This is the last entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.
A few weeks ago, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, the second entry covered the connections between one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life, the third entry covered the connections between one’s intellectual life and financial life, the fourth entry covered the connections between one’s marital life and financial life, the fifth entry covered the connections between one’s parental life and financial life, the sixth entry covered the connections between one’s professional life and financial life, the seventh entry covered the connections between one’s social life and financial lifeand today we’re looking at one’s avocational life and financial life.
As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.
Today, we’re going to look at the final sphere, the avocational or leisure sphere, and how it connects to one’s financial life.
What Is “Avocational Life”?
Avocational life simply refers to the things that we engage in that aren’t intended to earn an income and that we do primarily because we personally enjoy them. They’re your hobbies, the things you do primarily for personal enjoyment and fulfillment.
Along with our social life, our avocational life is often a sphere that we allow to be molded and pushed out of the way by our other spheres. Many people take little time for their own hobbies and interests. Many others give their hobbies and interests some time, but they just allow them to fill in gaps in their life or only give them time when they’re dead tired, like watching a television program in a half-awake stupor after a long day.
Another similarity to our social life is how we’ll often wake up one day feeling that something is missing in our lives and realize that it’s the things we used to enjoy doing. Where did they go? We constantly took time away from our hobbies and interests and gave them to our career, our family, our marriage. The other spheres gobbled up our avocational sphere and we’re left feeling empty in a certain way. While losing one’s social life can bring on a state of loneliness, losing one’s avocational life can bring on a sense that our life is just one endless march of drudgery.
We’ll get into how to fix that in a moment, but it’s worth noting that there are a lot of links between one’s avocational life and one’s financial life.
Many hobbies come with some financial cost. Some hobbies can definitely have a negative impact on one’s financial life. Hobbies can be directly expensive, requiring you to pay for equipment, materials, and events. Even seemingly cost-neutral hobbies can have hidden expenses, like the cost of driving somewhere to go on a hike. When the expenses are small, this typically isn’t a big issue, particularly if you’re getting a lot of personal value out of the hobby, but an expensive hobby can simply not be worth the benefit you get from it.
Hobbies can sometimes grow into side gigs or even full time careers. For the first half-decade of my professional life, writing was a hobby that I used to fill in gaps in my time. I’ve always enjoyed writing; the process of turning ideas into words scratches a deep itch in my head. I was lucky enough to see that hobby turn into something I could earn some money from, and that gradually grew into a career switch.
Hobbies often help us build skills that are useful in other spheres of life, including our professional life. Almost all of my hobbies sharpen me in some way, usually improving my social skills, my physical health, or my mental acuity. My fitness is better. My ability to solve certain kinds of problems is improved. My ability to relate to others is better. Those things easily translate into better professional opportunities indirectly, and sometimes directly.
Hobbies are often a form of incredibly powerful de-stressing, which can have a strong positive effect on our physical and mental lives (reducing costs) and in other life areas as well. This is the big reason why I find hobbies so valuable – they’re incredibly good for de-stressing and reaching a happier state in one’s life. When I have time for my hobbies, I simply feel better about every part of my life, and that means I function better in almost every dimension. I work more efficiently. I’m more present and patient with my family. I feel better. I sleep better. I feel more social and more creative. Hobbies make a huge difference in my all-around quality of life, and that means I have less expense trying to bolster the quality of different spheres in my life.
Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining and improving my own leisure life.
Strategy #1 – Block Off Uninterrupted Time for Your Hobbies
This is one of the most important changes I’ve made in my adult life over the past ten years or so. Prior to this, I allowed my hobbies and interests to just “fill in the gaps” in my life. Whenever I found a few free moments, I’d dabble in an interest of some kind – maybe I’d read a few pages in a book or watch a television show. On the rare occasions when I would actually use a block of time for a hobby, I was usually sick and thus it wasn’t really high quality time anyway.
Over time, what I found was that this pattern led to a life that made me feel like I was shuffling through it like a robot, like I was on an endless march of drudgery. I figured out eventually that what was really missing from my life was big blocks of time to dive into hobbies I cared about.
