Should free time be structured?

A few weeks ago I got a lot of comments about one particular thought:

“Every week, I make a list of things I want to have gotten done by the end of the week. Then I schedule in the time I think it will take, along with blocks where I let myself do whatever I feel like from a set of approved activities (reading, knitting, learning music).”

After which I note:

“I’m often not following through with my decisions for how to spend my time, either because unexpected things come up or because I just don’t have the energy or strength of will.”

The comments revolved around this question: should I structure my free time at all, or let it be free and save my willpower? I feel pulled in both directions, so I tried completing the “I should” statements with “if I want” clauses to expose my underlying desires:

  • “I should structure my free time if I want to be spending it in a way I approve of more.”
  • “I should let my free time be free if I want to look forward to it more and for it to feel less like work.”

I have been spending a lot of my free time in ways I don’t approve of. Instead of reading or knitting—restorative activities I actually enjoy—I’ve been playing computer games that leave me feeling drained and grouchy. On the other hand, even when I try scheduling time for my approved fun activities, I rebel and ignore my past self’s urgings. What fun are these activities if I feel like I have to do them?

The advice I’m resonating with right now seems to say it doesn’t have to be that way:

“No amount of resolve will help a person unless he learns to budget his time and utilize it for accomplishment… If you have compassion on yourself, you will learn to budget your hour; every hour will have its own task. You should decide before you begin how much time you want to spend at even mundane matters…Your hours should not be left open, but should be defined by the tasks you set for them.”

—Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Schapira, A Student’s Obligation. Quoted from Cal Newport’s blog.

I posted recently about the “just do it” attitude cultivated through exercise. The problem is that “just doing it” isn’t working. In this case, there’s another lesson to be learned from exercise: the concept of deloading.

When training with weights, the first few weeks and months are very exciting because by adding a small amount each session to the weights used in the exercises, you quickly double or triple the ability you had when you started. The problem is that this linear progress is impossible to maintain indefinitely. Eventually, progress will start to stand still or even go backwards as more and more of your attempts fail. At this point, a deload is appropriate: drop down the weight by 10% and start re-improving from there. If you stall again at the same level, deload by 20% and try again. The idea is to find a level of difficulty at which you can still perform the exercises with good form but which doesn’t leave you too drained for your body to strengthen itself.

Willpower is often compared to a muscle1: it gets tired, but is also strengthened with use. Continuing the analogy, if I keep not being able to stick to my resolutions, maybe they’re too hard, and I should deload. So for now, instead of trying to schedule every block of time in my day, I’m searching for the level of scheduling that I can follow through on 100%. Right now, that’s choosing one thing to work on in the morning, and one in the afternoon. (That’s up from last week, when all I could commit to was one thing per day!) Next week, I’ll try something a little harder, and so on.

So should I structure my free time? In one sense, I believe the answer is “yes”: I’ll be both happier and better rested if I exert some self-control even over my play time. In another sense, the only appropriate answer right now is “no”: I can’t realistically get myself to do it, even when I want to, and trying has proven to be destructive. But I’m working on it, so I think my final answer is not yet.

1For more on the research for and against the willpower-as-muscle analogy, see this overview.


4 thoughts on “Should free time be structured?

  1. I love the weights comparison! I am trying to cultivate some reliably good habits as well and have to be a bit gentle with myself for the moment given my fairly constant exhaustion and I love the idea of keeping “good form” not only in what I’m doing but also so as not to hurt myself (I immediately thought of mental/emotional form instead of purely physical because when i try to do ALL THE THINGS it quickly leads to burn out/mental and emotional pain)
    Have you thought about splitting your “free time” between “free time” and “pleasurable self improvement” time? sometimes I think the vocabulary we use gets in our own way so maybe the very idea of calling it free time but having dictated parameters is causing some cognitive dissonance?

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    1. Right now, a free-time/self-improvement-time split is too fine a level of structuring for me to commit to, but I think as I get better at sticking to my decisions it will be a crucial component of my scheduling. With budgeting money, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve fully embraced the idea that some money will go to who-knows-what every month, and that that’s separate from what I’ve allocated for various fun things. I’d like to get to that point with my time budgeting too.

      And I love the extension of “good form” to mental and emotional form. I think I need to view worry-motivated activity as the equivalent of swinging the weight to get one last rep in—sure, it may mean I get stuff done, but it’s not good for my health and growth.

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