What Your Doldrums May Actually Be Telling You

What Your Doldrums May Actually Be Telling You

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

Have you ever entered the doldrums? Not the literal doldrums—the tedious places at sea where winds are few and sailors struggled to escape. I mean those times in life when nothing at all feels interesting. 

During these times, I listlessly ignore that stack of books waiting to be read. I scroll aimlessly through Netflix, YouTube, and social media. The projects that I’ve been working on seem lifeless and deadening.

These seasons of despondency surface from time to time. In the past, I would take them as a sign to PANIC: what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with the world? Am I doomed to eternal apathy? 

But these days I’m more stoical. This time, for example, I developed a jigsaw puzzle habit.

The Deeper Meaning of Jigsaw Puzzles

As habits go, there are, of course, worse ones than puzzles.

But it still came as a surprise when I finished a recent puzzle and found myself jonesing for more pieces to slot together. After all, I hadn’t thought about jigsaw puzzles for decades.

Being obsessed with a new interest is standard for most multipods, but I found myself wondering where exactly all this came from.

Was it the satisfaction of watching a difficult task gradually reduce in scope until the final piece slots into place? Or the pleasure of spending quiet time with my partner, chatting and joking idly as we endlessly grapple with identical-looking bits of sky? Do I just like creating pretty pictures?!

Well, it’s all of these. But let’s go deeper.

Sometimes We Know What We Need

It’s ironic that something as self-evidently dull as jigsaw puzzles could be part of a solution to the doldrums.

But this weird new interest also shed an interesting light on everything else I had been spending my time on. Most of it is spent with a computer—writing, coding, creating, or wasting my life away pointlessly on some website or other.

I realised that, for me, the joy of a puzzle isn’t simply that it’s fun on its own, or that it’s a bonding activity, or any of the other reasons above. It’s that I was doing something physical.

In fact, most of my new interests in recent months have been explicitly non-digital: swing dancing, jigsaw puzzles and exercising. Clearly I am subconsciously yearning for a little more variety in my already-varied life.

This reminds me of what my body does when it craves a particular nutrient that it’s not currently getting: it sends complex signals to my brain which manifest as a craving for a food that fulfills that need, and an aversion to whatever I’ve been eating a lot of lately.

Just as my body occasionally says: “Neil, for crying out loud, PLEASE EAT A VEGETABLE”, my brain sometimes says “Neil, you’d better go dance or do a jigsaw puzzle, because IF I LOOK AT ONE MORE SCREEN”…

Sometimes, then, these doldrums can reveal these deeper cravings. Part of me was desperate to move more, or build something physical, and it manifested as a weird desire to do a jigsaw puzzle.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is: When I’m feeling stuck, try something completely different! It might seem redundant to tell multipotentialites to try something new—but sometimes there are whole types of activity we forget about.

My idea of something new is often small—coding a different website, watching a new series—when my body is really trying to tell me “DO SOMETHING UTTERLY DIFFERENT”.

Small Variety Might Be Enough

Sometimes, these cravings don’t require massive changes. Perhaps a subtle shade of variety will do. For me, this might mean writing fiction instead of non-fiction, coding games instead of websites, or telling funny jokes instead of the usual ones.

After all, there may be good reasons we ignore entire domains of activity. A classic example is that many people are put off physical activity after years of hating PE at school—but years later, we might be surprised to learn we have a great time at a dance class. Or that we can play a musical instrument. Or code an app. Or even learn to be better at maths!

But don’t forget, it’s okay to be bad at things. If your body is craving a whole new thing—don’t be afraid to try it!

Of course, the causes of low feelings and doldrums are many and varied, and lack of variety is only one possible cause.

But next time I’m stuck in the listless doldrums, I’m going to look at how I’ve been spending my time, and ask myself if there’s a whole metaphorical nutrient I’ve been neglecting.

Your Turn

What whole-new interests have you explored lately? Have you ever got unstuck by taking up something completely different? Share with the community in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

30 Comments

  1. Elise says:

    You hit this problem exactly on the head Neil! Unfortunately, I am a victim of the doldrums more frequently than I’d care to admit but my solution is to do something different—-take a different route home, eat a different cuisine, reverse my usual schedule: eat breakfast for dinner or even more daring, do something I know I should do but have avoided for weeks, months, even years. Surprise myself. The shock of it often bumps me out of my rut or at the very least, makes me feel better, good even. Thanks for the reinforcement.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Elise! I love this list, particularly “eat breakfast for dinner”… as a massive fan of breakfast I might just do that anyway :D Surprising yourself is a great way to put it, too – will think on that for sure :)

  2. This happens to me when I’ve hit natural stopping points in the various projects I’m working on. I hit a point where I just don’t want to do anything – and also, the guilt sets in about thinking of starting something else to tide me over until I get that spark to pick up one of the half-started projects out there.

