Confessions of a dissectologist (aka puzzler)

This week the Tranquility by Tuesday Challenge is focusing on Rule #9: Effortful before effortless. Whenever a spot of potential leisure time appears, doing something that requires a little mindfulness first can vastly improve the experience of downtime.

I have always liked puzzles. But about two years ago, I decided to adopt jigsaw puzzles as my “effortful” fun of choice. I aim to generally have a puzzle going — usually a 1000-piece one though I have done some 500- and 750-piece ones to shake things up.

In these years of doing dozens of puzzles, I have had a few revelations. First, puzzles are a really good form of non-screen fun. Unlike a lot of board games, you can do them alone or with another person. If you’ve got a group together (say, family visiting; renting a beach house with two other families), they’re good evening entertainment because people can come and go, so if someone has to go put a kid to bed, they don’t wind up being unable to participate.

(Another revelation, which as I think about it makes sense mathematically: 500 piece puzzles don’t take half as long as 1000-piece puzzles; it’s probably 25 percent or less of the time. There are just a lot fewer places for pieces to go!)

Puzzles don’t require a ton of energy. You just sit there while you’re doing them! Figuring out where pieces go requires some mental energy but it is a vastly different form of mental energy than those of us in information-oriented jobs tend to use. It is quite possible to get into a flow as you’re pulling together a section and a lot of the pieces start to fit. Very satisfying!

As with anything one spends a lot of time doing, I have developed some preferences. And perhaps some snobbery. First, I like bigger puzzle pieces. I also don’t like ones that are flimsy (the established big name companies in the puzzle world such as White Mountain and Buffalo Games tend to be better about this). I like glossy rather than matte finishes. And, a key thing for me, the puzzle needs to feel fairly doable. Think relaxing, not frustrating. Giant patches of blue sky make finishing a puzzle tedious. It’s helpful to be able to look at a piece and know roughly where it goes. Not exactly where it goes — I did a puzzle of Jane Austen book covers recently that felt a bit like cheating since it was immediately obvious where every piece went — but roughly.

Sometimes images that are beautiful on their own do not make for good puzzles. My husband, who knows I like puzzles, but doesn’t really do puzzles himself, gave me a puzzle version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for Christmas. I started it, but gave it a DNF about 20 percent of the way in. There was just too much of the same blue and swirl pattern. I switched to a kitschy ski village scene. Way worse art, but a much better puzzle.

Mostly because I can get into the flow and lose track of time, I tend to not do puzzles during what I consider my work hours; twenty years into self-employment I have some pretty ingrained work rules for myself.* Instead, I tend to do them while the 3-year-old is watching a show, or after the kids have gone to bed, or if I have weekend downtime. In other words, I choose times when I would find it more challenging to work, or when I would prefer not to work. It really is a screen time substitute. And given that I spent 5 hours doing my puzzle during a busy week last week I’m glad it is a screen time substitute! I don’t think scrolling around online for those 5 hours would have been a better use of my time.

What’s your effortful fun of choice? Reading is no doubt my largest category by total hours, but puzzles might be in second place.

In other news: Looking for a book to read during your effortful fun time? Check out Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters — that is the book that contains all these rules we’ve been discussing over the last 9 weeks in the challenge.

*curiously, I will allow myself to play the piano during short work breaks. While I love playing the piano I tend not to be able to play for an hour without noticing that the time has passed!

Photo: Example of a good puzzle, in my opinion — colorful, no vast spaces of the same color, but some ambiguity in where a piece might go. 

17 thoughts on “Confessions of a dissectologist (aka puzzler)

  1. I feel like reading is the only effortful fun I do at home? I like a walk, love a yoga class, like working in the garden, but in those in between times, it’s always a book or a podcast. My work pals are all knitters – and I look on admiringly as they make the most gorgeous things, but I don’t have the desire to make anything myself. I do need to bring something to our hangouts though, maybe mending 🙂

    I’m a notorious puzzle hater, which makes people laugh. I’m smart, I’m a good urban navigator, have good spatial awareness (will that piece of furniture fit, etc) but puzzles stump me. I struggle with my son’s 100-piece puzzles, and he knows that Daddy is the puzzle guy. My mom and my husband do a puzzle every Christmas, and they love it, they just pick away at it, sometimes chatting, sometimes not, and have to be dragged away at some point.

    My son has been drawing at night after dinner, we look up pictures of sea creatures (he knows all the zones of the sea and what types of creatures live there, and we found a kids Ocean encylopaedia yesterday at the thrift shop) and he draws them. I’ll assist with the tricky bit. I’m a decent artist, and will happily doodle something alongside him, but I wouldn’t want to draw alone?

