For most busy people, a free afternoon is an unbelievable treat. A block of time with no meetings, childcare, or other responsibilities – nothing but the promise of “me time”. It could be a chance to de-stress and relax with a good book, but it could also be a chance to get creative; to really make some juicy progess on your writing, editing, or worldbuilding. Or even that important but neglected marketing and author-branding plan.
I had one such afternoon recently. It was after a family holiday, when I was nicely chilled, but had a couple of end-of-vacation days before restarting work. I’d done enough chores to feel I’d earned an afternoon off. Oh, what promise! I could make a start on that non-fiction book I’ve been incubating for a while, work on improving this website, do some research into self-publishing trends… there were so many possibilities.
What I ended up doing, of course, was squandering the time completely.
I didn’t mean to. I opened up an Evernote doc and started outlining my non-fiction book, but then I got distracted by an idea about author websites, and that got me browsing author sites, which got me discovering new books, and somehow, by the inevitable blackhole-like attraction of these things, Star Trek clips were being watched on YouTube.
After I’d finished chastising myself for a golden opportunity wasted, I started to think a bit more deeply about the psychology at play. Why, when I had so many motivating and enriching ideas to pursue, did I instead sink into passivity? Why did I fail to capitalise on the gift of free time? How could I do better next time?
Here are a few thoughts:
The tyranny of choice
The thing about big plans is that they are big. There are lots of moving parts. To have a high-level dream like “I want to write a book” also means having a lot of low-level enabling requirements that are less motivating but also critically important. Like: I need to practice writing regularly, I need to improve the quality of my prose, I need to find time in my day, I need to find an audience, I need to learn to edit, etc. etc.
Once you recognise the need for all these demands, it can be paralysing to know what to do first. You know you have to do it all, but which is most important? Should you be working on your craft (never wasted time) or should you be promoting the work you’ve already completed? When faced with a hundred tasks, we often do something counterproductive – give up. It’s too dispiriting to consider all the options, to see all the unfinished jobs, and know that any small start that you make will be but a single brick laid, when you are dreaming about a mansion.
That scenario creates tension, and our brains respond to such strain by seeking relief. Too much choice is stifling.
The tyranny of scheduling
The obvious response to too much choice is to get focused. Pick one task and do it. All the productivity books will tell you this: find your most important task (this can be identified as the one that you psychologically resist) and focus fully on that task until it is completed. Then move on to the next most important task.
That is great advice, and there is no escaping the truth of it. Mansions are built by determinedly laying one brick after another until you have your palace. But the advice also ignores another reality – too little choice is just as stifling as too much.
My day job as an academic is highly scheduled. It’s the only way I can meet all my responsibilities. I live and die by my to-do list and my Outlook calendar. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, and I’m also sure that I’m not the only person that finds it stressful. Looking ahead at a series of days and weeks that have all been packed with meetings, lectures, workshops, practicals, admin, grant writing, paper writing, reviewing, troubleshooting etc. is, frankly, demoralising. It’s like a straitjacket that’s got me tied up until Christmas even though it’s only September. I’m not exaggerating; today I scheduled in the Christmas dinner (because I have to give the after dinner speech).
The thought of applying that same sort of discipline to my leisure time is just depressing. I know some people live like that and thrive on it, but I need a break. Time to exhale. Unstructured time. Time to just think. Time when I can do whatever I want for a while.
Realism and pragmatism
The solution to this tension is to recognise your limitations and optimise around them. It’s all about balance.
One remedy is to exploit a loophole: schedule in unscheduled time. If like me you need time to stretch out a bit and relax your time constraints, work it into the schedule. Also, be clear about the difference between leisure and creativity. Sometimes you do just need to veg out. That can be scheduled too.
Another constructive compromise is to use truly “free” time as a reward. If you have four hours available one afternoon, do two hours of focused work on your primary creative task and then goof off for the last two. Buy yourself idle leisure by hitting your creative goals first.
Another important skill is getting good at judging the time debt of different tasks and allocating well. You might think it will take you an hour to edit a chapter, but in fact it takes you three. Similarly, you might think it will take two hours to figure out how to add a new feature to your blog, but it actually only takes five minutes of tinkering. Keeping track of how long things really take can help manage your expectations. Getting more done in the time available than you planned for is brilliant and inspiring. Being constantly behind and bogged down in half-finished jobs is not.
Setting modest goals and exceeding them is the sweet spot, psychologically. You can always increase the ambition as you get more practised at using time well.
Finally, it’s important to be reflective and keep things in perspective. It’s easy to beat yourself up for squandering an afternoon, but that won’t get you closer to your dreams. Instead, learn from it: what did I do? How did I fall into that bad habit? How can I work with my temperament rather than against it?
It takes time to learn the art of bricklaying. The important thing is to keep trying.