Sunday, May 20, 2012

Creative Thinking Tool Kit #2: Walking

A set of stone steps I discovered on my walk today.
This post is the second in a series on what I call the Creative Thinking Tool Kit.  The tools themselves are a series of essentially low-key activities that have a big impact on creativity.  Their purpose is to both cultivate a habit of nurturing creativity and to bring our attention to the present with a sense of curiosity. Individually, they can spark strong ideas, but used in sync they become a natural spring for creative thinking.  I have listed ideas for applying or practicing with the tool at the end of the post.

I slip my house key around my wrist, tuck five dollars in my pocket, lock the door—and I am off! Bounding down the front steps, I head out into the world and weather, free to roam, explore and engage in my heart-and-mind’s favorite creative activity: going for a walk.

One of my favorite things about the best tools for increasing creativity and generating a better creative thinking process is that they are deceptively simple.  This often makes them difficult for your adult brain to rationalize, so the irony is that you have to work very hard to make them happen.  One rule of thumb for activities that support the creative process is that if it is something that makes you feel happy, curious, and eager, involves movement or making something with your hands, and makes you completely unaware of time—then you are onto something good. 

Going for a walk is my go-to thinking tool.  I find that this simple act—not solely for the purpose of getting anywhere, but for the sake of moving and thinking and looking—outright liberating.  It is one of the rare times that I leave the house without about 10+ pounds of purse, tote bag, notebooks or laptop with me.  I choose the roads and paths that are interesting or mysterious, not contingent on the clock or a schedule.

When I walk, my feet beat a steady rhythm for the melody of my thoughts.  Ideas come and go, alternately sparked and interrupted by the scenery around me.  Walking is low pressure thinking time for me to mentally touch on what is coming in the weeks ahead, what projects I am working on or need to come back to.  But it is also time to daydream, to take in the world, and let my thought be free—not governed by work, conversations, books, TV, movies—just time to roam unstructured.    

Going for a walk is not just recess or “refresh” time for your current thoughts; it is also an ideal incubation tool, allowing ideas to be mulled over in your subconscious, making connections that are influenced by the world unfolding each footstep at a time.  Author Julia Cameron, in her book The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart (and a follow up to The Artist’s Way), writes of the importance of walking and the creative process, “A creative life is a process, and that process is digestion.  We speak of 'food for thought' but seldom realize as artists we need thought for food.  Walking with its constant inflow of new images, gives us the thoughts that nourish us.  It replenishes our overtapped creative well and gives us a sense of . . . well, wellness.”

Walking also allows you to indulge your senses, an important part of “refilling the well.”  On familiar parts of my walking route, I look for and note the changes from the week or season before.  I listen, noticing that on my walk today there was no bird song, which I’ve learned usually means a Red Tailed Hawk is nearby and on the hunt.  Out across Spy Pond, near Elizabeth Island, I could see that the one of the swan couples had their two cygnets with them.  Upon returning to my neighborhood, I could smell the early scents of summer: a spicy fragrance from a newly bloomed plant, the pungent odor of blacktop in the heat, freshly mowed grass, and the smoke from a grill.  A pleasant reminder that summer is at the doorstep—and that means lots of weather perfect for going for walks, or making walking your number one mode of transportation for a happily creative summer.      

Applying & Practicing:
  • Walk everywhere: In this post, I focus on the joyful and liberating act of going for a walk, but walking as a means of transportation can have just as much power to it.  In fact, when I lived in downtown Boston and walked to the Prudential Center for work, I often did my best thinking and mental preparation for the day during that walk.  If you have a chance to add walking to your day as a part of your routine—whether it is to work, taking your kids to school, or grabbing a coffee—give it a try and observe what happens to your thinking and mood.  
  • Walk to decompress and digest:  In his book The Accidental Creative, author Todd Henry writes about including time in your schedule to decompress between activities such as work and home time.  If you already have a job that you can walk to, you may be familiar with the importance of this “buffer time.”  Taking a walk immediately following work often allows for the calming of the day’s stresses and time to digest new projects and ideas.
  • Just get out the door:  As I mentioned in the post, with the exception of when I good for a walk, it is rare that I leave the house without enough items to keep me occupied through a siege, or at least a really long business meeting.  Walking should be simple.  Walk in what you are comfortable wearing—you don’t need special clothing or even high tech shoes.  Compile the bare necessities that you need on your walk and make them walk friendly.  For me, this means a small wristlet that holds my money, my key and my phone (on silent).  It is easy to grab and get out the door before I get distracted by something that needs to be done around the house.
  • Walk for 10 Minutes: If you a struggling to add walking to your routine, or feel self conscious tooling around your neighborhood by foot, look up places in your area that are walk-friendly.  Or just jump in, get out the door and walk in any direction for 10 minutes.  By the time you reach the 10 minute marker and, if you still want to head home, the time to go back will have put a 20 minute walk under your belt.
  • Keep a journal or sketchbooks of your walks: Walking in my family is strongly connected to a chance to appreciate nature.  The Sundays of my childhood were filled with family walks around Todd’s Point in Old Greenwich where I remember that my mom would bring birdseed and feed the chickadees from her hand.  On walks now, I take pictures of the birds that I see, or call my mom when I get home to let her know that I saw a Baltimore Oriel or a Cormorant.  Keeping a journal of your walks and noting the changes in nature, the migrating species, or what you’ve observed can be a great way to learn the patterns of the natural world through the ritual of walking.  If you are in the city, or just want a more casual way to record your walks, you can keep a journal of your thoughts or route, or even sketch out what you saw.            


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