Take it easy: Why it’s time to take the labour out of leisure time

Sunday, July 21, 2019

By David McGinn for The Globe And Mail

A few weeks ago, I spent the day at a beach in Toronto with a friend of mine. It was supposed to be a carefree Saturday afternoon. Instead, we spent most of it on our phones. She was posting photos to her Instagram account. I was checking Facebook and texting friends about being at the beach. “I’m at the beach. What are you up to?” I asked five different friends. Why did I need to know? It’s not like I was going to leave the beach. In what should have been an idyll afternoon I needed to compare schedules.

When I got home I watched the first few episodes of Fleabag because I had been told by multiple people that I absolutely must see the British TV series. It’s a great show, but watching it felt like homework, because I knew I would have to report back on what I did and didn’t like about it.

These were supposed to be leisure activities, breaks from work, moments to relax, but they didn’t end up feeling that way. Leisure is supposed to be about enjoyment, about doing things without any sense of obligation of a greater purpose. But everything that I did that day, in my so-called free time, felt like work.

So what is free time any more? One thing is certain: We have less of it, and that’s especially true for women. According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, women spent an average of 3.6 hours a day on leisure activities in 2015, 30 minutes less than the 4.1 hours they spent in 1986. Meanwhile, men spent 4.1 hours in 2015, compared with 4.4 in 1986.

Bryan Smale, director of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, an initiative based at the University of Waterloo, says our shrinking leisure time is a result of economic anxiety following the global recession in 2008. We’re so devoted to work that we sacrifice free time. But Chris Rojek, a sociologist at City, University London, says not only has leisure time dwindled, the very nature of it has changed thanks to social media and the pervasive mentality that being busy is desirable. Leisure time has become labour.

That’s likely why we feel the urge to multitask even when we’re off the clock. Alissa Moffit, a 23-year-old who works at a radio station in Winnipeg, told me that even when she has leisure time she doesn’t feel like she’s using it well. “It does sometimes feel like I need to be working towards something rather than doing nothing for nothing’s sake,” she says. When she’s at home watching Netflix, she’ll often also be on her computer and her phone, doing her best, she says, to maximize her free time. “It never really feels like it’s benefitting me,” she says.

This is the frustrating irony of our obsession with busyness. Our leisure time rarely if ever feels rejuvenating and restorative, and whatever work we do during it never really feels important or productive in any meaningful way. We lose on both fronts.

Cartoon graphic drawing of women on beach in sunglasses


If the cult of busyness is making it more difficult to enjoy guilt-free downtime, social media compounds the problem as an outlet for us to show the world just how active and interesting we are, even in our supposed free time.

Because we can show off, we’re using our leisure time to earn cultural cachet. There’s a reason so many restaurants and hotels are being designed for that perfect shot with colourful decor, neon signs and rainbow lattes. Why go out to dinner, on holiday or to the beach if you can’t put it on Instagram and be seen as exploring or indulging instead of just relaxing? That’s also why so many of us tweet while watching television, be it a playoff game or the newest Netflix show: We want others to see us as in tune with what’s binge-worthy, popular and of the moment.

The idea that work isn’t only something we do but a fundamental part of who we are – even the work we put in to social media – can be traced back to the Reformation (and resulting Protestant work ethic) that swept across Christian Europe in the 16th century.

“That sense that work is not merely an activity that we do in order to make good in the world and keep ourselves busy but is actually sort of a source of our identity, our pride in ourselves, our sense of meaning, that’s where you start to see a kind of guilty relationship to non-work,” says Josh Cohen, a British psychoanalyst and author of Not Working: Why We Have to Stop.

Economic anxiety from the 2008 recession and Silicon Valley’s insistence that we maximize the productivity of every minute of our lives even when we’re not at the office – tracking our sleep, booking a 10-minute mindfulness session between meetings, eating whatever one meal a day that Jack Dorsey eats – has amplified that sense of guilt to an unparalleled degree.

“We are encouraged more and more to see ourselves as working beings and we’re by virtue of that encouraged to see time that is not put to work as time wasted,” Dr. Cohen says.

The psychological implications of not having any true downtime are troubling, Eliana Cohen, a Toronto-based psychologist, says. Downtime has been shown to improve creativity and is vital for allowing us to process our thoughts, whatever they might be. When we don’t have any true downtime it is easy for us to become anxious, she says.

It’s something that feels counterintuitive to those of us who also feel anxious in our free moments.

When I was a teenager there were summer days when I would lie on my back on the grass at the park, staring up at the sky, my mind blissfully empty.

I couldn’t do that today for more than five minutes without feeling a twitchy sense of restlessness. Were I even to try, I have no doubt that within those first five minutes I’d pull out my phone and post a picture of the sky on Instagram. I’d do this out of need, not want.

“With the strong stress upon standing out from the crowd, being distinct, having something that nobody else has in our culture, leisure is given over to that so that it no longer has anything to do with freedom,” Rojek says.

In other words, our free time has become one more job we have and we have to make sure other people know we’re doing it.

Article originally appears in The Globe And Mail. Read it here.