The concept of a warm-up is commonly understood and associated with physical fitness. However, the idea behind it extends far beyond the physical and applies equally to mental work as well.
The Oxford Dictionary of English defines warm-up as:
a period or act of preparation for a match, performance, or exercise session, involving gentle exercise or practice.
There is a lot of baggage associated with our everyday lives, and the warm-up is one way to leave that baggage at the proverbial door and transition into our work, whatever that may be. In many ways, it’s a bridge to our life and the work we’re about to do.
This transition acts as a kind of warm-up that we do subconsciously every day without even thinking. For most of us, it’s that commute we take to our workplace, while for others it could be doing a daily review of the things on their lists. And yet for others, it could be doing some kind of creative work as part of their daily habit before getting into their actual work.
Author and executive coach, Jason Womack wrote about the “I am at my best when…” exercise in his book, Your Best Just Got Better. The exercise entails listing out things you need to do in order for you to set yourself up to do your best work. For you, it could be three to four things in your morning routine. For others, it could be something else. Whatever those things are for you, there is tremendous value in being conscious of those things (and executing them) in order for you to set yourself up to do your best work.
I define the warm-up process as getting yourself ready for an upcoming activity. In a physical sense, it would mean enhancing physical performance and reducing the possibility of bodily injury. In a mental sense, it means improving your mental/creative performance and reducing friction by transitioning into your “work”. I mean “work” in a broad sense here, and not just something you do at a workplace.
Here’re a few reasons why you might want to consider making a warm-up a regular and conscious part of your daily life:
It helps you transition to your work day better. I wrote about this in my Morning Pages post:
The warm-up was essentially a trigger for us [our group] to acknowledge that we were in transition. It was about giving ourselves the permission to let go of what we had on our minds before we convened (leaving any emotional baggage or what have you) and got into the real design work as a group.
The warm-up essentially acted as a bridge between the “outer world” (our scattered “monkey brains”) and the “inner world” (the “real work”). It was vital to our team-based work process.
When you don’t warm up, you increase the friction between your outer life and your inner work. Jumping straight in to do the work without warming up is not conducive. You’re not as effective as you could be when you’re mentally prepared.
Warming up also gives you the mental space to focus on what’s essential so you can be truly proactive. It’s akin to doing a mental workout.
Warming up also acts as buffer in some ways by helping us get ready and focus on what’s to come so we don’t crash and burn before even getting started.
Warming up helps us prepare for the discomfort when things are about to get tough. When the mind is ready to endure discomfort, it performs better. When the mind is unwilling to endure discomfort, performance is limited.
By skipping the warm-up, you’re leaving it to chance to do your best, and you know that your work is too important to be left to chance. In so many ways, warming up is a way to prepare yourself to get lucky.
Habitually creative people are, in E. B. White’s phrase, “prepared to be lucky”.
The key words here are “prepared” and “lucky”. They’re inseparable. You don’t get lucky without preparation, and there’s no sense in being prepared if you’re not open to the possibility of a glorious accident.
When you skip the mental workout, you’re cutting yourself short in your ability to be as effective as you could be. Like any muscles, your mental muscles will atrophy when they go unused on a consistent basis.
When working by yourself, you can write Morning Pages as a daily practice to warm up. It is the single best thing I’ve done (and continue to do) consistently that has been most rewarding in my life in terms of creativity and productivity. When working in teams, a warm-up can be an excellent way to start a meeting, as mentioned in the same post:
Because design research is inherently collaborative in nature, most of the work is team-based. And because the design work is team-based, warm-up is an essential part of team meetings, where a meeting starts with a brief warm-up question that one of the team members comes up with. Then, each of us would take turns in answering that question. It wasn’t so much about the question itself (which could be something as simple as “How was your day?”), but more about the ritual of doing it.
Another way to do a warm-up is to do a daily review of the things on your lists.
The important thing is to do the warm-up every time. It doesn’t need to take very long. You can use it in meetings, working by yourself, working in groups, etc. Spending just a few minutes to warm up will help you transition into your work, or whatever it is you’re working on.
The point is, you need to define what that warm-up is for you and how that lets you do your best work.
There is great value in doing warm-ups. It gives us time to be ready and prepare our focus for what’s about to come, puts us in the right frame of mind, and helps us leave unnecessary emotional baggage at the door.
We all need to practice every day before we get into our individual mental “arenas”. It’s the best way of setting ourselves up for a productive day, doing our best work, and getting lucky. My question to you is, how are you warming up your mind every day?