Three Things You Can Do To Think Better On A Bike

Auguste Rodin envisioned the thinker sitting naked on a bumpy rock, but this setup is really only good for pondering questions like, “Where did I put my trousers?” To produce high-quality thinking, get off the rock…and get on a bike.

Three ways of Thinking Two Bicycles
Three thinkers — Two of them rode bicycles.

Albert Einstein reportedly thought of his theory of relativity while riding his bike. Edward Elgar was an avid cyclist during his most productive period, and some of his Enigma Variations appear to have been conceived on two wheels. This makes sense: many of the creativity tricks you read about are part of cycling: changing scenery; loads of oxygenated blood flowing to the brain; and the steady, meditative rhythm of the pedals.

In this post I’ll talk about three steps I’ve used to make the mental most of my commute.

1. Find a safe route that you can own

It is hard to think the thoughts that will change the world, (or even fix a concern your boss dropped on you yesterday) when you are dodging traffic or picking your way through one-way streets. You want routine — to a point. So find a route that has little traffic and use it often enough that it becomes second nature. When you own every pothole, every bus stop, and every stoplight, you don’t have to look just at the pavement, and your brain is free to ponder.

2. Expect help from your muse

The ancient Greeks looked to nine goddesses–Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, Melpomene–the muses, to bring enlightenment and wisdom in specific areas. I’ll propose a tenth: Velocipedia, who touches the brains of cyclists.

After Velocipedia has taught you to master your route, she stands willing to enlighten you as you ride. You can show her that you are serious by 1) riding regularly, and 2) being open to and expecting her help. I can think of three ways to show Velocipedia that you are ready for her input:

  • Don’t be in such a hurry. If your ride takes you 45 minutes and you leave the house 44 minutes before work, you are not going to have time to be inspired by the sunrise, the kids playing at the bus stop, or the indecisive squirrel in your path. Your mind will be preoccupied by making good time and not open to the muse. Being in a hurry is for motorists; give yourself the luxury of a few extra minutes and the thoughts will flow.
  • Be conscious of the opportunity and intentional about your time. Some days I listen to podcasts while I ride, but on others I will leave the iPod in my bike bag so that I can think. I’ll propose a specific question or topic in my mind before I leave then try to see everything through the lens of that question.
  • Keep your eyes open. You never know what might inspire a thought, so look around; try to see things you have not noticed before. If you have brain fog, jump-start your observations by looking for something specific–like a purple cloth or hydrangeas.

Once Velocipedia sees that you are serious, she will deliver.

3. Be prepared to capture your thoughts

I don’t know how many great thoughts I have lost because I said to myself, “I’m almost there, that’s an interesting enough thought that there is no way I’ll forget it.” Great thoughts born on a bike seem resistant to crossing the threshold of my office door. (By the way, “almost there” is when the best thoughts come.)

I carry a notepad in my bag and occasionally I have used it, but when I’m in the zone I’m resistant to stopping and writing stuff down. That’s why my thinking time has become much more productive since getting a smartphone. I carry it in an accessible pocket and can make voice memos even while riding, (I’m considering an app such as Say It and Mail It to make the process even smoother) and I use the camera to capture thought-provoking images. However you do it, make sure you don’t let those great thoughts you are generating go to waste.

Frequent bicycle commuters can attest to the creative potential of their ride. Safety needs to come first, but don’t forget the muse.

Question: What suggestions do you have for better thinking on your bike?