Let’s go for a walk?
Apparently Nietzsche said: “Only thoughts that come by walking have any value”. If there is one (arguably helpful) piece of advice I could not hear anymore after a year in home office, it’s definitely this one. “Well, then go for a walk!”. Walking, again. What for? Where to?
2020 has definitely been the year of walks. And like many, a few months ago, I became really discouraged by the mere idea of it. Walking was just not the powerful yet simplest way to clear my head anymore.
In the middle of the winter lockdown, I just stopped. I stopped walking for… well, too many days. I’m exercising quite a lot from home, so I get my daily dose of movement, and meeting goals such as 20,000 steps a day does not motivate me enough.
That’s when I decided to set an intention before my daily walk.
[The screenshot is an extract of my calendar and indicates “Walk in the sun ☀️ with intention ✨”]
And as easy as it looks, both the acts of planning a walk and naming it made a huge difference for me.
[The screenshot is a WhatsApp interaction. The first text reads: “Good naming also makes IT more tempting☺️” and the second “This does the job for me, I guess my brain is easy to trick 😅”]
This blog post is not about how great walking is. Rather, it is about the small steps (quite the appropriate metaphor) that have helped me regain a sense of purpose. Because somehow, a mini system emerged out of these intuitive patterns, I retrace four practices that keep me grounded and may give your walk new impetus.
Inspirational walks are for those dull days when you feel like nothing creative, nothing exciting, nothing new is happening. You can let yourself be surprised by your surroundings, of course. You can also purposedly decide to learn something on your walk.
Inspirational walks are accompanied by podcasts or audiobooks on specific themes that I download in advance (it is all about the intention for me). Among my favorite ones in French are Les Pieds sur terre on France Culture and Émotions by Louie Media. If I need inspiration regarding academic writing, I always find or get reminded of important tips in the Academic Womxn Amplified podcast by Cathy Mazak. When it comes to teaching, I love listening to an episode of Barbi Honeycutt’s podcast.
To me, inspirational walks are not only about putting headphones on. The idea is to actively explore a topic I am interested in and engage in a reflection with myself, for instance by jotting down a few ideas on my way back home. In order to fully benefit from these walks, I need to be restored and a bit prepared (for instance, by taking a notebook with me). I also need to be open to new ideas, so these walks are also about being in the right mindset. Most of my teaching ideas come up during those talks.
Restorative walks are silent. Easy, right? You basically go for a walk, just like that. In fact, in order to be restorative for me, these walks also need to be structured as such. This is meditation in action. I feel that it’s not the same as just walking, however, as I focus my energy on welcoming emotions and thoughts and, if needed, letting them go with purpose.
As these walks happen quite intuitively, sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, I don’t have a proper structure to share with you, but I do believe that for these walks to work, putting our phones on silent mode is helpful as well as recognizing that some things may show up and that we may need some alone time afterwards. These walks work better for me at the end of the day, when I know that I can come back whenever I feel ready. If I find myself thinking about problems to solve, I recognize the pattern and let it go for another day (or walk, see below).
These are the “clear your mind” walks from which, to be honest, I have almost never had new (academic) ideas. But this is not the point of these walks: they are about taking time for ourselves and finding our rhythm as we move. Most think these walks are slow, but they don’t have to, really. If I’m angry, they’ll in fact be quite rapid.
By the way, for me, this also works wonderfully on my bike 🙂
Creative walks are for when I feel stuck (in my academic writing or in my personal life). This is problem-solving walking: I define a concrete problem at the beginning of the walk (refining my research question, deciding whether I want to say yes to a project, finding my title’s article, coming up with a provisory structure for my talk, strategically choosing in which language I’ll write my next paper, etc.) and purposely and actively focus on resolving this problem during my walk. When I come back home, I know what to do.
The technique has been described by Cal Newport in Deep Work as “Meditate Productively”. I don’t subscribe to the productivity mindset (especially as I don’t think meditation should be meant to make us more productive), nor do I believe that you can (or should) try to invest almost every “period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering” to turn it into a phase of deep work (as seems to be suggested in the book).
I don’t “take advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted” because I still believe that taking a shower in silence and with no focused thoughts is okay (maybe even… essential?). Rather, I wait until a concrete problem shows up. Then, I go on a creative walk.
This being said, Cal Newport gives two important tips:
- “Be Wary of Distractions and Looping” by coming back to the problem you posed at the beginning instead of escaping it (which may be tempting if you are unsure of how you want to proceed or if you are not ready to make a decision)
- “Structure Your Deep Thinking” by introducing variables to solve your problem: “For example, if you’re working on the outline for a book chapter, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the chapter”.
Then, ask yourself what the “next-step question” might be, for instance “How am I going to effectively open this chapter?”.
Finally, “consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified”.
These walks are the most demanding ones. I am confident that they work for me because the stakes are never extremely high (no, I don’t write papers on my daily walks) and because they do not happen too regularly, but only when there is a real need for it. In those cases, they do wonders!
Walk & Talk
Finally, I have recently introduced “Walk & Talk” for conversations with friends or co-workers of about one hour. Instead of meeting for another online session, we both go out on a walk.
Obviously, it’s easier if you don’t have to work on a collaborative document, but it can also work if only of the two is in front of their laptop (we can then decide before the meeting who will take notes and who will go on a walk, and we alternate). In the end, I have found that we are more focused when the tasks are defined in advance, but also more motivated if the meeting is not another one in front of our laptops.
It is also possible to introduce “Walk & Talk” for coffee breaks for an espresso in the sun. The idea of not seeing someone else (as well as my own face) over a screen feels relaxing to me. It does feel like a break if you decide in advance that this will be the (uninterrupted) time you get to catch up with a friend.
Before you go…
This text comes from a very privileged position that enables me to structure my days and walks as freely as possible in a world governed by pandemic restrictions. If you have not been able to enjoy any walks (by yourself) lately, I hope that you find comfort in other activities. Let’s hope for better days.
Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1889. Twilight of the Idols. Or, How to Philosophize with the Hammer. (Trans.) Richard Polt. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.