Just over a year ago, I was struggling to adjust to a new workload, juggling multiple clients that required my attention on a daily basis. Although my workweek was technically shorter, time-wise, I initially found it tough to switch gears between clients several times in a day. My days were spent doing work, and my nights were spent thinking about work.
I thought back to how I dealt with multitasking and stress before my professional life began. During my senior year at Penn, I had four part-time jobs (two magazine internships and two restaurant jobs), plus coursework, plus an active social life. Despite the madness of my schedule, I decided that I wanted to start writing restaurant reviews for 34th Street, the arts and culture magazine of The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Although making the time to get to venues and write the reviews was a challenge, I loved just being able to do something I liked for the fun of it, as opposed to merely fulfilling obligations.
While thinking back on that period, I had the "aha" moment I'd been looking for to resolve my current situation: I needed a hobby.
After years of ogling my friends' DSLRs and pricey lenses, I bought a Nikon D3100 and a better-than-stock lens last summer. Several afternoons a week, I disappeared to explore San Diego with my camera in hand, snapping just about everything in sight and retouching it in Photoshop or Aperture.
After that novelty wore off, I began reading photography sites and studying up on the principles of photography -- essentially, how to use the manual settings on my fancy camera. The photos during this period were initially worse, but then they got much, much better. I took fewer photos, but the ones I did take were thoughtfully considered. I performed more enhancements and fewer repairs on Photoshop.
I'll never be a professional photographer, and I'll certainly never get close to that level of prowess behind the lens -- and that's okay. I'm such a perfectionist at work that it's been deeply satisfying to just let go and learn at my leisure, bad exposures and all.
Why is a Hobby Good for Productivity?
Plenty of research supports the idea of picking up a hobby to boost work productivity. The New York Times ran an excellent piece in 2007 on the importance of hobbies, and its principles are just as relevant today. Here are some of the key benefits of pursuing a hobby from the NYT article, all of which I've experienced while pursuing my own hobby of DSLR photography:
- Stress relief: Practicing a hobby or any other activity we enjoy stimulates the brain's septal zone and activates the nucleus accumbens, which makes us feel happy and improves how we feel about life, according to Dr. S. Ausim Azizi of Temple University.
- Emotional recharging: Hobbies put us into what Carol Kauffman, a Harvard Medical School assistant clinical professor, calls "flow states." These flow states recharge your mental and emotional batteries, and are the reason why we often lose track of time when we're doing something fun.
- Improved confidence and self-esteem: "When people rely only on their role at work to foster self-esteem, that alone cannot typically fulfill their needs," said business coach and psychotherapist Michelle P. Maidenberg. "If you are unhappy with your work performance, you are more inclined to define yourself as inadequate, but if your identity is varied -- businesswoman, mother, wife, painter, cook -- you can reflect on your success in other things."
- Improved creativity. "Any time you take a break from routine, you develop new ways of thinking," said psychotherapist Gail McMeekin. These ways of thinking could manifest themselves in creative bursts of energy, or "Eureka!" moments in which a solution to a pressing problem pops into your head.
How to Make Time for a Hobby
When you're already feeling a time crunch, it's tough to even consider building more time into your day for fun, but it's necessary. Start with a manageable block of time -- an hour, or even a half-hour -- and slowly scale up from there.
Instead of watching TV or trolling on the Internet, do something completely unrelated to your line of work that moves you. Enroll in a yoga or dance class, or pop in a DVD of said activity and shimmy in the comfort of your own home. Knit, crochet or cross-stitch. Cook something complicated from scratch. Dust off your workbench and fire up some power tools. Detail your car by hand.
As you're doing your activity of choice, completely immerse yourself in the moment. Temporarily forget about work and other obligations -- they'll still be there when you're finished. Think about how much you're enjoying doing something for fun, not out of a sense of duty.
Repeat this process the next day, and the one after that, until taking time out for yourself becomes a habit.