Long live leisure! It's time to make space for what we value in life

As soon as the inbox is cleared and the dishes are put away and the report is submitted and laundry is done, only then can we think about how to pursue the things we value. So how do we reconfigure our relationship to the time we have and open it up so we can pursue the good life?

'Leisure is that place where we can become most fully human,' says researcher

Why is it so hard to find leisure time? IDEAS producer Naheed Mustafa explores a better time, when there was space for ourselves to pursue activities we value. She thinks there's a chance that we can find our way there again. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

* Originally published on February 20, 2020.

Brigid Schulte was always running out of time.

Between a demanding job and raising a young family, she was pulled in multiple directions with no time for rest, never mind finding any for leisure. So she did what any good journalist would do: she turned her problem into a story about how none of us has enough time.

The problem of an over-busy life is not new, and while a certain kind of busyness is connected to gender and class, it's a kind of harried existence that we all recognize.

Who hasn't wished a day was at least 30 hours long so we could get to the end of our to-do list?

Schulte decided to get some expert advice about whether she had a personal time management problem or was being ground down by a larger systemic problem.

She was in for a surprise.

'Garbage time'

The time-use researcher she talked to told her that, like all women, on average she probably had about 30 hours of leisure per week.

Schulte was shocked: "I just about lost my mind! Where? Where are those 30 hours of leisure?" 

The researcher asked her to keep a diary of how she spent her time — and after analyzing it, repeated what he'd told her at the outset: Schulte did indeed have hours of leisure time, 27 to be exact. 

To understand why leisure can be so hard to attain, culture writer Anne Helen Petersen argues we need to first understand our relationship to the societal value placed on productivity: 'Our jobs used to be time-bound ... There was a space for work, and a space for rest. Today work bleeds into all our time.' (H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

"I realized we were speaking two very different languages. In his view, time could be categorized into 11 different activities. And then anything that didn't fit in those particular time-bounded activities — like personal care, sleep, work, commuting time — then he would bundle that up into leisure," Schulte said.

"I would say ... that's just residual time. There's a lot of 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there. I would not call that leisure time. I would call that garbage time."

Permission to leisure

Schulte describes herself at that time as being "crazed" and "time-starved." She says when she fantasized about what leisure would look like in her overwhelming life, she pictured a sick day where she could do whatever she wanted because she had permission simply to not work. 

Her research on leisure provoked some unexpected conversations.

"One of the leisure researchers I spoke with, named Ben Hunnicutt, said leisure is that place where we can become most fully human," she said.

For Schulte, that is the whole point of the discussion: how can we organize our societies so that leisure becomes at least as important as work, since that's the space where we can see ourselves as human?

Alex Sager, associate professor at Portland State University, wonders what society might look like if it were structured around leisure instead of work. Perhaps this painting, 'A Sunday on La Grande Jatte' by Georges Seurat, comes close? (Wikimedia)

She says we need to start thinking about what we really value and figure out how to give ourselves permission to incorporate these things into our lives.

"I recognize that there's going to be a lot of pushing against the status quo," said Schulte. "But then that will make ripples and then other people are going to be able to give themselves permission to do something similar." 

Guests in this episode:

* This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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