Managing stress by working with your hands

After a long day of coding and problem-solving, it’s hard to calm down and relax. A major part of a programmer’s job is working in our heads, being in the flow and handling a ton of details at once. But how to relax your brain for a while so you can keep working at peak performance in the long term? And how can you recharge so you have the energy to take on personal projects?

In my opinion, one of the best way to do this is to build routines and habits in your day that allow you to work with your hand and that does not require staring at a screen. Working with your hand is active but allows you to let go for a bit while still feeling productive. You’ll produce a concrete and visible result from your effort, which is good for the soul after a day of chasing some abstract bug.

My intention here is not to add tasks to your plate and make you feel even more stressed out, but to help you find practices that will give you more energy. It must not be yet another chore or that would defeats the whole purpose!

soupe2One of my key habit I suggest is cooking your own supper instead of buying takeout. I don’t do it every night, but most days I cook a meal and save the leftover for lunches. I know it’s easier to call for pizza or grab a sandwich, but cooking is a creative outlet that will allow you disconnect and relax instead of rushing dinner and going back to the computer.

The French have it right with their late dinner: just eat a snack in the afternoon if you find you can’t wait for dinner. As a bonus, you’ll get to eat food that’s better suited to your tastes and to your body. An heavy meal like pizza or pasta will sap all your remaining energy. If you cook, you can optimize: make a lighter meal so you have more energy afterwards.

If you’re not attracted to cooking, any manual hobby is good for relaxing: for example, you could take up woodworking, gardening, drawing, playing an instrument, home improvement or beer brewing. If it makes your hands move and it does not involve a computer, it’s a good bet that it will help to relax. It will also bring a new perspective to your coding since you’ll be solving different kinds of problems.

weavingIn my case, I’m into fiber arts in general and hand weaving in particular. It’s interesting to plan out how a piece of fabric will turn out and execute it with a very limited of options: there are only 4 pedals on my loom. Making the fabric itself involve repeating a pattern regularly without loosing track: it requires concentration and getting into the flow. It’s different to tracking down an hard to find bug, unless a thread breaks…

If your favorite hobby is not very physical, you should add activities in your day that allow you to move a bit more. I’m not the best at strenuous physical exercise, but biking, taking a walk or doing a few yoga poses can do wonders to recharge and get more energy.

Learning to work with your hands will require some efforts from your part: it won’t necessary be relaxing and mindless at first. You’ll get frustrated at first trying to master the movements required. If you want to get better at those hobbies, you’ll also need to mix in more challenging tasks from time to time. But when you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to get into the flow and work at it effortlessly like coding.

Do you already have an hobby that allows you to work with your hands? I’d love to hear all about it!