And so we find ourselves in July. The Summer months lie ahead. The days are longer, the temperatures (mostly) higher, and the days when we are really lucky, the sun will come out to play.
Embracing the beauty of the world around us is even easier during the Summer months. And there is growing evidence to convince you why you should get out there and explore.
Reason 1: Nature restores your focus
Our ability to focus is finite. Imagine a reservoir of your attention; during the working day, as you toil away doing the important work stuff you do, this reservoir runs low, or some days it will even run dry.
When we are concentrating, we are using directed attention. This resource is finite: once you’ve used it up, you’ll struggle to concentrate. On busy, stressful days, you might hit this point before lunch. What good can come from an afternoon at work with zero ability to concentrate on the work in front of you?
The good news is that science and studies show that we can replenish our pool of attention. Clever scientists call this Attention Restoration Theory (ART). The theory states that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest. You can fill the reservoir back up by taking an intentional break.
There are many ways to take a break, but science is showing us that the most effective way to replenish your attention is to use the power of nature. More than any other activity, nature is the best strategy to fill up your reservoir and get you ready to have an awesomely productive, rewarding afternoon.
In one study, 3 groups of people were given a mentally taxing task. Afterwards, the 3 groups were given a 40 minute rest:
Group 1 went for a walk through the city
Group 2 went for a walk through the park
Group 3 relaxed while listening to music or reading
On their return, they were given more mentally taxing tasks. Every single time, the group who walked in nature got better scores than their earlier attempts - showing their ability to concentrate had been replenished by taking a walk in a green space - walking amongst the trees, the grass, hearing the birds and breathing fresh air. (Study by Hartig, Mang & Evans.)
The theory behind why a nature walk is more powerful than a city walk is that a walk in nature gives your brain enough stimulation to be energised, but also enough peace to be restored. Whereas a walk through the city continues to use cognitive energy, asking you to think about when to cross the road or deciding the best strategy for accelerating past the group in front of you with numerous buggies and toddlers.
Reason 2: Nature soothes away stress
In 2018 a research study by King’s College London found that being able to see the sky helps our mental health. And not just the sky - the full brilliance of nature’s offering. Seeing trees, hearing birds, being outside, and feeling in contact with nature. The study found that taking time to be out in the natural world is good for everyone, but interestingly, it is of particular benefit for those of us who are more predisposed to struggle with anxiety, stress and other mental health problems.
“Short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing,” concluded Dr Andrea Mechelli, who helped lead the research.
Statistics show us that stress in the workplace is increasing beyond a level that we can keep ignoring. A 2018 YouGov study found that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Taking a walk and looking at the sky isn’t going to be the only solution to this problem, but it is a good small step to take in looking after your own wellbeing.
Reason 3: Walking boosts creativity
If you are facing a really difficult problem at work, it’s unlikely that you will solve it by sitting at your desk and thinking intently about it. The best way to stumble on the answer is to get out and walk.
Studies of the brain show us that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. Your unconscious mind has more neuronal bandwidth available, which allows it to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions than your conscious centres of thinking.
Think of your unconscious mind like a vast library - containing all your thoughts, memories, knowledge and experiences. Compare this to the conscious mind that has really limited capacity to hold information - around 4 to 7 things at a time. To solve the really tricky stuff, you want to head into the library!
By heading out into nature and listening to the world around you, you stop thinking consciously about the problem and let your unconscious mind take a turn at sorting through your most complex professional challenges. By switching ‘off’ your conscious thoughts about work, you are not actually reducing the time you’re thinking about work, but instead you are diversifying the type of brain power you use.
Taking a walk will give you a far better shot at solving the problem. Walking makes you wise.
Take a fresh step forward
So use the coming Summer months to cement a new healthy habit into your life:
Hunt out some green space near your work to head to during the day to restore your focus. It might not be the most inspiring space but anywhere with trees, greenery, a bit of reduction of the noises of the city, the ability to hear birdsong, or the opportunity to see the sky will help boost your attention reservoir and get you back on track to tackle your next task.
Think about your journey home if you use public transport. Can you get off a few stops earlier and walk home through a park or down a river? How can you incorporate nature into your journey home? At the end of every day, our attention reservoirs are run dry. If you travel home, eat dinner in front of the TV, keep checking your emails all evening, you won’t give your brain a chance to refill the reservoir. So you’ll head into work the next day depleted. Starting off on the wrong foot rather than heading into the office fully recharged and ready to do your best. Try to create a daily habit of getting a boost of nature at the end of every day.
Have a look around for different projects near to you. There are more city farms and community gardens around to help more of us benefit from the magic of nature. There are walking groups like the brilliant FreshWalks (for those of you in the North West) which make it super easy to leave your desk at the end of the workday and find yourself 2 hours later on top of the world taking in the beautiful views.
(This blog was not written with the intention of overtly promoting FreshWalks, but I’ve just looked at their website and their next evening sunset picnic walk is next week, 10th July, meeting at Piccadilly station and heading out to Chinley for a beautiful circular hike. I couldn’t not share! I promise you, there is no better way to spend an evening. https://www.freshwalks.co.uk/events/)
Step out and use the power of nature to boost your ability to be brilliant. To boost your focus, allowing you to produce work you feel proud of. To boost your resilience in the face of rising stress, allowing you to enjoy work and leave the office feeling energised not exhausted. To boost your creativity by letting your unconscious brain solve your complex problems.
Connect with the world around you. Disconnect for a while from wifi. Fill your lungs with fresh air. Appreciate the beauty and scale of the natural world. Remember that many of our work problems are often insignificant in the grand scheme of life and the universe. Climb a hill. Run through the trees. Wander along a river. Bring more sunlight into your life.