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The Free Time Dilemma

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“I have a hard time with free time.” —Shia LaBeouf

You’ve reached it. It is that time of day when everyone starts to trickle out of the office. You are finally free, except now comes the really hard part: Do you go to that 7:00 p.m. spin class and burn off that cupcake you had for Jim’s birthday today? Or do you go to that industry happy hour you were invited to that could potentially have a lot of good contacts? But then again, just sitting on your couch and catching up on the show you fell asleep in the middle of watching last night because it started at 10:00 p.m. (and, apparently, you are 80) also sounds good. I am exhausted just talking about this.

Remember once upon a time when it sounded really cool to be invited to cocktail parties or charity dinners or to attend a fun dance class? But see, in the fantasy of going to all these things, you had a ton of energy. Fatigue didn’t exist. You didn’t have circles under your eyes. You didn’t have 20 emails to answer. Or a bachelorette party to plan. You didn’t have a dog to walk. Or maybe you had the dog, but the dog was like Lassie and just exercised herself and saved little boys from wells all day.

The main point is, we have very little free time nowadays. According to a study conducted by Real Simple and the Families and Work Institute, 52 percent of women have less than 90 minutes of free time a day, and 29 percent have less than 45 minutes a day. That doesn’t even equal one full episode of Mad Men.

What was interesting was the study found that our jobs weren’t the main issue: It was what happened when they left their offices. These women were inundated with their partners or children and just basically running their houses.

But don’t think this problem is just exclusive to women with families. Last year The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger reports that single women are even more likely than mothers to say they would rather have more free time than more money. Single people are responsible for their jobs, plus all the errands and all the housework, not to mention social and personal lives, and they have to do it without a partner.

A recent survey of women who planned to leave their companies within the next few years found that mothers and non-mothers often cited the same logic for leaving: They want more control over their “personal schedules and needs.”

Basically, everyone is working a lot and has very little free time. So how do you decide what to do with the little free time you have? Is it better for your life to go to the charity event or to do yoga? Or maybe just having a glass of wine with a friend? What is the best? How do you decide?

Lia Huynh, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with young adults and does a lot of volunteer work with young busy women, says don’t just do an activity because everyone else is doing it. She says:

“Do an inventory of your values, priorities, what you think is genuinely fun. If you don’t like the clubbing scene, but all your friends are going, go once in a while, but pursue your own interests and you’ll make friends who are more aligned with who you are and be happier as a result. If you genuinely like knitting, or water skiing, make sure you are aware of that and pursue that.”

I think Huynh brings up an interesting point here, especially with social activities, which is the “Fear of Missing Out,” known as FOMO. According to, when we miss a party, vacation, or any other social event, we sometimes feel less cool and somewhat envious than those who did make it (and then documented their entire experience on social media). FOMO is most common in people ages 18 to 33. Huynh tells us:

“Sometimes we tend to just want to fill our calendars because we don’t want to miss anything. Or maybe we are so driven that we will sacrifice our health for a goal because are young and invincible. But what happens is we end up feeling tired, and not enjoying anything. Or we end up sick and less productive than if we had just paced ourselves. When you are tired, feel free to rest.”

I mean, is FOMO worth getting a fever over?

She insists that young people have to learn to say no. You may dread doing this, but you are not going to get good at it unless you practice. Now, it’s not like you have to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and say, “No way am I am coming to your house party! Who has a party on a Thursday night anyway? Parks & Rec is on!” A simple, “I am just slammed at work this week,” or, “I already made plans for that night” does the trick.

What activity is going to make you happy? Huynh says ask yourself what gives you life. She also suggests delegating tasks to others or outsourcing if you can. “Don’t worry about making homemade butter (unless you really find joy in it) when you can spend that extra hour at your spin class or out having coffee with a good friend.”

Monica Ricci, an organizing and productivity expert, came up with a list of five questions you should always ask yourself when faced with a free time dilemma:

  1. Will this activity replenish my energy or deplete it?
  2. Will I be spending time with people I really enjoy or would it feel better to spend time by myself?
  3. In choosing this activity, am I neglecting essential health or life management tasks, which I will regret later?
  4. What is the cost/benefit ratio of this activity versus other ones? Will it require a lot of time/effort/money for a relatively “small enjoyment return?”
  5. What do I really need to make myself feel great and get a good mental “re-boot”?

Ricci says:

“I’m big on the concept of balance. I believe young professional women serve themselves best by consciously creating a balance between the amount of free time they spend in activities that support and revitalize themselves, versus events that are potentially depleting, such as social outings and entertaining at home. Time is a precious resource the same way money is, so asking some clarifying questions before investing it is a smart habit to create.”

Don’t let your free time stress you out too much. It is supposed to be a good thing.

How do you spend your free time? How do you make sure you have it? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Binta Niambi Brown, Partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, how she prioritizes her free time!

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