The Daily Walk & Divergent Thinking Experiment

Can something as simple as a walk increase your capacity for coming up with new ideas, divergent thinking, and overall creative thinking? There is evidence to suggest that the answer is “yes” and this article will give you tips on how to test it out for yourself.

A 2014 study found increased creative thinking from walking. The researchers conducted a series of experiments involving sitting, walking on a treadmill, and walking outdoors. You can read the entire study for details, but a quick summary is that walking increased the capacity for ideation and divergent thinking as measured by pre-existing creative thinking tests, one of them being the Guilford Alternative Uses Test. This is a test that asks people to create a list of possible alternative uses to an object like a brick or paperclip. Lists are analyzed for any number of factors, including the volume and novelty of ideas. In this study, they found greater novelty and “higher quality analogies” after walking outside, but walking on a treadmill and outside both increased creative thinking. They also found a residual effect after the walk, meaning that there was evidence of increased creative thinking while sitting after a walk.

Are you ready to test this out for yourself? Here is a life experiment for you to try. While it might not be controlled enough for formal validation, there is plenty that you can learn about yourself and how to get the creative juices flowing.

  1. Unlike the formal experiment, this one is intended to be conducted 5 days in a row.
  2. Block off 15-20 minutes on each of 5 days, designating it for your walk. You can walk on a treadmill, outside, or a combination of the two.
  3. Find a small notebook and pen (or you can use your phone) to jot down ideas during your walk. You can even experiment with using an audio recorder versus writing.
  4. For each of the 5 days, choose a simple but important problem that you want to solve. It doesn’t need to be major. It could be as simple as trying to come up with a great gift idea for a friend or family member. Or you can make it about work, a creative project, a hobby, or future planning.
  5. Begin each 20 minute time slot by writing down the problem/question and starting with an initial list of ideas. Do this seated for the first 5 minutes.
  6. Then continue the brainstorming for the next 10-15 minutes while going on your designated walk.
  7. As you have time, consider recording a few observations and experiences from the exercises.
  8. On days 2, 3, 4, and 5; do the same thing, but with a different problem/question.
  9. At the end of the week, review your lists and ideas. Consider writing down any lessons, questions, or observations. What did you learn about yourself and the role of walking?

Tips:

  • This is obviously not a scientifically valid experiment. It is more about getting to know yourself and exploring ways to improve ideation and divergent thinking. As such, consider experimenting with different approaches. Try it with a partner, in different environments, using different ways to record your ideas, different walk lengths, or maybe pausing and sitting every 5-10 minutes of the walk before continuing.
  • Regarding the idea of doing it with a partner, consider trying this as a walking meeting with a co-worker or colleague and you collaborate on a solution to a new problem at work or want to explore a new possibility. Just don’t forget the important debriefing at the end of the experiment.
  • Given that you will be writing ideas on occasion, it is wise to choose a walking path in advance, one that is safe for such an activity.
  • Reflection is often the most fruitful part of a life experiment, so be sure to give yourself time at the end of the 5 days for journaling and reflecting on the experiences.

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