How I’m Learning to Create Structure and Find Freedom

Photo by Liam Simpson on Unsplash

When we were kids, a break from schedules and responsibilities was the epitome of freedom. It meant doing whatever we wanted when we wanted it. It meant summer months without many of the things we didn’t want to care about.

For many of us, that mindset hasn’t changed with age. The adult version of freedom turns into binge watching a new series, sleeping in on a lazy weekend, or lounging around while pondering what you’d like to do next.

Sure, it might happen a lot less often, but it leads to the same end: a taste of joyful spontaneity. And who wouldn’t want the chance to be more spontaneous?

Really, it all sounds good on paper, but I’ve found that the only thing harder than finding chances to be spontaneous is the planning required to actually make them happen.

It sounds weird, right? But the idea that structure leads to freedom isn’t new. When we make a plan to get all of those adult responsibilities out of the way, we don’t have to worry about them later. We do it all the time with work, school, and other obligations.

So, when it’s time to focus on the things we dream about like traveling the world, learning a language, or writing a book, why are we so keen to just wait for more free time to show up?

Isn’t more free time better?

“Of course!” you might say.

Except when it’s got you stalled.

Have you ever had so many choices that you try to do too much and end up nowhere at all? That’s the kind of freedom that can make you feel stuck.

Even if you intended to do more, the anxiety of having too much to do is an overwhelming dream-killer. All of your ambitious plans stay in a little box titled “Maybe Some Day” while you wait for a bit more time to fall into your lap. Your actual free time is spent relaxing, catching up on chores you’d forgotten about, or doing more practical things.

Meanwhile, you read posts about productivity on Medium and wish for someone else’s amazing time management skills. You feel like you could make it work, too, if you could just find the time.

The truth is that you could have all the free time in the world, but if you don’t learn how to restrict yourself and think ahead, you’ll still end up in the same spot on the couch watching Netflix and drinking wine.

Though my American values might take a hit, I’d say the only thing better than more freedom in this case is balance.

So, what’s the plan?

There’s no real secret here. You already know the answer, even if it gets pushed around too easily.

You need to stop searching for the magic formula behind reaching all of your goals and just start doing it. Move it out of the “Maybe Some Day” box and start looking at it as a possibility.

Turn your goals into plans.

Start with the big dream. What is it you want to do that you haven’t been able to?

Whether it’s learning to play an instrument or joining the circus, focus on what you want. Then, start working your way backwards. Think about what you need to do or have in order to get to that point. Keep breaking it down until you get to a task that you can do right now.

That’s your first step.

Add strategy and routine.

Take a look at your big picture and all of the little steps you’ve created. Your next big task is working on your first step. This is the point where you need to implement routines. If you’re learning something new, you’ll need to fit in time to practice.

Start scheduling the free time you do have to make room for your plan. Write it in your calendar, start time-blocking your days, pinpoint what you’re doing during your down time, or do all three. As long as you’re working towards completing that first step, you’re headed in the right direction.

Create outside accountability.

This one’s a bit more difficult to deal with. You see, you’re more likely to let yourself slide if you’re the only person responsible for doling out the rewards. So, it helps to involve someone or something else in your plan.

Let’s say your current goal is to get in better physical shape. Your reward is getting a new pair of shoes after going to the gym everyday for a week. You manage to spend almost a full hour at the gym on day one, including the time you spent catching up with someone you just ran into. The next day you do a bit better. The day after, not so much. By day 5, you decide to get the new shoes a couple days early because they’ll actually help and you’re too sore to work out anyway.

We like being rewarded and if we’re in complete control of all the conditions, who’s to stop us from just giving in?

This is where it helps to have structure that doesn’t feel like a choice. You might ask a friend to reward you, join a group or competition, create a space that is specifically made for your desired habit, or simply let others know that an activity is mandatory and scheduled.

Make room for errors and re-evaluate.

Even with all of the planning and hard work in the world, things can go wrong. So, the most important thing to remember is to be flexible and don’t freak out.

You might realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You might end up somewhere in the middle of your big plan and decide that you’re perfectly happy staying there for now. Don’t forget to set aside time to rethink your goals and don’t lose sight of your reasons for working towards them.

In the end, the only thing you can really control is whether or not you take action. If it leads you down a different path, at least you won’t regret failing to try.