There is no longer any doubt that creativity – a critical ingredient of robust decision-making – is improved when walking. A group of researchers at Stanford found that when people were walking, either on the treadmill or outdoors, they ended up being 60% more creative than when seated. The reasons why this causation exists are still not fully understood. It may simply be that walking improves our mood and that a happy mind lets thinking and creativity flourish with greater ease. Or it may divert energy that would otherwise damp down creative thinking.
The peripatetic Greek philosophers already understood the deep connection between walking and thinking, but Nietzsche was the first to assert that the kind of thinking that happens when we walk is superior to that which occurs when we shut ourselves off in our studies. This may be the reason why so many CEOs, investors and heads of state (President Obama advocated it) have embraced the mantra of “walking for thinking”. Ironically, the benefits of walking for better decision-making are today increasingly espoused by those who flourish digitally. As reported by CNN and other media outlets, “Silicon Valley’s top execs are obsessed with taking walks”. Many of them, when they face a critical decision have made it a habit to take a stroll, particularly in nature. Lawrence Levy, Pixar’s first chief financial officer, went for hundreds of walks with Steve Jobs in the shadows of Palo Alto’s trees, observing that “There’s something about being outside, doing something physical, taking in the air. Looking at the environment I found really conducive to connecting.” Steve Jobs was famous for his long walks that he used not only for exercise and contemplation, but also for problem solving and meetings. Walter Isaacson, in his biography (“Steve Jobs”), indicates that: “taking a long walk was his (Job’s) preferred way to have a serious conversation”.
Today, Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is equally famous for his walks in which he takes people he is considering to recruit. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, recalls that when he first had the idea of starting an online store, he mentioned it to his boss who then suggested they take a walk in Central Park, where they spent hours walking and discussing it. Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, does also walking meetings behind its Mountain View, California, offices. In his opinion, discussing while walking eliminates distractions and makes the conversation more direct and candid. He makes an interesting point about direct eye contact: because it is rare when walking shoulder to shoulder, it may encourage some employees to raise an issue from which they would otherwise refrain for fear of engaging in conflict.
The ultimate beauty of walking for better decision-making is that we don’t necessarily have to strive for it. Letting our mind wander is OK. Daydreaming, an indulgence that comes easily when walking, may have a bad reputation, but it is unfair and unfounded. Recent research in neuroscience shows that a wandering mind is not only typical (so there is nothing to be ashamed about!), but might also be beneficial for creativity. There is some virtue in an idle mind! Building pockets of stillness into our life… going for walks with no particular direction in mind… even going nowhere in particular: this is sometimes how the best ideas and the most robust decisions come to us. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we decide to go for a walk having spent time mulling over a particular issue, our subconscious mind goes on working on the issue. Having the mind freer and slightly relaxed allows it to explore different hypotheses, to review several combinations of ideas and to test out different solutions. And then suddenly an “aha!” moment pops into our head. The walk has then accomplished its miracle…