I’ve been journaling on and off for years, but I’ve never been too good at sticking with the practice. It can easily begin to feel like a chore, and fall off until I get another burst of enthusiasm to pick it up again.
But recently I’ve come across a plethora of evidence that I could derive some serious benefits from instilling a regular journaling habit. From physical and mental health benefits to stronger feelings of belonging and better grades, journaling is proving its benefits in studies all over the world.
The benefits of journaling
Researchers generally use the term “expressive writing” to describe the kind of journaling used in studies. Most often study participants doing expressive writing are asked to write about thier feelings related to an event, though sometimes they’re also asked to write more thoughtfully about the facts related to the event. As we’ll see, this distinction is important.
Expressive writing studies have found that the practice may improve working memory and sport performance, lower blood pressure, and even improve lung and liver function It’s also been linked to improved immune function in people with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
A study of cancer patients found expressive writing correlated with better sleep quality, and another study of patients undergoing a biopsy found those who spent 20 minutes on expressive writing for three days in a row before the biopsy healed faster.
The benefits of expressive writing go beyond physical health, though. Journaling has also been shown to improve learning and performance in various settings. One study found people working a stressful fundraising job increased their hourly effort by 29% over the following two weeks after journaling for a few days about how their work made a difference.
A different study focused on the performance of new employees. In this case researchers found the employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.
According to Harvard Business School psychologist Francesca Gino, this is because reflecting on our work reminds us we’re good at it.
When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing.
Other research has focused on the benefits of journaling exercises for students. In one study seventh graders were given assignments to reflect on and write about the things that were most important in their lives. The writing exercises were handed out during the most stressful times of the year: the start of a new school year, before tests, and around the holiday season, when home life can be particularly stressful.
While white students in the study didn’t benefit in any meaningful way, students in racial minorities did, and the worst-performing students benefited most. For the worst-performing kids, grade repetition and remediation rates dropped from 18% to 5%, and overall the racial achievement gap among the students was reduced by 30%.
How to get the most from your journal
There’s no right or wrong way to journal. It’s an entirely subjective experience and your approach should suit your preferences and needs.
But if you care about reaping the benefits research has found, there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind.
Use your journal to process emotions and events
There is emerging agreement… that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. — Bridget Murray, American Psychological Association
Just writing how you feel about events, rather than thinking about the meaning or lessons learned in those events—and vice versa—won’t provide you with the benefits seen in all this journaling research. The benefits arise when we use journaling to express our emotions and to work through them by thinking through things that happen and why they make us feel a particular way.
Traumatic or stressful experiences are often used in expressive writing studies, as they involve a lot of strong emotion.
According to health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, “an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
While it might be easier to simply write about your emotions related to an event and move on, researchers say it’s important to process those emotions as well. By writing about your emotions and your rational thoughts related to a stressful event, studies have found you’ll be able to distance yourself from it and become less emotionally reactive.
We think the process of creating a coherent story out of disorganised emotional memories facilitates self-distancing because this process requires people to adopt other people’s perspectives and focus on broader contexts. — Jiyoung Park, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.
Taking this idea of different perspectives even further, one study found writing about stressful events in third person can help us distance ourselves and process our emotions.
Taking an observer’s vantage may be vital to maintaining composure and making progress when trying to sort through a distressing or angering event or moment in life. — Matthew Andersson, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University
Write about your best self
While many of the studies mentioned here asked participants to write expressively about traumatic or stressful events in their lives, one study asked some participants to write about their best possible future selves.
Unsurprisingly, writing about future life goals was significantly less upsetting than writing about traumatic events. But it was also associated with a significant increase in subjective well-being right after the study.
And when the researchers checked in with participants five months later, both writing about stressful experiences and writing about life goals were associated with a lower rate of illness during that five-month period.
This is just one study among many, but it points to the possibility that we could reap the benefits of expressive writing without having to write about events and memories that upset us.
You could also pair this journaling approach with writing regular reviews to keep you on track toward your goals.
Write a weekly gratitude journal
Keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for has shown similar benefits to expressive writing. It can improve your sleep, make you feel happier, and and decrease your chance of getting sick.
But gratitude journals don’t always work. Like expressive journaling, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to reap the health benefits of writing down what you’re grateful for.
Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California and “arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude“, suggests focusing on the people you’re grateful for more than material things, and taking notice of unexpected events, as they tend to elicit stronger feelings of gratitude.
Emmons also suggests going into detail about a particular thing you’re grateful for, rather than focusing on a long-but-superficial list of items. The more detail you go into, the more you’ll savor the feelings of gratitude.
Finally, Emmons says not to write in your gratitude journal too often. One study found writing in a gratitude journal once a week for six weeks boosted participants’ happiness, but writing about gratitude three times every week didn’t. Humans are highly adaptable, and Emmons suggests writing about gratitude too often causes us to adapt and get used to the feeling. It means less to us when we experience it more often, so spreading out your gratitude journaling will be more effective.
If you’re new to journaling and don’t know where to start, here are some tools to get you going.
Day One is a popular journaling app for Mac and iOS that lets you create separate journals. You could have a gratitude journal, a daily journal, and even a work journal. You can also use IFTTT to automate storing your Instagram photos, tweets, and RescueTime stats in a Day One journal.
Another iOS and Mac option is the notes app, Bear. Though it’s not necessarily designed to be used as a journal, Bear lets you link to other notes within the app, add images, and use tags to organise your notes.
