Long Walks

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
— Noel Coward

Sir Coward was known for his wit. But there is some germ of truth in every humor and this quote is no exception. It is always good to have some time and space to one self.

We tend to get more done when we have uninterrupted time to ourself. Good ideas come in lonely long walks. We solve problems in morning shower. We take a long drive on our favorite country road to clear our mind. Even, a brilliant idea or solution is there as we wake up after a good long sleep!

All this is true. We generally do our best when abetted by solitude and a conducive environment. But these observations do not have to sound as mythical as they do. They are actually grounded in the basic principles of productivity and time management.

There are two common attributes in all these scenarios – the long walks, the picturesque drives, the morning showers and the uninterrupted sleep – that help explain why they are effective for our productivity and creativity.

First: There are no or minimal distractions. No annoying people (probably out for that walk), buzzing blackberries, email toasts, poky co-workers, Facebook notifications, office banter over your head, IM pings and that friendly Joe who just finished his task and wants you to have a smoke with him outside!

Second: You have uninterrupted, contiguous chunk of time to do what you want to do. This is a highly underrated time management principle. We do not just need a distraction free zone. We also need it long enough to achieve something substantial. You need a sizable block of time to be able to think through a problem, analyze all aspects, coalesce the varied thoughts scattered all over your head and soaking for a while, rethink and evaluate the alternatives and consequences. This is what you mainly get in long walks and showers. Even in sleep, a part of your brain is awake and doing something (creepy). Just having a few minutes of Joe out for a smoke won’t help. You need Joe to stay out there and finish the entire pack!

Peter Drucker in “The Effective Executive” summarizes time management as three stages. First figure out where the time goes (record & analyze the time). Second, manage time (schedule the most important things first). Third, consolidate time (not do the important things in dribs and drabs of time but schedule a big enough chunk for them).

Here is the caveat though. You need the uninterrupted, contiguous block of time to be just long enough – not overly long or unlimited. Taking the entire afternoon off for a long walk would not help (neither would staying in shower forever). You need to time box it or else the Parkinson’s Law will set in. Drucker suggests 90 minutes. Its a threshold where you can stay effective without losing focus. There should be a maximum that Joe stays out for a smoke without you missing him!

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8 thoughts on “Long Walks

  1. Great article Ather. Thanks for sharing!
    A post-lunch short walk is also beneficial to increase one’s productivity specially for people who work in relatively low-light office environments with less room for sunlight. When one comes back from such a mid-day walk, one feels energized and refreshed for the rest of day.
    On a separate but a bit similar note, short afternoon naps is another great source to achieve this objective. Though very difficult to achieve in our professional culture and environments but definitely not impossible. There can be many way outs and whenever I have tried it, the period after break becomes like a new day for me.

  2. Great article Ather. Thanks for sharing!
    Apart from being used as a source of brain-storming, these post-lunch walks can be a great source of getting refreshed and energized for the second work-half. This is specially true for people who work in low-light office environments where there is not much room for sunlight.
    On a slightly different but related note, short afternoon naps can be a great source of increasing productivity. While it is difficult to achieve in our professional environments and culture, it is definitely not impossible to achieve. There can be many ways out if one is determined. Whenever I have done this personally, I have felt like starting an absolutely new day with full energy after coming back from the break.

  3. great blog yet again ather.
    i can see the passion for long walks even in the image that you have chose for your blog page! a serene, clean straight road, shrouded in just the right mix of sunshine and shade, with lovely strong trees on either side, and most importantly, no traffic (all looks and feels like the two stretched out arms of a nurturing mother).
    my only concern is to find a road or a patch of land where you can be with your own self…alone. our roads are filled by people sir coward came across!
    an average pakistani runs the risk of getting mugged in a park, looted on the roadside, stabbed in a street and even shot on the seaside. with your mental faculties eclipsed by a dread of any of these eventualities, no creative thought can knock at your doors of imagination. having said that, if one is lucky enough to live in vancouver, edinburgh, or christchurch, long walks can be exactly that you have described. a retreat in a shower in pakistan, is an equally hazardous option. you are likely to run out of water or hot water, or else the pump run on electricity would shut just at that ‘moment’.
    here is a recommendation for an average pakistani who wants to follow your advice.
    just before going to bed, find a quiet corner in any part of your room or home (preferably the roof top…possible even in winters if you carry your shawl or woolies along)…if your home is filled with far too many people, stay back in the mosque after prayers, and you will find such a corner. lean against a pillar, or a wall, keeping your back straight, close your eyes, and start breathing deeply and easily for at least 5- 7 minutes. during this time, try and block thoughts of tomorrow and yesterday, the events, the failures, the frustrations, the fears. now start focusing on today…start with the moment you opened your eyes in the morning. replay each and every moment and event from here onwards, but with the associated feeling (good or bad, negative or positive) that event was accompanied with. keep going, piece-meal, in small chinks of hours or any other divisions of time you are comfortable with, till you reach the moment in the present….here and now, you leaning against the wall / pillar. this often takes no more than ten minutes, keep breathing easily and deeply even after you have completed the day’s events and rerun of feelings for another five minutes. now open your eyes, stretch your body and take a walk back to your bed……’eureka’ is not far away….even if no new thought comes to your mind, you will feel cleansed and rested and a fruitful / creative though will come to you before you go to sleep, or else the first thing the next morning.
    i would recommend this exercise as it is just another way of taking a “long walk”…..only on a road within.
    mowadat rana

    • Excellent tool. Many thanks for pointing it out here for everyone’s benefit – and that too very lucidly and in details. Thanks!

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