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Why Your Next Breakthrough Won’t Happen at Your Desk

The best way to encounter creative flow and innovation is by ditching your desk, going for long walks, having fun, and taking purposeful time apart from your workload.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Matt Johnson will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 11-13, Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more.

Ludwig van Beethoven was probably the best desk worker in history. It’s true–his discipline would make mid-level management anywhere jealous. Beethoven rose at dawn every day (including weekends), counted 60 coffee beans, made a cup, and then sat at his desk and worked for the next seven hours straight. By Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule or any other measure for that matter, he was an expert many times over. And his work would change the future of music.

But the desk was only part of Beethoven’s story. After work, he would eat a quick afternoon dinner and then embark on a long, vigorous walk through a nearby Vienna forest. He carried a pencil and two sheets of paper, but the point wasn’t to work. It was to walk. And whether Beethoven knew it or not, those walks (and his nightly stops at the theater or tavern) were just as important as his time at the desk. Those walks gave him the perspective necessary to create groundbreaking music.

Beethoven’s daily routine is yet another way that he was ahead of his time. Because it wouldn’t be until 200 years later that science would really understand the power of stepping away. But now we know, and we are better for it. So here are five reasons why your next breakthrough probably won’t happen at your desk.

1. Desks are for doing, not thinking.

In her book, Your Creative Brain, Dr. Shelley Carson makes a distinction between your reason brain state (when you logically execute ideas) and your absorb brain state (when you observe and take in information). Both states are critical to the creative process. Desks are a great place for your reason brain state: you have a computer, calendar, phone, and all of the other tools required to execute. But they are also really bad for the absorb brain state. Why? That’s easy–desks are boring, and the absorb state is all about finding new and different stimuli (just like what Beethoven discovered in those Vienna woods).

2. Walking makes you more creative.

A 2014 Stanford study found that people were on average 60 percent more creative when walking than when sitting still. Beethoven wasn’t the only one to figure this out–Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey were all big fans of a good long walk too.

3. You need to give yourself space to space out.

A 2006 study found that subconscious thought is a powerful source of creativity. The authors conclude that, “Upon being confronted with a task that requires a certain degree of creativity, it pays off to delegate the labor of thinking to the unconscious mind.” And the best way to activate the subconscious is to get away from your desk and familiar surroundings. This also means that you need to put away your phone. It’s really just an extension of your desk.

4. Having fun makes you more creative.

Psychologists from the University of Toronto found that happiness actually boosts creativity. So the next time you’re looking for a new solution to an old problem, you may just want to step out of the office for that round of golf, bowling, karaoke with the team, or really anything that will make you smile.

5. Empty batteries don’t work.

Time away from the office can interrupt the cycle of stress that so many face at the desk. The endless emails, phone calls, texts, and reminders can cause chronic stress that leads to decreased creativity, memory issues, and impaired moods. Time away is a powerful way to recharge and refocus, which is why designer Stefan Sagmeister goes to Bali for a year-long sabbatical every seven years.

Before you disconnect and hit the road, though, there are two things to remember. The first is that your time at a desk is just as important as your time away. You have to put in the hard work to fuel the creative mind. The second is that not all time away from your desk is equal. You have to truly disconnect and see, hear, taste, touch, and try new things.

So when you’re on the hunt for that next big idea, think about stepping away. If you change what you see, you might just change how you see.

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Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

The Frontier Project, Lead Consultant