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)

A Life Worth Ending

Michael Wolff wrote an incredibly honest essay over the summer about his mother’s last years in hospital beds, and having to endure endless sessions with doctors where no one was willing to confront the elephant in the room: his mother was a vegetable. Hers was a life worth ending. It’s a personal story I expect we’ll be hearing more frequently, as the rate at which we develop technologies to lengthen life outpaces the development of the corresponding ethics / norms / expectations within families and the healthcare system. Worth reading.

Book Review: Why We Get Fat

I found Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be provocative and persuasive. It challenged my long held assumption that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Taubes’ hypothetical exposes the oddity of the “eat less, exercise more” maxim:

Imagine you’re invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef’s talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you’re told—come hungry. How would you do it? You might try to eat less over the course of the day—maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason. Now let’s think about this for a moment. The instructions that we’re constantly being given to lose weight—eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)—are the very same things we’ll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more. Now the existence of an obesity epidemic coincident with half a century of advice to eat less and exercise more begins to look less paradoxical.

I also liked this sentence:

To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.

The thesis of the book is that what you eat determines weight loss. Namely, what kind and how many carbohydrates. Taubes advocates the Atkins diet — low carb, high protein, high fat. Taubes is a science journalist, not a researcher himself, so he positions himself as a syntheizer of the literature. Here’s his recent podcast interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For a more skeptical take, here’s a blog post from Scientific American.

I reccomend Why We Get Fat to anyone interested in nutrition, diet, and health. Thanks to Saar Gur and Tod Sacerdoti for the recomendation.

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Also from the book: diet and disease:

Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is one of the primary reasons why public-health experts believe that there are dietary and lifestyle causes for all these diseases, even cancer—that they’re not just the result of bad luck or bad genes.

To get a feel for the kind of modern evidence supporting this idea, consider breast cancer. In Japan, this disease is relatively rare, certainly not the scourge it is for American women. But when Japanese women emigrate to the United States, it takes only two generations for their descendants to experience the same breast-cancer rates as any other local ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is causing breast cancer.

Colon cancer is ten times more common in rural Connecticut than in Nigeria. Alzheimer’s disease is far more common among Japanese Americans than among Japanese living in Japan; it’s twice as common among African Americans as among rural Africans. Pick a disease from the list of Western diseases, and a pair of locations—one urban, say, and one rural, or one Westernized and one not—compare people in the same age groups, and the disease will be more common in the urban and Westernized locations and less common outside them.

The Fragility of Health

I came down with food poisoning last night. Twice during the night, I got out of bed, went into the bathroom, and threw up.

I bent over the toilet, hands on knees, and did the violent act for 45 seconds.

After the second time, I looked up from the toilet and faced the mirror in my bathroom. My eyes were bloodshot. Face grey. I was shivering all over. In that moment, I felt frail and vulnerable in a way I hadn’t felt for many years.

Today, I’ve been reflecting on how a single piece of bad food, in a matter of hours, could make me go from youthful, energetic, and ready to do anything, anywhere to bedridden, weak, depressed. My physical health is so good most of the time that I take it for granted.

Jimmy V’s classic ESPY speech from 1993, delivered two months before his cancer killed him, talks about cherishing every moment of good health. Obviously, a simple bout of food poisoning is not comparable to life-ending cancer, but his message, which I re-watched tonight, resonated anew. Hopefully it will stick for longer this time.

Mike Moritz is Chasing Daylight — The Adjustments He’s Making As a Result

Mike Moritz, one of the most successful VCs in Silicon Valley history, announced he’s been diagnosed with an incurable illness and has been told his quality of life will likely decline significantly in the next 5-10 years. Very sad. Moritz says he will continue to do investing but also make some changes in his life:

I will use twelve to fourteen weeks – sprinkled throughout the course of each year – for various pursuits, diversions and trivial indulgences.

Reading this sentence gave me pause and caused me to reflect.

Among other things, I was reminded of the classic 2005 Alex Tabarrok post about travel. To paraphrase: If someone told you you were going to live for 10 additional years (say, living until 110 instead of 100) and ask what you would do with that extra time, you would probably say (among other things), “I’d travel more.” If someone told you were you going to die in the next 5 years and ask what you would do with your time remaining on planet earth, you would probably say (among other things), “I’d travel more.” Those were Alex’s answers, and mine too. As Alex says, “Given that I would travel more if I was to live either less or more, the probability that I was at just that level of mortality that I should not be traveling now must be vanishingly small.” And so he set off for Peru.

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The phrase “chasing daylight” from the title of the post comes from the touching book by the same name. I finished the book in tears. My book review is here.