Full-Bodied Work: Put Both Mind and Body into What You Do and Get a Better Result

By Ryan W. Quinn

A co-worker of mine once reminded me, as we were both working, of a story we both new in which the main character was challenged for his lack of enthusiasm. Implicit in his reminder was a question: “Should we be more enthusiastic?” I pondered the story for a moment. Then, I took off running.

For the next hour, I literally ran from task to task. My co-worker tried to keep up, but found it difficult to because he was laughing so hard. Every person I encountered for the next hour was surprised by the energy they felt as I approached them. Almost everyone responded positively to requests I made of them—requests that had often been denied in the past. My performance in that hour was higher than it had ever been in any other single hour I had ever worked.


Embodied Cognition

As I read Amy’s recent blog on how the physical act of making yourself smile makes you feel happier, and Bob’s recent blog on how students standing up in class made them feel more accountable for what they said, I was reminded of some recent research in the field of psychology on “embodied cognition”—the theory that the mind and body influence each other.

For example, in one recent paper, psychologists wondered how people would behave if they physically embodied the phrase, “On one hand … or on the other hand…” To study this, they asked one group of people to generate ideas twice while holding the same hand forward. And they asked a second group of people to generate ideas twice, but holding a different hand forward the second time. They found that those who held up a different hand each time while speaking exhibited more fluency, flexibility, and originality than those who held up the same hand twice.

In similar experiments, those who stood “outside a box” (in one experiment) or walked freely (in another experiment) showed more creativity than those who stood “inside a box” or walked in a box shape. Those who pantomimed “putting two and two together” showed more convergent thinking. These and other studies suggest that our physical actions drive our thinking in ways that we do not even realize.


Disembodied Workers

In today’s work world, which is so oriented toward knowledge work, many of us bring our brains to the office and forget we have bodies. This can be a shame, because the research I just described suggests that if we are not using our bodies, then we may not be using our brains to their full potential either.

How could you use your body to enhance your contribution at work? (Or at home or in the community, for that matter?) Consider the microrituals of daily life, and countless ideas may come.  You may discover that already, physical acts that we have taken for mere customs actually contribute to the cognitive experience they accompany. Why, for example, do people in many societies raise their right hands when promising honesty in a courtroom or elsewhere? Why do people stand in circles, shake hands, bow, kiss, sit in rows, and so on?

Here is a useful exercise: Think about what kind of traits you would like to show in your work today (such as creativity, persistence, insight, critical thinking). Then think of some colloquial phrases that capture those characteristics (such as “think outside the box” or “get to the heart of the matter”) and ask yourself, “How could I embody those ideas when I do my work?” If you’re brave enough to give it a try, we’d love it if you shared what you learned. Who knows? Before long, you may be running around while you do your work as well!