What do you do to clear your mind? When your thoughts are going in endless circles and you no longer know what’s up and down?
I do one of two things: Either I write or I walk.
I can have the most emotionally exhausting day or be in the most confused state of mind: As soon as I put pen to paper or my feet head outside, my mind refocuses and the thoughts clear away.
The two activities are an amazing pair — if I feel restless at work, I can go for a walk; and if I’m tired, I can pick up my notebook and get writing. This usually translates into journaling in the morning and going for a walk in the afternoon. I immediately feel the effect on my mind and on my mood if I slack on these two habits. My mind is a mess and I feel stressed out.
To me writing and walking have become the ultimate processes of thinking.
Every article I write here, I write because I’m curious about a topic, but too many thoughts and ideas clutter my mind. By writing about it I sort it all out and gain clarity. I’m not consciously aware of half of the ideas I write before after I have written them down. Through the act of writing, I suddenly see how all of the mess in my head form one meaningful whole. Often I hear from other people how they never start or finish their writing because they feel like they lack a clear streamline of thoughts – but I doubt they’ll ever find clarity before they actually start writing.
Most of my articles also require a walk or two in between writing sessions. Writing is great for structuring what’s already there, while walking helps me to gain perspective and new inspiration and helps me to see the topic from other angles. Again: I know many who are so focused on getting their work done that they don’t make time for taking an active break outside, but I’m telling you – a walk works wonders!
In my experience, the best thoughts emerge when both writing and walking have been part of the process. It doesn’t matter which one comes first or how many times, only that both take part at least once.
I believe the reason why exactly these two activities are so useful for structuring thoughts owes to the fact that A) they both include elements of teamwork, and B) they recenter me in the present.
It sounds strange, perhaps, that writing and walking have similarities with teamwork, but think of it in this way: Through the act of writing, you express your thoughts and ideas, and through the act of walking, you receive thoughts and ideas in return – both essential elements of any proper teamwork.
For example, when I journal in the morning, I have a strong feeling that my notebook is attentively listening to me. I even write as if I’m writing to someone else, even though no one but me has access to my notebook.
Walking, on the other hand, is receiving inspiration from the world as it happens all around me. I never walk with music in my ears, but always just walk through the streets and nature, observing what’s around me while I let my thoughts roam wild. There is so much to take in, and simply the fact of leaving the office or my home for a while, already offers a whole new viewpoint from which to tackle the topics occupying my mind. Watching the same ol’ four walls and feeling the limiting boundaries of the ceiling above me just isn’t as inspiring as having the sky be one’s limit and the world one’s playground.
The second quality of these two activities is no doubt how they center me in the present. My journaling is literally the act of transcribing my thoughts directly onto paper with as little editing as possible. What’s there is written down and then reflected upon as my thoughts continue to flow. Of course my thoughts also go to the past and the future, but by writing it down in the present moment, I also relate it to the present moment. How does that memory make me feel; how can I act upon that future hope or anxiety today?; and how is any of it relevant right now?
Similarly, also walking brings me back to the moment. I feel my feet on the ground, sense the seasons on my skin and have to react to what is there: moving cars, smiling strangers, traffic lights, birds, weather, and those random surprises that life is so full of. My attention needs to be all over the place and firmly anchored in the here and now.
The present has a limited capacity: There is room for what is actually there. What was and what will be are secondary matters, meaning that a lot of thoughts and mental mess naturally is left out.
Let out and let in to clearly see
Through writing I see what I have to offer. Through walking I see what the world has to offer me. And only with a clear understanding of these two sources, I can narrow my thoughts down to those few elements that actually matter. At least that is how I understand what’s going on.