Boredom = Creativity

Part 1
I read an interesting article today explaining the notion that "down time" (away from work, away from monotonous brain tasks, away from number crunching, etc) helps stimulate new, creative thoughts.  Therefore, following down time, subsequent productivity increases. Hence, my shorthand title: “Boredom = Creativity".  How does this apply to runners? I'll give that punch line at the end.  

The old story goes that Einstein formulated many of his original theories while sitting at his desk job, daydreaming out the window (yes, I know his brain was freakishly wired anyway, but it's a good example nonetheless).  Similar stories have been told describing scientists who are struck by their "Eureka!" moment when not at work, rather, when on vacation (or even just staring into an active fireplace).  

There is even a good plug for naps in this article and their positive effects on the brain, but "who the hell gets to take a nap!?" (I can hear some of you through your computer screens).

Here is the article, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain."  Give it a read when you schedule your next down time.

Part 2
I address this topic in the university sport psych class I teach when we discuss Mental Health & The Psychology of Exercise.  I tie these topics into the amount of vacation days Americans take in comparison to the other industrialized/ 1st-world nations, and also what we do on vacation...or what we don't do enough on vacation (relax).  Keeping busy is good, but most Americans claim to be too busy for most non-work-related things, even exercise. Perhaps that's why I view my own coaching goals as important.  Can I convince my athletes that they have plenty of time in their week to work toward their athletic goals?  Or, have we adjusted their goals accordingly to match the amount of training time they do have?  (Note to parents: Each year I become increasingly aware of the role that toddlers play in the amount of down time you have.)

How much actual vacation time do you give yourself each quarter, or even during your vacation itself, even if it's a "stay-cation"?  In other words, how much down time do you give yourself in a day, in a week, in a month?  Are you a guilty vacationer, not allowing yourself to enjoy your time off from work or workouts?  Being self-employed, I have to ask myself these questions a few times per year, as I don't have a supervisor giving me paid vacations in the truest sense of the term.  I hold myself very accountable to all ~50 of the folks I coach. 

So, as it relates to running, although the link above tackles a different field/ area of study, I'll be damned if it doesn't apply to runners and the "guilt" they experience when missing a workout, or not doing long runs (that "magic bean" of running, right?), or not training for the magical marathon distance.  I had a phone discussion today with a runner I coach and explained my rationale for not scheduling any group track workouts the last 8 weeks of the year, and why I introduce the concept of an off-season to everyone.  Answer?  It's not only to prevent overtraining and injuries, but also to help prevent mental burnout, to allow your brain to mellow out from data, numbers and pacing for a while.  This is why I'm not heavy on wintertime racing.  As a coach envisioning longer-term goals, when it comes to racing, I'd rather my runners chill out in the winter (no pun intended).

Here is another explanation (in video form) of the benefits of boredom and how it leads to creative thought and productivity.

Part 3
Most of the time I schedule athletes' recovery weeks around their vacations and travel.  I try to offer the method behind the madness when it comes to my rationale.  When they're on vacation I want them to enjoy vacation. Does this mean becoming a couch potato?  Are down time and training in conflict with one another?  No, but for the most part I am scheduling down time away from running while you're on vacation, so that you can explore, do other activities, and perhaps enjoy some boredom.  It's healthy, both mentally and physically.  This is old news to most of my athletes, but if we need to take recovery weeks anyway, why not take them while you're supposed to be decompressing on vacay?  

I'm aware the some athletes need to capitalize on the increased free time away from work and train more on vacation from work.  And I'm also aware that many runners use running as down time to brainstorm and collect their thoughts. You can choose any of the following phrases: "a time and place for everything," "to each their own," "everything in moderation," "keep the balance."  They all apply, and whichever one you subscribe to, hopefully you don't lose sight of the major point here: Allow yourself unstructured time...time to be bored and therefore brainstorm, which is where we tend to engage in synthetic learning (tying concepts together), a great skill set for any employee at any job.  Agreed?  

When any of my university students tells me they studied an ungodly amount of consecutive hours for an exam I'll ask them, "Why on Earth would you do that?"  First, I know that the brain typically doesn't operate at peak capacity for periods longer than 1 - 4 hours at a time. We need breaks. Second, taking a break will allow your mind to play around with the material, much like Einstein did (sorry to use Him as an example again).  Think about how this might apply to your own professional careers.  Do you allow yourself a lunch break? How many consecutive hours do you work without a down time when you collect your thoughts on the project or task?  Are you working long hours due to work piling up because you're not taking occasional breaks to reset your brain?  In other words, does your work quality decrease as the number of consecutive hours worked increases?  Would your productivity and/or energy levels change if you changed your work pattern?  What are your options?  Maybe I'm not privy to all the ins-and-outs of your professional duties, but consider what you can do to unwind while at work.  The 12:00pm corporate wellness walking group I've been leading the past few weeks is very happy to get some vitamin D midway through their work day. I heard one of them say, "Why didn't we think of this before?"  

Finally, I leave you with a comedic short clip about vacation and boredom from Tom Hanks' greatest film.

In closing, for those who seek a more creative brain:

1) Exercise increases blood flow to the brain.  Scores on cognitive tasks usually increase following a normal bout of exercise.  Exercise = creativity.

2) At some point in the week, don't be afraid to just sit and do nothing. Boredom = creativity. However, chronic sitting and doing nothing = laziness.

3) Once you're done being creative, go to sleep or take a nap to allow your brain to form new connections.  Sleep = creativity.

4) In addition to your professional and familial/social obligations, find a way to do the other 3 during the week.  

Enjoy the journey,