The other night, without being provoked, I woke-up suddenly from a deep sleep. My mind was in a frenzy about everything that I needed to do tomorrow. Of course, those thoughts snowballed into all of the errands, deadlines, and appointments I had scheduled for the upcoming week and month. It was a chore to get back to homeostasis and doze off for a couple more hours. But, should you schedule your free time or go with the flow?
Obviously, I’m not the only one who has had this experience. We all have a million things to do. On top of work obligations, there also personal responsibilities like picking up dry cleaning, taking your dog to the vet, household chores that keep piling up, and spending quality time with the fam. With so much to do and little time to get around to everything, how on Earth can you possibly squeeze in any “me time“?
Well, you could schedule all of your free time. That means if you wanted to go out to dinner with friends or attend a concert, you add these to your calendar. It may sound extreme. But, it prevents you from scheduling anything else during this block of time.
The other option would be to “wing it.” If you went into this direction, then you would leave your calendar black whenever you’re “off-the-clock” and see how things fall into place. Without a rigorous schedule, you’re able to spend your time however you wish — without being restained to your calendar.
But, which approach is best? To answer that question, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each method. Likely the best idea will be to find a balance between the two.
The importance of free time — and how it should be spent.
Before I go any further, I want to discuss why free time is essential. I know. You might be rolling your eyes at this. Who realistically has the luxury of such a thing? But, everyone, including entrepreneurs, needs to realize that there’s more to life than work. If you want to have a more meaningful and fulfilled life, then free time should be a priority for the following reasons.
For starters, free time makes you happier. Researchers have even found that free time can make you happier than money.
“It appears that people have a stable preference for valuing their time over making more money, and prioritizing time are associated with greater happiness,” said lead Ashley Whillans, who was the lead researcher from the study conducted by the University of British Columbia. Their research also shows that “giving up a few hours of a paycheck to volunteer at a food bank may have more bang for your buck in making you feel happier.”
Whillans adds that “buying time boosts happiness by mitigating the effects of time stress — the feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day.” For some, that may sound obvious. After all, if you continuously feel pressed for time, then satisfied, do you think your life will be?
Additionally, free time encourages you to attend to your own self-care, boosts creativity, and gives you something to look forward to. It also can improve relationships since it shows others that they’re a priority. Moreover, it adds flexibility to your calendar and gives you a sense of control. And, most importantly, our brains require downtime to recharge and process information.
Spend your free time wisely.
However, for you to get the most out of your free time, you need to spend it wisely. For example, you may be tempted to spend your entire Saturday binge-watching a show on Netflix. There’s nothing wrong with watching an episode here or there. But, those precious hours should mainly be used towards something more productive like reading, journaling, learning, exercising, catching up on household chores, or hanging out with friends and family.
Other options would be planning a vacation, picking up a new hobby, or organizing your home or workspace. And, don’t forget to relax and reflect to help you decompress and become more present.
The case for and against scheduling downtime.
If you were to look up time management tips, you’d probably notice that a lot of successful people, such as Elon Musk and my colleague John Hall, schedule every minute of their time. On the surface, this makes sense.
“Scheduling my days means that I, not the circumstances around me, dictate how I spend my time,” Hall explains. “My schedule is flexible enough to let me put out fires but rigid enough to ensure that I never find myself wondering what to do next–or when I’ll find time to do the things that matter to me.”
Additionally, scheduling hours forces you to stay focused on the present and prevents conflicts. Did you commit to attending a housewarming party on Friday night? If it’s in your calendar, then you won’t also schedule a happy hour with your team on the same night. As a result, you won’t tick anyone off because you didn’t double-book your time.
Also, because you have more certainty, life isn’t as stressful — no more overcommitting to time requests. Also, no more trying to bite off more than you can chew. You won’t spend your downtime aimlessly wandering around, deciding what you should so. You know precisely how you’re going to spend your time, which, in turn, reduces the number of decisions you have to make.
But, perhaps the best part of scheduling your leisure time is that it makes it happen. As Laura Vanderkam explains, if you have a busy life, especially if you’re a parent, “you have to plan, or there will be no leisure in your life beyond watching TV.” The reason? That’s “the easiest thing to do, and it does not require any planning to do during the downtime that presents itself after the kids go to bed or are occupied with other things.”
The dark side of scheduling free time.
Despite these benefits, there some problems associated with daily scheduling. The most obvious is that it can be stressful. Don’t believe me? Just close your eyes and think about filling your calendar for the next week, month, or year. I’m sure you’re anxiety is through the roof right now. And, to make matters worse, if you have an unpredictable or irregular schedule, planning your free time is even more complicated.
What’s more, this approach doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity or flexibility. Some people may not be able to enjoy the present moment because they’re obsessed with sticking to a schedule, squeezing out every minute.
Why you should, and shouldn’t, go with the flow.
On the flip side, there are some perks to taking the “go with the flow” approach. The most common reason is that it allows for more flexibility in your schedule. Without being shackled to a strict schedule, you’ll become more spontaneous. As a result, you’ll be happier.
But don’t take my word on this. Studies show that those who don’t schedule their free time are indeed happier. “When scheduled, leisure tasks feel less free-flowing and more forced — which is what robs them of their utility,” Selin A. Malkocan an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University and an author of the study “Activity Versus Outcome Maximization in Time Management,” told the Washington Post.
Furthermore, you’ll be less stressed and more resilient since you aren’t freaking out when plans don’t go accordingly. Instead, you adapt to the circumstances and enjoy the present.
Going with the flow is similar to the concept of “wu wei.” Derived from Taoism, “wu wei,” basically means taking ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’ and “being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency.” It’s like a river flowing down a mountain. Although it’s still active, it’s not trying to do anything else consciously.
The downside of “winging it.”
The idea of just rolling with the punches may sound relaxing and very zen. But, for many people, winging-it can come with heavy costs. Without certainty, it’s much easier for you to get distracted or put other people’s priorities ahead of your own.
Eventually, things will spiral out of control. You’ll have to cancel attending social functions because you already RSVPd to another event. You may bail on meeting with a friend at the last minute because the errands you decided to do on a whim took longer than anticipated.
And, sometimes, going through life without direction can make you anxious. It’s fun sometimes to get lost when driving around. But, what if you can’t find your way back to the highway and you realize that you need gas? There’s probably nothing as terrifying.
Striking the right balance.
As you can see, there pros and cons to both scheduling your free time and going with the flow. The solution then is to find a healthy balance between them.
While this can vary from person-to-person, the most effective way to achieve this is by always scheduling your most important tasks and events. For example, if you can only take your car to the mechanic on Saturday morning, then block out the time for that task. Spouse, partner, or BFF’s birthday? Definitely put that date on your calendar.
When you do this, you prevent any potential scheduling conflicts. And, it creates enough structure in your life to maintain control of it.
Also, like with your work schedule, add time buffers to your schedule so that you aren’t literally rushing from one thing to the next. And, be realistic about how much you can achieve in the available time that you have. It’s ambitious to think that you’ll clean the house, mow the lawn, head to the grocery store, watch a movie with friends, and make it to a wedding on the same day.
Finally, don’t hyper-schedule yourself. When you have unstructured free time, you ’re in a better position to be more spontaneous and flexible.