Overcoming stress and uncertainty with drawing (cow)

Back in January 2020, I decided to draw a cow every day for 3 months, so I created an @thecowoftheday account on Instagram. I set three goals for myself: (1) relieve stress and frustration at work and in my personal life, (2) maintain creativity, and (3) bring a smile to my friends’ faces. In this article, I want to share how @thecowoftheday helped me achieve these goals, develop my storytelling and creative problem-solving skills, and become a better designer overall.

In mid-2019, I realized that my thinking lacked room for creativity. At that time, I worked with a small team daily on a complex project. I work for a venture capital fund that helps large corporations develop new businesses. Building products on a tight timeline pushed me to be more efficient, focusing on getting results. Nothing wrong with that, but I felt like I needed to be creative and relieve stress. I felt like I needed to find the right mechanism to handle all of this.

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My personal therapy

During the last months of 2019, I checked to see if there is a difference between when I draw daily and when I do not draw. Almost every day from August to October, I took at least one 30 minute break in the middle of my workday to draw something. Between November and December, I stopped painting and returned to my “normal” routine, dividing my days between work and rest. I felt the stress build up again, there is more pragmatism in my daily work, and overall I am becoming more lazy. It was then that I realized how positive these drawing breaks were for my mindfulness and mental health. Drawing relieved stress and became my safety valve or screaming pillow. I tried taking a 30 minute break to meditate, take a walk, listen to audio books, exercise, but none of these activities had the same effect on me.

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After experimenting, I realized that I needed focus, so I went back to drawing, which worked best. I was working on a project for a dairy producer, and one of our team leaders (thank you, Miriam! :)) saw my drawings of cows and every day during meetings asked me to show the “cow of the day”. Every day, I thought about what happened to the team (or something that caught my attention), drew it on stickers and hung it on the wall. So it was only natural when, in January 2020, I decided to go back to my daily painting. However, this time I decided to approach in a more structured way. To do this, I created an Instagram account where I could put all the drawings together. By posting drawings online, I could reach more people and force myself to keep drawing daily, and not give up the habit on busy days.

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It was important for me to test different methods and be honest with myself about what works and what doesn’t. This stress relief method helped me, especially in a year as unique as 2020. If you find yourself in a similar situation, experiment, don’t force yourself to do what works for other people, because it may not be what you want. And don’t be so hard on yourself, it can be personal and you don’t have to share it with others.

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Creative escape

At the same time, I learned an important lesson on how to cope with uncertainty and creative stagnation. In my work, I (and probably you too) are often insecure, and drawing taught me a good lesson. One of the most intimidating things is looking at a blank canvas or paper, and these days, at a blank screen. When it is in front of me, my mind begins to desperately go through the millions of possibilities, how I could fill it, and time flies by quickly. The uncertainty and openness is overwhelming, and I’m sure you can face this no matter what position you hold. As scary as it sounds, I’ve learned that fear is mostly in my head. And drawing taught me to overcome this unpleasant feeling.

Overcoming stress and uncertainty with drawing (cow)
How does all this happen?

The moment I apply the first stroke, I understand how trivial it is – and I stared at the blank canvas for 10 minutes, not daring to start. Drawing taught me that all the strokes that I put on paper are a means to an end, and that’s the main thing. The faster you start, the more experimentation you will have and the faster you will get the final result. The main thing is to start. It helped me to keep my mind sharp and to learn to focus even when I am in the middle of a storm in the ocean and there is no land in sight. Stopping worrying about what viewers think was an important step on my path to better problem solving and experimenting with storytelling formats.

Professional growth

I feel like this experiment has made me a better professional and designer in the last 12 months. The availability of such a method has become even more important during the 2020 COVID pandemic. It takes time to catch your breath and think about what has happened or is happening at the moment.

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At the same time, drawing a cow every day helped me develop my own style of illustration and regain the confidence that I can take more risks working on more visual tasks. Before I started drawing a cow on a daily basis, it was difficult for me to focus on the essence. The limitations of the project taught me a lot about how to simplify the message and reduce the number of elements to convey the essence of the message to users.

If you want to know more about how to get started drawing, read Jose Torre’s fantastic article. He shows that drawing is not limited to talent, it is the result of a lot of practice and hard work. It’s important to start and not be afraid to show your work. Feedback from people made my trip more interesting and exciting, and the knowledge gained more effective.

My initial goal was to do this for 3 months, but I recently posted my 300th post so I thought my story might inspire someone. If you haven’t seen my Instagram account yet, check it out and subscribe to it. I am curious to know about your experiences with stress.

  1. What have you tried?
  2. What worked for you?
  3. What didn’t work?

Write in the comments.

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