Whenever I think about increasing my productivity I focus on things like what tools I’m using, my processes and systems, and how many tasks I’m checking off each day.
But productivity is more than just how much work we do.
Our health, our mood, our motivation and engagement in our work all affect our productivity. You can’t do your best work if you’re unwell, unhappy, and checked-out of your job.
Humans are animals
We don’t spend much time thinking about ourselves as animals these days. But we are. As advanced as we’ve made our societies, we haven’t stopped being animals with biological needs. Evolution progresses far more slowly than we do, which is why we end up with chronic stress from our natural fight-or-flight mode being activated all the time from daily work stressors, which aren’t really life-or-death situations at all.
As Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert says, “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.”
Writer Laura Smith suggests that we’re still struggling to design a modern workspace that makes us happy, healthy, and productive all at once because “we don’t understand our primal biology.” The outdoors was our original workspace, says Smith, and while our world has evolved beyond the savannah, our biology hasn’t caught up yet.
Kellert makes an analogy that gets to the heart of what we’re doing wrong with office design. Zoos, he says, are ironic. We find it inhumane to keep animals in sterile, concrete spaces that don’t resemble their natural habitats. And yet, this is exactly what we’re doing to ourselves when we spend the majority of our time inside cubicles and offices with unnatural lighting and away from the environment we crave—nature.
Biologist E.O. Wilson says we’re drawn to nature because “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Flowers, for instance, represent fertile land. We find them beautiful, but there’s a reason we’re drawn to the beauty in nature; it’s good for us.
And yet, as Kellert says, we’re moving further away from it. More and more of us are living in dense cities with little access to natural environments and their benefits.
Nature makes us healthy
City dwellers might have more business and social opportunities, but living far from nature is damaging for our health. Various studies have found those who live in urban environments with little access to green spaces like parks are more likely to have psychological problems than people who live nearby green areas. But even with parks nearby, city dwellers in general have shown to have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses when compared to people living outside urban areas.
It’s not just parks and major green spaces that can improve our health, though. Trees alone seem to make a big difference. A study in Toronto examined the health of the city’s residents and the number of trees planted on each block. The study found that ten extra trees on a block correlated to a one percent increase in how healthy residents said they felt. This is the equivalent, say the researchers, of each household receiving a $10,000 bonus, or every resident being seven years younger.
What’s interesting is that the most beneficial trees seemed to be those planted in front yards or streets—places where the public could enjoy them simply by walking past. Trees planted in parks or in backyards, on the other hand, had little effect on the health of residents. The researchers suggest this may be because simply seeing trees around you makes you feel healthier.
The benefits of trees on health has also been shown when trees disappear. The U.S. Forest Service did an analysis on trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer, a pest that’s highly destructive to ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed 100 million trees across North America, which sadly gave the U.S. Forest Service some great data to examine how removing trees affects public health.
The results weren’t good.
The Forest Service concluded that both cardiovascular and respiratory disease incidents increased where the borer had killed trees. Between 1990 and 2007 the analysis found an extra 20,000 deaths could be attributed to the borer killing trees.
If nothing else, the research shows that we’ll be healthier if we’re surrounded by nature. But bringing nature into your workspace won’t just make you and your teammates healthier—it can make you more productive, too.
How to bring nature into your workspace
Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace says redesigning our office spaces won’t make us healthier and happier on its own. The problem is more fundamental, he says: we spend all day stuck in the same place. Shorter, more flexible workdays will allow employees to spend more free time doing outdoor activities, says Saval.
We are moving closer to this solution, with more companies hiring remote workers, increasing flexibility in employee hours, and even shortening the workweek. But in the meantime most of us are still spending the majority of our time in a single place—whether that’s a cubicle in a high-rise office building or a personalized home workspace.
While we wait for the short, flexible workweek to arrive and give us all more time to spend outside, we can add a little nature into our current workdays.
Get outside for a walk
I’m going to look at how to bring nature into your workspace, but I have to start with the research on how beneficial walking in natural spaces can be. It’s easy for many of us to incorporate a walk through a park or leafy area into our lunch break, and the benefits are enormous.
Plenty of studies have looked at the benefits of walking in leafy areas. Most have found that this simple activity can improve your mood and your ability to focus—giving you a boost at work after your walk.
One study at Stanford asking participants to either walk through a lush, green area of the Stanford campus or alongside heavy traffic for the same period of time. Those who walked in the green area were both more attentive and happier afterwards.
Another Stanford study tested how walking among nature can affect our tendency to brood. Brooding, which is essentially dwelling on negative experiences or thoughts, can be a precursor to depression, and tends to be more common among city dwellers.
