How to become twice as smart in forty-five minutes.

June 16th, 2015


Alfresco swimming

When Don Draper took up swimming in the fourth season of Mad Men it was significant of more than just a rethink of his lifestyle in response to facing a glimpse of his own mortality. There was a reason it was swimming and not running or tennis. Ok, being able to watch Jon Hamm in his skimpies probably had quite a lot to do with it, but I’d put money on the script writer responsible for this plot detail being a swimmer themselves. Someone in charge knew exactly how well swimming nurtures creativity.

If you’ve watched even one episode of Mad Men you’ll have quickly grasped just how much alcohol was used to prop up inspiration and sustain the high frequency of ideas necessary to be an award-winning ad agency. Nothing new about creative types needing that kind of ‘help’. Think Jim Morrison prolonging the derangement of his senses by breaking on through to the other side of the next whiskey bar. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner floating on the shores of their Long Island lake of small brown drinks. It seems we completely accept that the all-consuming monster that is creativity should require this kind of rocket fuel to reach the stars.

Now, before we go any further, you should understand that I like a drink, no, to be completely honest, I like drinks, but unlike the cast of Mad Men I’ve never found drinking a particularly useful way to sustain a flow of ideas or open the doors of creativity. Yes, it certainly helps loosen things up but that kind of loosening up isn’t selective, you can’t expect it to work in one area only and it’s not great for business to be all loosened up with drink when discussing contracts with clients or trying to get the invoicing done.

And… do you see what’s happened? This post was supposed to be about swimming but now it’s all about booze. Creativity needs the exact opposite of something this solipsistic. If we are to be effectively creative we need to be able to get out of our heads in a more literal sense.

Before you yawn and stop reading, this isn’t about inspiration arriving when you’re walking the dog or digging the garden, it’s not even about inspiration arriving whilst swimming. Doing one thing in order to think about something else is dangerously close to multi-tasking, an offense for which one should forfeit one’s head (being not responsible enough to have one). What I’m talking about is the benefit (for all of us) of making spaces in our head-heavy schedule. Not just taking a break to do something different or, if that something different is exercise, surfing the endorphins afterwards to rip through the day’s tasks. I mean actually noticing that the connections exercise makes between your head and your body physically widen your horizons and so make space for new perspectives thereby increasing your ability to solve problems.

But surely any physical activity could do this? Yes, probably, but swimming appears to be way more effective than anything else. Why? Well for a start the connections between your head and your body are greater because you are effectively weightless. Movements are fuller, motion smoother and you may not actually be creating a tidal wave in your wake but you feel like you’re propelling yourself so fast! There’s also no discomfort, no unpleasant sweating or dry mouth and you’re exercising whilst lying down – Hallelujah! And then there’s the whole meditative nature of it – my local lido is blissful in the afternoons at the moment: fifty metres of cool, clear water dancing with dappled sunlight (a phenomenon known as ‘caustics’ believe it or not), the repetitive rhythm of my stroke and only the occasional duck water-skiing in to land to distract me from my pursuit of the blue line. Forty-five minutes in that pool and I come out feeling like Popeye after a can of spinach, I’m no longer alive just from the neck up and it feels like my mind has been completely steam-cleaned. Back in the studio with the outer-reaches of my brain all clear, excited and raring to go I find it hard to believe that there’s anything better than swimming for nurturing our creative processes.

So if you can’t get hold of me in the afternoons don’t worry, chances are I may be in the pool and I’ll be much better at attending to your needs when I get back.


  1. I am a full subscriber of the taking-a-break-and-doing-something-physical-to-create-some-headspace school of thinking in fact I’ve been reading about it lately (Headspace by Andy Puddicombe) but I’ve never considered swimming – probably cos I’m no good at it – and I can imagine the combination of learning to do it properly and the movement and rhythm you describe could be perfect. I’m inspired to try!

    by: Greg on 16th June 2015 at 11:33 am


    • Greg – I love a recommendation to add to my reading list, thank you. Little known fact: I can (and would) teach you to swim. It is very worth the effort.

      by: shaell on 16th June 2015 at 12:41 pm


  2. Exercising whilst lying down works for me. I have a pilates reformer which is like a sliding bed that you can move up and down horizontally using your arms or legs via ropes that provide resistance (different model entirely to the one used in that film about the multiple shades of grey). I don’t use it anywhere near enough to get real benefits (it’s mostly used to dry washing), but when I do it feels as much like meditation as exercise leaving my mind wonderfully refreshed and in much better working order.

    by: Caroline on 16th June 2015 at 2:43 pm


    • (Perv).

      by: shaell on 16th June 2015 at 5:38 pm


  3. as usual, right on and miss you! although I wish I was reading this post swimming instead of as a procrastination tool while at the office at 7.30am on Saturday, thanks for the push to get me closer to the pool again!

    by: Beth on 19th September 2015 at 12:39 pm


    • Thanks Beth! I fear you may have identified something here – it’s entirely possible that most blog reading is used as a procrastination tool. That’s very funny!

      by: shaell on 21st September 2015 at 10:48 am


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