Updated on 04.04.11

Leisure Time, Not Idle Time

Trent Hamm

As I’ve mentioned before, I was able to create, launch, and build up The Simple Dollar during my leisure time in the evenings after work over a two year period. Simply put, I filled much of my leisure time with this site, day after day, week after week, month after month, until it had built up a revenue stream large enough that I felt comfortable enough to start doing it full time.

This is something that I often encourage readers to do for themselves. If you’re passionate about something, fill your leisure time with it and see if you can build it into something you can do for a career.

There’s a key word I’m using here. Leisure. It’s the distinction between leisure time and idle time that often catches people off guard and makes them feel as though they don’t possibly have time to engage in such an activity.

Here’s a great example of what I mean.

There was a time, early in my career, where if I came home from work and felt tired, I’d flop on the couch and channel surf for an hour or so until my wife came home. At that point, I’d get up and lethargically start making dinner with her. After dinner, I’d often still feel beat, so I’d just play a video game or something else that didn’t require a ton of effort from me.

If that were my evening routine, I would have never been able to build up The Simple Dollar. It simply wouldn’t work.

Now, flash forward to 2006. What did I do then if I came home from work tired?

Simple. I’d directly address the tiredness. I’d go into the bedroom, lay down on the bed, close my eyes, and let sleep take me away.

When my wife arrives home, I’ve spent the last hour doing as much as I could to address my tiredness, leaving me much more capable of utilizing the rest of the evening in a successful way.

The same thing happens in the late evening. Let’s say it’s ten o’clock and Sarah and I have just watched an episode of a television series that we both enjoy. I’m feeling tired but, for some reason, I don’t want to go to bed yet.

A few years ago, I would have channel-surfed or played a video game for the next hour. Now? I’ll go prep tomorrow night’s supper or do some laundry or something like that, pushing me to being tired enough for bed while – and this is key – getting something time-consuming out of the way for tomorrow.

This, of course, leaves tomorrow night more wide open than before, which gives me time to play tag in the yard with my son and daughter and a game with my wife after the kids are in bed.

Leisure time is time spent engaged in an activity for my own personal enjoyment or growth. Idle time, on the other hand, is time spent on whatever activity happens to be at hand. In short, I try to find room in my life for genuine leisure time and avoid idle time.

Some obvious questions pop up.

What if I’m too tired for an engaged activity? Simple: get some genuine rest. Go to bed early. If adequate sleep isn’t doing the trick, work on your diet or talk to your doctor. If you’re doing certain things (like simply sitting there channel surfing) because you’re too tired to do anything else, then you need to make some other changes to your life.

What if I can’t think of anything to do? This can only be true if you have no goals in your life, no desire to find a better job, nothing you wish to improve at, and no activities that you find enjoyable. If all of these are true, then I would suggest talking to your doctor, as I would suspect depression.

What if I just want to “veg out”? There’s nothing at all wrong with a relaxing activity as long as you’re making a conscious choice to engage in it and it’s not done out of idleness.

I’ll give you an example. Sarah and I have watched several different science fiction TV series via Netflix by watching roughly three episodes a week. We set aside that time to just kick back and enjoy the show at hand. We get comfortable in the basement, enjoy the show together, then turn off the television when it’s over and do somthing else.

We don’t idle afterwards, channel surfing. We don’t talk ourselves out of going to bed just to see what’s on the other channel. If we’re tired, we go to bed. If we’re not tired, we’ll go find another activity to do together. If one of us is tired, that one goes to bed and the other stays up to do something else.

What if my leisure time is completely filled with other activities? Committees. Boards. Bible studies. Book groups. Game nights. Boy Scouts. It’s easy to fill up a schedule with so many responsibilities that it feels like you have no time for anything else.

It’s important to remember, though, that you’ve chosen to fill your leisure time with these things. If you’re happy with those choices, great! If you’re not happy with those choices, step back from the ones that give you pause and look for new ways to use that time.

Genuine leisure time is valuable – and more abundant than you think. If you separate it from idle time, it can provide all the space you need to take on personal goals and get involved in things you might not otherwise enjoy. Without it, I would have never been able to start The Simple Dollar and have such a powerful opportunity to bond with my family.

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  1. Danielle @ HWW says:

    Great post. I recently (2010) got myself out of the idle time mindset and have been so much more productive! It takes some conscious effort at first (like most habit changes) but is so natural now, and I’m grateful for the change.


  2. Alice says:

    Ooh, what sci fi shows do you watch? I used Hulu to watch all of Stargate (SG-1, Atlantis, the ill-fated Universe) and really enjoyed it. If you haven’t tried it, I’d highly recommend it! Also, are you planning to watch Game of Thrones?

