The secret to finding time for hobbies—no matter how busy you are

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For most of my adult life, I assumed that I didn’t have time for hobbies.

I ran, but that wasn’t really a leisure activity. It was more like a dutiful attempt, several times a week, to make sure that I didn’t spontaneously combust from stress. I read, but that seemed passive—not really comparable to, say, going kayaking, or playing the flugelhorn, or collecting terrifying horse skeletons that frighten your living horses (which is how Martha Stewart likes to unwind). And so I resigned myself to the notion that I was too busy to be a well-rounded person. I would be hopelessly lopsided instead.

But in recent months, my thinking has changed. It turns out that I was never too busy for hobbies. I just needed to understand the transformative power of having a default activity—a go-to diversion that you can turn to whenever you found yourself with a block of unscheduled time.

My hobby awakening began with a trip to the art supply store on a Sunday morning. My friend Jackie was hosting a crafting afternoon at her apartment, and I didn’t have anything to make while I was there.

On a whim, I picked up a palette of watercolors and a packet of 15 blank postcards. I had a vague idea that I might like to paint collections of things. I love vintage prints like the ones by Cavallini & Co., which feature assortments of mushrooms and minerals and pasta shapes. Grouping objects together on a postcard seemed like it might offer an illusory but soothing sense of control over my life and destiny. Like organizing one’s sock drawer, but with art.

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That afternoon, I started painting—and soon found that I couldn’t stop. First I painted four cacti drifting across the page in colorful pots. Then I started on a new postcard and painted whatever came to mind when I thought of New York City: a squirrel, a taxi, the Chrysler building, a slice of pizza. (I thought of pizza rat too, of course, but decided that he deserved a postcard of his own.)

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The next night, I recalled that my Italian friend Nalis had once expressed a desire for a painting of tomatoes. I painted her some tomatoes right up. I spent another evening after work happily painting breakfast food items while watching old episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. When the weekend rolled around, I spent Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, creating swamp creatures: a flamingo, a Venus flytrap, a lily pad, an alligator.

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Image: Sarah Todd

It was weird: Once I’d identified an activity I enjoyed, I seemed to have no trouble finding time to do it. The problem, I realized, wasn’t that I had no time for leisure activities. It was that when I hit empty spaces in my day, I had no go-to hobby, so I would fill up that time with other, less fulfilling stuff.

As Laura Vanderkam explains in her book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, a lot of us underestimate how much free time we actually have. She recommends keeping track of how we spend our time, to show us our days’ abundance. “A life is lived in hours,” she writes in the New York Times. “What we do with our lives will be a function of how we spend those hours, and we get only so many.”

Vanderkam makes a good and terrifying point—because it’s incredibly easy to waste a spare hour or two. When I find myself with some down time at home, my usual reaction is to do some chores or fire up my laptop. Sometimes that’s because I really do want to watch Gilmore Girls or catch up on emails or do some vacuuming. But sometimes it’s because I just don’t know what else to do with myself.

“Certain activities, such as housework and tending to email, tend to expand to fill all the available time you’ve got,” Vanderkam explained in an article for Quartz. “It’s futile to wait until you’ve finished responding to every message in your inbox, or until the house is sparking from top to bottom, to do the fun stuff.”

The wonderful thing about hobbies, then, is that they give you a go-to thing to do—an activity that’s waiting for you whenever you are ready for it. If you play guitar, a spare hour before dinner is a chance to nail the chords on a new song. If you like juggling, then hot damn, Saturday morning means juggle city.

So if you, like me, think you don’t have time for a hobby, my advice is: Try out some hobbies until you find one you really like. Then you may be surprised at how many hours open up.