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Using Your "Free" Time to Enrich Your Life

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

During a recent conversation with a new friend, I asked him what he liked to do in his “free time.” The smile he was wearing suddenly vanished, and in a sarcastic tone of voice said, “What free time? Oh, you mean the time I have left after working 50 or more hours a week, spending time with my wife and three children, finishing house projects, and doing errands?

I nodded my head.

“Nothing. I have none,” he replied.

Without trying, I tapped into a pool of frustration my friend was feeling about his life. He moves from one obligation to the next with little or no time for himself. No time to adequately rest, recreate, step away from the stressors and hassles of work and life responsibilities to gain a new perspective on why he pushes himself so hard. In fact, most adults in our frenetic 24/7 culture would similarly complain that they “don’t have enough free time” at their disposal.

But I’d like to challenge that well-worn cliché of not having enough time. Each person has at least some discretionary time available in a normal week. How do you spend yours? Is most of it eaten up in front of the television, perpetually cleaning or organizing, talking on the phone, surfing the Internet? You may have more time than you think. At least some of this time could be used in more creative ways to renew your body, mind, and spirit. Our modern world offers so many choices to us that it requires us to be very clear about what we need in order to recharge our emotional, physical and mental batteries. When we are recharged we are more productive in our work, more attentive and available in relationships, and more apt to pursue interests that help us grow as people.

Here are some practical ways to use whatever amount of free time you have to enrich your life and those relationships most important to you.

Inventory your free time

Most of us don’t know where we spend our free time. While we may keep a calendar for appointments or a “to do list” for the day, we aren’t always as aware of how we use discretionary time. It’s hard to know how to change until you know what needs changing. Try this simple technique to find out where your free time is spent.

Take a lined page of notebook paper and divide it vertically into seven columns that correspond to each day of one week. On line one in the left margin record the time you usually awaken. Let’s say it’s 6:30 a.m. On line two write 7:00, line three 7:30 and so on down the page in 30-minute increments. Then block out known time commitments for each day that don’t allow you discretionary time such as work, evening meetings, etc. The time slots that remain are discretionary, or require you to choose how you will spend them. At least once during the day and before you retire at night, reflect on and record how you spent those “free” times. Be as specific as possible and don’t alter your normal routine during this week. At the end of seven days write out all the ways you spent your discretionary time. Next to each activity, write the total amount hours spent on each during the week.

I routinely use this inventory in the classroom with adult students returning to college to complete their degrees. They typically enter the program with full-time jobs, families, and other commitments that make finding time for studies very challenging. The excuse many of them use of not having “enough time” is often exposed for what it is: poor use of the limited time they do have. The busier you are, the wiser you must be with your time.

Discover your interests

Some of us are so busy we never ask ourselves what we really need to feel human. In fact, many use busyness as a convenient way to avoid facing the fact that they don’t know what their real needs are. They simply let the natural demands of life set their daily agenda.

Begin to discover your interests by making a list of activities you know you enjoy. It might include cultural events, hobbies, reading, foreign films, hiking, bird-watching, travel, volunteering, or any number of others. Simply write them down as they come to mind. Don’t be concerned about their practicality, expense or whether they fit into your schedule. If you’ve been neglecting your needs for some time, you might find this a hard task. Go back five or ten years and reflect on what you used to do for fun, stimulation and recreation. If you need to go back as far as childhood to identify interests, do so.

Once you have at least five items, rank the top five in the order they appeal most to you. Then answer this question for each one: How does/did this activity enrich my life? For instance, does it stimulate my mind, my creativity, help me appreciate the little things in life, give my hope, help me grow as a person, build new skills, relieve stress, etc.?

Then, if your top picks are too expensive or impractical for your situation, modify them. For instance, if that trip to Rome is out of the question but travel is your passion, plan a creative trip to some destination that works within your limitations. It’s engagement in the broader activity that counts.

Commit to enrich yourself

Do you really perform your best work when you are burned out? Of course not. But our purpose in life can easily be reduced to survival when we are not re-creating those parts of ourselves that need renewal. Consider creative renewal as vital to your existence, not simply a luxury. Make a commitment to yourself that you will strive for a work/leisure balance. For some, balance means daily leisure, for others less frequent. But it should be a regular part of each person’s weekly routine. Unless you consider it a priority for your life, it probably won’t happen.

Plan your leisure

So here’s where you pull it all together. You’ve identified areas of interest that you know will enrich you. You’ve committed yourself to participate in one or more of these activities at least weekly. And you see how important creative leisure is to personal growth. Now it’s just a matter of doing it. But this is the hardest part. You have to battle the infinite number of conflicts that threaten to strangle your discretionary time. That’s where your time inventory comes in.

Locate your open pockets of free time and plan it into your schedule. Literally write it into a time slot for a given day. Treat it like a non-negotiable appointment that can’t be cancelled unless it’s an emergency. This might appear to be elevating leisure beyond what it deserves. But that depends on the value it has in your life. You will spend your leisure time on what you value most. If that is watching television, using the Internet, talking on the phone, housework, or other activities, then at least do it deliberately. But if you seek more than the average, the mundane and the convenient, pursue those interests with tenacity. You won’t regret it. A small investment of time might literally change your life.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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