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 WIRED.com, 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
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