Just as I sat down to write this blog, I did my favourite procrastination trick by reaching for a small dopamine inducing Instagram hit. For once though, the post on screen actually sent me just the right message: “What keeps life fascinating is the constant creativity of the soul” (Deepak Chopra) – sufficiently direct to send me back to Evernote than to mindlessly scroll on.
Creativity is one of those phrases that can mean all things to all people. It conjures up inventiveness, mess, newness and imagination. For some reason it puts me in mind of abstract paintings, paint strokes on large canvas revealing in me my internal bias for the arts. But of course creative minds are behind the greatest scientific discoveries and the technology that does the things the rest of us couldn’t have fathomed even a decade ago. Creativity in every guise is the thing that has moved us forward, brought us joy, revealed our genius. And all around us, we are surrounded by the natural world, the font of endless creativity.
In the midst of a pandemic, I heard a lot about how the new circumstances had made us more creative – virtual conferences, zoom cocktail parties, e-learning platforms. Yes, give us a problem and we humans will create a solution. But something was nagging at me that our ever decreasing space of operation might lead to a limiting of our opportunities for creative prompts. The pre-pandemic commute might not feel inspirational, but even that ten minute walk from car to office might be enough to give you a visual jolt for a great idea or move you past something that was ‘stuck’. Green leaves, blue skies, fluffy clouds: all of them can be enough to open up some thinking that might not have otherwise been thought. Somehow the commute from the kitchen table to the makeshift office in the spare room might not give you that edge.
Psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas studied the impact of nature on creative thinking by testing creative potential through word associations – a test delightfully given the name RAT (for Random Association Test) – before and after a four-day hiking expedition. They discovered that four days in nature helped the participants increase their score by 50%. If four days in the great outdoors might seem excessive, take some comfort that a study by the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that 20 minutes outside a day is enough to help your brain refresh and function better.
I know from my own personal experience that my best thinking is done (a) on the move and (b) outdoors with a preferred additional option (c) surrounded by nature. It is rarely done at a desk. I spend my life evangelising about the benefits of nature on good mental health but even I was guilty of ignoring my own sermon as everything from team meetings to social gatherings was reduced to a blue-lit screen.
I thought about this a lot over the lockdown and aside from kicking myself out the door, I realised there was a real need to take this and apply it in my day job. It’s hard to take a Powerpoint presentation to the park, but how many interactions could we do away from our desks? The phone in your pocket was called mobile for a reason, your headphones don’t even need to attach anymore, it is possible to walk and talk. If mulling something over, is it possible to drop the pen and paper, do a spot of mulling in the garden and dictate notes instead? Probably. One can certainly try.
I have been trying really hard to do this, even as the weather changes and the outdoors isn’t quite so inviting. And if I’m doing it for myself, I realised I need to do this for my clients as well, particularly in my coaching practice. Something always sat uneasily with me coaching in magnolia meeting rooms or generic coffee shops. Moving online didn’t do anything to assuage that feeling. If coaching is about finding new perspectives and seeing things differently, the set and setting should surely be more inspirational than any of these. And so, I made the shift to take my practice and incorporate the outdoors as much as possible.
With all the science, it should not have come as a surprise that this would have a huge impact on clients. Truth be told though, even I wasn’t expecting the level of positivity about the experience that ensued. The visual cues that open up new ways of thinking, the sense of freedom from the issue at hand, the release into a totally new perspective. The feedback included words like “inspiring” and “energising”. Taking the problem and looking at it somewhere else was sufficient to change the thinking completely. Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.
Eavesdropping on a session and I think the thing that would have surprised you the most would have been the use of language – clients saw the world in metaphor giving them ‘ah-ha’ moment that had eluded them – caterpillars prompting talk of transformation, messy undergrowth the permission to let go of perfection, trees a reminder of seasonality and longevity. It might sound trite to the uninitiated but for a client finding a solution, it was anything but. Nature showed the way.
I end this with another quote. Albert Einstein wrote that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them”. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve used this in my day-job and how receptive the audience is to hearing its message is a good indicator of the likelihood of success. If the prospect another six months of stop/start zoom working doesn’t fill you with inspiration, take yourself out the door daily, make it a practice and see what comes of it. The world might feel a little smaller with home working and no sneaky weekends away, but there’s space to find perspective right outside the door and to boost your creative thinking along the way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR