The 2 most common mistakes people make when relaxing, and how to avoid them

Allow yourself to have some pure leisure.

A suitcase, palm trees, and passport placed on a smartphone with waves on it

One of the topics Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School, researches is leisure. What we can do to make that time more enjoyable, and what happens when we push aside leisure time in an attempt to be more productive?

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How did you become interested in studying leisure?

There’s a saying — you study what you’re not good at. I don’t know if that is accurate for me, but it is something that we all struggle with. That’s especially true if you’re a woman and there’s plenty of research to show that. I became interested in what are the strategies to be better at leisure, and in the questions of: Should we be happier? And if yes, why aren’t we?

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when they approach their leisure time?

1. Scheduling can be a problem.

The thing about scheduling is that it has its pros and its cons. It does help make sure that you actually do something. For some of us who struggle to make time, scheduling can increase the probability that you actually make time for yourself. It’s better that you have the experience of leisure than no leisure at all. 

The issue is, scheduling makes you enjoy leisure a little less. If you want to maximize your enjoyment, it’s better to not schedule. Research suggests that what you need is a bit of balance, which is referred to as “rough scheduling.” That can mean that you don’t give yourself a specific time but you do give yourself a window — like a Saturday afternoon. In doing so, you can balance the two concerns. You have a plan that you can execute, but you’re not so planned that it feels too rigid and inflexible in the moment, which is what decreases fun.

How does scheduling affect the time that I’ve set aside for leisure — once I’ve set aside an afternoon, is it detrimental to fill that up with planned activities?

To some extent, it depends on what type of person you are. But it’s also true that, as human beings, we tend to link going with the flow to having fun. What feels the most fun to us is when you do what you want to do when you do it. If you feel like a margarita, have a margarita then. It’s going to be less fun if you say, “I can have a margarita at this specific time” and drink it then.

When we’re really rigid and we schedule everything we want to do on vacation, that can sometimes create problems.

It's important not to think of leisure as wasted time.


Do you have other actionable advice for people looking to make the most of their leisure time?

2. I’d advise people not to think of leisure as wasted time.

Some people get so caught up in productivity. It’s important to keep in mind it’s actually important for you to give yourself that time. There are health benefits, mental health benefits, and the more that you actually relax, the more you’re likely to feel rejuvenated later. 

Some people feel guilty when they do a simple leisure activity, like watching television, and feel the need to multitask. But they should not. It’s important to allow yourself to have some pure leisure, and if you start to feel bad about it, remind yourself that leisure truly is a beneficial use of time.

People who report feeling guilty about leisure are also more likely to report depression, anxiety, and stress. They feel less satisfied with life. It might sound silly — but people need to try to actually relax and enjoy themselves. Humans are not designed to work all day with our brains on hyperspeed the whole time.

Do you find yourself approaching leisure differently now that you’ve studied it?

Yes — especially when it comes to the point of scheduling. I try to keep my schedule more flexible.

I think the biggest thing is that so many of us struggle with work-life balance, and it’s difficult to turn off work. To deal with that, I try to get into something of a routine with a particular leisure — but I still keep it flexible. For example, I like to read before bed. It’s not like I have a specific time that I need to be in bed and reading, but I do have a rough idea of what I want and try to secure at least an hour for myself every day. I allow it to vary in terms of when it happens, but I make sure that it does.

A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

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