Walk This Way to Tap Into Creative Thinking

Stop-and-go walking may spur short bursts of creativity, research suggests.

Posted May 08, 2019

PetarPaunchev/iStock
Source: PetarPaunchev/iStock

What did “Daffodils” poet William Wordsworth, The Scream painter Edvard Munch, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have in common? All credited walking as an important source of creative inspiration.

For the rest of us mere mortals, research suggests that walking may stimulate our creative thinking as well. But what style of walking works best for this purpose? An intriguing study published last fall in the Journal of Creative Behavior helps shed some light on that question.

Switching things up

“It’s been widely accepted that physical activity, such as walking and jogging, increases creativity,” say Hamed Aghakhani, Ph.D., the study’s coauthor and an assistant professor of marketing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He and his colleagues set out to explore whether this creativity boost is due to the nature of the activity itself (e.g., walking) or to the change in activity level (e.g., going from sedentary to moving).

To answer this question, the researchers conducted three experiments in which study participants either walked or stayed in place for a set period. During and after this period, the participants also completed standard creativity tests, such as thinking of novel uses for common objects. The results showed that people were more creative within the first few minutes after they started walking. However, the effect wore off within 8 minutes.

Interestingly, people also experienced a quick burst of creativity when they stopped walking and went back to sitting. In fact, just knowing that their walking time was almost up — and thus anticipating a change in activity level — seemed to get their creative juices flowing. According to the researchers, switching gears from inactive to active, or vice versa, cued the need to navigate new situations. That, in turn, may have briefly increased flexible thinking.

“If someone walks for half an hour, it doesn’t mean that person will be super-creative for the whole 30 minutes,” says Aghakhani. “Instead, the boost in creativity remains for less than 10 minutes from the start time and then it reduces to the baseline level of creativity. We argue that this reduction is due to the habituation effect, which makes people get used to whatever situation they are in (i.e., continuously walking or sitting).”

Don’t just sit there

Aghakhani notes that this research has important real-world implications:

  • If you have a desk job, this is one more good reason to get up and move on a regular basis. Your creativity as well as your overall health and well-being may benefit.
  • If you’re a manager, hold meetings someplace other than the room where people normally do their jobs. “When employees have to walk from their desks to the meeting room, this may increase the creativity of those at the meeting,” says Aghakhani.
  • If you’re a teacher, “have your students stand for a few minutes and then sit, or vice versa,” Aghakhani suggests. This may bolster their creativity in the classroom.

Whatever the situation, be aware that the extra shot of creativity gained from changing your activity level is short-lived. “The first 8 to 10 minutes after the change is the golden time to find creative solutions for your problems,” says Aghakhani. “Don’t waste those moments.”

Walk, pause, walk again

When you have time for a longer walk, Aghakhani’s research implies that taking a stop-and-go approach may offer more opportunity for creative inspiration than keeping up a steady pace. You may want to bring your phone with a dictation app, your tablet, or a paper journal or sketchbook to record those flashes of brilliance along the way.

Not incidentally, frequent stops also offer more opportunity to observe your surroundings. Many noted writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, and entrepreneurs have described casual rambles through the countryside or strolls along city streets as a source of fresh ideas.

So, take your lead from the greats. Being out and about provides sights, sounds, and experiences as fodder for your next project. But that’s not all. There’s evidence that stopping here and there to observe the scene, chat with a neighbor, or simply rest may also prep your mind for more creative thinking.

References

Main, K. J., Aghakhani, H., Labroo, A. A., & Greidanus, N. S. (2018). Change it up: Inactivity and repetitive activity reduce creative thinking. Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.373