Five Ways Nature Can Prepare Your Brain for Success in 2014

Organizations are always looking for ways to improve workplace productivity, develop leaders, and help employees work more efficiently. Spending all day inside, in a cubicle that reverberates with stress drains attention, saps creativity, reduces productivity, and negatively impacts leadership ability. To lead effectively the brain needs to be at optimal functioning capacity.

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA)
Photo by Mark Ellison

As we kick off 2014, why not resolve to deal more effectively with your workplace stress in a way that will jump-start your brain for success: spend time in nature. There is a growing body of research that shows time in nature prepares the brain for optimal functioning. Time in nature also helps to tap into the things we are passion about, develop a sense of purpose and increase productivity.

Going into nature provides restoration and the opportunity to disconnect or escape phones, computers, televisions,noise and other stress inducing variables which have a negative impact on physical and mental health. Here are five ways getting away from stress and  spending time in nature can impact your effectiveness at work, and possibly make your boss happier:

1. Improve attention capacity and the ability to focus: Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is based on the concept of soft fascination, or the soothing sights and sounds of nature that are relaxing, allowing attention capacities to rest,  leaving room for reflection. One type of soft fascination is the sound of birds, which a recent study found to be the most preferred form of fascination.

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

2. Enhance creativity: Research by faculty at the University of Utah and University of Kansas found that spending time in nature can improve creativity up to 50%. Being more creative on the job means you can generate better ideas and more innovative solutions to problems.

3. Increase cognitive ability: Spending time in nature increases cognitive abilities. Part of this is clearing the mind of distractions.

4. Improve memory: Heavy multitasking can make it difficult to remember things. Research has found that time in nature positively impacts the ability to remember.

5. Reduce stress and elevate mood: Our brains on stress are a jumbled mess. The stress that builds up in our mind impacts the entire body in a negative way if not properly dealt with. This can have negative consequences on the ability to work with others, and cause issues of workplace incivility. Time in nature reduces stress and elevates our mood, which can impact productivity and the ability to work with others. A recent study conducted by Lisa Nisbet for the David Suzuki Foundation 30X30 Nature Challenge found that spending time in nature increases happiness and self reported levels of productivity!

Here are a few suggestions on how to incorporate nature into your health and personal development plan in 2014:

1. Practice mindfulness/meditation in nature: You have to take time to slow your mind and body down and be in the present moment for your brain to begin to let go of stress and “cognitive leftovers” from the days activities. This is at the heart of mindfulness, which is now being utilized in cutting edge leadership development programs, and identified by the Center for Creative Leadership as “one of the five big leadership ideas.” Nature is the perfect setting to practice mindfulness and meditation. Janice Maturano recently published a book on this topic, Finding the Space to Lead.  Try this as a mindfulness exercise in nature:

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina)
Photo by Mark Ellison

Find a quiet place in nature and just be. Close your eyes and for 15 minutes enjoy the sounds of nature. Notice what is happening in the environment and you: sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings. Then, focus on your breathing. Don’t manipulate it, just breath in and out through your nose. Your mind is going to wonder, each time it does, return your attention to your breath. As thoughts and emotions come and go, don’t linger on them, let them go, they will pass away.

2. Green exercise: Exercising in nature essentially multiplies the benefits of exercise, helping the body and mind. Find a greenway or nature trail where you can go for a walk on your lunch break, or after work. Don’t listen to music, enjoy the sounds of the birds, the wind, and notice the beauty of nature. If you have more time, plan a hike for several hours, or bike on a rail trail.  I incorporate time in nature into my overall tracking of health goals. Just as I track the  minutes of cardio exercise, yoga, and the number of steps taken each day, I also record the time I spend in nature.This is easily done in an Excel spreadsheet where I can analyze trends in my health behavior.

3. Nature journal:  Take 15 minutes a day to start a nature journal. All you need is a notebook, a pencil or pen and a nature spot. Keeping a nature journal can help you clear your mind and focus on nature more directly. When you do a journal entry, record the date and time, weather conditions and your impressions of the setting. Identify something in nature that captivates your attention and draw it to scale. An excellent resource for learning more about nature journaling is a book by Clare Leslie and Charles Roth, “Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You.”

4. Practice Shinrin yoku: Shrin yoku is spending time in nature, just enjoying the experience, taking in the beauty and peace it offers. A good resource for this is a book written by wilderness guide Amos Clifford, “A Little Handbook of Shrin yoku.” 

5. Be a Nature Advocate: Advocate for policies that bring nature into your work environment or for access to nature near the workplace. This could be as simple as having plants and pictures of nature in the workplace, and  tables outside for meetings or lunch breaks.

An excellent resource on nature and the brain is Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature. It is great read, and references many research studies.

Spending time in nature does not need to be complicated or time consuming and can last as little as fifteen 15 minutes or an entire day. Remember, the amount of time you spend in nature, and the quality of the environment you are in will directly impact how well nature heals your mind and body. Incorporate time in nature into your health routine and  reap the benefits it offers your brain in 2014.

Note: The North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine will host a webinar on January 28, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. EST. Dr. Lisa Nisbet, assistant professor of psychology at Trent University in Ontario will discuss her research on nature relatedness and happiness. Register online at http://www.anymeeting.com/PIID=EA52DE87814E3D.