  3. jackson says:

    Excellent distinction between leisure time and idle time. Leisure time well spent allows you to get stuff done.

    People often confuse the two.

  4. Laura in Seattle says:

    My boyfriend’s sister just bought him a gift – a two-month Netflix subscription. We spent a fair chunk of Sunday watching episodes of Doctor Who, Season One. (“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”)

    I think you really hit on something here with the channel surfing. I thought back and I have done that so many times – was so tired I couldn’t keep my mind on anything else, but would keep flipping from one station to the next, looking for something to engage me and encourage me to stay up. (And for what?)

    I also seem to be chronically slightly sleep-deprived, so I may steal your idea and try taking a nap first thing when I get home from work.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    When I’ve been sitting at work (or lazing around the house) all day, a short walk or a short period of other moderate exercise is refreshing & gains me a second wind.

  6. Scott Messner says:

    Nice post, Trent. So many times I hear people say “I just don’t have the time”. They have plenty of time. They choose to have a large amount of idle time.

    There’s nothing wrong with watching a bit of TV to unwind. Just don’t let it control your life.

  7. MattJ says:

    Between rock climbing, caving, hiking, and kayaking during the day, and then going dancing at night, my ‘leisure time’ is not particularly leisurely. A typical weekend for me gives me a TGIM attitude by the time it’s over. My body catches up on its rest while I’m sitting in my office come Monday.

    Next weekend is going to be brutal. And awesome.

    During the week (besides work) there are dance lessons, rock climbing in the gym, and rescue training with the local cave & cliff rescue team. I try to find the time to go idle, or at least leisurely, one or two nights a week.

    Fill your life with the things you want to do.

    I could make money with the dancing if I wanted. I’ve turned down offers to teach lessons for money. Who wants to have a boss when you go to do your hobby, though? Eventually I’ll move beyond ‘probie’ with the rescue squad and I’ll get paid some small amount when we get called out to pull a lost / injured person out of a cave, but that will probably never pay me back enough even to cover the costs of the gear I need to purchase so I can do the job.

  8. Hunter says:

    My Dad always said “make every day a winner”. Sounds like that is teway you approach your day too.

    Time management is something that can be endlessly tweaked for maximum optimization, Key is to make sure you control and decide where your energy is directed, rather than letting others control your time by default. Plan your time, or others will plan it for you.

  9. Amy Saves says:

    I totally agree. Leisure time should be well spent. Time is money, after all.

    I get bored channel surfing and try to limit my TV watching to shows I’m actually interested in.

    If I’m feeling tired, I take a 20 minute nap. Also, working out will give you a boost of energy.

  10. Justin says:

    I probably shouldnt be, but I tend to be a bit skeptical sometimes when people tell me they don’t have time to do X.

    If X is really important, you would make time! Just don’t watch all of that TV and stop signing up your kids to do 128927 different activities.

    There are men and women out there who work 2 jobs and get a college degree or take care of their kids at the same time. It’s definitely possible… if you don’t have idle time.

  11. Sharon says:

    I would definitely add under “What if I’m too tired…” a big, big push for exercise: even a leisurely walk, kicking a ball around or wrestling with the kiddos, etc. Exercising now can help make those “feeling too tired” moments less common in the future.

  12. Jamie J says:

    Great distinction! And I love that you haven’t lost sight of the fact that time management isn’t about being productive, it’s about finding a way to cram as much joy into life as possible!

  13. Anna says:

    I went back to school for my bachelor’s degree about five years ago, and the past 2 1/2 have been full-time (12 credit hours) in addition to working full-time, so I stay very busy. I get frustrated at times because I have very little leisure OR idle time, but I have to remind myself (as Trent mentions in the article) that I CHOSE this for myself. I chose to go back to school, and I choose how many credit hours to take each semester. I am now only a couple of months from graduating, and I have been putting some thought into what I will do to keep me busy after graduation. I don’t want to lose all of the hours that I know I am capable of being productive, but I am always ready for a bit more leisure time and taking life at a little bit of a slower pace. I think the key is to be aware of where my time is going and to use it on activities that are valuable to me.

  14. Justin says:

    Great distinction between leisure and idleness. I’m a big proponent of personal growth and have found that the times that I’m most happy are the times that I’m intentional about what I’m doing. The times that I feel least happy is when I’m idle. Mankind was made to grow, progress, and to act–not be acted upon. When we’re idle we are like an inanimate object, being acted upon instead of acting. Thanks for the great thinking. I’ll be more intentional with my time because of this.

