Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

8 Counter-Intuitive Ways to Improve Your Well-Being & Creativity

To help you break the busy-ness cycle and work happier, we’ve rounded up a handful of counter-intuitive ways to tweak your habits and your mindset. They range from obvious-but-oft-ignored tips to the slightly more eccentric.

1. Eat breakfast.

According to New York magazine, “between 1965 and 1991, the number of adults who regularly skip breakfast increased from 14 to 25%.” We all know that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” but few of us act on it. The truth is there are few better one-stop options for improving general well-being. Numerous studies have linked eating breakfast with better general health, increased productivity, and a lower body mass index. If you want to feel better, look better, or just work better, there’s one simple solution: eat breakfast — preferably foods with a low glycemic index.

2. Sit less.

Most of us spend the greater part of our day sitting in front of a computer. In fact, the average person sits 9.3 hours a day — more than they sleep. All of this sedentary work is leading to increased cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and lots of other unhealthy side effects. Like death. Reporting on a 14-year-long study done by the American Cancer Society, the NY Times recently outlined the lethal impact of sitting:

The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20% higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40% higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.
The natural assumption is that we can counteract this sedentariness by engaging in regular aerobic exercise. Yet, recent research belies this conventional wisdom. According to the burgeoning field of “inactivity research,” the real way to combat the negative effects of sitting, and avoid weight gain, is to simply move more often. In other words, you want to break up all that sitting as much as possible. Whether it’s heading to the gym on your lunch break, or just walking over to the water cooler once an hour, or simply bending over to tie your shoes, anything that breaks the stationary cycle will up the electrical activity in your muscles — and your life expectancy.

3. Exercise in the middle of the day.

Much like breakfast, exercise is one of those activities that improves almost everything, including productivity and focus. In a U.K. study that followed 200 workers, exercising on a workday significantly improved the subjects’ mood, calmness, productivity, and problem-solving abilities. Here are the key findings according to the Daily Mail:

  • 72% reported improvements in time management on exercise days compared to non-exercise days.
  • 79% said mental and interpersonal performance was better on days they exercised.
  • 74% said they managed their workload better.

4. Get an office pet.

Scientists have long-theorized that having pets at work improves productivity and camaraderie, and recent studies back up this assertion — particularly when it comes to dogs. Here’s a summary by Crain‘s of a recent study out of Central Michigan University:

Researchers found that having dogs present increases collaboration. In one experiment, they asked 12 groups of four people to create brief advertisements for an imaginary product. Some of the teams had dogs with them; the others did not. Afterward, participants were asked to comment on how they felt about their teammates. Those in the groups with dogs rated their colleagues higher on matters such as trust and team cohesion.

5. Shorten your commute.

It’s no secret that humans often make inaccurate predictions about what will make them happy. One of the most common oversights occurs when we think about the impact of our daily commute. As The Atlantic‘s Cities blog recently wrote:

In previous studies of happiness, commuting has been found to be the least pleasant part of our day. Yet some of us make things even worse by trading a longer commuter for a bigger house; several years ago, two Swiss economists found that if you commute 45 minutes to work, you have to make nearly 20% more money to make the trip worth it from a standpoint of well-being. Part of the problem with long commutes is what’s called the “weighting mistake” — overvaluing the extra bedroom you’ll never use, while devaluing the extra 20 minutes to and from work.

6. Use ALL of those vacation days.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, energy expert Tony Schwartz notes that “more than half of all Americans now fail to take all of their vacation days and 30% of Americans use less than half their allotted vacation time.” But that doesn’t mean we’re gaining productivity.
Schwartz goes on to cite “a comprehensive study by Ernst & Young showed that the longer the vacation their employees took, the better they performed.” Taking time off gives us perspective and renews our energy, which improves not just our productivity, but our effectiveness as well. What’s more, when we take time off, we usually travel, and that sparks creative thinking as well.

7. Distance yourself from the problem.

A growing body of research suggests that how “close” we feel to a problem impacts our mental representation of it. The general thrust is that we contemplate situations in the here and now one way (concretely and less creatively), and situations projected into the future or far away in another manner (abstractly and more creatively). Here’s Scientific American summing up a recent study:

For the insight problems, participants were told that the questions were developed either by a research institute located in California, “around 2,000 miles away” (distant condition), or in Indiana, “2 miles away,” (near condition).  In a third, control group no information regarding location was mentioned. As expected, participants in the distant condition solved more problems than participants in the proximal condition and in the control condition. Because the problems seemed farther away, they were easier to solve.

At the close of the piece, authors Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman sum up the practical implications of the research: “There are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality.”

8. Explore your dark side.

In a blog post over at, journalist Jonah Lehrer mulls over two new studies that imply that – for better or worse — both anger and sadness seem to be key drivers of creative thinking. While anger seems to fuel “unstructured thinking” and idea generation, sadness seems to increase our persistence and drive us to work harder. Here’s Lehrer:

Consider a recent paper, “The Dark Side of Creativity,” led by Modupe Akinola. The setup was very clever: she asked subjects to give a short speech about their dream job. The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

Not surprisingly, the feedback impacted the mood of the subjects: Those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next: Subjects in the negative feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art. As Akinola notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus, and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge.

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue, Well-being
load comments (31)
  • CowboyUpMedia

    Solid list – I can vouch for mid-day workouts (#3) doing wonders. In fact, that sounds real nice right about now.

