Sunél's Blog | Rethinking Productivity

Sunél Veldtman, | 31 March 2023

I have recently started to paint. On learning that I had the desire to start painting, my daughter bought me a beginner’s set of acrylic paint, some paintbrushes and small canvases. She watched me avoid them for a few days and then sat me down and said, “You can follow a tutorial or you can just paint.”

For the first time in my life, I attempted something new without research. It felt daunting. I had no idea what I was doing but I was determined just to do it. And I surprised myself and my family with my enjoyment and feeling for this creative form.

I don’t intend to make it anything other than a hobby - something to explore, a space away from thinking, something just for me. I’ve purposefully allowed myself to just mess around for a few hours. I keep it small so that I can finish a painting in one or two sessions. I’ve tried not to obsess about getting it right. In time, I’d like to paint with even more intuition and abstraction.  I’d like to explore painting what I feel instead of what I see.

I have found it interesting to witness my inner struggle to carve out time for this unproductive activity. Although I’ve created a space for it, and it is all there, waiting for me to pick it up, I just can’t allow myself the freedom to paint more frequently.

I, like most of my generation, have been programmed for productivity. It is difficult to rid myself of that programming.

Our understanding of productivity is, however, perhaps too narrow.  There is plenty of research showing that carving out time for creative hobbies can increase productivity by enhancing creativity, perspective, and confidence in the workplace.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, they quoted a study by The British Psychological Society, “Creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”

You may have experienced this already. Perhaps a solution to a problem came to you in the shower after a good night’s sleep, during a walk in the woods, or while listening to music. Apart from allowing mental space for random thoughts, or concentration on something other than work-related tasks, practising art is both helpful and productive – for the art project on hand and unrelated tasks. The task of finishing a piece of woodwork or mastering a piece of music also boosts confidence, which pays its own way forward into other areas of life.
In addition, research shows that cortisol levels (one of the most widely studied hormonal markers of stress) were lowered after practising art. This study also showed that prior experience wasn’t needed to reduce an individual’s stress.

Sadly, few people practise hobbies these days, although many want to. Work has encroached on all other spaces in our lives, and screens take up most of our time when we do have time off. It hasn’t been good for our mental well-being. Returning to hobbies could be one of the easiest ways of helping our mental well-being crises.

Perhaps it is time to carve out space for hobbies, just because it will give us joy. And if we can’t bring our productivity-driven selves to do that, then we may need to take the time to convince ourselves that those minutes or hours gardening, cooking, or finishing an art project, will eventually help our productivity too.

Ps. I am taking a break from my weekly blog for a few weeks. I wish you a restful time over the religious holidays. I intend to paint and potter around in my garden. I hope you can make some time for mental space too.

Kind regards,