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World's Simplest Way to Be More Creative

A new study out of Stanford offers a dead simple intervention to try if you're in need of a creative idea.
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Sometimes science turns up wild findings or uncovers strange realities from far away galaxies or long ago times. Other times, research reminds us of the head-slappingly simple but easily overlooked. A new study out of Stanford is one of the latter kind.

Co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral student, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford’s School of Education, the study examined how volunteers fared at commonly used tests of creativity when they were seated versus when they were walking. Some were asked to use a treadmill facing a blank wall, others to take a stroll in the great outdoors, and others to sit before completing activities that asked them to brainstorm novel uses for everyday objects or come up with complex analogies.

Given that creative leaders from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg swear by walking meetings, perhaps it’s no huge surprise what the results showed. "The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors - first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking," Stanford News reports.

It’s the Movement That Counts

You might speculate that it’s the beauty of nature that does the trick when it comes to the creativity-boosting powers of walking, but the study demonstrated that even hitting a treadmill in a visually unstimulating environment led to increased idea generation. The takeaway: it’s getting off your bum that counts, not the scenery.

"I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me," Oppezzo affirmed.

When Walking Doesn’t Help

While the case for walking when coming up with new ideas seems pretty open and shut, the same can’t be said for the benefits of walking when it comes to other types of thinking. The research team also tested the effects of getting up from your desk on more focused thinking, such as you’d need in the later stages of a creative project when executing on your ideas, and didn’t find the same benefits.

"We're not saying walking can turn you into Michelangelo, but it could help you at the beginning stages of creativity," Oppezzo said.

This Stanford team isn’t the only one to come up with similar study results. A German study recently found that walking can improve working memory as well, boosting your cognitive power. Between the testimony of walking enthusiasts and these consistent scientific conclusions, it seems safe to say that walking is a really good, really simple way to unstick your mind and get the ideas flowing.

So why do you still spend so much of your day sitting at your desk?  





Last updated: May 5, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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