July 7, 2020

What I learned about leisure time from The Joy of Not Working by Ernie Zelinski

I am terribly surprised that I am just reading this book now. I guess that’s the feeling that people that read a lot get when they encounter a book that surprises and delights them with insights and changes their way of thinking. The Joy of Not Working was originally published in 1991! But even as I read it in 2020, the insights and takeaways from the book apply to life now.

One overall observation that I would like to make is that the book takes a different perspective than other books that I have read on time management, entrepreneurship or starting a business. The Joy of Not Working is really focused on that, how to amplify and really enjoy your leisure time (your leisure time being any time not spent doing something for someone else such as a job or other obligations). Other books try to maximize your output in a timeboxed working environment or talk about how working hard now will mean working less in the future.

Again, keeping in mind that this was published in 1991, here are some observations and takeaways that I found from the book:

Why are we working so hard?

The average working hours of people has steadily increased over the years. Although there is a shift today, it used to be that if you weren’t sleeping, you were hustling and working. Everybody was trying to get ahead of one another and you would sacrifice sleep, vacation, family time and much more all to be ‘productive’.

Studies actually say that employees would like to have more leisure time. They would give up a fifth of their salary so that they could take an extra day off every week, and many more would give up an appropriate amount of their salary so that they can have extra time off.

Are we really taking a ‘vacation’?

A lot of my coworkers, whenever they get back from vacation, say that they need another vacation to recover. It’s funny, but it is also a commentary on whether our vacation time is actually ‘leisure’ time. A lot of my vacation seems to be organizing and packing, rushing to the airport, cramming as much food into my stomach and scheduling as many things to do as possible during the limited time on the trip, and then coming back home, jet lagged and trying to get back into the rhythm of things at work. In essence, our vacations are nothing but time filled with stress. When have we just taken a vacation where we do absolutely nothing at home? I haven’t been on a vacation where I haven’t answered at least one work e-mail or monitored the inbox for any urgent emergencies.

Why should we focus on leisure time?

Ernie looked at people retiring and found that many of them were bored or passed away within a few years of not working. Some people for example, tie their identity to the job they have, so when that job goes away due to retirement or even being let go, they have no idea what to do.

Ernie argues that by focusing on leisure time (that is, doing things that you really enjoy outside of work), you will come to better appreciate life and you will bring that same energy and enthusiasm into the work that you do (and better if you have a job that you thoroughly like). If you don’t have a job that you are passionate about, remember that life is too short to work on things you don’t really care about.

What about the finances?

Okay, I know what you are probably thinking (and this is what I was thinking too as I was reading the book). How do you manage the finances? How do you pay the bills if you take more time off work?

Ernie does not give an exact roadmap to financial independence, but he does share a few tips. One is to reduce your expenses to what is really necessary. He knows of many people who have reduced their expenses to only a few thousand dollars a YEAR. This means that even with a limited income, you can support this lifestyle. And just because you are cutting expenses and costs out does not mean you cannot live a rewarding life; there are actually a lot of free or low expense things you can do to supplement your leisure time (such as reading a book from the library, going for a walk outside, picking up a hobby such as knitting, etc.)

The second is that when you have more leisure time and enjoy it more, you have time and energy to be more creative. This creativity can translate into different sources of income. For example, Ernie was bored so he decided to write this book, but he has also gone on to speak at different organizations and consult with others. All of this means that he is able to not hold a real job for many decades (on purpose!).

What sort of activities should we do in our leisure time?

Even in 1991, Ernie knew that personal development and growth was something to focus on. We should not be spending our time in front of the television or say, browsing the internet. There are numerous activities that we can and should be spending more time on, such as reading, spending time with family, exercising, working on a passion project, drawing and other creative activities.


This book was a timely read in my opinion. For a lot of my career, I have been focused on work, ignoring personal and social obligations and thinking that if I work hard now, I will not have to work as hard later. Except the reward of working hard and doing a good job is more work. And having worked for over a decade now, there is a never ending stream of work that comes your way. So rather than focusing on work, I will slowly shift to focusing on leisure time and doing the things that I am really passionate about.

The Joy of Not Working has made it onto my re-read list – yes, it has had that kind of impact on my thinking in mindset. Have you read the joy of not working? How will you use your leisure time now?

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