What is the Difference Between Free Time and Leisure?

The Art of Teaching: A Conference for Teaching Men


November 9-11 • The Heights School, Potomac, MD

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At first glance, the only difference between the terms “free time” and “leisure” seems to be that the latter has a slight connotation of the hoity-toity. Characters from a British novel sit around and sip tea and converse inanely because they’ve nothing better to do or because the author is P.G. Wodehouse and he thinks it is hilarious. Other than that, both terms imply a potential to do something enjoyable that is not dictated by the necessities of the day. Enjoyable, obviously. Unhampered by practical necessities, because as need hampers, freedom dissipates. 

The First Distinction – Potential versus Deliberate

In general, then, we could say these are synonymous. All the same, I propose the following as a way to distinguish between the two. Free time is open air, full only of potential. Leisure is the breath of the spirit, moving through the void to form the gunk of the world into the image of God. In other words, freedom is the opportunity for leisure, and leisure is directed creativity. But that may not sound free at all, and the inert gunk rebels at being prodded. Directed creativity? No thank you! That’s just a sneaky way of adding another project to the to-do list! What about just relaxing? 

The gunk has a point here. Once we’re done with our frenetic self-inflicted race through our overly clocked days, if we have five minutes to sit and do absolutely nothing, definitely we should grab the remote and carpe couchem. But there it is. We aren’t ever doing absolutely nothing. We’re always picking a way to relax. 

Maybe “free time” sounds better to our ears because of the word “free”. Let freedom ring and all that. On the other hand, freedom might be ringing in our ears loud enough to render us deaf to wholesome inner promptings. And as in Dorothy Sayers’ Nine Tailors, ringing bells can also prove to be the bells that toll for thee. So let’s don’t kill ourselves with too much freedom. Which is to say that if we don’t direct our free time with specific intention, we’ll end up killing our brains with glowy devices and our hearts with potato chips. Or other more obviously harmful substitutes, including the perversely named “recreational” substances, which don’t re-create anything, and do a fair amount of destruction. Addiction is devoid of freedom; time spent on addiction might better be described as voluntary prison time than free time. This is why when you see a game for your phone described as “a great time-killer”, you know it is a doorway to a mental prison.  Time is something to treasure, not kill. And sorry, guys, but this definitely includes online and video games, whatever the so-called “studies” may insist on telling you.   

That’s very cute, says the gunk in the void, but you haven’t answered the question. How is picking a project a way to relax? Thank you for your question, gunk. I’d say the right word isn’t project; a better word is play. Playing doesn’t necessarily refer to games, or organized sports, or musical instruments, or that thing theater nerds insist on doing, or small children playing with sticks, mud, and cardboard boxes. (The most-loved toys, every year, end up being sticks, mud, and cardboard boxes.) Play always means frivolity, and strangely enough, rules. Every game has rules, even Calvinball, in which the only rule is that you make up new rules without warning. Structure, as the saying goes, is precisely what gives us that freedom we clamor for. So the question is not whether we’re going to frame our free time within rules and structure, the question is what those rules and structure are going to be. To put it another way, the question is about our intention, for our intent will determine the rules. 

Building or Breaking?

In general, human beings seem to behave with one of two intentions: intent to break or intent to restore the broken. Bad or good, vice or virtue, Killmonger or T’Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther).  And while part of each of us does enjoy destroying (sandcastle, meet 2-year-old), when we want to relax we are fundamentally seeking something restorative. 

A restorative is something that brings body and soul back into harmony with each other. Whether it’s because Adam fell or because we knocked the cookie jar off the shelf trying to get our hands out of it, the fact is we’re broken. Body and soul ain’t working individually or in unison, most of the time, and trying to restore one while blocking out the other tends to produce either blind hedonism or masochistic puritanism, to the detriment of the person and anyone in the vicinity. So, the latest in this genealogy of questions is: what kinds of things bring the body and soul back into harmony? Such a thing would, ideally, engage the more physical senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, and the more spiritual senses of imagination, contemplation, and memory.  Here are some examples of things that I’d classify as “leisure” activities, activities chosen with the intent of restoring harmony between our physical and spiritual sides.  

  1. Collecting – Collect coins, stamps, license plates from every U.S. state, ancient Macedonian basket lids… something physical, not “virtual”. Notice patterns, beauty, what things look, feel like, and what they represent. Put things that should be together back into a set.
  2. Listening to music – Just listen. Listening is an action, not waiting for something to be over. And don’t do anything else while you’re listening. Multitasking ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. 
  3. Reading – You knew that was coming. This is an article for the Heights Forum.  
  4. Gardening – Understand the dirt. Plunge your hands in it. Love what can come from it. 

You may notice a characteristic common to all these, which is, I believe, another prerequisite for true leisure, and that is solitude. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. Solitude gives us the chance to embrace our surroundings, uncluttered by distractions. Solitude is a delightful thing, as any parent seeking sanctuary in the bathroom can attest. You don’t have to garden or listen to music alone, but the focus and peace provided by solitude expand the restorative reach of your leisure time.

Willy Wonka’s apparently absurd statement, “So little to do, and so much time” may not need the “strike that, reverse it” he adds as an afterthought. The truth is we do have time, and we’re always choosing what to do with it. Sometimes, whatever the clock and the harried voices in our heads insist, leisure time is the best choice. 

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Joe Bissex

About the author:

Joe Bissex


Joseph lives in Rockville with his dear family, a mountain of books, two mountains of board games, one pesky spider cricket (where are the Daleks when you need them?), and a collection of 150 shot glasses. He can rave endlessly about the awesomeness of The Odyssey and The Tempest, so say “Penelope” or “Prospero” and see what happens. An avid fan of all things theatrical, Joseph directs the Omnibus Players of The Heights School, the Tower Fools, and is the faculty sponsor for the Film Club. Omnia Omnibus!