What Should I Do About “Non-Productive” Hobbies?

It’s easy to get trapped on the self-improvement treadmill.

And once you’re on it, it can be hard to get off.

I mean, it makes sense. Naturally, we are a goal-driven species.

But recently a friend asked me… 

With so much emphasis on self-improvement, where do non-productive hobbies and entertainment fit into the picture? Should you quit them entirely? Should you give them up for a time?

In this post, I attempt to answer that very question.

Don’t Dismiss Your Non-Productive Hobbies

First, don’t dismiss your non-productive hobby and throw them away. 

Sometimes your “non-productive hobbies” are really where you should be focused on growing/improving. 

Take the college student who binges Netflix like it’s her job. Like most college students, she really doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She starts reading this blog because the author is incredibly handsome and charming.

So, she’s decided to improve herself. She quits Netflix because she thinks to herself, “how could Netflix equal improvement?”

Woah, woah, woah. Let’s slow down there.

Netflix for many people is an unproductive activity. But for her, it could be something she is interested in. Her interest in Netflix may mean she has an underlying desire to (a) work in the entertainment industry in general or (b) around the specific contents of the show.

Maybe she watches murder mysteries. Could she be interested in working for the government as a Special Agent in some capacity? Or as a scary movie writer?

The places where you procrastinate can actually lead you to the places you should invest the most time in.

Maybe You Can’t Utilize Your Non-Productive Hobbies

But not everyone is the Netflix-loving college student. Other people enjoy their job but have non-productive hobbies.

Let’s say you’re studying to become a doctor. And you’re enjoying becoming a doctor too. However, you’ve found video games give you the greatest joy in the world.

You want to improve yourself, but you wonder… Do I have to stop playing video games entirely?

The answer is… no, not if you don’t want to.

If you want to quit, go ahead. Never play a video game again. But if this is really something you love, why not use it as a reward? 

Most people don’t have hobbies they really enjoy. So they tell people, “Don’t do that, it’s bad for you” or “Don’t do that, you won’t like it.”

If you have a hobby you really like, you have a built-in reward. You can then set a rule for yourself: “I will only play video games after I’ve meditated for 10 minutes” or “I will only play video games after I’ve completed my streaks.”

You can then start to link the video games with the completion of a task.

Push this reward (whatever your non-productive hobby is) as a way to push yourself over the edge to do the activities you maybe don’t want to do.

You Can Grow From “Non-Productive Hobbies”

Self-improvement is not a linear path.

Derek Sivers has said: “If knowledge is the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

We don’t always do what’s best for us. We all have non-productive hobbies.

What’s amazing is you can grow from activities that you might believe have nothing to do with improving yourself.

Here’s what I mean…

Let’s imagine you’re a smoker. Smoking is quite clearly a “non-productive hobby.”

But then one day, you quit. You never smoke again. Well, instead of beating yourself up (a truly non-productive activity), realize you have experiences from quitting that non-smokers have never had.

You know what it feels like to quit something difficult. You have a process in place. You can then use that same system to build yourself up.

Many addicts often channel their addiction for something negative and turn it into something positive.

When you are able to turn your negative habit into something positive, you grow as an individual.

Would I recommend anyone take that path in order to grow? Of course not.

But just because you did something non-productive doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.

You grow from many things life throws at, even if you might consider it non-productive.

In Summary

  1. Figure out if your non-productive procrastinations are actually telling you what to pursue.
  2. Either quit your non-productive hobby or use it as a reward.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up about your non-productive hobbies. Use it to fuel the process of growth.

Why You Should Utilize Seasons for Your Own Success

Older players told Kobe Bryant he was going to have an identity crisis after he retired.

The game consumed him. How could he ever be the same?

But four years after he hung up his sneakers for good, he transitioned successfully to his next chapter: 

  • He started Mamba Academy. 
  • He wrote children’s books.
  • His first (and only) film Dear Basketball won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

He accomplished more in his four years away from basketball than most people do their entire life.

How did he do it?

He simply went on to his next “season” – to help the next generation learn basketball.

A season is a period of time when you focus on improving one aspect of yourself.

The Earth has already figured this out.

In the spring, the Earth grows its trees. In the summer, the Earth maintains the growth. In the fall, the Earth sheds the leaves from its trees. In the winter, the Earth wipes its trees completely dry.

Nothing would happen if the Earth tried to do this all at once.

So why don’t we treat our lives the same way?