I started blocking off Saturday afternoons from after lunch until shortly before dinner for hobbies, if at all possible (meaning if I didn’t have a parental responsibility, like taking a child to a soccer game or something). It was a revelation. I dove into hiking. I dove into food and home brewing experiments. I dove into tabletop games. Those were things that I didn’t really have time for before this.
(Where did I find this time? I’ll get to that in a minute.)
In a typical week these days, I have multiple multi-hour blocks marked off for hobbies. Those blocks are pretty sacrosanct – they’re incredibly important to me as a source for recharging so I can do all of the other things in my life better.
Because of those blocks, I often feel recharged and ready to take on the challenges and responsibilities in my life. I’m more efficient and energetic about all of those things because I have that hobby time, I have that “me” time. It’s vital, and it turbocharges everything else.
Strategy #2 – Give Preference to Hobbies That Induce a “Flow State”
The big reason I block off multi-hour chunks of time for hobbies is that one of my big goals with any hobby I engage in is to achieve a “flow state.” For those unfamiliar, a “flow state” is that state of mind where you’re so engaged mentally and/or physically with something you’re doing that you lose track of time and place. I’m not talking about passively losing track of time when you get into something of a dull trance when watching an unengaging television show or something; I’m talking about an active flow state, where you’re so absorbed in doing something, mentally and/or physically, that you completely lose yourself in it and become basically unaware of anything else for a while.
In his book Flow, the psychologist Michael Csikszentmihalyi describes this state as a peak human experience and a source of genuine happiness, and I strongly agree with him. One of the most profound changes I’ve ever made in my life was reorienting things into blocks of time so that I have the best chance possible to jump into flow states as frequently as possible because they feel incredible. During a flow state, I feel so engaged that nothing else matters; afterwards, my mood is elevated and my ability to focus and be social is elevated for a surprisingly long time. I use blocks of time when I’m working to try to fall into a flow state, and I do the same thing with my hobby time.
Thus, one of the key factors in figuring out whether a hobby is going to stick around in my life is whether or not it gets me into that kind of “flow state” easily, where I’m engaged and lose track of everything around me. If I can give a hobby a block of a few hours and I’m consistently falling into a state like that, then that hobby is going to stick around. If I give a hobby time and it doesn’t hook me like that, then it’s probably not worth those blocks of time.
Strategy #3 – Try Lots of Different Hobbies – Preferably Low Cost or Free Ones – Until You Discover Ones That Induce a “Flow State”
The big trick, of course, is finding hobbies that induce that flow state for me. How do I find them?
Honestly, I do it by trying lots of new things. At least a few times a month, I’ll take a block of hobby time and devote it to something that’s new to me. I’ll spend a couple of blocks trying to learn to play the banjo, or maybe I’ll spend it trying to learn how to sketch, or maybe I’ll give knitting a try, or maybe I’ll try a few free aikido lessons.
Often, those things don’t click for me. I don’t even get close to a flow state and while I might find the activity interesting enough, it just doesn’t click in a deep way. If I find myself looking at my watch, that’s probably not a great sign. (I usually set a loud alarm if I need to be somewhere or do something else at the end of a block of time, so that if I get into a flow state, I’m not missing anything important from other areas of my life.)
Sometimes, though, I’ll find something that does click and three hours will pass and I’ll just be completely amazed. That, right there, is the sign of a hobby that I should stick with, and I’ll often make room to do it a few more times, and it’ll often enter into my repertoire of hobbies.
Some things that fall into this category for me are hiking, playing tabletop games, reading books, practicing martial arts, doing yoga, meditating, writing in a journal, gardening, playing certain computer games, and making food items and beverages (think home brewing or sauerkraut making). While some of those activities bleed into other spheres of life, such as protecting and improving my mental health, they all are non-work things I do that can easily induce a “flow state” or something like it.