If you’re not an iOS and Mac user, or you’re already using Evernote for your daily note-taking needs, it’s an obvious choice for your journal. You can create as many new notebooks as you want for various journals, add photos, and take your journal with you on every device.
For those who like the feel of analogue tools, Hobonichi planners are a great way to start a daily journaling habit. These Japanese planners are used for everything from planning daily to-do lists to art journals and diaries. They’re made with Tomoe River paper, one of the best options available if you use fountain pens, and surprisingly tough, considering how thin it is (imagine something like Bible paper). The Hobonichi comes in A6 and A5 sizes, both with one page per day to keep you writing regularly.
Another popular analogue option is the Bullet Journal system, which can be used in any notebook. Or, you can purchase the official Bullet Journal notebook made by Leuchtturm1917. Whether you purchase the official book with pre-printed sections or write up the system in whichever notebook you happen to have handy, you’ll get the benefits of both organization and flexibility for your entries. The system includes an indexing method to help you find your entries later, as well as ways to keep track of your tasks and events alongside your journal entries. The great thing about this system is that it offers structure to help you get past the panic-inducing blank page, but it’s flexible enough that you can adjust it to suit your needs.
Whether you dash out a few lines into your phone’s notes app, or spend an hour writing in a leather-bound book, try finding some time to journal. Write about your best possible future self and how you might get there, or take note of the things you’re most grateful for. Writing a journal might seem simple, but it can have powerful benefits if you have the patience to stick with it.
Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.
There’s something quite special that happens when we reflect on what we’ve done.
Well, two things, actually. One is that we gain a better understanding of what we’ve done or learned. The other is that our self-efficacy improves—that is, our belief in our own abilities.
Self-efficacy is a powerful thing because the more we believe we have the ability to perform well, the more we do perform well.
Researchers have found that the practice of reflection makes what we’ve learned stick in our minds better, as well as improving our performance. In fact, there comes a point in our work or training when we’ve learned enough that reflecting on our experience can boost our performance more than further practice.
A study of customer service representatives found that those who regularly reflected on their training performed 25% better on the final test than other trainees. They also improved their chance of receiving the highest rating for their service by 20%.
The funny thing about this research, though, is that when given the choice, most people choose more practice over reflection. It seems we prefer doing to thinking.
But reflecting is good for us—whether it’s tracking our progress on goals or taking note of what we’ve learned, reflecting regularly helps us refocus and better understand ourselves.
Today I’ll look at three forms of regular reflection and how to implement them: weekly, monthly, and annual reviews. Click the links below to skip to each section:
- Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
- Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
- Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
The weekly review is a chance to tie up loose ends, prepare for the week ahead, and reflect on short-term goals.
Writer Alan Henry finds the benefits of conducting a weekly review make it worth finding the time on a regular basis:
You’ll be more organized, you’ll never wonder if there’s something you forgot to do or something you should be working on, and you’ll never be afraid you forgot about something important.
If you find it difficult to sit down every week and reflect on your progress, you’re not alone. For writer Chris Bowler, his weekly review was something to dread, because initially it just consisted of trawling through his task manager. As Bowler points out, to-do lists aren’t much fun to review because they tend to include lots of tasks we should do but don’t want to, and things we want to do but can’t right now.
Because Bowler’s to-do list was frustrating, his weekly review ended up that way, too, making it harder to do:
If [your] review is just another chance to get frustrated, you’ll let it slide more often.
Bowler was able to improve his weekly review by focusing less on his task list and more on his achievements from the past week and goals for the week ahead:
Previously, I would get frustrated with my weekly reviews as they would feel mostly useless. Now, I enjoy the process and look forward to the exercise.
Since completing weekly reviews consistently, Bowler has been able to shake bad organization habits such as setting arbitrary due dates for all his tasks so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
Since I’m bad at reviewing my projects regularly, I’ve developed this habit of setting a due date to bring a task back to my attention.
Now Bowler’s reviews include time to go over his projects and plan his tasks for the week ahead, replacing this bad habit and keeping him more organized.
What to include in your weekly review
If you’re just getting started with your own weekly review you’ll probably need to do some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you. But to get you going, here’s a step-by-step example from author Michael Hyatt. Hyatt’s review consists of 8 steps designed to stop important tasks or appointments from being forgotten and help him stay on top of his workload.
Step 1: Sort through all loose papers. Some will need filing, others may need to be actioned, and some might simply need to be recycled.
Step 2: Sort through notes from the past week. All notes taken during the week are reviewed for action items, anything needing following up, and any information that needs to be transferred elsewhere for more permanent storage.
Step 3: Review last week’s calendar. Check for any follow-up needed for past events.
Step 4: Review annual goals. This is where you start looking ahead to the coming week. Review annual goals and ensure the next step for each goal is planned and scheduled on your to-do list or calendar.
Step 5: Review upcoming week’s calendar. Check if any coming events require preparation and schedule time to get this done.
Step 6: Review in-progress projects. Make sure the next step of each project is planned and scheduled.
Step 7: Review delegated tasks. Check anything that you’ve delegated or tasks where you’re waiting for someone else’s input and follow up if necessary.
Step 8: Review your someday/maybe list. Go through your list of projects, ideas, and tasks you’d like to do someday when you have time. This is your chance to choose something from that list and schedule it into your week.
This process might sound complicated, but with a checklist and some patience you could get through a list like this every week. Hyatt’s review not only helps him prepare for the week ahead, it also ensures nothing from the past week gets forgotten or overlooked.
