The Expensive Difference Between Recreation and Recovery

Bitchlings, I am exhausted. Yet I’m also kind of… bored? Or not bored, but lacking in enrichment. The zoo enclosure that is my life is simultaneously stressful and dull in a way that I had trouble putting into words until recently.

As alert readers know, I recently read Barbara Sloan‘s excellent book Tipped: The Life Changing Guide to Financial Freedom for Waitresses, Bartenders, Strippers, and All Other Service Industry Professionals. Check out our interview with the author right here!

Reading Tipped gave me an epiphany: my exhaustion, my boredom, and my money stress are all symptomatic of a larger problem. When I’m not working, I’m spending too much time and money recovering from that work and not enough time and money simply in recreation. From Barbara’s book:

“Winding down after a shift, because of the shift, is a work expense.”

Barbara Sloan, Tipped
Poor Tiana does nothing BUT recover from work on her few hours off.

In other words, spending time recovering from your work is a cost of that work. Spending money recovering from your work is a cost of that work. And that’s a problem.

Recovery is a cost of work

In researching for this article, I ran into sources about recovery from substance use disorder. Which in itself is monumentally difficult. But that’s not the kind of recovery we’re talking about here! So let me take a moment to define “recovery” for our purposes.

Psychologist Sabine Sonnentag and her crew of researchers describe recovery as “unwinding and restoration processes during which a person’s strain level that has increased as a reaction to a stressor or any other demand returns to its prestressor level” (2017). We’ve all done this to one degree or another in reaction to work stress.

Have you ever worked a long shift, then gotten hammered with your coworkers while complaining about said shift? Gone to bed early and slept in late after a particularly hard day of work, instead of going on that run with a friend? Scheduled an emergency appointment with your therapist to work out your negative emotions about your shitty boss?

All of that is recovery from work. The money you spend on drinks, the time you lose by sleeping too late on weekends, the emotional logistics and cost of unexpected therapy… all of that is how you recover from the stress, burden, exhaustion, and burnout of your work.

The problem is not just that those costs go completely uncompensated by most jobs. It’s that those costs dig into your take-home pay… like an insidious form of wage theft.

Yet recovery is also a necessity

Madeline Kahn sings a whole song about the difference between recreation and recovery in "Blazing Saddles."

When you splurge on drinks with your coworkers, how much of your hard-earned dollars are you wasting to recover from work? When you sleep away the work exhaustion when you could be up and doing something fun, how much of your precious time off are you sacrificing to recovery? Would you even need to spend money and time on a therapist if your work didn’t suck so bad?

You absolutely must spend time and money recovering from stressful, exhausting, difficult work. I’m in no way begrudging you a 1 p.m. wakeup time on a Saturday or them bottomless margaritas with the Tajín on the rim. But wouldn’t it be nice if it all didn’t feel so… necessary?

Sonnentag’s 2018 article in Research in Organizational Behavior reveals that the kind of job stressors that necessitate recovery lead to shittier life experiences overall. If you’re not getting enough recovery (or if you can’t afford to fully recover from job stress), then other aspects of your life suffer: your physical health, your mental well-being, your relationships, your ability to focus on long-term projects or educational goals, your professional performance, and—yes—your recreation.

Life would be objectively better if we could minimize recovery costs and instead devote those resources to recreation.

You should work to recreate, not work to recover

I want to spend my nonworking hours recreating instead of recovering. After all, what’s all this hard work for if it’s not to enhance the time I get to myself?

So here’s another definition: recreation. Recreation is any time or activity you spend doing what you want to do, not what you have to do because of your career. It’s the fun stuff! It’s the part of life we work so hard for! And it is distinctly not recovery from work.

I spent last weekend working in my garden. Over the course of many sunny hours, I planted seeds, tilled garden beds, and put down mulch. It was hard on my back and hips and I got a little sunburned. But I loved every fucking minute of it. Because it had nothing to do with my various money-making jobs! In no way, shape, or form did it enhance my career and work performance. It wasn’t done in reaction to my working hours, but completely separate from them. I’d have been engaging in that recreation no matter how my work week went.

I didn’t begrudge a single dollar I spent on mulch and fertilizer. I worked hard for those dollars, yes. And it felt great to turn them into something I truly enjoyed, something just for me and no one else.

That, my friends, is recreation. Sweet, selfish recreation. It’s the time, money, and activity during which you can completely, unselfconsciously, and without guilt ignore your work and do what you love.

When your need for recovery damages your recreation

Every dollar and minute spent on recovery takes away from your recreation. And I don’t know about you, but I resent the hell out of that disparity.