    I’m working on releasing that guilt about it and enjoy the fact that I tinker with so many things – and when they come to a conclusion I feel a huge sense of accomplishment.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s really interesting, Drezz… I’m experiencing that right now with a mini-project I’m working on, where the initial momentum has worn off and I feel like doing something else. Letting go of that guilt and continuing towards completion on on something seems so much healthier :)

  3. Leire Saldivar says:

    In my day to day I’m a very analytical person, I code, write, make strategies and I’m starting my own digital company, and when I feel boredom I always need something phisical, that’s how I discover yoga and in the last year it’s been really helpful, but in the last month I also like to take a walk with my dog and just enjoy the movement and the nature :) sometimes it’s just what I needed to find the clarity to keep going

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Perfect Leire! It’s all about self-knowledge of what we need, I think. Just a reminder to take a step back and ask “what DO I need right now?” can be enough :)

  4. Jeremy B. says:

    Started saxophone lessons a month ago. Loving the use of my breath, the physicality of developing my embouchure and the feel of holding the instrument in my hands.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      ahhh I’m so jealous, I’ve wanted to pick up the sax for YEARS. Someday..! Glad you’re enjoying the different side of expressing yourself!

  5. Rhonda says:

    I totally resonate with this! Recently I started playing the ukulele and was terrible until I played enough to improve. Then I started sewing again and even picked up still life sketching and I have NEVER been a visual artist. Again, improving! All these urges came right out of the doldrums. I don’t know exactly what need I am meeting, but I do feel more energized.

  6. Ynne says:

    I feel like I ghost-wrote this. Did I?

    My interests are somewhat similar; replace writing with (digital) art/design and coding with “genuinely trying to learn to code.” And my new pulls also include some, surprisingly not boring, types of exercise; but it’s only been about 3 days since I couldn’t stop thinking about thet jigsaw puzzle we have stocked under our coffee table! I’ll take this article as a sign to take it out. (Though I’d disagree about it being weird or dull!)

    I love this article as it’s an (for me, anyways!) always needed reminder that we should listen to our own bodies and minds more closely. It can be hard when mental health stuff gets in the way (am I just anxious to leave my comfort zone for a new scary interest I’ll be bad at? is this just an episode of worsened depression that makes me lack interest in anything?), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      hahaha, thanks Ynne! I like that it resonated quite so much with you. And yes, I think the comment about jigsaws reflects my past self’s prejudices more than any objective reality :D

      I’m totally with you on the difficulty of listening to ourselves, especially when mental health stuff is complicating the process, but even if we listen to ourselves imperfectly it’s better than missing the signals entirely, I think. A little bit of something new can be very refreshing.

  7. Marcelo says:

    Great ideas!
    I’m definitely in the middle of a doldrum right now. Lately, I’ve been randomly doing some artistic/physical activities in order to clear my mind a bit. This article makes me think about the possibility on focus in the idea of exploring something totally different of what I’m into now.

    Cheers from Argentina!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Awesome Marcelo! I love that even on Puttylike we sometimes need to be reminded to check out things that are COMPLETELY different to our usual areas – even novelty can become routine if we just skip between the same few interests. Let us know what new ideas you come up with :)

  8. Anssi Turunen says:

    Wow, this really hit me. It’s the same thing at the gym – often your bench press won’t get better by doing it more. Instead you need to develop the completely opposite muscle group.

  9. Lauren says:

    Jigsaw puzzles are the best! I chose the jigsaw puzzle jar in the shop before life.

