Playing Hooky: What It Means and How to Do It the Right Way

woman playing hooky from work reading in the park

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Your alarm clock goes off, and you just don’t want to get out of bed. Or the weather is unseasonably warm—maybe it’s the first day of “real” spring. Things are a little tense at the office, although nothing is exactly pressing at the moment, so why not just have a day for yourself?

There are probably few people who have never once played hooky, whether it be from school, work, or other obligations. Sometimes, you just need some time to recharge.

Is it ever okay to play hooky? Here are the right and wrong ways to do it, plus ideas for making the most of your day of relaxation.

What Does It Mean to Play Hooky?

Initially, the term playing hooky referred to children cutting school without permission from their parents or the school to take the day off. Some people apply it to work as well: people take time off without giving advance notice or having explicit permission to do so.

The term “playing hooky” isn’t usually applied to a vacation you have been planning with your boss’s approval. It also doesn’t refer to taking sick days for illnesses that require rest at home and render you unable to do your job. Instead, it is more commonly at least a little bit rebellious and spontaneous in nature and has the connotation of taking a break from your responsibilities.

Origins of Playing Hooky

The Term

There are several possible but unconfirmed origins of the term “playing hooky,” most of them concerning children cutting school. The phrase itself likely comes from the Dutch word hoekje, which literally means a corner or nook and is the name of a hide-and-seek game. It may also derive from the term “to hook,” which means “to steal,” or “hook it,” meaning “to escape.” Similarly, it may have developed from the term “hooky-crooky,” which was used in the 19th century and denoted someone who was dishonest.

The Concept

According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson, the idea of playing hooky arose from laws that compelled children to attend school in the United States in the late 19th century. The idea was and in some cases still is associated with going fishing, too, which may also explain the origin of the term—that of being off the hook from responsibilities like a fish who literally wiggles off of a hook.

When Is It Okay to Play Hooky?

Of course, there are many times you should not play hooky: when you have a big project due, when you know your coworkers will be responsible for picking up the slack in your absence, when you’ve used up all your PTO (paid time off) and don’t have a really good reason for skipping, and others. There are also times when circumstances beyond your control necessitate skipping, such as a family emergency or illness, which is not the same as playing hooky.

But if you want to play hooky—as in, you just don’t want to go to work but don’t have a compelling reason not to—the only time you can really justify it is if you have unused PTO and nothing pressing at work. (Still, it’s up to you and potentially your boss to determine whether or not it is appropriate to take the day off.) Some workplaces even give employees personal days in addition to vacation days as part of their benefits packages, in effect giving their employees permission to take some time to unwind.

In order to make your day off more meaningful and ensure that you are not jeopardizing your work or job in any way, it is best to take your “me time” sparingly. If you just went on vacation or were out of work with an illness last week, now is probably not the time. However, if you haven’t taken many days off this year and it’s nearing summer, it may just be your day.

Ideas for Spending Your Day Off

Now that you have decided to play hooky, how will you make the most of your time off? Here are some ideas for making your “you time” really count.

1. See a movie.

Take advantage of the smaller crowds and matinee classes to catch that movie you’ve been meaning to see. 

2. Take a yoga or meditation class.

These classes are all about putting the calm back into your life. They also offer numerous mental and physical health benefits. There may even be discounts for daytime classes.

3. Go to the park and have a picnic by yourself.

If you just happen to be playing hooky on a super nice day, why not treat yourself to an adventure in the park?

4. Get a pedicure.

No matter what time of year it is, there’s no reason not to treat yourself to pretty toes.

5. Go out to eat.

Have a nice meal by yourself at an upscale restaurant. Or, ask a friend with a flexible schedule to join you.

6. Sleep in.

While you don’t want to throw off your sleep schedule too much (this is poor sleep hygiene and can lead to sleep problems), you can treat yourself by giving your alarm clock a rest and letting yourself catch a few extra zzzs. 

7. Go to a museum.

Again, you are less likely to be fighting crowds during a weekday than you will be on weekends, and many museums close before nighttime. If there’s an exhibit you’ve been meaning to check out, what better time to go see it than now?

8. Get a massage.

Nothing says relaxation like a massage.

9. Unplug.

If you don’t have anything urgent to do or think anyone will need to contact you, why not stay off your phone and laptop for the day? That way, you’re really playing hooky—from technology in addition to work. 

10. Do something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time.

What’s on your bucket list? If you can make it happen in a short time frame, do it now!

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