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Why Your Free Time is Boring

Why Your Free Time is Boring

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:

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

More by this author

Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on November 18, 2020

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

  1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
  2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
  3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
  4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
  5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
  6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
  7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
  8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
  9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
  10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
  11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
  12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
  13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
  14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
  15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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