It’s Monday, you’ve just gotten home from work, and you’re blessedly free from social obligations for the night. You heat up some takeout, plop down on the couch clutching your phone … and start to scroll through Instagram. Then you switch over to Facebook. Then you power up your laptop and look for something good to watch on Hulu.
All of a sudden, you’ve been on the couch for three hours. Your shoulders are stiff and your vision is a little blurry. You feel oddly stressed out, having essentially done nothing since you got home.
But the next time you reach for your smartphone or tablet out of habit — or boredom — consider a more fulfilling alternative: find a hobby, or an activity that you do purely for pleasure and relaxation, not for work or necessity.
When unexpectedly facing free time, many of us choose a path of low resistance, maybe by throwing in a load of laundry, slathering on a face mask, and streaming the latest episode of Succession. It’s no wonder, with so many obligations, people, and social platforms vying for our attention. Most of us now spend our waking hours sitting at desks plugged into a computer, squeezing in time for exercise — making that a job, as well — and packing our schedules with “required” social activities, like team-building exercises, networking events, and school fundraisers.
We might want a hobby, but we just don’t feel like we have enough time. But we may have more time than we think: According to the 2019 Bureau of Labor and Statistics Survey, Americans have roughly five hours of leisure hours per day that they use to socialize, relax, or engage in activities — with men reporting 49 more minutes each day than women. Still, watching TV takes up more than half of those hours.
When we do make use of those leisure hours, our hustle culture leaves us with no moment unaccounted for — because we feel that even our “free” moments must involve the pursuit of excellence, money, self-improvement, and “growth.” So our leisure activities often turn into a race to see who can do it the best — running becomes about completing marathons, or knitting turns into a quest to become a crafting influencer. As Tim Wu wrote for the New York Times, “We’re afraid of being bad at [hobbies]. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”
Selin A. Malkoc, a marketing professor at Ohio State University who studies how leisure can contribute to our overall happiness, echoes this sentiment. The problem with finding a hobby, she says, is compounded when so many of us “do yoga because we want to be a yoga master.” Instead, Malkoc says, it’s perfectly fine to do it just because we want to relax.
But making time for non-essential activities is, in fact, essential. Challenging leisure activities — such as hobbies — improve mental and physical wellbeing, foster learning, and build communities. Oh — and it’s fun!
Here are five ways to find, and keep, a fulfilling hobby.
Ignore that “fantasy self” you might aspire to
One of the first mistakes people make when starting a hobby is choosing something aspirational, rather than something they’ll actually enjoy. “People are drawn to the fantasy self,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of the international bestseller The Happiness Project. Rubin has spent years exploring how to live a fulfilling life by changing habits, activities, and routines through her book, blog and podcast.
Rubin explains how last year, she decided to learn the ukulele after hearing it was fun. “But come on! I don’t know anything about music,” she says. The hobby wasn’t the right fit. “If it’s completely outside the natural contours of your nature,” Rubin says, you’re less likely to stay engaged.
It’s also important to keep realistic expectations. “We have this desire to do as many things as humanly possible,” Malkoc tells me, “because it seems like all of our friends are doing everything.”
Instead, find something that works for you. Stay true to what you enjoy: If you already like cooking, try taking your skills up a notch, and sign up for a basic pastry class. If you enjoy writing, try a fiction workshop.
If you do want to try something totally new, start small. Let’s say rock climbing sounds exciting, but you’ve barely ventured into the city park. Try a local climbing gym or do a moderate hike outdoors. Taking small, measured steps in developing habits, and hobbies, is critical. They keep it manageable and make it feel less like work.
To hold yourself accountable, enlist friends in the effort, Rubin says. And try to break down the barriers to entry, she recommends. If you’re learning an instrument or a craft, it’s much better to have a dedicated space with your instruments, or materials, on display. The easy access will help encourage you to pick up that guitar.
No, a hobby is not a side hustle. Do it for the joy it brings.
