What’s worth doing? Some Saturday Self-Help

I’ve been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin for a mama book group, and have been enjoying it… to an extent.  More on that later, when I review the book.  For the moment, I’m in the middle of Rubin’s chapter on “Leisure”, and it’s making me think about a conundrum I’ve faced before: what is the best use of my leisure time?

In the immortal words of Betty Draper (among others), “only boring people are bored.”  On any given day I’m usually too busy to think, but I still somehow end up wasting precious time, whether it’s driving here and there on errands that could be easily completed in half the time, running around the house in a scattered fashion doing chores, or doing the equivalent on the web.  (And then there’s my Mad Men and Game of Thrones addictions.   Let’s not even go there.)

When I do have a spare moment, I find myself checking Facebook, or browsing the table of contents of magazines I will never have time to read (The New Yorker, The Economist, Harpers, Whole Living, Business Week, Fortune, Vogue… the list goes on).   Sometimes I stand, paralyzed, in the middle of the kitchen, unable to pick out one item from my monumental list of household chores and projects.  Should I clean the bathroom?  Empty the dish washer?  Fold laundry? Wash mashed sweet potato off the kitchen floor?  Vacuum two months worth of dog hair off the living room couches?  They all seem equally imperative.  They all seem more important than finding my dream job, or writing this blog.

Let’s say someone gave you a free day every week.  Not a day to do housework, or finish that presentation, or finally sort out your closet (oh, man, I really need to do that), but a day of real fun: a hobby or a project or an experience outside of the mundane.  What would you do?

Last year, in a fit of pre-pregnancy-induced control-freak-dom, I read Laura Vanderkam‘s 168 Hours and got a little obsessed.  Vanderkam will make you feel bad about yourself, pretty much no matter how amazing you are at being productive and streamlining your life.  One of the things on my ‘to do’ list is to re-read her book with my current lifestyle (full-time baby + trying to write) in mind.  But the best thing about Vanderkam is not her fascist approach to time-management (which can feel a little soul-crushing at the best of times); it’s her dedication to pursuing the worthwhile things in life, with all the calculation and dedication of an army drill sergeant.    Once you have more time to spend, what will you spend it on?  Vanderkam has all sorts of inspiration and ideas for what is most worthwhile to do with your life (from family to exercise to philanthropy), and gives examples from her own list of dreams.

Rubin’s chapter on leisure is more philosophical than that.  She admits she has not always been honest about who she is and what she loves (or doesn’t).  One of her “commandments” for her year of happiness is to “Be Gretchen”, which amounts to not apologizing for her passions (YA lit), and not pretending to enjoy things she really doesn’t (economics).  More generally, she is trying to stop pretending to be someone she isn’t.

Most of us do this, to a certain extent, and perhaps it’s a noble mission to give up those things that are really just poses as the person we wish we were.  On the other hand, studies show that novelty breeds happiness, as does pride of self.  So perhaps a bit of both would be worthwhile: concentrate on something you know you really love, but also don’t be afraid to aspire to delusions of grandeur, even if all you get is some excess knowledge and a vague feeling of unease.

These days I struggle to relax: it seems every spare moment needs to be filled with chores and manic bouts of productivity.  Even while I’m playing with Charlie and should realistically be ‘living in the moment’, I’m thinking about all the things I need to do as soon as she goes to bed.  Maybe this is just what parenthood is all about.

So, here’s a question for the masses: what do you think is worth doing with your copious amounts of spare time?  If you could have that free day, what would you spend it doing?  Or is it worthwhile to do nothing at all?

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