Gentle soothing activities for a very tired person
March 5, 2024 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Over the next few months I will finally have a bit of a break in responsibilities at my demanding job. I feel intensely burned out. I'm interested in getting some ideas for things I can do with my extra time that would be low-effort/learning curve and hopefully somewhat restorative.

During the pandemic I regularly put in 80+ hour weeks with a lot of stress and time pressure as part of a job with a lot of public-facing pandemic response. As the that work has started to ebb I'm finding myself extremely fatigued with all of the symptoms of burnout. I really took it easy during the holidays and took a nice vacation, but within a week of being back at work I'm feeling that fatigue and low motivation again.

I often find myself "double-screening" (putting something on the TV while also dithering around on my phone) when I have free time and this does not leave me feeling very restored.

I'm interested in any suggestions for very chill, soothing activities to give me something restorative to do when I have free chunks of time during workdays. Key criteria are:

- No major investment in materials or learning to get started (e.g., I'm not interested in buying a piano and starting piano lessons)
- Don't have to travel to another location or deal with a schedule (throwing pottery seems cool but I don't want to have to deal with securing regular studio time and traveling to the studio)
- I read and write a TON at my job so I'm also a little burned out on reading at the moment

I'm not quite in a financial situation to just take unpaid time off yet (although this is something I am interested in doing) and I'm feeling just too compromised in my energy to want to start a new gig. I go to the gym for running and weights at least 3x per week and do all the normal healthy lifestyle stuff: cook most of my own meals with lots of veggies and fiber, good sleep, got a physical with all my blood levels/meds checked. I live in a walkable area and average 7,000ish steps per day.
posted by forkisbetter to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I was looking for an easy to pick up and put down, screen free activity and ended up getting into coloring, big time. My ADHD loves seeing the immediate progress and pictures come to life. It's super easy to get started - just pick up some markers and a coloring book that looks interesting from Amazon. The dollar store sometimes has decent supplies and books as well.

One warning however, you may quickly find yourself sucked into the wonderful world of expensive art supplies and next thing you realize you're wanting to buy $300 professional grade alcohol marker sets with a million colors... and then of course you need some way to store them.. its a slippery, albeit colorful, slope!
posted by cgg at 9:30 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Look up "Zentangle" a lot of stressed people find simple joys in somewhat structured doodling.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:33 AM on March 5 [10 favorites]

Something expressive and also super tactile/body-focused like working with modeling clay or writing poetry long hand or singing or, like, painting with very large brush strokes on very large canvases. Yes? Cooking is great for this, BTW. Teach yourself to bake or something! You could also learn woodworking, furniture restoration, etc which may cost more $$ investment but will also give you a fantastic return on your time spent. (But yeah I hear you if you don't want that kind of pressure on yourself.)

When you can regularly slip into a flow state while doing self-expressive activities that engage you in a sensate, bodily way, that's what's going to help you. (At least, that's what helps me.)
posted by MiraK at 9:34 AM on March 5

Karaoke practice? Like, singing along with songs in a genuine effort to get better at singing them.

I sometimes find myself getting too judgy over this (my voice... is what it is), but mostly it's just good harmless stress-reducing fun.
posted by humbug at 9:34 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]

I have a dog so I walk a a lot. I find walking in my neighborhood with a podcast, audiobook, or music to be relaxing. If I can be in an area with lots of trees, even better.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:40 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

Birdwatching or messing around in ponds or woods would be low-equipment, low-commitment activities.

Is there a local nature center with activities? We have one close to us that has yoga in the park (weather permitting,) plein-air painting, guided trail walks, and a labyrinth. They have had occasional forest bath walks, I would love to do that if I didn't have other claims on my time...
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:58 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Colouring. There are lots of mandalas and other colouring pages on Pinterest,
Hexagon paper piecing is a nice way to gradually make a project. A couple of scraps of fabric, needle and thread. You can buy the hexes or print and cut them out. Can be done in the car, even.
posted by Enid Lareg at 10:00 AM on March 5

In similar circumstances I dabbled in origami, which can be as involved or not as you want and very accessible with video tutorials and even printer paper. I then went to crochet and knitting - okay, good yarn costs a bit, but the stress relief is worth it and you're left with something useful (unlike purely ornamental origami).
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:07 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I just lie down on the floor. Just for 5 minutes. I don't necessarily meditate or anything, just stare at the ceiling. Obviously your back (or other body parts) might not like this but do not underestimate the power of just zoning the fuck out.
posted by mskyle at 10:09 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]

Forest bathing.

