In an ideal world, we’d be able to have it all. Work. Family. Social life. Hobbies. But our reality doesn’t always play out that way. Work takes up the majority of our “work-life balance” equation. And what’s the first thing to go when we start feeling overworked? Our hobbies.
But what if we’re thinking about hobbies all wrong? What if hobbies are more valuable to us in life (and work) than we give them credit for?
A growing body of research has found that spending time on hobbies not only makes us happier and more relaxed but also improves our workplace productivity, focus, and creativity.
So how do we go about making sure we make time for our hobbies in our already busy schedule?
Why you should choose hobbies over leisure when you have a break from work
Most of us are so overworked that all we want to do when we’re not working is turn our brains off. This means binge-watching TV or scrolling mindlessly through social media. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend on average 2.8 hours a day watching TV (or almost 20 hours a week!)
Unfortunately, all that time spent trying to “turn your brain off” doesn’t really do what you want it to.
Research shows that while binge-watching TV or scrolling through social media gives us a momentary release of dopamine (i.e. the “pleasure” chemical), we’re hit with a crash of reality afterward.
In one study out of the University of Toledo, self-described binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. But why is that?
This makes sense when you see binge-watching and similar passive activities as a form of escapism. Rather than doing something that makes you feel positive, you’re trying to push aside your nagging thoughts.
But our brains have a funny way of bringing those thoughts back up when we want them least (like when we try to go to sleep).
As Winston Churchill wrote:
“It is no use saying to the tired mental muscles, ‘I will give you a good rest. I will go for a long walk or I will lie down and think of nothing.’ The mind keeps busy just the same… If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying.”
Instead, Churchill (an avid hobbyist) explains that the only way to remove the worry in your mind is to replace it with something from “another field of interest” until “the old undue grip relaxes and the process of recuperation and repair begins.”
The power of active leisure time: Why hobbies make you more creative, productive, and happier
Churchill is by no means the only person to make the case for hobbies.
In his book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, author Alex Pang describes example after example of famously productive people who took on difficult and meaningful hobbies during their downtime.
He calls this Deliberate Rest:
“Deliberate rest helps you recover from the stresses and exhaustion of the day, allows new experiences and lessons to settle in your memory, and gives your subconscious mind space to keep working.”
While binge-watching TV and other passive activities can increase stress, hobbies create eustress—the healthy kind of stress that keeps us excited about life.
If that’s not enough to convince you to pick up your paintbrush or take the guitar that’s gathering dust off the wall there are plenty of other reasons to make time for your hobbies.
Hobbies help you disconnect from work, which leads to less fatigue, stress, and burnout
We’ve written before about the importance of disconnecting from work (when you’re not at work that is!) Among other things, research has found that people who are able to psychologically disconnect from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue
- Lower rates of procrastination
- Greater engagement at work (and getting into a state of flow)
One of the key elements in psychological disconnection is called mastery. In other words, working on a task or skill you enjoy.
For example, the WWII codebreakers who spent all day trying to crack Nazi encryption would often spend their downtime playing chess—a game they were all proficient at and could challenge each other with.
As Alex Pang explains:
“Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when they’re proficiently executed.”
Mastering new skills (even non-work ones) makes you more confident at work
The skills you master during your downtime don’t just help with that hobby but also work their way into your workday. This is especially true if your hobby is a creative one.
As Faetano DiNardi writes in Harvard Business Review:
“When I face a tough challenge at work and feel stymied, I can start to question whether I’ll ever figure out a successful solution. It’s easy to lose creative confidence. But after an hour of shredding on the guitar, hitting notes perfectly, I’m feeling good. I can tell that my brain was craving that kind of satisfaction. And when I face that work project again, I bring the confidence with me.”
In fact, studies have even backed this claim up.
In one, researchers found that “creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”
Even better, this doesn’t have to take up much time either. Another study found that just 45 minutes of making art can boost your confidence and ability to complete tasks.
Getting outside your head helps you gain perspective and psychological distance
If you work long hours and face serious pressure during the workday, you most likely have a hard time thinking of anything else. Luckily, hobbies are a powerful way to not just disconnect from work but also gain perspective.
