We all know that nature is good for our physical and mental health and well-being – but creating a daily nature habit can be easier said than done. Poor weather, lack of time and insufficient access to good green spaces are a few of the obstacles people often mention to me when trying to pinpoint why it’s so hard to get outside every day.
Believe me, I get it.
I too find it harder to motivate myself when it’s dark, cold, windy, rainy, or all of the above. I sometimes struggle to make time for a long walk when work projects are piling up, the kids need help with their homework, and I only have a short window of time to conjure up dinner before everyone gets hangry. And while I now live in a place where urban green spaces are abundant and access to them is free, I’ve also spent many years in places where that wasn’t the case.
Still, I believe everybody can create a daily nature habit – and achieve a more balanced and more connected life in the process. In the Nordic countries, the habit of connecting with nature in everyday life is called friluftsliv and is passed on from generation to generation. But if you didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family, or if you simply feel trapped in a lifestyle that isn’t conducive to getting outside, creating a habit is the key that can unlock your friluftsliv potential.
I’ve advocated for connecting with nature every day for years, but it wasn’t until I read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear that I fully understood the science behind all the little behaviors that make up our lives. I also realized how useful his approach can be when trying to spend more time outside, by yourself or as a family. Let me break it down:
Small habits matter
The power of small changes is often underestimated. If 15 minutes outside per day is all you can realistically achieve, then start with that. The beauty of starting small is that if you increase the time spent outside by just 1 percent every day for an entire year, you will theoretically have increased your outdoor time by 37 times by the end of the year. (Granted, if you start at 15 minutes, you end up at over 9 hours per day, which may not be realistic unless you work outside, but you get the idea!)
Create an outdoor identity
Your behaviors are a reflection of your current identity, whether consciously or subconsciously. Consequently, if you want to change your behavior to get outside more, you have to start thinking of yourself as an outdoorsy person. This is what Clear calls building identity-based habits. In this case, decide that you want to be an outdoorsy person and prove it to yourself through small actions that reinforce that identity.
Four key steps to changing or creating a new habit
1. Make it obvious. Be as concrete as you can when you try to implement a new habit, for example by deciding that you will take the kids outside for 30 minutes right after they get home from school every day or get up early and go for a 20-minute walk before the rest of the family wakes up certain days of the week.
2. Make it attractive. Pair your desired outdoor habit with something you need to do, for example by running errands on foot or on a bike instead of taking the car, or creating a ritual that you enjoy, like hugging a favorite tree in the neighborhood. An outdoor habit will also become more attractive if you surround yourself with other, like-minded people.
3. Make it easy. Prime your environment to make it as easy as possible to follow through with your new habit. Make sure the whole family has good all-weather gear and hang it up where you can easily see it and get to it.
4. Make it satisfying. Join a challenge to spend a certain number of hours or walk a certain number of miles in a year, then track your progress in an app or tracker sheet. If you have trouble motivating yourself, pair your habit with something else that you enjoy doing. For example, treat yourself to a cup of hot chocolate when you’re outside in cold weather or after you come back inside.
Finally, I often talk about the importance of creating a nature habit by getting outside for a little bit every day, regardless of the weather and while there are always some exceptions, it is a habit that I stick with semi-religiously. If that regimen sounds too rigid for you, then just try repeating the late tennis player Arthur Ashe’s mantra instead:
Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.
It works just as well for outdoorsy people as for tennis players;)