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I began this article as though it were solely about studying for PhD comprehensive exams and running for an hour every day (because that’s what I did) but as I was writing I realized these ideas are applicable to anything you want to know more about, and the running for an hour is totally flexible: you can run or walk, for an hour or 15 minutes. Whatever.

And I also discovered something else…

More than anything, this article is about using creativity and experimentation to not simply “work fitness into a busy life” (without sacrificing what’s important to you, etc.), but to discover ways in which taking control of your fitness and your habits can make those other aspects of your life even better.

It’s up to you and how you want to implement these things.

My Experience

A few years ago I had to write my PhD comprehensive exams. PhD comps are pretty scary (or at least they scared me). You’re handed a big long reading list and told, “Go now, little one! Off to your little hovel, to study alone for four months. Good luck!

Then after four months you write the exam. It can be anywhere from three to six hours, sometimes more. Often there’s a round of orals after the written portion, in which you have to defend or explain your answers, and answer further questions about topics that didn’t end up coming up on the written.

In many cases, if you fail ‘em twice, you’re out (minus some begging and pleading). I was more scared about the fact that if you fail once, you have just added four to six months of unfunded time to your PhD.

What I’m saying is: it’s important to get them right, BUT that doesn’t mean being a crazy person or giving up on things like fitness.

I made the decision early on that I wouldn’t sacrifice my fitness because 1) duh, gaining weight sucks, and b) studies have tended to show a pretty strong correlation between exercising and doing well academically. Might as well take advantage of that, right?

As my first term of studying progressed, I found that, with the right strategies, running improved my studying by a long shot.

Now, again: you don’t have to run. You can walk. Anything helps, but I guarantee that with the right strategies the exercise will help your studying.

How to “Run” Every Day

The usual advice here is something like:

  • “Just make the commitment.”
  • “If you want to do it in the morning, set out your clothes the night before.”
  • “Block it into your schedule on Google Calendar so you’re committed to it.”
  • “Tell your friends you’re going to do it.”

That’s all pretty good advice.

Personally, I try to avoid strategies that rely on willpower and make the exercise seem like this big hurdle you have to do.

Instead, I simply preferred to think about and use running as a really enjoyable break. I made myself think about it as something to look forward to. (I mean this absolutely, 100% seriously: Fake it ’til you make. Do not underestimate the power of faking it ’til you make it.)

As in, Okay, my brain hurts now – time to go outside clear my head (while also magically getting in super bonus study time).

Run or walk, doesn’t matter. Just don’t make it hard or something you dread. If you run for 10 minutes then have to walk for the rest of it, do that, too, and don’t even worry. (Psst, no one will even know. If you’re in your “running” clothes, people will just assume you’re on your way to the gym or something.)

Also: it’s important that the exercise not get “too serious.” It’s a time to clear your head. You can work to improve your running times, or distance, or whatever (I did), but don’t get suuuper into it. Like, if you’re constantly thinking about your time and your laps, and then you’re spending hours on your computer with a spreadsheet tracking your running speed, you’re doing it wrong.

If you do want to do serious exercise, that’s all well and good. I highly recommend it, and I did a bit of that too while studying for my comps. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. This is more about using a bit of extra exercise as a study aid and as a way to clear your head.

Tip #1.

Try To Run In a Lot of Nature-y, Green-y Stuff

I know that’s vague, but do try to find a route with a lot of greenery.

Nature empirically makes you smarter.

A study, titled “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature,” compared the cognitive benefits of going for walk in natural versus urban environments. They found that “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control. To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning” (Berman et al. 1211).

If you’re jumping on the elliptical for an hour or something, you’re doing it wrong. (Also — an elliptical!? Zzzzz… You’re never going to look forward to that, dummy.)

Avoid the elliptical or the treadmill. GO OUTSIDE. Even if you live in New York or something, there are often very cool hidden running paths. (Check Google. People talk about this stuff.)

My point: just get outside. Find green stuff. You’ll get smarter. Even if you ignore everything below this, the mere fact of going outside and finding green stuff will enhance your ability to study.

But, beyond that, you can take direct advantage of this, since your blood will be pumping and ideas will flow.

Tip #2.

