I hate opening articles with a question, but this one is uniquely fitting for what we’re about to discuss. So let me ask you: What are you passionate about? Outside of your job, your education, or your internship, what’s one thing you love that you do wholly and specifically just for you?
Do you paint? Are you a poet? Do you create ornate dollhouses out of popsicle sticks? Do you race cars? Climb mountains? Are you into designing clothing? Photography? Fly-fishing, perhaps? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I’m asking because your life is important. Making money and learning shit is important too, but once the clock hits five or the grades are in, there’s more to life than continuous grinding — and, though it's sometimes easier said than done, it’s important to understand that.
Our hobbies and vocations are invaluable to us for a multitude of reasons. Not only do they help us cope with the life of our daily grind, but they also help us focus on our work. They help us decompress, stay sharp, and keep cool. They help us live the lives we want, even when we’re held down by the things we need.
Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you need hobbies.
Learning New Things Keeps Your Brain Sharp
If you’re the kind of square who dismisses hobbies as child’s play or something not to be taken seriously, you actually couldn’t be more wrong. There’s an extensive body of results-driven research out there showing that learning new skills or picking up new hobbies is a great way to keep your mind sharp — especially if you’re not in the classroom.
A 2013 study by Dr. Denise Park (and colleagues), a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, tested a group of 200 older adults to see if learning new skills to help activate pre-existing memory/brain function would help their cognitive functions.
Park split the groups into sections and gave each section a new hobby or skill to learn. Activities included things like quilting and learning digital photography, while the control groups didn’t learn anything new. They met and reminisced about past vacations, and some of them worked from home on easy skill and puzzle games.
At the end of the three-month learning period, Park issued all the groups memory and cognitive ability tests and found the groups who learned new skills tested markedly above the control groups who did nothing.
The best part? When she came back a year later and tested them again, the groups who learned a skill still outperformed the control groups.
Momentary Distractions Help Us Recharge
If your career life is anything like mine, I’d be willing to bet things can get pretty stressful. When they do, work tends to creep outside of the office and into the other aspects of your life. It affects our home lives, our dating lives, our social lives, and all the other facets of our lives that have literally nothing to do with what goes on in our offices.
It’s very easy to be distracted by work problems — or other things, really — while you’re watching TV, doing laundry, eating dinner or any of the other assorted mundane autopilot activities we do on a daily basis.
When you pick up a hobby, your brain starts redirecting all its focus to absorbing that knowledge. If you’re learning how to build a motorcycle, your brain is going to focus on things like learning how to lay a decent TIG bead and/or how to not lose a finger with an angle grinder. If you’re learning how to knit, your brain is going to focus on proper needle work and how to pattern things out correctly.
If you’re preoccupying your brain with new things that are attention-demanding, you won’t focus as much on that crazy deadline you have coming up, the event you have planned for the end of the month, or how the hell you’re going to file this quarter’s KPI report without any actual statistics to back it up because your Assistant Digital Ad Director Mark didn’t compile the data. Ugh, fuck you, Mark.
In fact, it’s that exact mentality that motivated Betsan Corkhill, a knitting therapist, to start her own clinic, StichLink. Corkhill has noticed that knitting specifically puts her patients in an almost meditative state, due to the naturally rhythmic motions of knitting. But, according to her, any kind of in-depth learning experience will work.
“If you chose a difficult project, you’re concentrating so deeply that your mind doesn’t have time to think of anything else,” Corkhill said in a story with Business Insider. “That gives the mind a break. If you knit a very easy project, you can go into a state where your mind is just free to roam.”
Hobbies Promote Structure
A more simple need for hobbies in our lives is that they promote a sense of structure in a world dominated by things like work, school and other real-life responsibilities. Even the best and most efficient workers will tell you that they have, at times, been overwhelmed by their own daily grind. There’s nothing wrong with it, but deadlines must be met, projects must be complete, clients must be made happy, etc.
It’s the way the business world works, and without good, healthy, focused workers, the business world ceases to exist. It creates quite the conundrum.
Hobbies help us slow down and set time aside specifically for things that aren’t work-related. Aside from the obvious benefits of learning a new skill or taking a moment to recharge your batteries, hobbies also force us to step away from our work and put a bookmark in it, if even for just a little bit.
Creating these physical boundaries between our work and home lives is important in maintaining structure and control over the work we’re doing and the projects we’re involved in.
They Look Good On a Resume
Any good hiring manager will tell you that that best indication of what kind of employee a candidate would be inside the office is to look at how they live and what they’re interested in outside the office.
To some people — increasingly with the younger crowds — that’s terrifying because we spend so much of our lives achieving the technical skills that look good on our resume that we rarely, if ever, consider anything else.
In fact, for years, resume writing coaches and help websites discouraged people from putting any reference to “professionally irrelevant” hobbies on their resumes because resumes are supposed to be strictly business. (But those same websites also preface their articles with a bunch of bullshit about how your resume is also your one chance to make a good first impression — go figure.)
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, one of the country’s largest tech companies, told students during a speech at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University that they’re always looking at prospective candidates’ outside hobbies because he feels they demonstrate clear leadership abilities and because they set candidates apart from one another.
"At Facebook we often ask [prospective employees], 'What is something that you've built that is outside of the jobs you've done?'” Zuckerberg said to the students. “Often that's one of the best ways people can show passion and leadership."
Don’t Forget the 80/20 Rules
Of course, there is the idea that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What I mean by that is that there’s only so much potential for creativity in a finite space. By always exploring new avenues and learning new things, you’re only increasing your creative potential — personally, professionally, whatever.
A perfect example of that was what is now famously known as Google’s “20 percent time” policy, which was a company-wide agreement that its engineers could spend one day per week working on side projects.
When it was first implemented, the program was wildly successful, bringing about some of Google’s most legendary products, including Gmail, AdSense and Google Reader.
The idea was that allowing employees to create something new and work on side projects during work time would actually help foster creative outside-the-box ideas that could be useful to Google. And for some time, it worked well. When google did get rid of the policy, it was because they saw that it had morphed into something undesirable — managers were being discouraged from approving projects, the process was bastardized, and there was said to be unfair treatment among colleagues. It was axed for bureaucratic reasons, not because it didn’t work.
Next up, here are 10 key habits to build in your 20s.