Where the Heck Did Our Leisure Time Go?

One of the benefits that appealed most to me as our family started on our journey to financial and location independence was the idea of leisure time, of having time to rest, enjoy our friends, see new things, and linger over meals.

Life is so hectic. It’s “go, go, go” all the time in our society. It’s “what’s your side hustle?” “What day of the week is your child free from activities?” (if there is one).

One of the appeals of technology several decades ago was the idea that it would free us up to have more leisure time. To sit and linger over a meal with family. To plan coffee dates with friends. To sit in a park as a family and do nothing and feel no guilt about that. John Maynard Keynes, an economist writing in the 1930s, imagined a future where the work week would last fifteen hours, and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our free time. I’ll give you a second for a chuckle.

Now, Americans have less leisure time than ever. In an article from 2016, The Atlantic notes that “elite men in the U.S. are the world’s chief workaholics.” The upper class in this country stays at the office longer, takes less vacation, and just works more than the middle and lower class.

But why? 

Where the Heck Did Our Leisure Time Go?

No one’s sure, exactly. Part of it may have to do with the fact that this class enjoys working, making more money, and proving themselves (economically) successful. Part of the reason may be similar to the reason humans are as intelligent as we are as a species–because in order to compete reproductively, we have to be as smart or smarter than our fellow humans. We’re not competing with other species; we’re competing with ourselves. If others are working a lot, then the expectation is that you should, too.

A look in the mirror.

Before we tsk this anonymous class of workaholics, let’s step back and look at ourselves.

This week, I was straight-up tired. I put the kids on the bus in the morning (one at 7:35 and one at 8:50am) then walked back in the house and thought, “What do I need to get accomplished today?”

Before that moment, this is what I’d done: I’d gotten up at 5:30am to have a cup of (Whole30 approved) coffee with almond milk instead of cream (bleh), taken the (unwilling) puppy on a short run, come home, fixed lunches, checked homework, made breakfast, made sure breakfast was eaten, oversaw dressing, helped my older son start homework (he does it in the mornings since he goes to school later), oversaw his dressing, teeth brushing, and hair brushing, taken both kids to the bus stop at their different times with the puppy (to socialize her), soothed worries about math quizzes/bullies/making friends, chatted with new friends about their kids’ activities and calmed myself down about my kids’ lack of activities, and walked back home (after pulling some weeds in the front yard and cleaning up dog poop). Okay, honestly, this could be any parent’s morning, and it is for a lot of people. Plus, if you’re a working parent, you do all that while getting yourself ready for work too.

But here’s the thing. I’m not working right now. I don’t have to get more than one or two things accomplished. I can just take it easy during school hours and not really get anything accomplished. I can REST. I can have time to daydream, think, and plan. I don’t have to do anything.

But it’s been a process realizing that it’s ok to have leisure time, to not have to do something. It’s hard to sit down and have a quiet cup of coffee without popping up to empty the dishwasher or check my phone. I turned on the TV to binge watch something on Netflix, which I never do, and I felt so incredibly guilty. For having leisure time. What the heck? Why do I feel so dirty, so guilty, so wrong, for engaging in leisure activities?

The Productivity Paradox

I am sure the answer lies in the expectations we have as a society about what constitutes a “good citizen.” Our country has the highest GDP per capita because of our productivity numbers. We are, as a society, productive. We get shit done. We go to work, spend a full day there, come home, check work emails at night before we go to bed, think about work, dream about work, find self-esteem from work.

I have realized that part of the reason I really enjoy having a job is that it gives me somewhere to go and a specific time to be there and do a set task, like a good worker bee.

Can you imagine meeting up with a friend and answering her “What did you do today” question with, “I binge-watched Irresistible” (terrible show, I don’t recommend it) “and videoed the dog taking a nap.” No! We’re much more likely to say, “Oh my gosh I was so busy! I wrote two freelance articles, got stuff sorted with the kids at school, exercised the dog, made dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and that was all before 10am!”

The problem is, though, we no longer have non-work time. We no longer have rest time. We don’t allow ourselves time to do nothing (unless it’s during work out time, right?).

But what if we embraced leisure? Embraced the fact that watching TV is not always a terrible thing to do, that there are some amazing shows out right now? Or embraced meeting up with a friend for a loooonnng coffee date? Or spent all afternoon and evening playing games with our kids instead of running them all over creation to play travel league sports when they’re never going to play professionally anyway?

What about your money?

Is leisure anaethma to improving your finances? I would actually argue the opposite: that if you can figure out a way to incorporate leisure into your life, and not feel guilty about it, that you’re going to be calmer, more thoughtful, more focused (and we all know focus is more important than IQ).

I’ve definitely found myself more relaxed, more focused on my family this week. I’ve found myself (gasp!) enjoying life more. I love walking the dog down to the bus stop and chatting leisurely with my neighbors. I love taking bike rides with Mr. ThreeYear during his lunch hour. Heck, I love binge-watching Netflix!! I’m so worn out from our move I may need to binge watch TV for months. And I have the leisure time to do it! The reality is, I’ll probably get bored after a week or so. But allowing myself to take down time and not have to always be accomplishing stuff is so important.

If we are enjoying life, we’re less likely to mindlessly spend. We have more time to prepare delicious food at home and not eat out. We have time to practice gratitude and appreciation for what we have, to read books that bring us to new realizations about why we spend and what to do about it.

Floating around in the back of my head is the saying I first heard in Spain, “You Americans live to work. But we Spaniards, we work to live.” Perhaps we have a higher median income than Spain in the US. But we definitely aren’t happier. My work-life balance right now tips heavily toward life. And I’m going to keep practicing accepting the beauty and joy to be found in my leisure time.

Author: Laurie

Hi. I'm Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

4 thoughts on “Where the Heck Did Our Leisure Time Go?”

  1. you’re getting there, L. i love having options with nothing really required on the off hours. we did such a good job of getting to this point i almost favor the weekdays, even with 8 hours of work. it might be time to add a regular commitment. we don’t have netflix but i like sports still and mrs. smidlap and i have a handful of shows we try and enjoy together on the dvr. being satisfied at home keeps you from going out and wasting money. our friends from down south made that remark last weekend, that it’s a leisurely feeling set-up. enjoy it while it lasts.

    1. I have to say, I’m with you! It’s so nice to have the routine. Life is a journey, right? I’ve been pushing against my type-a achievement-orientedness a long time. Not giving up now! 🙂

  2. You need to get a handle on this now. I’m already financially independent and retired and I only work a day or two a week. I insist on lots of tennis, fishing, running and travel but I was never a workaholic in my career either. I think if you can’t make time for leisure now. You may never learn how. So keep practicing!

    1. I really appreciate the tough love here. You’re so right, and all of those (tennis, fishing, running, and travel) sound like awesome downtime activities. Ok, maybe not fishing. But definitely the others. I also think there’s something to be said for having enough time in your schedule to optimize your financial life. If you cook all your meals at home, you’ve got to give yourself time to do that. And meal plan, and inventory.

      I am now in a “stop and smell the roses” phase of my life and I’m making myself slow down. I’m not saying “yes” to anything unless it’s very thoughtfully considered. That also means no PTO meetings or any other places where I might be tempted to fill the void. Hard but important for sure.

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