The Value of Nature, Sitting Still, and Doing Nothing

In July of 2009, my family and I sat reading in a quiet lobby in a small inn in rural Prince Edward Island. It was about 9:45 p.m.

This kind of thing is often hard for me.

I like to move, change activities quickly, and have my senses stimulated. Those are all reasons I love going to Disney World, even though I’m 50. They’re also why I enjoy unpredictable action movies, and I am comfortable at an event where I can talk to a lot of people in succession. Yet, I know the constant stimulation is not always good for me. The trip to PEI helped convince me of this.

At 9:50 p.m., another guest, from Toronto, came down to the lobby and rang the buzzer at the front desk. He shifted from one foot to the other with a little impatience, but not in a rude way. Canadians, you know? After a time, the innkeeper, having clearly been in bed, appeared to help.

“Where can I get something to eat around here?” the guest asked.

The innkeeper smiled politely. “I’m afraid everything is closed for the evening.”

“Not even a convenience store or a bar?”

“Well, it’s probably about a half hour or so south to an open gas station. But there is a bar about ten minutes west, on the far edge of the closest town. Sometimes when Tom is working they serve hamburgers.”

“But it’s not even ten o’clock yet? Really?”

“Welcome to PEI,” the innkeeper said mater-of-factly. Then, he returned to bed. Mr. Toronto shrugged and wandered outside.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but think, “I want to live in a place like this.”

Because on the occasions when I do slow down or just focus on one thing at a time, I see the value. It feels good, and I think more clearly.

I live in a small town—Winterset, Iowa—which by coastal standards is a typical sleepy rural town. We slow down for tractors during planting and harvest season, and many businesses are closed on Sunday.

A young woman moved to Winterset a few years ago from PEI, and I asked her, “What is the biggest difference between PEI and rural Iowa?” Right away she answered, “Oh, everyone is in such a hurry here. No one slows down to have a long conversation with anyone, or they’re always looking at the clock because they have to quick go do something else.”

Some of the best moments of life happen when I am able to recapture those five life-changing days on PEI.

Since this is supposed to be a blog about effective leadership, now is the time to tell you that making such moments, for self and others, increases effectiveness.

As I’m writing this post, I’m in a county park, all alone in a cabin with no wi-fi. I don’t think there’s another human within three miles of me. It’s a Wednesday morning in early October. I arrived yesterday, and I’ve been reading and writing nearly every moment since. I sit outside when it’s above 60 degrees. Then, I come indoors as the temperature drops. Still, all I hear are birds, bugs, distant dogs, the wind in the trees, and the furnace when it kicks on. Every couple of hours I take a short walk to a nearby pond. Even though I’m only 22 miles from my house, the time here recaptures PEI, and I recall the value of distraction-free focus. I did this as an experiment; it’s not a regular occurrence. It reminds me of the value of radical mono-tasking, something we used to just call working.

Yesterday on the deck, I heard chirping and saw two little birds on a dead tree beside the deck. I watched them for about five minutes. Although five minutes may not sound like a long time, think about how many things you’ve done in the last five. Now consider how much you’ll do in the next five. Five minutes is more time than we often think. After staring at the birds, I returned to editing the second edition of my book and felt as refreshed as I might after a nap.

When I have experiences like this, I am more relaxed and focused for the next few days or weeks.

I’ve found that the best way for me to capture this sense of relaxation and focus is hiking. A few years ago, Julie (my spouse) and I started doing more hiking. Then, we made it a focus whenever we traveled, sometimes just going on short hiking trips. Ideally, we like to have a solid breakfast, pack a lunch, do a challenging (for us) hike for about five or six hours, then have a nice dinner and do it all over again the next day. Besides spending a couple of days away from the go-go-go of life, here’s why hiking—not just walking—works for me:

A typical hiking trail is dirt, rocks, or a combination of dirt and rocks. Also, it’s not usually in a straight line, nor is it flat. There are hills. There are switchbacks where you might be three feet from a steep drop. There are wet spots because of natural drainage from uphill, even if it’s been a while since it’s rained. If all you do is look around and talk to your companions while you walk on a hiking trail, you can expect one of these to happen:
*You step in mud up to your ankle, guaranteeing a wet sock for hours.
*Twist your ankle.
*Stumble off a cliff.
*Trip and fall and skin your knee.

When hiking, every step matters. You have to watch the ground to avoid mud, step either squarely on a rock or avoid the rock, plan around a big upcoming puddle or a blown-down tree, and execute your planned steps. It’s not complex, but hiking literally requires a small decision with every step.

On the other hand, you can’t always look down. If you’re always looking down, you can leave the trail accidentally and get lost in the woods. You might miss the big picture, like a needed detour to avoid a long wet area or blown-down obstacles. And by looking up, you get to see the views, get the nourishment of the natural surroundings, and be in awe of wildlife. 

So you’re constantly planning your steps, looking up and around, and within minutes, or hours, you lose concepts of time and place. The concentration needed to master the trek’s natural surroundings puts you in a meditative state.

If you already naturally focus, mono-task, stay relaxed, are rarely impatient or anxious, wow! You have figured out your own secret. Keep at it.

If you’re more like me, however, and I suspect most are, then you spend a lot of time thinking about the next thing you have to do, all the people you need to get back to, all the projects that must get immediate attention, and wonder when you’ll get it all done.

Well…

It may be counter-intuitive, but consider spending some serious time doing nothing. Stare at birds. Go for a hike. Read a book in a totally quiet environment. Do whatever you enjoy that gets you into that relaxed mental state. You’ll feel a little guilty at first, like you’re wasting time that could be better spent working, but when you spend a bit of time doing nothing, the time you spend working is more productive and more pleasant.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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