13 Free or Cheap Ways to Be Blissfully Unproductive

Photo: wsilver

I often think I should be productive even in my downtime. I don't want to live slothfully and, well, there's always something important to do. And, as I pursue professional opportunities that mesh with my personal interests and vice versa, then much of my leisure time becomes filled with activities that can reap rewards in all aspects of my life.

Certainly, there are productive activities that are fun to me, beneficial to my well-being, and professionally inspirational. I really like reading about business trends and strategies, watching culturally relevant television shows and movies, sprinting for better fitness, de-cluttering for a clearer state of mind, trying new recipes and cooking to save money, doing volunteer work to improve myself and my community, and designing spreadsheets. But I wonder if I should try to squeeze value out of every moment.

I can justify my frivolity by saying that being unproductive on occasion boosts productivity at other times. That may be true, but it misses the point entirely. And, though I believe that I should be a good steward of my time, I also think that I should savor unproductive pursuits purely for their own sake. If collateral benefits are derived, that is wonderful. However, the real purpose is to enjoy the present moment.

If you are looking for more joy in your life and want to have free or cheap fun (specifically the kind that does not involve being connected with technology), consider some of these ways to be blissfully unproductive. (See also: How Less Creativity Can Make You More Creative)

1. Make Someone Laugh

There are many ways to make someone else laugh that are genuinely funny and don't involve rudeness or putdowns. For example, I tell stories about myself that reveal quirky behaviors and extreme fears, which turn out to be unfounded. My teenage son shares humorous observations about the flawed-but-accepted-as-normal thinking of adults. My husband imitates people from our shared past, capturing their personalities through accents and inflections.

You might develop formulas for joke telling, like the way a couple of my friends do. They'll see a company name like "Speedy Transport" emblazoned on the cab of a tractor-trailer and say something like, "Speedy Transport. Yeah, business really picked up after we changed the name from Sluggish Transportation." The humor is not so much in the words but in the delivery and surprising silliness from otherwise-serious businesspeople.

2. Watch People Do Things You’d Never Do

I love to watch people do daring activities that I have no intention of trying but nevertheless find intriguing. Your list may be different, but mine includes rock climbing, hang gliding, and kayaking. I don't go out of my way to observe people involved with these things. But if I happen to see someone navigating a Class III or IV rapid in a decked kayak after I have finished canoeing, or if I catch a glimpse of a hang glider or rock climber when I am hiking, then I'll stick around a while.

Because I have neither immediate plans nor long-term goals of trying or mastering these activities, this time is unproductive. I am not picking up tips or observing technique. I just like watching them.

3. Listen to Outdoor Creatures

When I traveled to Minnesota several years ago, one of the sounds that I learned to love is the loon's call. I associated these voices with peacefulness, serenity, and the timelessness of the outdoors and wilderness. Closer to home, I like to hear critters outside (preferably at a distance) such as a cicadas, crickets, and frogs at night and birds in the morning.

If you like these sounds, you’ll find being outside and listening to them naturally blissful.

4. Ride Paddleboats in a Park

I am not quite sure of the original use of paddleboats. They seem to exist as a way for municipal parks to generate income and provide entertainment to little kids, young teens, and their parents. Unlike canoes and sailboats, which have value for transporting people and goods, the paddleboat is good for 30-minute segments of unproductivity.

5. Stroll Through a Public Arboretum or Garden

Though I hope to move beyond weed puller to fruit-and-vegetable grower one day, I am not a gardener. So visiting an arboretum, greenhouse, or garden doesn't give me ideas or inspirations that are useful to my efforts. Seeing flowers, trees, and plants is just a pleasant way to pass the time. Some sites charge but many are available to strollers for free.

6. Gaze at Clouds and Tell What They Look Like

Looking at clouds and describing what earthly objects they remind you of is the perennial, classic way to be unproductive. Lay directly on the grass or on a blanket for greater comfort. Relax and share what you "see" with a friend or family member.

7. Read a Book Void of Cultural, Societal, or Historical Value

I often consume media in order to become a better _______ (fill-in-the-blank): writer, parent, citizen, party guest, advocate, businessperson, volunteer, etc. I do enjoy learning and growing, and hopefully becoming more interesting. But not all books or other types of media (movies, magazines, TV) have to be relevant to personal and professional goals.

Just as Gretchen Rubin talks about in The Happiness Project, I can choose to love something (like children's literature for Gretchen) just because I do. Read for pleasure, not just to become enlightened.

8. Experience the Past

It can be fun to patronize a long-established country store, especially if — like me — you grew up frequenting 7-11's and other modern-day convenience stores. Or you might enjoy navigating with a paper map and compass, testing your abilities to see if you can find your way without a GPS.

Sure, historical knowledge and skills could come in handy one day. But the idea is to do something out of your ordinary pattern just for kicks

9. Look at Old Photos and Scrapbooks

Looking through old photos and scrapbooks can make you smile and recall some things you did simply for fun. You don't have to post them online or organize them. Just enjoy the memories.

10. Throw a Cheap Party

Invite friends over for ice cream or popsicles in the summer and spring. Host the party outside so that you don't have to clean inside (though you might want to tidy up the bathroom) and so kids can play while the parents talk. If you don't have the front porch or backyard for a get-together, consider meeting up at a local park or reserving space there for a couple of hours.

Host a chili party in the fall or winter, and let people bring a favorite topping if they insist on contributing something. Enjoy the company and conversation.

11. Watch a Pick-Up Game (or Be Part of One)

If there are public playgrounds or schools with open fields and outdoor basketball courts in your town, then you can watch a soccer match or play in a pick-up game. Though there are probably organized games for kids that may be interesting, it's nice to happen upon an informal, impromptu gathering.

Last year, when I went to my son's high school to watch him in the football team's first scrimmage for the season, a couple of little kids were playing their own football game as I sat on the practice-field bleachers. Unlike many older students, they weren't marketing themselves as well-rounded student-athletes or potential scholarship athletes. They were just having fun. Watching them reminded me that sports can be about sheer joy.

12. Wade in a River, Stream, Lake, or Ocean

Wading is best done as an impulsive response, not a planned activity. Instead of hesitating when you come to a stream, peel off your socks and shoes, roll up your pants, walk in, and let the water soothe you.

13. Walk at Sunrise or Dusk

I’m not a morning person, so I tend to take walks closer to dusk. Whether I take in a sunrise or a sunset, I like to see how the light changes the landscape as the sun moves above and below the horizon.

What do you like to do that is blissfully unproductive but also free or cheap?

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Meg Favreau's picture

I'm pretty bad at this -- I often feel like I always need to be working. But whenever I do manage to totally relax -- reading a good novel, laying out in the sun, etc., I'm reminded of how wonderful and restorative it is.

Guest's picture

Good article. We are all have a busy life so it never hurts to relax and have some fun. I have a pretty stressful line of work so some of the activities mentioned help me get rid of some stress