productivity guilt paradox
Are you racked by productivity guilt? We explore how the hobby got ousted by the side hustle and why commodifying your leisure time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Why does doing nothing make us feel so guilty? You know the feeling: an ambiguous yet pervasive guilt that jabs you in the ribs as you scroll past another homemade pasta reel on Instagram. Free time feels like a daunting abyss full of the overwhelming potential to create, communicate or cultivate. In a world that values the dollar sign over everything else, doing nothing feels more wasteful than restful. There must be a passion project worthy of profit or a side hustle ready to free you from the corporate race.

The shiny haired, glossy lipped version of you considers the glamorous pursuit of becoming a beauty blogger. Your inner creative yearns to be an NFT artist, selling your creations for crypto-millions. The sexually liberated you even tosses around the idea of starting a pay-per-view subscription channel. Because sex is power, right? Or is it money that is power? Well, apparently time is money and that maxim seems to be why we’re in this mess. (A mess I’ll clean for $60 on Airtasker.)

Millennials are burdened with a constant pressure to profit from their “free time”, a symptom of internalised capitalism and social media’s redistribution of market power. If one of the best “Call of Duty” streamers, NICKMERCS, makes an estimated $235,000 per month on Twitch, and handcrafted ceramic ashtrays sell for €800 (approx. AUS $1300) a pop on Instagram, it follows that the rest of us are racking our brains for a recreational activity deserving of reimbursement.

Hobbies were once simple and sincere. Think model airplanes or scrapbooking. It was about spending pure leisure time with yourself. Now, enjoyment has been superseded by lucrative ability; to bedazzle, sauté or vlog is to make money, not pleasure.

Capitalism’s sidekick

There is more than one culprit to blame for this pecuniary transition. Of course, there is an obvious and abrasive team leader, capitalism, fuelling burnout the globe over with its more, more, more messaging. But what about the nuanced backbenchers who have crept in from the sidelines? The “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” mantra, or the millennial relationship to work? And let’s not forget capitalism’s narcissistic sidekick: social media.

The platforms we visit to wind down, relax or escape to are also the places where there is serious cash to be made. When we watch a “why we broke up” vlog sponsored by a techy new treadmill or a how-to homemade gnocchi video featuring a brand of vegan ricotta, we place our leisure time at the centre of consumption. Individualism has never looked easier. Or hotter. As creative director of Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia, remarked about social media in Vogue, “The freedom that it ‘suggested’ originally is now governed by algorithms and commercial interests.”

Perhaps it’s because starting a YouTube channel or creating a #foodgram in your spare time looks so easy that the guilt pervades us. With hordes of content creators making quantifiable use of their hobbies, you can’t help but ponder, “Why can’t I do that?”

The performative and aesthetic lens of these online spaces preys on the innate dissatisfaction we feel as humans. Wishing you were there, wishing you were her, wishing you did that or owned that. Influencers are the queens of commodifying leisure and Instagram is their shimmering kingdom. Palatable consumption subtly drenches their feeds, grids and stories, blurring the lines between leisure time and time that can be monetised. The result is feeling inadequate about how we spend our spare moments.

The burnout generation

The capitalism motto that masquerades as idealism — “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” — has been heard on repeat to the sickening point of ad nauseam. This platitude has punctuated millennial career advice from time immemorial, instilling more disillusionment than direction. Financial prosperity is seen as the ultimate pursuit, so if you’re good at something, quick, sell it!

Famously known as the dissatisfied job-hopping generation, millennials have a relationship to work that is starkly different to that of the baby boomers who preceded them. We know the fettishisation of long hours and suffocating availability come with myriad negative effects and take their toll on our wellbeing; BuzzFeed journalist Anne Helen Peterson famously dubbed millennials “the burnout generation”. A recent Deloitte workplace survey found that 84 per cent of millennial workers experienced burnout from excessive workloads. We are working and hustling towards oblivion while the inventor of the hamster wheel rests happily in their grave.

Leisure versus treasure

Marry the sponsored #ad posts with a ubiquitous discourse that conflates pleasure with profitability, and you arrive at a generation prepared to divorce corporate monotony and run away with the side hustle. But is hustling for dollars a sustainable pursuit, or a sure-fire way to erase the sanctity of the hobby?

“It felt like a given to monetise something I enjoy so much,” says Athena Katsogiannis, co-founder of card game Fool (@foolthegame). When asked if she feels a relationship between dollar value and personal value, Katsogiannis remarks: “We poured our heart and souls into Fool; everything from brand ideation, box design, how the game is played, the way it’s branded, how it was launched. All of that is a reflection of us because it’s something we’ve created, so personal value to dollar value definitely does exist.”

Adjusting to the collision between the fruitful expectation and reality of “hobbification” can be difficult. When you attribute a dollar value to a leisure activity, does it eclipse the emotional value those hobbies afford? Can the two co-exist? “I think because I always kept it as a side hustle, I never relied on my crochet products for income and therefore didn’t get stressed out or pressured,” says Sydney-based crochet artist, Daisy Stemmler (@wovenbydaisy). Keeping the side hustle well and truly to the side is perhaps the way to enshrine the hobby from capitalist corruption.

Join the hobby renaissance

  • Take up a hobby simply because it feels good or brings you joy, even if you’re not particularly good at it. Embrace your own mediocrity!
  • Give yourself room to rest. Taking care of your mental health through leisure time is worthy of a spot on your to-do list.
  • Log off social media. Instagram is the mother of all comparison sites; just because others are profiting from affiliate links doesn’t mean you’re any less-than.
  • Before embarking on any new passion project, be honest with yourself about your motivators. If a hobby doesn’t spark true excitement and delight, it’s unlikely to bring you any joy (or money).

The hobby renaissance

To reap the hedonistic serenity hobbies provide, we must preserve them in their hand-painted, glitter-smeared boxes, separate from monetary concerns. New Zealand scientists have found that engaging in the creative behaviour required for hobbies leads to increases in wellbeing that last until the next day, ultimately resulting in an upward spiral of wellbeing and increased creativity.

Personal satisfaction, relaxation and a sense of control are all benefits of pursuing hobbies simply for pleasure. Aristotle said it best when he said “leisure activities are particularly worthwhile because they are done for their own sake”.

Let’s resuscitate the hobby for its blushing innocence and find respite in spending time with just ourselves. Revive the hot glue gun and colour outside the lines of capitalism. Disregard documenting, bragging and promoting, and just enjoy.

Millicent Lees is a Sydney-based writer and digital marketing consultant. She loves exploring and writing about all things meaty, meaningful and of-the-moment.