When you're staring at a screen for long periods, doctors often recommend something called the 20-20-20 rule -- every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. The idea is that varying your focus prevents eyestrain. Could varying your focus in other areas of your life prevent other types of strain as well?
That's the suggestion of several recent studies, science writer Markham Heid recently reported on Elemental, and the good news is if that's true it means there are relatively simple steps you can take to lessen the stress on not just your eyes but on your mind in general.
A 20-20-20 rule for your brain?
"According to a 2016 review from researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K., your ability to effortfully focus your attention is finite. Just as an overworked muscle grows weak, overworking your attention seems to wear it out," Heid writes.
Push past this boundary, and "your ability to concentrate plummets. Your willpower and decision-making abilities also take a hit. According to a 2019 study in the journal Occupational Health Science, attention fatigue may also contribute to stress and burnout," he continues.
Your brain, in other words, only has so many hours of sustained attention in it (studies suggest it's usually around four). And what's worse, the noisy, attention-grabbing nature of our lives means your ability to focus can wear down even quicker. "Distractions, multitasking behaviors, loud noises, bustling urban environments, poor sleep, and many other features of modern life seem to promote attention fatigue," Heid notes.
Most of you reading this will immediately spot the problem here. While human brains might not be built for many hours of sustained attention at a time, workdays are generally eight hours long. Unless we can persuade the world's bosses to dramatically shrink workdays (some are trying), what we need is the mental equivalent of the 20-20-20 rule, a quick way to reset your capacity for attention so you don't have to keep pushing beyond the point where your brain feels like it's turned to jelly.
Does such a trick exist? Yup, suggest both Heid and science. The answer is "soft fascination."
Schedule some "soft fascination" into your day
Just as looking at some distant point gives your eyes a break and relieves eyestrain, switching from sustained attention on a single task to being in an environment that gently pulls your attention here and there seems to refresh your ability to focus.
You don't want to sit in a white room being bored out of your mind. But you don't want to try to concentrate on a book, a conversation, or a screen either. This middle ground is called "soft fascination." And one of the best ways to get it is to spend time in nature.
"Natural environments are just stimulating enough to gently engage the brain's attention without unhelpfully concentrating it," Heid explains.
He goes on to speak with experts and cite studies, but as I've reported here on Inc.com before, many of history's greatest minds seem to have intuited nature's amazing ability to refresh our minds long ago. Perhaps that's why Steve Jobs, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein were all known for their long rambles in nature (Einstein preferred sailing, the other two were walkers). It may also be why one study found hiking boosted creativity by 47 percent.
But you don't need to commit to days in the wilderness to leverage nature for a little brain rejuvenating "soft fascination." Another study found simply looking out the window at a nearby "green roof" covered in plants boosted study participants' productivity.
All this suggests that just as you should give your eyes a break occasionally by shifting your focus, you should give your brain a break in the same way. Whether that's a stroll in a local park at lunch time, a few minutes tending your house plants after a long Zoom call, or a walking meeting in the afternoon, getting out in nature so your brain has a chance to experience "soft fascination" will help keep your mind from fatigue and help you perform at your best.