How To Avoid the ‘Productivity Trap’ That Kills the Mental-Health Benefits of Leisure

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With hustle culture too often glorified (despite its link with the health-compromising effects of burnout), there's a good chance you've brushed up against a demand for hyper-productivity, in one way or another—whether at your workplace, in your personal life, or of your own volition. Perhaps, for example, you’ve seen one too many friends boast on social media about an all-nighter they pulled for work, or you’ve felt pressured to utilize “extra” free time during lockdown in pursuit of a new hobby. This productivity push is so pervasive, in fact, that it’s capable of inducing “productivity guilt” in anyone who feels they’re not measuring up. And according to new research, it may even counteract your ability to reap the mental-health benefits of leisure activities, too.

Experts In This Article
  • Gabriela Tonietto, PhD, Gabriela Tonietto is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Rutgers Business School. Tonietto holds a Ph.D. in Marketing and a B.S.B.A. both from Washington University in St. Louis. Her research interests include time perception and consumption, scheduling, and experiential enjoyment....

A set of four studies on the effects of leisure mindsets published on August 21 concluded that just holding the belief that every moment must be used productively (and that leisure time is time wasted) may actually prevent you from being able to enjoy leisure time, even to the potential detriment of your mental health.

To break it down, the first two studies analyzed the correlation between perspectives on leisure, enjoyment of leisure, and nonclinical levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. For the first, researchers asked 302 people their views on leisure, as well as what they did for Halloween (as a note, this survey was conducted pre-pandemic, in 2019), and whether they enjoyed it.

“Those who reported viewing leisure as wasteful also reported less enjoyment of what they did for Halloween if it was a ‘terminal’ leisure activity—which is just where the activity and the goal are the same, [which here is] to have fun, as in going to a Halloween party,” says Gabriela Tonietto, PhD, an author on the study and assistant professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School. “By contrast, views on leisure did not impact participants’ enjoyment of what we called 'instrumental' leisure activities—those that contribute to some larger goal, like, in this case, taking your kid trick-or-treating,” says Dr. Tonietto.

That finding held true in the second study, which broadened the set of activities in the survey to include more terminal leisure (hanging out with friends, watching TV) and instrumental leisure (exercise, meditation) activities. In this case, however, the researchers also sought to identify any nonclinical levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in study participants and found that those who viewed leisure as a waste also displayed stronger symptoms of the above conditions.

Even so, correlation is not necessarily causation. It's unclear whether the folks with higher self-reported levels of depression, stress, or anxiety may be predisposed to view leisure as wasteful, or if viewing it as such could be a factor contributing to any of those conditions—or both.

How your views of leisure can affect your enjoyment of it:

The other two studies focused on real-time enjoyment, which lends itself to teasing out a causal link between a person’s perspective on leisure and their ability to actually experience the benefits of leisure activities.

For both, researchers gave about 200 college students a set of fabricated news articles focused on leisure being wasteful and unproductive; useful and productive; or about something else entirely, as a control. Then, throughout the study duration, the researchers introduced some terminal (aka just for fun) leisure activity—like a game of Tetris or a funny cat video—and asked participants to report how much they enjoyed the activity at the end of the study period. “Those who were primed with the news articles to believe that leisure was wasteful also reported less enjoyment of the intermittent leisure activity,” says Dr. Tonietto.

“Those who were primed…to believe that leisure was wasteful also reported less enjoyment of the intermittent leisure activity.” —Gabriela Tonietto, PhD

But interestingly, the reverse didn’t pan out. “Priming people with the mindset that, ‘Hey, isn’t leisure, great?’ doesn’t actually boost people’s enjoyment of leisure beyond the control group,” Dr. Tonietto says. “On the other hand, getting people in the mindset that leisure is wasteful does, in fact, reduce enjoyment of it.” In turn, when you aren’t able to enjoy leisure to the fullest, you’re less likely to benefit from the calming, happiness-boosting effects of doing something purely for fun.

How to make the most of free time—and reap the mental-health benefits of leisure activities:

If you do currently perceive leisure as a waste, it’s essential to take steps to reverse that mindset so you don't stand in your own way of enjoying it. According to the researchers, however, changing your perspective on leisure to a more positive one may require a good deal of mindful reframing. Dr. Tonietto suggests first acknowledging that just because leisure, at one point, may have thwarted an important goal (say, cruising Instagram when you should’ve been finishing up that report for work) doesn’t mean it always will.

In that same vein, it’s helpful to get specific and consider how a leisure activity may actually serve you. If it’s something like spending a Sunday relaxing in the park with friends, you could frame it as emotionally beneficial for both time spent outdoors and time socializing.

Of course, that mindset will be easier to adopt for the instrumental (i.e. goal-oriented) leisure activities than the terminal (i.e. purely fun) ones; that is, you’re more likely to spot a productive reason for going on a run or taking your kid to the park than you are for having a glass of wine on the couch. But the latter does still count as leisure in a life-additive way, which is why Dr. Tonietto stresses working toward the eventual goal of enjoying leisure for leisure’s sake.

To that end, in your efforts to get specific about how a leisure activity can serve you, aim to avoid the multitasking mindset: “You shouldn't feel like watching TV needs to be justified by folding laundry or getting some work done on your computer at the same time,” Dr. Tonietto says. “Because, in that case, you’re not actually allowing yourself to reap the benefit of TV time as leisure.” Instead, include in your new leisure mindset the step of consciously committing both body and mind to whatever leisure activity it is, even (and especially) if the goal of the activity is doing nothing at all.

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