Leisure is not a productivity hack

If you do a random search along the lines of “how to boost productivity”, I’ll bet you’ll find many articles that talk about a work-life balance and how you can be more productive by spending more leisure time away from work. True as it may be, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of just seeing leisure as a means to be more productive.

The danger of viewing leisure as a way to boost productivity

It’s true that having a healthy work-life balance and regularly engaging in fulfilling activities will make you more productive at work… as an effect. While there are many different explanations for this, I believe that stress has a big role to play in it. When we over work ourselves, we end up stressing ourselves so much that it inhibits our ability to work – which in turn makes us more stressed and keeps the cycle going. Leisure disrupts this cycle with activity that is engaging and meaningful in itself, restoring rather than draining you.

The entire point of leisure is to be present in activities that are self-actualizing and unrelated to your work. As soon as you start thinking of it just as a means to increase your productivity, you make it about work. You create unnecessary stress in what is supposed to be a fun and restorative time because you’re focusing on the outcome rather than the activity itself.

The problem with this lies in the paradox of hyper intention. When we put our focus on the outcome rather than being present in the process, we ignore the work that’s necessary to achieve it and create this self-defeating cycle.

Leisure should be separate from your goals

Our modern word for school is derived from the Greek word scholé, which they used for “leisure”. To the ancient Greeks, leisure wasn’t just meaningless activities used to distract them from the work that needed done.

They viewed work and leisure as completely separate and disconnected. Work and production were necessary because they provided for needs like food and shelter. Leisure was necessary because it nourished the soul and gave life meaning.

I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is adopt this mindset and recognize that both leisure and work are necessary parts of life, but they need to be treated separately and differently. Let your work life be guided by goals and deadlines; let your leisure be guided by your curiosity and things that spark joy.

While it’s okay to have goals related to your leisure hobbies, the key is that these are not the reason you do them. Once you do, you risk adopting the mindset that leisure is just some means to an end.

I find this annoyingly evident in writing. At some point in my writing career, I would love to publish a book. For so long, that was my goal – my reason for writing. And you know what? I didn’t write a single damn word. For years, I had this idea in my head that I just wasn’t motivated enough. But that wasn’t the point. I had my priorities wrong.

So, I told myself that I would just write as a hobby instead. Forget any dreams I had about writing a book or anything like that – I was going to write purely for fun, and as a way to help me dissect and understand ideas that I pick up from books or podcasts.

As soon as I made that mental switch, it was like the proverbial floodgates opened. I found it so much easier to lose myself in my writing. I stopped creating unnecessary stress over because I was no longer thinking about writing just as a means to reach some far-off goal.

I just wanted to write and explore new ideas. I wanted to write for myself.

And I ended up writing so much more (and better) when I wrote just for the sake of it.

Leisure should be fun and restorative

What you do in your leisure time should be fun and replenish your energy, not drain you. To that effect, it is entirely up to you to determine what that is. You need to find what you love doing – what makes you feel invigorated and happy afterward.

Don’t just do something because it sounds good or it worked for someone else. As much as I wish I enjoyed running, I can’t fathom just going on a run for fun. For some, it works wonders. Everyone is different, which is why it’s important to spend your leisure time doing something that’s fun and meaningful to you.  

My recent hobby I’ve picked up is chess. I like to take a couple 5-10 minute leisure breaks throughout my work day, and chess has been my go-to for these breaks. Sometimes it’s a quick game against the computer just for fun, sometimes I’ll spend time going through puzzles. Either way, I’ve found it easy to lose myself in the game. Not only does it help me turn off visually from my work, but I oddly feel like I can think much better after spending a few minutes in deep thought over the board.

If the activity drains you (with the exception of physically wearing you out – exercise is always great!) it’s likely because it’s not something you really love doing, or you’re doing it because you expect something out of it.

When you’re at work, be fully at work. And let your leisure time be what it’s meant to be – restorative and fun.

Daniel levitin
Be present during your leisure time

The only way for us to reap the benefits of our leisure is by being fully present and engaged with it. You must find something that makes it easy to lose yourself – something that engages and interests you so much that you forget yourself and get absorbed in the process. To quote Lao Tzu, if you are at peace you are living in the present

We simply cannot be at peace when our intention is on some outcome or goal rather than being present in the activity. When we do this, when we worry about the future rather than what we our currently engaged in, we create unnecessary anxiety. We’re so worried about what we will or won’t get out of the experience that we block ourselves from the actual experience.

My best advice for this is to figure out what you value most. For example, I value finding new ways of thinking and exploring new ideas that challenge outdated paradigms. I’ve found that the best way to expose myself to new ideas is by reading, and the best way for me to process and integrate these ideas is through writing. It’s easy to lose myself in a book or when I’m writing simply because I love doing it, and don’t need an external reason to “motivate” me.