Take a Step (Stroll or Meander) to More Creative Thinking
Nearly every day, you are called on to figure out new ways to outsmart the competition, grow your business or breakthrough a tricky workplace challenge. That process of coming up with novel ideas can be a messy, long, iterative procedure where one thing leads to another and then to a dead end and then over to something with some real potential and, ultimately, to an innovative idea you can actually use. To do that, the brain needs to wander.
Researchers from Stanford University have found that walking is one of the best ways to let the brain do that and open up a free flow of ideas that increases creativity. That’s important because creativity is associated with greater workplace success, healthy psychological functioning and even the maintenance of loving relationships.
What it means to be creative
We might all describe the works of an artist or poet as creative, but everyday creativity is measured not in great masterpieces but in terms of novel ideas applied in meaningful or appropriate ways. A key component of creativity is divergent thinking where you generate lots of new ideas you can refine later. The standard test for that kind of thinking is called Guilford’s Alternate Uses (GAU).
This is, for example, where you are asked to come up with multiple new uses for a common object such as a little plastic button; maybe it becomes an eye for a doll, part of a necklace, a tool for scraping goo off the floor or a way of keeping track of how many cookies you’ve eaten. The key is cognitive flexibility.
The other side of that coin is called convergent thinking where you seek a shared relationship among existing things. If you hear the words Swiss, cottage and cake, you can link all three with the word “cheese.”
Walk your way to aha moments
The Stanford researchers did not conduct any creativity training with study participants, but instead simply had them go for a walk at their natural pace. Then they tested how they performed on tests of divergent and convergent thinking. Participants walked indoors on a treadmill staring at a blank wall, walked outside on a college campus, sat during the entire study or performed a combination of walking and then sitting. The results were pretty amazing.
Regular old walking led to an improvement on the divergent thinking test for well over 80% of participants and, in some formats, 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting. In general, creative output increased about 60% after walking. “When walking, people generated more uses, and more of those uses were novel and appropriate,” the study authors wrote in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
It didn’t matter how or where the participants walked, or even if they sat down after they walked. Walking increased both the number of creative ideas people generated, and helped them tap more specifically into their own unique memory base which enabled them to come up with ideas that differed more often from those of the other participants.
Walk, talk, think
The study participants also talked significantly more to the research assistants when they were walking than when they were sitting and this seemed to stimulate more ideas as well. That finding also suggests that walking meetings might work well to help colleagues come up with innovative approaches to problems. “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks,” the study authors suggested.
Even though, in general, physical exercise has already been proven good for brain health just as it is for body fitness, these studies instead show that the simple act of taking a short, leisurely walk makes a unique contribution to boosting creativity. And, that the impact lingered immediately after the walk when participants then sat down to think. Although, interestingly, walking only improved divergent thinking — the idea-generating kind of thinking. It did not improve convergent thinking where you try to bring disparate pieces of information together.
“Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity . . . ” the researchers said.
The next time you need to noodle through a challenge or generate lots of new ways of looking at something (what scientists call “creative ideation”) try getting up and taking a walk. And consider inviting a team member to join you. The walking (and talking) may just lead to your next breakthrough innovation.