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3 Steps to Fuel Your Creativity and Purpose with Exercise

3 Steps to Fuel Your Creativity and Purpose with Exercise

Image: Brave the run

    Those who know me well know that I have a serious, worrisome, highly problematic addiction. I’m 100% addicted to exercise.

    Seriously, it’s a problem.

    You’re probably asking yourself why that could ever be a problem. Most people try hard to create an exercise habit, and here I am complaining about my compulsion to hit the gym?

    It’s not just my body that is hooked on the endorphins and treadmill-running. I think I could deal with that, if that were the case. But, here’s the kicker — my brain is completely addicted. 

    How could the mind be addicted

    to exercise?

    In my experience, there is no better place to come up with ideas than on the treadmill. I’ll usually be mid-run when an idea pops into my head, and I’ll reach for my phone to jot it down. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a full-fledged project and other times only a string of words. Either way, it’s amazing how running and working out helps me come up with amazing new stuff.

    More than half of the blog posts I write originate on the treadmill or some kind of exercise machine. I may only jot down three or four words while I’m working out, but I later turn them into full-fledged posts when I’m sitting at my laptop.

    This is your brain on exercise.

    What happens to the brain when you exercise? Here are a few facts from Greatist.com:

    • Mind wandering allows the brain to focus its attention on more distant tasks and issues in a unique, way allowing you to fuel your creativity.
    • Exercise can reduce stress, because galanin (a chemical found in the brain during exercise) seems to diminish certain stress-related cravings.
    • A midday workout can help productivity skyrocket (and even boost job satisfaction), so we can quickly gain back those hours lost in gym-land.
    • Besides increasing levels of feel-good endorphins, physical activity may work like antidepressant drugs to alter brain chemistry.
    • Staying in shape can also help us gain confidence and distract us from worries.

    Mind wandering, releasing stress, feeling badass? Check, check, and check.

    Eureka! So, research shows that there is a link between exercise and greater brain activity. Nolan Bushnell explains it like this:

    Get your heart rate to 80% of your ability, and then for the next three hours, just learn something. It turns out that when you are exercising aggressively, your brain is creating BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), ‘Miracle-Gro for your brain. You’re putting in hardware for the software.

    So, it’s definitely not a coincidence. When I’m running or exercising, my brain is developing that BDNF thing, and the ideas start flowing more freely than ever.

    Let’s get you on that Brain Miracle-Gro.

    Image: Brain on exercise
      Now that we’ve established just how beneficial exercise can be to your own creative spice, how can we get you to start benefiting from it?

      Also known as, how can we make sure you start exercising ASAP and start churning out  awesome ideas as a result?

      It’s hard to get into the exercise groove. Everyone wants a hot body and a healthy heart, but actually doing the work is another story, right?

      I’m looking at you, unused gym memberships.

      But what if the result you’re looking for at the gym has changed? Now it’s not just six pack abs and killer endurance. Now you’re looking for the ideas that will launch your life and your career further than you could ever imagine. Now you’re looking to grow your entire life.

      Now — at the gym — you’re looking to find the life you always dreamed of.

      Here’s how:

      1. Aim so low you can’t fail.

      Honestly, could you work out if I told you it would take you only five minutes? Could you say no to five minutes? Because that’s all I’d ask you for the entire first week you start exercising. Five minutes — you can do this.

      I can’t tap into my idea well if I don’t just start running, so I make it sure there’s no pressure involved.

      I find that part of the reason most people fail at attacking the monster that is Getting In Shape is that there is so much fear of failure. So, instead of trying to beat that monster outright, how about we hack the system and make it so there is absolutely no way you can fail? Five minutes a day is doable, and you know this!

      2. Let your mind wander.

      It’s time to disconnect and let your mind go free. This is not the kind of exercise where you are pushing so hard that you can’t focus on anything other than trying to catch your breath. If you are exercising that hard, stop and take a breather. What we’re aiming for is the kind of exercise that would work for meditation or makes you feel like swaying to some relaxing music.

      Stop scaring the ideas away by trying to outperform yourself.

      The ideas definitely don’t flow as well when I’m trying to beat my best mile time. The ideas flow when I’m being generous with myself, and allowing myself to relax into the workout. Sometimes that means I put on slower music, and other times that means I daydream. In very few cases will I put my creative hat on and try attacking specific problems while I’m running. Being out of touch and in tune with the music somehow activates areas of the brain that were dormant just a few hours before.

      Before I know it — bam! — there’s my solution.

      3. Keep a “capture device” handy.

      Whether you use Evernote like me or you prefer a traditional notebook, the magic is in capturing every single idea that pops into your head. It may make immediate sense or it may sound like mumbo jumbo — but that’s okay.

      Some mumbo jumbo idea is better than no idea!

      Ideas lead to other ideas, so the trick is in not judging ideas for not being good enough. For example, a lot of my treadmill time is spent daydreaming about playing the drums onstage with my favorite bands. Who cares? The ideas still flow while I’m daydreaming, so why judge the daydream itself?

      As long as my Evernote is ready to capture that innovative idea whenever it decides to show itself, I’m golden. As soon as I identify some semblance of a blog post or a new project, I write it down. As soon as I feel an important line or new concept coming on, I type it in.

      If nothing gets passed up, nothing gets wasted.

      Guess where I came up with the idea for this post?

      I’ll have you know that the gym is probably my favorite place to be. My poor phone needs a good cleaning, and my husband has resigned to my addiction and decided to work out with me.

      If you exercise, do you feel your ideas soar, too? If you don’t, could it be that you aren’t letting your mind wander far enough away from the exercise itself? If you don’t exercise, do you want in on the idea-grab?

      Forget looking good for the summer. Ideas are so much cooler than that.

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      Last Updated on April 23, 2019

      How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

      How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

      Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

      While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

      For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

      While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

      I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

      Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

      Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

      Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

      The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

      Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

      What Is a Stretch Goal?

      A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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      In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

      For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

      This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

      It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

      The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

      The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

      I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

      Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

      1. Get Outside of Your Head

      If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

      If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

      I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

      Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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      2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

      When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

      I see this in so many areas of life:

      When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

      In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

      “Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

      Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

      3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

      When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

      The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

      For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

      We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

      From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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      When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

      Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

      4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

      S.M.A.R.T.

      is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

      While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

      Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

      For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

      By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

      5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

      I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

      The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

      When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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      One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

      Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

      I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

      A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

      As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

      From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

      The Bottom Line

      These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

      For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

      Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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