The Problem With Walking Meetings

Walking meetings are all the rage.

Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, best friends for years, went on walks together around Palo Alto. Jeff Weiner wrote that he’s converting many 1:1 meetings to walking meetings. Brad Feldsays his best meetings are walking meetings. Mark Zuckerberg supposedly walks with key candidates he’s recruiting to Facebook.

Walking meetings are awesome for obvious reasons. Exposure to sun and fresh air lifts your mood. Walking counts as exercise, which is important for health and cognitive function. A physical atmosphere that’s different from the normal white walls of an office — trees, sun, a beautiful landscape — can spark creative trains of thoughts.

My favorite reason for walking meetings? They enable a different kind of social bonding. People open up more outside the office. You can cover personal topics more easily.

Yet walking meetings involve trade-offs, and before you propose them, you should be sure the topic you want to discuss is well-suited to a walking format.

See, while some walking meeting proponents pitch the activity as refreshingly distraction-free, there are distractions while you walk. Namely, having to put one foot after the other and undergo the physical act…of walking. You have to watch where you’re going, even if it’s a familiar path. You have to control your speed and match it with your meeting partner’s pace: not too fast, not too slow. These distractions are cognitively taxing — they draw away your attention and deplete your well of self-control.

See Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 x 78 in his head, and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks. My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory. If I must construct an intricate argument under time pressure, I would rather be still, and I would prefer sitting to standing….

Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking, because the transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently. As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly. At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not try to even think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow downSelf-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.

Bottom Line: Walking meetings are fantastic. Beyond exercise, it’s a great format for social bonding and perhaps for creative thinking. Yet, I believe on average you are less likely to think big thoughts and solve difficult problems while walking. Furthermore, the faster and harder the walk, the worse the ideas you generate. So for serious analytical work or high stakes conversation, consider the old fashioned routine of sitting in an office or conference room.

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Some other musings on physical activity and thinking:

  • Our brains are associative. Associate certain physical places, positions, or activities with certain kinds of thinking. Have a desk where you do hard, analytical thinking; have a desk where you do light email. Have a walk you do where you’re trying to be as creative as possible; have a different walking route that’s more for social catch up. Train your brain.
  • Standing desks vs. sitting desks: There’s a parallel to walking meetings. Standing desks are great for “exertion” — it tires my legs, which helps me sleep better, and sleep’s the key to everything. I stand about half the day; while standing I do email, web browsing, and other lightweight tasks. But serious thinking and writing? I have to sit.
  • I generate some of my best ideas while on the telephone, pacing in a confined space (like a living room). Being on the phone while walking in an open yard is not the same; I need to be able to pace back and forth.

(Image: FlickrOriginally published on LinkedIn)

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