Triathlons, ultramarathons and ambitious baking: why is modern leisure so competitive?

If you spend much time mooching around the internet, you will probably have come across articles on sites such as Quartz and Forbes called things like “17 habits of highly successful people”. Life hacks of the rich and famous have become the capitalist equivalent of the tales of hardworking coal miners that were once impressed upon Soviet schoolchildren.

Invariably, these people wake up at 4.30am; Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, does so at weekends, too, so as not to fall out of whack with his weekdays. Unfailingly, they make time for exercise: Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, goes for a hike every Saturday before spending his Sundays reflecting on long-term strategy. Presumably, it was from such contemplative heights that he hit upon his recent scheme to remove the “like” button.

Lest we begin to suspect that these executive Stakhanovites are monomaniacal, tedious and exhausting, we are encouraged to admire how well-rounded they are. At weekends, the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his family embrace “Jomo” – the joy of missing out. Warren Buffett kicks back with his ukulele. Oprah Winfrey makes time for twice-daily meditation. As puts it: “The weekends can often be busier than weekdays, with [people] attempting to cram chores, exercise, family commitments, social engagements and more into a 48-hour period.”

Even those of us occupying less happy positions at the late-capitalist coalface might emit a weary bleat of recognition at that. Weekdays are tough. But weekends? Exhausting! “Bullshit jobs” (“It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working,” noted the anthropologist David Graeber in his book of that name this year) would appear to have a corollary in bullshit leisure. Increasingly, our leisure time is not leisure as our parents or grandparents might have enjoyed it: time away from the productive demands of work for pottering, ambling, collecting, socialising. It is leisure with an imperative, self‑imposed or otherwise, to maximise relaxation yield, compete over hobby production and co-opt every activity – exercising, meditating, making Halloween costumes for the kids – into a dynamic of human perfectibility.

It is hard to say precisely when this shift took place. The “like” button had something to do with it. But for Alex Boyle, a TV editor and amateur triathlete from Bristol, it really ramped up when he discovered Strava, the social network where more than 30 million people share their training regimes.

Alex had always liked taking part in sport, but after he slipped a disc making a treehouse for his children he began to take his fitness more seriously. “I began doing CrossFit to regain my core strength,” he says. “The thing about CrossFit is it’s kind of mechanical, but the CrossFit community is very focused on measuring their performance.” He liked this aspect of it – the demonstrable improvement; the way it fed back into his overall fitness – and he soon realised that the principle applied equally well to the triathlon sports: swimming, cycling and running. He treated himself to a sports watch and joined Strava so he could post his times. “It allowed me to turn any section of my commute into a competition. I could choose a section of Gloucester Road and see if I could cycle down it faster than anyone else. Or, if I was swimming, I could focus on beating my own times over 100 metres. It becomes kind of obsessive.”

He reckons he spent eight hours a week training, plus three hours studying podcasts and YouTube videos, which has caused some tension in his family. “Now that it’s the off-season and training time has dropped a bit, I’ve got some catching up to do on DIY and housework. I’m not 100% sure how training for a half-Ironman next year is going to work.”

One reason leisure has become more competitive is that it is increasingly quantifiable. Smartwatches keep track of your movements, from steps walked to kilometres skied; platforms such as Strava allow you to compare times with peers. The principle works beyond exercise, too. Apps such as Sleepio help you measure how productive your sleep is; Calm and Headspace gamify mindfulness and meditation, so it is no longer an antidote to work but a way of preparing yourself for more work.

Yet these activity counters are basic compared with what the finest minds in Silicon Valley are trying to create. Bryan Johnson, a co-founder of PayPal, is now leading the neurotech company Kernel, the aim of which is to bring the brain “online” to track what users are thinking about. “Think of it as a step counter for the brain,” he said recently. I can’t see any potential dystopian downsides to that …

Aspects of all this measuring are perfectly innocent. A little competition makes things fun and there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your triathlon time. However, Dr Thomas Curran, a clinical psychologist at the University of Bath, sees a correlation between the increased use of metrics and the rise in perfectionism in young people. In a recent study, he defined this as “an irrational desire to achieve, along with being overly critical of oneself and others”.

