Get walking

29 June, 2015

For the sake of creativity, health, productivity and communication…take a walk!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to you about carving out pauses and moments for reflection in our everyday lives. Why we need to step back from the fast paced humdrum around us and take the time to reflect on what really matters. And how to ring fence this time for ourselves, often enough and for long enough.

Many of you wrote back with your thoughts on what you want to try doing differently to make this possible. One great way to build in pauses, as some of you mentioned, is by taking walks. So, drawing from this, my message today focuses on walking and how apart from just the fitness factor, it also makes you more creative and productive. And how you can work walking into your everyday routine.

I recently came across a great blog post by Andrew Tate, a freelance writer and neuroscientist, called ‘Why everyone from Beethoven, Goethe, Dickens, Darwin to Steve Jobs took long walks and why you should too’, that talks about just this.

Please read on…

One day, when Marc Andreessen, the money man behind such tech giants as Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga, was out driving around his home in Palo Alto, California, he nearly hit a crazy old man crossing the street.

Looking back at the fool he had nearly run over he noticed the trademark blue jeans and black turtle neck. “Oh my god! I almost hit Steve Jobs!” he thought to himself.

It was Jobs that day, out on one of his many walks around the Palo Alto area, where Apple are based. Steve Jobs was famous in the area for his long walks, which he used for exercise, contemplation, problem solving, and even meetings. And Jobs was not alone. Through history the best minds have found that walking, whether a quick five minute jaunt, or a long four hour trek, has helped them compose, write, paint, and create.

Here are five reasons that walking is one of the best ways you can spend your time, and how it can help you think better, get more done, relate better, and live longer.

1. It will help make you more creative

Though most people have always thought that their best ideas came when they were on the move, now there is scientific evidence to back them up. A 2014 study from Stanford University in the US has shown that people are much more creative when they are walking around as opposed to when they are sitting still. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, who both authored the paper, studied 176 college students as they completed certain creative thinking tasks.

In this study, the authors used an experiment known as Guilford’s Alternative Uses Task. As part of this, the participants were asked to list as many alternative uses for a common object as they can. For instance, a knife could be used to spread butter, to cut bread, to stab someone, or to flick peas. The answers were then scored on originality, number of ideas and detail.

In their study, Oppezzo and Schwartz got the students to perform this task in a few different variations. Either sitting indoors or sitting outdoors, or walking on a treadmill indoors, or walking outside.

They found that when people were walking, either on the treadmill or outdoors, they were 60% more creative than when sitting around.

To add to this, 81% of the participants saw an increase in creativity when they were walking.

What’s more, when the participants took a second test after walking, they were still more creative, showing the positive effects of walking continued even after they sat down again.

Though there is no further research into how exactly walking makes you more creative, it is likely that it helps to increase blood flow all around your body, including to the brain to stimulate creativity.

Another interesting finding from the study was that there was no difference between walking on a boring treadmill indoors, and being outside among the birds and the bees. This shows that it is not the environment or sensation that is making walkers more creative, but just the act of walking alone.

It wasn’t all good news for walking in the study though. The researchers also found that if you had to do focused thinking while walking, answering questions that required a single correct answer, the results were no better than when sitting.

This study should give you some evidence if you want to build walking into your daily and business life. A simple walk outside can aid your creative brain if you find yourself stuck at a desk and unable to elicit the next bright spark. Instead of sitting, waiting for inspiration to strike, head outside for five minutes and see if the extra blood flow can get the creative juices flowing.

2. It will help you stay healthy

In a TED talk two years ago, Nilofer Merchant, a business innovator that pounds the same Silicon Valley streets as Andreessen does and Jobs did, advocated the virtues of meetings on the move. She had trouble fitting exercise into an already hectic day so started taking her meetings standing up.

In her TED talk she produced a startling statistic – we are on our butts for almost 10 hours of the day on average.

For many it will be many more as they sit at their desks for the working day and then head home to slump in front of the TV or computer. This is not good for us. Not only are our flabby behinds not built for sitting, but neither are our hearts.

Physical inactivity can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and a large number of cancers. It just doesn’t do us any good to sit around all day. Merchant describes sitting as the new smoking – something which we all do now that is slowly killing us, and that in 10, 20, 50 years time people will look back on as crazy.

In fact, walking is as close to a magic pill that we have. Just 30 minutes of walking each day is enough to dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and dementia.

