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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 August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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