“Perfectionism is a very problematic trait, especially for those who suffer with it at the clinical end,” he says. “It’s positively associated with depression, anxiety and even suicide. We are not suggesting that every young person is a clinical perfectionist, but we are suggesting that they’re moving further up the spectrum as time unfolds – and that’s concerning.”

The way Curran sees it, the culture of metrics has migrated from the business world into our leisure time via education and public services. Schools have become more results-oriented. “In an attempt to make the important measurable, we have instead made the measurable important,” was how the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins recently summed it up. This has helped to create a generation who see learning as a numbers game, while Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook have done the same with popularity.

This has changed the way we view our time off. In a recent essay, In Praise of Mediocrity, the author Tim Wu shared his hunch that we are now afraid of being bad at things: “We are intimidated by the expectation … that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our ‘hobbies’, if that’s even the word for them any more, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.”

To be fair, this is partly a function of growing up. Small children sing, swim, climb, draw, play various sports, make various crafts and don’t much worry if they are any good at them. When you are 37, for example, it is embarrassing to be rubbish at drawing, so we tend to narrow our range of activities. But there is a generational shift here, too. My grandad was a keen photographer, coin collector, cyclist, watercolourist and tropical-fish keeper – and, bless him, he wasn’t much cop at any of them. I don’t think that was the point. His hobbies were ways of absorbing himself and meeting people. There wasn’t the same urge to share and compare and discover how rubbish your efforts were next to some tropical-fish fancier in Colorado with 373,000 followers; likewise, my mother has never given much thought to how she might turn her sewing skills into a side hustle. She just likes doing it.

Curran sees dark portents in the popularity of The Great British Bake Off and its ilk. “Something that used to be done for enjoyment has been turned into something people do competitively. All sorts of activities have shifted their meaning this way. Making birthday cakes for children in order to get ‘likes’ from people you don’t know? I’m only 30 years old and I can think of no frame of reference for this happening within my lifetime. It’s new.”

We could turn to art and literature for some perspective – but these are subject to the same imperatives. Apps such as Joosr and Blinkist condense books into 20-minute versions; Instagram is full of great works distilled to one inspiring quote. Even if you manage to read the latest Karl Ove Knausgaard, well, it would be a waste if you didn’t flaunt your erudition with a #shelfie. On Reddit’s podcast forum, a number of users report listening at 1.5x speed, so as to maximise consumption, and express regret that they can’t do the same for Netflix shows. “I do audiobooks at 1.6,” one user explains to me. “It feels like an appeal to intelligence – the natural pauses and implied rimshots are gone. It’s a fast stream of one-two punches that challenges my reaction time and makes me listen harder – and it’s less casual.” Less casual?

Another writes: “For YouTube, if I’m watching an instructional video … 2x is preferred.” Some used a “trim silence” filter to cut out the natural pauses in speech, shaving 30 minutes off a three-hour podcast. Presumably, you could use the same technology to make Beethoven’s Ninth symphony up to 23% more efficient.

What would John Maynard Keynes make of it all? In Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930), the economist expressed hope that, by now, we would all be working three-hour days and spending the rest of our time enjoying our leisure in a more leisurely fashion. Karl Marx hoped that redistributing the gains of industrial production would enable workers to spend their days like 19th-century aristocrats: writing, fishing and hunting.

In those days, it was the poor who worked all hours, while the upper classes flaunted their leisure as a status symbol – take those Parisian flâneurs who used to take their tortoises for walks.

The members of the early labour movement battled hard to claw back their time and they were successful at it: we have them to thank for our largely work-free weekends. The postwar period was arguably a golden age for the hobbyists. Now, if anything, the 19th-century paradigm has been reversed: automation and associated forces mean those at the lower end of the labour market often don’t have enough work to do, while the rich are time-poor. Busyness is worn as a badge of honour; idleness is condemned as a vice.