Work has become so much a part of our lives that it’s become the core part of our identity. (It’s why one of the first questions 99% of people ask is “So, what do you do?”)
However, a hobby helps you broaden your identity and get perspective on the importance of work-life balance. As Phyllis Korkki writes in Quartz:
“People who stake all their identity on their day jobs can be devastated, not just financially but psychologically if they are suddenly fired or laid off. If your identity isn’t defined primarily by your 9 to 5, you’ll have a healthier outlook on life.”
Your hobby could become your next dream job
Your work will inevitably influence your hobbies. But your hobbies can also influence your work.
As Nate Hopper writes in The Awl, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Sayers, Don DeLillo, and Joseph Heller were all advertising copywriters before becoming full-time novelists.
For Rushdie, his copywriting work informed how he approached writing and was essential in helping him turn his hobby into his career.
“I do feel that a lot of the professional craft of writing is something I learned from those years in advertising and I’ll always be grateful for it.”
The opposite approach is also true.
The skills you learn from your hobby can help you be more creative at work. The connections you make from it can also help at work or even put you in touch with people you wouldn’t otherwise have a good reason to connect with.
3 ways to make more time for your hobbies
You’re not alone if you’re thinking “This all sounds good but I’m too busy for hobbies!”
The problem with our hobbies is that we often relegate them to the backburner. Instead of making them a priority, we schedule them for later in the day where we’re more likely to be physically and emotionally drained.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow explains:
“Despite our yearning for free time, we tend to waste it once it comes around.”
So how do you make actual time for your hobbies?
1. Schedule them in advance
One of the best things you can do for your workday time management is to schedule everything.
Otherwise known as time blocking, this strategy involves planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks and responsibilities.
Time blocking helps you focus and make sure that you’re spending your work time on the right tasks (not just email and Slack). So why not use the same strategy for your leisure time?
Having scheduled time for your hobbies reminds you that they’re a priority. But, more importantly, it helps you get over the friction of starting.
Passive activities like watching tv and social media are low-friction. All you have to do is click a button or swipe a screen. That’s on purpose. We’re lazy creatures (especially when our energy levels are low like at the end of the day). The easier a task is to do, the more time we’ll spend on it.
But hobbies take effort to start. Whether that means getting out and setting up your art supplies or going to the gym to play basketball.
When you schedule time, however, you have a plan for dealing with that friction. You’re telling yourself at this time I will do X, which is often enough to get you started.
2. Use a commitment device
The suggestion to schedule your leisure time can cause a lot of negative reactions. We don’t want to have to schedule fun. If this is you, then a different method could be using a commitment device to help you make time for your hobby.
Commitment devices are techniques and strategies that help you stick to your plan. They could be as simple as scheduling your hobby with someone else (social pressure) or using a tool like RescueTime to help guide your behaviors.
Let’s say you want to spend more time on your musical hobby.
Instead of practicing by yourself you could invite a friend over to play with you. Or, you could set a RescueTime Goal of more than 1 hour on audio editing outside of work hours.
3. Limit the time wasters that steal your leisure time
While work might get in the way of your hobbies, it’s more likely you’ll skip them to watch TV or read Reddit for an hour.
For example, whenever I spend more than an hour on social media outside of work hours, I get a custom Alert that tells me to “Get off Twitter and do something meaningful”. I also am automatically put in an hour FocusTime session to keep me accountable for my hobby time.
Even a small amount of hobby time each day helps
Finally, remember that hobbies are supposed to be fun. These are the things we choose to spend our leisure time doing and they shouldn’t necessarily feel like just another task on your to-do list.
So while you should try and make time for them, remember that you don’t have to spend an hour a night on something to see these results.
As Phyllis Korkki writes in Quartz:
“Know that 20 minutes here and there add up. We can make it a priority to find time to devote to personally meaningful endeavors. And collectively, we can work toward building a culture that understands our creations are no less meaningful if they don’t pay the mortgage or the rent.”
What hobbies do you use to disconnect from work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.