With the arrival of cooler weather, I’ve been experimenting with getting out of my home office and working outdoors. I started doing so at the suggestion of my teammate Martin, who finds that working outside helps him be more creative.
After a few outdoor work sessions, I’ve been quite pleased with the results. In particular, I’ve found that getting out of the stuffy indoors and into the airy outside has helped me come up with new ideas and get fresh perspectives on problems I’m struggling with.
But is working outside really better than inside? What benefits does it offer? In this article, I’m going to draw on my experience plus some academic research to make a case for why you should spend more time working outside.
If you’ve only worked inside, then the idea of taking your work outdoors can seem eccentric and impractical. But whether it’s an improved mood or greater ease entering the flow state, there are lots of reasons to ditch the desk.
Here are five reasons to consider working outside:
“Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Even with good ventilation, the air indoors can’t compare with fresh, outdoor air. As Thoreau said in the quote above, the outside air is intoxicating. It clears your head and helps you relax, making it easier and more pleasant to work.
This isn’t just me speculating, either. As this article summarizing years of research on the topic describes, poor indoor air quality can reduce your productivity. While eliminating sources of indoor air pollution can alleviate these issues, you probably don’t have that level of control in your home office (particularly if you rent). So get outside!
Beyond the health and productivity benefits of fresh air, there’s also the inspiration that comes from all the beautiful smells of the outdoors. In summer, there’s the scent of fresh mown grass and wildflowers. In fall, there’s the odor of fallen leaves and campfires. In winter, there’s the clean, crisp aroma of cold air. And in spring, there’s the smell of recent rain on the earth.
When you’re indoors, the best you can hope for is a pale imitation of these smells in the form of a candle or air freshener. But nothing beats the exhilaration of the real thing.
Aside from fresh air, the other clear benefit of working outside is sunlight. While scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why this happens, exposure to sunlight increases your levels of serotonin.
Elevated serotonin levels can boost your mood, calm you down, and increase your focus. All of which are helpful when doing any kind of work.
So get out of your dim indoor office and into the bright sunlight!
A Change of Scene, a Break from Routine
Working in the same place day in and day out can cause you to get stuck in certain patterns of thinking. This is particularly true when you’re in a drab, indoor environment. While there isn’t as much science to back this up as the previous points, I’ve certainly found that getting out of my office and into a different place gives me a new perspective on my work.
And I can’t think of a more dramatic change of scenery than moving from indoors to outside. Much as you might get inspiration from working in an old library or a trendy coffee shop, so can you find inspiration in the beautiful surroundings of the outdoors.
If you’ve been staring at the same work for an hour and getting nowhere, take it outside. It just might be the change you need.
Spontaneity and Unpredictability
One of the great benefits of our modern, climate-controlled indoor environments is that they insulate us from the changing weather and temperature outside. For many types of work, this control is essential. Your laptop, for example, doesn’t work so well when it’s raining out (or even when you’re away from an outlet for too long).
However, the predictability of indoor environments can also get boring. If you want to shake things up, consider going outside and embracing the unpredictability of the natural world.
Let a falling leaf blow onto your work surface or a passing dog interrupt you. Get up and move to a different spot when the changing light makes it hard to see your computer screen. Be a part of the physical world, no longer isolated indoors.
Note: If you’re going to work outside for an extended period, the lack of easy access to power outlets can be an issue. You can get around this in a couple of ways. First, you can do work that doesn’t require power (such as brainstorming ideas in a notebook or taking phone calls). Or, you can work on a patio, balcony, porch, or another outdoor area with power access.
Easier to Enter the Flow State
“I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” – Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The flow state describes the experience of being so absorbed in what you’re doing that time seems to pass faster and the outside world seems to disappear. As you can imagine, this is a highly desirable way to be when you’re doing work (particularly creative work).
Magical as the flow state is, it’s not something you can enter at will. Often, you don’t realize you’re in it until the flow is interrupted.
However, one intriguing study from the University of Southern Queensland found that “engagement in safe natural contexts” (a Japanese garden, in this case) made it easier for people to enter the flow state.
Admittedly, this study is small in scope, focusing specifically on teachers who had just completed their undergraduate education.
Still, I’ve certainly had times where I got into a deep, hours-long flow while writing or drawing outdoors. Your experience may vary, but the possibility that working outside makes it easier to get into a flow state is enough reason to give it a try.
I hope this article has made you consider doing more work outdoors (weather permitting, of course). I recognize that not everyone has this flexibility, but it’s worth taking advantage of if you do.
Hunting for a job that will enable you to work outdoors whenever you feel like it? Check out this list of jobs you can do from home.