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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 October 15, 2019

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why we procrastinate after all

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

So, is procrastination bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How bad procrastination can be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

Procrastination, a technical failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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