Write As Soon As You Get Back, Regardless What Your Discipline Is

Often times, the creative/thinky juices will be flowing so much that, once you get into the swing of things, you’ll just have to write the moment you get back. (I’ll talk more in a bit about how to optimize the creative/thinky juices.)

This has been a habit of great thinkers for ages. Go for a walk (or run) outside. Then come back and write. Your brain will be optimized for great writing and great thinking.

Take Sören Kierkegaard:

“The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking. Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening. The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.”

— from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

This was basically my experience. As soon as I got back, I had to write. Like, before I even showered. (Usually I had 2-3 really good ideas, and as long as I got them down in a text document, I was good to shower without worrying I’d forget them before I could go back to the text document and fully explain what I was thinking.)

Other famous writers did it too. Dickens was famous for his walks (and he did his in the city, ignoring my nature advice). Pretty sure Freud was big on it. So was Kant. You’re in good company, so do it.

Why Do You Have To Write (To Study)?

Writing is the best way to figure out what you think. You don’t know something until you can write it or explain it to someone else.

(Pro tip: sometimes it helps to write it as if you actually were explaining it to someone else.)

So: you write.

With words.

On paper.

Aim to read or study whatever you need to each day, but also just write 500-1,000 words of crap per day. And make it crap. Give yourself permission to produce crap. No one but you will see it. Go nuts. Just get it out there. Free write. Put words on paper. Discover what you know and what you actually think.

This will help since this is what you’re going to have to do in the actual exam: write words on paper. If you’ve already written those words (sometimes even in the form of answers to practice questions) then it’ll be much easier. Your brain will be trained specifically to recall what it needs in the exact way it needs to recall it.

This is also true if you’re not writing an exam. Want to sound eloquent explaining complicated concepts or ideas?

Write them out beforehand. 

Wish you had a better elevator pitch explaining your business or what your role is at work or whatever?

Write it out beforehand.

Hell, you saw up above I said that “as I was writing I realized…” I learned something about my topic by writing this very blog post. I thought it was just about studying for a certain type of test. Wrong. It’s about using creativity and strategy to incorporate fitness into your life in a way that makes both things better (as opposed to “trying” to work fitness in without “sacrificing” the rest of your life, or something).

So: writing = learning; writing = discovery. Write, damnit.

But anyway: back to running. Let’s talk about precisely how to optimize your thinking using your runs or walks.

Once you get good, you actually won’t need to spend that much time writing when you get back. You’ll know what you want to say ASAP, so you’ll pump out the words as fast as you can type.

Tip #3

Listen To Online Learning And/Or iTunesU On Your Run/Walk

I know, if you’ve never listened to an audiobook or a lecture while you run, it can be hard at first.

You think you need fast-paced music or something, but that’s absolutely not true.

Trust me: listening to lectures while running gets waaay easier, to the point that it actually helps.

This is especially true if you can continue listening to the same topic, or the same narrator/lecturer, or whatever.

It will put you “in the zone.” It serves as one of those subtle environmental cues that tell your brain, “Oh yeah, it’s running time now.” Seriously. This is a whole other blog post, but this is actually taking advantage of how the habit loop (cue > routine > reward) works.

The familiar voice, the familiar sounds or cadence of what you’re listening to, or even the familiar topic, helps you run because it is in effect hacking your brain’s operating system and telling it “ooh, run time.”

Eventually, the cue will also tell your brain: “Ooh, creative thinky time.”

(Actually, the lectures/online learning will only be one of several cues for this. Running itself will eventually become a cue that tells your brain “creative thinky time.” Also, if you run the same route, the route itself will become a cue. Getting back home after a run will become a cue for “important writey time.”)

The fact is there is now a tonne of great learning content out there now for you to listen to. If you’re studying, you should be taking advantage of this whether you want to incorporate running/walking or not.

Eventually you can find a lecturer you really like, so that even though you’re listening to a topic that you’ve just been reading about for months, it’s weirdly… relaxing.

“But wait!” you say. “Most of what’s online is just undergrad stuff! I’m a graduate/fourth-year now, and I’m a special snowflake, studying this very niche topic!”

Read on, my special snowflake friend.

Tip #4

First-Year Undergraduate Lectures Are Actually a GOLDMINE

If you’re doing an upper-year course, or studying for a PhD comp or something, your actual readings are probably super complicated and nuanced. They’re not exactly in conversational English. If you’re like me, your brain hurts reading them for hours every day. And I’m a weirdo who likes reading Derrida and postmodern theory. But even I have a limit.