Spending time with friends. What friend do you love to talk to? Reach out to them and say, "I'm feeling burned out a lot lately and could really use some mellow restorative time with a friend. Do you have time to do something this weekend?"

I always enjoyed going to the movies by myself. Better than double screening at home, I found it super absorbing.
posted by vunder at 10:11 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Crocheting is easy to pick up and put down, and making something simple and repetitive like a scarf or blanket is easy to do and has a low learning curve. I also find that if I’m tense, my crochet is tense and tight, so it forces me to relax my body.
posted by MadamM at 10:23 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]

Hammocks? DIY kits; how to weave or sew your own.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:30 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

I feel like some of the answers to this question (which is not the same as yours) might be of interest. I say this partly because I was going to suggest a couple of my own answers from there: doodling and (yes, really) playing with dripping candle wax.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 10:36 AM on March 5

Listen to full albums instead of individual tracks, or works like symphonies or operas, music structured to have longer and more harmonious emotive flow.

Love the lying on the floor suggestion - do not discount it. Also try sitting in the grass, or simply being still in places and positions just a bit different from normal for chunks of ten to twenty minutes. Lay on your bed backwards with your legs propped on the headboard. Sit at a different chair at your kitchen table. Yoga mat on the bathroom floor, run a hot shower and lie down while you steam. Put the couch cushions on the floor and sprawl on them.

Zentangle is enduringly popular, but another term I think you will find interesting is “neurographic art”. Essentially it’s a form of art therapy that is very accessible to all skill levels, but you can also use the techniques to make more figural images that are really lovely, or use it as a low stakes way to explore different media.
posted by Mizu at 10:38 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]

If you have a surface that you can keep occupied, jigsaw puzzles. There's a wide range of difficulty and you can pick images you find pleasing to contemplate. Also a wide range of prices, including practically nothing (thrift shop).
posted by praemunire at 10:40 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]

Apologies for not reading to the end and seeing that you're looking for workday break activities. I have done:

- a daily yoga practice, for example from Yoga with Adriene.
- doodle a day or a drawing a day practice
- a daily decluttering task (less restorative but the benefit makes me proud)

I like to do these with a low key accountability group which gives me the connection feeling.
posted by vunder at 10:42 AM on March 5

Best answer: I've said it before but I love Paint by Number, it hits a crafting-but-no-thinking spot in me that lets me completely zone out or get really into the detail. I work from home so I get up during my work day and paint for like 20 minutes and then all I have to do is wash the brush which takes like 15 seconds.

Really the only supply you need is like a cup of water, though I did end up buying better brushes because the ones that come with are super cheap.

I've hung a couple up in the house but mostly i just have a stack of completed canvases in the closet because it's the act of doing it that I enjoy, not the end product.
posted by magnetsphere at 11:07 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Along the lines of other suggestions, maybe papercrafting? You should be able to find plenty of patterns online (free or paid). Only other input needed would be paper/a way to print, and maybe glue or tape.
posted by Teadog at 11:26 AM on March 5

If you're interested in jigsaw puzzles but don't have space, I have a puzzle caddy that lets you store a half finished puzzle and groups of pieces that aren't put together but are sorted. I wrap it up and slide it under the couch, then slide it out when the table is not in use. Something like this one.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:32 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]

Listen to a chunk of stand-up comedy and consider how it could have been done better.
posted by brainwane at 11:33 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Gardening (on your balcony if you don't have a yard). Maybe some veggies since you like to cook with them, tomatoes are a good starting point.
posted by Eyelash at 11:39 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Do you use your phone to talk or listen to content while you are walking? I want a suggest walks where you don't use your phone and, even more, where you use your phone at home. Even a brisk 15-minute walk without your phone might be somewhat restorative.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:42 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Embroidery--it's so soothing, vaguely artistic and not as hard on the hands as other textile practices, in my experience. Also, very, very easy to pick up.
posted by lizard2590 at 12:19 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Love the paint by numbers suggestion! Just wanted to share this company Chronicle Books that makes "mindful" paint by numbers kits that actually look pretty cool.
posted by forkisbetter at 12:24 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think Chronicle Books makes p-b-n with Frank Lloyd Wright designs and other interesting options, but I'm finding them on other sites. Galison page. Since 'embroidery' is a best answer: there's an unrelated Mindful Crafts making embroidery (dotty example) and other handicraft kits.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:28 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

