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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Unexpected Lesson I Learned From My Failed Adult Coloring Book Experiment

adult coloring book

I was so excited when my adult coloring book and colored pencil set arrived from Amazon. I’d read so much about the benefits of returning to this activity of youth that when I pitched the idea to my editor, I figured it’d be one of the easiest articles I’d write: I’d color and then report on how it helped me de-stress.

The book sat on my desk for days. The article kept getting pushed back on the calendar because I was always too busy to stop everything I was doing to do something so silly.

Finally, one Friday afternoon when I felt accomplished enough for the week and also like I’d reached my productivity end point, the weekend mere hours away, I reached for my editor-approved entertainment. Donning noise-cancelling headphones and clearing a space on my desk, I proceeded to flip through the pages until I landed on a design in which to begin my foray.

I briefly considered a color scheme and then went about this near-foreign business of using colored pencils in the middle of a workday. I waited patiently for a feeling of Zen to overcome me. I colored and I waited. But I didn’t feel particularly carefree or like a heap of stress melted away.

Less than an hour after I started, I abandoned the project and turned my attention to more immediate tasks: answering emails before the start of the weekend, cleaning up my to-do list so it’d be in good shape come Monday morning, reading through interview prep notes.

Weeks passed and the book and gorgeous array of pencils sat idle—again. I frequently thought about taking a break from work and finishing the turtle or trying the lion, but I could never quite convince myself to do it. I couldn’t stand the thought of doing something so unproductive when I had a plethora of meaningful items to focus on.

When I returned from a long weekend away, I realized that perhaps I’d approached the project all wrong, and that night I vowed to do it while watching mindless TV or listening to music. It sounded like that’s typically how proponents of the practice did it, at least based on the New York Magazine article I read. The activity, explains neurologist, Jordan Gaines Lewis, is “a way for people who have never felt very artsy to literally add some more color into their lives.” These books, he found from speaking with adults who’d developed this new hobby of sorts, “are a convenient way to escape into their imaginations for just a few minutes or hours a day, time-permitting.”

Remember when I was bothered by a little thing called productivity? It doesn’t matter! “Here’s a wild thought: Not everything we do must be in pursuit of productivity,” Lewis suggests. Since I wasn’t concerned with whether or not I was engaging in a productive activity when I sat at my coffee table and half-watched Modern Family, I felt immediately more at ease with the exercise. But I still didn’t have the Zen revelation.

Understanding the way in which this allows adults to engage in a certain amount of playfulness, I get its allure—particularly if your day job doesn’t require you to wear a creative thinking cap. As someone who comes home from work and devotes several minutes of playtime to the dog often before practicing silly song and dance routines for the sheer amusement of my fiancé (wait, did I just overshare?) I don’t feel particularly lacking in the play part of life.

And as far as creative work goes, well, I’m a writer and editor, so more often than not, my days require me to use that part of that brain.

So, I wouldn’t say that adult coloring failed for me, but I would point out that it wasn’t checking off boxes that it claimed to—de-stress, unwind, and relax—if only because I’d already discovered ways to check off those boxes. I realized that it’s not so much that we all need to run out and buy coloring books, but rather that we need to work “mindless” play into our days.

I think this particular concept caught on so fast because it was a justifiable (and eventually trendy) excuse to do something completely unproductive. Too often, we hold ourselves back from doing anything that’s not contributing to our bottom line in some way (even if that bottom line’s just working through a Netflix queue). There’s always a goal in mind. With coloring, there isn’t a goal, not really.

For me, I realized that I liked the idea of coloring more than I liked coloring itself, and I’m OK with that. Although I went into the experiment thinking that I’d find a relatively quick way to de-stress on the job and ultimately put a more productive foot forward, there’s no shame in coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t the right life hack for me.

So I challenge you to find an activity—whether it’s dancing or calligraphy or staging your living room and photographing it—that doesn’t necessarily have any end game, that you can do just for fun. And then do it, with no strings attached, guilt-free. If millions of people are coloring, you’re allowed to spend your time doing whatever you want.

But, if you do pick coloring, let me know by sending me a photo on Twitter!