Struggling to switch off? Learning to knit or dance might be the answer. Natalie Ticehurst fills her diary…
What do you do with your downtime? Really think about it. And, no, nights in with Netflix don’t count. Fact is, us millennials just don’t have hobbies – 31% of us say that watching TV is our number one way to spend our downtime*. Not quite learning Japanese or Comic Con conventions now, is it? So, chances are, if you’re anything like me, you do the same few things, then rinse and repeat. But realising that eating out isn’t really a hobby (although I can tell you where to find the best truffled mac and cheese), I thought it was time to, well, make the most of my time. After all, hobbies have been shown to have serious health-boosting benefits, with scientists proving they make us happier, reduce anxiety and can even improve heart health. Alice Monk, founder of Learn To Play Day, an initiative to get more of us playing a musical instrument, explains, ‘Hobbies build confidence and memory, and provide us with an outlet for creativity, distraction and something to look forward to.’ Could picking up a new skill make me stress less? Intrigued, I tested the happy factor of four…
What a bunch
Having spent the last nine years doing the same day job, I’ve become expert at sticking safely to a handful of things I’m good at. So much so that being a beginner – which, let’s be honest, is pretty much code for being bad at stuff – feels quite scary. And there’s good reason for this. Mindset coach and author of the anxiety-busting book How Not To Lose It, Anna Williamson, tells me, ‘As children, life’s knockbacks haven’t happened yet, so our resilience is at an all-time high. However, once we’re grown-ups, we become cautious and less likely to try new things.’
Track my steps on a Sunday and you’ll often find me at a flower market, so I thought a floristry course would help me to tip-toe into this challenge. A quick introduction to everyone at my Covent Garden Academy of Flowers course and some, namely a lawyer who’d just quit her day job, are here to turn hobby into hustle, while others, like me, just want a creative outlet.
Learning how to condition roses – don’t take off the leaves at the top or they’ll look ‘naked’ – and how to create a hand-tied bouquet gave me the confidence to make my bestie a birthday bunch. After all, BYOB – that’s bring your own bouquet – is more bank balance-friendly than paying some else to do it for you.
Could ballet –a fitness big gun for improving your posture and strength – shake up my stale spin-class-only exercise regime? While I danced during stage school, I’ve since steered clear of classes, making pirouetting in public a no-go. The solution? One-to-one lessons with Pineapple Studio’s head of ballet, Maggie Patterson, who’s been teaching beginners and prima ballerinas for the past 35 years.
While I can hold my own in a New York-style fitness barre class, complete with weights, balls and bands, this was proper ballet. And although it was fun, it was as tough as an A-level maths class, with multiple moves to remember. While mindset coach Anna told me at the start of this ‘to try and ignore that inner critical voice’ and ‘put your energy into giving it a good try’, I quickly realised that for me, there was nothing soul-soothing about the Strictly-style spotting – a sort of Billy Elliot-type head-whipping – I had to do.
While I haven’t been back to the barre, I learned that some solitary tutoring could help you break the back of something new. The class – and how I was more Dumbo than Darcey Bussell – also gave me the balls to try beginners’ boxing. Punching over pliés every day, I say.
In the dough
I’m the can-cook-won’t-cook type, preferring to throw together simple salads rather than whip up three-course feasts for friends. But ditching a Deliveroo habit in favour of home-cooked meals has been said to be as good for the mind as it is the waistline, forcing you to down your tech tools and focus on one thing. And what better way to get me back in an apron than learning how to make God’s own food – pasta? Over three hours at the Enrica Rocca Cooking School we were taught how to measure, knead and work dough, and how to make a flurry of tasty, lick-the-spoon sauces.
Taking the time to make a new food from scratch has made me see how easy it is to climb out of a culinary rut and how mindful cooking can make you. I’ve even invested in a pasta maker and spend Sunday mornings rolling dough. Why? Well, when you’re having to concentrate on making watertight ravioli, your mind’s in the here and now, not on the to-be-returned ASOS packages piling up in your hallway.
I’d knitted with my grandmother years ago, so I thought rounding this off with something I’d be guaranteed ‘good at’ was a smart move. But my don’t-like-to-be-bad-at-anything-self had to swallow a humble pill. Knitting takes practice, and, importantly, patience – a quality of my knitting teacher, Nessa, I tested to the limit. I just couldn’t get the casting-on thing, but by the end of class, I’d caught a flow.
During the final of The Bachelorette, it wasn’t my phone I distractedly reached for, but my knitting needles. There’s something about your hands being busy that forces your mind to focus. And it makes sense that knitting has a meditative effect, providing a cheap way to give our busy brains a break. No wonder accountants and bankers fill the evening classes at Tea & Crafting – the process is repetitive and rhythmic, and your mind can’t whirl while you purl. I now knit for 10 minutes before bed to help me switch off – and with a third of women regularly reaching for their needles, I’m in good company.
Not only has this experiment improved my dinner-party chat but I feel as if I’m learning again and can manage stress better. Yes, people may look at you a little strangely when you pull out a pair of needles on the Gatwick Express, but I suggest you knit on, safe in the knowledge that it’s good for your health.