Here’s one idea to get you typing again.
I used to think I was the only crazy writer who paced figure-eights around my living room. Then I stayed a few days with a writer friend.
“You do it too!” I exclaimed one day when I caught her marching around the apartment.
“Pace when you’re thinking.”
“Oh, yeah. I didn’t even think about it, but I suppose you’re right. It helps when I’m stuck.”
I’m not sure those were the exact words of our conversation, but it was along those lines. The point is, I was simultaneously relieved I wasn’t mental, and intrigued as to why the simple act of getting moving helped both of us to get the words flowing again.
And it’s not just pacing to cure writer’s block. I have some of my best non-writing ideas when out for a walk or run. I don’t deliberately set out to think through specific problems or issues, but somehow my brain engages with my legs and all of a sudden I’m an ideas machine.
After finding out I wasn’t alone, I set out to do some research. And it turns out there’s some science behind the idea.
In a 2014 Stanford University study, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwarz found across four different experiments that walking increased creative ideation. Their conclusion left no room for doubt:
“Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.” —Oppezzo & Schwarz
And in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Pang quotes a number of studies demonstrating the positive effects of aerobic exercise on creativity.
Interestingly, Pang points out that these effects don’t transfer to people who don’t normally exercise. In fact a 2013 study found that exercise actually impaired the thinking of non-athletes.
“If you’re a couch potato, a spin class or 10K right before a brainstorming session will be exhausting, not energizing.” — Alex Pang
This is all encouraging news. I ran a marathon thirteen years ago, and immediately followed it up with thirteen years of zero aerobic exercise (turns out running a marathon is really hard). I got away with those years of inactivity relatively unscathed, until a year ago when I hit menopause.
Cue weight gain.
In my quest to live a healthy creative life, and lose the extra kilos, I rediscovered running. I’m building (very slowly) toward a marathon later this year, and so far so good. I run slow, which is fine with me, and has produced some unexpected benefits.
Walking (or pacing around the living room) has always been a great way to get the creative juices flowing, but I didn’t think running could be. I remembered running as more of an all-out effort, my brain too focused on keeping me alive to worry itself with creative work. Indeed, Alex Pang seems to agree.
“A long walk or hike can stimulate new ideas in the moment; a long run stimulates ideas afterward and improves your ability to turn good ideas into creative works.” — Alex Pang
When I first started running again this held true — my creative brain wasn’t much chop during the run, but afterwards I produced some of my best work. Recently, though, I’ve started a new training program, with the emphasis on slower running.
In addition to reducing my risk of injury, running slow has the added benefit of allowing my mind to wander like it does on a long walk.
So I’ll leave you with this advice: If you’re stuck on a creative project, try pacing, going for a walk, or even a slow run, to get your subconscious working on the problem. But make sure you take a notebook or your phone with you — you want to record those gems!