During my Little League years, I was weirdly thrilled when inclement weather cancelled practice. Admittedly, I didn’t like baseball very much and my coach was kind of a dick. But the real source of excitement was my newfound freedom go home from school, hang out with my friends, and do whatever I pleased. I had an entire evening of unstructured time ahead of me.
Not much has changed in the last 30 years: I still find joy in moments of complete freedom from obligation. Unfortunately, this has become increasingly rare in my life and in much of the developed world.
Ample free time was a given for many children during my formative years—the 1980s. In the intervening years, many have lamented the worsening epidemic of over-scheduling our children’s lives. Sure, boredom can be problematic—idle hands and all that—but it can equally be the source of inspiration and creativity.
Lack of unstructured free time has been a problem in adult life for decades as well, and it doesn’t show any signs of improvement. From early childhood until we retire, our hours of free time are stolen from us with a myriad of activities and obligations. How did this happen?
The maelstrom of adult life creeps up on you.
One day, you are fourth grader whose most crucial decision is your choice of Trapper Keeper; a decade later, you are a sophomore in college, chest deep in extra-curricular activities and career decisions; a decade after that, you might be married and deciding if and when to have children of your own. Life’s obligations are similar to the historical trajectory of the stock market: they wax and wane over shorter time frames, but they trend upward through much of adulthood.
What sucks those precious minutes and hours away? Work and children, for many of us.
Depending on your job, working after business hours may occupy more or less of your time. With the advent of the internet and smart phones, however, work has the potential to creep into the previously-protected realm of evenings and weekends in almost any profession. As a doctor in private practice, meetings, committees, administrative duties, and overtime shifts are just some of the ways work can consume my free time.
Children’s activities outside school are doubly problematic: they usurp free time from the parent and the child. I am at the mere cusp of my son’s burgeoning activity schedule as he begins preschool, but I can already sense the deluge. For starters, there are teacher meetings, coffee hours with the principal, and PTO meetings. He is not involved in organized sports yet, but it’s coming. He has homework. They don’t call it homework, but he is expected to do it and it’s done at home, so it’s frickin’ homework to me. (I’m a little miffed about this, can you tell?)
Don’t even get me started on birthday parties.
Activities that rob you of free time need not be limited to work and children. Volunteer activities, exercise classes, and book clubs fit the bill. My friend has an (unpaid) position as a borough council member, which is a huge time commitment. I could go on, but I trust you get the point that discovering new obligations is not a challenge.
The illusion of obligation
When meetings, activities, and other so-called obligations begin to overwhelm your free time, I suggest you ask yourself a simple question:
What will happen if I skip it?
Am I really needed at that evening work meeting? Must we attend another trampoline birthday party this weekend? Will the neighborhood Oktoberfest celebration collapse if I opt out of the planning committee?
For me, the answer almost every question like this is “no.” If I skip it, absolute nothing will happen.
Granted, some of these activities are nearly obligatory, or at least should be treated as such: CME (continuing medical education) to maintain my state medical license, for example, or a doctor’s appointment for me or my children. But for the vast majority of potential extracurriculars, I won’t be missed. Some might wonder about me a little bit for a little while, but the lives of others will go on without my presence.
Of course, you may actually want to do some of these activities. Or your child may want to do them. But to maintain your sanity, you must prioritize, and you must decide how much is too much.
In a recent post, I presented some questions and back-of-the-envelope calculations I go through in deciding whether or not to outsource an activity. Similarly, I can decide whether to opt in or out of a potential time-sucking activity using a few key questions:
- Do I want to do the activity?
- Am I jeopardizing something important by opting out?
- What is the alternative to the activity?
Obviously if I answer “yes” to question one, then I will do said activity, and the other questions are irrelevant. If I answer “no” to the first two questions, I will almost certainly forgo that activity—no matter the alternative. Other answer combinations will leave me weighing the risks and benefits of opting out on a case by case basis.
Opting out of obligation may seem like a veiled attempt to justify laziness. In my case, I assure you it is not. I’m not looking to sloth around the house and watch E! all day. Give me a good book, a brisk jog, or a meal with friends any day. I don’t object to doing something in my free time; I simply don’t want to feel obligated to do it.
Don’t feel guilty
My most enjoyable day in recent memory was a random Monday several weeks ago. I had the day off, and my dog woke me early (as is her wont). An invigorating morning run was followed by a relaxed breakfast with the family, and some time playing legos with my son. After dropping him off at school, I took a long, peaceful walk with my daughter and the dog.
Could I have found something more “productive” to do that morning? Sure. Sadly, I often find myself searching for something “productive” to do during moments of downtime. I suspect this is a psychological artifact following decades of filling up my free time with activities of one sort or another. It is as if I am padding an imaginary resume for an imaginary future career.
The walk that day—with fresh air, a happy dog, and an infant strapped to my chest—was productive after all: it produced happiness in me. I only get one chance at each day, each hour, and each moment. Skipping unnecessary meetings and other obligations could give me more moments like my walk. Every moment can’t be a winner, but when I look back in 50 years, I certainly want to see more winners than losers.
My master plan for either part-time work or early retirement remains a work in progress, but one thing is certain: more free time awaits me in the future. Until then, I try to remind myself that I don’t have to do anything—except eat, drink, and breathe (and a few other bodily functions). I officially give myself permission to stop an activity if I no longer want to do it. No one is keeping tabs on how I spend my time except for me.
So take joy in opting out of obligations, and in your newfound freedom. You can thank me later 😉