Make Time for Joy

I share a January tradition with friends to choose a word of intent for the rest of the year. We share our word, a little bit about why and how we might live up to it, and then check in with each other later. My word for 2022 was joy.

I came to joy after working with a new therapist at the start of the year who helped me realize the importance of self-care and who suggested I track my joy regularly. When I began my tracking, I sometimes felt like I was having “good days” and “stressful days.” After a few weeks, I noticed that I could have “stressful days” with moments of joy, and I could have “good days” with moments of stress. With practice, I began to see when I was low on joy and started to see that making time for joy could help with an especially hard day.

Finding and acting on your joy

If you’re feeling low on joy in your life (or you’re not finding it almost every day), try these three tips:

Take the time to identify what you enjoy

Or even what makes you feel better on a stressful day, if those are different lists of things. This might take a few minutes, or a few hours. I’ve seen Olga Phoenix’s Self Care Wheel in many contexts and it was a helpful reminder that I already had a long list of things that brought me joy:

By myself

  • Read a book
  • Listen to a podcast or an audiobook
  • Listen to music (with or without dancing)
  • Play a video game
  • Exercise (whether taking a 30 minute walk or 30 seconds of plank)
  • Make coffee
  • Cook (for myself or others)
  • Do a jigsaw puzzle
  • Make some art (drawing, painting, paper-craft, etc.)
  • Learn something new
  • Give myself a treat (e.g. a piece of good chocolate)
  • Donate (goods, money, or service)
  • Do something for someone else

With someone

  • Have a conversation
  • Share a meal
  • Play a game together
  • Watch or listen to something together
  • Make a plan for something (a project, a vacation, etc.)
  • Act on a plan for something (a project, a vacation, etc.)
  • Learn something new

In the workplace

  • Set boundaries, including taking time for breaks
  • Gain enough context to feel confident
  • Make time to focus on activities
  • Build or strengthen connections with others
  • Help other people feel supported
  • Reflect on my past performance
  • Set goals for the future
  • Share what I’ve learned
  • Say No when needed (and maintain a healthy workload)
  • Learn something new

Make the time to do those things if they aren’t happening automatically

When I say make time I could also be saying take time because you’ll need to do a little bit less of something else. You can schedule this ahead of time (put it on your calendar!) or decide to take action when you’re noticing your lack of joy. I often use part of my lunchtime or between dinner and bedtime for every-day moments. I also take vacation (staycation) or mental health days for longer investments in myself. I take sick days when I’m sick, but I need to be healthy to fully benefit from joyful activities.

Find shortcuts to make your joy happen

Sometimes I think about a project I’d like to make. It’ll be great, and I’ll be so happy when it’s done! When I have an hour of time to myself, I want to jump in and make progress, but I usually have a fair amount of pre-work. I need to get my materials together, and I might need to do some research. I’ve found myself yak shaving1 for hours instead of doing things that bring me joy when I need it the most, and I recommend avoiding this situation!

There are a few things you can do to help: first, give yourself credit for the prep work. Here’s a specific example from earlier in the year.

The bright idea of making your own lamp

I wanted to make a nice light for my office, so I was able to break it down into several joyful aspects:

  1. Figure out what the lamp should look like,
  2. Design my lamp,
  3. Obtain the necessary materials,
  4. Construct the thing,
  5. Mount the lamp

I would never have enough time to do all four of those things in one break, one sitting, or one day, so I broke it up over time. I figured out what I wanted it to look like one evening after dinner, and designed it on another night. I took a week staycation and went shopping, managed construction, and mounted it over four days. I’m really pleased with how it turned out, and I had five separate moments of joy to celebrate. I was also able to slot each of those activities into the ideal times: small interruptible tasks between conversations and family activities, longer mental and physical activities during longer opportunities, and shorter physical activities during shorter moments.

A photo of my office wall, with a large wooden lamp running across the top of the wall. It lights up the room, including three canvas prints below it and a corkboard full of artwork. Below that is a blue couch with two side tables.
My finished wood lamp, mounted in my office. It uses LED strip lights on the top and bottom and lights up the full room nicely!

This is a privileged position to take, but I like to surround myself with these opportunities so I can easily begin. I have some notes and drafts for blog posts that I go back to or edit. I have art supplies that only take a minute to set up. I have a couple of jigsaw puzzles that I haven’t assembled just yet. At that point, it doesn’t matter which of those things I would be happiest doing — doing any of them is better than nothing — and if I have to decide what I’m going to do, I might not do anything. That is also where scheduling your joy can be helpful. Today’s me decided that tomorrow’s me is going to do some art, so tomorrow’s me just has to show up.

Fake it til you make it

Sometimes I’ll find myself in an especially stressful day. My heart is racing, I’m having difficulty articulating my thoughts effectively, and I know that I still have work that feels important left to do that day. I’m too wound up to “go have fun,” and what I want the most is to finish my work tasks. But I’m not succeeding. I’m engaging in false starts, or getting distracted by email or Slack firefighting, or letting this morning’s discussion live rent free in my head. I don’t want to take a break, but I will.

