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Walking, thinking and creativity

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You’re sat with colleagues, you’re all facing a whiteboard, and you’ve been set the group task of brainstorming ideas.

This group activity is a pretty standard way to encourage creative thinking and problem solving.

What if I told you we may have been doing it wrong all these years?

Research seems to support much anecdotal thinking that the best ideas often come about when walking.

In 2014, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published the research paper, Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.

Oppezzo told The New Yorker that the pair were inspired to conduct the research because Schwartz “had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm”.

That’s so meta.

The experiments indicated that participants were better at coming up with new ideas when walking, compared to sitting.

One of the tests required participants to come up with unusual uses of everyday objects, such as shoes and buttons. 81 per cent of participants who were walking had a recordable increase in creativity, thinking of more atypical uses for the objects.

Another test required subjects to create an alternate metaphor to one shown. An impressive 95% who walked were successful, versus only a 50% success rate for those who didn’t walk.

Walking appears to be a great catalyst for divergent thinking, but that isn’t the case for all cognition.

While all kinds of walking - be that at on a treadmill or taking a stroll outside - had positive impacts on creative thinking, being outdoors resulted in the most novel and highest quality ideas.

Moreover, it was revealed that walking can have a residual creative boost when you return to your chair. If you find yourself struggling for inspiration in the afternoons, simply head out for a walk at lunch. You may find the juices are flowing more easily when you return to the office.

Walking appears to be a great catalyst for divergent thinking, but that isn’t the case for all cognition. There was actually a small decline in participants’ ability to find the solution to questions where only one answer was sought.

Not only will walking help you become a brainstorming champion, but being active has lots of health benefits. You’ll be promoting the creation of new connections between brain cells, staving off the deterioration of your brain that comes with age, and stimulating the region of your brain crucial for memory.

How to make walking work for you:

  1. If a creative task can’t be completed while walking, try to go for a walk 5- 15 minutes before you begin.
  2. If there’s a problem you’re struggling with, try thinking it through out loud while walking with someone else. Only you can talk, but make sure you’re being clear enough that the other person can understand what you’re chatting about. Thinking out loud like this can yield some surprising results.
  3. If you’re unable to resolve an issue with someone else, get up and go for a walk on your own. Even if you can’t solve the problem on your travels, you’ll be more able to find a solution when you sit back down.
  4. Don’t think you need to head outside to benefit. A walk around the office on a rainy day will be of benefit.

Next time you need to come up with ideas, unshackle yourself from convention and take your think session for a walk.

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