Though a good 30 minute walk each day would be best, if you do not have time then you can consider breaking it down into more manageable chunks. 10 minutes in the morning, at noon, and in the evening each will add up and help get your body used to a bit of exercise and like help your heart and brain out as well.

3. It will help you be more productive

If you’ve ever watched the TV show The West Wing you will have heard of the phrase “walk and talk”. In every single episode, the busy staffers of the presidential office were “just too busy, goddammit” to sit around and have meetings, so they would always be discussing, conniving, and gossiping on the move. Though this has become a cliché, something the cast now send up, it’s actually a brilliant idea.

Meetings on the move or walking meetings are very “in vogue” at the moment, particularly in Silicon Valley. The idea being that there is no reason really to hold a meeting over a big piece of wood, so why not take it outside and get some exercise at the same time. Nilofer Merchant says that walking meetings now account for 70% of her exercise during the week, and that they are far more productive than other types of meetings.

For one, there is little distraction. People leave their blackberry’s and smartphones in their pockets when out of a walking meeting, and obviously do not have one eye on their computer screen as can happen when you meet with someone in their office. Plus, you know that you are not going to be disturbed if you are out and about. Of course, this leads to problems for some people.

iPhone Separation Anxiety is real, and people do not like the idea about being away from their desks and electronic contact for any length of time.

Also, people do not know how to act or conduct themselves in such meetings. How do you take notes on the move, for instance? (hint: the same way you do when sitting down – with a pen and paper). Merchant says that, though people can feel awkward about such meetings, they soon see the benefits and are happy to go for walk and talks if you give them a heads up. They then can dress appropriately in sneakers instead of high heels.

Of course, the previously mentioned health and creativity benefits also make walking meetings far better than their sit-down cousins.

If you want to start having your meetings on the move, the best idea is to start with a colleague that also wants to get out and about. Arrange a walking meeting each week where you can discuss work issues together and brainstorm ideas. Then you can reach out to others to gauge interest. As Merchant says, give people warning that you are going mobile and you will probably not have any complaints, and probably a lot more ideas.

4. It’s a great way to communicate

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg both like first meetings with people to be on the move. This is because a walking conversation is so much more natural and distraction-free than most other types of meetings.

Part of this is because these type of meetings are not so great in that there are more than two people. Though you can get a group of people together for a mass walk and talk, it makes more sense for these meetings to be a one-on-one. The job interview for my first job in science was a walking meeting, as me and my soon-to-be boss walked through the streets of Lausanne, Switzerland discussing where we wanted neuroscience to be in 20 years time.

The naturalness of two people walking along in deep discussion and thought is definitely why these walking meetings are catching on.

You might find that if you are having difficulty communicating an idea to a colleague, then you both heading outside and taking the idea for a few laps around the local park helps immensely.

Again, it is likely that the increased blood flow helps you to come up with not only more creative ideas and solutions to problems, but also helps you express those ideas more fluently and helps you communicate with co-workers.

5. You will be following in the footsteps of giants

Steve Jobs’ penchant for walks was revealed in the recent Walter Isaacson biography of the man and the reason for walking’s recent renaissance within the tech elite, but he was hardly the first creative genius to discover that ideas flourish on the move.

Beethoven was an avid walker, taking short breaks to stretch his legs while working, and then spending his afternoons wandering around Vienna. He always took a pencil and paper with him to write down anything that struck him. You can see, or rather hear, the influence of these woodland walks in his symphonies, particularly his 6th Symphony, known as his Pastoral Symphony for its country and woodland elements.

Beethoven’s love of walking rubbed off on another genius of the time, Goethe. The composer and the poet met in the resort town of Teplice on the Czech-German border and went for a walk and talk through the town. Perhaps, though, this is not the best example of a great walking meeting as, though Beethoven originally idolized Goethe, this was very much a case of never meet your idols. The two disliked each other and never met again. Though I hope Goethe continued his walks.

Another of history’s walking enthusiasts was Charles Dickens. Whether in London or at his country house in Kent he always took long walks. And when I say long, I mean long. Dickens could rack up 30 miles a day, or rather night, walking. He would walk whenever the mood took him and whenever he had something to think about, continuing around the streets of London or the country lanes of Kent until the issue was resolved in his head.

