The physical world profoundly impacts our thinking. “Scientists, artists, authors; leaders, inventors, entrepreneurs: they’ve all used the world as raw material for their trains of thought,” Annie Murphy Paul points out in her book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain.

While the human brain is often compared to a computer – metaphors involving bandwidth, defragging, open tabs, RAM, etc. abound – it turns out that the human organ of thought is much more impacted by its external environments than computers are.

One of the primary arguments in Annie’s book is that we can think more productively and creatively if we work with our brains’ evolved strengths.

Strategically using these elements enables us to adjust and optimize habits as we move into more hybrid models of working.

Times of transition provide the perfect opportunity to rethink and refine – or maybe even completely revamp – how we work. With this in mind, I asked colleagues at adidas what habits they were implementing as they return to the office.

Person doing tricks on a skateboard in a skatepark, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
A quick change of pace and scenery at the adidas skatepark can jumpstart our thinking.

Seeing green

As Annie points out, our brains have done most of their evolving outside. As a result, our brains are easily able to reach relaxed states while being outdoors. This is an insight many of us are actively drawing upon.

“During lockdown I realized how important it is to get outdoors. It’s unbelievable how much difference even a short walk can make! Now as we return to the office, I often conduct my one-on-one meetings with colleagues while strolling through the lush green surroundings of campus.”
– Mansi Chitranshi, Director Tech Project Management

Woman in white t-shirt walking outdoors while looking at phone, nature, green, break
Finding ways to make meetings more active and greener can support generative thinking.

For activities that are more easily done inside, we may still find ways to surround ourselves with restorative green.

“When I need to do something creative, like write an article, I like to go into one of the rooms that are filled with plants. I call them jungle rooms. They are perfect for when I need to concentrate, and the atmosphere is inspiring.”
– Julia Theilen, Assistant Manager Corporate Communications

Some endorphins to go with your coffee?

The modern world’s demands are often taxing and exhausting. Annie argues that certain states of mind boost our ability to tackle difficult tasks. For instance, brisk exercise can prepare our minds to focus on the analysis and abstract reasoning required of us. Many are implementing this hack into their routines, such as a group who meet to play football Tuesday and Friday mornings before work.

“One of the reasons we wanted to come back to campus was so we could play football together again. The company makes it very easy for us to play – we have a grass pitch that is maintained weekly, as well as a turf pitch, showers, breakfast, access to the campus early in the morning, and lights on the pitch when it’s dark in the winter. After a game, you’re smiling – you’re ready to work.” – Gustavo Torres, Assistant Product Manager Football

Large building behind green astroturf football field, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
The big question before work: shall we play on the grass or turf pitch?

Teams that sweat together… collaborate better

Group synchrony is another state Annie mentions that can support us in our jobs, and physical activity is one way of becoming synchronized. As we return to the office, some of us are implementing initiatives that bring our teams closer together. Christopher von Stelzer began working at adidas in November 2020 and was eager to get to know his team.

“In June, I started inviting my team to lunchtime workout sessions every Monday. Some people come every week and others come whenever they can or feel like it. My line manager has joined us a few times. He seems to appreciate that I have the drive to start something that can help the team bond.”

Men and women doing outdoor working in an outdoor gym, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
Christopher von Stelzer and his colleagues are pumped.
Women jumping on trampoline in front of a large building, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
Exercise can be much more fun than we sometimes imagine.
People doing running drills outdoors, running, sports, sport, outdoors
Some relaxing lunchtime running drills.
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Similarly, Christian Baertels sees the value of doing sports together as a team.

“We are in the process of establishing a weekly team day for our sports marketing team. The idea is to choose one day per week when everyone who wants to can be in the office at the same time. Not only does this enable us to have meetings and talks in person but also to play sports, such as padel (or tennis or football, etc). This sort of interaction offers fun, physical exercise, trying something new (in the case of padel), even more team spirit, and a good reason to come to our great campus more frequently again.”
– Christian Baertels, Senior Director Sports Marketing

The importance of downtime

One of the challenges many of us have faced during the work-from-home period is a lack of breaks. As Annie points out, many of us have largely existed as “brains in front of screens” without even the built-in transitions into and out of work that commuting offers. Since being invited to return to the office, some are making the most of their commutes.

“I have been making it a goal to commute by bike a few days per week. There is a dedicated bike lane for the 20-kilometer ride from my village to the adidas campus, which makes the ride pleasant. I try to keep my pace at 25 kilometers per hour so the motor of my e-bike doesn’t kick in. It’s sort of a competition between my bike and me. I do accept its help on some hills, though.”
– David Schindler, Manager Digital Operations

Others are making good use of their time spent on the adidas bus between Nuremberg and Herzogenaurach.

“I usually read a book on the way to work. I am currently reading Figure, by Riccardo Falcinelli, about the perception of images in society from the Renaissance to Instagram and how society and culture build messages by evolving this process of communication through pictures. Learning something new each morning gives me the chance to understand processes in a new way. I think this helps me in my role of designing apparel — it stimulates me to find and discover new perspectives and perceptions.”
– Daniel Pantaleo, Intern, Design Originals Apparel

People running on treadmills in the gym, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
The gym can help with transitions into and out of the workday and high-intensity thinking. (This image was taken before the pandemic)

And some are finding time at the campus gym offers a nice ramp into and out of the day. Pin-Zhen Shen says that lifting weights followed by doing a workout video with friends primes her mind for what she wants to do next.

“The gym is an amazing place to relax and clear your mind. It is fantastic to boost your energy in the morning or release stress and exhaustion at the end of the day. It is also fun to work out with colleagues, bump into people I know, or meet new people while exercising.”
– Pin-Zhen Shen, Intern Global Operations Sustainability

Perspective is the sister of invention

It was originally through his morning routine of getting to the office that Shane Machir discovered a vehicle to new perspectives. After dropping off his kids at the adidas childcare center, he hops on a campus bike to get to his office across campus.

“The bikes are easy to ride and pretty fun. I’ve even made it a habit to hop on one in the middle of the day and have a quick ride when I want to get some free headspace or perspective on a design project.”
– Shane Machir, Senior Designer, Footwear Originals

Man wearing black doing one-wheel trick on blue adidas Originals bike, adidas, HQ, headquarters, Herzogenaurach, Germany, sports, company
The campus bikes offer a bit of fun—and maybe even inspiration—between meetings.

Annie points out that changing our setting can change the way our minds work, and that can facilitate seeing problems anew. Since the human brain does not function at a consistent level over long periods of time, taking breaks from intense focus on a given task can greatly enhance productivity.

The habits we enact can improve our performance in the often intellectually demanding tasks required of us. As Annie illustrates in her book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, the human brain has been much more accustomed to processing concrete information than abstractions. Based on this, we can improve our own innovation and ideas by involving the body, the physical world, and social interactions in our thinking processes.

As you return to the office, which ways of embodying the thought process appeal to you? What are you already doing and what do you hope to explore?

Find out how your workplace culture can drive performance



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by Gisela Wolk 01.09.2021
Great ideas so far, would like to read more in order to eventually inspire the team (and myself of course :)
by Shira Richman Gisela Wolk 07.09.2021
Thank you for your interest, Gisela. I first became acquainted with Annie Murphy Paul's book through an interview with her on The Ezra Klein Show. Here's the link in case you want to hear more of the ideas from her book:
by Elise 03.09.2021
This is such an informative article! I look forward to applying some of the insights and advice to my work day.
by Shira Richman Elise 03.09.2021
Thank you for reading, Elise. You may also be interested in taking a look at the book that is drawn from in the blog post.