Strategy #4 – Cut Out “Micro-Leisure” and Turn That Into an Evening or Weekend Leisure Block
Something I used to do frequently before I started blocking off time for leisure is that I would engage in what I would call “micro-leisure.” I’d give myself fifteen minutes or so to stick my toes into a hobby of mine here and there, but never enough time to really scratch that itch.
I’d come home and it would be 4:15 and I’d have to start making supper at 4:40 so I’d decide to play a video game for 25 minutes. I’d barely get into it before I’d have to quit and start on supper.
I’d have a list of chores for a weekend afternoon and I’d decide that if I got the first four done, I could spend fifteen minutes kicking back with a book, but I’d barely get through part of a chapter before I had to head back to the tasks.
What I eventually learned is that such micro-leisure wasn’t really very fulfilling at all. All those little blocks did was delay something I didn’t want to do, and that a much more fulfilling approach is to hammer down on tasks as much as possible during those kinds of short gaps so that I would have the space in my life to spend four hours on a hobby on Sunday evening, for example.
Now, if I had 20 minutes after work, I wouldn’t play a video game. Instead, I’d start nailing things on my to-do list, the kind of floating tasks that can be done anytime like doing a load of dishes, getting a load of laundry started, making the bed, changing the battery in the laundry room smoke detector, and so on. If I have a big to-do list that I need to get done today, I start hammering that list hard and looking for ways to synergize the tasks so I can get everything done quickly – get dishes and laundry going and do tasks while they’re getting clean, for example.
I don’t really have those little blocks of time much any more and I honestly don’t miss them, either. Rather, I have a few much larger blocks of time during the week where I really dive into those hobbies I love. That time is “found” by eliminating micro-leisure. I don’t sit down and leaf through a magazine for ten minutes or channel-surf while lunch is cooking. Rather, I find something productive to fill those little gaps so that I can have the big blocks of leisure time in which I can fall into a flow state and get some really meaningful life benefits, as described earlier.
Strategy #5 – Mix Leisure with Your Social, Parental, Marital, and Even Professional Spheres
While some leisure activities are solo endeavors only, many leisure activities are wonderful group activities. Take advantage of that and mix together your leisure activities with the important people in your life.
Want to go on a hike? Call up some friends and see if any of them want to go along, too.
Want to play a board game? Set it up and see if any of your family wants to play.
Want to make a really amazing dinner because you love to cook fancy things? See if your spouse wants to join you in the kitchen.
There are many situations where I can easily reach that kind of flow state I mentioned earlier while also being engaged with other people. Many of those activities that get me there basically require other people, such as playing tabletop games, and many others are made better by having other people involved, like hiking or martial arts.
Some of the best experiences of my adult life have come as a result of doing a flow-inducing activity with people I care about and want to have around me. I remember a long nature hike with my family that was literally one of the best parts of 2017. I remember some of the most enjoyable epic board game experiences I’ve ever had, where I got sucked into some five hour long epic experience with a close group of friends where we were all seriously angling for the win and looking for ways to come out on top. I often fall into a flow state at a martial arts class and I typically wish they’d go on for longer even though I’m physically and sometimes mentally beat afterwards.
Those kinds of experiences manage to perfectly bridge multiple spheres at once; it’s wonderful to have those be a part of my life and they happen to be some of the best uses of my time in terms of personal fulfillment and quality of life.
It is incredibly easy to overlook leisure time and its value in your life, but cutting it out entirely or shoving it to the margins often results in lasting unhappiness, and that can have strong financial implications. Find space for it in your life, particularly enough space for it to induce a flow state at least occasionally, and you’ll be glad you did.
The purpose of this entire series was to show how the different areas of our lives are all interconnected, particularly how they’re all connected to our financial lives, but how the various interconnections affect other areas which are then connected to our financial lives.
The reality is that a well rounded life where you give healthy low-cost attention to all spheres in some semblance of balance is a recipe for a financially healthy life. Finances aren’t just something that sits off to the side in a bubble – they’re intimately connected to almost everything you do. Finding ways to live the best life in each sphere without throwing money at the problem is the recipe for a truly great life.