Feel Like You Don’t Have Enough Leisure Time? Take a Cue from Jane Austen

Find out what’s really standing between you and leisure time.
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Find out what’s really standing between you and leisure time.
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I somehow never got assigned to read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s novel, while I was in school. So I recently picked up this classic about the Bennet sisters and the world they inhabit. To the modern reader, much seems quaint, but it is particularly striking how much open time people—well, the aristocratic ones—seem to have. Characters go for long walks. They compose long letters, something modern sorts with acronym-based texts find difficult to comprehend. There are frequent dinner parties.

Yet days had the same 24 hours then as they do now, and time diary studies find that Americans do still have a fair quantity of leisure. According to the American Time Use Survey, on any given day, 96 percent of Americans are engaged in some sort of leisure activity, such as watching TV or socializing. Of those who did, the average man spent 6 hours on leisure activities, and the average woman spent 5.2 hours. To be sure, this includes all Americans over age 15, encompassing teens and retirees, but even the people we might think of as busiest—employed people with kids under age 6—had over 3 hours of leisure time per day. 

How do we have so much leisure time while feeling like we don't? 

The problem is that so much of it is spent looking at screens that the time doesn’t feel long and leisurely. This contributes to the false perception that, unlike those Bennet sisters or Bingley and Darcy of Austen’s world, we have no free time at all.

I like to think I have a good sense of where my time goes. I write about time management frequently, and as part of that, I recently finished a project that involved keeping track of my time for a year. I discovered many things, but one of the things I’m happiest about is how little time I spent watching TV. A year has 8760 hours. I spent about 57.5 watching TV. The average person watches 2.8 hours per day, which would total 1,025 hours during that same 365 day period.

That said, I know I have a bad smartphone habit that rivals the time-sucking nature of TV. When I am not doing anything in particular, I find myself mindlessly tapping the pass code on my iPhone. Accessing email and social media makes moments of boredom pass quicker.

But here’s the thing: If we want to feel like life is leisurely and open, boredom is a profoundly useful sensation. When the brain is not easily distracted, it starts knitting together interesting ideas of its own.

Turning on the TV is one way we escape boredom; many people have no idea what they’d do from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. each night without it. But the TV is not always there, which is where the phone insinuates itself. It turns all moments of idleness into chances for information consumption.

Some of this information is certainly pleasurable or interesting. I make part of my living writing things people read online, so I hope no one turns off her Internet access completely. The question is whether the space that all this information consumption crowds out would have been better if it was open.

After finding myself reading some pointless listicle the other day while my 6-year-old practiced baseball with his team, I realized that the answer is often yes. My other kids were home with my husband. It was a gorgeous summer Saturday. Even if watching a baseball game might be a parental duty, watching the pre-game huddles and practices are less so. I did not need to do anything. Like the narrator in John Keats’ poem, "Ode on Indolence," I could have felt that “Ripe was the drowsy hour;/The blissful cloud of summer-indolence/Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less.”

In other words, a beautiful summer afternoon does not need to be sped up. It can simply be experienced, and is probably better indulged in, instead of being chopped into bits with email and headline checking.

It is somewhat hard to avoid this chopping when our smartphones do go everywhere. We have them in our pockets for essential reasons: figuring out where the baseball field is, taking pictures of the game, being accessible should the rest of the family decide to come join after the baby’s nap. Restricting use to these practical things, and not passive time-filling activities, is incredibly hard.

But given how little free time people feel they have, it’s probably worth it. Less time spent scrolling through tweets means opening our eyes to the vast quantity of space that actually already exists—enough to go on long walks and write long letters like the Bennet sisters, or at least enjoy a drowsy hour, missing nothing of consequence. 

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