Whether you plan to turn your hobby into a career, or just use it as a release valve for the stresses in your life, here’s how to find time for a little self-care.
Before Andrew Rea started his popular “Binging With Babish” YouTube channel, he could barely get out of bed. Today, he credits the show, which inspires its three million subscribers to make their favorite “as seen on TV” dishes, with saving his life.
In 2015, six months before starting the channel, Mr. Rea, a former visual effects supervisor, was overcome with depression. But by combining his passions for food and filmmaking, as well as seeking professional help, he rediscovered how using those passions could lead to a rewarding career.
“Even if it hadn’t become my career and completely changed my life, the late nights spent tinkering after work would’ve been worth it,” Mr. Rea said. “I was cooking again, I was filming again, I was happy again.”
Whether you’re looking to cultivate a hobby as a professional steppingstone, or just to feel more fulfilled, extracurricular activities carry measurable benefits. And even if you don’t have a passion that really stokes your flames, there’s hope for you, too.
Pursuing your passion makes you feel good
Mr. Rea’s experience isn’t atypical. A 2015 study published in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that pursuing your passion both lowers stress and contributes to greater happiness over all. Researchers found that participants who engaged in hobbies were 34 percent less stressed and 18 percent less sad during the activities, as well as for some time after.
Laura Vanderkam, a productivity expert, advocates finding time for yourself as a means to greater happiness over all. “Life just feels better when you have things in your hours that you want to do,” Ms. Vanderkam said. “There’s moments where time almost has no meaning because we’re so happy about what we’re doing. The more time you can spend in that zone, the better life feels.”
Finding the time to get into the zone
We’re all busy. Whether we’re juggling demanding careers, family life or both, most of us feel as if we can’t cram anything more into our schedules. But Ms. Vanderkam wants to dispel that idea. “When you say you don’t have time, what you’re really saying is, it’s not a priority,” she said. While there are definitely moments in which we legitimately don’t have time to spare, most of us can find a little time if we know how to look.
To figure out where extra time lives in your schedule, she recommends thinking of time in weeks, rather than days. A week “is really the cycle of life as people actually live it,” she said. Each week is made up of 168 hours. If you work 40 hours and sleep eight hours each night, that still leaves 72 hours. “Maybe you can carve out a few hours of really fun, cool stuff per week. That will make the other 165 hours that are in a week feel a lot more doable,” she explained.
To do that, Ms. Vanderkam recommends tracking a week of your life. Write down everything you do in half-hour blocks or use these apps recommended by Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products. You may be able to find some wiggle room, especially in those couple of hours before bed most of us spend hitting “next” on the TV queue.
Hack your free time
Once you find those free hours, it’s all about using them effectively and motivating yourself. Going to bed an hour earlier a couple of nights a week might allow you to get up an hour sooner and use that time. If you have children, consider trading “free days” with a friend or neighbor, switching off kid duty for a few hours on the weekends. It may feel like you’re trading your precious “free” time for another item on your to-do list, but a pet project you’re passionate about is probably better than Netflix, and one that’ll leave you feeling more energized and rewarded.
“When you did activities as a kid, they were often built in — there was an adult forcing you to go,” Ms. Vanderkam added. “As an adult, you’re fully responsible for that. Many people find it easier to let go of promises they make to themselves.”
Whereas Mr. Rea has millions of subscribers waiting for him to drop a new video, most of us don’t have anyone relying on us to write those pages, paint that picture, or get into downward dog. Sometimes we all need a little external motivation.
“Turn your passion into an obligation,” Ms. Vanderkam advised. “If you want to take up woodworking, take a class. If you’ve paid for it, you’re more likely to show up.”
Set expectations to pre-empt procrastination
If you’re prone to procrastination, start small and specific. Maybe you want to hone your cooking skills, but take one look at the cupboard and end up ordering in. Procrastination often happens when we get overwhelmed and stall before we even start. “Taking very small steps is key,” Ms. Vanderkam said. “If you take small steps repeatedly, they really do add up.”
Knowing your road map is also essential, especially if you want to turn your passion into a career. Make a mental picture of where you want to be in five years, then work backward. “People often overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can do in the long run,” Ms. Vanderkam explained. “Say, I’m going to do just three things today. That’s 15 things per workweek; that’s 750 things in a year. If you do 750 important things in a year, that’s a pretty good year.”
No passions? Cultivate skills instead
While hobbies both enrich our lives and can turn into rewarding careers, those of us who don’t have a particular obsession aren’t hopelessly out of luck. Instead, cultivate skills that will give you a leg up in your field. We all carry a “toolbox” to work in the form of specific abilities that make us better at our jobs. Some experts say leveling up on some of these will improve your job satisfaction more than initial enthusiasm ever will.
Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” says the idea that you will find success in your career if you just follow your heart is a false assumption. First, that advice assumes people have a passion to follow in the first place, which isn’t necessarily true. And there’s no real evidence that feeling, on its own, leads to fulfillment.
Instead, Dr. Newport recommends cultivating skills within your current framework. “As you get better at things that are very valuable, you acquire more career capital,” he said. “It is this career capital that you can then turn around and invest into your career, to get things that makes it a deeper source of meaning, passion, or satisfaction.”
Just like pursuing hobbies, this takes personal initiative. “It is not enough to just learn about something; it’s also not enough just to do something a lot,” Dr. Newport said. “You actually have to deliberately practice the skill, which means you have to stretch yourself beyond where you’re comfortable, if you’re going to actually improve.” He recommends thinking about these skills as a professional musician thinks about hers, and pursue more and more challenges accordingly.
Working on yourself makes you the best possible you
Whether you engage in a hobby for its own sake or as a career driver, self-improvement is a win-win.
“If you open yourself to new experiences by gradually stepping outside your comfort zone, you can find the things that truly make you happy,” Mr. Rea explained. “And whether those things become hobbies or your life’s work, pursuing your passions can give you a renewed sense of meaning and accomplishment.”
We can all use a little more of that, regardless of where we find it.
By Lizz Schumer