Yesterday, I found myself working at my computer for most of the day. I was getting lots of work done, but still felt restless and unsatisfied.
Yearning for a bit of a break, I decided to get outside and go for a walk. Within 15 minutes I ended up near one of Toronto’s ravines, and when I found an access point to get down the steep slope, I descended.
Suddenly, I was transported from my urban and industrial neighbourhood into a tranquil chunk of nature, complete with lush foliage and rocky river.
As I hiked along one of the forest paths, I got a sudden surge of energy. It started to lightly rain, and the smells of the trees and plants intensified. The air seemed full of electricity. My pace picked up, and I was aware of my own breathing. It was hard to believe that this stretch of nature lay right in the middle of such a huge city.
What an incredible contrast to being glued to a computer screen in my office. I felt a sense of freedom, of being liberated from technology and our modern world.
My shoes came off so I could feel the soft earth beneath my bare feet, and soon after I removed my shirt at well.
I used to think that taking time to wander without purpose was unproductive.
I associated it with being lazy. What about all the work that needs to get done?
Boy, was I wrong. But fortunately, we can all learn from our own mistakes.
Here are some things that nature taught me about productivity:
1. Time Spent in Nature Improves Cognitive Function
It’s not just enough to recharge our batteries by taking breaks. Recent studies suggest that exposure to nature is essential for us to operate at our full mental capacities. Even looking at pictures of natural scenes can improve brain function, but I suggest that there’s no substitute for the real thing. Nature clears out the cobwebs.
2. Mental Downtimes Give Us a Higher Level View of Our Work
Most people spend more than half their day just receiving and managing information. We’re under a deluge of data, obsessively checking our smartphones, looking at emails, and bouncing from one app to the next. Taking a break to get outside and exposing yourself to the environment and natural elements is not only liberating, it helps reduce our distractions. The sense of busyness almost evaporates. Tension dissipates and things become clearer. We find what’s really important.
3. Nature Encourages Movement and Activity
We’ve become a nation of professional sitters. And while going to a gym can help you achieve specific fitness goals, there’s nothing like getting outside and just moving naturally. Hiking, climbing over fallen logs, jumping from rock to rock, clambering up steep slopes on all fours — there are countless opportunities to move. It’s well established that regular exercise improves productivity, and I suggest that moving naturally outdoors has far greater benefits than any treadmill or pec deck could ever offer.
4. Nature Recharges Us
Honking horns, sirens, crowded sirens, beeping cellphones all cause us to react and exert attention which can easily become depleted. In contrast, natural areas don’t have as many distractions and the environment is more pleasing to look at. The preference towards things in nature (biophilia) has been well studied. It’s deeply rooted in our ancient biology and our need to survive. If you want to have greater attention to be productive, you’ll want to take a walk in the woods, or at least a park.
5. Sometimes You Have to Get Tough
Conditions aren’t always ideal. Winter makes things difficult, and when it’s pouring rain you don’t immediately think of going out. But nature’s benefits are still there, so sometimes you have to just suck it up. Any apprehension you have will evaporate once you get out there.
A camera can be helpful, but beyond that there shouldn’t be any need to stay connected. You don’t need to chat on the phone or check Facebook. You don’t even need your wearable fitness tracker. Who cares about how many steps you’re taking or how many calories you’re burning? Let your mind and body run free and live in the moment.
7. Look for Natural Places in the City
You don’t need to have access to a national park to take in nature. There are plenty of outdoor spaces right in the city. From parkettes to playgrounds, think outside the box.
Don’t think you have to act like an adult. Play like a little kid. And breathe deeply.
Here’s a quick video of me yesterday. It was raining, and the wooden structure I found (designed for daredevil mountain bikers to scream down) was really slippery, so I had to be mindful and take my time. I’m absolutely convinced that doing this kind of stuff helps keep you young.