Is more free time always better?
And what to do with all of the time?
You probably hardly recognize the above picture. It’s a rare Outlook calendar with no meetings, lectures, or “coffee chats” scheduled.
No doctor’s appointments, interviews, or baseball practices. No obligations or constraints. An open calendar: sounds pretty great, right?
I often complain to myself about being too busy. Oh, how refreshing it would be to have more time to myself, a schedule that revolves around me and my needs, an open calendar waiting for me to decide how to block the time. I know I’m not alone. One of my friends had a boss who missed her son’s 10th birthday because of work. She probably dreams about an open calendar, too.
But having an open calendar presents its own dilemma: what to do with all of the time?
The possibilities are endless:
- get some “actual” work done,
- see family and friends,
- learn a new skill or hobby,
- catch up on shows,
- finally read that dusty biography of John Adams,
- clean out the closet.
With so many choices, it can be difficult to commit to the best one, especially when there is so much pressure to do so. Time is precious, and there is nothing more dreadful than wasting it.
When people are given a lot of choices and then asked to make a decision, psychologists notice they generally feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of the options. They stall and waver between one option and another. They agonize. And if they eventually do make a choice, they generally feel worse off than if they’d just been given fewer options, to begin with.
The problem of more choices, and therefore more freedom, leading to both indecision and seemingly worse outcomes are what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. It’s a paradox because more is supposed to be better. We want more movies on Netflix, more kinds of almond milk, and of course, more free time. But you know how agonizing it is to choose your entrée from one of those restaurants that have a menu thicker than the Bible. You know how overwhelming it is to pick just one of the gazillion available mutual funds for your 401(k). You sympathize with the song by the rock band Devo:
“Freedom of choice is what you got, freedom from choice is what you want”
And so you know how much easier it is to have a productive day when it’s packed with stuff you need to do, one thing after another. There is so much less choice. But a day that’s totally open, with nothing scheduled and nothing on the to-do list? That’s daunting, like dumping out a 3,000 piece puzzle and trying to figure out where to start. Anything can be done. You ask yourself: how should I spend the time? What do I do first? Is the thing I’m doing first the right thing?
Is anything I’m doing the right thing?
Freedom comes with a cost. Freedom, and specifically freedom of choice, means not only we must somehow choose what to do, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we don’t like what we’ve chosen. And if we have a lot of options to choose from, we’re more likely to blame ourselves for not picking one of the apparently better ones after the fact. The endless possibilities resulting from total freedom can be paralyzing, almost stressful. That’s exactly what the philosopher Kierkegaard was getting at when he wrote that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
We all need some structure and constraint in life. We need obligations to others to prevent us from becoming self-absorbed and unconnected to reality. We need a consistent routine to organize our time and to eliminate unnecessary decisions. We need some relief from choice, as daily life can be paralyzing otherwise.
I try to focus on free-ing up or constraining the aspects of my schedule I can control in order to strike this balance between too little and too much free time. To open up my calendar and win back some precious free time, I often have to say no to most non-essential events: happy hours, webinars, and “all hands” calls. My personal phone almost exclusively lives on “Do Not Disturb.” I also have to say no to almost all social media, since the average user spends over 2 hours per day on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
To provide some structure to my schedule, I aim to exercise the same time every morning, eat the same boring oatmeal for breakfast, write down my goals for the day, and then join a daily 9 AM conference call for work. I get 20% of what I need to get done for the day without making a single choice of what to do.
My system isn’t perfect, but what it generally eliminates are the extremes. A completely booked calendar tears you in twenty different directions and causes you to miss your son’s birthday. And a completely open calendar with nothing to do? Let’s just say Blaise Pascal already answered that for us when he said:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”