A few months ago I officially pronounced myself a minimalist. I donated most of my clothes, threw out all my high school love letters and dragged nearly my entire paperback collection to the local library. I was starting anew. Or wasn’t I? Was I giving up my hectic lifestyle to embrace simplicity and inner calm, or was I just de-cluttering my room?
Since then I have continuously reduced my possessions. I hardly buy anything other than food these days. The only clothes I spend money on are workout hoodies and socks. I turn down gifts or re-direct them instantly. I haven’t left the house to see a play or a movie in months. And yet my overall consumption hasn’t changed much.
I mostly live in my head and the Internet. I try to convince myself that consumption of immaterial things is not as bad as being a hoarder when I know full well that all my paperbacks were just the tip of the iceberg and I actually have another 60 GB worth of ebooks on my hard drive. It’s scary to think of the amount of stuff I cling to in my virtual life. Dozens of bookmarks I will never open again; hundreds of articles I’ve saved for when I ‘feel bored at work’; and my absolute favourite: Notepad files with ideas for Doctor Who fan videos and the perfect song for each of those.
All of those prove much more difficult to give up than a few extra dresses I never liked my legs in anyway. And it got me thinking: why do I like consuming these kinds of things so much? And why am I so much more likely to read one extra article than to write one extra entry in my diary? What makes consumption so much more satisfying than production (at least for me)? And am I even good at producing anything?
Well, I thought long and hard (meaning, I spent about 30 minutes contemplating it while walking through a dark neighbourhood and trying not to get mugged) and I came up with some conclusions, as well as some ideas for improvement. Those might be far from universal, but they sure do seem to apply to most of the Internet people of my generation.
First question: Why is it so hard to be productive?
Creating is one of the most rewarding things one can do with ones time… when one is seeing results. Once I wrote the backbone of this post, I now feel extremely motivated to write it out. But I was lucky to come up with enough stuff to build a template. I rarely get an easy start like that. As a result, creating most often feels like a chore instead of like following my passion.
Consuming, on the other hand, is designed to require close to no conscious effort. Yes, you are asked to pay attention, but your participation or lack thereof has absolutely no effect on the end result. The movie starts and ends regardless of your coming to care for the protagonist, or falling asleep on the couch. Even reading, if it is the audio book kind (or the short-and-sexy-mostly-dialogue kind I am guilty of indulging in sometimes), can be a largely passive task. You are simply required to click “Play” and then, later, not return the book for a refund, please.
There is a certain condition which makes the two feel somewhat similar: the well-known state of flow. Creating in a state of perfect concentration and motivation comes very close to lazying with a cup of tea and your favourite fictional character. But reaching flow itself is difficult and usually means refusing to give a fuck for the rest of the world for a few hours and thinking only about the task at hand – and who has time for that?
Second question: Are passive hobbies even hobbies?
My go-to answer to the dreaded question “What are your hobbies?” usually is “Reading.” Not that I am afraid that “Pornhub” might be a bad answer, or that “Signing up for free online courses and then abandoning them” might give people the wrong impression. I just Really. Like. Reading. It’s that simple. When I was younger I didn’t have hobbies. My schedule was packed with extracurricular activities, foreign language courses, sports and the odd toilet paper roll project. I just never considered any of those things ‘hobbies’. Maybe I had a dozen hobbies and never realized it. Or maybe I just didn’t feel passionately enough about any of them. The thing is, though, I always felt passionately about reading. Never was there a time in my life when you would hear me say “I’d rather wash the bathtub than read Harry Potter”. Oh, so this is normal? I never realized.
In any case, the jury is still out on this one: is my love for reading worthy of being called a ‘hobby’? Or do I only get to practice it in the privacy of my own home, preferably under the blanket and provided I feel sufficiently ashamed the next day. Let me know.
Third question: What do I win in?
Regardless of how we define a ‘hobby’, I would dare suggest that some hobbies are better than others. And active hobbies are always better than passive ones (except when it involves a book from the library in one hand and a highlighter in the other – that’s just barbaric). So I spent some time comparing my passive and active free-time activities and came up with a surprising result: I don’t suck nearly as much as I had feared. In fact, when it comes to the things that are most important to me, I seem to be improving with time.
Now, onto some practical statistics:
Food – a complete win. I cook almost all my meals these days and I am mindful of what I put into them. I often get overly creative but the result is never as bad as to discourage me. In fact, I have made some humble progress in cooking for other people as well, with wonderful results. Very hopeful about this area!
Sports – these days I do more sports than I watch. I used to be into watching contemporary dancing and ice skating. It’s been years since I’ve binged on So You Think You Can Dance. Instead, I try out new sports regularly and I hit the gym a few days a week. I do watch workout videos and get some of my exercise ideas from those, but it is definitely not a time-waster.
Watching movies – I’ve practically given those up. Movies are long and require attention and time, and popcorn… all things I don’t feel like wasting. I don’t intend to go back to 2-3 movies a week like a few years ago. Moreover, these days watching a 3-minute movie trailer is more than sufficient.
