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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 January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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