Every weekday morning, I take a three-and-a-half mile walk around my neighborhood, in pretty much whatever weather my New England town throws at me. I split an apple and give half to each of the horses at the corner of Cross Street. The sounds of their chomps and slurps fill me with vicarious happiness.
When I was a kid I walked to school every day with John Flaherty, Doug Casey, and Rollie Graham. At the end of the day, after debate practice, Bill Bailey, Paul Salamanca, and I would walk home. We never stopped talking for a minute, and we could have used another hour each day to say all that was on our minds.
Part of the reason I created the Breast Cancer 3-Days, a charity walk, back in 1998, was to offer women with breast cancer and their supporters the luxury of having three days to converse, to daydream, and to imagine—without any of the aggravation of day-to-day life intruding.
But we’re wrong to think of walking only as a way to calm the mind, a source of exercise, or as a leisurely luxury. When it comes to work, walking can dramatically increase productivity. In a very real sense, walking can be work, and work can be done while walking. In fact, some of the most important work you may ever do can be done walking.
Last year I gave the closing talk at the 2013 TED Conference. The talk has been viewed nearly three million times and is now one of the 100 most-viewed TED talks of all time. I rehearsed the talk entirely on icy-cold morning walks over the course of about two months last January and February. Far from a luxury, I dreaded those walks, because my rehearsing was hard work. The productivity of that hour was so dense—it was mentally exhausting. Had I stayed home, chained to my desk, where most of us are taught that real serious work happens, the work would have been easier—but far less productive. I’d have gone online every few minutes to check a favorite news site. Grabbed a chocolate chip cookie or a glass of water. Checked my e-mail. Walking affords no such distractions. It’s just you and the work.
A 2013 study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato from Leiden University found that people who go for a walk or ride a bike four times a week are able to think more creatively than people who lead a sedentary life. The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those benefits are independent of mood. Sunlight also boosts serotonin levels, which can improve your outlook.
These findings are absolutely true for me. The first mile of my walk is just a racket of competing voices of judgment and to-do lists. But after about two miles, no matter how low my mood may have been at the outset, those voices settle down.
Henry David Thoreau said famously, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” The endorphin increase that comes with climbing hills makes the ideation that happens almost predictable. There are particular spots on my walks at which the ideas begin popping into my head, as if dropping from a magic tree on the side of the road there. Many refinements in essential phrases or visuals for my TED talk came to me at that spot.
But it’s work. The ideas don’t come unless I’ve engaged with the issue at hand. If I had U2 blaring in my ears, which would be a lot easier, they’d stay buried or just out of reach.
Last year my company, Advertising for Humanity, was up against a final deadline for a big branding assignment for a major client, and after months of work the idea just wasn’t gelling. On a morning walk it came to me. The new campaign has been a huge success. Our creative team did a walk together a few months back for another major assignment. The road seemed to be far more effective than a whiteboard for distilling the problem down to its essence. The clearing we created led to yet another big idea that has been a phenomenal success.
Walking is great for professional heart-to-heart talks. When I was running a large business in Los Angeles, I would often take employees on walks down Sunset Boulevard to talk things out. Biographer Walter Isaacson noted that walking was Steve Jobs’s preferred way to have a serious conversation. It’s not a break. It’s a change of scenery, but it’s work. The walking just makes it more productive work. The movement makes the conversation less stiff, more authentic, more responsible, even.
So, when you really need to get something done, get away from your computer and your conference room, and go for a long walk. It’s not a luxury. It’s work.