Play Hard: The Four Pillars of High-Quality Leisure

Leisure statistics paint a mixed picture on how we are allocating our time and how we might allocate it better.

“I miss my commute,” my colleague tells me. “It provided a kind of bridge between my work life and my home life. Now that line is blurry.”

He has a point. An important one.

While I cannot for a moment profess to missing my commute, the blurring of the compartmentalisation between our daily activities has the potential to be a force for good or bad.

Before office workers spent most of their time in their homes, the OECD collected a range of data on this “compartmentalisation” of our time. The Time Use statistics provide some important insights on how we spend our days in different countries, the disparities between men and women, and the differences between young and old.

The OECD groups our time under five headings:

  1. Personal care: Activities necessitated by our biology (sleeping, eating, drinking, resting, etc.) as well as time allocated to personal and household healthcare and maintenance.
  2. Paid work or study: Time spent in our jobs, looking for jobs, attending classes, researching, travelling to and from work or study, etc.
  3. Unpaid work: Routine housework, shopping, childcare, other care, volunteering, travel related to household activities, and other unpaid activities.
  4. Leisure: Time spent socialising, attending cultural, entertainment and sports events, engaging in hobbies and other pastimes, exercising, and using mass media.
  5. Other: This includes time spent in spiritual and religious activities and in civic obligations, or in other unspecified activities.

As you can see from the graph below, the results aren’t too dissimilar across the OECD countries. France leads the way on the personal care front, just about edging Italy. Meanwhile, Korea, Japan and Mexico take the top positions for time allocated to paid work.

There are some interesting stories within all these categories, but the section I’m most interested in here is the yellow: our leisure time.

Breaking Down Leisure

The below graph illustrates the leisure time more clearly.

As you can see, Norway leads the way at 6.1 hours of leisure per day and Mexico trails other OECD countries by some distance with a meagre 2.9 hours of leisure. On average, OECD countries spend 4.9 hours per day allocated to leisure. The United States is bang on average, with the United Kingdom about 15 minutes ahead.

Interesting so far, but not particularly illuminating. It’s not all that surprising that Mexico finds itself in bottom place, nor that Finland leads the way.

The question, then, is how are we really using this time?

The OECD helps a little with this puzzle. As you can see below, leisure time is collected in 5 sub-categories (now in minutes per day). The upshot is that on average across OECD countries the majority of our leisure time goes to TV or radio and “other leisure activities”. The latter notably includes spending time on our computers and mobile phones.

Exercise gets a mere 23 minutes of our time on average (and that varies considerably by country). Socialisation doesn’t fare much better.

These categorisations are an imperfect exercise but cast important light on the balance of our leisure time. And the picture isn’t pretty.

The evidence points to a worrying preference on how we use our leisure time. One that puts low-quality consumption before high-quality leisure.

The Four Pillars of High-Quality Leisure

“High quality” and “low quality” are words that should be used with caution on this topic. But I use these terms for a specific reason.

They paint a contrast between building and consuming. Between movement and idleness. Between connection and isolation. Between reflection and distraction.

High-quality leisure makes us feel good and makes us perform better, and it does so by exuding the following characteristics:

  1. It harnesses and develops a skill.
  2. It requires and creates energy.
  3. It connects us to others.
  4. It forces us to reflect.

Of course, we can’t necessarily deliver all these characteristics at the same time, but these characteristics point at four pillars of leisure that we should all embrace in our lives.

#1: CRAFT: High-quality leisure harnesses a skill

Once we have satisfied our most basic human needs, we are motivated by mastery, autonomy, and relatedness. The first of these concepts holds in it a simple conclusion: using and developing our skills makes us feel good.

Whilst traditional definitions of craft convey the idea of using our skills to make something by hand, craft in this context is anything that requires skill to build something, by hand or not. Writing a book, landscaping a garden, building handmade furniture, creating cards, developing a blog. All can be high-quality forms of leisure if they suit your aptitudes.

Bottom line: Building something brings us something that consuming something can’t. Swapping out the empty vessel of media consumption for constructions of our own brings us back in touch with what we have always been meant to do. Humans were built to build.

#2: MOVEMENT: High-quality leisure requires and creates energy

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport introduces what he calls the Bennett Principle.

Drawing on ideas that Arnold Bennett put to paper in the early 1900s, the Bennett Principle reverses our intuition on leisure. It tells us that energy-intensive activities end up energising us more, and less energy-intensive activities end up leaving us even more tired.

After all, when does one ever finish a day’s work, head to the couch and watch TV for 3 hours, and feel more energised afterwards?

High-quality leisure energises us, and that often requires more energy in the first place. This is a paradox that gets lost in the pursuit of instant gratification.

Movement is a critical component of high-quality leisure time. Like craft, it makes us feel good. Exercise releases endorphins and stimulates brain activity. Even walking has been linked with a considerable range of surprising cognitive and productive benefits.

#3: CONNECTION: High-quality leisure connects us to others

Strong social connections are one of the core foundations of a healthy life. Weak social connections quite literally facilitate premature death. Our scarce leisure time therefore simply must be used in part to connect with and relate to others. Ignore this reality at your peril.

Quality leisure breeds real connection and real conversation, away from the noise of notifications and glow of screens. It’s found in shared interests among friends and discovered in shared interests among strangers.

The takeaway: use precious leisure time to connect with people and not things.

#4: SOLITUDE: High-quality leisure forces us to reflect

But leisure must also recognise the importance of temporary time alone with our thoughts. The 21st century has so far been defined by the informational utility of the internet. It is a blessing and a curse depending on how you use it.

Those hours of leisure time are too often used as an excuse to distract ourselves from our own thoughts, compounded by platforms engineered to grab as much attention as possible. Our attention is their product, but some reflective solitude is a helpful antidote.

Solitude brings with it a range of benefits for creativity, productivity and recovery. Studies have even shown that some voluntary solitude is associated with greater life satisfaction.

A Small and Important Slice

You might be wondering why I have focused on just 4.9 hours of the day. Why haven’t I talked about the bulk of our time spent in work hours and personal care? Well, I did that here, here and here, but there is a good reason for the selectivity in this article.

The punchline is that leisure time is a small but almightily important slice of the cake. Why? Because it’s the most discretionary category. And positive psychology research tells us that what we choose to do with our free time is a useful predictor of life outcomes, as well as satisfaction and performance in the other categories.

There is enough anecdotal and empirical evidence to support this reality. The greats throughout our history balanced their work with deep play, from arts to sports to socialisation.

Find your leisure sweet spot and follow their lead.

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