Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
13 Jun

How to Work Outside (Even If You’re a Desk Jockey)

Last week, I told you why working outside – at least from time to time – can be helpful, relaxing, and even performance-enhancing. A number of you emailed me directly, or left comments thanking me for the idea. Most people were on board with working outdoors, but mostly in theory, because let’s face it – being outside on a workday with the sun shining and the birds chirping and the breeze blowing sounds fantastic, but how realistic is it, really? Even if you’re able to convince your boss to let you take the work outside, or you find a job that gives you the freedom to work where you like, the logistics of seamlessly moving a traditionally-indoor activity to the outdoors just seem insurmountable. How are you gonna get Internet access? How will you read your emails through the glare of the sun?

Before I launch into the logistics of working outdoors, I wanted to emphasize a few of the benefits. In Biophilic Design, author Stephen Kellert notes that psychologists have aggregated the five basic requirements for office workers that, if neglected or missing, can trigger worker dissatisfaction and comprehension problems (PDF):

  1. Need for change (in temperature, air, scenery)
  2. Ability to interact with the physical environment (beyond drink from the water fountain, use the toilet, and open doors)
  3. Meaningful stimuli, lack of stagnant, unchanging environment (like a cubicle)
  4. One’s “own territory to provide safety, an identity, and protection”
  5. View of or access to the outside

At least 1, 2, 3, and 5 can be easily satisfied with more nature exposure. The outside world is always changing, the temperature is anything but constant, and you encounter extensive sensory stimuli. You can certainly interact with nature, by picking flowers, touching the grass, and that sort of thing, and being outside definitely gives us a nice view of the outside (since we’re in it). I don’t think it’s that nature is unique for giving us this stuff. It’s not that novelty is “good” for us. It’s that sameness is weird, alien, foreign. We may think we’re used to it, having lived with it for so long, but something ancient lurking deep inside us cries out in frustration and confusion when faced with an unchanging, non-stimulating, staid environment like an office. Or is it just me?

We need real nature, too. Technological nature such as plasma screens with images of rainforests and snow-capped mountains, orangutan screensavers (which I love – don’t get me wrong!), and nature soundtracks just aren’t the same. I think we know this instinctually, don’t we? They’re better than nothing, but they can’t really compare with the real thing. Unsurprisingly, the research suggests as much (PDF). In one recent 2008 study, people had access to either windows covered with curtains or high-definition plasma TVs (made to look like windows) depicting realistic nature scenes. Folks who saw the technological nature had improved psychological well-being, cognitive functioning, and “connection to the natural world,” while folks who saw the covered windows did not. Later, the same research group conducted another, similar study in which people either saw a real window revealing a real nature scene, a plasma depicting that same scene, or a blank wall. People who looked out the real window showed a better stress response, as indicated by a faster resumption of normal heart rate after exposure to mild stress.

With that out of the way, let’s move on, shall we?

Obviously, the people for whom this working outside stuff would be easiest to implement are the laptop jockeys, the mobile workers, and the writers. But one thing stands in their way: the lack of Internet access in places that are not bound by walls and routers. Save for the writers, whose only required references lie skullward, modern laptop workers generally need Internet access to get their work done. So, what can they do?

Find a green space with wifi access.

More and more public and state parks are making public wifi available to visitors. For example:

List of California state parks with wifi hotspots.

Austin downtown parks are getting wifi.

Current and future New York City parks with wifi.

A list of US parks with free wifi access.

I’m not sure how often it is updated, but this website appears to list many free public wifi hotspots available worldwide. Search for your area and see what you can find.

Extend your wifi range to encompass the backyard (or even more).

If you’re ambitious and relatively handy, do it yourself (tutorial number 1 and tutorial number 2). If you’re not, just buy a wifi range extender.

Other options include using router firmware that allows increased range, eliminating dead zones, and exploring these ten ways to boost your wifi signal.

Tether your laptop to your smartphone, or use a wireless card attachment.

Most smartphones have downloadable apps that allow you to tether your laptop to the phone and use it as an Internet hotspot. Or, you could buy an attachment for your laptop that allows wireless Internet access almost anywhere (with a fee, of course).

Okay, you’ve found a way to meld wifi and nature, you’ve got your laptop, and you even found a tree stump that can double as a standup workstation. You head out, coffee in hand, eager to get working and enjoy the sun, but when you plop down the laptop and flip it open to start the day’s agenda, you can’t see what you’re doing on the screen. The sun is shining, the glare is blinding. You’re effectively useless. What to do?

