Getting high will make you a better designer

Here’s how I do it

I feel like I’m floating. My compassion and empathy swells, my problems fall away and my thoughts become more clear. Solutions to problems stored in my unconscious mind materialize without prompt from my conscious mind. I’m high. No, I didn’t just swallow a pill or hit the vape. I laced up my shoes and hit the road.

Finishing the Rio Marathon.

My experience with the runners high

I started running in college. Not really that often. Maybe a couple miles once or twice a week to supplement other kinds of exercise. At the time it wasn’t really a primary workout, and after graduation my enthusiasm for running started to dwindle, eventually I stopped. It was when I started again that it became one of my primary workouts. I was working at R/GA on a team that helped maintain Nikestore.com. R/GA is the agency that built the Nike+ system, and while working there I became inspired by it’s mechanics and the possibilities of the quantified self. I began to run again. As my endurance came back and the runners high returned, I began to notice its positive effects on my work.

I like to workout in the morning. Burning off my body’s extra energy really helps relieve the anxiety that‘s inevitable in any designers life. In addition, there’s another more powerful benefit, I start to come up with creative solutions. Problems that are mulling around in my unconscious sort themselves out with a clarity that seems impossible in any other situation. The runners high affords me the luxury of exploring these problems without anger, judgment, jealousy, or fear. It’s a feeling similar to the effects of drugs like MDMA or marijuana, but more subtle, and without the side effects. I always knew there was some scientific reason for all this and I wanted to find out what it was.

An example of some nikestore.com work

The science behind the runners high

I’m not a scientist, but the people who discovered that the runners high was more than folklore are. They measured endorphin levels in the brains of ten runners post-workout using PET scans combined with tracer chemicals that reveal endorphins. They then gave the subjects a psychological test to measure their mood. They found a correlation between a positive mood and running as a result of an endorphin increase in the brain. Endorphins are your body’s natural opiates, which explained the shedding of anger and judgment that happens during, and after my runs - but what about the creative thinking? Another, more recent study I found helped to qualify this part. It links the runners high to the same system of the brain involved in the marijuana high, the endocannabinoid system. Running increases the amount of Anandamide, also known as the “bliss molecule” in the brain. Anandamide is the brains version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and is known to produce psychological and physical effects, mainly euphoria and pain relief, but anyone that’s ever had a tryst with Mary Jane knows that smoking can stimulate creativity. Basically running gets you stoned. Because, science. Armed with this knowledge, I now consciously use exercise as part of my creative process.

How I use the runners high to design better

Here’s my personal prescription. I usually wake up between 6–7am. I check the surf (priorities) then, since it is usually blown out or too big, I throw on my shoes, do a quick 2–3 minute warm up and get ready to go. I usually listen to podcasts while I run. If I’m struggling with one thing or another at work, I’ll throw on a design related podcast, I like A Responsive Web Design Podcast for when the problem is related, or 99 Percent Invisible for more general obstacles. The Harvard Business Review Idea Cast is another good one. I find listening to people talking about how they overcame obstacles inspires me. Something totally unrelated, like music or a language podcast can help as well. If something comes to mind I focus on thinking it through so as to avoid losing the thought. I imprint it in my memory, then send an email to my work address if I think I’ll be too distracted to remember it later in the day or week. To be honest, most of the time I’m not too prescriptive, I’m running to stay happy and fit. The benefits to my career are just the icing on top.

As much as I would like to say that I’m always seeing the sunny side of life, once in a while I feel like banging my stylus against the desk and running to the nearest taproom. Running and surfing, and their ability to drown my neurons in endorphins and endocannabinoids helps my brain see past the mellow drama and focus on the big picture. And I don’t even have to throw down my hard earned cash for drugs.

Pacifica cutback (if he took this photo like a millisecond before there would be more spray. I swear) :)

Side Notes:

  • I‘ve only tried it a few times, but I understand HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) can give you the same effects, if you don’t have time to run. A HIIT workout can be done in 10 minutes. Here’s a good place to start to learn about that.
  • Running is often avoided for several reasons. Maybe try this article about using your playlist to motivate you?
  • My runs are 4 miles on average and usually last about 30 minutes. Surf sessions can go from 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on the day.
  • Using black pepper, an anandamide re-uptake inhibitor, increases its effects. I always add it to my morning smoothie.

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