Don't Knock the Importance of Leisure Time

Many activities and sports that involve water are good leisure activities. Sure, they might have a workout benefit, but they're also a way to enjoy being outside, a time to slow down and admire the view. (Photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock)

I divide my days, weeks, and years into two categories: There's "Work" and there's "Not Work." I would guess you're probably the same. But it wasn't always this way. Previous cultures saw life as divided a bit differently. There was work, there was necessary maintenance like eating and sleeping, and there was a third category: Leisure.

If you're like me, you probably lump eating, sleeping, and household chores in with non-work since you're not paid for them — and all of that fits into your time off. But as Paul Millard, a career coach and strategist writes at Quartz, lumping in necessary life tasks with enjoyable or restful activities is just one way we steal leisure from ourselves. "The German philosopher Josef Pieper ... argued a culture of 'total work' was taking over our lives, that everything was becoming in service of work — including leisure."

That idea really hit home with me. By having only two categories (with everything that's not work in the same bucket) instead of three, we can easily let sleeping, food prep and eating, and cleaning the toilet (surely not leisure!) feel like "time off" — even though these are things we do to enable us to work.

Thinking about it this way, it's easy to see where work becomes our life, and why it's easy to become a workaholic.

You're not alone in feeling this way. A 2019 survey of 2,000 workers found that they spend an average of four hours just thinking about work and another four hours working off the clock.

Researchers found that worrying about work on an off day, feeling too busy to take a vacation, and checking emails immediately after waking up (something 58 percent of the respondents say they do) were the top three symptoms of suffering from workaholism.

If your time off is all in service of your working life, that means you're essentially always working. That's not how I want to live my life.

This paradigm even messes with vacation. I've written about how important vacation is more than once — that vacations will make for more creativity and energy when you return to your job, and how innovative companies promote vacation, and how to maximize the benefits of your vacation. But under this new light, now I see that all of them look at vacation as basically "job-support." Because life, is, apparently, all about work — even vacation.

This is not to say that taking time fully away from work, traveling the world, or relaxing at home isn't still a great idea; of course vacation is still important. But it's not an excuse to neglect leisure, and perhaps we all need a rethink it. For starters, leisure has nothing to do with making us more productive at work.

So what exactly is leisure?

Man lying in front of home library full of books.
Doing something like reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it counts as leisure time. Reading a book for work doesn't. (Photo: Alexander Gorelov/Shutterstock)

Economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen defined it as "nonproductive consumption of time." I love this definition because not only is it concise, it's clear: Surely vacuuming or making lunches for the week is productive work, even if it's not part of my job and I'm not paid for it. But it's not leisure, either.

Leisure is a flexible idea: It can be affected by income level and location (different leisure pursuits are available to the city-dweller or the rural denizen, for sure). And one person's leisure can be another person's chore. Cooking and gardening are both good examples of this. You can garden to keep up the appearance of your home in the neighborhood simply because you feel you have to, and not because you enjoy it. On the other hand, I live on a dead-end road and nobody sees my garden; I find the myriad detail of the natural world and decorative pursuits of gardening to be truly joyful, absorbing and fun. My partner genuinely enjoys cooking and baking, while I find it something worth getting through to enjoy the result.

So, leisure is something relatively self-defined, but it's always done for the experience of doing it, not only the end result. It's something you do for its own sake. So, golfing can be leisure. But if you only golf to schmooze with business contacts, that's not the same thing.

What gets you to your happy place?

A middle-aged couple skiing together in a mountainous landscape.
Skiing and other snow sports like snowshoeing or winter hiking are all great example of leisure. (Photo: XiXinXing/Shutterstock)

Leisure can be physically or mentally active — or not. Reading and writing can be leisure, even if you do them for a living (I do!). Snow sports like skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing count; watersports of all kinds; horseback riding, or ice skating, bowling or archery are all classic, relatively active leisure-time pursuits. Competitive and team sports can be leisure, as long as there isn't an intense focus on winning.

Turning back to the work of German philosopher Pieper, he makes a great point in his essay, "Leisure: The Basis For Culture":

Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative, beholding, and immersion — in the real. In leisure, there is, furthermore, something of the serenity of "not-being–able–to–grasp," of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will; there is in it something of the "trust in the fragmentary, that forms the very life and essence of history."

Less physical games — board games, card playing, group games like scavenger hunts — count as leisure, as does dancing, meeting friends for coffee or a meal, or anything that's done for the sake of itself. Leisure can incorporate a project — creating a ship in a bottle, building a doll house, or putting a puzzle together, or it can be casual, like taking a walk and seeing how many mushrooms you can spot, but not bothering to look them up, or taking a drive to admire the beautiful changing colors of the trees. Other ideas include enjoying art at a museum or studying a particular type of art or era — anything you do just for fun.

Reading these suggestions for leisure might make you think that this is an "old-fashioned" concept, since many of the activities seem kind of old-school. That's less about the activities themselves than about the fact that over the last 30 years, leisure time has been ignored and downplayed as a concept. The incursion of work into more of our life, along with bingeable TV shows and endless YouTube videos mean that for many, leisure involves passive watching.

While a leisure pursuit could involve, say, watching all of Igmar Bergman's movies with a friend, or checking out new Indy streaming comedy podcasts, or watching enough YouTube tutorials to master a smokey eye, the difference is that none of those things is passive — they are at least a little bit active. You're watching to understand an idea or to develop an understanding; that's different from mindless streaming in intent, if not obvious action.

So book that summer vacation now. The best way to ensure you take a vacation is to book it way in advance and then plan around it. But also think about what things you like to do just for fun, just for you, just because you enjoy it. And then think about where you can schedule that into your life. If you have kids, showing them that you value your personal time is a great example so they don't grow up to be workaholics themselves. If you're really busy, that's more reason — not less — to take time to just do something that brings you joy. Even if it's just once or twice a month that you pull your watercolors out for 30 minutes, or play a board game with your partner, you will slowly build the habit.

Or put another way, and with all due respect to the Beastie Boys, "Fight, for your right, to leisure!"