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What to Think About During Exercise

A reader wrote to me and said he gets bored during running, which makes him want to just stop running.

And so he asked for suggestions for what to think about while running or exercising in general.

Such a great question: if you’re bored, why would you want to do it? Why not read fun stuff on the Internet instead?

Well, other than the fantastic health benefits, exercise is a wonderful time to think, to practice mindfulness, to socialize, to escape distraction.

A little background about my qualifications: when I started running in 2005, I could barely run 5 minutes and was mostly sedentary until then. I slowly worked my way up to a 5K race, then decided (not quite wisely) to set my sights on a marathon. After a year, I ran my first marathon (after a couple of half marathons and numerous other races). I ran a couple marathons after that, a bunch of other races, including some short triathlons. Last year, I ran a 50-mile ultramarathon. Though all of that, I’ve spent countless hours running.

I’ve also spent a lot of hours strength training, doing Crossfit-style workouts, or other fun stuff.

I’ve spent a lot of time exercising. And I love it.

I don’t train with music. For me, it’s distracting and a waste of good thinking time.

I’ve listened to audiobooks on long (3+ hour) runs, but usually work out in silence.

Except when I’m training with a friend. Last year I did a lot of the longer runs with my friend Scott, and for about a year I’ve been training in the gym with my friend Tynan (when he’s in town — he travels like a gypsy). I’ve also worked out a lot with my wife Eva, and with my sister Kat when I was on Guam.

I love working out with a friend. It’s such a great way to enjoy exercise: have great conversations with someone you enjoy spending time with. Build a friendship while building fitness. So if I can ever find a workout partner, that’s my first choice.

I also love working out and running alone.

Here’s what I think about:

  • Ideas: My best source of blog post ideas comes from when I run or work out. The movement seems to stimulate blood flow to the brain, and getting away from the distractions of technology allows me to reflect and think in isolation. I often have a bunch of great blog post ideas on a run. (Protip: Carry something to record ideas on, whether a notebook or smartphone. I’ve lost good ideas because I have nothing to write on. I came up with a method for remembering — I tie each idea to an image, so when I get home, I have a series of images in my head, like rubber duck, pencil, bell, apple. Then I just decipher these images into the ideas I wanted to remember.)
  • Some problem that’s been bothering me: If something has been spinning around in my head, that’s a good sign that I should give it some conscious thought. Why is it bothering me so much? Usually it’s because I’m holding onto an expectation/ideal I can’t control, including how I want people to think of me. Then I practice letting that go.
  • Body mindfulness: Exercise is great time to practice mindfulness. I like to stay present (when I remember) with my body, feeling each bodypart in turn (feet, lower legs, upper legs, buttocks, lower back, abdomen, etc.). Then I try to expand my awareness to include all of them at once.
  • Mindfulness of thoughts: Other times I practice being an observer of my mind. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, your thoughts. Practicing watching my thoughts creates a space between thought and reaction.
  • A project I’m working on: If I’ve been working hard on a project, I will give it some headspace during exercise, to allow myself to get some perspective on the project, see what’s important, work out some difficult problem with it that I’ve been putting off.
  • Problems of people I love: If my kids or wife or close friend are having a problem, I’ll give some thought to that, and see if there’s a way I can help. I will try to feel empathy, to understand what they might be going through, and to see what would be helpful given their state of mind.
  • Reflecting on things I’ve been learning: Often I’m conducting some kind of experiment in my life, and exercise is a great time to think about how that’s been going, what problems have come up, and what I’ve learned so far. These reflections often end up as blog posts.
  • The nature around me, and the road below me: I love getting outside and immersing myself in the beauty of nature. It’s easy to miss it if you’re stuck in your head, or listening to music/audiobooks. I love running on trails, or running through a city filled with blooming blossoms, or exploring a new place with a run, or doing a workout in a park. I love running in the rain, or when the sun is falling on me like warm liquid, or feeling the chill of the early morning and thinking I’m a badass.
  • The barbell: Lifting weights is hard, especially if you’re doing heavy deadlifts or squats. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts when you work out, but that’s a good way to injure yourself with weights. So I try to be present with the barbell, watching my form and putting myself completely into lifting this heavy thing against the earth’s relentless pull.
  • The nature of reality: This seems lofty and abstract, but sometimes I ponder the ego and whether it’s an illusion, whether we’re separate or all part of one ocean of existence, why we suffer and whether death is even something to fear. That’s usually when I trip and sprain an ankle.
  • How lucky I am: Best of all, I think about the good things I have in my life, from family and friends to dear readers like all of you, from food and shelter to work I truly love, from Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Cervantes to a body that allows me to move through a world so incredibly amazing I can’t believe how lucky I am to be alive.

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A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
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The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
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Fail Faster at Habits
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The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
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In Praise of Limits
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Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
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Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
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The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
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Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
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Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
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My Most Effective Learning Tools
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The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
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What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
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7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
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How to Master the Art of Living
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A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
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My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
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A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
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No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
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The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
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What to Think About During Exercise
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The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
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Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
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Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
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Fear is the Root of Your Problems
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The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
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I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
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My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
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The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
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When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
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Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
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My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
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My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
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Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
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Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
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The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
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A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
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How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
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I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
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The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
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Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
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The Little Book of Contentment
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Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
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Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
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Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
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Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
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12 Rules to Live By
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52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
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The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
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The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
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Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
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Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
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How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
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A Vegan Tour of NYC