When Your Mind Is Out of Ideas, Try Your Body

If there are two main ingredients that power our online education company, 2U, they are our people and our technology. Meetings fill our schedules and they usually combine both our best minds and our ability to utilize video and other technology tools to enhance our ideas. Securing thousands of in-program field placements per year for graduate students across the country requires doing many things for the first time. There is constant goal setting, strategy execution, idea communication and formula refining. When the meetings have come to an end and the technology is no longer providing answers, I set the most important meeting of the day: the one with myself, my running shoes and the outdoors. Breaking away from the desk, the computer, the phone and the tablet and getting outside for a run allows for my best ideas to percolate. Here's how I do it:

1. Calendar the meeting. In an age when research says sitting will kill us, I make sure to block off time on my calendar to set out for a run. Generally, this is at dawn, but some days it is at lunchtime or the late afternoon when I might otherwise reach for more caffeine. By putting a run on my calendar, I tell my colleagues that this meeting with myself, where I will not only exercise my body but also solve problems for our business, is important and protected.

2. Leave the technology home. Runners always wax poetic about the simplicity of running: all you need is a pair of shoes and you're on your way. Reading any running magazine sends the opposite message. Smart phones, music playlists, wireless headphones and GPS watches can all accompany your trot and distract you enough to get through the miles. I rarely bring these items with me because my intention is not to distract my mind but engage it with the business problem I am trying to solve that day. It may be counterintuitive to engage the mind in a business discussion while exercising the body, but I find the silence an ideal time to focus on the most important work issues I need to solve.

3. Think about work. Most people exercise to clear their minds. I don't. I use this time to meet with myself and to tap into my inner wisdom. If I were to look at a business solution as an outside observer, what would my recommendations be? What is the main message I would like my audience to take away from my presentation this week? What can I do to bring a project to its next stage? How can I use an opportunity to develop my staff? These questions set the agenda for my miles and I use the rhythm of my footfall to meditate on them.

4. Set a low bar. I don't pressure myself to do anything but keep a decent pace, enjoy my surroundings and come up with a next step for the business challenge I am contemplating. I may not have mastered the universe by the end of my run, but by the time I am stretching that nagging hamstring, I feel like I have.

Using this solo time to strategize next steps in my business allows me to be a super fan during my son's lacrosse game and be in the moment when my daughter is describing her latest art project. I am the best employee I can be physically and mentally when I bracket the workday with time to energize my mind by using my body as fuel.

Jessica Wang is the Senior Vice President of Clinical Placement at 2U, Inc. She wrote this blog on a five-mile run.