  15. Steven says:

    I’m not a big fan out of having a totally structured and planned life, and it seems like you are suggesting that leisure time also be structured in order to be productive. Even idle time is supposed to be purposeful in that you make a choice to be idle. I don’t think this is for me. I hate calendars and being tied to a schedule. I don’t have a daily to-do list and I prefer to take things as they come. I get done what needs to be done and forget about what isn’t a priority.

    And, you know something, I think I accomplish a lot doing things this way, and without the stress or pressure of always feeling like I must be doing something productive.

    Maybe it can be compared to tracking a person’s spending. I don’t. I prefer to be frugal in my daily life so that I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve got money to pay the bills or take a vacation…I already KNOW that I do. Other people prefer to know exactly how much money they have, how it’s going to be spent and when. I’m just not a fan of that approach. I know instinctively when I’m overspending just by virtue of being aware of needs/wants. So, what I’m getting at is that there’s more than one way to do things and neither of which is wrong, just different. Different strokes for different folks.

    I prefer the less structured, take it as it comes approach. If a friend calls me up and asks if I want to rock climb, I can make up my mind at that moment without consulting my Holy Schedule. I already KNOW what I need to get done, what is my priority at that moment, and can make a decision.

    I think that when you structure your entire life around being productive, you’re probably not allowing yourself to be subject to spontaneity, which is the spice of life, in my opinion. I like making the decision to drive to Canada for the weekend on a Friday night. I like asking my girlfriend where she wants to travel to and then telling her to book a flight.

    And I like my idle time where I just sit staring at the TV, relaxing and letting my mind turn to mush. I don’t have the intensity to be full-on always. I need time to step back, relax and enjoy my life without worrying about what I’m cooking for dinner the next night. Heck, I don’t even know how I’m going to feed myself between now and then, but you know something, I’m pretty sure it will happen.

  16. SWR says:

    This may be my favorite article that you’ve written.

    I find that the ideas of mindfulness are slowly making their way into your posts more often. This is one distinction that I need to be reminded of oten.

  17. Lise says:

    This is something I struggle with a lot – having enough energy when I get home from work to get anything done. I worry that if I tried to nap, it’d turn into the three-hour snooze that all my naps usually are, and I’d throw my whole sleep schedule off.

    So instead I’m tired. A lot.

  18. Mary says:

    It’s not often I have idle time between work, classes, homework and upkeep of an apartment with a boyfriend and two pets, but when it does come I can’t believe how much I waste of it. Funny thing is I’m not a TV/movie watcher! Internet is my vice…

    I do, however, try to make use of that time to turn it to leisure – develop for-fun applications/web sites (I’m in IT), spend time with my pets, take my dog for a walk/run, exercise, take long hot baths, do things I enjoy, even better if they’re not spending a ton of money.

  19. Nomad says:

    Yeah. I guess I’m choosing 90+ hour work weeks. I don’t really know how to get out. I keep thinking it pays well, save and quit. But still so many bills looming with 3 little boys. And 12-14 loads of laundry a week. And a load of dishes every day. And all the other kid stuff. It was a lot easier when the choice what what to do from 5pm to 10pm was (a) gym (b) movie (c) hobby (d) date … I suppose my choice is just to drop dead in 10 years and consider that leisure time.

  20. Barbara O. says:

    I just wanted to say a sincere “Thank You” for this article. It gave me great insight into my recent struggles with this subject. We have had a tough year with a lot of loss, and what I have taken from that is wanting to enjoy what time we have. I was interested in the idle/leisure topic, but what really made me say “aha” were the “pop-up” responses. Boy, they were right on the money! I have really been enjoying this site. and the candid and common sense style the articles are written in. Wish I knew more people that thought like this! Thank you for the common sense approach to life and the honest reflection.Benjamin Franklin would be proud!

  21. ThisGuy says:

    Just wanted to say how encouraging this article is. Thanks!

  22. Marle says:

    My biggest “time-waster” is the internet. I will spend hours reading blogs and articles, and then realize I didn’t get done what I needed to that evening.

    However, I once tried to eliminate that time altogether. I only went online for things I absolutely needed to (checking important emails, online banking, etc) and I even blocked all the websites I had fun on. And then I found that I really missed it. I felt out of the loop on all of the news, and I missed going to blogs like this for random advice that would get me thinking about my own life. However, much of that time isn’t productive at all, as I’ll read pointless articles that I find a waste of time or click through my friends’ facebook pictures, while for example right now I have a tab open with a fascinating article about Native Hawaiians that’s been open for days without me reading it. I don’t know how to make my internet time as productive as it should be, with reading and commenting only on the things that really interest me and are useful in some way, without having tons of idle time filling it up to take all my available time. It’s just so easy on the internet to do things completely unproductive and useless. Anyone else have any experience with this?

  23. Andrew says:

    #15 Steven– Excellent reply!

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