This article originally appeared on hbr.org
By Nicole Torres
The research: University of Melbourne researchers Kate Lee, Kathryn Williams, Leisa Sargent, Nicholas Williams, and Katherine Johnson gave 150 subjects a menial task that involved hitting specific keystrokes when certain numbers flashed on a computer screen. After five minutes the subjects were given a 40-second break, and an image of a rooftop surrounded by tall buildings appeared on their screens. Half the subjects saw a plain concrete roof; the others saw a roof covered with a green, flowering meadow. Both groups then resumed the task. After the break, concentration levels fell by 8% among the people who saw the concrete roof, whose performance grew less consistent. But among those who saw the green roof, concentration levels rose by 6% and performance held steady.
The challenge: Can looking at nature—even just a scenic screen saver—really improve your focus? How much can 40 seconds of staring at grass actually help? Ms. Lee, defend your research.
Lee: We implicitly sense that nature is good for us, and there has been a lot of research into its extensive social, health, and mental benefits and the mechanisms through which they occur. Our findings suggest that engaging in these green microbreaks—taking time to look at nature through the window, on a walk outside, or even on a screen saver—can be really helpful for improving attention and performance in the workplace.
HBR: How did you measure subjects’ performance?
We looked at how many errors people made as well as how quickly they responded to the numbers. This showed us momentary slips in attention—if someone forgot to press a key—and longer dips, when someone drifted off over the course of the test.
People who saw the roof with the grassy, flowering meadow made significantly fewer omission errors, and they had more-consistent levels of attention overall and fewer momentary lapses. But among the group who saw the concrete roof, performance fell after the microbreak.
Did you look at brain scans to measure attention levels?
The behavioral measure we used—the “sustained attention to response task,” or SART—had previously been mapped against brain imaging, so we knew that the brain responds in a predictable way when people tap their sustained attention. This is the ability to maintain focus on a task and block out things going on around you. You need to do both to perform well—and to take on tough workloads.
What is it about seeing a green roof that improves our attention? Are we wired to like nature?
In this research, I’ve been drawing on attention restoration theory, which suggests that natural environments have benefits for people. The theory is that because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without your having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control. That’s really important, because they’re a limited resource that we’re constantly tapping.
A lot of environmental psychology research has looked only at how people respond to landscapes like forests and woodlands and parks for much longer time periods. We’ve been wondering if, well, with most of our population now living and working in cities, we should be thinking about smaller green spaces and shorter breaks.
Why 40 seconds? Would 20 seconds work? Five?
There were little clues in the research, where others have talked about how the benefits of nature might be obtained with just brief glimpses through the window—but no one had really explored that idea. So we started to think about the green space you might see in your daily work life. The 40-second time frame came from a pilot study we conducted, in which we had people go through the same procedure, but when they got to the microbreak, they were able to look at the green roof for as long as they wanted before returning to the task. On average, they spent 40 seconds. We don’t yet know how brief that break could be, but 40 seconds is dramatically shorter than anything studied previously.
Is there extensive literature on microbreaks?
No, there isn’t. Some research coming out now looks at opportunities for taking breaks during the day, which is really important. A lot of the literature has looked at longer breaks outside the workplace—at the end of the workday or on weekends or vacations. But now people are starting to think about simple, quick, and effective strategies that are complementary to those other kinds of breaks.
These subjects were just doing simple keystrokes. How would this apply to more-complex tasks?
The task was measuring sustained attention—your ability to maintain focus and not drift off or think about other things. That sounds simple, but it really requires you to lock onto the task. And sustained attention is a fundamental cognitive function that underlies all other networks of attention, like executive attention. It’s important for activities like reading, marketing, strategizing, and planning. So our work points to what we might see with more-complex tasks, but we’d need to do more research.
In what other real-world scenarios could these effects play out?
We’re interested in other components of work behavior, like cordiality and creativity. Since the study, we’ve looked at colleague helpfulness: We’ve asked people to self-report on whether they would be more likely to help others after a green microbreak, and the results have been positive.
Taking a break to stare out a window could lead to more daydreaming. Is there a point at which this makes us less productive?
At this stage, we just don’t know. There are a lot of questions that present opportunities for future research: How do we go about incorporating green microbreaks into our workday? How long do they need to be? How frequently do we need them? How long can the benefits last? These are things we need to be thinking about.
So should I go for a hike in the woods before I start writing?
It couldn’t hurt.
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