November 18, 2022 6 min read

As I write this blog, I am in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. A place encapsulated by magnificent jungles, underground rivers and the Caribbean sea and a culture that dates back to BC.

I’m trying to put into words how this place makes me feel and it’s difficult but let me try.  I’m going to use some extracts from my journal to keep it real, raw and honest.

I have a disclaimer though, I am not perfect, to be honest, it’s imperfection that provides my greatest inspiration for my work. 

For I, like all of us, am a work in progress. A bit like a piece of art that accepts that it will never be completed but equally understands how irrelevant that is in the context of embracing wholeheartedly the journey.

 

Journal extract from Mexico 

So, let’s begin.

“I have arrived in paradise. It's called Hacienda Wakax and it’s in the middle of the jungle surrounded by turquoise cenotes. Which are rainwater rivers that are so clear you can see your feet and they reflect a turquoise green in the sunlight. 
You can also find them underground as you swim through caves with stalactites that have formed over thousands if not millions of years. I call them the chaneliers of nature. It truly is heaven on earth. 

 

As I sit and soak it in, I realise how being surrounded by such an abundance of nature brings a feeling of calm, of inner peace and innate longing that we all have to feel connected with the natural environment. 
Yet there is an inner battle, it’s real and it’s illogical. It’s the battle between making the most of being halfway around the world in paradise and just allowing the day to unfold and for serendipity to kick in.  

 

The planner in me always struggles to let go. My mind races with a conditioned response to plan, it’s a hangover from my corporate years. I’m so aware of it which is what makes challenging it easier. My rational brain kicks in and says Penny you came here to do the exact opposite of planning.
To give yourself permission, the freedom to wake in the morning at whatever time your body decides and ask yourself “what is it that I feel like doing today?”.

My heart cry’s out in response, “it’s nature”, it’s immersion in this jungle oasis and yet my phone calls me and says but if you don’t take me, you might miss capturing that moment.  It’s that inner conflict between what we feel we should do and what our body is telling us we need – a recharge, a reset, a restoration of our most vital resource, our ATTENTION. 
I need to embrace “JOMO”, the joy of missing out. By surrendering time on devices, stepping away from the over stimulation of an urban life and connecting back to what it means to be human, which for me, is about connection to self, connection to others and connection to this amazing world.  

I’m not denying that I will take photos and use my phone while I’m here, but I will challenge myself to lock it away for four hours a day so that I can immerse and restore what is likely to be a depleted attention reserve”. 

Swing over water

How environment impacts our behaviour

The irony of all of this is that my current psychology subject is “Environmental Psychology”. 

Where exploring how our environment impacts our behaviour. And it must be just my luck that my first paper is on exploring a theory that connects to my current experience in Mexico. A theory called Attention Restoration theory. 

Let’s learn more about why nature is so critical to the restoration of a vital resource that feels depleted in a world of busy.

What is Attention Restoration Theory? 

According to  Kaplan (1995) Attention Restoration Theory or ART for short relates to how you recharge your directed attention when it is fatigued. So, if we break it down you have two types of attention: directed attention and effortless attention. 

 

What is directed attention? 

Let’s start with directed attention as it requires effort and control of your attentional resources. In practical terms this type of attention is engaged when you need to hold back impulse, consider a response, engage in an educational pursuit, concentrate on a task or consciously treat others with kindness and respect. 

It’s what we call a complex cognitive process because it truly draws on your brain power.

Over time when your directional attention is depleted it leads to feelings of overwhelm, inability to make quality decisions, irrational perspectives, missing subtle social cues and making more mistakes. I think we can all relate to feeling like this at a point in time.

 

What is effortless attention? 

This is where the second type of attention comes in.  Effortless attention in contrast is involuntary and connects to the realm of fascination which requires no sustained effort or control. 

According to the ART theory creating the space for effortless attention allows your directed attention resources to recover. It’s a means to recharge your brain’s ability to focus on that which you want to focus on. 

But let me be clear, not all types of effortless attention are considered equal, and they don’t all provide this recharge that I speak of. 

For example, watching TV is effortless but not restorative in this realm as it allows space for other distractions to grab your attention. Eg. How often do you sit on your phone whilst watching TV?

The attentional recharge so many of us long for is found in effortless attention that comes from what is termed soft fascination, fascination that allows room in your head to reflect, to process unresolved issues without noticing anything else.  

So, pause for a moment and ask yourself where does our brain connect into these moments of effortless attention?

 

How to engage in effortless attention? 

The ART theory suggests that the best way to engage this beautiful type of attention is by exposing yourself to natural environments. It’s why most of us feel so much better when we find ourselves in nature. The ART theory suggests that the conditions that are most beneficial to experiencing this recharge are:

  1. Being physically away from the stress of everyday life,
  2. Being connected to expansive spaces,
  3. Engaging in activities that connect with the motivation we spoke about in podcast episode 74, intrinsic motivation, that which comes from within,
  4. And creating the space to experience soft fascination.

A great example is where I’m at right now. I’m halfway around the world so completely disconnected from my normal life, surrounded by beautiful water, jungle and animals like the gecko who suns himself on my front porch each morning who I’ve named Larry. 

My intrinsic motivation to be active and healthy propels me to ride a bike around this beautiful property, do yoga, each morning and just sit and stare at the environment with no goal. I can feel the soft fascination as I just stare, my brain connects dots that previously were not connected and sparks a creativity that enables me to write this podcast and half of my next psycology assignment by connecting the two.

These are all the reasons why studies have shown that those who are exposed to natural settings, even if it’s just a picture of nature, or sounds of nature, demonstrate higher attentional scores than those who have not.

Sitting by blue water

You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to leverage the benefit of Kaplans Attentional Restoration Theory. 

Nature is all around us and it’s free, so there are no excuses, what it comes down to is prioritising the attentional recharge frequently that so many of us need. 

Three simple ways to try this on include:

  • Sitting with your shoes off in the park without any devices, with your feet bare and connected to the earth,
  • Planning a walk-in nature with a friend, loved ones or even a hiking group on the weekend,
  • Plunging into the ocean or just laying on the beach and staring at the water. 

There is however a caveat to realising the benefit of each of these simple activities.  

Having your phone on or off and with you will not enable the restoration as the research shows even if it’s off and close by it distracts your attention. I strongly advocate that you embrace the discomfort and leave your phone at home or locked in the car. 

I also want to just throw in for good measure that these small acts of connecting with nature deliver an additional benefit and that benefit is what is flowing through my veins at the moment. It’s sense of presence of calm, two feelings my prospective coaching clients share are elusive and yet they long for them.

 

Final thoughts 

So, my invitation to you off the back of reading this article is to make a plan to experiment with the ART theory and see how it makes you feel, how it impacts your attention and your calm.

If what I’ve shared today connects and you’d like to find more ways to move from feeling like you’re existing into the domain of living, enrolments are currently open for my 2023 Calm Collective Group Coaching program. 

If you’d like to do 2023 from a place of energy, presence and calm click here to book an enrolment call for The Calm Collective and find out whether it’s a fit for you.

Looking for more ways to inject more of what matters into your day? Why not listen to the  Hacking Happy Podcast here.