In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, one of the challenges my clients often face is making habits out of activities which will bring them the most enjoyment and fulfillment. These activities typically fall into the category of ‘active leisure’ and include examples such as participating in a hobby or interest, socializing, and exercising individually or with a group or team.
Although research indicates that active leisure activities bring the most enjoyment and fulfillment, many people have difficulty making habits of such activities even when they schedule them. Instead, they typically will engage in passive leisure activities such as watching television, playing a video game or surfing the internet on their computers or smartphones. Although passive leisure activities can also provide some enjoyment, research indicates that they are more fleeting in terms of the benefits to a person’s mood. That is, they typically provide some enjoyment for an initial period of time but then the enjoyment decreases as the person ‘zones out’ for the remaining time.
Why it is easier to make habits of passive leisure activities: Activation energy
The main reason people make habits of passive leisure activities which provide them with less enjoyment and fulfillment is that they require less ‘activation energy’ than active leisure activities. Activation energy refers to the amount of effort, energy and motivation it takes to begin the activity.
Consider the low activation energy required to watch television (simply click your remote) or surf the internet (click your mouse). Contrast this with the greater activation energy required to engage in active leisure activities like painting (getting your art materials out and setting them up), going out with friends (getting dressed, deciding where to go, getting to the activity and often lining up) and exercising (deciding which kind of exercise you will do, getting your gear together, getting to the place where you will exercise, and often changing into your gear once you arrive).
Because passive leisure activities offer the ‘path of least resistance’ in terms of less activation energy needed to get started, many people engage in them instead of active leisure activities. The person may even recognize that if they could summon the effort, energy and motivation necessary to engage in active leisure activities, they would do them more often and even make habits of them. But on many occasions, it is determined to be so much easier to watch TV, play a video game or surf the net so they do these activities instead.
How to make habits of active leisure activities: Make changes in activation energy
Understanding why people engage in passive leisure when active leisure will bring them more enjoyment offers a solution to how a person can make the better choice to engage in active leisure. The solution focuses on manipulating the activation energy required to engage in active leisure versus passive leisure.
A way to make it easier to make habits of active leisure is to decrease the activation energy for these activities and increase the activation energy for the passive leisure activities which bring less enjoyment and fulfillment. To illustrate this technique, I will present the case of Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage.
While working at Harvard University, Mr. Achor wanted to make a habit out of an active leisure activity which he knew would bring him more enjoyment and fulfillment—playing the guitar. Despite scheduling guitar playing for when he got home from work, on most days he instead opted for the passive leisure activity of watching television. Scheduling and willpower were not enough to break the old habit and cultivate the new and better habit. Instead, he succeed in changing his behaviour pattern by decreasing the activation energy for the preferred activity—playing the guitar—and increasing the activation energy for the non-preferred activity—watching television.
Decreasing activation energy for active leisure activities
The first step Mr. Achor took to make a habit out of his guitar playing was to decrease the activation energy required for him to engage in this activity. He did this by taking the guitar out of a closet and setting it up on a stand so that all he needed to do to start playing when he got home was to pick up the guitar.
This small change to decrease the time and effort required to play his guitar led to his being able to make it a habit. Because the step of moving his guitar from the closet to the stand had decreased the time it took for him to start playing by 20 seconds, he refers to this strategy of lowering the activation energy for desired activities as the ’20-second rule’.
Increasing activation energy for passive leisure activities
Mr. Achor’s second step to make a habit of guitar playing was to increase the activation energy for the passive leisure activity which he had been doing instead of playing the guitar—watching television. As long as watching TV only required him to click his remote, it would be easy and tempting for him to do this activity instead of playing the guitar.
So he increased the effort and time required to watch TV by taking the batteries out of the remote and putting them away. Thus, he would need to get the batteries and put them in the remote in order to begin watching TV. This increase in activation energy made it less likely he would choose this activity. In combination with his having decreased the activation energy needed to play his guitar, Mr. Achor was able to stay consistent in guitar playing and cut down on TV watching to the point that guitar playing became a habit.
Having made a habit out of this active leisure activity led him to have more enjoyment and fulfillment on a regular basis compared with when his habit had been the passive leisure activity of watching TV.
Getting help in applying the principle of activation energy
Just like Mr. Achor, you can apply the principle of activation energy to make habits of active leisure activities which will add enjoyment and fulfillment to your life. In doing so, you may find it helpful to work with a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
May you enhance your life by applying the principle of activation energy,