When Neil Patrick Harris was in his late teens and early 20s, he rocketed into fame starring on the hit TV show, Doogie Howser, M.D. Precocious and prodigiously talented, he quickly became one of the most sought-after young actors of his generation.
Many of Harris’ young Hollywood friends liked to drink, do drugs, and party. Harris quickly realized that the “club scene” wasn’t for him, so he started spending his free time in a different way.
As he recounts in his autobiography, whenever he had a couple weeks of vacation time, he would fly to NYC to see as many Broadway shows as he possibly could. Sometimes, that meant two shows a day.
Why? He wanted to spend his free time watching masterful actors at the top of their game. Harris knew that he would absorb priceless lessons at every performance—and he did. He’s gone on to build a long, celebrated career as an award-winning actor, writer, director, presenter, and host.
The way you spend your time outside of work—what you do on your evenings, weekends, and vacations—can have a big impact on the trajectory of your career. If you want to be highly successful at work, you have to be thoughtful and intentional with the way you spend your time outside of work, too.
Think back to your last few evenings, weekends, or holidays. How did you spend your time? Are your after-hours activities helping you to build the career that you want—or holding you back?
If it’s time for a new post-work ritual, here’s a list to inspire you—10 ways successful people spend their time after work.
1. They Work Out
I know, I know. You’ve heard this advice so many times before. But this point can’t be overemphasized. It’s widely known that following a consistent fitness regime boosts your creativity, confidence, and resilience, both at work and in your personal life. There’s no avoiding it: Moving your body is good for your career.
If you want to enhance your productivity during the eight hours you’re at work, spend at least a little of your free time moving your body.
2. They Seek Inspiration and Fresh Experiences
Harris goes to the theater—and is in the theater. Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert traveled the world (just read Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia). Author and business and creativity expert Danielle LaPorte recommends getting out of your obvious bubble: If you’re a chef, go to a museum. If you’re a painter, head to a top restaurant. Seek inspiration in unexpected places.
Putting yourself in new, intriguing environments—in your own city or on a trip far from home—activates your brain in new ways and can lead to a burst of creative problem-solving genius.
Domesticity can be beautiful, but innovators, top performers, and CEOs are rarely “couch potatoes” who spend all their free time parked at home.
3. They Build Authentic Relationships
Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, was famous for his legendary dinner parties, where he’d invite a variety of people he found fascinating and then pose a deep, philosophical question for everyone at the table to answer—no small talk allowed!
Jefferson understood the value of building relationships—real, face-to-face connections and conversations that go deeper than “Wow, how about this heat wave we’re having?”
When was the last time you had a deep, meaningful, phone-free conversation with a colleague, friend, or mentor? Take a cue from Jefferson and throw a “Jeffersonian Dinner” at your own home. The connections you make and the ideas that spring forth could change the course of your career.
4. They Say “No” (a Lot)
The late Steve Jobs once said, “People think ‘focus’ means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you've got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
Accomplished people know that they can’t do everything, be everywhere, and help everyone all in one day—or one lifetime.
They know that they can’t take on every project, attend every holiday party, or agree to every friendly “Can I pick your brain?” request. They choose their battles carefully and avoid spreading themselves too thin.
Here’s a good policy for fielding requests in your life: When someone asks you to do something, ask yourself, “What is my main focus right now?”—followed by, “Will saying ‘yes’ to this request help me to achieve that main objective, or will saying ‘yes’ make it harder?”
5. They Spend Time in Nature
Ever heard of “nature deficit disorder?” It’s a phrase first used by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Richard feels that our indoor lifestyles are contributing to a wide range of health and behavioral problems. As a psychologist and emotional health expert, I would have to agree.
It’s tough to be your best self—and do your best work—when you’ve been breathing air-conditioned air and working under fluorescent lights for weeks on end. That’s not an ideal way to work or live.
Ambitious people connect with nature and the outdoors, allowing the beauty of the environment (as well as the wonderful opportunities that nature offers—like hiking, surfing, skiing, and climbing) to replenish their energy.
6. They Unplug
More and more people are carving out time for an “unplugged” day or weekend—which means no devices, no Wi-Fi, no emails, and no social media—saying this time renews their mind, body, and spirit. There’s even a new national holiday devoted to unplugging.
Even Oprah Winfrey (arguably one of the busiest people on the planet!) still finds time to curl up with a good book once in a while or chill out in her jammies, preserving her Sundays for relaxation and tech-free time. “I always give myself Sundays as a spiritual base of renewal—a day when I do absolutely nothing,” she says.
Technology is miraculous, but highly successful people know that unplugged time is essential, too.
7. They Get the Most Out of Their Evening Routines
We all know the power of morning routines to set ourselves up for a productive day—but many successful people also know that finishing their day off the right way sets them up for a high-energy, productive, creative tomorrow.
Benjamin Franklin engaged in healthy introspection every night before bed, asking himself, “What good have I done today?” Master filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, used to read before going to sleep—which has been proven to reduce stress. Sheryl Sandberg shuts off her phone at night when she goes to sleep, because she doesn’t want to be woken up. Huffington Post President Arianna Huffington adds, “Our creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, and decision-making can all be enhanced simply by getting enough sleep.”
Paying attention to your evening routine primes you to wake up the next morning, feeling refreshed and restored, so you can achieve more success and happiness.
8. They Take Real Vacations
A picture—like Taylor Swift, on vacay, savoring the sunshine and crystal blue waters—speaks a thousand words: If Swift can find time in her schedule for a real vacation, so can you.
9. They Take Classes and Invest in Themselves
The former CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, says that studying improv comedy allowed him to become a better leader. Actress Emma Watson, who could easily rest on her Harry Potter laurels for the rest of her career, chose to pursue higher education at Brown University.
Whether it’s life coaching, psychotherapy, an acting workshop, graduate school, or a weekend-long certification program on a topic that intrigues you, successful people know that when you invest in yourself—whether you’re investing in your mind, body, or spirit—it’s all going to contribute to your professional success.
10. They De-stress and Take Care of Themselves
Marianne Elliot, a human rights lawyer who was stationed in war-torn Afghanistan, began practicing yoga and yogic breathing techniques to help create a moment of peace in the midst of unspeakable violence. She found that her yoga practice—even just taking a few deep, cleansing breaths—preserved her sanity and allowed her to do her important work under extraordinarily stressful circumstances.
OK, so maybe you don’t work in a war-torn region like Marianne did. But wherever you work and whatever you do, you’re bound to experience moments of stress, uncertainty, foggy thinking, or tiredness. If you haven’t been taking good care of yourself—if your sleep habits are out of whack, if your nutrition is shaky, or if you’ve allowed your emotions to build up like steam in a kettle—then you’re going to have a much harder time navigating moments of stress.
Successful people understand that if you’re feeling run down, distracted, or unwell, that’s going to influence your quality of work and hinder your success.
Take a cue from Neil Patrick Harris, Oprah, Taylor Swift, Michelle Obama, Marianne Elliot, and other super-achievers like them: Use your free time wisely—make healthy, intentional choices during your evenings, weekends, and vacations—and you’ll bring even more energy and brilliance to your work.
There are 168 hours in every week. You probably spend 40 at work, leaving you with 128 to sleep, eat, rest, and spend however you want. What will you choose?
Use your time well.