The restorative effect of studying outdoors

Working outdoors

Most of us spend way too much time cooped up indoors.

This is despite the fact plenty of research shows we’d be less stressed, have more energy, and feel more relaxed if we spent more time out in nature.

Nature is a powerful antidote to the stresses and pressures of modern life.

With this in mind, I’ve been experimenting with creative ways to get my daily dose of nature. One strategy I’ve been testing out is working outside.

I recently listened to a podcast interview with Kim Stanley Robinson (author of The Ministry for the Future). Kim has been writing books outdoors for the last 15 years. In fact, he believes this is what saved his writing career.

On the podcast Wild with Sarah Wilson, he mentioned how this interesting habit came about. He said:

“I was feeling tired of writing . . . burnt out. And then I moved outdoors to a café table that’s in a courtyard that’s fenced in by the side of the house. There’s a Japanese maple shading it but it wasn’t quite enough shade for the laptop screen. So I slung a tarp from the fence and tree branches.”

He later added:

“I realised I wasn’t sick of writing. I was sick of being indoors all day.”

For Kim, writing outdoors has been a joy and an exhilarating experience. “The little birds are my office mates”, he said.

After listening to this interview, I thought “What have I been doing all this time?”

I knew I needed to head outdoors and set up a second workspace.

Setting up my outdoor workspace

I didn’t waste any time. I went on Gumtree and found a cute retro vintage table with drawers. It fit perfectly in the space I had available on my back verandah.

Mosquitos are a real problem in my neighbourhood. Like a phone pinging constantly, they are a source of distraction and irritation.

To combat this problem, I purchased a secondhand mosquito net for $5 to hang over my workspace. Upon inspection, the net had one little hole but this was easily fixed with a needle and some thread. With a couple of clothes pegs, I am able to close the opening of the net so mosquitos can’t get in.

My outdoor workspace

I can’t tell you how satisfying it is every time I am working away and I see a mosquito buzzing on the outside of the net. I think “Victory!”.

With my outdoor workspace, I need to be able to easily access the right tools and stationery once I enter the netted space. I don’t want to have to get up and unpeg the mosquito net every few minutes and risk a pesky mosquito entering my space.

Here’s what I have in my desk drawers:

• Pads of paper
• Pencils and gel pens
• Coloured pens
• Post-it notes
• Electronic timers (to track my work sessions and breaks)
• Water bottle and glass
• A couple of solid rocks (to act as paper weights so my papers don’t fly away when it’s windy)
• Ergonomic laptop stand (to prevent neck strain), a keyboard, and mouse

Having these items within arms reach means I can get into a flow state quickly and stay in flow.

When I’m working outdoors, I have a simple rule: my mobile phone is off limits (I leave it inside the house). It’s amazing how when my work gets difficult, instead of checking my phone to get a quick shot of dopamine, I’ll notice a little bird or a wasp flying nearby. This gives me a mini mental break without getting completely derailed and losing sight of what I need to be doing.

What about the weather? Could this be a problem?

This is probably the biggest downside associated with working outdoors. You have no control over the elements.

If you live in a warm climate like I do, you may want to set up a fan. Kim Stanley Robinson who lives in California installed one of those misting devices that pubs and cafes use in their outdoor areas to keep customers cool. He says this keeps him cool during Summer.

I live in Western Australia where in Summer it’s easy to feel like you’re being slow roasted outside. When it gets too hot, it’s hard to think and near impossible to learn.

Similarly, when it’s too cold, I can’t focus and learn for the life of me!

But in Winter, you can layer up. You can put on a warm jumper, beanie, some uggboots, and/or use a blanket. Kim Stanley Robinson says in the colder months he puts on his mountaineering gear to write outdoors. He sometimes even uses an electric heating pad for his feet.

Bottom line is this: do what you need to do to be comfortable in your outdoor workspace.

What can you do if you don’t have a backyard?

I understand Kim and I are both in privileged positions. Not everyone has a backyard, verandah, and/or the space to set up an office outside.

If you don’t have a backyard, here’s what I would recommend: create a mobile office. This is a backpack that contains everything you need to do your work.

Then, take your backpack to a local park (ideally one that has plenty of shade) and set yourself up at a picnic table.

Alternatively, simply having a picture or painting of a natural environment in your study space and looking at it from time to time can be beneficial. This study found staring at a picture of a flowering meadow green roof for just 40 seconds was associated with better sustained attention.

Indoor plants are a fabulous investment, too. Having indoor plants in your space has been found to boost creativity (you can check out the research here).

To sum up

In a world where we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural environment, working outdoors can be a great way to get a good dose of nature.

Since setting up my outdoor office space, I’ve noticed so many wonderful little creatures in my garden that I normally wouldn’t see (mainly birds and bandicoots). I also feel calmer and more energised at the end of the day. I can focus better, too.

I strongly encourage you to invite a little more nature into your life, whether it be by setting up a desk outside or adding some indoors plant to your study space.