Taking the Nature Pill

There is growing evidence that spending time in nature is good for us. I first learned of this research through a Hidden Brain episode, then Mera looked up some of the research for a Whisky Papers, and recently researchers at UMich showed evidence of dosing.

How much nature is enough? The answer was that stress hormones decline a lot after 20-30 minutes but much after that “dose.” (Note: this was a 1st study with small sample size, so it is still, you know, early science. I.e. could be totally wrong) The idea is to get to a recommended dose for a “Nature Pill.” In the study, they took the pill 3 times a week.

This morning I decided to try it out for myself. Instead of working out, I took a slow, mindful walk through Golden Gate Park. It was a tiny stroll. I purposely slowed down. This was not about exercise, I reminded myself. This was about … something else that is also important. Connecting w/ nature and simply being there. What is the experience of nature? What is the experience of me? And of me in nature.

Some things I noticed:

It is hard to disconnect from the mechanical world. In San Francisco, even inside a park, there are sounds of cars, trucks, and rail from the roads only hundreds of meters away. Jets roar overhead. You have to walk into the woods to allow the bird song and crunch of the trail compete with the crunch of the mechanical.

It is hard to disconnect from the information world. I have gotten better about setting borders from info tech and my life, but it was so hard to resist the pull of the smartphone. The early part of my walk was fine — great really. There I was, walking slowly among the trees, the grass, and flowers listening to birds. What were these small birds I saw? They seemed different from the buntings and other small birds I’ve seen in my yard. After about ten minutes, my curiosity turned to a kind of mild anxiety. Couldn’t find out? I have a bird identification app. Surely I could violate my tech border for this. It was something connected to nature after all! I pulled out my phone, fiddled with it a bit and in the process realized that just that small act removed me from the experience. Even the few photos I snapped on my phone pulled me out of the experience of being there.

In the University of Michigan study, subjects were asked not to use their phones while taking their nature “pill” (they also were not allowed conversations or reading). There was no control of people just sitting for 20 minutes without using their phones, reading, or talking. I wonder if that intervention alone can improve stress levels.

The experience of being in nature really is calming. I know this sounds obvious to most people. Yet, I don’t build a nature pill into my week. I bet most people don’t. Today’s experience was enough to convince me. I’m going to try 3-4 days of nature pills into my weekly habits.

Borders >> Productivity

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash

I am trying to create more borders. In today’s world, laptops, smartphones, email, Slack, and text make it so easy to merge our work lives and off-duty lives. It really requires discipline to wall off portions of my life from the pressure of being online, on email, on Slack, and on social media. I can’t say I’m doing great, but here are things I’m trying:

  • Check email only once or twice a day. Importantly, setting expectations by putting a footer on each email, “Text if urgent – I aspire to check email once a weekday.”
  • Do a shut down process at the end of my work day where I assess what went well and what is high priority for the next day.
  • Setting a timer when I engage in social media and other fun diversions.
  • Establish a day during the weekend when I avoid email and being online.

I find my life is more creative and focused when I create time away from the computer. It opens up space for fun, family, & friends.

I think I can also make the case that it makes me more productive and focused. Obviously, it reduces the total time I spend “working” but the real question is what kind of work. With this approach, I end up doing more deep work.

The Need for Boredom

Photo by Arun Sharma on Unsplash

It is almost impossible to be bored today, yet I sense we need it more than ever.

It was only 12 years ago when the iPhone was launched, I was reminded recently, and the killer app was … making a phone call. But we all know what happened after the app store opened a year later. The forces of innovation and capitalism were unleashed and small companies given a way around the bigger companies like Apple, Verizon, & Google got out of the way — we have had a flood of apps that vie for our attention.

That innovation was mostly a good thing. But we now have, like no other time in history, the ability to fill our time with diversions 24×7.

I find a need to enforce boredom through pomodoro breaks and with media fasts. When I do, my days are better.

Most important, I credit my structured boredom for helping revive my sense of wonder and imagination. Often I set a timer for five minutes and look out at the trees, the clouds, and birds. I find myself wondering about nature, thinking about my place in the world, and how lucky I am to be alive and well in this bright and amazing world. I wonder about the humming bird and it’s aerial display. I am amazed by clouds. It results in deep thoughts about technology and my potential futures.

Of course, It is not always beautiful and deep like that. Sometimes, I drift off on a mini nap, or find myself fretting about some small thing. It also results in small thoughts like, “will that bird eat some of the mosquitos please?” But most of the time it is an unexpected delight of my day.

We all need more positive, structured boredom in our lives to push back against the relentlessness of productivity and anxiety of get-it-done-ism.

Why are you only reading this headline?

I recently re-published a blog entry on Linkedin with a provocative headline, “Restore Climate by bringing back Mammoths?” It got a lot of views, but judging from the comments on Linkedin, not many bothered to read the article.

That seems wrong and kind of offends me as the author.

I will, however, admit my own guilt. I am human. I knew the title would provoke people and I did it anyway. And as a reader and retweeter, I am also guilty.

And what about you? Let those who have not retweeted titles cast the first flame.

Apparently, 59% of retweeted and shared articles are not read, according to one study. I say “apparently” because I found the link in another article and only read the abstract (hey, at least I read the abstract and found it claims to be a reproducible study, hence at a higher bar than 80% of social science studies — that last stat, btw, is something I’ve heard and repeated many times; perhaps its true).

If you want to get offended at this behavior, and I have, there are plenty of examples of how terrible the behavior has become, including the joke that NPR played on their readers.

I think there is a deep connection between the supposed 100,000 words a day we read daily, and the tendency to react to just headlines. Really, who has the time to read yet more content if there is some much more reading, viewing, and listening to do?

It is a reason I’m trying to write more and consuming less. The creative process requires reflection and synthesis. Consumption is literally in and out of our brains. We forget most of the content we consume within 24 hours. If the act of reading and watching is like eating and drinking, then writing and creating is like building cells and reviving the body. I like the analogy because we do need some food and some media consumption. Without creation, we are only poop producers.