Does "Free Time" Actually Exist?
When you think about it, is time ever truly “free?”
Not long ago a friend of mine asked me if I would do something for him in my free time. I just stared blankly back at him and said, “I don't have any free time.” He looked at me as if I was kidding. But I was dead serious.
I haven’t had anything that might be called free time since I was about fifteen years old. I'll bet the same goes for you too. In fact, I don’t think I, or any other working adult, will ever again in this lifetime have what someone could really define as “free time.” We might call it that, but is it really free? To me, the term implies that there are minutes in our day that have no purpose; that there are frequent moments when we suddenly might say to ourselves, “I don’t have a single thing to do right now." Does anyone have that kind of time? Somehow I don’t think so.
Maybe I’m just arguing semantics, but think about it: Our “to-do” lists probably have many more things added to it daily than the few that get crossed off. We will never not have something we have to do. Each of our lives is like a full computer hard drive; there’s no space to add something unless we eliminate something else. So is any of our time truly “free?”
As I write this, on my list are these items, not necessarily in order of importance, and none of which I am terribly anxious to do: 1) Compile information for my tax return, 2) Record a podcast, 3) Wash my cars, 4) Work on a video for my Weather Dude presentation, 5) Call my health insurance company and after being on hold for half an hour ask them why they haven’t paid my claim.
Then there are the items on the dreaded “to do someday” list such as 1) Clean out the bathroom drawers, 2) Repaint the extra bedroom, 3) Research a better alternative to cable TV, 4) Transfer thirty years of video to a digital format.
Some of these things may never get done. But the fact that they are on the list is a reminder that free time does not really exist.
And I haven’t even mentioned the important things like reading, praying, calling my mother, visiting my grandkids, serving someone in need, or going on a hike in the woods or to dinner with my wife.
“Wait a minute!” you say. “That all sounds like free time to me. You don’t have to do any of that!”
Sure, I can easily put off being with family. I don’t have to take that hike. I can put down my book. I can stop writing this blog. But if I cease too many reflective, creative or soul-nourishing activities, I can easily shrivel up into a lonely workaholic and die of recreation malnutrition. I could alienate my family. I could work my mind until it explodes. I can make anxiety my closest companion. How do I know? Because I have nearly done it.
One thing I’ve learned, and I’ve learned it only recently, is that as much as I’d like to think that I am Superman, I have to say “no” to some things—really cool things, really fun things, and sometimes really good and productive things. I’ve learned that time is finite, but the number of things that can fill that time is not.
Moments with family are moments I love, but to call them “free time” would imply that they’re not necessary. They are. The minutes we spend decompressing with non-income producing pursuits are not expendable. That time should be carefully scheduled as “keeping sanity” time. Without it I become nothing more than a machine, a non-human. That is valuable time; that is purposeful time. It may be “freeing,” but there is nothing “free” about it.
I like my friend, and chances are that I will eventually get around to doing what he wants me to do. But what he needs to recognize is that when each of us makes a decision to spend time on one thing, that activity takes time away from something else, possibly something with equal or greater value.
So I'm asking this of him and I'm asking it of you: please don’t suggest that your friends give you a few minutes of their "free time." Instead, just ask them if they would be willing to spend some of their precious time on whatever it is you think is important. And if it really is that important, if it is worth your time, then it just might be worth their time too.
© Nick Walker 2019
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