Focusing With Your Own Two Feet
There’s an easy way to clear your mind, reduce stress and anxiety, increase your happiness and sense of well-being, and generate creative thoughts and new solutions to your problems. The journey begins with a single step.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The original intent of this oft-quoted Chinese proverb is that you can accomplish a large goal through a series of small actions. While this is a far more powerful productivity technique than many realize, the answer to many problems in need of solutions also can be found in your own two feet.
A woman I know who was a senior manager in a mammoth governmental agency was constantly bombarded by her co-workers with a steady stream of issues. The problems would quickly pile up, and could easily result in a feeling of overwhelm.
Whenever she faced a particularly thorny problem, she would get up from her desk. She would take about 20 minutes and walk the halls. More often than not, by the time she returned to her office, she had thought of a new approach to the problem, and felt more confident and mentally refreshed.
What the senior manager intuitively discovered has been utilized by high achievers throughout history. Many of civilization’s most creative figures walked as an integral part of their work routine, and considered walking to be key to their success.
Charles Darwin walked along a path near his home every day to mull over research data. Nietzsche walked for hours, notebook in hand, formulating many of his civilization-changing insights along the way. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky both walked, finding inspiration for some of the most profound compositions known to humanity.
Steve Jobs walked to solve problems, and Mark Zuckerberg holds walking meetings. And they are hardly alone among high-powered businesspeople. For several years, I worked closely with Harold Grinspoon, a self-made billionaire. Of my many meetings with Harold, 90% of them were on foot. The ideas simply flowed more easily while walking than they did while sitting around a conference table.
Walking Will Help You Feel Better. As Henry David Thoreau (another walker) said, "The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise." Although of course, walking also can be good exercise, strategically incorporating walking into your day can ramp down anxiety and negative emotions, ramp up a sense of well-being and give you the mental space to approach your life and everything in it more creatively and with greater focus.
Walking Makes You Happier. If you're already reasonably happy, walking can make you happier, and it can lift you up even if you suffer from depression. And when you are more optimistic and positive, you not only feel better - you're also more productive, and better at solving problems and interacting with the people around you.
Twenty years ago, researchers at Duke University already had found that people with depression benefited at least as much from walking and other forms of moderate exercise as they did from Zoloft, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant. Since then, study after study has proven the power of moderate exercise (including walking) to control depression when compared to medication.
Walking Reduces Stress and Anxiety. If I had to boil down to one word how I help my clients solve their issues, that one word would be: relax. Musicians trying to play or perform better. Athletes trying to move to the next level. Business executives trying to find a creative solution to the problem that is holding their company back. Clients suffering from migraines.
Somewhere in the solution to all of these challenges is cultivating the ability to relax in specific ways. Stress unchecked kills creativity. Stress uncontrolled inhibits musical and athletic ability. Stress increases pain.
Walking can remove much of the stress that inhibits high performance and well-being. Almost everyone experiences stress at some point, with tens of millions experiencing full-blown anxiety disorders. Numerous studies have shown that moderate exercise can reduce or even eliminate anxiety. There is even research showing that a 10-minute walk can have the same impact on your psyche as working out for 45 minutes.
Acclaimed writer Kathleen Alcott, describing her own battle with anxiety, wrote that “there has only ever been one cure for this anxiety, and it is to walk at sunset.” Imagine approaching a difficult meeting or high-stakes presentation with greater calm and confidence because you just took a walk.
Walking Boosts Your Focus and Creativity. There is a reason why so many writers, musicians, businesspeople, and professionals of all stripes walk a lot. When you walk, the combination of movement, increasing your heart rate and breathing, and taking in the sun and fresh air clear your mind and give you a feeling of effortless focus. As with the senior manager I described at the start of this article, the act of walking clears the mind enough so that creative solutions often appear that were nowhere to be found when you were sitting behind your desk.
The idea that walking will get your creative juices flowing is more than wishful thinking. Not only have many of history’s most creative figures found their most creative ideas while walking, but modern research has quantified the impact of walking on creativity. A Stanford University study conducted four experiments to test the connection between walking and creative idea generation. All of the walking experiments produced boosts in creativity, and some by over 80%. The study concluded, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity”
Try it. Whether 10 minutes or an hour, a bit of fresh air, or even wandering around your office’s corridors, is likely to get you in a better frame of mind and boost your creativity and productivity. If you’re not sure how to get started, I’ll be sharing ways to incorporate walking into your routine in my next article.