In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems.
The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.
Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.
Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems
I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet.
The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand.
Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll.
I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis.
My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations.
I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.
Basically, I knew I could do better.
So, I followed Newport’s advice.
To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.
You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there!
It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk.
My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:
- You don’t have time for this
- You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
- This is stupid
- Screw you, Newport
- This isn’t working
- I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
- I’ve painted myself into a corner
- I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?
Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution.
Let me elaborate.
The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.
This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening.
Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over.
I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.
If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait.
I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake.
After an hour, something shifting.
If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift.
That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start
flooding trickling in.
As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific.
During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:
- How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
- How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
(Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem).
- What do I really want the novel to be about?
- How big of a scale do I want this novel to be?
- How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
- Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?
These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline.
To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)
Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week.
To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters.
If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes).
If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.
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