Alan Henry says his weekly review helps him re-evaluate the work he does and how he plans for the week ahead:
I learned that when you take time to step back and reconnect with the things you have to do and why you have to do them, you begin to understand what’s really important, what you really have time for, what you need help with, and how much bandwidth you actually have.
Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
We all love to set big goals at the start of a new year, but they’re very likely to fail. Monthly goals, on the other hand, are easier to manage.
A monthly review gives you a chance to reflect on a longer period without being so vast it’s hard to grasp.
According to author and zen habits founder Leo Babauta, the monthly review “helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something in just a month, and it lets me take a big-picture look at my life.”
A monthly review is a good chance to set new goals, assess your behavior from the past month, and celebrate your achievements.
I’ve been writing and sharing my own monthly reviews for a couple of years and I’ve found the added transparency of sharing my reviews has helped to keep me accountable to the goals I set each month.
What to include in your monthly review
- Highlights from the past month
- His current weight and any change compared to the previous month
- The outcome of last month’s goal
- Goals (usually just one) for the month ahead
- Any changes to his codex—a list of his values and personal beliefs revisited monthly
- Books, movies, articles, podcasts, or albums enjoyed in the past month
Benson publishes his monthly reviews on Medium, so you can explore real-life examples of his template in action.
For an even simpler template, Rosetta Thurman from Happy Black Woman has you covered. Her monthly review consists of just four steps:
- List everything significant that happened last month. This doesn’t have to be just your achievements—any significant life changes or events you attended also belong here.
- Reflect on these three things from the past month:
- Your biggest personal milestone
- Your biggest professional accomplishment
- Your most valuable lesson learned
3. Choose a theme or emotion that sums up the past month for you.
4. Set goals for the month ahead.
Of course, the best monthly review template will be the one that works for you. For more inspiration, my newsletter The Monthly Review sends out various personal reviews every month. If you’ve already started your own monthly review, you can even submit it for inclusion in the newsletter.
Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
There’s nothing quite like a brand new year for reflecting and setting new goals. Annual reviews tend to be longer than monthly or weekly reviews, simply because there’s a lot more to reflect on and a bigger time period to plan ahead for.
But that doesn’t have to make your annual review overwhelming. Whether you take a week off in December to complete it like entrepreneur and author Chris Guillebeau, or wrap it up in an afternoon, your annual review only needs to cover what’s important to you.
Maybe you want to reflect on your business or career achievements of the past year. Or maybe you like to set lots of goals each year, then reflect on your progress towards them.
Or perhaps you just enjoy making a list of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows from the past year, as I do.
Like any other review, a personal annual review is for you and should include whatever you find most useful. Even if that changes from year to year.
What to include in your annual review
Celes Chua from the blog Personal Excellence provides a 6-step template for creating your own annual review:
- Reflect on your biggest accomplishments from the past year.
- Reflect on your biggest lessons learned in the past year.
- Give yourself a score for how well the past year went. You can give yourself a grade from F to A+ or a score from 1-10.
- Plan your goals for the next year by asking yourself what it would take to look back on this year as your best year ever, or to rate it 10/10.
- Plan any new habits you can build to help you achieve the goals you set in the previous step.
- Plan your immediate next steps to achieve each of the goals you set.
If you prefer more in-depth reflection on the past year, Leo Babauta has some handy suggestions for finding details of everything you did:
- Check your TripIt account, or anywhere else you record details of your travels throughout the year to remember the trips you took.
- Browse all files on your computer created in the past year to see what you spent time working on.
- Look through your Amazon order history and credit card statement to see what you spent money on.
- Read through your notes and journal entries from the past year.
You can also set your RescueTime dashboard to show all your time logged and your productivity pulse for the full year:
You may not want to dedicate a whole week of your life to your annual review as Chris Guillebeau does, but even spending an afternoon reflecting on what you achieved in the past year and where you want to be in 12 months’ time can bring clarity to your daily plans.
Guillebeau credits his annual review with much of his success as a writer and entrepreneur:
When someone asks how I can do “so much,” I always mention this week-long planning process. There is no hidden secret to working towards a lot of big goals at the same time, but taking the time to clearly define specific objectives each year has helped me more than anything else.
If you read this post thinking reviews sound like a good idea but too much hassle, you might want to try writer Laura Vanderkam’s approach of writing your review ahead of time. Writing your annual review at the start of the year tells you what to work on, she says.
I think the best approach is to plan for great things, but be open to even more wonderful things happening that you didn’t know to plan for.
Vanderkam suggests imagining it’s the end of the year right now, and the year went well. Now write down the 3-5 things that made it such a great year.
This tells you ahead of time what to work on. All you have to do is work towards making that review a reality.
… articulating what you find interesting and meaningful can help answer the question of “I have time, what should I do with it?”
If you’re ready to try your own reviews, grab one of these templates and adjust as you go. You’ll find your own needs change over time and dictate what kind of reflection is most useful.
*Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Exist.
It’s common to feel tired after a long day at work or to need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new feature. But sadly it’s also common to feel tired all the time. To lack enthusiasm about your work. To feel cynical and disengaged from what you do.
These are all symptoms of burnout, which is becoming more common as our work lives become busier, more demanding, and more stressful.
In this post I’ll explore what burnout is, what causes it, and how we can overcome it.
What is burnout?
