Do you sometimes find it hard to switch off?  Have you ever come back from a break saying, ‘It was nice but work was going round in my head all the time?  If so, help may be at hand – from an unlikely source.

The source knew a bit about hard work and the value of switching off.  Among other things he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty, President of the Board of Trade, Minister of Defence and Prime Minister – twice.  And more than anybody else he saved Britain – and perhaps Western civilization – during the Second World War.

Among the 43 books in 72 volumes that Winston Churchill also found time to write was a little one called Painting as a Pastime.  It’s a gem.  In it he talks about the importance for us of change.

Change and doing nothing

Churchill divides the world into three groups of people:  the worked to death, the worried to death and the bored to death.  He believes that offering an exhausted manual labourer a weekend’s-worth of physical activity may have limited benefits.  The same for a politician or business person, shattered after worrying about serious things all week, in the face of a weekend’s opportunity to worry about trifling things.  Even the ‘unfortunate people’ who can get anything they want and satisfy every whim may have limited satisfaction from one more new pleasure or excitement.  Boredom may still stalk them.

Whether we agree with that or not, Churchill makes an interesting point about what really makes us switch off when we’ve been concentrating on something at length.  And it’s not necessarily doing nothing.  Churchill argues that if you’ve been doing a lot of tough head work, it’s no use saying to tired mental muscles ‘I will give you a good rest’ or ‘I will lie down and think of nothing’ because the mind keeps on motoring despite it.  ‘If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying’.

Change and doing something

So something else is needed.  We can, Churchill writes, wear out a particular part of our mind by over-use, just as we can a coat.  (We’d call it burnout today).  But unlike a coat the human mind can be refreshed and strengthened by using other bits of it.  Thus, a key point Churchill makes is that active distraction is often required.  Concentrated change.  ‘It is only when new cells are called into activity …. that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded’.  We need a new area of interest that contrasts with our daily one, absorbs us and makes us forget.  You can’t argue your worrying mind into stillness, ‘one can only gently insinuate something else into its convulsive grasp’ so that ‘the old …. grip relaxes and the process of recuperation and repair begins’.

What’s needed is hobbies – in Churchill’s opinion, two or three of them ‘to be really happy and safe’.  But it isn’t just a case of going out and artificially finding a hobby or else the hobby will only be a further strain.  ‘It’s no use doing what you like; you have got to like what you do’.


For Churchill the hobby was painting, a pleasure he only discovered in his forties.  He describes his tentativeness when he first tried oil painting, only to be intimidated by a big blank canvas.  He discovered that audacity was essential and then ‘the sickly inhibitions rolled away. I seized the largest brush and fell upon my victim with beserk fury. I have never felt in awe of a canvas since’.

Although he enthusiastically recommends artwork (‘when I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting’), Churchill also lists the hobbies of reading, joinery, chemistry, book-binding and brick-laying (at which he was a dab hand) as possible alternative avenues.  You can add your own ideas but maybe a degree of audacity will also be necessary in your chosen area in order to get started.  If you spend a lot of time in cerebral tasks, Churchill recommends a handicraft to provide the needed contrast.

Go for it

So if there’s something you’ve always fancied giving a go, Sir Winston Churchill’s words to you are simple:  ‘Try it if you have not done so – before you die’.  It may be that your hobby will turn out to have fathomless depths to explore, the possibilities being ‘limited only by the shortness of life’!

Sounds fun. And you don’t have Hitler to contend with.