Why Don’t More People Do Productive Things In Their Leisure?


Watching tv

*Note: This is a guest post by Ludvig Sunström.  I’ll be back in a few days with a new post of my own. – Steve

Why is it that so many people spend their free time watching TV or movies, playing video games, or simply killing time – engaging in activities that build up to absolutely nothing?

I see the majority of my peers wasting away large chunks of their lives in completely unproductive activities.

Why do so many people do this?

I would argue that it has to do with…

The Leisure Mindset

Many people are stuck in the mindset of thinking of leisure in a certain way. Their cognitive schemas have been constructed to associate leisure with certain activities.

For example, many people unconsciously shy away from working, reading, writing, pursuing a project, or studying in their free time.

The reason for this is because the brain works mainly by associations as mentioned above. But the brain also works in terms of dichotomies by comparing things and thinking:

“Is this good or evil, cool or lame, work or leisure?”

So, as you can see, it’s very easy to let the brain trick you into thinking that things are one thing or another – when in truth neither may be correct.

I can see this mindset reflected in many people – probably because I was the same two years ago and had to struggle hard to get out of it.

Oftentimes people don’t consciously avoid doing productive things – it’s just that they’re acting out automatic behavior as a result of having done it for years. The negative habits have been firmly rooted.

The Misconception of Leisure that Leads to Unhappiness

Very little is needed to make a happy life.

– Marcus Aurelius

Here’s how I see it: people don’t use their time productively – and as a result it gradually makes them unhappy.

But they mistake the root cause of this unhappiness.

They think that they are bored or unhappy because they are not doing enough of the “fun stuff”, so they try to resolve the problem by engaging in even more unproductive activities related to instant gratification.

But this only furthers the root problem of their dissatisfaction.

It’s not that there isn’t enough “fun stuff” to do.

It’s not that they aren’t watching good enough TV-series.

It’s not that the clubs they go to are boring.

The problem is much more fundamental than that.

The problem is in how they spend their time shallowly pursuing so many things rather than to immerse in a select few and allow it to build up to something over time.

The problem is that they’re not spending their leisure on enough productive activities.

So, I ask again: why is it that most people don’t spend their leisure productively?

To answer this I need to get into the concept of immersion.


Thou sufferest justly: for thou choosest rather to become good to-morrow than to be good to-day.

– Marcus Aurelius

To immerse is to pour a lot of time and effort into one or a few activities and pursue goals within these areas with a dedication that borders on obsession.

This dedication cannot be faked – it has to be earned over time.

The problem is that people think:

“Well, I’d do it if it seemed like fun. But now I’m feeling neutral, so why should I do it?”

People who think this way misunderstand how the brain works.

They don’t understand that they are in need of a serious reboot of their habits – in this case their leisure-related habits.

When one’s habits get broken it’s very uncomfortable – and most people fail to recognize the source of this discomfort and unconsciously go back to what they were previously doing as result of wanting to maintain homeostasis and stay comfortable.

It requires a ton of energy and effort to change habits, let alone the numerous habits related to how a person spends his or her leisure.

In other words, most people fail to go through the initial discomfort that comes from spending more energy than they’re used to.  As a result they don’t go through the period of immersion needed to receive this obsessive dedication that serves as a long-term motivator.

How Logical is the Brain?

The brain is constantly trying to find a cause and effect for the things that happen to us. It’s scrambling to come up with a rational explanation for why this thing happened now.

As a result we often see meaning where there is none due to attribution.

But in truth most things happen for very different reasons than what we think they do.

The brain isn’t very logical at all, but it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it is – because it definitely appears that way to us.

When it comes to behavior, the brain works by means of post-rationalization, meaning that something happens and then we strive to make things logically understandable. We try to fit it what just happened into our frame of reality.

Enter immersion:

The more time, effort, and dedication you invest into the pursuit of an activity or a goal the more your brain will rationalize it as being important to you.

This is a very important principle to understand because it shatters the reality that most people are living in.

