Think back to grade school. Do you remember that delicious moment when the final bell would ring, marking the end of the school day? How you couldn’t wait to race home to relax, play, or meet up with friends at extracurricular clubs and activities?
As children, we tend to have an almost tangible excitement about our free time—time dedicated to relaxing, hobbies, or other activities we enjoy. But when school desks are replaced with work desks, our “free” time tends to become less about what we want to do and more about what we have to do.
Our society strongly values productivity, which can create a stigma around free time. Of course, as adults, we have more responsibilities. But just because we grow up doesn’t mean we have to grow out of play time. In fact, studies show that it’s actually good for us—not only has leisure time been linked to a healthier immune system, reduced stress, and even increased longevity, it also helps you cultivate a richer sense of self and self-efficacy, which is your belief in yourself. Here are 4 reasons why sometimes the most productive thing to do…is take a break:
1. It maintains your momentum
For those of us who are always on the go, the concept of free time can ironically feel stressful. If you have an Iceberg Belief—a deeply held belief developed early in life, usually about how you should behave or how the world should be—that you should always be productive or that slowing down is a sign of weakness, it’s hard to kick back and relax without feeling like you’re wasting your time.
Free time, however, doesn’t have to take the shape of lying on the couch binging on TV (no judgement if it does!). In fact, research shows that your free time is most beneficial when it’s mentally engaging. Leisure doesn’t mean lazy—it means engaging in an activity that you enjoy. Try spending your free time on stimulating activities, like cooking, playing an instrument, or doing a craft such as knitting; it should be something you like that allows you to grow while you recharge. An added bonus? The skills you develop out of interest can complement and enhance the ones you need for your job. For example, over 80% of employers say that creativity is important to them in the workplace.
2. It energizes and inspires you
Studies in positive psychology have found that leisure activities are accompanied by their own kind of “positive” stress, called eustress: a type of stress that’s stimulating, engaging, and gets you into a state of flow—where you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing that you don’t even notice time passing.
The result of eustress is that you start to feel motivated and energized. So, if you’re feeling a lack of inspiration in your work, try getting the creative juices flowing by taking some time away to play: Go for a walk or jog out in the sun, sit in nature, fiddle around on the piano, journal, or draw. Refocusing your energy will allow you to return to what you were thinking about refreshed and with some new perspective.
3. It reduces your emotional stress
Not only has leisure activity been proven to lower the physical symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure and heart rate almost immediately, a recent study shows that it reduces emotional stress, too. When you’re facing an obstacle, stepping out of your routine has been found to interrupt the cycle of unhealthy thoughts that can lead to over-thinking and anxiety. This break in your usual thought patterns leads to more positive thinking—allowing you to clear your mind and reframe your thoughts before tackling the source of your stress. These effects have been found to last long after the activity does. Make leisure a priority at least once a week—put down the to-do list and do something fun, unplanned, or just for you—and you’re sure to see your stress levels subside in the long term.
4. It enriches your social network
When you make the time to reach out and engage in activities that interest you, you meet others who have similar interests. And at the root of those shared interests? Shared values. Surrounding yourself with people you genuinely connect with leaves you feeling more supported and even more resilient. In fact, our recent research at meQuilibrium shows that having a solid social network buffers against stress and makes you feel more optimistic in the face of uncertainty.
Try swapping a solo activity for something more social, such as a cooking class, dance group, or book club. It will help you form a natural network around your interests, boosting your personal resilience in the process.
When you invest in your leisure, you are investing in yourself. Exploring your different interests outside of work is also a great way to remind yourself that it’s never too late to continue learning and try something new, which fosters a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one—making you feel more resilient and capable of approaching situations with an open mind. You may even surprise yourself with what you are capable of, which is a sentiment to carry with you when you face new challenges on the horizon.
Elior Moskowitz is an intern at meQuilibrium in the Content department. She’s a recent college grad with a dual major in Psychology and English.