science of us

Why Can’t I Commit to a Hobby?

Photo: Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

A good sign I’m not doing especially well, anxiety-wise, is when I decide, impulsively, that I am “getting really into” an activity I’ve either never done before, or never managed to stick to. I’ve glommed onto adult coloring books, knitting, cross-stitch, and watercolors. I’ve considered ceramics, language classes, and marzipan molding. I see something appealing on Instagram, I order the supplies, I do it a few times, and then … I stop. And I feel bad. Why can’t I commit?

Most recently, I failed to pick up tarot, which is one of those things I keep thinking will be different if only I try again with a shiny new deck. Every so often, I’ll get it into my head that reading tarot will become my party trick. In theory, it offers everything I want in a social interaction: It’s one-on-one, it’s nosy, and it encourages me to tell someone else what to do. Normally, the idea floats out of my head as quickly as it floated in. But a few months ago, I decided to go all-in. I bought tarot books and took notes. I made flashcards. I spent a weekend trip with friends trying to memorize all the minor arcana. I did practice readings for my friends, to mixed results. Then I went home, and put my tarot books away, probably for good.

Maybe it shouldn’t bother me so much, but the thing is, having a hobby is really good for you. Hobbies make us happier because they contribute to our sense of identity; and because having a strong identity outside of work makes us more content at work, one could argue that having a hobby also makes for better employees. Having an “enjoyable leisure activity” (a.k.a. a hobby) is good for your physical health, too — one 2009 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that people who reported pleasurable and frequent participation in hobbies were found to have lower blood pressure, as well as perceptions of better physical function.

So I would like a hobby, please, and one I can stick to. While I am often tempted by the swan song of the “side hustle,” what I really want is something I can do for fun without worrying about producing something. Writing is out (that’s my job). Reading is a hobby, but I’m so competitive about it (both in terms of how many books I read and how I compare to what I am reading) that it also feels like work. I exercise, but that, to me, will always feel a little too punishing to count. You’ve heard about some of my other failed attempts. What am I missing?

Concerned that my hobbyless-ness might be a me problem, I got in touch with David Conroy, a professor of kinesiology and human development at Penn State, whose research is focused on motivation and behavioral interventions. The good news: It’s not just me.

“I think it’s hard for everybody to fit new things into their lives, because it’s a zero-sum game, where in order to create time for a new activity, you have to take that time away from doing something else,” says Conroy. Most people are already living a pretty precarious balance between work, family, and other responsibilities, says Conroy, so it’s important to acknowledge that anyone hoping to introduce (and maintain) a new hobby is “swimming against the tide.”

Still, it’s not impossible — we all know busy people who regularly find time to loom rugs or propagate plants or join their bowling league, or whatever. Conroy says there are two main criteria we should use to evaluate any prospective new hobby’s viability in our own lives: (1) Is it easy?, and (2) is it enjoyable?

By “easy” it’s important to note that Conroy does not mean the hobby should require no thought whatsoever. It’s more that it should be achievable without expending tons of effort. “The more effort a hobby takes to enact — the more you have to go to a special place, or get special equipment or gear, or connect with a certain group of people — the more difficult it’s going to be to engage in that on a regular basis,” he says. Each requirement a hobby makes is a barrier to its sustainability. But again, “easy” does not mean mindless — most people prefer hobbies that genuinely interest or challenge them in some way. What that looks like is different for different people, says Conroy, but most people find it easier to stay interested in a hobby that asks them to grow, learn, and try.

Being challenged is one possible piece of the “enjoyable” requirement, but not the only. “We’re kind of hedonistic animals,” says Conroy. We want to do things that feel good, so much so that many of our day-to-day behaviors involve managing and/or restraining those urges — to eat when we’re not hungry, to drink too much, etc. This is not necessarily to say that these things make great hobbies (though they can!), but that these are things we do again and again and again because they feel good. The hope is that a hobby will provide similar fulfillment.

It would be really great if now I could tell you about the hobby I’ve become devoted to over the last month, but I still don’t have one. What I do have is less guilt about my hobbyless-ness, and a determination to stop buying supplies for hobbies I’ve never made work before. Wanting to like something and actually liking it are two different things, and I am waiting for the latter.

Why Can’t I Commit to a Hobby?