Listening to the really simplified, ABC version is extremely helpful. (It’s also just a nice break, frankly.)

You get insight into how other actual professors simplify or condense these particular nuanced ideas. And if you’re doing things right, if you’re reading actively (as opposed to reading passively), then in the middle of these lectures you should be thinking, Oh, that’s an interesting way to present that idea. I think I can even improve on that by… (etc.)

Great! As soon as you get home – write that down.

Or you might think, Oh, is that what that idea is really about? I should look that up, see what other academics say.

Great! Make a note if it as soon as you get in. Then write down how the idea was presented, and what you find ambiguous about it, or what’s at stake, or whatever.

You will clarify your thinking by doing this.

The point is that when you listen to these lectures, you’re no longer just a student passively taking notes. You’re actively engaging with the material, with your own ideas and positions about the topic being presented. 

(Important note: this is not a go ahead to think you know better than professors who’ve been studying their topic for several decades. Always read with humility.)

Bonus:

Find Other Stuff to Listen To That Will Help

Because one of my comps included a lot of nineteenth-century novels, there were a whole bunch of novels on audible.com that were on my PhD comps reading list. So if I got tired of lectures, I could listen to an audiobook version of one of my actual readings.

Pretty sweet, right?

(Is that even allowed??? You bet it is.)

Listening to fiction works on the same principle as above. As soon as I got inside I wrote wrote wrote down my ideas about what I’d just been listening to.

Honestly, it worked best when I listened to an audiobook version of something I’d already read, because then I knew what was coming in terms of plot, so my thinking could drift towards abstract ideas, analysis and insight, and if I drifted off on a tangent in my head, I could get back into the plot without being lost.

Now, granted, not everyone is writing a test on nineteenth-century British fiction. Off the top of my head, this would work for novels, as well as really important or well-known works of philosophy and rhetoric. But who knows. Maybe you can get the Feynman lectures on physics or something. Or you can just listen to Darwin’s The Origin of the Species if you’re in animal biology or something, and thereby get a better sense of not just where the field is, but where it has come from.

Use your creativity. You can probably find something useful that isn’t just a lecture from iTunesU.

Even if you’re not studying for anything, you can find something useful. If you’re working on a piece of fiction, listen to audiobooks in your genre. If you’re running a business or something, browse the non-fiction lists for something relevant.

You can find something.

Look for podcasts. Look at audible. Download video lectures on Youtube and convert them to mp3. There is something out there that can get you thinking about a topic in a really unique, relaxed way.

Final Advice: Be Creative

Keep everything in perspective. Know very precisely what you will have to do on test day. As long as you can do that, you can strategize creatively.

Also: always do what works for you, but be brutally honest with yourself. I said do what works, not just what you kinda feel like doing at first.

If you find you get better ideas on your runs/walks when you don’t listen to anything, do that instead. It wouldn’t surprise me, actually, if this is the case.

(I think I personally get “better” ideas when my mind totally wanders, but if I’m specifically studying for a test, or trying to think about a specific topic, I find listening to something specific keeps my thinking on topic.)

If you get better ideas swimming, fine. Go swimming. Shoot hoops. I dunno. How do people exercise? Do whatever.

If you get ideas while you’re moving weights around, fine, do that too by bringing a notebook. (I don’t listen to audiobooks or lectures when I’m at the gym, but I do have all sorts of weird notes on my old workout plans that look like a crazy person’s notes.)

Keep in mind the theory behind everything up above (being creative, taking advantage of cues and routines to put you in the right frame of mind “automatically,” etc.). The specifics of the advice don’t matter all that much. What matters is using your creativity to incorporate fitness into your life.

Beyond that, it’s all trial and error.

Sometimes you try stuff and it works “okay.” Sometimes you try stuff and it just doesn’t work, or it’s a big pain in the butt. And sometimes you try something and, wow, holy crap, it actually improves other aspects of your life.  You make “small bets” and experiments. If they don’t work or offer any pay off, you throw them out and move on. You’re waiting for the one in every ten or so that pays off huge, and more than pays off for the other nine that didn’t work.

I’ll take more about small bets, experimentation, iteration, and anti-fragility in a future post.

Be creative.