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How To Structure Leisure Time To Get The Most From It, From A Psychologist

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
September 29, 2021
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
Image by Marko / Stocksy
September 29, 2021

People who see leisure as a waste of time are more likely to experience anxiousness, depressive feelings, and stress, according to a recent study. Yes, finding leisure time wasteful actually hurts our mental well-being.

The study goes on to state that even without alternative plans, these individuals still didn't enjoy non-productive leisure activities and generally didn't find much fun in their lives.

Though we need between two to five hours of free time daily for optimal functioning, the problem with leisure, to those of us who are achievement-oriented, is that we don't know what to do during that free time. We think that we have to be productive 100% of the time. 

Of course, asking an achievement-oriented person to just snap their fingers and force themselves to adopt the relaxing activities others seem to enjoy would essentially be asking them to get a personality transplant.

But there is a way to nestle comfortably in that sweet spot between "languid leisure" and "I need to accomplish something." Here's what I suggest if you're trying to embrace leisure time.

First, start with your mindset.

You've heard it's all in the mind as a way to dismiss others' experiences. Well, this is partly in your mind, and that's the good news. When we get your head on board, we get you on board. 


Hijack leisure with goals and aims. 

Even if technically you are supposed to be doing leisure for the sake of leisure, let's start with baby steps and hijack it with an aim or goal. What will this leisurely activity help you with? Maybe it's intertwined with your goal of getting healthier, or you're exploring places so you improve your photography skills.

If you really enjoy an activity and happen to enjoy other outcomes alongside that, that'll make it easier for you to prioritize your leisure time. Human beings are a bit more complex than only having singular motivations, feelings, or benefits from something. 


Get curious about how other people do it.

You could get curious about how your friends, neighbors, or colleagues enjoy their leisure time. Or if that makes you feel uncomfortable, how about looking at other cultures? In the study mentioned above, researchers found that people from India saw leisure as wasteful, locating this within a diligent work ethic and economic imperative. At the other end of the spectrum were the French.

Whether you love getting lost in Emily In Paris or are enthralled by Cole Porter’s song I Love Paris, it might benefit you to ask yourself "What would the French do?" just as an exercise in curiosity. Or, "What would I do differently if I were in Paris, to make use of my time there?" And then take it from there. 


Ask yourself: What's the worst that could happen?

Our brains love to imagine catastrophe—and when we're in the thick of imagining, our brains believe it's real. These anxieties are abstract, and when abstract, they take on a life of their own. A trick to get around it is to literally ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?" Face these fears and you'll realize that the world will not end if you take a 20-minute walk in the middle of the day. In fact, you may find that it helps you reclaim more time in your day.


See leisure as a cornerstone of your life. 

Many Type-A people see sleep as unnecessary. But the science of sleep says otherwise: Besides helping your cells to repair and renew, sleep clears junk information from your brain, integrates information and consolidates memories, and also provides a safe space to process traumas. And that's just the beginning of a very comprehensive slew of functions sleep fulfills. It is definitely not redundant or a waste of time. 

We are just learning to respect sleep as a cornerstone of our lives. What if we could respect leisure as an equally important cornerstone?

Taking breaks is about spending time to buy back exponentially more time and peace of mind. That pause helps us to strategize and respond wisely, instead of reacting from a place of fear. How about acknowledging leisure's role in nurturing your most important relationships, taking care of your body, and indulging your curiosity in other parts of life? Because the more areas of life we expose ourselves to, the more raw material we have to be creative. Not to mention, resting or leisure time (meaning, not working) activates the Default Mode Network in our brain1, which is absolutely essential for creative breakthroughs, whether to create solutions or innovations. 

While many people fear becoming lax or undisciplined with leisure activities, the truth is, for many people, it will take a lot of discipline to become indolent and hedonistic. 

Practical ways to structure your leisure:


Do the things you actually like.

While "unproductive" leisure activities without aims are often associated with hanging out with one's friends, sitting on a beach and doing nothing, or watching TV, maybe we have to examine these beyond their abstract categories.

For instance, are you actually watching shows you love (and even learn from), or just numbing your brain? If you're watching a show you enjoy with others and then talking about it over a meal later, that means multiple benefits. And maybe you don't like sitting on a beach, so a walk or picnic may suffice.

When it comes to friends, maybe they aren't the right company. There are friends we have, whom we wouldn't have befriended as our current selves—that's fine, but just make sure that your current self enjoys hanging out with them too, rather than dreading it before or feeling drained after.


Ask yourself: Is your pace of life compatible? 

Type-A's tend to be impatient, and the idea of spending six hours at a barbecue with friends can be a horrific waste of time. So, how about negotiating that you'll spend two hours instead? Or to do walk-and-talks for 45 minutes or a food pilgrimage where you literally sample different delicacies across different food establishments, instead of vegetating on each other's couches? 


Develop your skills.

If you really struggle to kick the productivity bug, maybe your leisure time needs to involve perfecting your challah-baking skills. You still feel that sense of flow while doing it and feel the excitement as you slice into that loaf that's just emerged from the oven. Similarly, if you feel good because you see your leisure activity a little like a video game where you can "up-level" and feel darned good, why not design it that way? 


Try "forced" leisure.

Even if I am good at leaving my phone alone, there's always that little voice that whispers I could just reach for it. The only time I cannot touch my phone is when I'm having a massage or a facial. So I book that, to give myself those breaks where I literally can't touch it.

Another way I encourage some of my clients to go about their leisure is to tell their Tiger Mother Friends—who often boss them into doing things—something along the lines of "OK, I have a slot every Thursday between 6 and 10 p.m. You book an activity, and I'll show up." Some of our friends love being in charge, and some of us hate thinking of what classes or activities to do, so it's a win-win. Note: You may end up hating it, but you still don't have enough data yet; try it, and then see how you like this arrangement. 


Find the snatches of joy.

Even every productivity-hooked workaholic has that thing that makes them pause and smile—and I mean this beyond scrolling incessantly on your phone. It could be catching your dog going belly-up and looking silly, seeing your cat walk to you and purr, or playing with your smiley kid. Even if it's taking a stroll in the park because there are cute pets there, why not? That will be an added motivator. 

The bottom line. 

Leisure can work for everyone, if we pair it with our lifestyles, personality, and goals. It'll be strange for some to start it, so do it with baby steps. Even if you take that first run gingerly and realize the world did not end or cautiously show up to a gathering you were invited to and realize you love the company, what matters is that you start.

If you're doing this with people you're close to, reflecting together after would be a fun and meaningful bonding exercise. You can even ask yourself, afterward, the following questions:

  • What did I love about this activity as I did it, beyond the goals I was hitting?
  • Was there anything that delighted or surprised me?
  • What was it that made it work? (It could be sound vs. silence, the group dynamics, weather, etc.)
  • How could I transplant these successful elements forward to my next leisurely endeavor?
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy author page.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.

She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.