What do you do when you hit a creative standstill?
When those big ideas are dammed up somewhere, when you can’t quite find the elegant solution to convey your concept, when your blank page sends a shiver of anxiety down your spine rather than excitement?
The way to think outside the box is to get outside the box, literally.
The restorative power of nature has been well documented for improving mental health, but recent scientific studies have found that it’s just as powerful when it comes to increasing creativity.
Whenever I find myself struggling with any form of writer’s block, whether it’s as major as figuring out the next plot point in my story or as minor as finding the perfect non-cliched word to describe my protagonist, I lace up my boots and head out for a hike.
Well … in an ideal world I would head out for a hike. Living in the city now, I satisfy myself with large parks and reserves as long as they meet the criteria of being somewhere away from city noise, away from people, and away from modernity. If there’s no cellphone coverage, even better.
My thoughts won’t be with my story the entire time I’m out, they’ll drift around from “Bloody hell I thought I was fitter than this” to “I wonder if anyone’s texted me since I’ve been out of range”. But at some point in between hearing my heart in my ears and watching the clouds change it’ll come to me – that lightbulb moment you see in the cartoons. I’ve found the answer to my problem, and it’s elegant, juicy, and meatier than anything I could have forced by sitting at my desk.
A 2017 study found that after four days of hiking in the wilderness, participants scored 50% higher on creative tests than people who had remained in civilization. One of the study’s authors, Ruth Ann Atchley, explained that “Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax, and let down those threat responses. Therefore, we have resources left over – to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve – that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others”.
Getting away from your work, and from the constant distractions of modern life, may be the best answer to solving creative problems as well as increasing your overall happiness and productivity.
I hear what you’re saying though – the study took participants out for four days, who’s got time for that on a regular basis?
While the results showed a huge improvement in creativity after four days on the trail, other scientific studies have proven that even a walk in the park or short visit to nature can have positive influences on our mental health, and by extension our creative abilities.
Here are five ways you can fit the outdoors into your busy schedule, and improve your creativity and mental health in the process:
1. Go for a walk in the park during your lunch break.
The key part of this is “in the park” – nature what you need, so stay away from built up roads and find your way to a local reserve or park.
2. Make a habit of picnicking.
Whether it’s with a takeaway coffee from a local store, or a hamper you’ve prepared at home, take the time to sit outside on the grass or under a shady tree. For best effects, put your phone on airplane mode.
3. Explore your local hills.
Unfortunately, not everywhere has easily-accessible mountains to climb, but you can still reap the benefits of a hike by taking off for your local hills or national park on a weekend. Prepare a backpack, get some comfy shoes, and spend a whole day or two soaking up the outdoors before starting the next working week.
4. Swap your gym for fresh air once a week.
Could you get your cardio fix in the park? Could you do yoga on the beach? In New Zealand we’re blessed with inspiring landscapes – why keep yourself inside when you could be making the most of them?
5. Find ways to compensate in winter.
Winter is the hardest time to get outdoors, but it doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying nature. Getting pot plants for your home and office, hanging a peaceful landscape photo, and sitting somewhere (office, home, café) with a view on a regular basis have all been shown to aid mental health in winter as a second-best to getting outside in real life.