Demanding Leisure in the Time of COVID

5 minute read


November 2020 was the lowest time for me during the COVID-19 pandemic. My boyfriend left to spend a month with his faimly across the country, while I stayed home in our apartment. Aside from a few days visiting my sister, I spent the month without human contact.

I played Youtube, Spotify, and Netflix constantly to drown out the silence. Sure, I still spent 12 hours every week in virtual video meetings for work, but staring at someone’s eyes on a screen hardly substitutes for in-person connection. The winter days were short, and indoor activities outside of my home were off limits at the time. Social media swallowed up my downtime, and I’d go to bed thinking “today was another day of nothing, like all the rest”.

The moments when I actually DID things were when I felt my best. I’m not talking about exercise; I view that as a minimum baseline of taking care of myself. I mean the times when I set out on a mission to create something and poured my full attention into this one thing. Following a watercolor tutorial on Pinterest. Trudging through the Berkeley Hills to photograph the small bits of beauty I’ve come to love. The moments spent creating, not consuming.

Finding purpose through leisure

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport suggests filling time with “demanding leisure” instead of “passive consumption”. It’s a no brainer, but in our modern world, most people tend to default to passive consumption if they’re not being mindful about it.

The loneliest moments I’ve felt during the pandemic have been underscored by a lack of purpose. Even when my boyfriend is home, there are days when I shut my work laptop at 5 o’clock and ask myself, “now what?” My work is cognitively demanding and I usually feel the urge to stop thinking entirely. The easiest way to do so? Popping open my personal laptop and mindlessly reading or watching content online.

Passive consumption could not be easier. Social media companies literally optimize their apps to maximize the time users spend scrolling. Instagram tries to show you the images and captions it thinks you’ll engage with the most, Facebook throws the most clickbaity links in your feed, and Twitter invented the infinite scroll. Whether it’s images, essays, doom-filled news, 140-character quips, or stupid videos, you can pick your poison – there’s an app for everything.

Once in a while you might learn something useful that sticks with you, or you might see something that sparks inspiration to go do something in the real world, but usually you don’t retain what you consume in short form content. After a scrolling session, you walk away having achieved nothing. It’s as though the time spent online disappeared into a black hole, never to be remembered or revisited. It’s an activity that adds zero value to life.

Demanding leisure is the opposite of vegging out. It means doing activities that require skill, planning, or social connection. It might not be the first thing you think of as leisure, since in our modern culture we tend to associate leisure with relaxing. Think back to just about any book you’ve read that was written before 1950 – how did the characters spend their leisure time? They were probably reading literature, playing instruments, learning new languages, doing needlework, or playing outside. None of these things is “relaxing” per se, as they require focus and energy to partake.

I think of consumption vs leisure similar to the distinction between type 1 and type 2 fun. Type 1 fun is happy and fun while you’re doing it, like going out for tacos or playing a game. Type 2 fun is challenging while you’re doing it, but satisfying at the end. Things like hiking mountains and writing this blog post are type 2 fun. Demanding leisure is like type 2 fun. It leaves you with a lasting feeling of purpose and satisfaction, as opposed to the fleeting interest of passive consumption. It adds value to life and causes you to grow.

Cultivating demanding leisure

Just like restrictive dieting often leads to rebounds and overeating, trying to cut out social media cold turkey has not been a successful strategy for me to cultivate a more purposeful life outside of work. Instead, I’m trying to intentionally fill my evenings and weekends with creative pursuits and working towards goals.

This is so, so hard to do during this pandemic. Many businesses aren’t operating in their usual capacity, events that we’d normally participate in are cancelled, and it’s hard to do anything social. I think everyone deserves a little grace for not “making the most” out of this unusual time.

I’ve been consciously spending more “demanding leisure” time on a few things, like learning about local plants and fungi, training to run longer distances, and wildlife photography.

I encourage you to try this: pick one night this week to skip your usual digital wind-down rituals and instead, spend that time on demanding leisure of your choice. How does that feel?