Find, or make, shade.

When working outdoors on a laptop, you’ll function best in the shade. The bright sun is, well, too bright. If you want to even be able to read text on a laptop in full sun, you’ll have to bump up the brightness, which will eat away at your battery life – and it won’t even be all that legible. Working outside is about reducing stress and promoting direct attention toward work-related tasks; straining with your eyes makes relaxed focus extremely hard to muster. Plus, blasting your laptop with open sun will only make it work that much harder to stay cool. If you value the length of your Macbook’s telomeres, you’ll want to stay in the shade.


You can buy a “laptop hood” that provides perpetual shade.

You can find some preexisting shade, like that from a tree.

You can bring along an umbrella. That’s what one of my Worker Bees does from home at his outdoor workstation, using a basic umbrella, a vase, and some rocks to weigh it all down. A beach umbrella stuck in the ground will also work well.

Get a laptop with a matte screen.

While glossy screens look nice in the store and indoors, they are terrible for outdoor work. Well, I suppose glossy laptop screens would work outdoors in a place like Seattle, but if there’s sun afoot? Matte, all the way.

Get an indoor/outdoor laptop.

A growing number of laptops are being made with dedicated outdoor modes. Look for models with “I/O” (indoor/outdoor), “Outdoor View,” or “Enhanced Outdoor” listed as a feature.

What if none of these options work for you? What if you can’t find a green space with reliable Internet access? Are you forever doomed to languish indoors?

No. “Working outdoors” doesn’t necessarily require total avoidance of any sign of civilization. You don’t have to climb Half Dome just to write some emails, nor must your shade be provided by a Joshua tree in the middle of Death Valley. You needn’t be remote, nor cut off from everything and everyone. You just need some fresh air.

This can take many forms, none of them extreme:

A standup workstation set up on your patio, like this commenter from last week (who is “already happier!”). Just being outside is good enough, but throw in some potted plants, a fruit tree, maybe some birds? Baby, you got yourself some green space!

Holding the next business meeting at the local public park, on a picnic table, instead of at a restaurant or in a board room at the business park.

Walking meetings, wherein you walk and talk and plan and brainstorm. Or, better yet, hiking meetings! Hey, if they were good enough for Aristotle and his students, walking meetings are good enough for the likes of you. There are numerous advantages to having walking or outdoor meetings, including:

  • Fewer distractions – Although I’ve seen some evidence to the contrary, most people won’t whip out their phone to check something if you’re walking and talking with them.
  • Greater concentrationWalking actually improves brain function, as you’re walking. Being outdoors while you do it? Even better.

What’s truly ironic – and extremely cool – about our increasing reliance on technology for essentially all aspects of work is that instead of preventing our communion with nature, they actually make it even more possible. Sure, most of us don’t get nearly enough nature access, we have to go look for it, and we like to blame work for our nature deficit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your boss may not be on board (yet), but unlike ever before in recent decades, we have the physical ability to take our work back to nature. No stacks of papers to be flung around by the wind, no landlines keeping us bound to our desks. The technology exists to allow us to work from almost anywhere at anytime. We live in an age of astounding possibility and potential, as of yet unrealized. If you have the freedom to make this possible, if nothing and no one is holding you back from taking your laptop outdoors, what are you waiting for? Give it a try. Refer your excuses to the lists above, and stop making them.

It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every other day. It might just mean you sneak out to the company garden for an extended break, or check your emails out in your backyard. I’m persuaded, based on the (albeit limited) research and my own experiences integrating the outdoors with my work, that adding any amount of nature exposure to your daily work life will be incredibly helpful. You may not see a massive performance boost, but you’ll be a bit less stressed. You may not be more productive, but you’ll enjoy your work more. And all that stuff matters.

Okay, that’s it for me, folks. Now it’s your turn. I want to hear what you’ve been able to accomplish. How have you melded work with nature, if at all? What roadblocks have you encountered, and how did you get around them?

Let us all know in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I get to move – sprint actually – between our four buildings every day whilst avoiding the local sabre tooth tigers. We have them in the UK honest…..

    Also lucky enough to work occasionally from home on the decking,, if its not raining.

