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Your Best Creative Work Is Just a Cognitive Walk Away

Walking helps us balance between focused and diffuse forms of thinking. Illustration by author.

I’ve spent enough time indoors these last years to know my best ideas don’t happen at a desk. With only so many daylight hours, I’ve learned that sacrificing a few of them to do the seemingly unproductive is the surest path to new creative insights. Going for a walk is the best way to do this. It’s just a matter of planning such walks to get the most significant mental boosts. I call these my cognitive walks.

History is filled with famous walkers. Charles Darwin claimed to do his best work, not in his study, but outside on a d–shaped path at the edge of his property called the Sandwalk. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” said Nietzsche, who walked with his notebook every day between 11 am and 1 pm. Dickens, the mentalist that he is, preferred to take long walks through London at night.

60% of people who walk are more creative than their non-pedestrian counterparts claims a recent Stanford study. Walking has been found to promote new connections between brain cells, staves off ageing brain tissue, increases the volume of the hippocampus (associated with memory and learning), and even stimulate the growth of neurons.

Anyone can achieve a cognitive walk, and it can be done almost anywhere, but just popping outside for a quick jaunt is not enough. The goal is to enter a diffuse mode of thinking, like a daydream, where ‘unthinking’ helps cut through our daily overthink. We need walks that both physically absorb and mentally free us long enough to trick ourselves into leaving the mind alone.

“There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher.

Cognitive walking is so good because it forces us to mentally recover and get out of what philosopher Walter Benjamin called in *1935 *a “constant state of concentrated distraction”. For example, we think a quick scroll through social media is giving us a break, but actually, it only serves to hold our attention hostage, not allowing for any true mind-wandering.

Psychologists have long hypothesised by engaging in tasks that help us take breaks and induce daydreaming help improve subsequent creativity — a phenomenon termed incubation.

Daily incubation is my goal, and I argue it should be yours as well. To get our heads into this state, I’ve found practising the following exercises beneficial while walking :

1. Get digitally naked

Leave those podcasts, those audiobooks, phone calls, messages and even music in your pocket (Apple’s new focus mode is great for this), or at home if possible.

People mistakenly believe that removing such technological distractions helps induce boredom which allows our minds to enter some kind of naturally creative state. But that’s a misnomer.

Silence isn’t an endgame. It’s a catalyst, an opportunity to discover truer things about the world outside or inside your head. — Diane Cook

Boredom, which hovers over us like a bird of prey, does not make us more creative. However, removing mental pacifiers and giving time back to ourselves does. To be content is to be bored, and curiosity is our ticket out.

Cognitive walking is an opportunity to untether from our immediate sensory environment, ponder over cluttered thoughts and allow ourselves to model something entirely different.

So do yourself a favour. Leave the distractions at home, surrender to your environment and painfully remind your brain that it needs breathing space.

2. Ask what’s new

Ask yourself questions while walking.

These questions should be reflective. A sort of “Whats top of mind right now?”, “Whats making me happiest or saddest?” or “Who is having the biggest influence?” Open-ended questions tend to work best, a type of question that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

In addition to introspective reflections, don’t hesitate to exclude some extrospective ones. An exercise in questioning everything from the material of shoelaces, the colour of the sky or even what kind of malicious god would create clamshell packaging.

“Question everything,” Albert Einstein famously said. Personal creativity and organisational innovation rely on a willingness to seek out novel information, and usually, it’s the most ridiculous question that provokes it.

Asking questions has a way of opening our heads and waking our emotional intelligence, which thankfully, in turn, makes us better questioners — a virtuous cycle.

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. — Dr Seuss

When you ask yourself a question, know that you don’t always need to have an answer. What’s important is pondering a response.

3. Name things around you

It’s funny how trying to name something suddenly makes a thing all the more visible. “More than an identity, a creature’s name is also a password”, once wrote science and nature writer Ferris Jabr.

Try naming the things around you, from a species of tree to the type of street lamp.