For Rutger Bregman, the author of Utopia for Realists and a proponent of a shorter working week, something is seriously awry. “Right up until the 1970s, philosophers, sociologists and economists were predicting that the biggest challenge of the future would be boredom: what the hell would we do with our time?” he says. “Isaac Asimov predicted that the biggest profession would be psychiatrists, treating people for the symptoms of boredom.” There are plenty of psychiatrists around, but boredom doesn’t tend to be high on their priority list. “We’re almost suffering from the opposite,” Bregman says.

From an economic point of view, the decline of leisure is not as illogical as it first appears. It was the US economist Gary Becker who first explored this, in A Theory of the Allocation of Time (1965). Time is money. The more money you earn, the more valuable your time is. The more valuable something is, the less inclined you are to waste it. That is why people in London walk faster than people in rural Cornwall. It is why a banker is more likely to ask you to sponsor their ultramarathon effort than, say, a fisherman.

But Bregman feels there may be nonmaterial factors at play, too. “We live in a sort of inverse welfare state, where the most important jobs – the nurses, the teachers, the refuse collectors – are paid the least. It’s actually the least important jobs – the management consultants, the financiers; the bullshit jobs, in other words – that pay the most. So, my hypothesis is that the elites have demanding jobs in terms of energy and effort, but they provide them with no meaning. Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If you’re sitting in the office all day sending emails to people you don’t like, writing reports that no one will read, designing financial products that only destroy wealth, building algorithms that make people click on more ads … it’s a pretty depressing existence, isn’t it? So, the less meaning you find in your 70-hour-a-week job, the more extreme you will get as you pursue your leisure time.”

As Bregman points out, busyness is not a society-wide phenomenon: “It’s more something you see among the elites in the big cities, applying the high standards of their working lives to their leisure time, too.” Quality leisure, like quality work, is unevenly distributed.

There is a gender bias, too. In 2015 (the most recent available data set), British men took an average of 43 hours of leisure time a week; women took about 38 hours. “There isn’t much evidence to suggest that we’re getting less leisure time overall,” says Chris Payne, a senior research officer at the Office for National Statistics. “But women are seeing a reduction since 2000. Women are entering the labour market in greater numbers. Meanwhile, they’re not being compensated for the amount of unpaid work they do. Men aren’t really picking up the pieces back at home.” This, he adds, is an international trend: men train for triathlons while their wives look after the children.

But I sense a backlash. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s recently published novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the young female narrator resolves to spend a year in complete retreat from life, doing precisely nothing. The only person she sees is her friend Reva, who is constantly trying to interest her in self-improvement. But no, our narrator just wants to lie in bed. “Every few weeks, [Reva] had a whole new paradigm for living, and I had to hear about it,” she complains. “‘Get good at knowing when you’re tired,’ she’d advised me once. ‘Too many women wear themselves thin these days.’ A lifestyle tip from Get the Most Out of Your Day, Ladies included the suggestion to pre-plan your outfits for the work week on Sunday evenings. ‘That way you won’t be second-guessing yourself in the morning.’ I really hated when she talked like that.” As a manifesto against the cult of competitive accomplishment, Moshfegh’s book has much to recommend it.

When I surveyed my friends, I discovered that quite a few had hobbies that they keep quiet about – usually something cultivated as an antidote to screens, “likes”, metrics and doing. One takes photographs on film and puts them up on a Tumblr, the URL of which she never shares. One mother I know finds time for pottery, chess and DJing. Especially since I moved out of London last year, it has been a pleasant surprise to discover that plenty of actual adults still play in bands and go rock climbing and perform wholesome public works. I have found time to go swimming, too. I have no desire to compete with anyone. I do it mostly because I enjoy the feeling of being suspended in another element, the coolness, weightlessness and motion. I also like the discernible progress I have made over six months with the aid of the occasional YouTube instructional video and notes from other swimmers: I have gone from thrashing around and panting whenever I attempted front crawl to serenely gliding up and down.

One reason I like it is that getting into the right rhythm leaves room for almost no other thoughts. Another is that there is a straightforward relationship between effort and reward. If you keep at it, you get better. In very few areas of 21st-century life is that true. But, naturally, when I managed to swim a mile, I shared it on Instagram.

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