The term “burnout” was coined in the ’70s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. The term was taken from an analogy of a burned-out house:
If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.
Freudenberger says, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burnt out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”
But what exactly is burnout?
Researchers say burnout can be broken down into three parts:
Exhaustion from burnout could lead you to be easily upset, have trouble sleeping, get sick more often, and struggle to concentrate.
Cynicism is sometimes called depersonalization in this context, because it’s categorized by feeling alienated from the people you work with and lacking engagement in your work.
Finally, inefficacy refers to a lack of belief in your ability to perform your job well and a decrease in achievement and productivity.
But how do we get into this sorry state? It’s not as simple as overworking.
How is burnout caused?
It’s a common misconception that burnout is simply a result of working too hard or for too long, according to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science.
“Ultimately,” writes Michel, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”
APS Fellow and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach, has been studying burnout since the 70’s. Maslach and her collaborators came up with six components of the workplace environment that can contribute to burnout:
We end up with burnout when one or more of these areas of our work don’t match our needs.
It’s not a rare condition, either. Research by Gallop recently found that 2.7 million workers in Germany report feeling symptoms of burnout. A different survey in 2013 found nearly 30% of UK-based HR directors surveyed believe there’s widespread burnout in their companies.
And the effects are serious. Michel says burnout is “not just a state of mind, but a condition that leaves its mark on the brain as well as the body.”
The risks of burnout
Being tired and lacking engagement in your work is no fun, but the risks of burnout run even deeper.
Research has shown that the chronic psychosocial stress that’s common in people suffering from burnout can impair personal and social functioning as well as overwhelming your cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems.
Over time the effects of burnout can lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems.
One study also found burnout sufferers may have accelerated thinning of the brain’s front cortex—a part that’s essential for cognitive functioning. This section of the brain thins as part of the natural aging process, but the thinning effect was more pronounced in participants who’d experienced burnout.
It’s not just the brain at risk, either. A study of nearly 9,000 workers found burnout significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease.
This is all sounding rather grim, so let’s move on to something more positive: how to overcome burnout.
So you’re feeling the effects of burnout or you’re worried you’re at risk. What can you do? Psychologists suggest looking for ways to make your workload easier to manage—delegating more, saying “no” more often, and writing down what’s making you feel stressed at work.
But burnout isn’t just about workload stress. To overcome burnout, you also need to find ways to relax and enjoy life again.
Focus on your daily care
It’s easy to forget about looking after yourself when you’re burned out. You’re feeling stressed, you’ve got too much on your plate, and the last thing you have time for is looking after yourself.
But according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, that’s exactly what you should be doing. Carter says making sure you eat well, stay hydrated, exercise, and get plenty of sleep is critical when you’re facing burnout.
Carter also recommends remembering what you like doing to relax, and finding more time for those activities.
Do what you enjoy
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer believes burnout is caused by something simple and easy to fix: a feeling of resentment toward your job.
Burnout is the result, according to Mayer, of work getting in the way of workers’ lives. She says people “will become resentful if work makes them miss things that are really important to them.”
To avoid this resentment turning into burnout, Mayer says it’s important to know what you care about most and schedule time for those activities.
Software developer Kent Nguyen agrees. He says burnout comes from “not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly.”
In Nguyen’s case, he started feeling burnt out when he was spending more time on his management duties than on writing code.
Nguyen thinks of periods of time spent coding like checkpoints, each one staving off burnout for a little longer. He has small daily checkpoints and bigger weekly and monthly checkpoints so there’s always a new bout of the thing he loves to do coming up. And when he misses a checkpoint, he makes sure to schedule another one as soon as possible so he never goes too long without doing what he enjoys most.
Add something new
This will probably sound strange, because it’s a very counterintuitive idea, but James Sudakow, author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, actually added to his hectic schedule to help him avoid burnout.
Sudakow admits his schedule was hectic. Between his family duties, work, and the hours he spends writing every week, there wasn’t much wiggle room.
But Sudakow did what few of us would—he added piano lessons to his schedule. 30 minutes per week for the lessons and an hour to practice every day meant more than six hours per week of extra commitments.
But here’s the strange thing: it actually worked. That extra commitment helped Sudakow stave off burnout.
The trick, he says, was choosing something that helped rejuvenate his energy. Playing piano at night made me feel better when he went to sleep and when he woke up the next day. That daily rejuvenation seeped into his work and made him feel better overall.
While adding to your schedule or even finding more time for something you already enjoy doing might seem impossible when you’re facing burnout, looking after yourself is a great place to start. Simply focusing on sleep, eating well, and getting a little exercise every day can help you avoid the worst of burnout while you get back on track.
I spend most of my day on a computer. When I’m not working I spend my spare time programming or blogging. When I take a break I spend it looking at my phone.
One of the problems with all this time spent looking at screens is the amount of digital clutter these habits have created in my life.
I don’t just mean files cluttering up my desktop or a Facebook account full of friends I barely know. I mean the intangible clutter: the accounts I have on every social network; the abandoned to-do lists left behind in every to-do app I’ve ever tried; the people I’m always comparing myself to or trying to beat.
Spending so much time online every day leads to a cluttered life. One where you don’t stop and think before grabbing your phone during any moment of downtime. One where you start feeling obliged to post on social networks twice a day because your followers expect you to and you forgot to ask yourself if it even matters what people expect.
It’s so easy for these habits to creep up on us that we never get a chance to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our time. Before we notice anything changing it just feels normal to fill up our time—our lives—with screens.