My friend Del makes mandalas you can print and colour in.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:30 PM on March 5

One thing that really helps soothe my nerves is the genre called "Ambient Music" or "Ambient Environments" For example, Brian Eno's body of work, like "Thursday Afternoon" . There are a bunch of different ambient tracks easy to access on You Tube; the best ones have very long playing times and no commercials.
posted by effluvia at 1:59 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]

I prescribe myself some nature when I'm stressed or exhausted, with my favorite medicine being looking at clouds for at least three minutes a day. If there are no clouds, or if they're those fiendish stratus opacus, then look at leaves dangling or branches dripping with water, or what have you.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:23 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]

This music writer named Ted Gioia has a substack and at the end of the year, he put out a list of his top 100 favorite recordings of the year, and the range of genres was just WILD. I don't think I'd heard of a single song before, and the range of genres was mind-blowing: Croatian bluegrass, synth drone, alt-folk-rock (I'm making these up from memory). I had recently bought a very nice set of headphones and something I've been doing is cueing up one song a day, closing my eyes, just listening really hard, without doing anything else. It's quickly turned into one of my favorite parts of the day - I've never listened to music like that before, so carefully, without the lens of trying to figure out whether I liked it or wanted to listen to more of it or if it was actually good or if it's my taste. I'm actually not letting myself add any of the songs to playlists, or to listen to any more music by those artists, until I'm done, because I want the experience to stay pure.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 3:55 PM on March 5 [7 favorites]

Embroidery is harder than crochet if you want a vote there. But my real suggestion is walking in nature. There is research about the body's different physiological response to natural settings as compared to city settings. You may have this covered via your running (I couldn't tell if it's trail running or a gym treadmill or what).
posted by Spokane at 5:43 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

I also suggest jigsaw puzzles. I use leftover cardboard from deliveries to stow them away. I will often do puzzles while ‘watching’ tv. Impressionist painting puzzles are engrossing, calming and just challenging enough to take a long time.
posted by bq at 6:38 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Hi! We have extremely similar stress and exhaustion sources - to the point that I’m wondering if we’re colleagues - and my solution has been wheel-thrown pottery and having a wheel at home, plus just going outside and digging a hole or watching bees in my garden while overwhelmed. In the worst part of covid response I once transplanted a rhubarb plant while facilitating a training on Zoom, because otherwise I was going to lose my shit.

These things may not be possible for you, but what I think has worked about them is that they a) are tactile b) use repetitive motion that’s not too strenuous c) accomplish a tangible thing that is also low-stakes and d) have absolutely no relationship with my job. What can you do that has similar characteristics? Handbuilding something with clay? Knitting or crocheting? Making paper collage cards to send to all your friends and associates?
I’m sorry you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, and I’ll bet several people here would love a report back on what ends up helping.
posted by centrifugal at 10:45 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Also suggesting jigsaws. Something about the sorting of edge pieces I find relaxing. Larger and thicker pieces are better, and not a huge piece count - I stop around 650. Map ones are good, or here are some I have enjoyed: Anne of Green Gables; bookshelves; Whitby.

I was going to say cooking, specifically stocks, soups, risottos and other slow tasks, and baking, but it looks as if you have that covered.
posted by paduasoy at 11:47 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

Adding knitting also. I can see you have a couple of recs for that already, but more for crochet. I find knitting more relaxing, and there's not much of a learning curve for garter stitch.
posted by paduasoy at 12:57 AM on March 6

I often find myself "double-screening" (putting something on the TV while also dithering around on my phone) when I have free time and this does not leave me feeling very restored.

I used to love watching TV as an escape and a way to give my brain a break from my fairly intensive schedule. But over time, as phones got more common I started finding myself "watching" shows without actually paying any attention. Double screening was totally ruining my ability to enjoy television and find that solace. Even going back to older shows that were familiar friends didn't cause me to focus and pay attention to one thing.

