12,000 Steps to Being More Creative at Work

Many of us are under a ton of pressure to be creative—to think of new product ideas or original sales pitches, develop new building methods, or even design cities. The problem is we don’t really have concrete methods to help us. Platitudes such as “become an expert” or “give yourself a jolt” are as useless as they are opaque.

When it comes to creativity, as with other aspects of work, we would be well served to use the data we have at our disposal. If we keep track of what we do and how creative we feel, then examine how changes in our behavior relate to changes in creativity, we should be able to discover some concrete rules.

Let’s start with the amount you physically move around at work. Anecdotally, getting out of your chair and walking around to clear your head seems to be quite effective at stimulating new ideas. Personally, I feel physically uncomfortable if I am rooted to a chair when I don’t need to be. My co-workers at Sociometric say I have a “pacing room,” since I’ll walk around a room while on a conference call to get the juices flowing. I’ve scheduled calls straight from the late afternoon into the evening so I can take my 6-mile walk home while getting work done.

I’m not alone in this movement movement. Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s chief executive, has been doing walking meetings for some time. While of course there are health benefits to walking compared with remaining stationary, it has some other direct benefits as well. Weiner relates a story that during LinkedIn’s rapid expansion they simply did not have enough conference rooms, so having meetings while walking the grounds was a necessity that saved on office space.

Anecdotes and qualitative observations, however, do not consistently lead to good policy. And if I ask a bunch of people if they think walking makes them more creative, we’ll get only another inane list about the “five reasons to take walking meetings.” Luckily, we’ve collected movement data from accelerometers in our Sociometric Badges across dozens of companies. This lets us examine movement at a millisecond-level timescale and see how it effects outcomes in the long term and for specific tasks.
Win Burleson from Arizona State used our technology to examine researchers in two U.S. labs (pdf) to understand the link between average physical movement and creativity. To measure creativity, he combined daily creativity ratings from expert observers, individual surveys, and peer reviews. Average movement is the average amount you moved around on a given day. In the graphs below, 0 is close to sleeping (perhaps brought on by a riveting three-hour motivational PowerPoint) and 100 is the average across all days for all participants. Here’s what he found:

It should be noted that these differences are both statistically significant by a wide margin.

This was an observational study, so we have to ask: Is this causal? If we get people to move more, will they be more creative? A study from Stanford University (pdf) answered precisely that question. In a laboratory experiment, the researchers found that participants who walked on treadmills produced significantly more creative ideas than those who were sitting. In case you were worried about being attached to a hamster wheel all day, it turns out that people who walked outside came up with even better ideas. Although a contrived test, this laboratory study, combined with real world data from Burleson, suggests there are real business benefits to movement. In real companies we’ve similarly found that people who move more complete complex tasks more quickly (pdf).

The data are telling us to get off our butts. We should listen. Getting up once an hour to take a walk outside or around the office isn’t wasting time; it’s legitimate work. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is doing more than improving your health; it’s increasing your productivity. I’m not going to tell you it’s going to take only five steps to be more creative. If it were that easy, everyone would do it. Realistically, it’s more like 1,000 steps. But all it takes to get started is putting one foot in front of the other.

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