How to Actually Enjoy Downtime, According to Psychologists

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If you told me six months ago my favorite thing about my body would be a set of calluses, I wouldn’t have believed you. Of course, nothing about the last six months has been believable, per se. I’ve overall accepted our new normal as best I can, and sometimes even appreciate the ways in which I’ve been motivated to think critically about—and work to change—preconceived ideas of “normal.” But many days still feel like a struggle. Wading through the anxiety spiral soup of quarantine, eager for something to give structure and purpose to my present life, I did what so many sourdough bakers and mask sewers did before me —I decided to get a hobby.

According to Psychology Today, having a hobby can lessen stress, improve brain function, and even improve heart health. “Hobbies and extracurricular activities have a positive impact and prove to be of great benefit to children and adults alike,” explains Vanessa De Jesus Guzman, counselor and founder of Free to Be Mindful. “Engaging in activities we enjoy helps to decrease stress and increase our overall mood. It also helps our connectivity to others, which can have a positive impact on our self-worth and self-esteem.” Before quarantine, my schedule was packed with bowling, dance class, and girls’ nights out, but without physical spaces to unwind and socialize, I was feeling disconnected from my community. My usual creative outlets—writing and design—were still important to me, but I wanted to express myself in a way that felt bigger and more present, with something that had the potential to one day be less solitary. So, I picked up a guitar, downloaded the Fender Play app, and started tearing up my finger pads.

Wading through the anxiety spiral soup of quarantine, eager for something to give structure and purpose to my present life, I did what so many sourdough bakers and mask sewers did before me —I decided to get a hobby.

Hobbies are Vital to Your Physical and Emotional Health

Even with limited work and zero social engagements, giving myself permission to devote ten minutes a day to practice was difficult. I pride myself in being busy; I’m quick to reframe overworking as hustling, and admit that I allow my freelance schedule to take over my life, so that I’m never not on a project—and I’m not alone.

Today, a 40-hour workweek feels mythical; most Americans work 50 or more hours a week, and many of us are expected to answer a text or email long after the office has closed. Factor in working from home—where there are way fewer boundaries between personal and professional activity—and it’s no wonder so many of us feel simultaneously exhausted and underperforming. “When compared to our European counterparts, Americans place so much emphasis on careers and job status; many forget or do not prioritize having a healthy work-life balance,” says De Jesus Guzman. One Harvard Business Review article notes that overworking has been shown to lead to health problems like poor sleep, impaired memory, and diabetes—and it doesn’t even make employees more productive. In short, leisure time isn’t laziness—it’s vital to your physical and emotional health.

How to Make Space for Downtime

If you’re a workaholic, one way to make space for down time is to treat it like any other important appointment. Therapist and depression researcher Eve Rosenfeld advises, “I know some people might prefer to not schedule their hobbies because it makes hobbies seem like work, but it is actually the opposite!” She adds, “If you don't schedule protected time for hobbies, you may implicitly put these activities off when you have deadlines to meet, for example, as hobbies are not viewed as ‘pressing’ activities. Scheduling them ensures that you respect your hobby time.” When I decided to try learning an instrument, I set aside ten minutes a day, every day, as iron-clad me time.

Unlearn Harmful Thought Patterns

Even once I committed to my ten minutes, however, it was hard not to let my inner critic creep in as I learned to tune my strings and worked out awkward finger placements. Perfectionists—including me—tend to be pretty hard on themselves, as a rule, so an hour of creative self-care can quickly devolve into berating myself for not producing more, better, faster. And what’s the point of down time if you’re spending it worrying or bullying yourself?

To unlearn harmful thought patterns, Rosenfeld says that awareness is a great first step: “Pay attention to your thoughts while you're engaged in hobbies and try to catch and label judgmental thinking. It's nice when we are ‘good at’ our hobbies, but that isn't why we do them. We do them because they add something positive to our life. Reminding ourselves of that can also allow us to enjoy our hobbies a bit more.” If your inner critic fixates on what other people might think about your lack of expertise, Rosenfeld recommends focusing on yourself and keeping the process private to help nurture your beginner’s mentality. “You don't even have to tell anyone what your hobbies are,” she says. “If you have a creative hobby, people will sometimes want to see what you produce. That can add an evaluative component to something you are doing for fun. It's okay to say no if people ask. It's also okay to not even tell people what your hobbies are! They are for you, not for anyone else.”

Try Mindfulness

I personally have a really hard time letting myself enjoy anything for its own sake; practicing guitar has taken a fair amount of mindfulness, but that practice has had major effects on the way that I treat myself when I’m making anything, and the way that I take in enjoyment. Plus, since music is basically math, and thus flexes a part of my brain I’ve avoided using since high school, I have fewer expectations and can enjoy the challenges of a completely new medium. That being said, there’s also something to be said for staying in your comfort zone (don’t we all need a little comfort right now?), and it’s also possible to adjust an established hobby or skillset to quarantine.

De Jesus Guzman notes, “Whether a person is extroverted and engaged in many hobbies and outings pre-pandemic, or if a person is more introverted and made a concerted effort to try something new, the current status of our globe requires us to let go of what we think an activity should look like or feel like. Trying something new during quarantine requires us to prioritize flexibility.” De Jesus Guzman also touts mindfulness as a way to explore new activities and adapt old favorites to life indoors, and conversely, that new hobbies can help our mindfulness practice: “When we engage in hobbies we enjoy, our attention is usually ‘all in’ on what we are doing, which is the main aspect of practicing mindfulness. This has amazing benefits including increased focus, increased self-regulation, increased personal awareness, and decrease in stress and anxious feelings - which is beneficial for our mental health.”

An Easy Place to Start

If you’re sold on down time, but not sure where to start, De Jesus Guzman recommends trying something offline: “When our hobbies take place sitting in front of a screen, after we worked in front of a screen all day, we want to try to engage in movement somewhere in between. That can be a walk around the neighborhood, or taking a virtual workout class.” Rosenfeld notes that you’re more likely to stick to something if it’s in line with a greater sense of purpose, saying, “You can clarify your values using worksheets or checklists. Choosing hobbies and leisure activities that are values consistent will be the most rewarding. It can also help when you are feeling frustrated with your hobbies or judgmental of your performance in leisure activities. You can remind yourself that you are engaged in the activity to pursue your values. Keeping time and space for your hobbies is moving you closer to your ideal life, even if you are feeling discouraged.”

The Bottom Line

Since picking up the guitar, I’ve not only learned a few songs, but my mood feels more stable overall, and I’m noticeably more productive at work tasks and chores—it would have been fine, of course, if the sole outcome of my lessons was happiness in the moment, but it feels empowering to choose to use my time for my own benefit. After only a few weeks, the aforementioned calluses on my fingers felt like battle scars, marking my dedication and improvement as I learned new songs. Plus, fooling around on the guitar is just plain fun. Whether it’s music, baking, crafting, or anything else, hobbies can be an inexpensive, low-pressure way to reclaim your time. As Rosenfeld puts it, “Pursuing our own interests fosters independence and feelings of confidence, which can be really helpful for those of us that are over-invested in our personal relationships and can expand horizons and foster work-life balance for people who may have a tendency towards workaholism.”  

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