A Strange Thing Called “Free Time”

It’s week two of spring break… and I still don’t really know what to do with myself and all this free time. Free time. As in, time I don’t have to spend frantically finishing a French essay, punching complicated chemistry equations into my calculator, or struggling to understand biology concepts that my professor insists are “the key to understanding biology”. Not to say that college isn’t fun and exciting, it’s just a lot of, well, work. But strangely, now that I have free time I find it slightly unsettling. Hooray! No obligations! Now what?

All of us are hard-wired to have a desire to do something, which is why the idea of retirement is scary and weird to most of us. You spend your life working, working, working, and then, finally, ahhhh, retirement. Now stop working. No, really, stop. Now. Relax, remember?

In the U.S., we’ve built our society around an obsession with work. Everyone’s working, and working hard. But what happens when we have a little free time to ourselves? We stress…about not working.

“Why do we feel like when we have leisure time it has to be productive, or that it has to have some element of self-improvement about it?” Brigid Schulte asks, Washington Post writer and author of the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (for an awesome interview with her, click here).In the United States, a century ago, we showed our status by how much leisure time we had…and in a hundred years, it’s completely flipped- we really show our status by how busy we are, by how much we can cram into a day”.

And yeah, come to think of it, as a college student I spend a lot of time complaining about how much work I have to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said and heard the phrase “I’m so busy”. Often I’m even slightly proud of my busyness, as if I’m proving my status as a hard-core college student, too busy writing papers and being smart to do anything else. But I say I’m busy because I really am– I’m a college student, I’ve got work to do all the time…right?

As it turns out, we aren’t nearly as busy as we think we are. According to a 2013 American Time Use survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (found here) the average college student works for 2.5 hours, does “educational activities” for 3.3 hours, and has 4 hours of leisure time. Four hours? Are you kidding me? That’s 28 hours a week, 1456 hours a year. And for the average employed American, the numbers aren’t that different: 2.5 hours of leisure time a day. Doing what?

Watching TV. According to the same study, during a five-hour leisure period the average person age 15 and over spends 18 minutes relaxing and thinking, 18 minutes participating in sports or exercise, 19 minutes reading, 39 minutes socializing, and a whopping 2.8 hours watching television. Wow.

I don’t really consider myself that much of a TV person, but I definitely spend a lot of time on Netflix, which is like TV on steroids. And what am I really gaining from all that screen time? Certainly nothing as beneficial as reading, or exercising, or just spending time to relax and think. Most of the time I find myself watching shows and movies on Netflix to avoid that annoying and all-too-familiar feeling: boredom.

Boredom is often seen as something that is bad,  something that’s easily fixed by doing something. When I was younger, we weren’t even allowed to say the word “bored”. But while boredom is often viewed as something negative, a new study finds that it actually might be (dare I say it) a good thing.

A study run by U.K. psychologist Sandi Mann found that boredom could actually spur on creativity. In the study, participants were divided into two groups: one group went straight to a creative activity, while the other group read the phone book first. The group that came up with the most interesting and creative ideas was the group that had read the phone book- the bored group. Why? When we’re bored, what we’re really searching for is stimulation. “We might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming and you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit in the subconscious which allows sort of different connections to take place,”  Mann said in an NPR interview (found here).

So what does that mean for us? In the Smart Phone era, a lot of us aren’t allowing ourselves to become bored because we’re always using our smart phones. Now you can download an app called Moment, which allows you to track how much time you’re spending on your Smart Phone every day.

It’s time for us to find the time to unplug, take work break, and spend time doing the things that really matter. This tweet from Brigid Schulte really hit home for me:

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 1.02.12 PM

As for me, I’ve been spending most of my spring break creating little tasks for myself. I baked a cake for Saint Patrick’s Day, have read a lot of really good books (among my favorites: The Running Dream by Wendelin van Draanen), and spent yesterday morning trudging down the rainy sidewalks of my hometown searching for potential summer jobs. But what I haven’t done recently has been to really sit and let my mind wander, to let myself relax and become bored. I think I’ll go look for our phone book.





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