Disclaimer: movies =/= TV (see below)
Reading quality literature – last year 50% of the books I read were non-fiction. The popular science type, not the fiction-sounding-biography-and-period-drama type. I am immensely proud of that, and yet it felt like a compulsion much more than a plan. I simply didn’t feel like reading untrue things. And even the fiction I read was often painfully realistic – practically no sci-fi or fantasy and definitely no vampire BS. (and I SO love vampires!) This year I am taking it one step further and writing an actual real Amazon review for EVERY book I finish. So I am definitely making progress on the writing scale.
Disclaimer: writing the odd review =/= consistent writing (see below)
Teaching and giving back – I have been on fire this year, teaching two of our new colleagues at work almost everything they know about customer support and about our product in particular. I was given a lot of responsibility and I am thoroughly enjoying it. There is nothing better than talking one-on-one to someone who is getting paid to listen to you. It’s almost like free counselling, minus the uncomfortable couch and the questions about your relationship with your mother.
Disclaimer: teaching customer care tips & tricks =/= creating my own ‘how to survive’ online course (see below)
Practicing my languages – in the past 2 years I went to several language courses with reasonable success (I only dropped out of one). I have made an effort to practice and even try dreaming in French once in a while. A part of me hopes to get to practice all my 7 languages this year and finish off strong with a course in Portuguese. Realistic or not, it is nice to catch myself dissecting the lyrics of a Spanish song or overhearing Italian people in the supermarket and interrupting them in their own language.
Watching TV – this is and remains my biggest sin. I tried to swap the TV series for YouTube videos, reasoning the those are at least shorter. It worked for a while but I have to admit I find myself more and more combining the two. Still, the YouTube videos I watch do tend to be more informative and educational (mostly vegan food-, body building- or minimalism-oriented) but the fact remains: I am wasting precious time consuming the exact content that I yearn to create.
Reading instead of writing – same with the written word. If I spent half the time I spend browsing the Kindle isle on actually writing about the things I learnt from the last book I read! But instead I just hurry to the next book, as if it is earning me some serious brownie points. And it is, my Reading Challenge is already 40% complete and it’s only March! Some part of me is wondering if this is the most important reason for reading, however (the rest of me is already googling the next book that will fall into at least half a dozen categories). I have so many ideas for blog posts but I constantly get distracted and it is suddenly time to wash my hair or cook lunch again.
Participating in online learning – as a student, always and only as a student. There are courses I take that I feel I am almost ready to start offering myself but this would mean putting myself out there, being open to criticism and to the idea of working for myself for a change. I am very much not comfortable with this idea yet, so I just continue collecting useless digital certificates from all over the place.
Listening to pop music – my only excuse is that it is in 7 languages! But other than that listening to music is perhaps the single useless thing one can do with one’s ears. I could be listening to audio books, podcasts, lectures… or even better – I could be creating those! Even if it is just some slutty erotic audio stories, or a random podcast about hermits – it would be a start, and who knows, I might discover a new passion. Not to mention I had a dream not too long ago – I wanted to learn to sing – and I’m hardly closer to that goal.
Forth question: Are passive hobbies bad?
Despite my rant in defence of active hobbies so far, I have to admit that passive hobbies have a place in my life for a reason. They are, very often, a safe haven from all the madness of reality. And while you are unlikely to get rich by listening to French music or reading crime novels, any and every hobby that reduces stress should be cherished as life-saving. ‘Stress kills!!!’ says the book I am reading right now, and even the act of reading it forces me to focus on calming and examining my life for any excesses I can strip. Not to mention it is mighty inspiring to read a science book by one of my all-time favourite humans (Robert Sapolsky, if you’re wondering) and let him help me live a longer, healthier and happier life.
I do tend to associate passive hobbies with leisure and life-long learning, and active hobbies with work, money and fitness. That, I guess, has to change if I am ever to have a successful blog. For now, however, I am happy to give passive hobbies a break every now and again… while still hoping to substitute them for an active hobby and claim not only the happiness rewards, but also the productivity bonus.
Fifth question: How can I improve?
Quite a bit has been said already on how to motivate oneself to create stuff, especially the more difficult less fun stuff like an intense workout or an academic paper. I have been fortunate enough to have time to spare and more than enough resources to take up any hobby my heart desires… and my heart so far has been saying ‘books and TV’. There must be more to my life outside of work than that. Real life must be fun as well. The plan is simple:
- Write more blog posts based on the books and articles I read and TV / YouTube videos I watch
- Experiment with blogging formatting, including vlogging and podcasting
- Prepare simple step-by-step manuals for some of the things I have learnt and publish those for free
- Go for more active listening sessions instead of mindless music-munching
As always, I’d love to hear from you! Was this helpful? Did you recognize yourself in some of my hurdles? Do you see things differently? Leave me a comment and let’s discuss it!