It means that you can get yourself to like or become interested in just about anything IF you are willing to immerse yourself in it.

But to do that you must pour in the initial invest of time and effort until it starts becoming interesting, and that is usually uncomfortable at first.

Now that you know this, the question becomes:

Will you do it?

Will you immerse into a cool activity and begin spending your leisure more productively?

Ludvig Sunström runs Start Gaining Momentum where he writes about no-nonsense practical tips related to self-development . He is also the author Breaking out of Homeostasis, a book about reclaiming control of your life by challenging your brain. Feel free to connect with him on Twitter and Google+.

photo credit: Dennis Bjørn Hansen

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  1. Hey Ludvig,

    It’s a good question and one I often wonder about too. Cutting down on TV (or ditching the TV altogether) is a good start, but it really comes down as you say to getting into the habit of doing more productive things, because when we develop this as a habit, we will tend to continue – because we like consistency.

    Also if we cut down on passive things, which, fair enough, may be enjoyable, then when we do carry out these activities (i.e. on a less regular basis) we’ll be more likely to be doing so for the right reasons (e.g. down-time), will be more selective about the quality fo the content/experience and will enjoy it more.

    great article Ludvig,

    best wishes & have a great holiday season,


    • Alan,

      Thanks for the comment! I fully agree about dropping TV. I’ve never looked back – though I’ve never even owned one to begin with. But of course it’s possible to download TV series and watch that over the computer as well… I used to spent a good amount of time doing that a two years back.

      Another point that’s important to make is that watching TV or sitting by the computer isn’t really the best way to relax. Going for a walk, a run, taking a powernap, or meditating beats the crap out of watching TV or sitting by the computer as a means to recovering from fatigue.

      • Yup, I can agree with your important point.

        I’m a bit of an efficiency freak too – I listen to podcasts whilst walking the dog or driving the car and do so on x2 speed so I can consume more information.

        Sometimes though, I listen to nothing at all. I also find absolute silence productive and generally get my best ideas and thoughts when out walking and deliberately not doing anything but enjoying the walk.

        Both of these activities (because I love nature and I love walking, especially around where I live) I find very relaxing – much more so than watching TV.

        Though I do still watch TV, cinema or downloaded stuff from time to time (just not anywhere near as often as most).

  2. I like the questions you’ve asked here. For me, it depends on what you mean by leisure time. I have a job and a business, so leisure time is not more than a few hours a week, and is classified as ‘any time I’m not working’.

    Working itself can refer to either paid work, or learning something that makes me better at my job(s).

    So when I do things for leisure, which will include watching movies, it’s because I want my brain to completely switch off from the other ‘work’ activities – it has to be totally different to working/learning.

    Make sense?

    • Razwana,

      “Working itself can refer to either paid work, or learning something that makes me better at my job(s).”

      –> It’s this very mindset that’s setting you apart from most “normal” people.

      What you’re saying makes sense. I don’t know of anyone who is as extreme as I am when it comes to this “efficiency-thing”. I’m a bit obsessed about using all of my waking time productively.

      And it’s definitely a process. It’s taken me ca 2 years of disciplined self-development to get away from a lazy and sloth-like existence into that of putting my time to good use.

  3. Also just keep in mind the thought of “leisure” from an evolutionary perspective. Our DNA is used to a dog-eat-dog world where saving energy is a huge advantage. Instead of running around and being active / thinking deeply on project, you can save that energy for something else. Weird to think about..

    • Eric, this is absolutely true.

      This is actually one of the main arguments in my book, Breaking out of Homeostasis. Homeostasis is a physiological mechanism inherent in our brain & body that makes us resist all type of change. This is both a good and a bad thing. A good thing because we wouldn’t survive without it, a bad thing because it makes a lot of people unconsciously lazy.

      It IS a weird thing to think about, but it’s also very, very helpful to obsess about if one wants to “break out of homeostasis”.