    PaleoPete wrote on June 13th, 2012
  2. Outside is where it all comes from…so go there..I spend more time out than in…GROK ON>>>

    Dave PAPA GROK Parsons wrote on June 13th, 2012
  3. I have been concerned that if I sat outside on my covered, screened in patio (I work from home) that I would not concentrate. Actually, the opposite is true. While sitting inside, I was feeling sorry for myself for not enjoying the beautiful outdoors (for today, anyway as tomorrow will be 90+ and very humid). I am now moved outside and finding my concentration is actually better as I am no longer thinking about the great outdoors–I am experiencing it. I am so blessed. My lavender is drying on a table about 4 feet from me so that makes it quite relaxing also!

    Teresa wrote on June 13th, 2012
  4. Great advice if you want to suffer hypothermia in England for 9 months of the year.

    Trevor wrote on June 13th, 2012
  5. Unfortunately, I can’t go outside, but I’ve started reading my e-mail and other communiques standing up, and it’s really upped my energy level and focus!

    Amy J wrote on June 13th, 2012
  6. I have worked from my home for about twenty years. Living where you work has benefits and detriments. The benefits are I can walk out of my office door and putter around the garden or lay in the sun for a few minutes. Since my children are home schooled I can take a few minutes to ride our bikes down to the end of the street and back or throw a ball around the yard.

    If the idea of working for yourself has any appeal, self-employment can be a wonderful option for some.

    Caroline Cooper wrote on June 13th, 2012
  7. I’d love to work outside, but it’s about 106+ outside right now. I think the heat would negate any of the benefits Mark is talking about. Perhaps when October rolls around. . .

    Carol wrote on June 13th, 2012
  8. Just skimmed all the comments to see if there was a quick way to agree with the comments on radiation and cell/DNA damage that wi-fi and mobiles inflict. Not one (so far).
    Really surprised at this. I thought at least some of you would say, ‘Hey but Mark, what about all the crazy, dodgy vibes coming at us from this heretofore untested technology? Our DNA gets enough crud from our screens plugged in to the wall to say nothing of the so-called genius of wi-fi…’
    Here in Australia we had a hell of a time getting a landline phone and landline internet, which -if I hadn’t done the research in the first place- probably would have tipped me off, investigating effects. (Call me paranoid.) (‘Suspicious’ is fine too.) They charge more for old-school connections too. I personally resent wireless technology for the extra radiation.
    All this vented, my husband says if I didn’t know about it it probably wouldn’t hurt me. I eat primally, lots of miso and seaweed to counteract it, but even cell phone towers piss me off, and apparently cleaner-living people than us in third world countries see fit to pull them down rather than suffer headaches and other unseen damages.
    Just sayin’. May be worth a closer look on this subject. Even if it’s just by new mothers/to be.
    Grok on wid yo’bad’as’selves.

    Ma Flintstone wrote on June 13th, 2012
    • Hi Ma Flintstone,

      It’s funny I was thinking the same thing. Not many people in North American know about the dangers of Wi-Fi and their relatives. Most of the information I can get comes out of Europe. Of course, Dr George Carlos has been talking about the dangers, especially for children, for over a decade now.

      I haven’t used microwaves or cell phones for years. Smart meters are coming to my city and I started looking into the technology. After doing so, we decided to hard-wired all our technology in our home and office. Here more about this issue:

      Caroline Cooper wrote on June 14th, 2012
    • Some research suggests that skin contact with the earth electromagnetically grounds our bodies and significantly helps with some of the damage from EMF’s. When using my laptop or mobiile devices outside i try to sit or stand barefoot on the grass or (clean)soil.

      Mirabelle wrote on June 14th, 2012
    • I’m aiming to buy and set up a screened in collapsible gazeebo (they are cheap at home depot)on my back lawn and work there barefooted.

      Mirabelle wrote on June 14th, 2012
  9. I think office buildings should be constructed to include “parks & gardens”…..on balconies or roof tops or courtyards etc. Buildings should be open……and if people were working in healthier work spaces they wouldn’t want to jump off them.

    Our hospital here is wrapped around a garden with a pond which is viewed when walking the corridors or sitting areas….lovely….

    Jo-Anne wrote on June 13th, 2012
  10. I can’t believe this never occurred to me.  I can’t do it for large chunks of my day, but I have the perfect place for this – a shady overhang, fairly private, right outside my office, and should be able to manage a few work periods a week out there once I set up a chair.. Brilliant!

