How To Give Your Brain a Time-Out

I am making a mess. Greens bleed into blues, my mountains turn to mud, the landscape looks, objectively, like I dipped my brush in cow manure. But you know what I can do? I can flip the page and start over.

I got into watercolors because I was down in that kind of way where you don’t even know how deep you are until you pop your head up. I was antsy, unhappy, not sleeping well, not really enjoying much. I had already turned my greatest pleasures—reading and writing—into my job, and then slowly became obsessed with productivity to the point that everything felt like work. Even the things that theoretically should give me pleasure. 

I checked my watch during yoga, shoveled food into my face while writing, and scheduled runs with friends so I could tick the friendship box at the same time as the exercise one. Optimize, cram it in, then post it to social. With every action, I asked myself, “What am I producing or creating? What of my other hobbies can I turn into a side hustle?”

I am part of a generation that grew up on a toxic culture of work and performance and productivity. We didn’t play, we joined club sports so we could put soccer on our college applications. We didn’t sing, we practiced scales. I’m not sure exactly when I got on the hamster wheel, but I do know I’ve been joking for a long time that relaxing stresses me out. Which is not, actually, all that funny.

Because I didn’t know how to not chase productivity, or how to turn down the nagging in my brain whenever I tried. Meditation? Ha. If you ever want to give a productivity-obsessed person a panic attack, tell them to stop what they’re doing, lie down, and just try not to think about all the things they should be doing.

Then my friend Robin told me about a watercolor challenge she’d made up for herself. She was going to paint every day for a month. It didn’t matter if it was only for a few minutes or if it sucked—she was going to get her paints out every day.

Maybe my desperation was deeper than I thought or something inside me knew I needed it. I said I would do it, too, even though I hadn’t painted since grade school. I found a box of kiddie Crayola paints and a few brushes, and, on the first of the month, I broke them out and painted a still life of my kitchen houseplants. 

It sucked. The shapes were wrong and the colors bled and the whole thing was flat and lifeless. But the next day, I pulled out the paints again.

My brain was trying to tell me something. A wide range of studies have found that our minds need flow and quiet space, and it turns out art allows us access those places. The act of creating, especially when there’s no pressure around it, lowers stress, lets us connect with ourselves, and helps us work through all the thoughts that ping around in our heads. And the art doesn’t have to be good to give you those benefits. What matters is the time and the motion.

Remarkably, creating (truly terrible) art worked for me. I think it’s because it gave me something simple and tactile to do. It helped me get off that hamster wheel for a little while and quiet my brain. It opened up space and made time slow down.

And the best part? There is zero chance I can turn art into a side hustle. And that’s exactly the point. All I have to do is show up and, well, play. 

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