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Do you want to think outside of the box?


Get out of your box and go for a walk!

Walking is a great hobby of mine. I used to take a daily walk on my own long before I had a dog. Now it’s an ingrained habit and a daily pleasure that I share with Grub (the dog) come rain or shine. 

What I notice about walking is that it completely frees my mind and enables me to think through challenges or to come up with new ideas.  I always make sure I have a way of capturing these ideas (usually my iPhone) because they can come thick and fast!!

It’s no surprise, then, that I will often “prescribe” a walk to a client that is stuck in their thinking.  As I live in the glorious South Downs, I am able to offer walking coaching sessions to local clients and have seen it have a transformational impact.  I’ve even conducted a few walking coaching sessions in London.

So, what is it that makes walking so effective in enabling creative thinking?  I’ve done a little research…

The science bit

Walking and teaching has a long history, right back to Aristotle who regularly gave lessons while walking.  Many philosophers have extolled the virtues of walking and thinking.  Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote “I can only meditate when I am walking.  When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.”

Research carried out at Stanford in 2014 discovered that “…walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after…”.  The study found that “Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.” 

The study suggested that walking could increase creativity due to the concept of embodied cognition.  This occurs when movements influence your thoughts, for example moving your hand forwards can facilitate thoughts on moving forwards but will interfere with thoughts about moving backwards.  The study therefore suggests that “Walking might improve divergent thinking because walking triggers thoughts of moving from one idea to another.”  

Other studies have demonstrated the additional benefits of walking outdoors as opposed to indoors.  One discovered that a walk in nature, as opposed to in a city, restored previously exhausted attentional capacities, which improves performance at difficult tasks even when no longer walking. 

What to do now?

So, are you convinced by the science or my anecdotal evidence?  If you are stuck on something or need to generate some new ideas, take your issue for a walk.  Here are my top tips:

  • Plan your route before you go so you don’t need to think about that
  • Take just one topic or question with you to retain focus
  • Pay attention to what is around you with all your senses – what can you see, hear, feel, smell and taste?
  • Let your thoughts and ideas bubble up
  • Have a way to capture these – a notebook or a voice memo on your phone

Even if you can’t think of a topic, walking is a great time to just reflect.  A morning walk can focus on what the day has in store or a moment of gratitude.  An evening walk can focus on the day just gone.

If you’re a fan of listening to music or a podcast when you’re walking, try to unplug a couple of times a week and let your mind wander.  I promise you some therapeutic results!!

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