The biggest challenge I face in my working life is the constant battle to focus on an idea. The sheer volume of information we face in the modern workplace makes it increasingly difficult to achieve any kind of quality creative work. And I have less of a problem that the majority of creative professionals in the 21st century. I work from home, with an office to myself and don’t have to contend with the constant noise and distraction of the open-plan office. Still, I find it increasingly difficult to focus on a problem and in particular to just think about solutions.
A few years ago, after year of procrastination, I start out on making a habit of getting up the forest one or twice a week and kept this going for a couple of months. When the new year turned around I decided to make a resolution of this and walk the forest 100 times in the year. I was also messing about with a blog at the time and decided to make a project of trying to find something to write about each day’s walk. At the end of the year I had a nice little website and a few less kilos to show for my efforts. But as the year wore on, I noticed something. As I was trying to write something different each day and take a picture to go with the note, I had to develop a new way of thinking and observing.
I was able to get into a state where thoughts just flowed so that by the time I was half-way round, I’d thought of something to write and worked out what I could use to illustrate the article. This process of observation, analysis and illustration is probably pretty obvious to a photographer but it was something new to me. While the resulting blog was no masterpiece, I did achieve what I set out to do and as a side-benefit I managed to make a massive improvement in my creative process.
It turns out there is history in this notion that being near trees has a positive effect on thought processes. Quite often seeing the literal wood for the trees ends up allowing you to see the figurative one when you step away from the problem and just go for a wander. Charles Darwin was a famous proponent of the habit — he made a point of taking two or three 45 minutes walks a day near his home in Kent and used this time for his deepest thinking. Einstein was another famous focus walker and used to use his walks to and from work to regain the big picture that was missing from detailed work. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement from the turn of the 20th century was another attempt to get people to live and work among greenery although this ultimately failed when the garden cities just ended up as suburban dormitories. The point is that we’ve known for a long time that to take a break in nature allows us to achieve better results in many different kinds of creative work.
I was lucky enough to spend a few months working in Japan about 20 years ago. I was bemused by the apparent schism in the Japanese psyche where they live in such an artificial environment yet find such pleasure in the snippets of nature they sprinkle through their urban areas. Whether in pocket parks, temples, shrines or urban gardens, the Japanese deeply value the restorative power of nature. Nowhere is this more striking than the week of Ohanami where the entire city of Tokyo decamps to the city parks to drink and picnic under the cherry blossoms. To this day, the sight of a flowering cherry tree still lifts my spirits.
They’ve taken this a step further and came up with the term shinrin-yoku — forest bathing. This is the idea that to spend time among trees lifts the spirit. The general idea is to do as little as possible — just sitting is best, walking is good, hiking not so good and running is most definitely out. There is a significant body of research that suggests this practice reduces stress, reduces blood pressure, improves focus and can even boost the immune system. It is quite likely that there is something deeply wired into our evolutionary past where some simian part of our psyche really only feels properly relaxed under cover of trees.
So nowadays, I make a point of getting out of the office every day and walking in our local forest or on the local “mountain”. I accept pretty much no excuse from myself since there is no such thing as bad weather — just inadequate clothing. I’ve walked up there in gales, through torrential downpours and in three-foot deep snowdrifts.
Mostly I just walk in silence unless I have somebody with me. If I have phone calls to make, I’ll do that on less strenuous parts of the walk. Sometimes I listen to podcasts, but it’s better if you just use the time to think. I usually have a chat with the dogs — they are good for bouncing ideas off although they never seem to disagree with me.
I believe that the opportunity to take a decent walk in nature could become a key advantage for rural remote workers in the future. We all know what a terrible environment the urban cubicle farm or hot-desking space is for deep creative work and the rural remote worker already has a key advantage in the peace and quiet they get from their work environment. But when you can also take advantage of the peace and quiet of a walk in the woods, we could really have something going here.
The key thing we’ll get to find out over the next few years as digital network connectivity barriers drop is whether or not the advantage of space, peace and quiet available to the rural work outweigh the benefits of the serendipity of the personal connections possible in the urban office environment. I feel that it’s likely that we’ll find that a trip to the office once or twice a week combined with a quarterly retreat will end up the optimal solution to really getting stuff done. But then we’ll need to figure out where to walk the days we’re in the city.