In Which I Stink At Non-Purposive Leisure


Last week I wrote about my impressions of Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time.  (If you missed it, I loved the book; it was one of my very few five-star non-fiction reads.)  I’m not going to dedicate a separate blog post to every point that struck me from the book, because this would turn into an entire blog about Overwhelmed.  But I did make special note of one particular point: American women – and I’m no exception to this – are not very good at non-purposive (or non-productive) leisure.

Schulte recounts a conversation she had with an Australian time use researcher, Lyn Craig, during at a Paris conference for the field.  Discussing leisure, Craig noted that she had spent the morning shopping and having coffee with a friend.  Schulte happily reported that she, too, had indulged in a leisure activity that morning: she’d gone for a run down the Champs-Elysees and around the Tuileries Garden.  Craig made a face and dismissed Schulte’s activity as “Purposive leisure.  How very American.”

At frequent points during the book, Schulte returns to the point that women, in general, have historically not been able to indulge in leisure time.  Early research on time use classified women as part of the “inferior class” who – along with the very poor and many minorities – simply don’t get to play.  They’re too busy making ends meet (in the case of the poor) or working to allow their men to enjoy leisure (in the case of women).  If a woman in centuries past did have leisure time, it was not in her own right, but rather as a symbol of the status of her husband or father – that he was rich enough to afford her a life without work.  Other women participated in enjoyable activities only if they were productive – knitting circles, quilting bees, or simply chatting with friends while bustling around the kitchen or garden.  Fun, sure, but not pointless.

Reading these paragraphs, I was struck by the uncomfortable realization that, as much as I have made an effort to take time for things I enjoy, almost none of my leisure activities could be classified as non-purposive or non-productive.


Running, for example.  If “productive leisure” was defined in the dictionary, I’d bet that running – or some form of exercise – would be illustrative example number one.  Sure, there are times when I go out and pound the pavement for the sheer joy of it – a four mile run along the Potomac River, during which I felt like I was floating, comes to mind – but that’s rare.  When I lace up the running shoes, I do so for a variety of reasons.  Joy is one, sure; I really do like running.  But I’m also motivated by an elusive PR or race goal, or the desire to lose baby weight.  Running for joy is great, and all, but if I’m being honest I have to admit that I’m usually running to burn calories, training for a race, or both.

christmas sweater

Knitting?  Ummmmm, no.  As much as I love to knit, it’s another perfect example of productive leisure.  I mean, for crying out loud, you get a product at the end.  What’s more productive than that?  File under the same category: other crafty and domestic arts that I don’t do, or don’t do well, but wish I did, like gardening, sewing, and canning.


Cooking is productive, too.  I have enjoyed cooking and baking and goofing around in the kitchen ever since college, when my best friend Rebecca taught me to cook intuitively.  (“Let’s make a Thai coconut soup!” she’d gleefully suggest, and then darnit, we would make a Thai coconut soup.  Without a cookbook or any guidance other than our wits and Rebecca’s superior understanding of flavor.)  These days, cooking often feels like a chore – must get dinner on the table by 6:30! – but I still find ways to have fun with it, like the time I decided to make my own vegetable stock and then turned it into a delicious sausage, kale and tortellini soup as a birthday present to myself, or anytime Rebecca and I cook together.  (We like to go to the farmer’s market and pick out whatever looks freshest and most beautiful, and then create a meal around our haul.)  But cooking can’t possibly be called non-productive.  Like knitting, it’s the essence of productivity.


Okay, what about reading?  Yes, reading is an activity that I do for the pure love of it.  I’m a born reader and I can’t imagine life without always having a book on the go.  But even while I read for pleasure and joy, I’m often still chasing little goals.  Read this author’s entire backlist… or get caught up on that mystery series… or blaze through the newest “it” book so I’ll have something to talk about with my reading pals… or check this one off the TBR because it’s a classic and I feel like I should read it.  There are lists to work through – the “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” list, for example, or Rory Gilmore’s reading list.  And there are reading challenges, like the Classics Club challenge.  I enjoy those things, and I think they enrich my reading experience.  And I like the fact that I’m almost always learning something when I read.  But all of those factors may also mean that, as much fun as I have reading, I’m still being purposeful and productive in the way I spend my leisure time.


If any of my regular hobbies qualifies as non-purposive, it would probably be hiking.  Granted, I do some goal-chasing (like striving to become an Adirondack 46’er, which at the rate we’re going, will only take us 23 years!) and I’ll often pause on a hike to snap a picture with an intention to share it on my blog, frame it for my house, or both.  But that’s usually just a small moment out of the hike, and I’ll spend the rest of the time being present, in the moment, and just enjoying nature.  When I’m hiking, it’s about as non-purposive as I get – other than those elusive moments when I’m on vacation, watching the sun rise with a cup of tea in my hand (or set, with a glass of wine).

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being productive in leisure hours, at least some of the time.  But Schulte argues that we also need to make time and space to just play, because play is essential for our well-being.  Pure play – play that’s not going anywhere or leading to any achievement other than the achievement of a fun afternoon or a cool experience.  Pure play, for me, would probably be ziplining, which is something I’ve never done and something I’ve wanted for years to try.  There’s an adventure course about an hour or so south of us that includes ziplining and a mountain coaster, and I think I may have to go play there one of these days.  After all, I deserve to make space in my life for pure leisure – we all deserve that.

Do you make time for pure play, or are most of your leisure activities productive in some way?

3 thoughts on “In Which I Stink At Non-Purposive Leisure

  1. This is so interesting. I suppose most of my leisure activities are productive too, for similar reasons – reading, cooking, knitting, yoga, blogging. I do enjoy the occasional indulgent TV evening – which is definitely not productive! – but I’m usually knitting while I watch. Pure play, for me, is more like a rambling walk on my lunch break, or a coffee date with a friend.

    I haven’t read Overwhelmed, but your thoughts on it are making me curious!

    • A rambling walk or coffee with a friend would definitely qualify as pure play! In fact, that’s pretty much what the Australian researcher did on her morning off. So I’d say you’re on solid ground there!

      Overwhelmed was really a great read for me. It did focus mainly on parents, especially moms, and the time pressures they face, but I think anyone with a busy schedule (which you certainly have) would find a lot of worthwhile information in it. I was extremely impressed with the research and the writing. I think there might be one more blog post bumping around my head on the topic, but we shall see…

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Books of 2015 (So Far) | Covered In Flour

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