The gig economy, despite its drawbacks, is in full swing, with 57 million Americans earning a part-time income driving for Lyft, completing small jobs through TaskRabbit, or renting rooms on Airbnb. And the internet has also provided a platform for YouTube influencers, offering tutorials on construction, cooking, or organizing your closet. While these pursuits may overlap with our interests, and making money is essential to sustaining ourselves, it’s important to develop hobbies outside of our economy, those with no financial motives attached.
Rubin stresses that the pure pleasure of engaging in a hobby should be enough. When we start to commodify our hobbies, it brings “deadlines, demands, and accommodation,” she says. Having a leisure pursuit is “a relief” from these stresses, she says, since they’re “within your sole control.”
On top of that, having a hobby that’s totally disconnected from your career will likely still improve your work life. As the director of the counseling center at Amherst College, Jackie Alvarez advises students on how to manage a healthy work-life balance. She sees hobbies as a way to not only bring a sense of engagement to the leisure task, but to contribute to a more productive and engaged work life. That’s because leisure time not only helps refuel us for a busy work life, but by practicing deep focus — she references psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow state,” a concept describing being fully immersed in an activity — we are learning how to become better at focusing.
“When you’re working, can you be engaged?” she asks. “When you’re away from work, can you not have work on your mind?”
She also sees structure as important to developing hobbies, meaning that students who are engaged in sports or other activities, such as members of student organizations, are better at maintaining hobbies. Likewise, “when you’re working full time with a family, and have a hobby or two, the structure actually helps you,” she says. Scheduling your time around a hobby can show you that you may have more time than you think, and help you prioritize.
Escape the glow of the screen. Yes, you can do it.
Creating a website, learning to code, or getting really good at a video game may be attractive choices for a hobby. But if you frequently find yourself losing stretches of hours to your devices, don’t pick an activity that’s screen based. Many of us are tethered to computers for work as well as in our downtime, racking up a total of 10.5 hours on screens per day for the average American (if you’re reading this, you’re looking at a screen). Finding hobbies that can get us away from the computer monitor should be a priority.
Screen time has been linked to depression and anxiety, argues Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone. In an earlier conversation with Price, she talked about how phones hinder “our ability to focus,” which she says depends on us ignoring the distractions they present. So by putting the phone aside and engaging in active, or outdoor, hobbies like bird watching, ballroom dancing, or hiking, we can improve engagement in a hobby.
Get out of town — or your building, or your job, or the country
Changing your location or routine can be a great time to develop a new hobby. Whether you’re moving to a new city, moving into a new apartment, or meeting new coworkers, the change can be a good time to spark a change in your routine. I recently moved to Budapest, Hungary, allowing me to reinvent my routine. Do I work at the cafe down the street, or in my apartment? When do I exercise, and where? How often do I cook at home or go out with friends?
Beyond these practical questions, I am inspired to try new hobbies as a byproduct of being surrounded by interesting people from different parts of the world. I’ve started Hungarian lessons, for one, as a way to integrate myself into my environment. I’ve also found the courage to sing at open mics. And attending literary events is introducing me to new ideas and like-minded expats.
A different culture might be a crucial element to inspiring the pursuit of leisure activities. Malkoc has researched what people do when they gain extra time: Although Americans report that they want to incorporate more leisure into their lives, most end up running errands in their free time, she says. Malkoc thinks the reason is in the US, we have a long to-do list of obligations, but we don’t have a “fun” to-do list. Instead, leisure activities often must be scheduled.
In Turkey, where she’s originally from, Malkoc says she can “always find cool, enjoyable things to do,” she says. “But the minute I put my American hat on, somehow I’m unable to do it.” Why? In Turkey, she thinks the fun to-dos are more “embedded” in people’s routines.
“If they gained an hour, they would clearly go for a walk or something,” Malkoc explains. “They would knock on their neighbors’ door to go and get a coffee.”
Hope Reese is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, currently living in Budapest. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, and Vice.