Belle Beth Cooper
Belle is an iOS developer and writer. She’s also a co-founder of Hello Code, a Melbourne-based startup.
October 27, 2016 · 4 min read

Why you should rethink how you spend your spare time

Rethinking your spare time

We spend a considerable amount of our lives looking forward to our spare time. We watch the clock during the workday, we count down the days until our next holiday, we look forward to Friday nights and dread Monday mornings.

But despite our yearning for free time, we also tend to waste it once it comes around. At least, we do according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow.

Despite our yearning for free time, we tend to waste it once it comes around.

Csikszentmihalyi's book explores the state of flow—when you're so involved in what you're doing that time flies by without you realizing. It's something we all want to find in our work, but Csikszentmihalyi says we should be looking for it in our free time, too. In fact, he says flow is the secret key to enjoyment.

Finding flow in your spare time

The problem with how we spend our spare time, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is that we're not naturally drawn to activities that produce a flow state. We tend to opt for passive activities like watching TV.

A flow state, on the other hand, comes from periods of deep concentration when you're using skills. We don't get much satisfaction from watching TV all day, but improving your skills or making something from nothing produces a sense of accomplishment as well as being a ripe opportunity for that elusive flow state.

Csikszentmihalyi says many people feel alienated from their work, and resent the energy they put into a job they don't care about. But then those same people waste their free time as well:

Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. As a result life passes in a sequence of boring and anxious experiences over which a person has little control.

In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found people tended to be happiest in their free time when they were "just talking to one another, when they gardened, knitted, or were involved in a hobby."

More free time won't make you happier

Together time makes people happy

Regardless of how we spend our free time, we tend to think if had more of it, we'd be happier. Even just an extra day off now and then would be nice, right?

The strange thing is, research shows taking extra time off won't necessarily make us happier. A study into how we spend our time found that most people's moods fluctuate as you might imagine: we're happier on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and have our worst moods during the workweek.

But the strange part of the study was that people without jobs reported pretty much the same fluctuations in mood as those who did work during the week.

Researchers believe this is because free time is an example of what's called a "network good." Network goods are things that derive their benefits from being shared. In this case, free time is only valuable when it's shared.

A follow-up study looked at when people spend time with friends and family, and found this pattern mimicked the fluctuations in mood from the previous study. Social time roughly doubled on the weekend, and accounted for about half the improvement in mood for study participants.

Again, this was consistent with participants who didn't work during the week. Just because they had free time while others worked didn't actually make them happier—they were missing "together time" as much as the workers were.

With more flexible work schedules becoming more common, we may have to put in more effort to coordinate our schedules with others. But this research suggests the benefits would be worth putting in that effort.

Give and you shall (think you) receive

Give and your shall receive

This is counterintuitive, but research shows when we feel like we've done a lot with our time, we also tend to think we have more time overall. And one great way to feel like you've used your time well is to give that time to others.

A series of studies looked at the differences in how much time we think we have based on giving our time to others, wasting it, or spending it on ourselves. In each study, the participants who spent their time on others felt they had more time at their disposal than either of the other groups.

The participants who gave their time were also more likely to do more work on follow-up tasks than those who wasted their time or spent it on themselves.

One of the studies didn't require the participants to give or waste their time during the study, but simply asked them to describe a recent time when they had done something outside their normal responsibilities—either for themselves or for someone else. Again, those who remembered helping others felt they had more time to spare in the future.

The sad part is that we tend to prioritize our time to spend on ourselves and our own responsibilities when we feel we're time-starved. If we spent extra time helping others, however, we'd be more likely to feel like we had plenty of time to get everything done.

We tend to prioritize our time on ourselves and our responsibilities when we feel we're time-starved

Take aways

Find a hobby, sport, or skill you enjoy, and work on it in your free time.

Not all your free time needs to be spent avoiding TV or other passive hobbies. But try to find (or schedule, if necessary) time to work on something you're good at, and want to get better at. You'll be more likely to feel satisfied and accomplished after spending your time this way.

Plan your time off to coincide with friends and family.

Whenever possible, try to take off the same days as your friends or family to get the most enjoyment out of your free time. If you're planning to have extra time off—unless you specifically need some alone time—try to match it up with others to get the biggest benefit.

Spend more time helping others, especially when you're time-poor.

It might be difficult to put this into practice, because it's so counterintuitive. But if you want to feel like you have more time in your life, spend just 15 or 30 minutes doing something for someone else.

If you want to feel like you have more time, spend just 15 minutes doing something for someone else.