in Career, FS

Better Use of Leisure Time: Self-Improvement Tips from 1950

I’ve written before about how profitable it can be to use your free time to engage in money-making hobbies. But even if your hobbies don’t earn you money directly, you can still use them to develop useful skills, skills that may help you earn more down the road. From 1950, here’s a short film describing the advantages of making better use of leisure time:

Time. Leisure time. Did you ever stop to think how much leisure time you really have? Some of us put our leisure time to good use, and some of us — Ken Michaels, for example — spend most of our leisure time just moping.

“Moping” has many modern forms: idle television consumption, World of Warcraft, surfing the internet. There’s nothing wrong with doing things for pleasure on occasion, but I agree that everyone can profit from a productive hobby. The film points out that better use of leisure time offers three advantages:

  1. It’s a pleasant change from work. Some people have jobs they love, but most of us just tolerate work at best. A productive hobby can provide a sense of accomplishment while being enjoyable.
  2. It improves the body and mind. Whether you build a cabinet, knit a sweater, or write a blog entry, a productive hobby can help keep your mind sharp. Hiking or biking are great ways to stay physically fit.
  3. It provides long-range goals. In the film, Ken’s father plans to build furniture for his entire house. My wife likes to can fruits and vegetables, giving us inexpensive and healthy food year-round.

After watching this video, I began to wonder: how much leisure time do we have? I found an article on the number of hours worked throughout U.S. history. From table five, here’s how a typical American male household head spent his day in 1880 and in 1995:

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8


In 1880, the average man worked 182,100 hours during his life and had only 43,800 leisure hours. In 1995, he worked 122,400 lifetime hours and had 176,100 hours at his disposal for leisure.

This article is fascinating, by the way, though you may have to wade through some dull spots to find the good stuff. Take a look at the postwar international comparisons to see how much time Americans spend working in comparison to other countries. (And while you’re at it, compare the workloads of men and women.) Or read the section on the shorter hours movement in the United States.

Write a Comment



  1. Funny that you mention World of Warcraft. That game absolutely destroyed my productivity by eating ALL of my ‘free’ time for about a year and a half. Since quitting, I’ve started a blog, picked up freelance work on the side, and I get so much more done around the house.

    It’s nice to look back at my week and know that I accomplished something- something that doesn’t just exist in a digital, pixelized world somewhere. 🙂

  2. Interesting find. I had time for the video, but the article will have to wait for later. I think it’s interesting how the time spent on traveling has returned to 1880 levels.

    I suspect the commuting time is far worse today than the 1995 amount quoted. But the tide may change directions again thanks for telecommuting. And the regained time will drop right back into the free time category.

    Come to think of it, it might be healthier to think of free time as “spare time.” Words are important. If we think of our spare time as “free” time, we might not make as good use of the time. Just as the young man earning “spending money” probably will spend the money instead of putting it to a better use.

  3. I’d be far more interested if they were able to use more current statistics. I understand why that is hard to do but I think things have drastically changed since 1995. I think the shorter hours movement faded with the tech boom and that the US now truly works far more hours. Look at any vacation comparison between countries. We take FAR less vacation than almost anyone else.

    How many people now leave the office but carry a PDA, laptop, Blackberry, etc. These people are now connected to the office 24/7 and a lot of bosses expect them to respond to e-mail after work.

    Also the UN recently released a study saying that US workers “stay longer in the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more per person over the year.”

    It is an interesting study but I honestly feel the statistics they are using are far to outdated in todays fast pace world to have any real validity.

  4. Hey! I don’t like that reference of “internet surfing” being compared to moping. 🙂

    If that’s moping then you are an accesorie to my misery because I found your site by “moping” and now that makes you a contributor to my delinquency. People wouldn’t surf if they didn’t have a need to find information.

    Great tips though. I’m still trying to catch up from all your other posts. I’m a new subscriber.

  5. This video is so classic that it is hilarious by today’s standards. I also think the average hours working is more affected by increasing education and life expectancy.

  6. Am I the only one that thinks that some of this might be the increasing older demographic? I mean, wouldn’t the same force that’s killing social security also effect the average number of working hours?

    That said, the “normal” 40-hour work week divides to a little more than 5.7 hours a day (after weekends). I’m in that club, but I rarely get sick also (blessed with a great immune system).

    I do have to admit that I “mope” away a lot of my leisure time, though it is something that I’ve realized and am trying to change. I watch a couple TV shows and my football games, and mostly play video games otherwise.

  7. I am currently working two jobs and taking 24 credit hours toward a business degree. The leisure time I do have is spend doing things that are productive like needle work or knitting. I can’t just sit and watch tv I have to be doing something productive and something I can see a result from. I am not sure about the time I spend doing these things but it is not much between everything else. I try to use my leisure time to make christmas/birthday presents for family and friends, there is my saving side and I feel people see handmade presents as more semiental

  8. I agree with Baker. Who is this average American male head of household (insofar as that exists in any way similar to 1885) who works 4.7 hours per day? I think that was a phenomenon of the tech boom as well.

    Also, what kind of leisure time can be defined as such if performing activities towards a financial end? Spend your leisure time how you want – that’s why it’s leisure time.

    If anyone has read Max Weber, this whole idea reminds me of his theory of the protestant ethic. We’re obsessed with being better, being efficient, constantly improving ourselves and living out our duty (destiny). Just enjoy life. All of the centenarians I’ve read about said the major factor to their longevity was a relaxed attitude. So enjoy life and do what you want on your leisure time (which may include knitting, starting a business or whatever – so long as it is what you want).

  9. I absolutely agree with Matt (#10). Spend your leisure time doing what helps you relax – even if that means doing nothing “productive”. Sometimes – acutally a lot of times – you just need to let your batteries recharge. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think most people switch between “productive” off time and “do-nothing” off time. One isn’t inherently better than the other.

  10. Matt and Moxieqx, I think you’re spot on. Sometimes the most productive use of free time is taking a nap. Or watching a football game. Or simply sitting on the porch, sipping a frosty beverage and talking with a close friend.

  11. curious as to how these researchers define work…as they only seem to consider wage-earning labor as work. Particularly when looking at gender & work, i think it’s important to recognize that most women have always been the primary caregivers of children/domestic workers in their homes as well…wonder how these studies were changed if those responsibilities were included.

  12. Melissa,
    Would you appreciate a cookie more if it took you 8 hours to eat it?
    Just because you enjoy doing something doesn’t mean you have to spend all day doing it. (Or even every day doing it.)
    I love working with spreadsheets, but I also love updating my ipod. One pays and one doesn’t, but I love doing them both!

  13. Effective use of time, is different than the efficient use of time. How? Here’s a simple answer. The person who watches T.V. is effectively using up time to engage in leisure activity, but the person who uses the same amount of time to study to advance their knowledge is using time efficiently. Both these people use the same amount of time, but what is accomplished is much different.

  14. So that says people are working less per day now? Or just retiring earlier? People may be retiring earlier but studies have shown we’re working way more hours now than we did back then.