I once spent a whole weekend camping in the Rocky Mountains on the verge of a panic attack because of work stress. There I was, supposedly enjoying myself with my husband and friends and two whole entire cute dogs and all I could think about was a stupid fucking contract I was supposed to have someone sign before I left cell phone range. What if I got into trouble with my boss for not handling that before the weekend???

Instead of awakening from a deep sleep in an aspen grove to admire the alpenglow on the nearby peaks, I rolled out of my sleeping bag after a restless night to flop sweat and dread. Did I even notice the alpenglow? Did my eyes behold its surreal and ethereal properties as it bathed the nearby peaks in shades of light known only to the great masters of the Rococco? Probably not. I remember nothing from the experience except how stressed I was.

I hadn’t bothered to recover before I went out for recreation. And as a result, my supposed recreation suuuuuuucked. Which tells you a lot about living with generalized anxiety disorder, but also that recreation and recovery are not the same.

Intentionality makes the difference

In Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, authors Sabine Sonnentag, Bonnie Hayden Cheng, and Stacey L. Parker explain that their research shows “recovery processes can be improved by deliberate training programs” (2022). In other words: we have the power to reduce the individual recovery costs of our work! Science says so!

I know you guys come here for pop culture gifs and not summaries of psychological research, so I’ll make it quick. Sonnentag & Co. have been studying “how workers unwind and recuperate from their daily work”—the recovery cost of work we went over above. And they’ve discovered that taking intentional breaks for recovery throughout the work day is one way to reduce the cost of recovery during non-work hours. So actually take your lunch break instead of working at your desk. Actually go for a walk or drink some water or meditate during your legally mandated breaks.

Another method Sonnentag’s article explores is intentional recovery activities. So, instead of calling an audible and saying “Fuck it, I’m tired and deserve a drink” at the end of a hard work day, plan a recovery process ahead of time. Intentionally plan to meditate or perform a round of muscle isolation exercises as soon as your shift ends. Plan a 15-minute walk or a nap. Intentionally disconnect from your work email and text messages from coworkers after work hours.

Don’t fall headlong into lengthy or expensive recovery activities in the moment. Plan reasonable and effective recovery ahead of time to reduce your overall recovery costs. The sooner you get through recovery, the sooner you can move on to recreation.

Speaking of which… we’ve got a way you can intentionally take charge of your recovery:

Stressed? Overworked? Burned out? Cooked through?! Experience the Bitches Get Riches Burnout Workshop: a comprehensive, actionable, dirt cheap video course and workbook filled with practical solutions and exercises to stop the burn and help you catch your breath. Also… it’s funny as hell! Our moms said so!

Compensating myself for recovery costs

Reading Barbara’s chapter on the costs of winding down in Tipped sent me down a rabbit hole of research. Yes, I was trying to find some useful information to share with you guys… but I was also trying to solve my own problem.

I do way too much recovery (and therefore, am working too much) and not enough recreation. It’s hurting my wallet, my free time, my health, and my quality of life. It’s to the point that recreation all too often feels like work to me. I don’t know how to have fun anymore! I have become the worst adult stereotype!

So I’m going to try something entirely new and revolutionary: practicing what I preach. It’s never been done before! At least not in the whole history of Bitch Nation, where emperors traditionally have no clothes, cobblers’ children go perpetually unshod, and “Physician, heal thyself!” is a hilarious joke.

This weekend, I’m going to plan my recovery with intentionality to reduce my recovery costs. That way I can get to my recreation faster and enjoy that recreation more. And I’m going to start by reading a new book, one given to me by my wisest and most insightful friend. For some reason this friend thought I needed a book titled Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily & Amelia Nagoski. Can’t imagine why.

I hope that in addition to training myself to be more efficient with recovery, I can teach you, my beloved bitchlings, to be more cognizant of when you’re recovering vs. when you’re recreating. The goal is to minimize the cost of recovery—both in money and in time—so that you can dedicate those resources instead to recreation. Improve your life with more stress-free fun. You fucking deserve it.

I’ll leave you with a few of our finely crafted articles and podcast episodes about how to recover and recreate:

And if you want to contribute to the Piggy Weekend Recovery Fund so I don’t feel like I have to work so much, consider chipping in to our Patreon:

20 thoughts to “The Expensive Difference Between Recreation and Recovery”

  1. Thanks for this! I needed it today- forcing myself to take my full lunch break, which I almost never do. Also, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle was LIFE CHANGING for me when I read it. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

  2. Wow I literally have that same book and just decided to actually start reading it this weekend. I also love Emily’s other book Come as You are.

