Career Coach: The value of hobbies

May 5, 2013

Recently I asked an executive I was coaching, “What hobbies do you have?” He paused, looked at me blankly, and then replied, “Actually, I don’t really have any,” followed by another long pause. As he reflected on this, it seemed to suddenly strike him that his life was way out of balance. He was living and breathing his work, which was his own company. The little free time he had, outside of his business, was spent driving his kids to their various activities and watching them play sports and take music lessons. While he loved spending time with his kids, he felt that something was missing in his life. He also reported that he often felt tense, stressed and was increasingly having difficulty controlling his temper.

Many of us can relate to this lifestyle. We have long given up on having any personal time in order to devote our energies to our work or families. But rarely do we give ourselves time for our own activities. Yet finding time for ourselves is key to our own sanity. It can actually improve all the other aspects of our lives. Having a hobby may be even more important to people who lead very full and busy lives.

Defining a hobby. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a hobby as a pursuit outside of one’s regular occupation, engaged in especially for relaxation. It’s not something you “have to do,” but rather something you “want to do”— because you love to do it. As a result, a hobby can take many forms, be it stamp collecting, gardening, woodworking, playing tennis or even traveling.

Research has shown that people who have hobbies are generally healthier, and have a lower risk of depression and dementia. Many executives that I have coached say a sport or physical fitness routine as a hobby keeps their blood pressure down, enables them to manage their anger and daily frustrations, and puts them in a much better frame of mind. Consequently, this impacts their quality of life, work and family time. Michael Brickey, author of “Defy Aging,” says that an ideal hobby would be one that serves three purposes: a diversion (escape from daily life), a passion (engage in something you love) and a creation of a sense of purpose.

Benefits. Scheduling time for a hobby in our lives (tennis league every Monday night or a weekend bridge tournament) enables us to take a break with “permission.” Since we have signed up, we feel we should show up and we are “forced” to take a break. Some people need to structure their hobbies into their daily lives, otherwise they would feel too guilty to take a break from work. Many hobbies also provide a social outlet for us if we join teams or interact with others (a sewing group, a chorus). These social interactions can provide a degree of social support we may need. Hobbies can also bring pleasure to our life. I have talked to many executives who reported the sheer joy they got from traveling to new places or taking a cooking class. Hobbies provide an outlet from daily stressors that can keep us from getting burned out in our jobs. They also provide numerous health benefits from lower blood pressure, to better physical function, and higher positive psychological states, and less memory loss. Further, hobbies may actually improve our work performance if they improve our decision-making skills, creativity and confidence.

Finding time. Setting a routine to carve out time is important initially. You may have to give up watching TV every night, or you may have to force yourself to leave the office a little earlier each day. Make your hobby a priority. Set goals for yourself and get a buddy to support you and to help you stay with a hobby.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a famous proverb. There may be some truth to this so make sure you find some time for yourself to relax, enjoy some fun and pick up a hobby — especially if you are depressed, stressed or going through a tough time. You will thank yourself for it, and so will your family and colleagues.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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