The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Work Is Take a Walk
Thinkers from Ernest Hemingway to Steve Jobs knew that breakthroughs happen when you get moving
If you’ve ever doubted whether human beings are designed for walking, all you have to do is strap a fussy baby into a Babybjörn and go for a stroll. The crying stops. With each step, the kicking and the thrashing and the resistance fades away. Hours can pass and, if you’re moving, that previously anguished child becomes a dream.
But my purpose here isn’t to give you childcare advice. It’s to convince you of the power of simply taking a walk, which works on a racing or miserable mind just as well as a colicky baby. We are an ambulatory species, and often the best way to find stillness — in our hearts and in our heads — is to get moving.
For decades, the citizens of Copenhagen witnessed Søren Kierkegaard embody this very idea. The cantankerous philosopher would write in the morning at a standing desk, and then around noon, head out onto the busy streets of Denmark’s capital city. He walked on the newfangled “sidewalks” that had been built for fashionable citizens to stroll along. He walked through the city’s parks and through the pathways of Assistens Cemetery, where he would later be buried. On occasion, he walked out past the city’s walls and into the countryside. Kierkegaard never seemed to walk straight either — he zigged and zagged, crossing the street without notice, trying to always remain in the shade. When he had worn himself out, worked through what he was struggling with, or been struck with a good idea, he would turn around and head home, where he would write for the rest of the day.
In a beautiful letter to his sister-in-law, who was often bedridden and struggled with depression, Kierkegaard wrote about the importance of walking. “Above all,” he told her in 1847, “do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being, and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
Life is a path, he liked to say, and we have to walk it. He was by no means alone in believing that.
Friedrich Nietzsche said that the ideas in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra came to him on a long walk. Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, one of the most important scientific discoveries in modern history, on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882. When he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. Charles Darwin’s daily schedule included several walks. So did those of Steve Jobs and the groundbreaking psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the latter of whom once wrote, “I did the best thinking of my life on leisurely walks with Amos.” It was the physical activity in the body, Kahneman said, that got his brain going.
The list goes on. Freud was known for his speedy walks around Vienna’s Ringstrasse after his evening meal. The composer Gustav Mahler spent as much as four hours a day walking, using this time to work through and jot down ideas. Ludwig van Beethoven carried sheet music and a writing utensil with him on his walks for the same reason. Dorothy Day was a lifelong walker, and it was on her strolls along the beach in Staten Island in the 1920s that she first began to feel a strong sense of God in her life and the first flickerings of the awakening that would put her on a path toward sainthood. It’s probably not a coincidence that Jesus himself was a walker — a traveler — who knew the pleasures and the divineness of putting one foot in front of the other. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest expressions of faith and devotion involve pilgrimages to holy sites around the globe.
Walking works for so many different kinds of people, in so many different kinds of careers, because it is a deliberate, repetitive, ritualized motion. It is an exercise in peace.
The Buddhists talk of “walking meditation,” or kinhin, where the movement after a long session of sitting, particularly movement through a beautiful setting, can unlock a different kind of stillness than traditional meditation. Personally, I’ve found that being aware on my walks — being present and open to the experience — has brought me closest to what I assume the Buddhists are talking about. I put the pressing problems of my life away, or rather I let them melt away as I move. I look down at my feet and notice how effortlessly they move. I listen to the sound of the leaves crunching underfoot. I feel the ground pushing back against me.
These are things anyone can do on a walk. Breathe in and out. Consider who might have walked this same path in the centuries before you. Consider the person who paved the asphalt you are standing on. Where are they now? What did they believe? What problems did they have?
“But I don’t have time,” you say. Sure you do. Take your phone calls outside, as I try to do. Do walking meetings instead of sitting ones. Do a couple laps around the parking lot before you go inside. Don’t call an Uber; walk to your destination instead. Make whatever small tweaks you need to make, and the rewards will be so much greater than the concessions. Outside, with the rhythm of the walk and the reassuring firmness of the ground underfoot, you can stimulate your senses, calm your emotions, and make sense of your thoughts.
We aren’t that different from babies. Stuff gets to us. We have feelings that we can’t quite find the words to explain. The world is overwhelming. Our needs aren’t being met. If we are allowed to simply stew in this, of course, we’ll cry and yell and get angry.
The adult must come in and break us out of this. The adult must take us outside and get us moving. Stimulate our senses. Calm our emotions and thoughts by the rhythm of the walk, by the reassuring firmness of the ground underfoot.
The poet William Wordsworth walked as many as 180,000 miles in his lifetime — an average of six and a half miles a day since he was five years old. He did much of his writing while walking — as lines of poetry came to him, Wordsworth would repeat them over and over again, since it might be hours until he had the chance to write them down. Biographers have wondered ever since: Was it the scenery that inspired the images of his poems or was it the movement that jogged the thoughts?
Every ordinary person who has ever had a breakthrough on a walk knows that the two forces are equally and magically responsible. Which is why whoever you are and whatever you do, you should do yourself a favor today and take a walk.