    #7 resonates as well.  Wide open spaces free us physically and mentally.

    #8 – while I think anger can be a useful tool for expression (sometimes just bein fed up with something can spur new ideas), I don’t think its sustainable for living a happy life.

    I tend to agree with Seth Godin on this point:

    AND – I would add a #9 – reading 99%.  

    Always chock full of content that relaxes my thinking and reminds me that creativity is a process [of emptying ourselves and then stepping aside to recharge].

    What I call – Sittin around the campfire.

    Great article…much obliged

  • jkglei

    Ha. Thanks for #9!

  • Heather Huhman

    Great article! All are great tips for maintaining a good work-life balance as well – especially having vacation time. Having that flexibility and using time off can actually make employees more satisfied and engaged than those who rarely use allotted vacation time. 

  • jay

    In the movie The Social Network, facebook was allegedly started when Mark Zuckerberg got dumped by his girlfriend. So yes, the dark side can actually help you churn out more passionate and creative work.. Great article here. Thanks!

  • Pete R.

    Embrace the dark side? It’s great how this article explored the idea in almost every aspects. Very well written with researches backing every points. :)

  • Missmonicatron

    A lot of research about the effects “pets” have on people’s mood and well being centers around cats and dogs. We have lizards. While they are cute, it’s obvious that they don’t have the capacity to love me–having them in my apartment creates a condition of nonstop unrequited love, so I guess it’s a number 8 scenario.

    Very informative, well-researched post.

  • Rafael

    Thanks for these tips.

  • sahar

    You just made my day! Thank you

  • cottageme

    I even told my friends to take a look at your blog and in fact your blog is already bookmarked on my computer. Hope to see more of this.

  • Intuition

     . Focus on your subconscious mind.
    Listen to your voice in ears, feeling in your stomach or the image in your
      . Express your thoughts through writing or drawing. Getting creative can prove
    to be a great exercise for your mind. 
      . Find a physical activity that you enjoy like yoga, swimming, walking, etc.
    remember, alertness in the body increases your mind awareness. 
      . Proper diet and rest are also integral parts. Nourish your body with
    essential nutrients and your mind with positive thoughts.

  • JV

    Insightful article, I recently have had a creative block particularly due to “the problem” and I did the total opposite of distancing, I tried fixing it. There’s one thing I know now, and it is to distance myself from the problem, because the amount of energy lost, isn’t worth the energy gained.

  • Bflatona

    What a great article.  As a fitness professional I love hearing about how exercise benefits not just the body but the mind as well.  I agree that on days I exercise I feel more ambitious and do more.  I know its hard to get out to the gym in the mid day but even doing a small at home workout can be great. has great home workouts that fit in easily to the day.

  • listening to intuition

    I believe that everyone is gifted
    with this hidden ability. Everyone can have intuition. The difference lies in
    the fact that ‘I know and trust that I have it; whereas others don’t..!’

  • ted

    9. Pray, otherwise 1-8 is meaningless. Nothing new under the sun.

  • Passportalcreative

    Fantastic post. I live by the following: 
    Energy and persistence conquer all things. I finally got my start-up business by using these creative geniuses. Check them out!

  • olee22

    Good ideas!
    Now I go and have my breakfast! :-)

  • design_galaxie

    Great ideas, that can help. Now I go and buy a pet first.

  • seo freelancer

    nice smart & positive post suitable for every field of life. Thanks!

  • Emily

    I agree with number 4.


  • mr_jcb_1973

    Nice tips, but am I alone in finding them totally intuitive rather than counter intuitive? Maybe it’s my porridge-eating, dog-owning, exercise-junkie mindset!

  • The 3% Conference

    Another tip if you’re struggling to find inspiration. Take a few steps backward. This triggers the brain’s “fight or flight” response (think backing away from a lion) and focuses your problem-solving thinking. 

  • water coolers

    However; it is the new amazing choices in decorative swimming pool  liners that have so many people taking a second look at their pool. What has everyone so impressed is the realism of so many of these new swimming pool liners that replicate the look and feel of surfaces such as ceramic tile and stone.

  • Ja Azura

    Explore the Darkness… very relevant in my life at this moment. Thanks for the reminder!

  • BlueCom123

    This blog is best for health and really here i find many tips about health protection especially Exercise tips and breakfast tips are useful .
    because it has general  benefits for fitness and it helpful.

  • anthonysparker401

    According to my intuitive counsellor, it is always important to get yourself back in track spiritually. It doesn’t mean that you will be devoted in church, but we all know that having God’s ways is always effective for us to be good, stay good and do good.

  • Fahim MD

    Great article! Every Wednesday we have creative time for 3 hours and I spent good 1hour reading few articles on this site. Yours is exactly what I need it.

  • Scott Free

    I’m assuming although from experience, that there is some correlation of Meditation and ‘Distancing yourself from the problem’. Prayer/Meditation can provide the solitude necessary for removing the clutter that may be hindering some of our bouts of inactivity and ‘sick-being’

  • eismont designs

    Meditation and excercise works wonders.

  • David McGuigan

    What? Seriously?

  • David McGuigan

    Incredibly useful article. This is why I click. Thank you.

  • Breean E. Miller

    Never considered workouts midday. Great article!

  • Ari Tulla

    Revisiting this post is a welcome reminder to constantly evaluate what aspects of life could be improved, in even the smallest ways. More people are beginning to break for lunch by going to the gym, and that’s such a simple way to turn your day around.

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