Once Around the Block: How Walking Can Boost Creativity

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“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
John Muir 

Who is feeling exhausted? 

A year ago, we were using every ounce of our creativity just to get groceries or figure out how to keep working. Now, fatigue is setting in and sometimes I wonder if I used up all of my creativity in 2020 and now my tank is empty.

That’s silly, of course. Creativity is a muscle that never wears out, we just need to know how to keep that muscle strong and flexible. Like it or not, your environment affects your creativity. Working at home this past year has made it clear that if you have to sit on the bathroom floor for a conference call because it’s the only room that’s quiet, you’re probably not going to feel all that free and imaginative.

I’m not saying your bathroom won’t make you creative, but I am saying that our environment has a lot to do with how we grab hold of and harness that creative energy.

LOOK AROUND YOU

Allen Gannett took a look at this issue and, for us “skimmers,” summed up some recent experiments about how our workspaces affect—or don’t affect—our creativity.

Basically, if you need to brainstorm and have original ideas bubble up, then be in a room with a lot of round objects, everything from round tables to pillars to pen holders.

However, if you have some particular challenge or problem you need to solve, then go for the angular—square tables and corners.

Interesting, right? But choosing surroundings based on shapes suggests we’re holding still. The more I looked into the effect of environment on creativity, the more the signs pointed to movement. Walking in particular.

Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

― Rebecca Solnit

Writers know intuitively that if the words aren’t coming, then you have to get out of that chair and move around. The science backs us up on this, especially when it comes to walking.

There are lots of experiments out there, as folks have been interested in the neuroscience of creativity for some time. Stanford, one of my go-to places for this type of research, did a study back in 2014 focused on walking and its effect on imagination. This study captivated the writer Ferris Jabr, who wrote a wonderful essay in The New Yorker. (He got bonus points from me for using Mrs. Dalloway to prove his point.)

Everyone knows that true creativity couldn’t walk a straight line if it tried.

Two other scholarly experiments proved that mere movement increased creativity. One focused on the divergence of linear vs non-linear movement. (Hmm, sounds very similar to our environment findings.)

 CONNECT BODY AND MIND

It’s my own experience that I trust the most. Sitting at a desk all day makes Jill a dull girl. Physical activity is necessary for creativity, clear thinking, and for making enough space in my head for a new thought, or for an old thought to reform itself into something new.

I decided to do my own research. LinkedIn proved to be a great forum for people to share how they move in order to feel more creative.

Walking was definitely at the top of the list. Here’s what else I heard:

    • Playing with Legos
    • Performing a routine to get warmed up
    • Getting in the car for a drive or road trip
    • Holding walking meetings
    • Listening to a groovy, get-in-the-mood playlist
    • Waking up early and developing a focused morning routine
    • Exercising in short bursts at your desk
    • Doing some yoga
    • Taking a long shower (and singing at the top of your lungs)
    • Taking a play break (if you don’t have any desk toys, go get some)
    • Playing Nerf laser tag
    • Jumping on a trampoline
    • Going back to the basics and taking a walk

What activity moves you from stilted thinking to “whoa, I can’t believe that popped into my head?”

If you have more data or studies to share on this topic, please share in the comments on Linkedin.

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