Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed that many people talk about their down time as if it has become a project. They talk about needing to binge one of their favourite TV shows so they can start watching another TV show as if their consumption habits had a Gantt chart of dependencies.
In this post, I’ll explore how down time became a chore. From video games to TV shows, I’ll explain the psychology of habituation and how it leads to excessive and often unsatisfying consumption. I’ll then provide some easy fixes to remove the grind and bring back the joy to our down time.
the diminishing thrill
Ever since I was 8 years old, I’ve had a love for video games that remains unchanged. I can still recall the excitement of firing up my 90s PC, which pales in comparison to the smartphone I carry in my pocket today. But as my game collection grew, something peculiar happened. Games that once sparked exhilaration turned into tasks to “get through” so I could move on to the next one. Perhaps you can relate, even if gaming isn’t your thing. Friends around me share similar sentiments about binge-watching seasons of shows with a mix of relief and exhaustion, as if they’ve completed a long-drawn project or consumed a bag of potato chips they didn’t even enjoy.
What exactly is happening here? It all boils down to a psychological process called habituation. Our senses are wired in a way that the initial experience feels intense and exciting. However, with each subsequent encounter, our response diminishes. Let’s think of it this way: Picture your favorite snack; mine is salt and vinegar potato chips. The sight of the bag might make your heart sing, the sound of its opening enticing, and the first chip’s delightful crunch in your mouth.
Yet, as you consume more chips, the heavenly sensation gradually fades. What was once great becomes merely okay. Still, you find yourself saying, “Might as well finish the bag.” That decision brings a mix of resignation and then the too-late realization that consuming something unsatisfying leaves you worse off than when you started.
the endless picture
Our consumption habits extend beyond our junk food habits. In today’s world of streaming TV and endless social media scrolling, the effect is magnified. The first few seconds or episodes feel delightful, but prolonged indulgence leads to diminishing pleasure and satisfaction. Before we know it, our once-joyful downtime becomes a chore-like grind.
some easy fixes
Fortunately, with a little bit of intention, we can snap ourselves out of it and bring back the joy and get out of the grind:
1. be selective and savour
With an overwhelming array of entertainment options, we’re spoiled for choice. Instead of trying to consume everything, embrace the idea that you can’t see it all. Intentionally select your preferred form of entertainment and be fully present, cherishing it as if it were the last thing you’d ever watch or play.
2. space out, (hu)man
Binge-consumption dulls our senses, making it challenging to appreciate the subtle sensory delights of the experience. Take short breaks between episodes or at specific points in games, allowing your senses to reset. Opt for refreshing breaks that range from ten minutes to a full day.
Note: Be aware that social media doesn’t have such easily identifiable break points which makes it all too easy to give away time to the infinite scroll.
3. embrace a resetting activity
During those short breaks, engage in activities that reset your mind. For example, if you’re having dinner while watching TV, wash the dishes between episodes. If you’re learning a new skill, invest in 10-15 minutes of deliberate practice. The more challenging the resetting activity, the more rewarding your downtime will feel when you resume.
Bonus tip: Starting with a short, challenging activity before indulging in entertainment can make the downtime feel like a well-earned reward.
get down with your down time!
I am far from recommending that you give up your down time activities. I am still going to enjoy a good session of video games. However, keeping in mind the moderation principles above, I know the time I spend joyously mashing my keyboard will likely be more satisfying and also leave me time for other pursuits that don’t have diminishing returns. Give these tips a try and discover a more satisfying and fulfilling downtime, granting you the freedom to explore other rewarding endeavors.
And as for what to do with that newly liberated free time, that’s a topic for another post 😉