But once we realise how cluttered our lives have become with screens, social media, and expectations, we can look for ways to simplify that mess.
Transition to digital minimalism
Professor and author Cal Newport is well-known for his ideas about productivity—in particular, finding the time and space to do real, important work. So when Newport suggested quitting social media, people took notice.
We’ve all heard of social media sabbaticals, where someone quits social media for a short period of time, but Newport also has a suggestion for a more lasting approach than the yo-yo of quitting and rejoining social media over and over: digital minimalism.
Digital minimalism, says Newport, is focused on the idea of removing digital clutter and spending our time only on what adds value to our lives.
Digital minimalism, he says, “is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”
Newport’s philosophy is based around the idea that we can improve our lives by “intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing [our] use of the tools that really matter.”
Of course, to adopt a philosophy that requires us to prune our use of (and reliance on) digital tools, we’ll inevitably have to face FOMO—fear of missing out. Newport says one of the key beliefs underlying his digital minimalism philosophy is that missing out is not bad. We have to come to terms with the idea that we will miss out on some things, and that that’s okay. FOMO is only holding us back by giving us an excuse to stay chained to the digital clutter we’ve accumulated.
So if we admit we can’t keep up with everything anyway and let go of our FOMO, what’s next? How do we actually clear out the digital clutter that’s built up in our lives?
Newport suggests two alternatives for making the transition to digital minimalism. The first is a subtractive approach. This involves removing each digital tool, service, or associated behavior that you find doesn’t add value to your life. One by one, survey each element of digital clutter you’ve accumulated and ask yourself if it deserves to stay. If not, remove it.
The other approach is an additive method. It involves removing everything initially, and adding back only those tools, services or behaviors that do serve your values.
With either of these approaches, you could use RescueTime to show you which distracting tools and services take up most of your time. If you use the subtractive approach, your RescueTime data could also show you how much more productive you are when you cut out everything you can do without, and how that changes as you start adding things back into your life.
Either way, the most important thing, says Newport, is to make sure you’re choosing the best tool or service in each case, not just whatever will do the job.
Choose the best tool for the job
Many of us fall prey to the easy option of finding value in every digital tool we use. It’s not hard to make an argument for spending time on Facebook or having a Twitter account. You could even argue the merits of Snapchat—no one would begrudge you having fun with friends.
But Newport points out that we rarely take the time to find the best way to get the value we’re looking for. Instead, we try a new tool, find some value in it, and decide that’s a good reason to keep giving it our attention.
Newport suggests another way of approaching the digital clutter in our lives. Whether you use his subtractive or additive method from the previous section, he recommends starting by thinking about your values. What is it that’s important to you? What do you want to achieve from how you spend your time?
When you know what your values are, Newport says, you can focus on finding the best tools to help you live out those values.
For example, if you previously found scrolling through Twitter every few minutes useful because it helped you stay on top of news, and one of your values is to be informed about local events, you could then evaluate whether Twitter is the best tool for staying updated on what’s happening in your local area. You might find that a local newspaper or the RSS feed of a local news website is a better tool to help you live out this particular value.
Protect your time
One of the inevitable effects of digital clutter is that it makes us busy. Filling our time with email, social networks, and mindless scrolling through other people’s updates leaves us with little time to get real work done. Our lives are taken over by busy work.
As writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young points out, this is a problem because we associate being busy with being productive, but they’re not the same. When we spend all our time on busywork, therefore, we entertain the idea that we’re being productive while all along we’re neglecting our most important work.
Although it can be difficult to escape from the cycle of busyness, doing so opens up time for hard, important work.
Young suggests cutting back on your commitments to leave more room for big projects. Newport similarly advocates doing fewer things better, rather than spreading yourself too thin.
But Young also suggests being disconnected or hard to reach on purpose. The more available and responsive you are, the more easily other people can clutter up your life and eat up your time with their own priorities.
Our own CEO Robby Macdonell tried drastically cutting back on his social media activity because it was becoming overwhelming:
About a year ago, I got into a rut where I was completely bogged down with checking news and social networks. I had so many streams of information to monitor that keeping up was really draining. I got totally burnt out on it and decided to quit most of it cold turkey, cutting my time spent on social media by about 90%. I uninstalled everything from my phone and made a point to stay logged out of sites on my browser. The awkward feeling of being cut off from everything was real, but it passed after a few days.
A year later, Macdonell says the change was worth it:
Getting away from the noise I had been wading through felt great. The best part of it is the quality of my offline time is way up. I’m more present, and ‘catching up’ with my friends is generally now a focused conversation instead of skimming over a bunch of status updates.
It might sound extreme, but not having an account on every social network, not leaving your status as “available” in chat programs during work hours, or even not sharing your email address could open up huge chunks of uninterrupted time for real work. By making it harder for other people to contact you, you’ll ensure only very important messages will reach you, and you’ll protect your time from busywork and time-consuming requests.
Of course, the problem then becomes what to use as an excuse when you avoid the hard work anyway…
It’s never easy to go against the grain, but in doing what seems normal we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Our “normal” has become a harmful habit of accepting all new, available technology into our lives, regardless of how much value it really brings us.
Taking the time to re-evaluate the tools we use and how we spend our time can be an eye-opening experience. And if we regularly evaluate our choices and protect our time and attention, we may just be able to avoid falling into that trap again.
