I was giving a speech recently when I asked, as I often do, what people would like to spend more time doing. One young lady told me that she had a new home with a fireplace. The fireplace was a major reason she’d chosen the space. But she never seemed to make time for building a fire. Making a fire would only take a few minutes, but sitting and enjoying it seemed decadent, and there was always something else she could be doing.
Another woman near her nodded and made a similar point. She had a backyard—and never used it. It wasn’t a matter of time. It was that relaxing outside seemed lazy when the house needed cleaning, her inbox was full, and so forth. She used the G-word: guilt. Relaxing made her feel guilty. So what should she do?
It’s a problem many of us struggle with. We want to be productive. There are a million things we could be doing with our time—many of which are, objectively, good ways to be spending our hours. And so, when we have potential free time, we contaminate it by staring at the dirty dishes, checking our email, picking up the toys, and thinking about the errands we’re supposed to run.
While it would be nice if there were a simple button to push that would let people ditch the guilt, human nature doesn’t work like that. Instead, to enjoy leisure time more, I find it helpful to borrow a trick from the personal finance world. We can create separate time "accounts" for things that always get short shrift.
Budgeting experts often tell people to label separate savings accounts with their goals: you have retirement, of course, but then maybe there’s a Christmas fund and a vacation fund. Ideally, you fund all these automatically. Creating adequate categories reminds your brain that you’re making progress toward all your priorities, and keeps you from feeling guilty about putting, say, $100 toward your vacation fund in March, even though there are other things you could be doing with that cash.
Likewise, you can create a mental time budget for leisure. The woman with the under-used backyard could allot herself 15 minutes, four times a week, to just go outside and enjoy the space. That’s a mere hour of the 168 hours we all have each week. If she also created time budgets for her other priorities, she’d know that these would get done too, and so she wouldn’t feel guilty. She could even treat the 15 minutes as an assignment, with a chart on the wall she needed to check off. Had she done her 15 minutes of backyard downtime? Once it became an assignment, it would be out of the realm of guilt, and more into the realm of duty.
This may sound a little funny—turning leisure into something you judge yourself on. But here’s the thing: once you start learning to relax and enjoy yourself, it’s awfully addictive. When you start reveling in your downtime, the spillover benefits for the rest of your life will be so large that eventually the guilt will be a dim memory. It just takes a little while to get there. Giving yourself a leisure time budget helps nudge that process along.