This may be a case of the cure is worse than the disease – walking 30 miles each day is unlikely to be very good for you or your joints. If 30 minutes is the minimum you are supposed to walk, then 30 miles is probably nearing the maximum. But it worked for Dickens, as he created some of his most remarkable and memorable characters when out walking, either through thought or through observing the city and people around him.

Another Victorian heavyweight that enjoyed a ramble around Kent was another Charles, Charles Darwin. Darwin had a gravel path installed at his home, not unlike a race track, that he would walk around each day as he thought about problems. The number of laps he did depended on the difficultly of the problem at hand. He would stack stones at the start of his walk and the knock them down one by one as he went round, describing the difficulty of the problem as a three, four, or five-flint problem.

Jobs’ walks around Silicon Valley have led to this being a particularly common trait among young tech leaders.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, in particular is very fond of a walking meeting. If you are lucky enough to be being considered for a high up position at Facebook, don’t expect to be interviewed by Zuckerberg in his office. No, the man will take you on a tour of the campus, pointing out the different divisions and sounding you out about your experience and thoughts on the company. His piecè de résistance is to finish the walk and talk meeting on a promontory overlooking Silicon Valley and the other tech giants, telling you that he is bigger, better, and richer than all below, in true super-villain style. Presumably you get pushed off if you decline his offer.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and now heading up digital finance company Square, takes all new hires at Square for his ‘Gandhi walk’ on their first Friday. This is an epic walk through the streets of San Francisco to the Square offices while he espouses on the guiding principles behind Square.

If you are choosing to spend your afternoons rambling in the woods, or chose to take people out for a wander rather than meet in a stuffy office, you know you are in good company.

Take a walk today!

The conclusion is… walking is great. Not only will it make you more creative, it will help you get those ideas over to your colleagues better and allow you to fit more into your day. All while helping you not to die early. Fantastic.

So, why don’t we do it? Well, sometimes it’s cold outside, or raining, or we are feeling sluggish, or any other of a thousand reasons we have to not get up and out each day.

But if you start with just finding a few extra minutes each day for a walk, or try to move some part of your day, such as meetings outside, then you’ll find that walking is as natural as… walking. You’ll think more, do more, learn more, and live longer. Get walking!

One person at GCPL who does a great job of using his love for walking to create meaningful time for reflection, is Anand Rangaswamy. Anand heads our Latin America and UK businesses and is deeply passionate about leadership development. He takes a keen personal interest in his team and a lot of the time that he spends mentoring them, ends up being on what he calls ‘leadership walks’. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept – these are long walks (for up to four of five hours sometimes) that Anand takes his team members on, to talk about their personal journeys. They do this fairly often over weekends. Of course, this also means that if you aren’t in good shape, your leadership journey could be an uphill task in more ways than one! The walking habit was even taken up a notch by the UK team – they got together last year to climb Snowdonia, the highest mountain in Wales, and raise funds for a children’s hospice. It was a great way to bond as a team and champion a cause.

So, why not give walking a shot? It doesn’t have to be an elaborate routine. All you really need is a few minutes. Here are five quick tips on how to get started:

  1. Make it part of your routine – Set aside time for it. You will be much more likely to end up doing it. Drop your daughter to the bus, or school if it is close by. Take your dog for a morning walk. Walk to work, if you can.
  2. Find a walking buddy– Someone who lives nearby and you can pair up with, or even a colleague to take a walk with during lunch. It really helps to have someone who won’t let you off the hook easily.
  3. Throw in some competition– There are a number of apps and fitness trackers (Moves, Map my walk, Runtastic pedometer) available today. Most come with inbuilt messaging that will challenge and push you to do more. You can even team up with your friends for added competition.
  4. Look for opportunities– Get up and walk around in ad breaks during TV shows. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Try walking meetings.
  5. Make it fun– Carry your favourite music. Find a walking trail that you really enjoy. Make this quiet time. Make it time to catch up with a friend.

I know that many of you are keen on walking. It would be great if you could share your thoughts and stories with the rest of our team and maybe even buddy some of us who are starting out. If you have any suggestions you have on other ways to build in pauses, do share those too. As always, I look forward to hearing from you.


  • Sunita says:

    We all know it’s good for us, however, not end up doing it regularly. Thanks for this reminder. People at Godrej are blessed with an office environment, where they can actually walk around a lot. Thanks for inspiring us to do it more often, through this blog.


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