  3. Great article.

    I’d like to share my (accidental) recovery technique. I quit my job (before the Great Resignation made it fashionable to do so) but while working I cycled to work for 7 months of the year (the other 5 months were too cold/wintry for my taste). I lived (by design) about 6 miles from work, however, because I live in a large urban centre with hyper aggressive drivers and a city council that would rather it’s residents get run over than spend money on cycling infrastructure, I took a very roundabout route, drawn by a blindfolded monkey, that kept me mostly on side streets with a shortcut through a ravine. As such, no matter how shitty a work day I had, by the time I arrived home I felt GREAT!

    I had started doing this cycling thing for cost saving purposes – I was on a FIRE journey after all – but the mental benefits I received from this home-to-work-to-home transition activity far outweighed the $ savings.

    I get that not everyone can cycle to/from their job, but if you can find some equivalent – walking to/from work or listening to your favourite music while on the bus or anything else that you REALLY enjoy and would look forward to – and you do it daily, it might help with the recovery aspect.

    1. I LOVE this method!!!
      Exercise has become one of my forms of recovery as well. I hate driving, so I tend to walk a lot instead. Taking the bus to/from work a couple times a week (the rest of the time I work from home) gives me a little time to walk to the bus stop all by myself. It never occurred to me though that this could be intentional recovery!

    2. I second the bike commute! I did a year-round (Chicagoland), 5-mile ride to and from the train station back when I had a commute. It is the thing I miss most about working from not-home. Even when the weather sucked, it was still 1000x better than being in a car. (Having some
      modicum of judgement, I called for a ride if it was snowing on the evening commute, which was much denser than mornings. Live to ride another day.)

    3. The bike commute is the best! 100% recommend if it’s something feasible for you.
      This is stuff is soooo important for work-from-homers too – it’s way too easy to faint on the couch like a Victorian heroine at the end of the day and not recover properly. Despite being full time WFH I try hard to ADD a morning and evening commute to my routine – in the form of some sort of exercise, even if it’s a quick walk around the block. I had a 45 min drive for my old job so there’s really no excuse not to make time in the day for exercise now I WFH but inertia is a bitch. Thanks for the reminder to keep up this habit.
      Also worth thinking if there’s any way to turn a poor recovery habit into a better one – I read to self-soothe when I’m grumpy at my boss but had fallen into the bad habit of scrolling mindlessly on reddit etc. I now have the coursera app on my phone and revenge study while I recover from her nonsense. It would probably be healthier to meditate or otherwise be the emotionally bigger person but this is working, and I’m cranking through the professional development, 5-10 mins at a time

    4. Loved this article and the concept of recreation and recovery. I read a LinkedIn article by Emma Birchall titled “Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” That led me to the concept of active leisure, which I see as similar to recreation. The article stresses the importance that this time outside of work can’t be replaced even in a job we enjoy. The freedom to do what we want to do could lead to better discoveries because we don’t place the restraint of work on it.

      I heard recently that placing external rewards (money) on something that is naturally internally rewarding (like learning, gardening, other types of work) actually makes us want to do that thing less. I so resonate with this!

  4. Love this! I’d also suggest your readers consider Tricia Hersey’s book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto.” Ms. Hersey is the founder of the Nap Ministry and has encouraged her readers to actively resist getting sucked into the working-all-the-time ethos so prevalent today.

  5. I concur with camping for a whole weekend in the Rocky Mountains, that does a body and mind good. Just bring a rainfly if you’re from CA, because it can rain randomly overnight!

    1. Haha it’s true! It’s funny–all our friends from New England are like “it hardly rains at all in the Rockies!” All depends on which coast you’re from.

  6. I’m sending this to my husband ASAP. He’s a middle school English teacher…so yeah, we spend A LOT of time & money in our household recovering from work. I recently started subbing as well, and I am WIPED by the end of a shift. I just spent $15 last night on tea and a sugar filled crepe to eat my feelings / recover from dealing with surly, internet-feral 6th graders.

  7. Thank you for this!! I’ve been getting down on myself for not making the most of my after-work free time, but in hindsight I’ve been trying to skip to recreation without making space for recovery, so no wonder it hasn’t been working. Will definitely try to be more patient and intentional about the recovery phase.

  8. I just rage-quit my job recently (dont worry, I have a year of a fuck-off fund saved up!) and its amazing to me how little money I really *need* now that I’m unemployed. I dont drink, I dont spend money on transportation, I have time to cook so there’s no convenience/desperation UberEats.

    I’m honestly annoyed. So many of my problems — the mystery pain, the crying fits, the overspending, the scheduling problems, the feeling hopeless and worthless — were actually just caused by my job? I’m actually kind of angry about it because I feel like I had it better than most people.

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