Benefits of puttering and unfocused time

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Do you regularly allow unfocused time to be free, putter or play in your life? Time where nothing you do needs to be productive or of “value” to a greater cause or for others? We used to spend more time daydreaming, walking and pottering around, but now thanks to a multimedia device in our back pocket, we can be entertained (or distracted) at any given moment. While the dopamine hit to the brain from the digital stimulation may feel good—as much research now shows—excessive use is unhealthy.

From this Seattle Times article titled How smartphone addiction is affecting our physical and mental health:

Why, you may ask, is it so important to limit our digital lives? “Without open spaces and downtime, the nervous system never shuts down — it’s in constant fight-or-flight mode,” [Nancy] Colier said in an interview. “We’re wired and tired all the time. Even computers reboot, but we’re not doing it.”

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less asks us “Remember recess? We need unscheduled blocks of time to be free. I don’t say no because I’m so busy. I want free time. We all deserve time to be curious, bored, and idle. We deserve time to putter or to do nothing at all.”

A healthier option is to find an undemanding hobby that’s easy to pick up and put down, instead of relying on a digital device for entertainment. Making art is a simple, cheap and accessible hobby (if you can give yourself permission to spend time making something for fun). There are countless benefits to making art, having hobbies and spending time not working.

Srini Pillay in Tinker Dabble Doodle Try talks about how being in an unfocused state (not-working) is beneficial and can ironically help us get work done more efficiently. “In other unfocused states, you may be doing something less demanding, like knitting or gardening… You’re cruising along on autopilot, getting stuff done. When you do, your brain gets a much-deserved rest, but it also brings the puzzle pieces of memory together to increase the accuracy of future predictions. Lying in a hammock, showering, knitting and gardening are all things you can do to unfocus and relax.”

Giving your brain a rest is essential and spending time on a device doesn’t allow space to connect to the peaceful and restorative inner world. Like meditation, puttering and unfocused hobbies allow you to be more mindful in the present moment, give you a breather from the chatter of life so you can come back to it refreshed and re-centred. This practice is worthy of your time and attention.


Black-and-white thinking is a growth block

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Negative black-and-white thinking about your art can be harmful to your confidence and future art-making practice. While you may think labelling the art as “rubbish” or “bad” is stating the obvious, it could be blinding you to all the positive aspects of your art. Whatever your brain focuses on expands therefore looking at only “negative” aspects of your art, they will appear bigger, especially with similar repeated thoughts over time.

Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz talk about this extreme viewpoint in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry: “All or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in extreme categories. For example, you might describe a presentation you gave as “perfect” or “horrible.” Instead of a more balanced, reasoned view, you overlook the shades of gray, the subtleties of life, and force experiences into either-or categories (ie. describing yourself as “irresponsible” if you overlook a task or calling yourself a “failure” if you don’t meet an important personal goal.”

If by giving yourself constructive feedback you feel encourage to continue practicing then that’s great. But if you feel disheartened by your own feedback—especially if it’s black and white thinking—look for the more neutral “grey areas” instead. If you’re unable to find any small areas of the art you like, can you find one positive aspect? One specific line or dot? You can’t notice what you don’t look for. And “perfect” art is overrated. If we could do it perfectly instantly, we’d get bored very quickly. There’d be nothing new to learn and no joy from each step of growth accomplished over time. Look for the grey and let go of the pressure for your art to “be better” than it is right this moment.

Judging time spent being creative

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

That critical voice that pops up while you start making art can derail you completely listen to it. It might start asking questions that make you doubt if you should continue to make art. Or it might say your art is bad so what’s the point? We’ve somehow learnt that to be constantly productive somehow equals ‘success’ and that we shouldn’t spend time on frivolous activities.

