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Making the Most of Leisure Time: It’s All About Intention

Mother and toddler sit on sofa. Mother plays guitar and holds it for child.If you’re reading an article on GoodTherapy.org, chances are you value mental and emotional wellness. But have you ever noticed that while we tend to spend a lot of time on topics such as depression, anxiety, and relationships, we don’t often consider how to grow the good in our lives? Summer’s arrival is the perfect opportunity to get the most out of free time.

While we would likely all agree there are immense benefits to leisure time, many of us could be better about how we use it. I’m not talking about the people who don’t take the vacation days they’ve earned. I’m talking about the evenings and weekends and vacation days we all take but then squander.

I want you to change how you think about the summer months, the weekend ahead, or even this evening after the kids are in bed. You may have some vacation planned. Perhaps your schedule changed when school got out. No matter the case, structure and planning can benefit you even when it comes to leisure time.

What does it feel like to have a great day? Chances are you wouldn’t describe it as “super busy,” but you likely also wouldn’t say you slept in and did nothing. Sleeping in and having no plans might not sound so bad compared to working. But let’s take a look at the foundation of great leisure time. While many of us dream about having more free time and endless flexibility, in practice those are not the days most of the people I work with describe as fulfilling and restorative. In fact, in my work with college students, entire afternoons off become black holes filled with waste and procrastination and self-loathing, not blissful freedom.

In my experience, happy people make plans. Or, rather, plans help make happy people. Sometimes “plans” mean a theme for the day or a desired feeling. While this might sound like a real killjoy, sometimes it involves setting an alarm on a weekend or deciding in advance on a course of action. Have you ever roused yourself for an early-morning fishing trip with your son or daughter and later regretted it? Probably not. Have you ever left early for a hike, drive, or shopping trip in order to have a few hours of activity before lunch and later wished you had puttered around the house instead? I doubt it. And most of the time when we make social plans after work, we’re glad we did instead of parking in front of the TV.

To make leisure time really count—time that feels like you seized the opportunity to not work—you mustn’t give in to the drift that can occur without plans. Be open to the idea that having an enjoyable weekend or evening or vacation takes intention.

To make leisure time really count—time that feels like you seized the opportunity to not work—you mustn’t give in to the drift that can occur without plans. Be open to the idea that having an enjoyable weekend or evening or vacation takes intention.

If you were to ask some of your friends, they might see free time as the antithesis to leisure. Isn’t the fun in the spontaneity, the open morning, the not knowing where to wander next? Well, sort of. The key is in the framework of what you do.

The message isn’t that we should schedule to be busy, busy, busy. It’s that the anchoring events or choices to our evenings, weekends, and vacation time reflect what we love to do. Our free time should be the time we hold most precious and to the highest standards—an avenue to the prize of well-being, joy, and pleasure.

Here are some ideas, a few of which are adapted from the wonderful work of Laura Vanderkam, author of several books on time management:

  • Keep a list handy of things you enjoy doing around the house. They could be long- or short-term projects, reading, or shows you like to watch. Note people you like to see and talk with. Consult these lists when it comes to using your free time with intent. Make simple plans.
  • Revisit your best vacations and weekend days and consider what you loved about them. See if you can plan to incorporate some of that into your life more regularly.
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  • In advance of an open weekend, develop a few plans you know you’d enjoy with the help of loved ones. Don’t wait until you wake up Saturday morning.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of 30 minutes or weeknights. Watching TV or surfing Instagram is not a given. With your list of activities handy and a little practice, you could find yourself looking forward to these smaller units of time for fulfilling activities instead of default ones.
  • When undecided, choose time with people. If given the choice between seeing someone you enjoy and chores or anything else, choose the social option. Humans are wired to be social and it promotes well-being.

If your free time doesn’t feel rejuvenating, it’s worth considering why. You might want to meet with a therapist to explore any emotional health issues that might be getting in the way.


Vanderkam, L. (2013). What the most successful people do before breakfast. United Kingdom: Portfolio.

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  • Mary

    July 3rd, 2018 at 5:01 PM

    My problem isn’t using my time off “mindfully”. It’s not having time off, period. What are you supposed to do when you work 3 jobs and don’t even get sick time??

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