“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” – Friedrich Nietzsche
In 2014, Stanford University published a study confirming a fact that almost every great creative mind in history has always known – walking boosts creativity.
According to the study, creative thinking improves by the mere act of walking (although I can confirm that rambling through the beautiful Shropshire countryside adds to the pleasure). And the effect of walking is not minor – the study found creative output increased by 60% following a stroll.
Great minds, great walkers
Charles Dicken’s love of walking is legendary. An avid (some might even say compulsive) walker since childhood, Dickens would routinely cover up to 20 miles per day, gathering inspiration from the streets of London as he roamed.
C.S. Lewis was also an avid walker, but believed rambles were for contemplation rather than conversation, quipping; “walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them”.
But it is not just long-dead authors that subscribed to the tonic of a daily dose of walking, many of the superstars of Silicon Valley also spend a good part of their day thinking on their feet. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, former Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick walks 40 miles per week on an indoor track located at his company’s headquarters. And walking meetings are hugely popular. As one software engineer points out in Rest, “most of my job is not about physically writing code; it is about solving problems, thinking, discussing and bouncing ideas off one another”. Walking meetings provide a perfect environment to do this – even Steve Jobs was a big fan.
Why is walking so good for thinking?
There are several reasons why walking is the perfect partner for creative thinking. Firstly, any form of exercise that gets your blood flowing is going to increase your brain power, not only during the activity but for a short time afterward. Writing in the New Yorker, Ferris Jabr points out:
“When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them”.
Jabr also writes that because the act of walking requires very little conscious thought, it leaves our minds free to wander, to daydream and plan.
Empty your mind
The secret to getting the most from your walks is to not try and force answers to come to you. Eugene Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, said in Rest:
“My mind often comes to a standstill after some hours indoors. But on a walk, my mind begins to move freely and instinctively over my subject. Ideas come rushing into my mind, without being called. Soon enough, the best answer emerges from the jumble. I realise what I can do, what I should do, and what I must abandon”.
The trick is not to think of anything as you walk, just let your mind rest and take in your surroundings. When you return to your desk, you will be surprised at how much problem-solving your subconscious mind undertook.
So next time you are stuck on a problem or need to write a report or difficult email and have hit a writer’s block, get up from your desk and go for a stroll. I guarantee this will be far more effective than simply sitting there banging your head against the keyboard.
Mozart once said: “When I am traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly”.
Are you going to disagree with Mozart? Then get your shoes on and out you go.
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