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Forest Bathing for Productivity

For best work
you ought to put forth
some effort
to stand
in north woods
among birch

–Lorine Niedecker

The poet above was onto something when she wrote this poem about time in nature. She was intimately aware of the magic of forest bathing at a time long before the practice got a name and became a mainstream concept. 

It’s true, though. You can do some of your best work after sitting amongst the trees. 

But frolicking in trees might seem like an awfully frivolous waste of time to you at first. You want to be more productive, not less. Sitting in the trees doesn’t sound like getting anything done.

But that do-more-get-more-done assumption is the problem. 

We humans aren’t built for the constant “do.”

Productivity science shows the more we try to constantly do, the less we get done. Conversely, fewer hours of work results in higher output.

You’re looking for that magical equilibrium between doing too little (laziness) and straining to do so much that you sabotage your productivity.

Forest bathing is one approach that steadies that tricky wobble between both extremes to help you land in the stable zone of productivity.

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is the English translation of the Japanese concept of “shinrin-yoku.” And don’t worry, you don’t have to get naked and take a bar of soap to a forest creek bed or anything. Shinrin-yoku simply means immersing oneself in the forest atmosphere and practicing being “present” in a natural environment.

If you were to go forest bathing, you would head to the woods and perhaps find a quiet spot to rest, known as a sit spot. You might even take off your shoes and plant your feet in the grass to get grounded. 

You would stay in your sit spot for a little while, soaking in the naturalness around you. Many forest bathers practice tuning into their five senses, one-by-one, smelling the pungent earth, listening to the birds and wind, touching the textures within reach, tasting the air, and noticing every detail in sight.

At the same time, they practice deep breathing and relaxing into their sit spot. After that, some forest bathers may transition into a longer mindfulness process using what’s known as an invitation. An invitation is a set of instructions you can try to guide your time in the forest, almost like a meditation. 

For example, an invitation might encourage you to focus on the ephemeral nature of the forest, of our bodies, of the world, of life. The mindfulness practice and invitation are the backbone of forest bathing. 

Forest bathing promotes relaxation and mindfulness and gives you a meaningful, intentional way to spend time in nature.

Okay, now that you understand the concept of shinrin-yoku, you might still be wondering, why bother?

Forest bathing supports our innate programming to be outside

Our ancestors spent a majority of their time outdoors, hunting and foraging. Their sharp instincts helped them source food, protect their families, adapt to climate changes, and stay alive. Up until the 1800s, most of the human population lived in rural areas.

Today, however, Americans spend over 90% of our time indoors. We don’t have to source our food beyond a grocery store or fight off prey regularly, but our bodies still respond to the rewards of being outdoors. Our genetic makeup isn’t much different than it was in centuries past, so we are living counter to the innate blueprints we carry from ages past.

Studies seem to indicate that nature has a major impact on our wellbeing. We’re missing out on all these beautiful benefits when we hunker down inside our walls. People who spend more time outside live more fulfilling lives. They actually feel more alive.

We’re not programmed for our predominantly indoor lives. Our bodies appear to have an instinctual preference to be outside, so that’s why forest bathing works so well. Cortisol levels drop, cognitive functions improve, and immune function improves when we spend meaningful time outdoors.

Nature also provides the respite we need to be more productive.

How the forest promotes productivity

The innate qualities of nature appear to relieve the human body, calming it and harnessing its ability to focus.  This no doubt stems back to our natural roots and our close interrelations with the wilderness.

Provides a mind break

Productivity science tells us that we can get more done if we take breaks between tasks. Your brain can devote itself to one task for between 60-90 mins before it needs a break. Then your mind needs 15-20 minutes of rest to reboot. This rhythmic work-rest cycle seems to be the most conducive to productivity. That quick break is just enough time to head outside and rest your back against a tree or take a walk in a green area and boost your output and mood as a byproduct.

Reduces stress levels

We also know that we can be more productive when we’re not under excess pressure. A little bit of good stress might boost productivity temporarily, but high or extended stress causes a productivity loss

Thankfully, the forest provides the antidote. Studies show the forest has a profound relaxing effect, and even a live plant and a window view can increase your feelings of satisfaction at work. If you’re feeling overextended on the job, all you have to do is step outside to recalibrate.

Improves focus

Productivity requires focus, and nature helps with that too. Going outside improves attention and memory in a similar way to meditation. The restorative effects of green environments help direct your attention to what you’re working on.

How to harness nature for productivity

You don’t have to head deep into the woods to reap the benefits of forest bathing, unless that’s your thing (it’s mine!). You may not be able to work outside and you might not have the capacity to add yet another task to your list. So try some of these doable retreats to nature to provide a boost to productivity.

Plan minibreaks

The perfect mini break involves a break from technology, a little bit of movement, and some nature exposure. For every hour to two that you work, try to take a short, leisurely stroll in nature to give you that perfect mix.

Green your workspace

If you don’t have a window view and you can’t get outside the office as often as you’d like, at least place some live greenery in your immediate environment. Adding live plants to your manmade surroundings provides a measurable boost to productivity.

BYOL (bring your own light)

Lighting also affects your mood and focus. Natural sunlight affects our natural circadian rhythms, so if there’s a way to bring more natural light to your workspace, then go for it. Bring in a lamp from home and use a sunlight bulb to enhance alertness and productivity.

Practice mindfulness

Over time, mindfulness and meditation can change the way you focus. The practices can change the actual composition of your brain. You can practice mindfulness right where you are, but I recommend trying it in a natural space whenever possible. Forest bathing uses elements of mindfulness during the sensory exploration and invitations which give you practice with directing your focus. 

Mindfulness is as simple as closing your eyes and taking a series of deep breaths. Try to concentrate only on these breaths. When you’re outside, focus on each of your five senses, one at a time. Over time, this kind of practice helps you train your attention to increase productivity.

Double up on your to-dos

If you’re not inclined to add forest bathing trips to your routine, hopefully you appreciate the benefits enough to at least find moments throughout the day to get outside. Instead of replacing existing tasks with nature time, try doubling up on tasks instead. If you like reading before bed, do it outside. 

If you exercise every day, take your workout to the grass and you’ll double the benefits of physical activity and nature exposure. The optimal amount of time to spend outdoors for its wellness benefits is 24 minutes per day, just enough time to get a workout in.

Take longer retreats

If you’re passionate about forest bathing, you might be interested in a longer excursion to the forest. A weekend trip to the wilderness can not only give you the mental reset you need to get more done, but it can also give you enough of an immune boost to last a month. Go camping, hit the Appalachian Trail, or rent a cabin for a weekend and see how much more productive you are come Monday morning.

Back to the beginning

I’d like you to go back to the top of this page and read that introductory poem again. Wow, right?

We just discovered exactly how much meaning is infused into those few words. As we’ve seen, we really can do our best work if we make efforts to incorporate forest bathing into our weekly routines. We can actually get more done when we take breaks like these.

The trees, whether birch or cypress or maple, give us the respite we need to tackle our daily pursuits. All throughout human history, natural environments have helped shape and sharpen our instincts. The same body codes that helped humans hunt elk contain the secret weapons of our productivity today.

September 22, 2020