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Take a Hike: Walking for Creative Thinking

Why going for a walk can be the best way to push your work forward.

October 14, 2014

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

Much of what we do as STEM grad students is creative. Troubleshooting experiments, planning a talk, or designing a poster all require imaginative thinking in some form. Oftentimes, our best ideas aren’t produced when sitting behind our laptops. They come to us while washing dishes, daydreaming, or in the shower. That is, some of our best ideas happen when we are not in the lab or the office.

Walking for Creative Thinking

Walking is a powerful way to nurture creative thinking. And many of the great creative people knew this, including Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Freud, Milton, Dickens, and Darwin. All of these people made going for a walk part of their daily routines. In fact, Darwin took three daily walks (and revolutionized biology).

Barbara Oakley explained recently on Inquiring Minds that having some downtime for our brains allows us to process things and understand them better. Walking meetings have become somewhat of a fad, and for good reason. As Nilofer Merchant says in this TED talk, getting out of the office and walking leads to “out of the box thinking,” and “fresh air drives fresh thinking.”

What the Science Says

Walking, particularly outdoors, improves creative thinking. This effect was recently measured by Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014). Study participants were asked to complete a task to evaluate divergent creative output. This task measured their ability to specifically demonstrate mental flexibility (i.e., finding novel uses for objects), and controlled for overall changes in cognitive ability. They found that walking while completing a task specifically increased divergent thinking, which also resulted in heightened creativity when seated later on. They further found that walking outside promoted more novel thinking, when compared to walking indoors.

Side Benefits

In addition to cultivating ideas, walking relieves stress. Getting outside and listening to the birds, enjoying the smells, and breathing fresh air is inherently relaxing. I’ve found that when I’m overwhelmed or frustrated, walking is calming, and allows me to develop a plan to tackle the challenges ahead.

Walking also offers numerous health benefits, particularly when it replaces sedentary time. You may have heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” More precisely, spending less time sitting is associated with decreased risk of diabetes and mortality. So getting up from behind your laptop and going for a walk to sort out your thoughts may also prolong your life.

Finding the Time

There are lots of easy ways to fit walking in. One of the best uses for walking that I’ve found is rehearsing talks. The walk isn’t taking up time, since I would need to rehearse the talk anyway. But walking allows me to do it more effectively. Not having the slides in front of me forces me to think hard about what I want to say. And saying it aloud and trying out phrases means that I ultimately give a much more polished talk. (I put in headphones that have a microphone while walking, so hopefully I just look like I’m on the phone as I walk along talking to myself!)

Walking to and from campus instead of taking the bus added less than 10 minutes onto my old commute, and was one of the easiest ways I found to fit in some fresh air. The walk also woke me up on the way into the lab in the morning, and let me relax a bit before getting home in the evening. Similarly, a professor I greatly respect made a point of going for a walk every day at lunch. Setting an alarm and getting out in the morning can kickstart a productive day. Conversely, going for a stroll in the evening allows you to process the day, and sort out problems that might otherwise keep you up at night.

Saving Your Thoughts

Of course, one tiny problem about having a fabulous idea while out walking is that you can’t act on it. Don’t trust that you’ll remember your thoughts when you get home; there’s evidence to suggest that walking through a doorway causes forgetting. One way around this problem is the old-school method of carrying around a notepad and pen. Alternately, you can make use of something you’re probably carrying around anyway—your phone. Make a quick voice memo, or type out a note of your brilliant thoughts.

Wherever you fit it in, walking is an easy way to stay healthy, reduce your stress, and give your mind a potent creative boost.

When are you most creative? How do you fit walking into your day?

[Image by Flickr user Atilla Kefeli and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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