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Why busy researchers need hobbies

People often think hobbies are for kids, or retired people; for people who have holidays that aren’t really conference travel, or weekends that aren’t spent marking or evenings that aren’t for grant writing. And yet some of the most successful researchers I know, at every level, have hobbies, and often intense and time consuming ones. So what gives?

First of all, we know that working all the time is not effective, and working longer and longer hours (over 50+ hrs a week) starts to have diminishing returns. People with hobbies not only are putting boundaries on their work time, they have already decided on what they will do to fill up their non-work time when they might be tempted to answer one more email instead.

Secondly, hobbies are rewarding, they give us a sense of achievement and social connection: whether that’s playing a team sport, doing a crossword with your family or uploading a picture of your sourdough to social media. These things motivate us, and make us feel more confident and creative—those emotions are useful to balance us when our research often includes isolating, unsuccessful or boring aspects. They also remind us that we are more than that last failed experiment, application, draft or journal submission. We are humans with cool human lives, not just researchers.

Thirdly, hobbies give us different thinking spaces. Doing something with your hands, or exercising, being meditative or creative or excited or playful—these are all great hobby brain-spaces. When I got stuck on my PhD draft, I would go and dig potato trenches in my community garden, or make a loaf of bread. Having these hobbies were really useful for letting ideas simmer or untangle or recombine in different ways. Hobbies are awesome for critical distance breaks.

Finally, hobbies involve self-care. Caring for ourselves is not only about health, it’s also about happiness. Being well in our time, being generous to ourselves about what we enjoy, these are also essential for staying mentally and emotionally well. Anxiety, burnout, disillusionment and chronic stress are also bad for productivity. So if you can manage to feel less of it, you will be happier and the next day will be more effective.

Hobbies are activities where we pursue our own interests for pleasure, not out of duty. A hobby is not defined by what you are doing, but why you are doing it. I will never go to the gym or make a cake for fun, but I will weed the garden. Your own preferences will vary here. Some people love to have competitive hobbies, others love hobbies with deadlines, and others like hobbies that have detailed rules—and yet other people hate all of these things! None of these aspects make or break a hobby, it’s just about what you personally find fun.

This is also why you should seperate your hobbies from your research or side hustle. You might enjoy your research, but it’s important to keep spaces that are purely for fun or play. If a hobby becomes a job, then you need to go out and find a new hobby. As an adult, finding more work has been easier for me than finding new hobbies, an experience that many people share. So keep that in mind as you plan your life.

Hobbies are great just for themselves. But if you are feeling guilty about taking time for a hobby, or not sure if you should rearrange your week to make time for one, then this post hopefully encourages you that it’s a great idea.

Lockdown gave many of us time to re-discover old hobbies or find new ones. Or it highlighted which of our more social or public hobbies we really missed. This is therefore an important time to notice and reflect on what hobbies are doing and why they are important for us… and to keep them in our lives when academic travel, commuting, and social engagements start up again.

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