You Can’t Be Creative Without Being in Your Body

Fred Astaire in motion.

Creativity depends on being embodied. Merely having a body, that is currently hunched over a computer, does not count. To be embodied, you must be moving through the world: taking action, seeking resources, finding pleasure. Because that, as Charles Darwin noted in 1872, is what animals are meant to do.

It turns out that how you move your body through the world — and if you’re moving it at all — has a dramatic impact on your creativity. Staring at a computer screen versus walking around in the world each activate completely different types of creative thinking.

A recent study by Saeed Abdullah, Mary Czerwinski, Gloria Mark, and Paul Johns found that blue light (i.e. that stuff that streams out of your computer and phone screens) boosts your convergent thinking ability while walking increases your divergent thinking ability.

To put this in perspective, let’s quickly revisit what these two types of thinking are good for:

Divergent thinking is the process of generating and exploring a wide variety of possible ideas. It is spontaneous, free-flowing, and non-linear.

Convergent thinking is the process of evaluating and analyzing ideas to arrive at the best, most correct, or most logical answer. It is methodical, organized, and linear.

Both of these types of thinking are critical to creative problem solving, but the order of operations is important: You can’t use convergent thinking to synthesize ideas and create a plan of attack without first having used divergent thinking to generate a broad range of original ideas. Which is why it’s useful to know that, when it comes to generating ideas and getting to that a-ha moment, sitting at your desk is actually a pretty terrible idea.

Here’s why: Abdullah & Co’s study found that being exposed to blue light from your computer increased convergent thinking, or analytical thinking, by 24%, while walking improved divergent thinking, or generative thinking, by almost 18%. Other studies have shown that running, dancing, and cycling can also boost divergent thinking.

Your best thoughts don’t come when you demand them.

Most of us know this intuitively, but why does it happen? The simple answer is that walking requires more of your attention than sitting or standing does. When you’re walking, you’re dividing your attention between moving your body, what’s going on around you, and whatever you’re thinking about. The result is defocused attention. And as the study reports, “when it comes to divergent thinking, variable attention can improve creative ability. On the other hand, convergent thinking requires focused attention.”

As Bill Duggan, an intuition researcher at Columbia Business School, recently told me: “Your best thoughts don’t come when you demand them.” So if you find yourself hunched over your computer, willing an answer to a tough creative problem to emerge, you’ll be better served by just cutting yourself some slack and going for a stroll.

Gene Kelly in motion.

But enhanced creativity isn’t only upside of walking. Additional research out of Iowa State and the University of Cambridge found that going for a walk improves your mood and your overall happiness levels — even if you don’t expect to enjoy it.

And we’re not talking about going for a power walk here. Even the most routine movements — walking downstairs to talk to a co-worker, walking to the coffee shop, or walking to work — have the power to lift your mood. In one version of their experiment, the researchers at Iowa State showed participants boring videos while making them walk on treadmills in a windowless room, and they still found that the walkers’ mood was better than those who did the same activities while sitting.

Taking a broader approach, the Cambridge study tracked 10,000 men and women over the course of 17 months via a custom app that monitored participants’ activity and asked them to regularly report on their moods. They weren’t able to control for ambient factors like the positive impact of being outside, appreciating nature, or the random social interactions that often result from walking, but the data is still persuasive. The researchers’ primary takeaway:

People using the app turned out to feel happier when they had been moving in the past quarter-hour than when they had been sitting or lying down, even though most of the time they were not engaged in rigorous activity.

So if you’re stuck, frustrated, or just feeling a little bit down, I highly recommend you step away from your desk, put down your phone, and go for a walk to reactivate your mind/body connection. Creativity — and even just plain being happy — is an embodied activity.

If you’re looking for inspiration, your computer is the last place to find it.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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