When was the last time you had a real full-on belly laugh?

When did you last have an unscheduled moment that you didn’t decide to fill with work or other responsibilities?

How long has it been since you actively pursued a passion project?

If your answer to any of the above questions was, “I can’t even remember!” then you might be suffering from a play deficit.

In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown writes about the concept of a play deficit. “There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like the well-documented sleep deficit. And just as a sleep deficit generates a need for extra ‘rebound’ sleep to catch up, laboratory research shows that animals that are deprived of play will engage in ‘rebound’ play when allowed to do so again.”

He goes on to say that there haven’t been conclusive studies about whether this affects humans, but anecdotally at least, it seems to hold true.

If there is such a thing as a play deficit, its effects might inversely correspond to the benefits of play. Reduced creativity, increased stress levels, and poorer health, oh my!

When you make up for a sleep deficit (or “pay back your sleep debt”), you don’t do it all at once. It’s not advisable to sleep all weekend to make up for a series of all-nighters. Instead, you should go for a more incremental approach, by adding on an hour or two each night.

Using this same logic, let’s devise a plan for paying down your play debt over time:

  • Start with adding a tiny physical element of play to your home and school or work spaces. It could be an action figure or a puzzle game on your desk at work, some fun bendy straws next to your drinking glasses at home (chocolate milk in the fridge helps as well), or installing a screensaver of rotating photos from your favorite Flickr gallery.
  • Next, add a small increment of play to your day. Take 15 minutes in the morning or evening to do a crossword puzzle (if that’s your jam), visit a dog park (it’s like taking a master class in play), or do a small art project.
  • When you’re ready, start adding a few hours of scheduled play to your calendar each week. This could be happy hour with colleagues, catching up with an old friend over the phone, or playing a board game with your spouse. Try to go for something meaningful and interactive, rather than something passive, like watching television. The secret here is to treat this scheduled play as sacred. You wouldn’t cancel an important meeting with your boss, so don’t cancel this important play date either.
  • Additionally, make time for unscheduled play. This one is trickier. How can you plan for something that’s unscheduled? What this really requires is not overcommitting your time. You won’t be able to accept a spontaneous invitation to a sporting event or visit a museum exhibit on your lunch hour if you’re 100% booked all the time. Try to become comfortable with empty spaces on your calendar. If, when that empty block of time rolls around, you don’t have anything to do, take a moment to be grateful for the extra time and space. Then go play!

Soon enough, you should be play debt-free, and feeling rejuvenated.

Are you suffering from a play deficit? Share in the comments how you plan to pay it back.