I originally stumbled upon this idea from Steph Smith’s blog post – Another Year Under the Sun. Steph outlines many of her goals at the onset of each year. Someone commented on her article (via Hacker News): 

It may help to think of your life as “epochs” or “seasons”. Sometimes you’re in a work period, or in a startup epoch. Another time you’re in a travelling season. It’s easier to split your interests over time than to parallelise in the present. The season idea can be greatly reassuring – “oh, I’m not doing enough music now, but that’s because I’m in a work period. Focus on work, do that, that’s enough. Spare time – rest, recuperate, so I can do better work tomorrow.”

And I couldn’t help notice how true it is.

When I am “at my best,” I follow this premise. Focusing on improving one aspect of my life for a set period of time.

So let’s explore how the idea of seasons can help you achieve a specific goal.

Preseason: Selecting Your Season

You either fall into one of two categories: you have no focus or you have too many focuses. But in order for seasons to be effective, you need to have a goal or target (your season).

No Goals? Pick Something

If you don’t have a goal, you are drifting.

In Outwitting the Devil, Napoleon Hill talks about the most common form of “drifting”: indecision. Decide what you want to do instead of letting the tides of life carry you.

When you have no goals, you’re an object at rest.

Can you identify one area which you would like to improve? 

If you can figure out how you can make tiny improvements on this one goal (your season!), you’ll be in a much different position one week, one month, or one year from now.

Too Many Goals? Use Essentialism

Essentialism, popularized by Greg McKeown, is the concept of focusing on what is truly important. 

In the circle on the left, you end up going in twelve different directions but end up getting nowhere. In the circle on the right, you focus on one area and make huge progress.

A useful exercise might be to write down your twelve areas and then ask yourself, “If I could only get better at five of these, which one would I choose?”

Then do that process again with the five you’ve picked. “If I could only get better at one of these, which would I choose?”

Then, you can focus on your one big area ruthlessly.

This is your season.

The Critical Early Stages

When you want to make progress on your season, you need to devote more energy to that specific task than everything else. That way, you’ll get the most out of it.

Great theory, pal.

Does it hold up in the real world?

For a powerful example, let’s look at how you learned to speak.

When You Learned How To Speak

When you are young, your parents select your season. It’s “learning how to speak” season for all toddlers around the globe.

Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley studied 42 families in an attempt to figure out why some students were faster learners than others.

They found:

  • Children whose families were on welfare heard ~600 words per hour
  • Working-class children heard ~1,200 words per hour
  • Children from professional families heard ~2,100 words per hour 

By age 3, children in families on welfare hear 30 million fewer words than children in professional families.

They found the greater the number of words children heard before they were 3, the higher their IQ, and the better they did in school.

Learning a language is a skill – like anything else. In the early stages of any journey, you’re laying the groundwork.

To get good at something quickly, you have to cut the noise and surround yourself with those who will help you get better.

If you half-ass something in the beginning stages, you will pay for it later on.

Because when you’re new to an activity, you are working with a blank slate. You have no (or little) knowledge about a subject. And the improvements can rapidly increase your progress.

How Seasons Work In Real Life

My brother writes, produces, and performs a comedy show for his fraternity every semester. He takes it seriously. 

The show typically coincides with his finals, club activities, and ragers. 

It always turned out great, but never met his high expectations. He always thought to himself, “Man, if I could focus just on the comedy show, it would turn out amazing.”

This past year, he got his wish.

When COVID-19 forced him into quarantine, his schoolwork eased up. He suddenly had no other clubs or parties to attend to. 

As a result? 

He focused all of his attention on the show. And he produced his best performance. 

He was in the season of producing his comedy show.

How To Avoid Post-Season Depression

Here’s one guarantee: life will change.

When we complete one season, it’s easy to fall into a spiral. We lose the focus we had. The flow. The constant improvement. Even the stresses and worries are fun to look back on. Because we’re not drifting.

Seasons give us focus.

There is a sharp increase in deaths among men at 62 in the United States. This happens to be when Social Security is available. While correlation does not mean causation, it’s possible this is a reminder that “work” acts as a season and a reason for living.

So when we go from one season to the next, how do we make sure we don’t ruin ourselves in the process? 

You avoid post-season depression by doing what Kobe did:

Starting something new. And doing it fast.

Because it’s easy to fall into the trap of nostalgia. About reminiscing about past successes. To form your identity around a previous version of yourself. But you need to move. You need to get yourself in motion.

Where To Go From Here

You are likely in one of two camps:

  • No goals
  • Too many goals

Figure out which bucket you are in.

