Stop Falling Into the ‘Low-Quality Leisure’ Trap

You’re not working, but you’re not truly relaxing either

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

We spend our workdays in constant pursuit of focus. We invest in courses, test out the latest distraction-eliminating tools, and try various productivity strategies—all with the hope of maximizing our time. But when it comes to our personal time, it seems that we’re perfectly fine with letting it go to waste.

It’s far too easy to get caught in what I call the “low-quality leisure” trap: We tell ourselves we’d like to spend less time on our phones, be more present with our families, exercise regularly, and finally learn French. But when the end of the workday finally arrives, we’re tired, and all that stuff we want to do seems too difficult. And so we zone out on social media until it’s time to go to bed. It’s not a great way to live. It’s not a fun way to live.

I’m not saying we should be wringing optimization out of every second of the day. But with the right system, it’s possible to avoid the low-quality leisure trap and spend more of your free time doing things that actually matter to you.

Illustrations courtesy of the author

Before I get to the strategy, imagine this scenario: You have been transported back in time — before the days of smartphones, television, or even electricity. What would you do for fun? With many of the modern distractions unavailable, you’d probably read more books. Maybe start painting, knitting, playing an instrument, or play card games with friends. Do you think these activities would be exhausting? Of course not. People did those things for fun because they were fun, and there weren’t any other alternatives.

Now I’m not suggesting you attempt to return to a pre-modern existence. Rather, the trick is to recognize that there’s nothing intrinsically exhausting about reading a book or painting a picture or doing any of the activities that are meaningful to you. What makes these things seem exhausting is the fact that they’re now competing with cheaper stimulation. In a paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a group of psychologists suggested that the feeling of effort is a sensation of opportunity costs. When you’re doing something and an alternative activity promises to be easier and more immediately rewarding, the original activity feels effortful.

Therefore, if you want to do the things that matter, you need to make the alternatives less salient. Reading will be hard when Netflix is always an option. Family time will seem boring if your phone is always within arm’s reach. Easier will beat better if it’s always available.

To fix this, you don’t need to overhaul your time completely. You simply need to make it easier to do what you want to be doing. Here are four simple steps to achieve this.

  1. Pick an activity you wish you did more of. Maybe it’s reading books, talking walks, or doing yoga.
  2. Pick an activity you feel you do too much of.
  3. Now, ask yourself how you could restrict the second activity. For instance, if you want to cut back on obsessively checking the news, you could restrict yourself to reading a small handful of sites once in the morning. If you make this a habit, you’ll eventually lose the instinct to keep refreshing the news all evening.
  4. Ask yourself how you might inject the activity you’d like to do more into the time you’ve taken back.

When you purposefully restrict the activities that provide your life with little value, the activities that actually restore you become easier to do. And you’ll finally get the most out of your limited free time.

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning | Twitter: @scotthyoung

Sign up for The Forge Daily Tip

By Forge

A quick morning email to help you start each day on the right foot. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.