    Karoline wrote on June 13th, 2012
  11. I work from home everyday, IT work. My “office” is wherever I park my butt and my laptop. Some days its on our screened in porch out back. Some days its on our front patio. Once in awhile I go with my wife and kids to our community pool that installed wifi a few years ago.
    I am lucky that I got this work from home gig a few years ago, I hope it never goes away.

    Rob wrote on June 13th, 2012
  12. Thank you for reminding me, after a tough few days, of one of the best things about staying home with my kids. I “work” outside nearly every day, lift heavy things (55# Thing 1 and 35# Thing 2. This week lifting one off the other…), sprint, climb and goof around. I know I will miss it when I’m back in an office in a few years.

    Dtnmommy wrote on June 13th, 2012
  13. I roll an office chair outside and sit in the partial shade for an hour or so until it gets too hot and sweaty. I’m lucky to work for a very small company who embraces my quirks, though. Madame President even suggests handstands and cartwheels to help wake everyone up when she’s getting too droopy!

    drea wrote on June 13th, 2012
  14. I totally agree that people need to be outside as much as possible, but I notice the emphasis on outdoor wifi in order to work outside. I know wifi is the most convenient option, but I am not convinced that wifi is benign. I think it’s prudent (dare I say — primal) to limit exposure to it. What do y’all think? Do you think there is any chance that wifi is harmful? This is one of my lecturers from my undergrad environmental science class:
    I’d be interested to hear what you peeps think.

    D'Arcy wrote on June 13th, 2012
  15. Carolina Morning Designs has some furniture for unusual body positions as alternative to traditional desk positions.

    Rachel Ernst wrote on June 13th, 2012
  16. Love these excellent ideas! I live ‘a cheat’ because I live in a forrest on a 4 acre lake. To make sure that I do get outside enough I volunteer to crew my friend’s hot air balloon as often as possible (several times a month- sometimes ‘a week’); lots of super fun exercise. Also to keep rigorously stretching/moving: taken on keeping the lake and surrounding walking trails in good shape & free of limbs, debris, etc. Big job = fun movement. Later in summer is full of firewood cutting & bucking.
    All above perfect for a Paleo Princess! Starting a new career & have a wifi extender to work/study outside while weather is nice.
    Come visit us in Mt Shasta, CA!

    Callie Marchell wrote on June 14th, 2012
  17. this is all well and good the USA where there are lovely open spaces and parks, lots of warm dry weather and opportunities but here in the UK we have constant rain, wind and cold weather, especially in the summer!! could we all move to the USA and enjoy this with you Mark?!

    Lucy Stebbing wrote on June 14th, 2012
  18. Today’s the first morning you may take a walk outside without wearing a diver’s suit. :) I will consider to work on the green, when thundery clouds vanish. Primal greetings from Munich, Germany. Thorsten

    Polodessit wrote on June 14th, 2012
  19. My husband and I (70 and 65 years young) live in Crete and have our own property management business. We work outside in rain, wind and sunshine 24/7, eat like Grok, feel great and take our office in our pockets in our iPhones. Life is very good – thank you Mark!

    Pamela Vandenberg wrote on June 14th, 2012
  20. I am lucky. I live in the country in India and my house backs up to a huge field. I have huge doors that are open all the times. I get a wonderful breeze most days and lots of sunlight. My view is that field and it changes all day with cows coming and going.

    Joy Curry wrote on June 14th, 2012
  21. I work in a lab in which we fought to have a windo installed! But rain or shine or cold or heat I always skip lunch and run the hills, walk, or just get out of the office for fresh air– the afternoon is better because I am energized!

    Pastor Dave wrote on June 14th, 2012
  22. Well… in Sweden the sun is that much of problem while working outside, it’s mostly the heavy rain, snow, wind… really unpleasant being outside in general. But to go out to a café or sit in the window is a great improvement I guess… or just move to CA <3

    Martina wrote on June 14th, 2012
  23. Working outside is all well and good. But if you need power and also need WIFI which is deadly for your health, then your just defeating the objective. Eat well and then get electrocuted or brain health problems from the Electro magnetic radiation from the wifi! Not a great idea.

