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Free Time

The following thoughts arise from the peculiar situation I'm in, and depend on certain idiosyncrasies, so they probably won't be of much direct use to anyone else. Nevertheless, here they are … maybe someone will find them interesting.

The peculiar situation is that I have a lot of free time. I'm currently working as a consultant, so sometimes I'm working, and sometimes I'm not; and when I'm not, I'm really not … there are months at a time when I'm free to do whatever I want.

Now, I'm certainly not the most driven person in the world. I spend a lot of time on things that are unproductive. Interesting word, that … mostly I think of it as a synonym for “not worthwhile”, but here I mean it literally, “not producing an object or result”. So, for example, I like to go hiking, read fiction, and watch movies. Those are worthwhile things to do, I think, but they produce nothing. (In other contexts I might argue that they produce thoughts, or states of mind, but here I'm talking about tangible results … about works, let's say.)

On the other hand, even though I'm not driven, there are still some things that I'd like to produce, or accomplish. At first, when I was just getting used to the idea of free time, I figured those things would just happen by themselves, in the normal course of events. So if, say, I wanted to watch a lot of movies, I'd go ahead and watch a lot of movies, then eventually I would have had enough, and would move on to something else. After a while, I thought, I'd have to get around to doing something productive … right? Somehow, though, that never seemed to happen. (For a strange, objective view of what was going on, see Another View.)

Since then, I haven't resolved everything to my satisfaction, but I've made some good observations, and figured out some ways to put them into practice.

  • Having genuine enthusiasm for something is a rare and precious thing; it's best to drop everything else and follow it. I mean, think about it. If I follow it, who knows what strange and beautiful things I might create? If I don't, first I'll be distracted by it, and then it will go away, probably forever. So, yes, enthusiasm is good … but it's not something I can rely on.
  • Under normal conditions (i.e., without enthusiasm), it's best to do creative work in the morning, before my mind fills up with distractions and random garbage. I know for sure that it's easier for me to focus on what I'm doing, and I imagine I also work faster and produce better results. Consequently, I shouldn't waste mornings by sleeping in, and I should avoid things that fill up my mind, like, say, reading the newspaper over breakfast.

    Now let me swap in a better generalization: for “in the morning”, read “after I wake up”. Waking up at noon isn't bad in itself, it's bad because I'll be distracted from work by wanting to go outside before it gets dark. I like the revised statement for a couple of reasons. It gives a hint about what sleep is good for, and it suggests a way of not fighting my mind: if I want to do more creative work, I should take more naps.

  • If I get up in the morning and wonder what I want to do, I'm basically doomed to unproductivity, because I have a problem with indecision.
  • It doesn't work for me to divide my attention between projects. I've tried working on different projects on different days of the week, and at different times of the day (morning and afternoon), and I always hate it … and then I end up focusing on a single project anyway. I imagine that that reaction has something to do with the cost of task switching—see, for example, Human Task Switches Considered Harmful.
  • It also doesn't work for me to give my whole attention to a single project, like writing essays, that has no end. (It's like the problem I have with meditation, but on a larger scale.) That's one reason it's good for me to break things up into deliverables.

Here's one way of combining the previous three points: I should pick out a single project with a definite end, and then allocate a week or more just to that project. I don't feel strongly on the question of allocating week by week versus allocating several weeks at a time, but I will point out that a month is a good size.

So, that's one big conclusion I've come to, that I should allocate my time in large units. The other big conclusion is that it's good to have a routine. I'm still not entirely happy about that; sometimes I think not having a routine is the whole point of free time. On the other hand, maybe I just need to make more of a distinction between having free time and being on vacation. Anyway, regardless of my attitude toward it, the fact is that having a routine really does make me more productive. The following points have to do with routines.

  • Under normal conditions, I can't spend all day being productive … some kind of balance is necessary. Maybe I'll say more about that some other time; for now I'll just refer you to what I said in the conclusion of another essay.
  • As an example of balance, it's important to have time to step back and maintain perspective … i.e., to think about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Without that, any routine inevitably breaks down.


  See Also

  Another View (Free Time)
  What Is Best?

@ September (2004)