Nature Walks

Quite a while back, I wrote about a study that Richard Wiseman shared in his book 59 Seconds. Our minds are greatly shaped by cues in our environment, even if we are not consciously aware of any cues. In the example that Wiseman shares, people are shown to be more greedy and less friendly when sitting in front of a computer with a dollar sign as the wall paper, and are more likely to be cleaner and more orderly when there is a slight scent of cleaning fluid in the air. Our environment can shape how we think and what we do, to the point where we pick up on seemingly meaningless details around us that we don’t consciously pay attention to.

 

In the book When Dan Pink shares another example of this. Pink is all for breaks due to their restorative power. They help us by allowing our brains to pause, to focus on something different for a moment, and to get out of any mental ruts into which which we have settled. Even tiny breaks where you close your eyes for a few beats while sitting at your computer can be helpful, but in the words of Pink, “Outside beats inside.”

 

Pink references academic work showing the benefits of getting outside during the workday for quick breaks, “Nature breaks may replenish us the most. Being close to trees, plants, rivers, and streams is a powerful mental restorative, one whose potency most of us don’t appreciate. For example, people who take short walks outdoors return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk indoors.”

 

Being around living green life helps get us away from the selfish, unfriendly, competitiveness that our dollar-sign-focused work environments often foster. Walks might seem like they are just an excuse to get away from work for a little bit, but they can actually be a tool to do better work. Nature breaks provide our mind with new cues, possibly reminding us that we live in a vast interconnected world with more important things to consider than just our salary and whether we make more money than Sally. Incorporating more breaks that harness the power of nature to restore ourselves is something we should build into our schedules. Companies and organizations should think about the ways they can create a work space that encourages green breaks, and should consider the parts of town where their offices are located, to try to allow employees to get outside on breaks, and to be able to walk in more nature connected places than just parking lots. Our brains notice more than we sometimes realize, and we can use that reality to make ourselves feel better.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.