Busy doing nothing: in praise of purposeless activity

I’ll declare a couple interests before I begin. First, I like JoJo Moyes. Her books have touched me, and when I tweeted about one of them I got all fangirl when she replied. The After You sample is sitting in my Kindle to be read “pile”.

Secondly, I like colouring in. I also like what I’ve seen it do for people who are struggling, so I created the hashtag #colourtogether, a mass colouring event. Twitter users were invited download an image, colour it in any way pleased, then share it using the hashtag. It proved immensely popular and I lost count of how many people contributed, many having joined on a friend’s recommendation. The Storify “gallery” is a thing of immense beauty and I still enjoy looking at it.

So it’s not surprising that several people drew my attention to a piece by Moyes earlier this week on colouring in (I would’ve blogged about it way sooner, but I was occupied with all the lively feedback from the BBC article about my wedding). Ultimately there’s not much more to Moyes’ piece than someone being baffled by something they don’t get and deciding that it therefore has no value. She does (rather perfunctorily) recognise that colouring may be of value to people with mental health problems, but the thing that bugs her is that “there is a whole raft of women who, apparently, just like to spend their hours colouring stuff. And it’s these who make me oddly uneasy.”

Moyes frets that colouring in leaves no room for imagination, for “genuine creativity” or for “working out who you are and what you are capable of creating.” It’s a shame Moyes feels that way; there is actually more creativity than you might think in colouring. Unlike painting by numbers you need to really engage with the task, looking closely at the patterns and choosing your pencils or pens with care. Some people enjoy the challenge that comes from choosing a pencil at random and seeing how they can incorporate it into the page. Either way, it’s not finger painting.

But here’s my real issue with colouring snobbery.

Not every activity has to have a purpose. Purposeless time is not “wasted time”.

I guess it boils down to this: I don’t want everything I do to need an outcome, to be defined by what I produce. For sick and disabled people, it’s a very dangerous model. The DWP is hell bent on bullying those with chronic health problems and lifelong disabilities into productivity and appears to have talked itself into the belief that with the right “support” we can all be slotted back into the workplace. How much tidier it will be when we can be measured in terms of our economic output! Sadly many so-called treatment models focus narrowly on occupational recovery. People for whom work or volunteering is impossible are either invisible or lazy

Because we live in an age of relentless productivity. We go from task to task, doing and achieving. There is a constant pressure to get things done. We do it to ourselves, creating stress through our own “to do” lists. Who, Moyes asks, has the time to colour? She believes that people’s (women’s) precious leisure hours should be filled with “a pursuit that both relaxes and stretches you, encourages you to learn something about yourself and claim some space in the world”.

I’m not going to get into mindfulness too much (again) other than to say that I believe it is intrinsically necessary for our health to take time just be or do. No active verbs. No planning, deciding, achieving, competing, resolving, generating, innovating, assessing, organising, delivering, completing, processing. No producing. Claiming your inner space in a society that is so outward facing is actually a rather radical thing to do. Tuning out the chatter by doing with no particular goal challenges our beliefs about how time “should” be spent.

I’ve recently rediscovered the art of purposeless walking. It actually started off as very goal-directed; I was trying the reach the 10,000 steps per day recommended by the American Heart Association to maintain cardiovascular health. But then I got into the habit of just walking everywhere. I started by striding home when I could have hopped on the bus but the habit has grown into walking for walking’s sake. I do a lot of it out of curiosity. Exactly how far away at street level is the two-minute tube ride? What’s up that long road I only ever pass the end of? Why is that green space on Google maps called what it is? Now when I travel to a health appointment team or go to yoga class or to a meeting I check out the local area instead of just shuttling to and from. Walking. Purposelessly. Because I enjoy it.

I guess I don’t understand what Moyes thinks is the main product of reading a novel. I’ve loved several of her books, but they don’t fall into the category of “relaxing but stretching”. I promise I’m not being catty here. I wept buckets on the plane home from holiday because I’d just finished The One Plus One. But I read her novels precisely because they are emotionally resonant but not really a stretch for my poor bewildered brain. I’m not sure that for me at the moment reading can be both. The Goldfinch was stretching. The Bone Clocks was stretching. Enjoyable actually, but ultimately too stretching. I couldn’t finish either of them.

It’s hard to see how reading for pleasure differs substantively from colouring in. If you read a novel, you get lost, just as you can in an intricate colouring page. You can always stretch yourself after reading a novel by writing a review, but check out the Amazon page for a popular colouring book like Secret Garden. Reading novels can become a social activity through swapping recommendations/ books, or by joining a book group. But #ColourTogether was a social activity. Not only did people come together for the final gallery, they passed the recommendation on.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a lightweight piece. Maybe everything I’ve said is exactly what you’d expect me to say, but I will defend my right to walk down (physical and written) cul-de-sacs if I want to. It’s been suggested to me that I should resurrect #ColourTogether during Advent. Nothing too Christmassy, but something people might like to focus on knowing that other people are just as absorbed in their own interpretation of the image. I hope as many of you as possible will join me so we can waste our lives together. Quietly. In glorious colour.

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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19 Responses to Busy doing nothing: in praise of purposeless activity

  1. btrflygl says:

    I enjoyed your post. And it is also a great reminder that as long as we enjoy something, especially in the moment, that’s all that really matters.

  2. To be honest I’m with Moyes on this one. I genuinely don’t get how popular colouring-in has become among people who are not ill or in desperate need of stress relief. These increasingly intricate books are very expensive after all – they can’t all be bought by people who are ill because most of us are broke! I think Moyes is questioning why they’ve become popular among people who don’t have long-term health conditions – she does give a cursory nod to ‘mental health’ in the piece but that’s not really what she’s focusing on.

