Be intentional about how you spend your free time
Whether it’s the weekend or the next vacation, a number of studies have shown that people who set personal goals to achieve in their spare time, such as seeing friends, pursuing a hobby, or even organizing a party. closet, say they are happier than those who are not. The authors suspect it works because it makes us more intentional about how we’re going to be spending our time away from work, not because it lets us cross things off another to-do list. So while we look forward to staying in our pajamas and doing nothing for awhile, setting goals can actually help us reenergize and make the most of our free time.
The proof is clear: burnout is on the rise. A common suggestion to prevent burnout is to take regular breaks from work. But what should these breaks look like if we are to maximize rejuvenation and protect our well-being? It may be surprising to learn, but passive ‘rest and relaxation’ is not as effective in recovering from the daily grind as using breaks to achieve your goals – not your goal. job goals, but your staff goals. Examples include spending time with friends and family, pursuing your hobbies, or even organizing your wardrobe. Whatever your personal goals, the important thing is that you make a plan for how you plan to spend your time during the break. We call this proactive recovery, and we find that it makes people happier than passive forms of recovery.
In December 2020, one of us interviewed a group of 537 public sector employees and asked them a simple question: “Do you have any goals for the next winter break?” with the answer options “yes” or “no”. We also asked them to rate how happy they were, which is a commonly used measure of subjective well-being.
We found that employees who set goals for their vacation reported being 8% happier than those who didn’t. This difference in happiness appeared regardless of gender, age, job, income, marital status, frequency of homework, or number of dependents.
Next, we wanted to understand if proactive recovery is associated with the number of vacation days people plan to leave their jobs and what activities they plan to engage in during those days. On average, people who had vacation goals planned to take 1.2 more days off than those who did not set vacation goals. This is important because approximately 768 million vacation days are lost each year, which represents approximately $ 62.2 billion in lost benefits.
Employees with vacation goals also planned to spend 24% less time on passive leisure activities such as watching TV, napping, or doing nothing, and 28% more time socializing with their employees. friends and family. These differences in how we plan to spend our free time are important to our well-being: We have found that planning to spend more time with loved ones was associated with greater happiness. This is in line with one of the most consistent findings of time use and well-being research on the unique benefits of social connection.
Proactive recovery can also benefit the organization: in fact, we found that employees who set goals for their next vacation reported being 5% more satisfied with their work than those who did not.
Notably, we found similar results in a different sample of 183 workers surveyed in 2019 who reported having access to paid leave. Those who said they generally set goals for their vacation were 12% happier than those who didn’t. Proactive recovery was also associated with spending the vacation more social and less rest-related. As before, time spent on social activities while on vacation was associated with greater happiness, while time spent on rest-related activities was associated with lower happiness.
The benefits of proactive recovery don’t end with vacations. In another survey, we asked a sample of 243 workers if they generally had goals for their weekends. Again, we found that people who set goals for their weekends were 13% happier than those who didn’t set goals for the weekend. As with the holidays, people who have goals for their weekends are also more likely to spend their weekends in social activities and less likely to spend their weekends resting or doing nothing. And spending the weekend participating in social activities can in turn lead to greater happiness.
What’s more, the positive effects of goal setting aren’t limited to weekends and holidays, but can actually be harnessed on a daily basis – setting goals for how we spend our evenings can even be beneficial. In a separate sample of 242 workers, we found that those who set goals for their evenings spent more time on social activities and were also 10% happier than those who did not set goals for their evenings.
One caveat: While it’s important to set goals for our free time, that doesn’t mean we should treat those goals as a to-do list. We have to be flexible. Research by Gabriela Tonietto and Selin Malkoc has shown that planning for leisure activities can interfere with the enjoyment people get from these activities in part because leisure begins to feel like work. These authors found that when people loosely planned their leisure activities, they were still able to maintain the enjoyment of their free time. In our research, we suspect that setting break goals works because it makes us more intentional about how we’re going to be spending our time away from work, not because it lets us cross things off another list. things to do.
With the challenges of an ongoing pandemic and unintended economic consequences, many employees might wonder if they should be making plans while on vacation. Their flights may be canceled, they may get sick, or they may just feel too exhausted to do anything. While this may be counterintuitive, as we might be anxious to stay in our pajamas and do nothing for awhile, our research suggests that setting goals may actually help us reenergize and get the most out of it. of our free time.