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.