“Someday I’ll have more time for _______(insert your lost hobby here).”
For years, this statement has been my approach to hobbies. I’ll have more time when this project is completed, or when the semester is over, or when I graduate from college. By constantly pushing these activities into the future, I’ve accumulated a jumbled collection of “lost hobbies.” Once I enrolled in a Ph.D. program with the anticipation of 5+ more years of school, I realized that the abundance of free time that I had been waiting for would never come.
During the last few years, I’ve attempted to reconnect with some of my previous hobbies, particularly drawing and painting. I find maintaining hobbies in parallel to academic ambitions deceptively difficult, and I haven’t been consistently successful. However, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that might be helpful for others trying to balance graduate school and personal hobbies.
I have collected too many hobbies, and as a result, I struggle to commit enough time to any of them. Some are casual interests, while others were once major pursuits in my life that I’ve always intended to return to. The latter are the hobbies I chose to focus on. There will never be time for every item on the list, so prioritization is key. I now approach the idea by considering which activity will make the most positive impact on my life. I’ve identified two hobbies that I am attempting to prioritize: art and reading. Other interests aren’t necessarily ignored, but they can become occasional or casual hobbies.
My definition of a hobby is sometimes a bit ambitious. Especially when it comes to art, my expectations are often biased by my previous experiences. During my senior year of high school, I took an Advanced Placement (AP) studio art course and spent hours every single day in the studio or sketching at home. My skill level improved immensely during that year, a testament to the impact of practice and time commitment. My priorities have shifted since then. Now, when I draw in my sketchbook or work on a new painting, I quickly become frustrated at any apparent decline in my skill level or the unexpected length of time that it takes to finish a piece of artwork. I’ve learned that it’s unreasonable to expect the same level of performance, after years of neglected practice. Whether pursuing a new hobby or renewing an old one, set reasonable expectations; it will take time to reach a desired skill level.
Bicycle, 15"x20", Graphite. Rachel Bellisle, 2013 (High School)
In my experience, starting a hobby during the middle of a busy semester is typically unsuccessful. By creating habits during the less busy summer term and integrating activities into a routine, it becomes be easier to prioritize the activity once life gets crazy again. However, sometimes an extra push is helpful. After almost a year of failed attempts, I decided to formalize my efforts by registering for an art class during the summer before my second year of graduate school. I chose to start an oil painting class through the MIT Student Art Association. Finally, I had a 2.5-hour block dedicated to art, and the registration payment for the class provided an incentive to uphold the time commitment. This formal setting allowed me to block out time for the activity and provided access to an instructor who pushed my creative skills with exercises that I wouldn’t have chosen to do on my own. (For more information about the MIT Student Art Association, check out their website here!) I started by taking the art class with a friend in my cohort, and we occasionally met outside of class to work on our paintings. This was another great way to formalize a time block for a hobby and have someone to keep me accountable (in addition to being a great outlet to share ideas).
Galápagos, 16"x20", Oil Paint. Rachel Bellisle, 2019 (Grad School)
Lastly, setting short- and long-term goals is important. Short-term goals can help with accomplishing tasks over a few weeks (e.g., finish a painting). With the vague lines between work and personal time during the COVID-19 pandemic, I find short-term goals to be particularly effective in helping to prioritize time. Long-term goals define what I want to achieve by pursuing this hobby and often help to feed my motivation. For example, my long-term goal is to have a painting displayed in a local art show. However, enjoyment and self-care are sometimes even more valuable motivations.
Finding time for hobbies in graduate school is achievable. Like any attempts for work-life balance, I’ve learned that time management and prioritization are key!