Then, while at a friend's house, we watched a K-drama called Happiness. Totally cool zombie apocalypse type show with a killer female lead and a ton of interesting stuff going on. The catch was it was only available with subtitles and no dubbing. After the first episode, I was hooked. The combination of a totally new concept and having to read the subtitles forced me to pay attention in a way that watching English language tv did not. I couldn't look at my phone while watching because I would MISS something.

Since then, K-Dramas are my go-to for relaxing television. There are a ton of them out there that are low-stress and entertaining and a lot of them have very reassuring messages like, it's okay to rest and your mental health is important. Granted there's also a lot of cold unfeeling bosses that turn out to be super sweet once he falls in love with his plucky secretary. But that's kind of comforting in its own way. Recent ones that were really impactful for me have been Castaway Diva, Since this is my 19th Life, Mystic Pop-up Noodle Bar, and Mr. Queen.
posted by teleri025 at 8:49 AM on March 6 [3 favorites]

Your comment about walking 7000 steps a day makes me think you're wearing a smart watch or other tracking device. While this can be a motivating health behavior, it can also make us feel like we are always in productivity mode. So a walk isn't relaxing, but part of Doing Health, yet one more thing on my infinite To Do List For Work and Life.

Sometimes tracking movement and leisure makes our relaxation just another part of hustle culture. Same with sleep, if you're also tracking and attempting to optimize sleep.

Sleep, movement, and fitness are all super important, but measuring them can also make them less relaxing and restorative. That might not be true for you, but what does it look like to leave the smart watch/fitness tracker at home for a dog walk, for example? What does it look like to stop tracking everything? What does it look like to decide to sit around for a few hours with a book, away from devices?
posted by bluedaisy at 11:33 AM on March 6 [4 favorites]

Have you seen this question?

Can it be a passive activity to be restorative? Like take a break by sitting back and intentionally listening to a song or two with eyes closed? Or a simple stretching routine?
posted by eyeball at 11:07 PM on March 6

Best answer: N-thing crochet. I started learning crochet this summer because my 9 year old wanted to learn and needed help. It’s improved my evenings and sleep a lot as I’ve stopped double-screening. It’s a great way to relax especially if you consider it an activity and aren’t invested in a perfect end product (most of my finished work is suited best for fabric recycling, but I do see enough improvement to be satisfying).

I started with Sigoni Macaroni’s free 7 day class. She also has just started a podcast about crochet as a tool against burnout.
posted by Kriesa at 3:24 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]

Another vote for puzzles, with a couple of additions : I put on full albums and listen to them while puzzling . Those two activities together are great, and album length is about when my neck and eyes start to bug me so it acts as a timer. Also if you have cats like I do, you can buy a big piece of hardboard at Lowe’s and just lay it over the top when not puzzling (we put a couple of cookbooks on top of the board).
posted by caviar2d2 at 8:27 PM on March 7

You'd have to buy it, but it's a lot cheaper than a piano: Lego. Sorting the bricks is soothing; following the steps doesn't take much thought; if you make a mistake, it's easy to undo; and the end result is guaranteed to be good. There are a lot of interesting Lego sets aimed at adults these days.

Another vote for nature. Do you have anywhere close by with birds to watch or listen to? If so, that makes a nice break. If not, you might see if you can find a podcast or YouTube channel dedicated to nature in your part of the world, and see if you find it soothing to listen to it while you do other things (including work, if work is not All Meetings All The Time).

Even though you're burnt out on reading, you might find that comics hit differently. Graphic novels, manga, Asterix, Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes, New Yorker cartoons...?
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:13 AM on March 8

My sister picked up watercolor painting and that fits a lot of what you're talking about. You could easily get started with $50 in materials - a little kit with paints, a pallet, a few brushes, a board, some paper, and a cup of water. It's the sort of thing that can be done in 15 or 20 minute increments easily - and even just 5-10 minutes if you'd rather.

Something like this paint kit with this or this small pad of watercolor paper, along with a small cup of some kind for water, would be super-portable and all you need to get started.
posted by flug at 3:45 AM on March 8

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