    We got a piano recently – a free upright going spare at my son’s music school – and my husband has been rediscovering playing and LOVING it. He’s been playing for 20 minutes in the evening, and for a guy with a serious phone game habit, it’s really nice to see him playing/enjoying himself so much.

    I watch very little TV, and almost wish I watched more of it? I never know what anyone is talking about, but I struggle to sit through a movie, and my sweet spot is not stupid but not gratuitously violent, which seems a tricky combo. So finding something I’d like to watch and actually watching it versus defaulting to my book might be effortful fun 🙂

    1. @Coree- you may be one of the few people looking to add more TV to your life! I keep saying I want to watch more basketball and here it is March madness already and I haven’t watched much all winter… oh well.

      1. It’s true! Statista tells me the average person in the UK watches 182 minutes a day! I might not even watch 182 minutes a month! I travel most weeks, and very occasionally watch something there, but only when my housemates are out. And sometimes my husband and I will watch a show, but the venn diagram of tv watching between us is limited. There’s no TV in the bedroom, which means I wouldn’t watch something while folding laundry etc.

        I’m an academic and I do think it’s funny when pals are like “we don’t even own a TV…” but then they’re always up to date on shows? Just buy a small TV, there’s no virtue in squinting at a laptop, it’s much more pleasant on a proper screen!

    2. I used to host crafternoons for my friends (hang on, I’ve just had an idea for my take-one-night-for-you-night) and yes, sometimes people did bring mending!

    3. I am the same way about tv! I don’t watch much at all and I don’t have a clue what’s going on in that sphere. It just doesn’t do anything for me, and there are so many other things I would rather be doing.

  2. I think writing is my favourite form of effortful fun? We went through a puzzle phase this winter, but I hate having it set up for days at a time. It starts to drive me crazy!
    Walking with friends is another great form of “effortful” fun. I actually find it easier to motivate myself to exercise when there is a social aspect involved so I feel like I’m checking multiple boxes at once…

    1. @Elisabeth – walking with friends is excellent effortful fun. And yep, it’s many boxes at once!

  3. I love puzzles, too. My husband and I usually have one going at home, and it’s nice to chat while or listen to a podcast while working on it. We also spend a week at the beach with his mom and brother’s family every summer, and we always have a puzzle going. We always complete one, but the dream every year is to finish two. Hasn’t happened yet, but it’s always something to shoot for!

  4. Gorgeous puzzle! I also like puzzles but they are currently out of rotation mostly because the table currently houses my kid’s foosball. I should move that!

    I’m trying to make more visual art and also dip into Duolingo for my leisure. Reading sometimes works but such an overlap with my actual job I’m not sure it counts…

    1. @Gwinne – thanks! Yep, I read a lot for work too, and so sometimes I like something that is very much not reading. Piano, walking, and puzzles all work and are better than looking at instagram…

  5. I’ve been meaning for ages to hand-embroider habiliments (detachable decorative features) for my medieval outfit and I’ve FINALLY settled on a pattern and style so I am all set for effortful fun for…oh, probably a year! My other effortful fun is planning hiking trips, often inspired by thing I see during the effortless fun of watching hiking youtube videos.

  6. For many years, I considered puzzles a waste of valuable reading time. But, during the early pandemic days, I started one, and something just clicked. It was the only thing that really reduced my anxiety, especially combined with music and podcasts. 3 years later, I’m still doing them.
    I recently discovered the Badge Bomb and Surf Shack brands – very nice!

  7. That’s a beautiful jigsaw! I am late to the game but am about half way through my first jigsaw as a grown up right now and I am loving it! The brand is wasjig. The picture on the box is not the one on the puzzle, but of the same room from someone else’s point of view. So clever! I’ve been told they do variations like the picture on the box sets a scene but then the actual puzzle is of what happens next! I find it really calming.

  8. Laura, I think you and Amantha Imber (Australian podcaster that you were on at some stage) gave me “permission” to pursue puzzles and not just do 1 at Christmas time as a special treat. After reading TBT, I bought a puzzle board so I could pack it up and it is now my go-to effortful fun. I really hear you with having preferences and the puzzle being challenging, but achievable. Thanks for getting me back into puzzles, I love them!

  9. I also love puzzles and did that same puzzle that you have a picture of in this post! I got that one from my MIL for Christmas. That brand – Galison – is my favorite. I really love their whimsical city scenes but the plant one was fun, too! I am working on an Eiffel Tower scene with lots of blue sky but it has still been soothing and I actually started with the blue sky part to get it out of the way!

  10. I’ve also discovered how much I enjoy puzzles while listening to audiobooks, or podcasts (shout out to Before Breakfast and BOBW!) I feel like I’m getting two forms of quality fun at the same time.

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