Welcome to Press Pause. This January, we’re asking: What does self-care look like when it’s not all or nothing? What if we simply pressed pause here and there?
The moment I stepped into adulthood, my after-school routine of endless dance and drama classes fell entirely by the wayside. Instead, once I started working full time, I’d go to the pub and then head home for my all important looking-at-phone-in-bed time.
This summer though, I finally decided to dip my toe back into the world of organized fun by casually taking up yoga with the intention of simply helping myself unwind in a healthy way. My semi-regular relationship with the activity means that I still set up my mat at the back of class, don’t know the proper Sanskrit names for the poses, and mostly copy the person in front of me. But that’s exactly what keeps me engaged with the practice: The blissful, no-pressure, low intensity of it all (especially in January).
For 28-year-old Refinery29 writer Esther Newman, taking up embroidery without the pressure to get better at it has been a big plus for her mental health. “I find it really soothing and calming, having something to channel my nervous energy into, especially something that’s physical and not screen related,” she explains. “I like having something creative and artistic that’s all my own and that I don’t have to qualify through its performance or a rating judged by someone else. It’s just me who gets to say whether something works or needs a different approach.”
For many others though, the approach to hobbies is more all or nothing. Research from The British Heart Foundation shows that the shelf life of adult hobbies in the UK is 16 months, noting that work commitments, busy family lives, and lack of motivation are the main reasons we let them slide. The societal pressure to be instantly great at something is likely a contributing factor in our apathy towards hobbies. How many times have you heard someone saying they want to start running, only for every conversation to become about Fitbits and training for a half marathon? The very idea that you don’t have to be brilliant at everything you do seems to have gotten lost in our never-ending grind culture.
But why can’t our hobbies just be… Fun? In a world where we’re constantly on the clock or our iPhones, measuring our successes to our timelines and group chats, shouldn’t hobbies simply be a space for relaxation? According to therapist and Counseling Directory member Rose Fisher, engaging in hobbies on a more chilled basis is not only more enjoyable, but it can also be a major win for our minds. “Taking up casual hobbies simply for the joy of it is important for our overall mental health and wellbeing,” she tells Refinery29. The benefits of engaging in an activity for no other reason than fun allows us to achieve what she calls a flow state: That is, engrossed and focused on a single task, according to Fisher, which allows us to be fully present and rid ourselves of self-consciousness.
This, she adds, in turn, helps to calm down our “thinking mind.” “The prefrontal cortex decreases in activity when an individual reaches a state of flow and this reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex enables us to be more creative and also think more freely,” Fisher explains.
While it might seem like a strange concept for our overstimulated brains, it is possible to go back to picking up and putting down hobbies when and if we feel like it. Just because we might have invested time into something, it doesn’t mean we have to force ourselves to continue with an enjoyable routine. The idea of having to commit fully to something, reach goals and engage with it “properly” is exactly what moves us away from the flow state, creating a feeling of unnecessary expectation and guilt if we don’t reach those markers.
Getting back to that source of exploration was something that 27-year-old aerial performer Ruby Baker has experienced since taking up piano last month. “I love learning something new for the sake of it. There’s no pressure and it allows me to take my mind off all the other things I have to do,” she says. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist so it’s really good for me to try something I’m not good at and have a laugh with it. It takes away any self-criticism and judgment and reminds me that there’s no right or wrong when you’re creating art.”
One of the main reasons that hobbies began to feel so much like work is due in a large part to the evolution of the side hustle. Bolstered by never-ending COVID lockdowns, and TikTok feeds where everyone seems to be turning their knitting hobby into cold hard cash, for many the opportunity to make money has come at the price of falling out of love with their chosen activity. “Adding financial pressures to a passion, or setting high goals for a hobby can have a negative impact on our fulfillment, as it takes away the simplicity of engaging with the task just for the pleasure of it,” Fisher explains.
Just because yoga brings me joy by engaging with a hobby in a casual, friends-with-benefits kind of way doesn’t mean I don’t feel the ongoing threat to commit and level up. In a cost of living crisis where extracurriculars are increasingly expensive (my membership is $50 a month), the feeling that activities must be productive to be worth doing has never felt stronger, which is precisely what keeps most of us from taking them up or sticking to them.
It is very important to have some experiences in life that are not about achieving goals, proving ourselves, or winning at things.
For 29-year-old radio presenter Mary Mandefield, this is one of the reasons her recent bouldering hobby has been kept casual. “I’m a big believer in not making money from the things you really love. As soon as something turns into a hustle or a career, it can suck the joy from it. I used to be a dance teacher, and as much as I loved making some extra money from dancing around with my mates, I quickly learnt that having to think about insurance, marketing, and GDPR [general data protection regulation] made it less fun,” she tells Refinery29.
“It is very important to have some experiences in life that are not about achieving goals, proving ourselves, or winning at things,” Fisher explains. “These activities help us to remember that our worth does not depend on what we can do, and we don’t have to prove ourselves to be impressive, valuable, or useful in every aspect of our lives.”
24-year-old designer Georgina*, who previously went out running every day, recognizes her relationship with the activity is much better now that it’s more relaxed. “It used to feel like a chore and I believed that if I missed a run then everything would be ruined. Not only my progress… It was more like: okay, that was a wasted day because I didn’t run my five miles,” she says. “Now, I don’t want to run because I ‘planned’ it, but just do it when I feel I need it. I actually enjoy it without the demand of getting better and I really don’t want to spoil that magic. It’s so comforting to do something just for yourself without any kind of pressure, whether that be internal or external.”
While it might take some mental reframing to break free of our overachieving mindsets, seeing hobbies as less of a routine-orientated practice and more as a source of play is a start. According to therapist and Counseling Directory member Rosalind Miles, the social aspect is also incredibly important. “Hobbies often bring people together who share similar interests," she says. "Joining clubs or participating in group activities related to your hobby can foster a sense of community and provide opportunities for people to get out and about and make new friends.”
As January brings with it unending conversations about what we want to “achieve” in 2024, giving ourselves permission to engage with activities we like on a “when we feel like it” basis seems like one way to actually keep going with them. The inherent shame of being average at something is stopping us from engaging with anything — when really we all know that doing a little bit of something that we find fun is better than avoiding it entirely for fear of not being able to achieve anything of significance. Stepping out every so often to take part in something is a win in itself and it’s time we were all reminded of it.
My next venture for the new year? Roller skating. Here’s hoping for more laughs than broken bones.