Our ability to think about the world is limited by our ability to describe it, or what philosopher Richard Rorty called: a Final Vocabulary. A final vocabulary is the set of words we carry about that justifies our actions, our beliefs, our sense of the world and our place within it.

Uncovering the gaps in our final vocabulary is the surest way to think differently and try new things. It permits noticing the unknown and unpredictable within our existing environments.

So try to name the seemingly mundane things around you. After all, it’s hard to research or otherwise learn much about the small brown bird you just encountered — but you can find out quite a lot once you know it’s a house sparrow.

4. Complain about stuff

Without complaint, there can be no progress. The trick is to treat negativity as a means, not an end.

Author and speaker Seth Godin once suggested a positively negative way to look at the world is by simply asking, “What’s broken?

Complaining is an exercise of continually questioning everything around you and pondering how to make it better. I find myself doing this for everything from coffee shop queues to the rubbish dumped in the local canal.

The trick is not to use complaining to consume our minds but as a tool to provoke curiosity. Complaining is not just about understanding the reality of a problem but trying to contemplate what factors lead to such issues in the first place.

5. See the world as a historian

To see the world as a historian is to ask ourselves to look upon the world as if it’s the first time. A continual exercise of trying to identify what slice of life evokes the whole cake.

The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk — Charles Baudelaire, French poet

You don’t need to be a historian to do this. All it requires is you pose yourself a question: “What are the preconditions, the things that have to be in place, for what we observe to be a casually accepted part of a public environment?”

What sum of social movements, motives, infrastructure, events and fears means I can stand safely in a queue for coffee on Sunday evening in the middle of winter, wearing nothing more than Speedos, and nobody looks twice?

An exercise to try is next time you are confronted with some scene or situation that feels numbingly familiar, stop and ask: What would a child see here?

6. Seek the mundane

Tour guides usually urge people to “look up!” when exploring a city, but a downward glance sometimes offers more insightful perspectives.

While strolling, we should strive to take a page out of the Dull Men’s Club motto and “Celebrate the Ordinary.”

Dr Shepherd Thomas Taylor, who studied medicine in the 1860s, would walk the streets of London pencil in hand to sketch drain hole covers. The doctor described “these discs and squares” as “like abstract flowers in an otherwise arid field, bringing a note of flippant gaiety into the often depressing city surroundings.” How wonderful it must be to recognise the beauty in the mundane.

Maybe drain holes are not your thing, but an appreciation of the dull can be applied to anything from bricks to security cameras to depressing Latvian bus stops.

Sometimes I like to take my busted DSLR camera along for a stroll to snap up these mundanities. It’s not that my phone can’t take decent photos, but using a dedicated piece of equipment gives me renewed visual attention. Taking pictures is not the point. As photographer Dorothea Lange’s would say, “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”.

We walk because we can’t fly, but spending some time outdoors is the next best thing. I don’t know if it’s the connection with nature, but there is a brief period when you sit down after a long walk where it just feels like anything is possible.

Despite the guilt of leaving work behind, I know when the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, walking is the only thing I should be doing.

We shouldn’t try to measure the productive output of a walk; to do so would be to defeat the point in a similar way that watching a pedometer is both an instrument of control and self-punishment. The point of cognitive walking is that for it to work, it needs to be pointless. Like a breaking wave expanding outwardly and then inwardly retreating, walking helps us induce the mental oscillation between being impactful and impactless.

So next time you encounter a creative block, an unsolvable problem, a computer that strikes abruptly — stop. Take it as a sign from the universe to shut down not only your tools but also yourself. You have taken in all you can, and now you need some time to make sense of it all.

In much the same way we plan the routes for our strolls, a cognitive walk helps our minds silently transcribe a trail of thoughts. It is our ticket for navigating the treacherous mental terrains to come.

A lot of times, when you have to walk a thousand miles and you take the first step, it looks like a long way, and it really helps if there’s someone there saying ‘Well we’re one step closer…. The goal definitely exists; it’s not just a mirage out there.’ — Steve Jobs


  • The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You — Book, Amazon