It’s that time of year again. The dust has settled, the streamers and empty bottles have been recycled, and we’re all heading back to reality, taking our resolutions to make this year better and throwing them smack-bang into 2017 and all it’s got to see whether they’ll survive the impact.
Despite the fact that most of us know New Year’s Resolutions (or resolutions undercover as goals for those who boycott the New Year tradition in name only) fail, we make them anyway. We’re sucked in by the promise of a fresh, new year every twelve months, and end up making another vow to get fit, keep the house clean, make new friends, or play that musical instrument that’s been gathering dust since we bought it five January firsts ago.
But why do our goals and resolutions so often fail? What is it about vowing to change our lives at the start of the year (or anytime, really) that seems so promising, yet brings with it more disappointment than lasting change?
The reasons for failure vary by goal and by person of course, but there are a few things goals and resolutions usually have in common that make them disappointment traps for anyone wanting more out of life.
We choose unrealistic goals
Have you ever noticed how fitness programs, meal plans, and goal-setting apps tend to oversell the progress you’ll make if you buy their product? You never see a fitness program advertising that it’ll help you lose an inch of body fat if you stick with it for a full year. Or a meal plan that says six months is all you need to notice that you’re feeling better and starting to lose weight.
Products designed to help us reach our goals love to sell us on seeing huge results in a short period of time. And that’s why we buy them.
Unfortunately, this kind of attitude has led to something researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman call “false-hope syndrome.” The problem is that we start out with unreasonable goals (often helped along by whatever coaching program or plan we’ve signed up for), and when we don’t lose 10 pounds in the first month or we give up on our no-smoking resolution after just a week, we get so disappointed that we give up on trying to change at all.
Here’s how Polivy and Herman explain it:
When unreasonable expectations for self-change are not met, people are likely to feel frustrated and despondent, and to give up trying to change… This phenomenon of beginning self-change attempts with high hopes and expectations of successful outcomes is illustrative of a phenomenon we call the false-hope syndrome.
Egged on by apps and programs designed to help us reach our goals, we start off being over-confident about the results we’ll see (and how quickly we’ll see them), only to be left disappointed and fed-up with goals when our results don’t meet our expectations.
The answer: Do a premortem for each goal
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, offers us a solution in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman credits the idea of doing a premortem (as opposed to a postmortem) to his colleague, Gary Klein.
The idea is simply to imagine you’ve already tried achieving your goal and failed, then to examine what went wrong. Here’s Kahneman:
Imagine that you are [x amount of time] into the future. You implemented your plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Take five to ten minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.
While optimism and self-confidence are important for achieving our goals, doing a premortem can help ground us in reality. When we examine what could stop us from achieving our goals before we even get started, we can identify and avoid those pitfalls, rather than letting them surprise us and falling victim to the false-hope syndrome.
Author Brad Stulberg says when you force yourself to realise everything that could go wrong, “you become more likely to take the necessary steps to ensure that things go right.”
We don’t feel connected to our future selves
Unfortunately, achieving goals tends to mean taking a hit right now (being uncomfortable, denying ourselves our favourite foods, taking time away from watching TV to exercise, and so on) in order to create good results for our future selves. The problem with this is that we’re quite bad at identifying with our future selves and predicting how we’ll feel in the future.
Even after looking back on how much we’ve changed in the past ten years, for instance, people tend to predict that they’ll be mostly the same in the following ten years. Because we can’t predict how much we’ll change in the future, it’s hard to make decisions now that will benefit us long-term. Our present selves and short-term desires tend to clash with our future selves and longer-term wishes.
The answer: think in smaller time units
One method research shows can help us overcome this problem is to think about time in smaller units—such as days or weeks instead of months or years. This can make future events seem closer, which motivates us to act sooner.
For instance, one study asked participants how soon they would start saving for college if it started in either 18 years or in 6,570 days. Other participants were asked how soon they’d start saving for retirement that started in either 40 years or 14,600 days.
The participants who were asked about events starting in a number of days, rather than years, said they’d start saving four times sooner.
Another study found that events seemed an average of 29.7 days sooner—almost a whole month—when they were considered in days instead of months. And events considered in months rather than years seemed 8.7 months sooner—more than half a year.
So if you’re struggling to get started on a goal because you can’t identify with your future self, try considering future events in smaller units of time. Thinking about how many days or weeks it is until your next birthday, for instance, might motivate you to start exercising or eating right sooner than you would have done otherwise. Or thinking about how many months away your retirement is might help you take action on asking for a pay rise sooner.
We misunderstand the effects of our behavior
While false-hope syndrome can kill our goals when we don’t reach our expectations, combined with the progress bias we barely have a chance. The progress bias, according to Margaret C. Campbell, professor of marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, refers to a common misunderstanding of how our behaviors affect our progress towards our goals.
Essentially, we overestimate the good effects of our behavior in support of our goals, and we underestimate the bad effects of cheating on our goals.
… we find that people tend to have a “progress bias” such that they perceive that goal-consistent behaviors (such as avoiding eating a piece of cake) help progress more than the equivalent goal-inconsistent behaviors (such as eating a piece of cake) hurt progress.
The progress bias is so dangerous, in fact, that in a study conducted by Campbell, participants who started out wanting to expend more calories than they consumed did the opposite.
The answer: focus on (keystone) habits instead
If we’re so terrible at measuring the effects of our behaviors, how can we ever hope to reach our goals? According to writer Mark Manson, the answer is to focus on small, regular habits.