If you are in the first, pick something you wish you could get a little bit better, day after day. (It could be writing, drawing, coding, illustrating, exercising. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you commit to improving yourself in an area over a set amount of time.)

If you are in the second bucket, utilize essentialism to ruthlessly cut that which is not important to choose your season.

Focus on your season ruthlessly – especially in the early stages. This is the most critical time for your development.

Then, when you’re done with your season, choose something else to improve.

That’s it.

To track your season, utilize Streaks.

Thank you Joel Christiansen, Michael Shafer, and Stew Fortier for looking over the first draft of this article.

How This 17th Century Discovery Can Help You Accomplish Your Goals Today

In 1687, Isaac Newton came to a stunning realization:

Objects in motion stay in motion; objects at rest stay at rest.

Today, we know it as Newton’s first law of motion. It may strike us as true in physics or an interesting theory about the way the universe operates.

But what we rarely seem to recognize is that we – human beings – are objects, too.

How The Principle Applies To Us Humans

I’ll never forget…

The first time I saw my brother after a few months apart, he noticed a change in me.

“You seem happier and calmer. Like you have more goodwill towards everyone,” my brother told me.

I was telling him about the benefits of meditation, and how much I thought it was changing my life. How I started to see the world in a different way. How I was bringing light into the world.

He asked, “How do you know it is meditation that is making the difference? You’re also doing all that other stuff too.”

“The other stuff” he was referring to were the components of 75HARD: working out twice per day, drinking a gallon of water, following a clean diet, reading 10 pages, and taking a progress photo. 

His question was… how did I know that those weren’t the reasons my life was changing?

My response was that he might be right. But it didn’t matter what the specific cause was.

I was an object in motion. Improving day after day. And this made me more likely to do other things that would improve my life. Which in turn made me (and those around me) happier.

Objects in motion, stay in motion.

By the opposite notion, have you ever had a period in your life where you just felt plain stuck?

Like no matter what you did, you couldn’t make progress.

When this has happened to me, I’m typically at rest. Literally pulling the sheets over my head. My body is not in motion (not exercising). My mind is not in motion (not reading). I am trying my hardest to stay in the same place.

How to get over this?

We often want to make big changes.

The vision of losing 20 pounds or New Year’s Resolution strikes and inspires us. 

The problem?

The next day (/week/month) we realize just how much work is needed to go into the vision we aspire to…

And we quit.

So how can you effectively not quit?

The answer might be easier than you might expect…

Make It Easier For Yourself to Get Into Motion

We have to make it easier for ourselves.

Try the Ten Minute Rule:

Commit to an activity for ten minutes. If you don’t want to continue it, just stop.

Oftentimes, what you might find is that you will want to pursue the activity after ten minutes. The hardest part was getting yourself in motion.

Can you make the buy-in so small you’d laugh at yourself for not doing it?

For some reason, we believe we have to make massive progress on our goals every day. But we don’t. We only need to do a little bit to move the needle. Day after day.

Instead of attempting to read 50 pages, read five. 

Instead of journaling for 30 minutes, commit to three minutes. 

Instead of sitting down for one hour of meditation, refuse to meditate for more than one minute.

I started doing a yoga routine that takes between three and four minutes. It’s nine different poses, each held for 20 seconds. Sometimes I do this routine as many as five times in a single day. Every time I do it, I feel better. Every single time.

Yes, the person who’s doing an hour of yoga a day will lap me in terms of skill and progress in the short term. But will they be able to consistently perform this habit throughout their life? Is it easy enough?

Additionally, every time I do yoga, I’m becoming more likely to think of myself as someone who does yoga.

This is what the Ten Minute Rule is all about. It works because you are building the habit of consistency. Plus, you’re reinforcing your idea that you are someone who does this activity. Day by day, you are creating a new image of yourself. Even if it’s small, it’s something. It’s 10 minutes you weren’t reinforcing a negative habit. 

How to Continue The Momentum

Once you’ve started the habit, congrats. You’ve done the hardest part. You’ve effectively gotten into motion.

Now, it’s simply a matter of reinforcing the habit by doing the activity every day. 

If you can, try to be accountable to someone else or a group. (That is the goal of Streaks.)

Jerry Seinfeld’s (Fake) Productivity Hack

It was once rumored that Jerry Seinfeld had the following strategy:

Write one joke a day.

If he could do that, he would mark a big, red “X” on his calendar.

The habit was small enough that he could do it every day. But it was big enough that it actually made a difference. Plus, he got the “reward” of marking his accomplishment off on the calendar daily. 

