Filling the Time

The novelty and utility of “free” time

Matt Paolelli
Mar 10, 2018 · 3 min read

What do you do when you don’t have anything to do?

It’s really interesting to see how people choose to spend their “free” time. With my workday bookended by two half-hour Metra rides, it’s a perfect opportunity to watch strangers on a train figure out how to best make use of that time.

As I look around the train I’m currently sitting in, most people are obviously on their devices. There are 12 of us seated on the upper level of the train, and a quick visual survey provides an interesting cross section of free time-expending choices.

Six people are on their phones. Two of the six are wearing headphones and presumably consuming music or videos. The guy next to me is playing a game on his phone — and getting kind of weirded out by the way I keep looking around. Sorry, pal. This is for science.

Two people (counting me) are on their laptops. The other guy looks like he’s doing some work.

One guy is on his laptop and wearing headphones, so let’s assume he’s watching something.

A middle-aged man is sleeping.

Another middle-aged guy is reading a newspaper.

A millennial is fighting stereotypes and reading a physical copy of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Down on the lower level, people are mostly on their phones. Wait…there’s that Rubik’s cube guy again!

As for me, I treasure my commuting time. I love that I have been able to use it for writing these past few weeks, but I am always mindful of how I will spend this precious time — the calm between the neverending rush of my workday and the sacred evening family time. It’s an opportunity to do whatever I want to do…and I hate feeling like I wasted that opportunity. So I’ll load my phone with podcasts, my Spotify Discover music playlist, saved online articles, an audiobook or occasionally a physical book. On rare occasions — or when one of the above is a little too soothing — I’ll fall asleep. Sometimes that feels like a very reasonable use of the time.

When I’m truly immersed in whatever I choose to do, it’s shocking how quickly the time will fly. 35 minutes passes in the blink of an eye, and I find myself scrambling to finish writing before we pull up to the station or getting to a stopping point in a podcast or audiobook as I walk to my car. Sometimes I’ll have a few more thoughts to write, and I’ll actually pull my laptop back out when I get to my car, or continue listening to the podcast if I’m really absorbed.

It’s interesting to see what humans will do when they don’t have anything else they’re supposed to be doing. I’m not sure what these choices say about us. Is it good that we are occupying ourselves? If we’re consuming news or music or stories, are we making ourselves more cultured and worldly?

Or is it a symptom of a larger problem that we can’t contentedly sit alone with our thoughts and are always in need of some sort of distraction? I mentioned my feelings of not wanting to “waste” this time, but it’s also far from a waste to engage in some introspection and self-reflection. That’s difficult to do with a podcast blaring in your ear or an Angry Bird to toss around.

Well, I’m not sure how to end this, but that’s the nice thing about writing on the train: I get to do some deep thinking and I get to stop when the train ride is over. Bring on the weekend!


I’m trying to form a daily routine of writing at least 100 words every weekday. Subscribe here if you’d like to read them.

Matt Paolelli

Written by

husband & father | writer | content creator | digital marketer | cancer survivor | Northwestern alum | die-hard Cubs fan | happy Catholic | among other things

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