Intentional Leisure

As a fellow human, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on a trick to maximize happiness. I call this one Intentional Leisure (IL). It means considering if the way you spend your leisure time makes sense for you. You can do this in a two-step process:

  1. Raising the bar. Seeking to get more pleasure from your time.
  2. Assessing. Checking if your activities meet your standards.

Here's an example. You have a couple of hours of free time, so you turn on the TV and hit the YouTube app. There's a recommended video about rabbits with an appealing thumbnail and a clickbait-y title, something like "Life with Bunnies | Expectation vs Reality 🐰🏡", so you have to check what that's about. You hit play. You blink. Then you realize two hours have passed, and you have no idea how, but you have watched 5 videos about funny rabbits, then 3 videos about capybaras, and 3 videos about people who believe rabbits are aliens that you watched out of sheer curiosity as to whether it was some kind of joke. Your YouTube recommendations now consist entirely of two subjects: cute animals and conspiracy theories.

You can do better. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of bunnies, but you have to realize that you now have more options to consume content than at any other time in history. We can listen to any 80s song, but people in the 80s couldn't listen to the 2010s songs. True, some pieces of old content are hard to find, but we still have it pretty good. So with all the options we have nowadays, choosing to spend your precious free time on a video you don't truly enjoy is, at least, a decision worth examining.

IL (Intentional Leisure) is about fighting the "default mode", about probing yourself so you can understand what makes you happy instead of just going numbly through the motions. And it doesn't require much discipline. All you need to do is, before deciding what to do next, ask yourself whether you will enjoy it a lot. A good way to guide your thinking is to ask more specific questions, such as:

  1. How can I enjoy this activity even more? (Amplify)

Back to the first example, as bunnies are awesome, you could get the best book ever about their lives. Or watch the best documentary ever made about them.

  1. How much time should I spend on this activity? (Reduce)

You could just watch a single video on YouTube and go do something else. This works well for things that have a big spike of enjoyment in the beginning and then quickly decay.

  1. What else can I do instead? (Switch)

You can opt to do something completely different, like go for a walk or give a friend a phone call, since I am told that phone calls still work as of December 2023.

For most of history, most humans were unable to choose how to spend their time. Lately, more of us have been able to choose what to work on, and even how to work on it. We will call this Intentional Work (IW). It's a safe bet to say that most people in the developed world have a good degree of choice when it comes to how to make ends meet. What few of us realize is that we have so many options for the way we engage with content, food, and experiences. The unexamined life is not worth living, and the examined life means examining how we spend our free time.

How we spend our leisure time is just as important as how we spend our working time. For most people, it can be even more important, since I am under no impression that most people do work they truly love. For those who just "bring home the bacon", realizing there are better ways to spend their time can have a profound effect. Think, for example, of the many amateur musicians who work on jobs they dislike.


A common misconception is that IL leads to pure hedonism, that is, a pursuit of a kind of pleasure that is self-indulgent and serves no other purpose. But IL is as much about excitement as eudaemonia or, in popular science terms, as much about dopamine as it is about serotonin. By deciding to make better use of our leisure time, we could decide that, instead of watching a silly video, our time would be better spent working a bit more on a difficult piano piece or going back to working on that difficult Lego set.

People also tend to believe that practicing IL will be overwhelming. That you should just relax and do whatever comes up, instead, or that you won't be able to ever enjoy something again without the voice inside your head constantly telling you that there's something better that you could be doing. In practice, I haven't found this to be the case. As you start to do things you enjoy more, you focus more on what you are doing and your mind is less likely to ponder. Even if your mind does ponder, you can remind yourself that it was you who decided that the activity you are doing now was a worthy use of your time.

A better objection is that practicing IL properly requires a degree of confidence and self-knowledge that few people have. To get the most out of IL, we need to ignore the opinions of others and trust our intuition to assess what will make us happy. It's not uncommon to discover you enjoy something much more than the average person and you prefer to do it so much that other people would consider it extreme. For example, a friend of mine worked from Brasil for over a month so he could practice kite surfing. If you think that's overdoing it, that's precisely the point. Finding things you love doing so much that your friends begin to question your sanity means you are on the right track.

IL doesn't mean only going more into the things you like, but also avoiding things you don't. For example, you can decide to arrive at parties late and leave early or, if you think you will bored, not go at all. And while it's true that IL must not be used as an excuse to be a bad person or a lousy friend, each person owes it to himself to be happy.

And then there is the argument about "the masses". Some might argue that most people have a pretty basic taste that is wholly satisfied by the NFL, beer, Instagram, and TikTok. But that's missing the point entirely. True, not everyone is a "deep thinker" who will enjoy classical music and pretend to enjoy Broadway shows, but the goal of IL is that people do what they find fun, enjoyable, and exciting. If "the masses" are truly having fun, then everything is fine. If they, as I suspect, are mindlessly scrolling because of the addictive properties of social media but not entertained, then we, as a society, can do better.

Doing too much of something you don't enjoy is a common affliction for all social classes. After all, look what Twitter addiction did to poor Elon. IL can be a cure for boredom and anger. What if someone had taken the time to explain this concept to Elon? What if we could have nudged him towards hydrofoiling and jiujitsu as his friend, Mark, enjoys?

Natural consequences

As we do more things that are fun for us, we might encounter some (desired) side effects:

Quitting social media

Social media isn't a lot of fun, despite what people say. It's mildly amusing, good enough to pass the time while waiting at the doctor's office, but not one of those things people look up to.

Two uses of social media can be enjoyable, though: the first few minutes of usage and connecting with friends and family. As much of the time spent on social media is spent on mindless scrolling, these good uses are just a tiny fraction of the total usage.

Deeper thinking

Focusing is easier when having fun, which makes it easier to ponder and go deeper into things. For the same reason, IL also makes it easier to memorize and learn. Also, we will tend to seek more things that require focus, because focusing is deeply gratifying.

Avoiding multi-tasking

As you have to focus, you will seek less distraction, so multi-tasking becomes less appealing. If you are having fun, why would you want to be distracted?

Building new habits is easier

This effect comes from two sources. First, it's easier to stick with something if you have chosen to do it after careful deliberation. Second, you are more likely to form habits if they are enjoyable. Most people I've met seem to struggle with building habits because they fail to find ways of making the new activity enjoyable.


IL is revolutionary, yet can be stated in terms as simple as they get: "You must enjoy your free time a lot". I know that, in practice, it can get quite messy, but it matters a lot. If you don't ever wonder how to spend your free time, you are already choosing to spend it poorly.