Healthy Hackathon is an open-source framework for designing activities for idea generation, problem solving, and concept development in groups.
A holistic approach
The body and the mind do not work in separation. Countless studies have shown that cognitive function increases with physical activity and exposure to nature.
This means we can improve our problem-solving ability by designing curricula that mix physical activity and thinking, alone and in groups. In other words, we can design activities that engage and stimulate both ends of the body-mind continuum.
To this end, I recommend physical activity that:
- is informed by human evolutionary history
- incorporates functional movement — in other words, engages the nervous system to maximum degree.
Why is this particularly relevant for software developers and other knowledge workers?
In making the Case for Quality Daily Physical Education, the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (CAHPER) writes summarizing the research regarding the effects of exercise1:
In the short term, exercise leads to a state of relaxation which lasts up to two hours. This is accompanied by improved concentration, enhanced creativity and memory, better task performance and problem solving, and improved mood state.
What follows is an outline for a three-day sprint that incorporates physical activity and time in nature. As this is a high-level overview, many details are left out. You can try to exercise your creativity by filling in the details for your sprint based on the examples below.
Alternatively, get in touch and have me design your Healthy Hackathon.
Problem formulation and modeling
In the morning, the group gathers outdoors. Find an interesting trail and go on a long hike.
The facilitator presents the problem to the group.
The participants create visual, schematic, and diagrammatic representations of the problem statement, trying to describe and formulate the problem using as many ways as possible.
This work is done individually or in groups of two.
Do a calming, inwardly focused activity such as yoga or chi gong. Alternatively, work with visual symbols, such as mandala coloring.
Instead of trying to solve the problem at once, we "sleep on it".
Most of us have heard a story about someone struggling with a problem all day, then giving up and going to sleep, then coming up with a creative solution upon waking up.
That's because scientifically speaking, "sleeping on a problem" is a sound strategy for problem solving. During sleep, our brain consolidates memories and knowledge — by placing newly gained information in the context of existing representations. New neurological connections are thus created; this enables us to retain information and recall it later.
However this process is more fuzzy than the linear pattern-matching that happens during our wakeful hours. During sleep, the brain relaxes its requirements which allows for looser associations to form2.
(By the way, the same process can lead to the creation of false memories3. It seems, however, that the mechanisms responsible for memory consolidation — whether accurate or not — also allow for creative and unexpected solutions to emerge.)
Research has also shown that studying prior to bedtime results in better recall of the subject matter than studying in the morning4.
And, when a stimulus related to the problem is fed to the brain during sleep, our problem-solving ability is heightened even more5.Day #2:
The group gathers outdoors, and plays a game that incorporates moving over an (unfamiliar) terrain.
The rest of the day
Working individually or in groups of two, generate solutions to the problem.
During break: do a movement session, focusing especially on movements that require the integration of the two hemispheres and hand-to-eye coordination.
Then, go back to solution generation. Capture the solutions in artefacts.
Exercise that integrates the left and the right hemispheres makes the brain more effective at problem-solving6.Day #3:
Voting and selection — decision time
The group gets outdoors and plays a fitness game or two (incorporating balance, reaction speed, etc).
Take a break.
Finally, present solutions to each other.
The rest of the day
Vote on each others' solutions.
Fitness and athletic games foster a range of skills that are highly transferable to any group activity — such as communication skill, the ability to make decisions under stress, and teamwork7. During play, the participants exercise social calibration; emotions and mood are elevated.
Go forth & experiment
If this inspires you to get started with creative sprints using the format outlined above, I'd like to hear from you. What did you find most challenging? What was the group feedback? Would you do it again?
Drop me a line on Twitter.
Photo credit (walk in a forest) Matt Hatchett.
Interested in hosting your own Healthy Hackathon? Get in touch.
I am a web developer and health coach, having designed and taught functional movement classes for a wide range of age groups. I have been integrating healthy practices into the developer lifestyle for the past 10+ years.
The Case for Quality Daily Physical Education, CAHPER: https://cflri.ca/sites/default/files/node/789/files/rf9302.pdf ↩
Sleep to Solve a Problem, Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sleep-to-solve-a-problem-202105242463 ↩
False Encoding and False Memories, Human Memory: https://human-memory.net/memory-encoding/#False_Encoding_and_False_Memories ↩
Styding Before Bedtime Is Best — Chronobiology: https://www.chronobiology.com/scientists-say-studying-before-bedtime-is-best/ ↩
Targeted Memory Reactivation During Sleep Improves Next-Day Problem Solving — Sanders, Osburn, Paller et al: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619873344?journalCode=pssa ↩
How to integrate your right and left brain through movement — SequenceWiz: https://sequencewiz.org/2014/08/13/integrating-right-and-left-brain/ ↩
The Social and Academic Benefits of Team Sports — Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/social-and-academic-benefits-team-sports ↩