Have you ever noticed what happens if you stroll in the park or in a beautiful garden at the end of a tough day, or if you head out to the coast or into the country after a heavy week?
There can be an almost physical sense of relief as the work stress begins to loosen its grip on you mind and body.
Your head begins to clear, your attention shifts and you find that you’re focusing on the world around you rather than what is going on inside your head.
And afterwards, you feel the difference – a little bit more alive, a greater sense of purpose and control perhaps.
I can vividly remember one such experience when I was practising at the bar in London. I drove west with some friends one Friday afternoon, heading for a weekend away in Cornwall. As we reached Bodmin Moor (pictured above and below), it was almost as if a kind of mind cleansing was happening to me as I gazed out of the window at the dramatic moorland landscape and felt the constraints of my work life slipping away.
I think at the time I put it down to the good company (thanks Paul and Seamus), the good music on the car stereo (even now I remember that Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah was playing) and the prospect of a hedonistic weekend ahead.
But, I might well have underestimated the powerful effects the physical environment around me was having. And it is those effects – and their significance for improving work performance and productivity – that we are going to look at in more detail in this post.
Take a walk
But before we look more closely at what the science says happens to us when we are exposed to the natural world, why not get a feel for your own responses, as you take two short walks in two very different environments?
And you don’t need to step away from your screen to do so. The evidence is that viewing images of nature can be just as effective as experiencing nature directly. So, see how you feel after watching the two videos below.
On one level it is pretty obvious that walking on a beautiful beach in New Zealand at sunrise would leave you feeling in a better mood than walking along a deserted subway tunnel in Sydney’s Central Station. And this accords with research showing that exposure to natural, rather urban, environments brings about a more positive emotional state, as well as positive changes in various physiological activity levels, such as heart rate and muscle tension.
But in the modern digital world, where human attention spans are now said to be less than that of the goldfish, the critical aspect of our relationship with nature is not so much that it improves our mood, but how it affects our ability to focus our attention.
And, make no mistake, attention is critical to human effectiveness, especially in the workplace.
So let’s turn our attention to attention.
When we purposefully carry out any activity, we direct our attention on the task at hand. It is this kind of ‘directed attention’ that enables us to focus on what we are doing and also on the real time feedback we receive as we’re doing it. This in turn allows us to adjust our performance as necessary and to stay on track.
For example, directed attention allowed me to sense that the structure of the previous paragraph was not right when I first wrote it. That led me to review and restructure it so that it was ultimately (I hope) easier to read.
Directed attention is also important because it enables our thought processes to be largely automatic and focused on the task we are completing, rather than conscious and focused on concerns about ourselves.
In other words, it keeps us from distracting ourselves with thoughts such as ‘can I complete this work on time?’ and ‘What is going to happen if I don’t?’
This matters because self-focused attention is strongly linked to lower levels of performance (see, for example, this research).
Directed attention is also vital for good decision-making and plays a prominent role in our short-term memory. What is more, it is a necessary component of ‘flow’ states – those times of optimal experience when we are deeply absorbed in satisfying, engaging and enjoyable endeavours.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, directed attention requires effort.
Consequently, prolonged directed attention leads to attention fatigue – the kind of mental tiredness you feel after a day of concentrated work or the mental exhaustion you feel at the end of a long, tough project. Even enjoyable work, when it is challenging, intense and carried out over a sufficiently long period can produce the same effect.
And, of course, with attention fatigue come diminished levels of performance and productivity.
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The restorative power of nature
Fortunately, given that it costs nothing, has no side effects and is readily available, exposure to nature has been shown to be instrumental in improving and restoring our capacity for directing our attention.
Let’s look at a series of studies by researchers at the University of Michigan that demonstrate this.
Or maybe you’d like to boost your own attentional capacity first by watching this video:
In the first of the studies, participants were tested on their ability to complete a ‘digit span’ task. This involves listening to sequences of digits and repeating them backwards. It represents a test of directed attention because it requires a constant shifting of attentional focus.
After completing the digit span test, as well as another task designed to induce attention fatigue, participants were divided into two groups. One group took a 55 minute walk in a park, the other group took a 55 minute walk in the city. When they returned they took the digit span task again. They then repeated the whole procedure one week later, except that if they’d taken the city walk previously, they took the nature walk the second time and vice versa.
The results showed that performance on the attention-testing digit-span task significantly improved after the participants had walked in nature, but not when they had walked in the urban environment. Importantly, the researchers were able to show that these improvements were not driven by other factors, such as changes in mood or different weather conditions.
In a second, similar study, participants were tested before and after they spent only 10 minutes viewing and rating pictures of nature or urban settings. The results in this study showed that improvements in task performance were found only when participants had viewed the nature pictures rather than the urban ones.
The researchers were also able to establish that improvements occurred only in cognitive functions that related to directed attention (executive functions), rather than those that relate to the attention given to sensory inputs (alerting and orienting functions).
What these experiments therefore tell us is that the participants’ interactions with nature (either directly or through images) brought about improvements in cognitive functioning and, more specifically, led to performance improvements through restoration of the mechanisms we use for directing attention.
The researchers commented that the attention restorative qualities of nature are due to the way that “natural environments capturing attention modestly not to sheer quiescence alone.” They conclude:
Nature grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”
The nature of nature
There are some limits to this though. Leading researcher in the field, Stephen Kaplan, says that certain characteristics need to be present for your experience of nature to be effective in attention restoration.
First, there has to be a sense of “being away”. You need to be transported in some way from the activities that typically require your directed attention. As we’ve seen, looking deliberately at images of nature or at a natural view from a window can be enough.
There also needs to be “extent” to the environment. In other words, it must be a coherent other world that your attention can rest on.
Thirdly, the experience must be fascinating – it should invoke involuntary or effortless attention.
And finally, there should be compatibility between the environment and your purpose or inclination. So, if you all you want is a gentle stroll, being forced to scramble up a rough mountain pathway would not be a compatible (or restorative) experience.
The wrap up
In the present day our ability to pay attention is under constant bombardment from electronic media of one kind of another, from collaborative work practices in open plans offices and from the chattering of our distracted minds.
I wonder, therefore if you agree with me that it is comforting that respite is available, free of charge and all around us.
Ironically, it is even available right here on this page, through the electronic device you are using to read this with.
I’d personally advocate that you get outside and physically experience the natural environment first hand as often as you can, both to improve your work performance and add to your general well-being. But, if after getting to the end of this post you need a boost to your ability to pay attention right now, take a look at the videos below.
[content_container max_width=’500′ align=’center’]Want more on how to increase your performance and productivity? Download Sharpen Up: Six of the Best Evidence-Based Strategies for Improving your Productivity and Performance at Work [/content_container]
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The psychology of happiness. Random House, 2013.
Daly, J. A., Vangelisti, A. L., & Lawrence, S. G. (1989). Self-focused attention and public speaking anxiety. Personality and Individual Differences, 10(8), 903-913.
Ulrich, Roger S., Robert F. Simons, Barbara D. Losito, Evelyn Fiorito, Mark A. Miles, and Michael Zelson. “Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments.” Journal of environmental psychology 11, no. 3 (1991): 201-230.