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Personal Growth

How to Think Smart About Your Downtime

With the right approach, your downtime can reap benefits for your career and optimize your work life.


We all know constant connection makes it harder than ever to switch off when we finish work for the day. It’s vital to set aside time to properly recharge. But let’s say you already heeded that advice—does it matter what you actually do in your downtime? Moreover, is there a way you can use your hobbies to not only have fun and unwind, but also to boost confidence in your work life?

Related findings crop up repeatedly in research literature. For instance, sports-based hobbies are particularly beneficial for recharging. Fred Zijlstra, a professor of work psychology at Maastricht University, says this is because they are fun and require you to concentrate on what you’re doing. “Physical activities work well, in particular when people have a rather desk-bound job, because they require active engagement and they distract the mind from work-related issues.”

However, psychology has also thrown up some contradictory research, especially in terms of whether you should pick hobbies that resemble your work or are completely different. Here’s our look at how to evaluate for yourself based on your current priorities—even if your only requirement is to avoid Zoom outside of work hours.

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Balance out your working life 

One approach is based around achieving balance and recovery. This suggests you use your downtime to do something completely different from your job. That way you’ll feel happier and more refreshed, which will have trickle down benefits in your workday. 

Dr. Jessica de Bloom, who splits her time between Tampere University in Finland and University of Groningen in the Netherlands, says to think about this is in terms of the satisfaction of your various “psychological needs,” specifically detachment, relaxation, autonomy, mastery, meaning, and affiliation. 

“It might be helpful to first understand which of your needs are least satisfied [by work] and choose hobbies which support these needs,” she says. “For instance, if you have a work situation which offers very little possibilities for social interaction and fulfillment of the need for affiliation, it might be beneficial to choose a social hobby. If I have a job which is not very challenging, I may want to choose a hobby where I can learn new skills and experience mastery and competence.”

Nurture work skills in your downtime

Yet there’s another perspective from work psychology called Enrichment Theory, pointing out that the skills and experiences we build up in our free time can flow through and complement our work performance, which suggests you’re better off looking for a hobby that resembles your job in some way. If you were looking to harness your leadership skills, for example, then facilitating a book group or playing the role of team captain for your local weekend soccer team could be the perfect training ground. 

“Enrichment Theory is about the positive interactions between different roles, it outlines different resources you might generate within one role—material resources, psychological resources, social contacts—and you apply them in another and it boosts your performance in that other domain,” explains Dr. Ciara Kelly, a psychologist at Sheffield University Management School in the UK.

Reflect on whether a hobby is a passion or just a bit of fun

Dr. Kelly led a recent study (free to read online) that aimed to reconcile the two apparently contradictory perspectives emerging from work psychology: one based on balance and recovery, the other on enrichment. In effect, both perspectives are correct, depending on the attitude you have to a particular hobby. 

Kelly and her colleagues surveyed over a hundred volunteers repeatedly over a seven-month period, asking them whether they’d spent more time than usual on their hobby and how confident they were feeling in their ability to perform well at work. Crucially, they also asked the volunteers to rate how seriously they took their hobby and how similar it was to their work.

The results paint a more nuanced picture of how we should think about our leisure time. It’s not that some hobbies are better than others, nor that you should always aim for hobbies that are either similar or different from your job. Rather, it all depends on the kind of attitude and approach you have toward a particular hobby—specifically whether you take it seriously or not. 

“A serious approach would be one where you strongly identify with the particular activity, where you could describe yourself as ‘a climber’ rather than climbing just being something that you do,” explains Kelly. “It could be something where you’re quite invested, you intend to get better at it, and intend to keep doing it into the future.” 

Beware burnout from serious hobbies that are similar to work

For serious hobbies that were also similar to a person’s job, Kelly’s team found that spending too much time on them actually dented confidence at work. “If you get the situation where you’re highly committed to the hobby and it’s just like work, and you’re invested in both sides [play and work], and you spend more time on it, then you get a bit of an adverse impact,” says Kelly. 

In a sense, if you’re driving yourself hard at work and in your hobby and they’re both pretty similar, you’re effectively spreading yourself too thin. However, this wasn’t an issue for the research volunteers who took a casual approach to a hobby that was similar to their job—they benefited from the overlap, like the manager who gains leadership skills from time as captain on the soccer pitch. 

Of course, this raises the question of what counts as “similar.” For the research, hobbies were categorized as similar based on the volunteers’ own perceptions. For instance, one of the volunteers was a school teacher who felt that playing the Dungeons and Dragons game was similar to work, perhaps because of the need to improvise and be creative in both roles. Likewise, you’re probably the best judge of whether there’s an overlap in your hobby and work. 

If you sense that there is a degree of similarity and you’re highly committed to the hobby, Kelly’s advice is not to give it up. “That would be really depressing!” she says. Rather, it pays to be more mindful of the rhythms of your work and hobby, to avoid potential clashes when either are going through a particularly demanding phase. And take care not to overload yourself on screen time if your extracurriculars have gone virtual.

Dedication to hobbies that are sufficiently different can pay dividends

It’s worth noting that taking a hobby seriously wasn’t a problem if it was sufficiently different from work, likely because the contrast prevented too much conflict or exhaustion from competing demands. In fact, spending more time on a serious hobby that’s totally different from work was also beneficial, leading to feelings of greater professional confidence. 

That makes sense because whenever we invest in any activity over the longer term, we learn empowering lessons about how dedication leads to gains and improvement, which is bound to spill over and increase self-confidence at work.

I can relate to that myself. I’ve spent the last seven years or so playing in a local table-tennis league, climbing from my club’s E team to the B team and advancing through the league divisions. I’ve experienced first-hand that you get out what you put in, which has translated into greater motivation and confidence to improve in my career. At the same time, of course, the game itself couldn’t be more different from my day job as a writer, so there’s no risk of a clash of demands.

 

To recap, the new research found that taking a hobby seriously was beneficial—if it was sufficiently different from work; at the same time, a hobby similar to work was beneficial if it was just a casual past-time. In other words, they’re probably aren’t good and bad hobbies, it’s more about being smart in your approach.

It’s important not to overthink these things, though. Jessica de Bloom says it can become a real problem if we start feeling the need to be perfect employees in our free time as well as at the office—don’t put pressure on yourself to excel at sports and to be a perfect parent. To return to Professor Zijlstra’s message, remember the best way to recharge (which will benefit you at work) is to use your leisure time to do something you enjoy and that’s sufficiently engaging. Anything from collaging to playing tennis with friends could fit the bill—just find what works for you. 

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.


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