When I am working at home I walk the dog 3 times a day, with a 90 minute walk in the middle of the day and shorter walk before breakfast and after dinner. The long walk in the day is where I get the big benefit. The walk is split into three phases of mental state. At first I am fully engaging with the dog, throwing sticks and other high energy playful activities. It is a physical and mental release for us both. Once the initial frenzy subsides we lower the pace and start to do our own thing. The dog sniffs, chases, runs off and comes back, full of self amusement. I look at the views, smell the fresh air, listen to the wind and my mind starts to clear the clutter. The final phase has us walking in unison, both in a state of calm. It is in this mental state that solutions come into my head and then random creative thoughts. I can think more clearly, I become excited about possibilities, and I am feeling energised to make things happen. When I return from the walk, I am much more productive and I tend to do the most high value tasks with relative ease and to a high quality. The dog sleeps.
Some might describe my dog walk as a form of meditation. Others might say it is simply the result of taking a break. I think its somewhere between the two because there are some rules I need to follow in order to gain the benefits:
- Don't take a mobile phone. I used to take the opportunity to make some calls on the walk, believing this was a productive use of the 'down time'. But its not possible for me to get to the productive 'phase 3' of the walk when I am distracted by mind clutter.
- Go somewhere where you have to walk for a long time. My walks are usually in a forest or across fields, where I know I will be walking for at least an hour (excluding getting there and back). It takes time for a busy mind to empty and short cuts are a temptation.
- Go somewhere where you wont see other people. Human distractions are mental stimuli and the opposite of what I need to clear the mind.
- Embrace the elements. Whatever the weather conditions there will be something to heighten the senses that can be used to move from thinking to feeling mode.
- Don't fight your thoughts. The best way I can release the 'noise' is to let thoughts play out in my head. I try and become an observer of thoughts and let them float by. If I try to attend to every thought then they clog up my brain. This is the most beneficial part of the walk, because even if I don't get to the solution or creative thinking phase I will have prepared my mind for prioritisation and high productivity when I return.
- Don't record any thoughts. The important ones usually come back to me later and the 'noise' falls away. A natural filtering process takes place.
- Don't try to hard. If I am too aware of what I am trying to do and force the issue, it simply doesn't work. I just have to let it happen and not be concerned when it doesn't. The walk will never be wasted as the physical benefits are assured.
- When you come back to work, focus on the ideas or solutions. It is tempting to use this 'pure' mental energy on emails or mundane tasks. I may get through them quickly but will have missed the opportunity of producing high value work.
- Create alternative virtual dog walks. It won't always be possible to do the 90 minute walk. I often work away from home and stay in hotels and so its impractical to dog walk every day. If possible I try and create an alternative. I find swimming a good physical alternative and blogging an excellent mental release (although most doesn't get published). I haven't yet found a way of combining the two!
- Don't feel guilty for not dog walking. It is something to enjoy and gain the benefits when I can. Guilt just adds stress and is counter productive. I learn from my dog - no ill feeling for not dog walking, just huge enthusiasm every time we do it.