This study again tested walking next to a busy highway or through a park-like area of the Stanford campus. Brain scans and questionnaires before and after participants went walking found a slight decrease in brooding among those who walked in the green space.
Japanese studies have also found walking in forest areas can reduce stress, hostility, and depression, while improving sleep and vigor.
The best news is you don’t even have to like walking in nature to get the benefits. One study sent participants on a 50-minute walk through either city streets or an arboretum before testing their performance on a cognitive assessment. Those who walked through nature performed around twenty percent better on memory and attention tests, and they were in better moods after the walk.
But here’s the cool part: the researchers repeated this study in the middle of winter when walking outside was quite unpleasant. In the winter version, test scores jumped just as much as they had for the nature walkers during the warmer season.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the benefits of walking through nature tend to be highest when your attention and energy is already depleted. So walking through a park early in the morning, for instance, may not do much, since you’re probably already fresh. But at lunchtime or in the afternoon when you’re facing a slump in energy and struggling to focus, a walk through nature could be just what you need to get through the rest of your workday.
Stay inside and look at nature
Now let’s look at some ways to bring nature indoors and improve your health and productivity in-between your daily nature walk.
I mentioned earlier that the researchers who studied the health benefits of publicly-visible trees in Toronto suggested we might only need to look at trees to get the benefits of having them around us.
Other studies have taken this further, testing how simply looking at a photo of trees can affect us. One study run by researchers at the University of Melbourne gave participants a menial task that required them to concentrate. After five minutes on the task, participants were given a 40-second break to look at a picture of a rooftop. The rooftop was either plain concrete or covered in a flowering meadow.
After the break participants returned to their task and the researchers tested how their accuracy and attention was affected by the pictures they’d seen. For those who looked at a plain concrete roof, their concentration fell by eight percent and their performance was inconsistent. Those who looked at the meadow, however, made fewer errors and their concentration rose by six percent.
Kate Lee, one of the study’s researchers, says this points to “attention restoration theory”:
The theory is that because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without you having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control.
The great thing about this effect is how easy it is to achieve. You could simply change your desktop wallpaper to a picture of nature, or add some photos or posters of natural environments to your office areas. If you’re lucky enough to work near a window, having a view of trees could do the same thing.
So long as you take some time every now and then to relax and enjoy a view of nature, you should get a small boost in your ability to concentrate.
Add plants to your office
Another easy approach is to add pot plants to your office area. They’re small, easy to care for, and can have a big boost on performance.
Unfortunately, more office designers seem to be focusing on a “lean” approach these days—clean, minimal offices that avoid clutter. It might be nice to have a neat workspace, but research shows the trade-off of adding plants is worth it.
A study from Cardiff University examined what happened when plants were added to a “lean” office. After plants were added, the researchers found an increase in workplace satisfaction among employees, self-reported concentration levels, and perceived air quality.
And here’s the kicker: productivity in the office went up by fifteen percent.
Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis says this study shows it’s worth adding a few plants to your office:
Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.
Get more natural light
Finally, one aspect of nature that’s easy to overlook: natural daylight. Natural light, in fact, has a huge impact on how we feel and how well we work.
A study from Northwestern University in Chicago concluded that there’s a strong relationship between the amount of daylight exposure in the workplace and office workers’ sleep quality and overall quality of life. Workers in offices with windows, for instance, sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night compared to those in windowless offices.
The study also found those without windows in their offices had more problems with overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, and daytime disfunction.
Study co-author Ivy Cheung says, “the extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable.”
Natural light doesn’t only affect sleep, though. Other research has shown natural lighting in the workspace can improve employee health, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce employee turnover. It can also decrease headaches and eyestrain, which is reportedly the top health problem among office workers.
In fact, the benefits of natural lighting are so good that many European countries require workers to be within 27 feet of a window.
In the early 90s West Bend Mutual Insurance was able to test the benefits of adding more windows when the company moved to a new office building. The number of staff with a window view went from 30 percent in the old building to 96 percent after the move. Coincidentally, the company also found a 16 percent increase in productivity in the new building.
And workers seem to know instinctively that windows are beneficial. A 1975 survey of office workers found 35 percent immediately responded that lack of windows was their biggest concern with their workspace. And further research has found employees value any window they can access, regardless of the size, even more than they value office privacy.
Whether or not you agree with Laura Smith that we’re struggling to design successful office building because we’re ignoring our primal biology, you can’t ignore the proven health benefits of surrounding ourselves with nature.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to improve your workspace by adding small plants, moving closer to a window, and hanging photos or posters of nature. But don’t forget to get out of the office when you can, too, and take a walk in a leafy area. Your health and your productivity will thank you for it.