some ideas inevitably escape, but the upside is that so many others don’t.

Thanks for reading. Check out more of my essays here:

  1. Without embracing vulnerability, we can’t innovate — Fear of failure keeps us from creating, yet innovation is fuelled by the smash-up of imperfect art. Get out there.
  2. Sticky insights: Your message won’t travel unless you drop the junk — Quantitative insights are dogged by poor communication. Charts themselves are often the chartjunk. Focus on simple, concrete stories that connect emotionally.