How hobbies can improve your happiness and productivity at work

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon spends evenings with the turntables. Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, swears by Tae Kwon Do and told the BBC it serves as a great reminder that success is in her control.

Though time is a more precious resource than ever, many of today’s successful business leaders are onto something—the importance of setting aside time for hobbies. For my part, as CEO of JotForm, I spend a few weeks every year olive picking on my family’s farm in Turkey. Afterward, I’m relaxed and refreshed, and I even have a few new ideas, ripe for exploring.

It’s not easy to carve out time for the activities that we enjoy. There is a misconception that to succeed in the startup world, we need to be working nonstop. Phrases like “Good things come to those who hustle” dominate the conversation. At the same time, the prevalence of burnout in the workplace is at an all-time high, which makes having a hobby outside of work all the more beneficial. Studies show that spending time on leisure activities not only releases dopamine—that feel-good organic chemical in our brains—it may actually lead to a range of benefits that help with launching or running a competitive business.

But first, how did hobbies become so underrated to begin with?


In the past, work was done out of necessity—literally, to “earn a living.” People strove for wealth so they could work less and gain more leisure time.

Economists like John Maynard Keynes theorized that with advances in technology, the need for work would decrease. By the 21st century, we’d be able to survive comfortably with a 15-hour workweek. Since then, the concept of work has evolved from necessity to identity. Many people work more not because they have to, but because it gives them a sense of self.

As economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play.” We see so many examples of successful entrepreneurs embracing insane work schedules. Apple CEO Tim Cook rises before 4 a.m. Mark Cuban reportedly didn’t take a vacation for seven years, and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer regularly pulled 130-hour work weeks.

Workaholism has become the new norm. And, as you may guess, we’re not faring better for it. Workplace stress costs $125 to $190 billion annually, according to research conducted by Harvard Business School. In a 2017 study, 95 percent of HR leaders agreed that burnout was sabotaging workforce retention. Even highly engaged employees are showing signs of burnout, and as a result, companies are at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hard-working staff.

Combating burnout is one of the perks of spending time doing things that we genuinely enjoy. Take Bhavin Parikh of Magoosh, Inc.  To avoid burnout, he plays ultimate frisbee. He explains,” [W]hen I’m on the field, I’m definitely not thinking about my company.” Hobbies can also pay off big time in terms of the skills needed for business success.


Though some people may think hobbies are unproductive, they can make us more competitive in the workplace. Beginning in the late 1950s, physiology professor Robert Root-Bernstein studied the effects of hobbies on the lives of 40 male scientists over 20 years.

Professor Root-Bernstein found that the most successful scientists (which included four Nobel laureates) were more likely to engage in hobbies involving imagination, hands-on activities, art, and music. Different types of hobbies have been linked to different outcomes. For example, doodling can improve memory by 29 percent. People who read books have more activity in the part of the brain associated with language and intelligence. And good news for workout fanatics: Cardiovascular exercise improves cognition and mental performance.

Creative hobbies have been shown to enhance performance and problem-solving abilities. One study from San Francisco State University found that people who often engaged in a creative activity scored 15-30 percent higher on performance rankings. They were also more likely to come up with creative solutions to on-the-job problems.

For this reason, the study’s authors wrote that “[o]rganizations may consider implementing programs that encourage creative activity.” Zappos, for example, encourages employees to flex their artistic muscles by incorporating employee artwork into office decorations. With all of the benefits flowing from hobbies, the only thing that remains is choosing one for yourself.

Perhaps you already have a list of activities you’ve been waiting to take up. But if you need some pointers to get started, here’s a quick guide to choosing a hobby.


According to Dr. S. Ausim Azizi of the neurology department at Temple University’s School of Medicine in Philadelphia, engaging in childhood pastimes has the power to trigger our pleasure centers.

“When people do things that make them feel good, like a hobby, it activates an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens that controls how we feel about life,” writes Dr. Azizi. “Activities you enjoy also stimulate the brain’s septal zone—its “feel good” area—and that makes you feel happy.” Research shows that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome.


Try an activity that uses areas of your brain you don’t typically use.

Dancing, circus arts, music, theatre, and sports strengthen the brain’s executive functions. Strategic games like chess improve brain plasticity. Playing a musical instrument strengthens the corpus callosum — an area of your brain that bridges the left and right hemispheres . Learning a new language engages an extensive network of the mind and improves cognitive functions.


You know that feeling when you’re entirely immersed in an activity, so much so that hours fly by and you might even forget to eat lunch? That’s flow.

Carol Kauffman, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times, “The lost sense of time in flow state restores your mind and energy. It also requires a high level of concentration, and can enhance your creativity, help you think more clearly and sharpen your focus.”

Be it baking, painting, or jogging, choose an activity that you enjoy so thoroughly that you’re entirely absorbed in the present. Not only will you find it a mental reprieve from work, but you might also discover that it improves your performance in the office.

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