Manson explains that focusing on daily habits is like cultivating an attitude of investing your money for high returns—a little at a time that builds up over a longer period. Focusing on goals, however, is like spending all your money to acquire one-off items.
Goals are one-time decisions, says Manson. You spend x amount of effort to receive y reward, and then you’re done. Since there’s no reason to keep spending effort once the goal is accomplished, you don’t bother—and that’s why we put back on the weight we lose, take up smoking again, or fall back into bad eating habits after being on a diet for months.
Habits, however, require spending smaller amounts of effort to achieve results that compound over time.
With goals, every day you go back to the gym feels harder. With habits, after a while it feels harder to not go to the gym than it does to go.
There are some habits, says Manson, that offer a better return for your investment of effort than others. Researchers call these keystone habits, since they tend to lead to other healthy habits naturally.
A common example is exercise. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg points out that research shows building a regular exercise habits often leads people to also tidy their house more regularly, make healthier eating decisions, and procrastinate less.
I like to think of keystone habits as “compounding habits” because, much like compounding returns on an investment, over a long enough period of time, they can increase the richness of your life exponentially.
So if you struggle to reach your goals, try focusing on building a small, daily habit instead. If your goal this year is to lose weight, for instance, rather than trying to achieve that all at once try aiming for a habit of 30 minutes of exercise daily. It’s a lot easier to succeed at something small every day than it is to build up all the right behaviors and stick with them over a long period of time until you reach a big goal.
Contexts keep us doing the same old bad habits
So what if you’re having just as much trouble with building small habits as you had with goals? That may just come down to context, according to Rebekah Boynton and Anne Swinbourne from James Cook University.
It’s hard to break out of old behavior patterns, they say, because “habitual behaviour is automatic, easy and rewarding.”
Our existing behaviors are triggered by contextual cues, say Boynton and Swinbourne, such as time of day, location, or objects you see around you. It’s these things, therefore, that we need to change if we’re going to change our behaviors.
But we also need to pay attention to what happens after a particular behavior. If we feel rewarded after eating a donut, for instance, we’re probably going to want to do it again. But if we feel good right after exercising, we’ll want to do that again. It works the same way regardless of what the behavior itself is.
“Quite simply,” say Boynton and Swinbourne, “if a pleasant outcome follows a new behavior, you’re more likely to repeat it.”
So there’s a two-pronged approach here: the contexts around us that trigger our behaviors and the way we feel after a behavior. Feeling bored, for instance, might lead us to eat a donut. And after eating the donut we feel good, so we’ll want to do it again. Our existing behaviors are resistant to change because they’re held in place at both ends.
The answer: Change your context to make new behaviours easier
The answer in this case is fairly obvious (though not necessarily easy): we need to adjust the cues that encourage us to do our old behaviors, and the rewards we get from those behaviors, while also adding cues and rewards related to the new habits we want to develop.
“To form a new habit,” according to Boynton and Swinbourne, “you need to maximise the triggers and cues that lead to the desired behaviour and avoid triggers to the less desirable behaviour.”
Essentially this comes down to a very simple process: make it harder (and less rewarding) to do behaviors you want to stop, and easier (and more rewarding) to do habits you want to build.
Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage uses the term “activation energy” to refer to the amount of effort is takes to go from doing nothing to doing your goal behavior. He suggests focusing on minimising activation energy for habits you want to do often, to make it easier to get started.
For Achor, learning guitar was a habit he wanted to build but was struggling with. Improving his contexts helped him overcome the hurdle of getting started:
I had kept my guitar tucked away in the closet, out of sight and out of reach. It wasn’t far out of the way… but just those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent…
I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room… three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.
Remember how Boynton and Swinbourne said the objects around you and your location are examples of context for behaviors? Achor moved his guitar so it would be visible when he was in the living room—a place he was likely to go to when he had spare time and wanted to relax. Seeing the guitar at a time when he was available to play it was a big enough change in context that he played it every day for three weeks.
Whether you’re trying to give up a bad habit or build a new, healthy one, think about the contexts that affect your behavior, and the rewards you get when you do certain things. Adjusting the before and after of a habit can make it stick more or less than it would otherwise.
Whether it’s our own psychology or a well-marketed fitness program, we’re often lulled into traps when setting goals. We have unrealistic expectations, we misunderstand the effects of our behavior, and we’re stuck in contexts that stop us making lasting changes.
Thankfully, psychologists have done the hard work for us to figure out how to overcome these barriers. They’re not going to the gym for us or cheering us on when we’re struggling to say no to another snack, but by helping us set better goals in the first place they’ve got us one step closer to success.
It’s a new year, and I’ve just started a new job. Since joining the team at RescueTime I’ve been researching and writing about how people work and how we can work more effectively.
This has all got me thinking about the inherent joy some people find at work, and the lack of it so many people feel these days.
What is it that makes us happy at work? And how can we make sure it happens more often?
Making progress in meaningful work
According to researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
Amabile and Kramer have spent nearly 15 years looking into what affects people’s moods, motivation, and happiness at work. In all their work they found one particular element that made the biggest difference on how employees feel about their work (and in general): whether or not they feel like they made progress in meaningful work.
They call this the progress principle.
And the more often employees experience that feeling of progress, Amabile and Kramer have found, the more productive they’ll be in the long term.