Success isn’t necessarily being productive. It could be enjoying your free time and having a creative hobby that doesn’t require you to be an expert. If the voice asks why bother unless the art has ‘value’ to the outside world, reply, “I don’t need to be a master at this, I want to relax and enjoy my free time and this is one way to do that.” By addressing the judgmental thought, you loosen yourself from its grip. The more you practice answering it back, the quicker it will leave so you can get back the enjoyment of being creativity. John F. Simon Jr in Drawing Your Own Path explains “As beginners, we hesitate to take up the pencil because we doubt our ability to render realistically. As we gain experience by drawing more difficult and time-consuming subjects, we doubt our commitment. Control of the pencil only sensitizes our eyes to details we haven’t mastered and how much more there is to accomplish. More demons emerge. What am I doing these drawings for? Can I justify the time I’m spending on art? … the ephemeral but paralyzing fog called “social convention” floating above the studio, casting a cloud on our process when we ask, “What will others think of this? What kind of person spends all day drawing? What value does art have anyway?” If the hero wants to continue to create, these demon must be defeated.”

The kind of person who decides to spend time drawing or making art is a brave and wise person. Because it is wise indeed to spend time on the things you enjoy doing, purely for the joy of experiencing them. No productivity is required.

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”– John Lennon

Self critique to reflect and gain insight

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Self-critiquing allows reflection on current progress but it is also is a tool for your future self. Looking at thoughts about past art allows you to spot development over time. While visually the art may have improved or changed, it’s the insight into how you felt at the time—your inner world—that can provide valuable feedback. If when making some of the first drawing attempts, you wrote how unconfident you felt, today you may have forgotten how nervous you were back then. Comparing against the past self, you recognised today you don’t feel as nervous and so your inner world has changed. Many small steps of progress that can’t be measured visually can be overlooked or ignored, but they add up in big ways over time. It could be argued that this inner development is more important than the visual improvement of the art: when inner confidence is grown, effects other areas of life in a positive way.

Get into the practice of regularly writing a small critique for some of the art your make. If you’re drawing in a journal, consider writing a note next the the art, or if on paper, write it on the back. Otherwise write on a post-it note and stick that on the work. Or use a seperate journal/notebook but make sure to date art as you make it so it’s easy refer back to specific pieces when writing about them in your notebook. Dean Nimmer in Art From Intuition suggests “Your sketchbook can also be a good place to write down notes to yourself about any topics that relate to your art, or to your creative process. For example, writing down self-critiques about what you think of your own work.”

Self-critiquing: While every ‘mistake’ in an artwork can be glaring obvious, feedback only why something is ‘bad’ isn’t as useful (or kind) as constructive feedback. If a friend asks for feedback on a drawing, you wouldn’t list all things wrong with it. You’d want to encourage them by focusing on the positive aspects of the art. You should offer the same encouragment for yourself. A helpful comment might look like: “It was tricky deciding on the colours. I like the blue corner best because its bright and I enjoying making it. The red area looks messy. I felt better using colours but want to work on drawing smaller details. I enjoyed the sensation of drawing the curves.” Or a shorter version: “Fun to make, love the squiggles, enjoyed making while listing to x music. Want to do more like this.”

However you choose to critique yourself, remember to be kind and compassionate. Making art takes a great deal of courage as an adult so there’s no need for harsh judgements. We are all doing our creative best and that’s good enough.

Noting as a mark making meditation

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Can drawing be used as a tool for meditation? While making art for fun is as worthy a reason to get creative, so is slowing down and taking a moment to connect to the present moment. Meditation is a way to do this (as well as through a variety of mindfulness and gratitude practices), but is it possible to combine making art/marks and meditation into one process?

John F. Simon Jr. in Drawing Your Own Path explains how a “marking practice”—regularly making marks on paper—is more important than media choices and describes “noting,” a style of “Insight Meditation”: “When I engage in noting, I try to pay close attention to the stream of mental phenomena rising into my conscious awareness, isolating every sensation that I smell, hear, taste, touch, see, or think. The “noting” part is when I identify each phenomenon to myself.”

This mark making practice grounds us in the present moment by focusing attention on immediate surroundings. In this way, noting could be described as a form of mediation, one where a pencil and paper help visualise an experience of a moment. Simon describes how to do noting: “… instead of identifying the sensation with a word in your mind, let the pencil in your hand make a mark on the page. The mark should be completely random and no two marks need be the same.”

Let your pencil go for a walk with the mind and record an experience of a present moment to create a connection to your inner world. Reflecting via the process of noting allows a moment of contemplation amidst the noises, smells and experiences currently around us, a moment that could be a welcome pause in the constant momentum of daily life.