      Ultimately, we have a ton more energy than we think we have. It’s just that (in most cases) homeostasis is playing tricks on us.

  4. This. This. This. This is honestly one of the major points in a post I’m writing about productivity. It’s funny, because there are tons of really productive options to choose from. And then there are ways to “cheat”, like playing games in a language you are learning, or watching movies in a new language, to stick to your old habits, but add a productive aspect as well.

    Writing for my blog or just writing in general has become second nature for me during these past few months. Over time I want to take up at least working out, and quite possibly slow paced online studying to get a degree as back-up in case things don’t turn out too well with my current venture.

    Oh and hey, it’s Ludvig not Steve! I am terrible at skimming, I only noticed because I was reading through the comments.. haha. Good stuff man!

  5. Great post, Ludvig!

    A huge problem in America’s society today is the fact that a lot of people spend a unhealthy amount of time on the wrong activities, like: watching TV and playing video games which are non-active. The results of this are impacting their healthy and overall well-being. It’s ok to watch TV or play video games but it should be done in moderation.

    The key is to implement activities that lead to a healthy life style and that allow us to move closer to our dreams. Great post!

    • Thanks Dan!


      The first time I read about Americans and TV was in the book “Flow” By Mihaly Cszichmihaly (I probably spelled his name incorrectly…).

      Great book. I recommend it to anyone reading this.

  6. Hi Ludvig! I love this question! While I was very “happy” to watch TV, stroll through shops, and engage in various other mindless activities, I am now a big fan of priorities and good habits. Though my routine is far from perfect, I am engaging in more exercise, actively paying off debt and investing my money, and bringing back the WOW in my marriage. If I can do it, anyone can. Now that I have my big rocks in place, I am ready for further immersion…now to figure out what that might be…

    Happy day to you, Ludvig. Thank you for the great article!

  7. I’ve cut out a lot of my leisure activity Ludwig and got rid of the television a few years back. Now, fortunately, one of my leisure activities is also related to my immersion in writing. Although I find writing relaxing and fun, I get to work on the craft of writing as well. Not too mindless since I’m able to focus on putting ideas together, being creative and putting together pieces of writing that can help others.

    Of course, athletics is an area that i need to get more immersed in. It’s the new year, so more time needed to relax by working out and getting fit!

    thanks for sharing the concept of the leisure mindset and what you did to overcome that.

  8. I think lesiure is a often consumption in disguise. We work to consume. Liesure is about spending. Whereas we’d be better off if we viewed all of life as a creative opportunity. What are we going to build, create, make better and then stand back and be thankful for?

  9. Good points Peter!

    “Where people work longest and with least leisure, they buy the fewest goods. No towns were so poor as those of England where the people, from children up, worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day. They were poor because these overworked people soon wore out — they became less and less valuable as workers. Therefore, they earned less and less and could buy less and less.”

    ― Henry Ford

  10. Ludvig, I believe that leisure, a long with many other things like food, is a drug.

    People engage them because they are trying to escape their realities. Deep inside they feel their lives suck and by watching the TV or whatever they are escaping that reality and not thinking about it.

    For instance… I noticed I was seeking and thinking a lot more about food during my finals week in college when I had to study for Finance. I wasn’t hungry, I was just trying to escape my duty of studying for a class I hate.

  11. Exactly.

    I would guess that in the majority of the cases this isn’t happening on the conscious level, even though I know it did for me.

    Funny example by the way. I used to have the same thing SO BAD during my first two years of university. Then I eventually “cured” that by understanding on a deeper level that all the work I put in WILL come back to me, and I will thank myself for putting it in later.

  12. I sometimes have this feeling of regret whenever I think of wasting my leisure time doing unproductive things. I have never thought back then that I could also enjoy my leisure time doing productive things.

    • Hey Lem,

      Hehe. It sounds so obvious when you write it. But I know it’s not. It’s an unconscious mental process of linking activities to emotions, and it takes a while to reverse.


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