I’ll take a coffee break. I’ll eat a small square of chocolate. If I’m still feeling stressed, I’ll take 15-30 minutes to paint something small, like these logo stickers from my company’s Parents and Mental Health employee resource groups.

A small watercolor painting of two employee resource group stickers, Parents and Mental Health. Each sticker is laid over top of the painting, showing the source of the drawing. On the left is the Parents logo which consists of a larger circle above a smaller circle with an upward-facing crescent moon surrounding them. It is reminiscent of a parent's head holding a child against their chest in a wrap, or if the child and parent are hugging.

On the right is a mental health logo which looks like five leaves above a broad U, above a longer U. It also looks like the leaves are a person's hair, with their face hugged by their own surrounding arms.
A small watercolor painting of two employee resource group stickers, Parents and Mental Health.

I don’t have to be inventive, I just need to concentrate on colors and brush strokes for an extremely limited amount of time. I find my breathing slows while I’m painting. I end up with strips of watercolor paper with color tests that my kids love to use as bookmarks. I often walk away from my art while it’s still wet and before I’ve seen the final product — and that’s OK, because the important bit was the process.

I often feel better afterwards, able to find some enjoyment retroactively even if I can’t fully enjoy it in the moment. That brief break reduces my stress level enough that I can go back to my work and finish those other tasks. I have enough distance from the morning now to think clearly, and my heart rate is resting. My afternoon tasks will be done before I close the laptop to pick up my kids from school. That tiny break was so worthwhile!

What brought me joy in 2022

Making art was the most regular activity that brought me calm, peace, and joy in 2022. I started in 2020, learning from a colleague and videos, and have kept going since then.

I painted from kits, from photos (that I took or others did), from whatever was in front of me. When I penciled first, sometimes I would begin my penciling on a train or plane, sometimes I’d do it all in one sitting. I rarely found the time or patience to come back for multiple layers of paint, but I’m OK with that compromise! I wouldn’t say my pieces are masterpieces but the act of sitting down and painting let me practice a significant amount of self-care. I almost always carry a small palette, small reservoir brush, and a pack of 4×6 watercolor paper cards in my backpack when I travel, so that I don’t have any chores to do before my enjoyment begins.

My watercolors reached their apex in 2022 when I decided to use them for my Lead Developer San Francisco slide deck. I realized that trying to make or find art on the computer would take me at least as long as painting, and the concepts I was trying to share would probably come across equally clear. It was delightful and I managed to paint ~15 images in two or three sittings (including editing). I’m especially happy with some of the pieces, like this one on miscommunication.

A watercolor painting implying miscommunication. On the left is a silhouette of a person in green, saying something represented by a square wave. On the right is a purple silhouette of a listener who is thinking they are seeing a wave that begins as a square and then becomes many other shapes. They are not receiving the message as intended.

In October, I decided to take my crafting habit further and bought a Cricut Maker on sale. One of my first projects was to make some Halloween decorations, but I also made gifts for teammates (cutting felt shapes en masse made the job incredibly easy), table decorations, and even the advent calendar for my kids (24 different containers, sometimes with adjoining decoration). Our tree topper from last year wasn’t ideal, so I managed to make a lit star with paper, vellum, and an LED bulb. Playing with scalable vector graphics and physical materials has been a terrific after-dinner delight through the last few months, and it’s been fun making decorations for my kids, too.

Rather than sharing 24 advent calendar images, here is a short video:

A video showcasing cricut-made Christmas trees, present boxes, snowflake boxes, gingerbread houses, reindeer, and sleighs with felt bags.

Finding Joy is a Continuous Process

Making art is a large part of how I found joy in 2022, and I expect it will be part of my 2023. My life will continue to evolve, and my self-care routine will evolve, too. I’ll keep reflecting on whether I’m finding enough joy in my day, and keep carving out time for it. It sometimes feels counterintuitive that taking a break from my work would help me complete it successfully, but that has been working for me this year.

Whether you’re finding time for your joy before or after your workday, or in the middle of it, I hope you’ll make the time for yourself, too. There’s so much to do for other people every day, but it feels a little bit easier if we dedicate some of those moments to ourselves.

1: ‘Yak shaving’ is the act of taking on a seemingly endless series of dependent tasks before you get to the intended conclusion, sometimes like a Rube Goldberg device to accomplish what might otherwise be perceived as simple. e.g. in order to shave a yak, you need your shears, but they’re rusty so you need to clean them. You’re out of cleaner, so you have to go to the store and while you’re at the store you realize you can get a new electric shaver. You get the shaver home but when you go to plug it in, the circuit blows and…this could go on forever, hopefully you get the point.

2 thoughts on “Make Time for Joy

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