Writers have known for years how important walking is to fostering the creative process. Now science backs it up.
On those days when my writing isn’t coming to me (like today, to be honest) I take a long walk. Sometimes I go on a run. During that walk (or run) I think through the problems I’m having and figure out why I’m stuck.
Often, this leads me to insight about my writing – sometimes new ideas, most of the time solving the problems that plagued my writing before the walk.
Writers like Stephen King swear by walking to help them with the creative process. Many writers swear by long walks to foster their creative output. There’s no doubt that walking regularly helps keep you healthy, but does it help your creativity?
A recent study from researchers at Stanford University shows that yes, walking sparks creative output:
The research comprised four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks commonly used by researchers to gauge creative thinking. Participants were placed in different conditions: walking indoors on a treadmill or sitting indoors—both facing a blank wall—and walking outdoors or sitting outdoors while being pushed in wheelchair—both along a pre-determined path. Researchers put seated participants in a wheelchair outside to present the same kind of visual movement as walking.
Different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one, were also compared. The walking or sitting sessions used to measure creativity lasted anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks being tested.
The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors—first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking.
What does this mean for writers? It means that your afternoon walks are worth it for that creative bump. It also means that writing like a human spam is a bad idea: a lot of “how we write” isn’t “writing,” it’s allowing yourself time to reflect and think. That means knowing when to stop and knowing when to get away from the writing desk.
We covered a lot of these writing techniques on the Critical Margins Podcast last week (see Epidsode 6: How Did You Become A Writer?). And without a doubt, reading a lot, writing every day, and taking time to generate ideas are the best ways to become a productive writer. Waiting for the muse isn’t worth it, but now you can be assured that a long walk might help you foster those ideas that one day may become a book.
When I take long walks, I bring my smartphone with me and use Evernote’s audio note-taking feature to record my thoughts if they come to me. I treat the walk like a lengthy conversation with myself. The advantage of recording these ideas on the smartphone is that if I run into someone on my walk, I won’t look quite as crazy as I would if I was talking to myself. Or worse, if I tried to write while walking.
So now that science backs up the benefit of “wasting time,” why not go on a long ramble? Then, when you’re done, get back to writing. I look forward to reading it when you’re done.