    I also don’t think she’s advocating endless productivity either – stretching yourself doesn’t have to mean being productive. I’ve started drawing in my spare time and I’m no artist. It just fulfills a different function than colouring in. There really is something to be said for creating something of your own; it nourishes you in a way that just filling in blocks of colour does not. I see colouring as being on the same level as playing solitaire – it’s something I do to switch my brain off (which is much needed) but it doesn’t help me feel better in the same way as learning something totally new does.

    • But if you or she don’t get it – so what? Not intending to be rude there, but why on either should it matter to you or her what other people do for relaxation? I seriously don’t get it. I know people who *iron* as relaxation, for heaven’s sake. But again, so what? I’m not going to write a piece about how much that disturbs me, though I’m sure there is someone out there really willing and able to give me 800 words on what they get out of it. And I’d respect that. Even though it’s dead weird.

      • Mia Vee says:

        I agree with purple. I understand not getting it or it not working for you personally, but that doesn’t negate the value it has for other people. Especially when it comes to self-soothing, grounding or calming activities. If it’s not self destructive and doesn’t hurt anybody else, I struggle to see it as anything other than a good thing. Even if people aren’t living with a chronic health challenge (mental or physical) if doing a spot of colouring (or ironing, or yo-yoing, or knitting or listening to Taylor Swift) helps them centre themselves and reduce their stress/anxiety, good. It might not be something that would effectively play the same role for me, but that’s no reason for me to judge them.

        With the more intricate/premium books, I recognise that they’re outside the budget for a lot of disabled people (myself included!) but there are no rules stating that adults are ONLY allowed to use those specific books. You can pick up multipacks at pound shops or discount bookshops – most of mine are from these sources – or for those with access to a printer, download endless colouring pages for free from the internet.

      • Um, I’m not sure that it’s disrespectful to disagree about something… Although I have to say, it’s a bit disrespectful for someone to say “so what?” to someone having a different point of view! She wrote a blog about some thoughts she had, you wrote one in response. Where’s the harm?

      • But there is a reason why am I bothered that she is bothered and that is that it made people who enjoy colouring feel belittled.

  3. blessed800 says:

    Very insightful and took a lot of the pressure off to “be all that you can be” and then some- even for a moment. Definitely some thoughts I need to take a second look at. The world and it’s ideals are not at all set up to complement the life of someone living with a mental illness or any other potentially disabling condition. We have a create a new “normal” and that’s more than ok.

  4. LucyG says:

    I also feel that whatever pastime you choose to do and it relaxes you and helps you to have peace of mind then that is all that matters. I very much enjoyed reading your blog Charlotte and you always inspire me to think about what I am doing and if it would be helpful. I have looked at these colouring books and once I open the first page they always look too busy for me. However what suits one person doesn’t always suit another and I feel that is perfectly acceptable. It would be very wrong to criticise a person enjoying what they are doing just because you don’t share the same interest.

  5. Lib says:

    I’m surprised how people can mind what other people choose to do as a means to unwind. I absolutely hate art. I’m appalling at drawing and I gain nothing from it. However, colouring in can be very relaxing regardless of whether you’re mentally unwell or not. In this day and age too many people have problems with what others like to do. Surely it’s perfectly ok to find some comfort in colouring just as it’s ok to listen to music, read a book, watch sport. Just because I can’t play an instrument well doesn’t take away the immense importance that music has in my life. I love reading but will never write a novel. I really think that it’s far more important that people find ways to get out of their heads and busy world in order to stay mentally healthy than to worry that what they are doing is going to be frowned upon because they aren’t creating the entire picture. What people enjoy is individual and no one has any right to question or belittle them. I’m fed up with people who think that it’s ok to make others feel stupid for their interests. Whatever you enjoy, as long as it hurts no one, go ahead and do it! Life is ultimately too short to worry about what others think of you and your hobbies. Let’s continue to #colourtogether with enthusiasm and friendship!!!

  6. Sue prentice says:

    I’ve just read your piece on BBC news app and so enjoyed it! I work in mental health and love yoga (kundalini is my favourite) and it’s so refreshing to read about such a positive experience. And I laughed out loud when I read ‘face, meet mat. You’ll be seeing a lot of each other’ – it still makes me smile. Well written – thank you 🙂

  7. I’ve looked at those books for colouring, wondered why and what anyone got out of colouring in instead of drawing. Yet, I can happily spend hours letting my mind wander while I play solitaire.
    Great post, you’ve cleared up why they’re so popular. I’ll keep with the doodling and drawing as I can imagine I’d spend hours happily colouring if I let myself, while my brain got on with it’s subconscious thing.

  8. lucyc says:

    thanks for your article purplepersuasion! i felt very comforted by it. I’m a restless, tiring – and tired- type and i’m not at all well at the moment, and ive been given a colouring in book and i LOVE it. totally agree about the need for ‘purposeless’ activity PRECISELY as a way to help calm and find yourself. thanks

  9. Pingback: When You Need Therapy, First Reach for the Crayons -

  10. I remember reading this a few months back – and came back to it yesterday, as I was off sick and beating myself up about all the stuff I could be doing with time I was just laying there thinking anxious thoughts. After reading this, I’ve ordered my first adult colouring book, and was a bit easier going on myself yesterday, trying to just ‘be’. Great article, thanks 🙂

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