    Roger wrote on June 14th, 2012
  24. I am not so sure Wi-fi is safe. There is growing evidence that exposrue to this electronic smog/emf exposure is not healthy for us. Certainly grok did not have it in hisvenvronment. I go outdoors to be away from all that stuff. (Although I realize that is increasingly hard to do, especially in an urban environment where radiofrequencies from cell phones, towers, wireless is EVERYWHERE! Maybe the precautionary principle should be applied here. So if not necessary to be online constantly, then use your computer with wireless connection disabled and turn it on only when needed.

    Mimulus wrote on June 14th, 2012
  25. I wonder how much the benefits of being outside are a total sensory experience. If a window is not enough, then is it the noise of the outdoors? Is it the feel of the wind and breeze? Can a blind or deaf person receive as much benefit as someone with both faculties?

    Ryan wrote on June 14th, 2012
  26. I take it if I worked for you, You would zero issues with letting me take it to the streets :P…Haven’t had a chance to read the article, but hoping that somewhere in there there might be a letter I can pass off to my boss as valid reason for getting outside and not getting fired…for now, I’ll just be happy with the standing workstation and big sunny window.

    lisa wrote on June 14th, 2012
  27. I work from home and my desk is right in front of windows facing the yard. But I could take my laptop out on the porch, don’t know why I never considered it!

    I had a very stressed-out, short-tempered boss some years ago. When he wanted to talk to me, I used to try to get him to walk around the block while we talked. It made the conversations at least somewhat less hair-raising.

    Wren wrote on June 14th, 2012
  28. I try and hold most of my business meetings while walking, going for a jog or cycling (all outside)…much more fun than a cubicle.
    It helps that my business is health promotion, but I find that most of my colleagues are quite excited at the prospect of having a meeting while moving

    Isaac Warbrick wrote on June 14th, 2012
  29. I don’t know if anyone has written this yet, but is nobody concerned about the effect of all that high tech pollution in our outdoor spaces? I just mean that going to a park and seeing (and feeling) towers and people spread out on the green with their laptops open, clicking away, is not inspiring. I don’t imagine the environment would then be less confining and stagnant than the office.

    If the idea was to leave the laptop at the office and throw a ball around all afternoon…

    Imogen wrote on June 14th, 2012
  30. I recently moved to Austin, and I didn’t realize they were expanding free wi-fi access into downtown parks. I think that’s a fantastic idea and I hope the trend spreads throughout the country.

    TrainerMike wrote on June 14th, 2012
  31. When I was writing my Master’s dissertation, I moved down to the south of France (I was studying in London, England). I rented a tiny little room in a tiny little town, but the building had a beautiful rooftop patio I could use. I wrote my dissertation sitting on that rooftop patio, shaded, but sweating in the heat for sure, and totally enjoying life. I would write for a few hours, then pack up and go for a hike in the evening. It was such a wonderful way to work.

    I work in an office now with no outdoor space, and no where really to go to sit outdoors. I wish I could work from home sitting in my backyard.

    Peggy wrote on June 14th, 2012
  32. Ya! Outside in the HAARP environment where you can count the “Chem-Trails”. Sounds just great!

    Clint wrote on June 15th, 2012
  33. In addition to using high brightness, you can also use a high contrast scheme ( I use the ‘High Contrast White’ scheme in Windows 7) to improve the ability to use your screen in the sun.

    Alex wrote on June 16th, 2012
  34. I go outside my apt onto my balcony ( I literally have a oasis out there!a pot garden of veggies and flowers) and work on projects for my etsy shop: jewelry- knit/crochet items… I also have a nice view of a forested area across the street- it is very peaceful and serene. I have a cat so I like this option best so she can sit on my lap or near me as I work :) she is good company!

    LexxyV wrote on June 17th, 2012
  35. I love the idea of an outdoor desk with shade, but find the practicalities of shifting my laptop/power/keyboard setup to be off-putting, unless it’s going to be for an extended period. I really dislike working on a laptop without a separate keyboard as I can’t have both the screen and keyboard at the right height. And then my back/shoulders and arms all suffer.
    I guess as equipment gets lighter and more mobile this will become easier.

    On another point, I’m inspired to suggest outdoor meetings to my colleagues, even though we are in a fairly cool winter period right now :)

    I’m fortunate to have my day job office situated in lovely bushland with ponds and loads if wildlife. Even a quick meeting outside would be refreshing. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Jen wrote on June 17th, 2012

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