The paradox of walking while you write: be creative or solve problems? Choose one.

Brain_Walking_TreadmillThere has been a lot of attention in the media over the last year or two about a particular research study that seems to show that our creativity goes up when we are walking. But that result completely contradicts my own own experience, so I thought I’d dig into the science. It turns out that we have to be careful with our definitions.

For the last year, I have been trying to shift my writing work from a sit-down desk to my treadmill. As I reported recently, I’ve solved the keyboard problem, and I’ve also figured out my new tool stack (which I’ll post about later), but even so, there has been one inescapable problem.

My productivity plummets when I’m walking. But why should that be the case if my creative thinking is supposed to be improved?

Well, that’s where the definitions come into play. Specifically, it depends on your definition of “creative thinking.” If you mean “coming up with more divergent or unconventional ideas,” then I have no quarrel with the claim. But the experiments reported by Oppezzo and Schwartz[1] (the paper that started this whole discussion) measured creative ideation using Guilford’s Alternate Uses test, which is a standard in the academic study of creativity. Basically, subjects are presented with a common household object, such as a brick, and asked to come up with unconventional uses for it. For example, a brick can be used to extinguish flaming ducks.

But this measures your ability to dream up interesting new things: not solve problems. And that is a crucial distinction.

If we focus our attention on the ability to solve difficult problems, research shows us that walking actually impedes progress. According to Srygley et al.[2], the process of maintaining a steady gait appears to be more taxing than a simple autonomic process. It actually demands some of your attention. To quote the paper, “Even young, healthy adults demonstrate decreased cognitive performance while walking, when the cognitive task is sufficiently difficult.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s been hampering me. I’m working on a very challenging novel right now—the third and final instalment in an established series. Consequently, it comes with a great many constraints. I not only have to construct a dramatic and fulfilling conclusion, but I am further constrained by what has already happened in the series. On top of that, I have about 8 secondary story arcs that all need to be concluded as well, each in as satisfying and surprising a manner as possible. It’s a multi-dimensional problem of Order(n!) complexity[3]. So is it any wonder that when I get bogged down trying to juggle all these variables, I stop walking and fall off the back of the treadmill?

So the science seems to be telling us that if you want to have cool new ideas, go for a walk. That would be great for, say, dreaming up new worlds, or inventing new magic systems. But if you have problems to solve, sit your butt back down in the chair. It seems we health-conscious novelists can’t get rid of our writing desks just yet.

My plan, for what it’s worth, is to use the butt-in chair method to work out the really tough plot-alignment problems, and then go back to the treadmill when I’m writing straight-forward prose to execute on the plan. I don’t know that this will be a successful strategy, but I am optimistic. After all, the science really does seem to be behind me on this.

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  1. [1]Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking
  2. [2]When does walking alter thinking? Age and task associated findings
  3. [3]Computer geek parlance for “Holy crap! That’s hard!”

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.