    Roll on 28 October :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      ahhh this comment took me by surprise! thanks Lauren, you really made me smile this morning :D roll on 28 October indeed… I’m SO impatient for the book to be out already. Glad you and I share the jigsaw addiction right now too :D

  10. Maryske says:

    Oh dear, jigsaw puzzles. I share the occasional craving for it. But as a multipod, this has led to designing (and having printed) my own jigsaw puzzles, which are much more fun to do than any generic one you can buy in the store. So at times I get them out, do a bunch of them, and then, well, they end up in the closet again for months or longer.
    For yes, if there was one thing that resonated here, it was that line of, “you’d better go dance or do a jigsaw puzzle, because IF I LOOK AT ONE MORE SCREEN”…
    I really do like all the fun and creative stuff I can do on my computer. But at times it almost feels like I’m a screen junkie…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad it’s not just me, Maryske. Most of my interests are screen-based and it’s so hard to think beyond it sometimes. I’m trying not to think about designing my own jigsaws as that seems like a rabbit hole I’ll go WAAAAY too far down (though thanks for alerting me to the possibility, haha :p)

      • Maryske says:

        Oh, you can do it just with a simple (beautiful or funny or…) computer picture of a decent size; then you can order one online in five minutes and have it ready to piece together about 7 to 10 days later, ranging from 125 to 1000 pieces. (Well, at least that’s what’s on offer where I get them.) However, making intricate collages to have as a picture for your puzzle is far more appealing for me… and of course, that takes hours and hours of screen time… :( (And to think that *I* feel like a screenjunkie sometimes – me, who doesn’t even own a smartphone… :-o)

        Btw, sometimes I get the impression you and I might be twins who got separated at birth or so. Everything you write here on puttylike is so incredibly recognizable…!!

        Anyway, if you get tired of doing jigsaw puzzles the ordinary way, feel free to drop me line. I’ve invented some more challenging ways to piece together my all-too-familiar favourites. Might help you, too, to stay clear from the loved/hated screen a little longer! :-)

  11. Ginger says:

    Great post. You had me at doldrums. I have a few ideas, now I need the confidence to just try it and move forward. A puzzle sounds fun. While we’re piecing together the image, certain things may piece together in our minds.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I love that approach, Ginger, I never even considered the way in which our thoughts might parallel the process of piecing together the puzzle! But that sort of gradual-coming-together is a big part of the satisfaction for me, for sure.

  12. SamP says:

    I really like this idea, going to try it. I also find I waste a lot of time watching netflix aimlessly, because I’m not sure which one of my projects to start on! There’s an inertia that I need overcome to make a decision and get started…

    Also yay for Swing dancing! I recently tried it, as a shy introvert I found it slightly terrifying, but really enjoyed it, especially because it was something new and different!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yeah, swing dancing is tough – I like to dance but doing it ‘properly’ is hard when you’re feeling pressured to dance correctly with a stranger. Really fun when you get into it though – as you say, particularly because it’s so different to what I normally do!

  13. Neil Ami says:

    Yes! There is a part of us that knows what we need, even though the doldrums and shifting interests may not seem to make sense at the time.

    Jigsaw puzzles, for me, are a reminder that all our seemingly disparate projects will eventually come together over a lifetime to form an intricate whole.

    https://neilami.com/2019/09/06/watching-my-toddler-do-puzzles/

  14. Cristi says:

    I amb learning guitar while being a pianist, I thought it would be easier but no, and my mind surprises at every new step I learn. I change my bedroom furniture after reading an article on Feng Shui, and now I can’t wait to get my jigsaw puzzle and try!

  15. Nina says:

    Even though I had it on the backburner for days, I’m so glad I made myself finally read this article and the comments! For me, it’s been a long time since all of my hobbies disappeared. It’s partially because of my long-term depression during when I gave up on them due to apathy. Then, I fell off the wagon and started facing the same issue discussed here. I’ve been trying mentally to get back to some old stuff, and some new which were all the same, more or less, for a long time. Then suddenly, when I felt called to some new experiences and/or events that I haven’t thought about very often or for a very long time, I felt strange energy and enthusiasm. I have been practicing this my way, in those terms I mentioned. For example, I attended expressive integrative art therapy a couple of days ago (I still don’t know how to define it precisely :D ), and plan to continue. I have the itch to go hiking, too. Also, I’ve been obsessed with a new interest lately, which are my Clifton Strengths(Finder)’s reports and other resources. As I’m committing to the completely new things, I’m finding how I’m having it easier and easier to do the same with the old ones. I have been struggling to prioritize stuff, and I’ve been feeling restless, on top of that, which is due to my struggles with starting to work and earn money online. But, I’ve found two packs on the meditation app called Headspace which addresses those issues and started using it today. : :)

  16. Andy Mort says:

    Yes Neil! I’ve never considered the communication of my doldrums before. For me it’s just a subtle shift of scenery that’s required to kick things on. Doing something different can bring clarity to the place where stodginess and stagnation takes hold. And as you say, when that thing is physical, and involves movement, it shifts physiology which has an impact on mental state. Certainly true for me. Thanks for articulating this man!

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