Although Seinfeld has since denied using the strategy, it still works: start small and use consistency.

In Summary

Every time you decide to take an action, it leads you to be more likely to do that action in the future.

To quote James Clear, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

And you can effectively change your identity by doing a bunch of small activities consistently.

We can achieve greatness by applying consistency at the microlevel. In the smallest of tasks. And somehow, someway, it transcends those small tasks into something great.

If you make finishing a habit, if you make completing your to-do list a habit, if you make walking for 15 minutes per day a habit… I don’t know. Maybe it’ll surprise you.

When you go to sleep, ask yourself… “Was I a little better today than yesterday?”

If you are able to say yes, then you’re staying in motion.

And you’ll feel damn good about it too.

Thank you Stew Fortier, Dan Hunt, and Diana Hawk for their input on this post.

How To Get Good At Practically Anything Using The Sweet Spot

I naturally sucked.

Instruments. Athletics. Standardized tests.

A common thought when I was younger: “Oh, I’ll never be good at that. What’s the point in trying?” 

Okay, maybe I wasn’t completely helpless. But I believed I couldn’t do anything to improve my situation (Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset. The opposite of this is, well, a growth mindset, where you believe you can improve your situation.)

Activity after activity. Start, quit, start, quit.

I always quit before I could make any progress. I mean, could you blame me? It’s not fun doing something you think you suck at and that (you believe) you will always suck at.

But then, there was one activity that changed everything.

I came across lifting weights.

Yeah, I wasn’t strong at first (who is… maybe The Rock?). Yeah, I was weak and frail. But it didn’t matter.

Because I found the Sweet Spot.

Introducing: The Sweet Spot

We value what is difficult to achieve.

But here’s the tricky part:

It can’t be too hard.

Especially when we’re starting out.

Imagine if when playing basketball, every time you shot you missed. Every single time? You’d stop playing. (On the other side, if you scored every time, you’d hate it as well.)

If we decide an activity is too difficult, we quit. Like all the instruments I tried from the ages of 11 to 15. Because I could not imagine a world in which I was good at the saxophone, I stopped doing it. Even though we could become great if we didn’t stop, still… we quit.

So what is the Sweet Spot?

The Sweet Spot is the place the activity isn’t too easy or difficult. But most importantly, we must know we are improving, and we must enjoy the feeling.

After my first few weeks of weightlifting, I got stronger. My form improved. I was lifting heavier weights.

Here’s where the breakthrough happened.

I realized, “Oh, if I keep this up for 10+ years, I’m going to be really good. And besides, this is really good for my body and mind. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The improvement was objective. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t difficult.

It hit the Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot is similar to flow. When we’re in flow, we:

  • Get more enjoyment out of the activity
  • Learn faster 
  • Are more productive
  • Feel more creative

The Sweet Spot is that perfect area where we don’t feel as if we suck. And we don’t feel as if we’re too good.

Anyone can lift weights because the activity has “beginner, intermediate, advanced” built-in. 

Someone who is starting out can use their body weight. An intermediate can progress to dumbbells and barbells. And an expert can add even more weight to their movements.

Meaning: if you “suck” at the beginning (like I did), you can still improve in some way. Which makes the activity fun, rewarding, and challenging.

The Mastery Curve: How To Find The Sweet Spot Throughout  The Journey 

“A black belt is a white belt who never quit.”

When you begin an activity, you objectively suck. But fear not, the longer you pursue it – while trying to improve – the better you will get.

What’s more important than whether you suck or not?

Finding the Sweet Spot.

In other words, your own perspective matters.

Is the activity is fun? Do you think you’re improving? Are you getting recognition from the outside world?

If yes, you’ve found the Sweet Spot.

Note: The timeline I’ve outlined below doesn’t hold true for every activity. But it’s a pretty good gauge for random, difficult activities.

The “Newbie Gains!” Stage: Your First ~6-12 Months

When you are a beginner, you can make rapid advancements over short periods of time.

In weightlifting, “newbie gains” are when you can add the most amount of muscle in the shortest amount of time. In your first year of lifting properly, you can gain as much as 20 pounds of muscle. For someone who has been lifting for 10+ years, this is nearly impossible to do.

It’s almost as if life has programmed this in, giving you a reason to stay with the activity.

How to find the Sweet Spot: Track your progress by an internal metric. Start a streak. Make it something you can fully control. If you compare yourself to someone who has been practicing the craft for much longer, you probably will get upset and miss the Sweet Spot.

