Faced with hard problems, many people's first instinct is to hunker down and crank out a solution. If I can just sit still and concentrate hard enough, the thinking goes, I'll find the answer.  

That approach works in situations where brute force is the missing ingredient for success. But as this fascinating recent Ezra Klein podcast featuring Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind, makes clear, for many tasks the butt-in-chair approach is likely to backfire badly. 

We think of our brains as controlling our bodies, Murphy Paul explains, but we underestimate the degree to which the opposite is also true. "We induce the body to make certain movements or enter certain kinds of spaces, like the outdoors, or move our hands in a certain way in a gesture, and that influences the way we think. And this is often a more efficient and effective way of affecting our thinking than starting and ending often with the brain and having it all happen inside our heads," she says. 

Or, put plainly, you can change how your brain works by how you move your body. Walking can be good for creativity, doodling helps us learn, and being out in nature can soothe stress. And new research reveals another way changing your physical context can alter our thinking. When you're looking to resolve a tricky conflict of any type, you're better off doing it while moving around. 

Physical movement spurs mental movement

In a recent UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center piece, Columbia University psychologist Peter T. Coleman lays out the latest research into how to best resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts. These findings are useful for negotiators and diplomats, but they're pretty handy for entrepreneurs (and romantic partners too). 

"A former student of mine named Christine Webb has tried to connect the dots between movement and conflict. Across a range of studies of humans, Webb found that locomotion increased both the motivation and the likelihood to resolve interpersonal conflicts," Coleman reports. 

People (and chimps) just seem to be much better at resolving conflicts when they're up and on their feet and walking around. Why? 

"In the human conflict-resolution world, mediators, negotiators, and diplomats of all stripes--as well as parents, teachers, managers, and other dispute resolvers--tend to spend the vast majority of their time (95 percent?) going deep into the analysis of our problems and assessment of our solutions and very little time moving--cognitively or physically--forward," Coleman notes. 

Thinking about your needs and position and the needs and position of your negotiating partner is important, of course, But people have a tendency to get stuck at this analysis stage. Literally getting up and taking a walk together helps break this impasse. Physical movement jogs mental movement. When our bodies are active, repetitive thinking patterns lose some of their grip and new solutions occur to us. 

Putting this insight to use 

Coleman offers detailed advice for conflict negotiators, but for the average entrepreneur, putting this insight to use couldn't be simpler. Next time you and your co-founder are at each other's throats, your executive team can't agree on your next move, or you and your spouse are days into a fight over household chores, don't sit down for yet another discussion of who's right and who's wrong. Instead, lace up your sneakers and get moving together.  

"Going for a walk, exercising, building something, gardening, playing catch, and running have all been shown to help shift our mind out of deep ruts and at times liberate us from dysphoric rumination and other types of adverse emotional traps," writes Coleman. 

His language might be a touch academic, but his advice is clear. You're far more likely to unstick your thinking and resolve your trickiest conflicts if you and your negotiating partner get out of your heads for awhile and do some sort of physical activity together.