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How do you spend your off hours? Do you watch television? Do you surf the web? Read articles here at Lifehack.org? There are many ways you can spend your leisure time. But is it really possible to get more out of your time off? Not just making this time more productive, but actually making it more enjoyable.

Breaking the Work/Play Distinction

I believe the answer goes against what many of us have been taught about how to spend our free time. From early childhood we’ve been taught to divide everything to do into two groups, work and leisure. Work consists of all the things we need to do and leisure is everything else.

Splitting the world this way isn’t necessarily wrong. But the subtle message contained in this split is that work and leisure shouldn’t resemble each other. Your work needs to be productive, efficient and challenging. Therefore leisure should be relaxing, accomplish nothing and be free of pressures.

Why This Kills Your Free Time

The problem is this assumption, that work should be the opposite of leisure, ruins your free time. The belief that the most enjoyable moments of life are spent relaxing in the fruits of our labor doesn’t match the real world. Research has shown that the most enjoyable moments of our life are the ones where we are most engaged.

Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recorded this phenomenon. He did this through a device that pinged at random points in time. The subject then filled out a form based on their feelings, thoughts and current activity. What he found was people have more enjoyable experiences from work than from their time off. He mentions this paradox in his book, Flow:

“Thus we have the paradoxical situation: On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore tend to feel more sad, weak dull and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.” [emphasis mine]

I believe the dissatisfaction for work stems from the external need to work. Since we cannot exercise freedom in choosing to show up every morning, it is easy to begrudge the time there. Even if it produces positive experiences in our lives.

The Answer Isn’t Becoming a Workaholic

I don’t believe the resolution of this problem, is to work all the time. I think that would only exacerbate a situation where people feel trapped by oppressive work schedules. Even if jobs can produce, challenging flow experiences, putting all your eggs into one basket can be risky.

Instead, Fill Your Spare Time With Active Leisure

Active leisure is free activities you choose that challenge and fulfill you. But because you take up these tasks through internal desires, not external constraints, you won’t feel trapped by them.

Many people have found ways to incorporate active leisure into their lives. Taking up hobbies, sports and learning new skills even when time is limited. But as the standard forty hour workweek gets pushed longer and passive entertainment becomes easier to consume, it is harder to take up active leisure.

Leisure is Hard Work

Upgrading your leisure time to make it more enjoyable isn’t always easy. This may sound backwards, since many people believe the purpose of leisure is to be easy. But sometimes the benefits of being active in your time off aren’t immediately apparent.

Activity requires that you invest your attention. The body was designed to be efficient, not enjoyable, so it may resist your attempts to invest energy in anything non-essential.

How to Start the Active Leisure Habit

There are many ways you can upgrade your leisure time, but it requires effort. Unlike watching television or relaxing, opportunities for flow need to be structured in advance. It can sometimes require planning and always requires an initial push of momentum to get started.

I suggest an experiment. Try replacing some low-energy task with a more engaging one. Continue it for a month. After that month, if you don’t feel the new task is more satisfying than your old usage of time, quit. This is about enjoyment, not productivity, so you don’t need to feel guilty if you decide to switch back later.

Suggestions for Active Leisure

Here are a couple ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Join Toastmasters – At toastmasters.org you can find clubs near your location. There are thousands of them and they are a great experience. I’ve known many people who tell me Toastmasters is the highlight of their week.
  2. Start a Craft - Try learning a new hobby or restarting an old one. Painting, woodworking, sculpting, programming or blogging are all great starts. Buy a tutorial book to get you started and learn from there.
  3. Play Sports – Find a physical activity that will get you to move and provides a challenging environment. Not only will this keep you healthy, but it will put your mind into a state of flow more easily than sitting on the couch.
  4. Learn a New Language – Challenge yourself to learn a new language. This has always been a goal of mine. I’ve heard from many sources that it can be both challenging an enjoyable to gain fluency in a non-native tongue.
  5. Play a Game – Computer games and interactive entertainment can be great ways to produce flow. Although you can get addicted to the enjoyable environment, structuring a small amount of time to play games can engage you mind to have fun.
  6. Start a Project – One of my personal favorites is to get a new project going. Starting a project to complete something over the course of a couple months can be exciting and incredibly rewarding. Go start that novel you’ve been thinking about.

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