The “Oh, I’m Actually Kinda Good At This” Stage, Part I: Years ~1-3

In this stage, you look back on your previous self.

It is slightly embarrassing.

You’ve come a long way, in what seems like a short amount of time.

You’re also noticing it’s becoming harder and harder to make improvements. Your rate of growth decreases. You’re still learning, but you’ve already mastered the basics.

In order to make the same improvement jump as you did in the first year, you need to spend more time on the activity.

So that’s what you need to do to find the Sweet Spot.

How to find the Sweet Spot: Make the activity more difficult. Add resistance.

The “There’s So Much More To Learn Stage”, Part II: Years 3-10

At this point, you’re at an in-between stage. Most people do not pursue activities for 3+ years, so you’re better than most.

You can teach what you know to someone who is a complete beginner. 

But someone who has been practicing for 10+ or even 20+ years can still teach you a lot.

Instead of making progress by day, week, or month, you’re now measuring improvements in years.

How to find the Sweet Spot: Instruct a beginner.

The “This Is Fun Stage”: Years 10+

If you have been practicing an activity for 10+ years, there’s an incredibly high chance you attain mastery in it. 


You can have fun with your skills. But more likely? You will want to explore some other areas as a beginner again.

How to find the Sweet Spot: Have fun with your skills. Become a beginner again.

It turns out sucking isn’t so bad after all.

Thanks to Dan Hunt and Stew Fortier for reading drafts of this.

How To Get (and Hold) Good Fortune

Raise your hand if you’ve ever wished you were at the top.

If you had already accomplished “it.”

For some reason, we tend to want the result handed to us. And we want it now.

We want to win the lottery. We want the perfect body overnight. We want to be a genius tomorrow.

Well, we think we do.

Here’s the problem:

If the outcome we so desperately strive for was magically dropped in our lap, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The lottery winner squanders his fortune. The person who wakes up with the perfect body has no clue how to maintain it. The same for the fictitious genius.

So how do you actually get what you want?

You begin training.

Kobe’s Training

Kobe Bryant had an important choice to make when he was 18:

Spend four years in college or go straight to the NBA.

At the time, only four players had ever gone straight from high school to the pros.

Kobe knew his mission though: become the greatest basketball player of all time. So, he asked himself what the greatest basketball player of all time would do?

The greatest basketball player of all time would focus on basketball 100% of the time. He would spend time learning directly from the pros. He wouldn’t spend time in college (where his focus would be 50% basketball, 50% academics).

Of course, Kobe chose to go straight to the NBA.

And at the end of his career, he would call it is his best decision, ever.

“The best decision (I ever made was) coming straight to the NBA and skipping college,” Bryant said, “That’s it—the best one.”

Kobe was all in on his training.

How Can You Apply This

First, you must figure out what you want.

Then, you must ask yourself, how would you act if you already had it?

If I had money, what would I spend money on? If I had the perfect body, what would I eat and exercise every day? If I was smart, what would I read?

What tasks would you complete? Who you interact with? How would you go about your business? When would you wake up? What food would you put into your body? How would you think?

Do this long enough, and all of a sudden, you wake up…

You’ve made good fortune for yourself.

Training Is Not Enough

But this training is not enough. We must practice “virtue.”

Virtue is acting in alignment with the highest version of yourself. It’s appealing to your higher half. It’s basically not being an asshole.

Without virtue, you cannot handle great fortune.

Those without virtue squander their money away by failing to pay their taxes.

Those without virtue act narcissistically after they’ve built their body, which makes us despise their progress (the hero’s abs are irrelevant).

Those without virtue cheat on their SATs, get a perfect score, but fail out of their dream colleges.

Virtue is necessary if you want to hold on to your good fortune.

You’ve Already Won

We all desire good fortune. This is a common element of humans. To want a better life. To push for improvement.

Sometimes, we are lucky enough to acquire good fortunes without virtue and training.

We get a lucky break.

As it turns out, you’ve already won the lottery.

You’re reading this on a computer or phone, meaning you have access to more knowledge and information than practically all of your ancestors with a push of a few damn buttons. How crazy is that? You have access to the Internet, where the exchange of information and ideas can allow you to transform your life.

So, due to this good fortune…

Train daily. Practice your virtues daily.

It’s the only way I know to bear the results of this good fortune suitably.

[This post was based on the quote from Ryan Holiday in Ego Is The Enemy: “‘Without virtue and training,’ Aristotle observed, ‘it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.'”]