The progress principle hinges on two main findings: firstly that a central driver of productivity in creative work is the employee’s inner work life—that is, the emotions, motivations and perceptions they experience throughout the workday. The second finding is that making progress in work we care about affects all three parts of our inner work life positively.
Amabile’s and Kramer’s research showed employees who made progress were happier, more intrinsically motivated, reported more positive interactions with colleagues, and perceived more positive challenges in their work.
Those who experienced setbacks, on the other hand, felt more frustration, fear, and sadness. They felt less intrinsically motivated, but also responded less to recognition from peers as extrinsic motivation, and perceived their colleagues as less supportive. They were also more likely to feel that they lacked the freedom and resources needed to succeed in their work.
Inner work life doesn’t just affect how much work you get done today, either. It can affect your work performance the following day, too. But if your inner work life is good, you’re not only more likely to be productive—you’ll be more committed to work and more collegial to others, too.
The good news is you don’t have to make huge strides for the progress principle to take effect. Amabile and Kramer say even small wins can boost your inner work life, so long as they’re part of meaningful work. In fact, 28% of incidents reported in their research had a minor impact on the related project, but a major impact on how the reporting employee felt. We tend to have outsized reactions to small events, say Amabile and Kramer.
Which means focusing on making small gains in our most important work every day is a solid approach to improving our happiness, commitment, and productivity at work.
Feeling good about our company’s mission
According to Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, one of the most important parts of job satisfaction is simply how an employee feels about the company’s mission. This may relate to the progress principle, as mentioned above, since caring about our company’s mission likely makes us feel like our work has meaning, and the progress principle only holds for meaningful work—making progress on work we perceive as menial doesn’t make us feel good.
In a survey of Cornell senior students about to enter the job market, two hypothetical jobs were on offer. Both jobs had identical pay and working conditions. One was helping to discourage smoking at the American Cancer Society. The other was working with the tobacco industry to encourage smoking.
With all else being equal, 90% of the survey respondents chose the American Cancer Society job. That makes sense, right? If you’re not losing anything, why not take the job that gives you warm fuzzies as well?
But even more than choosing that job, when asked how much higher the tobacco industry job salary would have to be to encourage them to change their answer, the average response was: 80% higher.
A much smaller, simpler aspect of our happiness at work is simply how appreciated we feel. Saying “thank you” to your employees might seem like a small thing, but it can have big effects. One study found people who were explicitly thanked for their work were 50% more productive afterwards—even if the gratitude came from a distant supervisor rather than their manager.
In a survey of 2,000 American workers, the results showed this isn’t subconscious, either. We seem to know that gratitude makes us feel better, and desire more of it.
81% of the survey’s respondents said they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said a thankful boss would make them feel better about themselves and their work.
Sadly, only 10% of the survey respondents said they regularly show gratitude to their colleagues.
The good news is, it’s easy to start showing gratitude to your employees or colleagues. And the effect should last longer than other rewards, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant:
Extrinsic motivators can stop having much meaning—your raise in pay feels like your just due, your bonus gets spent, your new title doesn’t sound so important once you have it. But the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you.
Not only will that feeling last, but it can affect that person’s behavior into the future. An experiment that showed this effect had students send cover letters to people who were paid to offer feedback. After receiving feedback on their letters, some students replied with a simple email to acknowledge receipt of the feedback. The rest of the students sent very appreciative emails in response to the feedback they received.
The researchers had students send out a second cover letter and request for feedback later, and found that people who’d been thanked in the first round were twice as likely to help with the second round of letters.
But here’s the best part: they weren’t just twice as likely to help the same student. They were twice as likely to ask any student who asked for their feedback.
So while thanking someone could improve their productivity at work and how they feel, it could also increase the likelihood of them being helpful again in the future—and not just to you. Thanking people, then, is an easy way to make your entire office a better place for everyone.
Feeling good about our position in life
Sometimes, when you’re trying to figure out what works, it helps to look at what doesn’t work, too. In terms of happiness at work, this translates to looking at what makes people quit their jobs. Knowing when and why people leave can help us figure out how to improve the workplace so people won’t quit.
Brian Kropp works for CEB, a best-practice insight and technology company that researches why employees leave their jobs. But the why isn’t the most interesting part of Kropp’s work. The why is fairly obvious, since the same reasons have held steady for years: not liking your boss, not perceiving any opportunities for growth, or being offered a better job or higher salary elsewhere are all common reasons to quit.
What’s really interesting about Kropp’s work is not the why but the when:
We’ve learned that what really affects people is their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group, or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life.
So it’s not always the job itself that triggers an employee to think about quitting—it’s how they feel about their life as a whole.
Kropp says particular types of events trigger this kind of evaluative thinking in employees. Job hunting jumps 6%, for instance, after anniversaries of joining the company, and 9% after anniversaries of moving roles. Birthdays bring on the evaluations even stronger, with a 12% jump in job hunting just before birthday. And after class reunions we tend to job hunt 16% more.
The most important lesson from Kropp’s work is that what happens at work isn’t the only input into an employee’s happiness with their career. How our jobs fit into our lives as a whole is a big concern when it comes to being ready to move on, which bad bosses or offers of more money giving us the final reason to take the leap.
Whether you’re a manager responsible for other employees or not, it’s useful to understand the underlying reasons we find meaning in our work (or not). Knowing that particular anniversaries or birthdays can trigger an evaluation of our circumstances and that simply saying thank you more often can make people feel better about their work can help us avoid surprise resignations—from our staff or ourselves.
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.