Where do you take your breaks during work? If it's somewhere where you're staring at tall buildings and slabs of concrete, you might be hurting your productivity. But if you stare at green spaces and nature scenes, it could improve your attention span and productivity when you get back to work.

In a recent study detailed in Harvard Business Review, a team of researchers asked 150 subjects to complete a repetitive task: hitting specific keystrokes when certain numbers flashed on a computer screen. After five minutes, the subjects were told to take a 40-second break. Half the subjects stared at a screensaver of a concrete roof, while the other half stared at a roof filled with a "green, flowering meadow."

The two groups then got back to work. Among the group that stared at the concrete roof, concentration levels fell by 8 percent. But for the group who saw the meadow, performance was steady and their concentration levels rose by 6 percent.

While the study wasn't that large-scale, these early findings are intriguing--could nature help restore our minds during and after work? Researcher Kate Lee, in an interview with HBR, says, "we implicitly sense that nature is good for us." But she believes the study moves that sense a bit further toward established fact. Read more about the results below.

Nature can up your performance

"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," Lee tells HBR. As for the performance results, her team found that the people who gazed at the roof with the flowering meadow "made significantly fewer omission errors, and they had more consistent levels of attention overall and fewer momentary lapses." The group that stared at the concrete jungle, however, suffered a significant performance dip after the microbreak.

Nature restores

How and why would nature help to restore your attention span? Lee says a growing body of research is looking into the link between attention restoration and natural environments. Much of the research in environmental psychology tends to track how natural landscapes affect people during longer breaks, but Lee and her colleagues wanted to see how an urbanite, who typically doesn't have acres of woods close by, could benefit from short breaks staring at green spaces.

"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," Lee says. "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."

Published on: Aug 24, 2015