Increase Attention, Naturally
There’s an interesting phenomenon in modern science. Ironically, as the availability of technology increases, as our tools become more advanced and complex, and as our methodology becomes further and further evolved, new data is pointing to some of the simplest, most traditionally embraced knowledge as being empirically true. Basically, science is confirming that many of the things we’re naturally drawn to as children are among the most powerful in increasing our attention, health, and well-being as adults.
Case in point: Spending time outdoors. Remember those early summer days at the end of the school year? The ones when you would spend hours gazing out the window, aching for the recess bell to ring? Remember the feeling of the last day of school, knowing that you and your friends would be free to roam the backyard, picking dandelions and jumping through the sprinkler? Remember the feeling of the warm breeze on your skin, and the grass beneath your feet?
As it turns out, your 8-year-old self was on the right track. According to science, spending time in nature is actually one of the easiest methods of improving your mood and increasing your attention span. Unfortunately, however, most of us are living further away from natural green spaces than ever before.
Today, more than 50% of us live in urban areas, and by 2050, that number is expected to grow to 70%. And while urbanization has brought us many of the modern conveniences that we love, one thing it has not increased is our happiness.
Urbanization has been linked to increased mental illness, including depression and anxiety. Science hasn’t explicitly confirmed why this correlation exists, but many of us can attest to the stress that comes along with sitting through long daily work commutes in gridlock, surrounded by the sounds of traffic and honking horns. Add to this the frenetic pace of our work lives, and it’s no wonder why so many of us are experiencing mental health challenges.
Bringing Attention to our Attention
In the 1980’s and 90’s, when children were spending an increasing amount of time indoors, Environmental Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed and popularized a theory called Attention Restoration Therapy (ART). ART hypothesizes that following mental exertion, attention can be restored through time spent in nature. The Kaplan’s studies served as the foundation for a greater body of research that would go on to support their belief in the positive effects of outdoor time on mental health and well-being.
Time in Nature
A study conducted by Hartig, Mang, and Evans compared two groups of individuals on vacation, and a control group. One group spent their vacation in an urban setting, and the other in a wilderness setting. Before and after their trips, the groups were tested on their performance in a focused-attention task. Not surprisingly, the group who vacationed in the wilderness was the only group whose performance increased following their holiday; performance declined in both other groups.
In fact, even just looking at nature has been proven to have a restorative effect on attention. Researchers compared the performance of university students on a directed-attention task, and found that students with a view of nature outside their window exhibited higher levels of achievement.
In addition to improving attention, time spent outdoors has been proven to:
- Decrease rumination (repetitive negative thinking about oneself)
- Lower blood pressure
- Crease cortisol levels (the chronic stress hormone)
- Increase immunity
Five Easy Ways to Embrace Nature
With such widespread benefits, there’s a compelling case for taking the time to get outside during your work week beyond simply increasing attention. But if you’re stuck in an office building in the downtown core, how can you build these habits into your routine? Let’s take a look at 5 of our favorite ways to integrate nature into your workday:
1. Set the Intention
There’s power in numbers, so start out by making sure your team is on the same page. Announce your intention to focus on outdoor time at your next “all staff” meeting. Consider sharing some of the research that compelled you to make the decision.
2. Reward the Good
Light up those dopamine receptors by offering a reward to the teams or individuals who successfully integrate nature time into their workweek. Ask the team to share how this new practice has influenced their mood and productivity.
3. Form Groups
Having other people on your team keeps you accountable and motivated. Consider forming a “walking group” that meets during lunch once a week. Even in the downtown core of a busy city, it’s possible to find a nearby park or indoor botanical garden that’s perfect for a stroll.
4. Add Imagery
Even the most urban office settings can benefit from a view of nature. Consider arranging meeting areas around the best window views, adding nature photography to the walls of cubicles, or bringing plants inside to adorn your desks and office spaces.
5. Meditate and Listen
On the days when leaving the office simply isn’t an option, spending even 5 minutes listening to rain sounds, bird calls, or waves on the ocean while practicing mindful breathing can boost your mood. With apps like Calm and videos on YouTube, it’s never been easier to have the sounds of the great outdoors at your fingertips.
How SIGMA Can Help
At SIGMA, we’ve been in business for more than 50 years. Our talent assessments, executive coaching, mindfulness-based leadership coaching, succession planning, and consulting services help organizations hire and develop stronger leaders. To learn more, contact us today.
 PNAS, “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation”, https://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567
 Positive Psychology Program, “What is Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART)?”, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/attention-restoration-theory/
 Greater Good Magazine, “Why Trees Can Make You Happier”, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_trees_can_make_you_happier