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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Ain't Nothin' Wrong With a Little Free Time

Since my days are set to the sleeping patterns of a toddler and the biorhythms of a dog, I have to squeeze my "work," i.e. writing, interviews, blogging, etc, into naptime and the few hours after the boy goes to bed and before I collapse. I'm pretty good about getting the important, bill-paying stuff done, but unfortunately that means what suffers is Me Time, things like reading books or watching a ballgame on TV without a computer in my lap. When I just spent most of my day stressing out about what I wasn't getting done because I was at the playground or reading Richard Scarry books 49 consecutive times, I can't very well justify not doing my stuff when I'm back home and books are put away.

One day this week, the boy was at Grandma's for the day, so I lined up a ton of things to knock out. Most of my afternoon was going to be spent dealing with some carpenters installing a cabinet in our house, so I also knew I had to get busy in the morning. As any time-constrained person knows, feeling squeezed is the best way to make yourself efficient, and I finished everything I needed to by lunch. Then, lo and behold, the furniture guys called and said they couldn't make it, so I was faced with a free afternoon.

Now, I could have looked at the remaining items on my to-do list and just kept on truckin'. But, nothing else on my list was all that urgent, and I really wanted to dig into that book sitting on my nightstand, the one taunting me every night when I conked out without turning page. So that's what I did. I took advantage of four quiet, uninterrupted hours in my house, and read a book. And when my son came home that evening, I enjoyed my time with him that much more because I wasn't feeling ragged and worn out from working nonstop all day.

"Caring for our stressed out lumps of grey matter by indulging in personal pleasures every once in a while isn't a bad thing."

This is a trick I learned from Neil Fiore's The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. That bit of the subtitle about "guilt-free" play means that we have to recognize how important our Me Time is, that caring for our stressed out lumps of grey matter by indulging in personal pleasures every once in a while isn't a bad thing, and that we should actually plan for it.

I had been feeling stressed out this week, which is why I felt like I needed to accomplish so much that day. But when I was faced with that unexpected block of free time, I looked at what I had left on my plate and realized I was on top of it. What was really bothering me was how that book was going unread. Even though I routinely list reading as one of my top priorities, I wasn't doing it, and after I finally put a good-sized dent in it, I felt 100% better.

Of course, the next day, 892 screaming, blinking, high-priority things hit my inbox, and for a half-second I felt like I could use that four hours back. But I knew I couldn't. More importantly, I reminded myself that I wouldn't have wanted to spend that time differently anyway.

TommyW's picture


One thing I've found useful is to divide my days up into two. It's not quite reading a novel but it's nourishing in that quest for Me Time.

Each morning I do Core / Gotta Do It / No Messing stuff.

Each afternoon it's Electives.

Kind of like a college structure. Stuff I Gotta, and then Stuff I Choose.

Even perceiving it as a choice makes it entirely different.

For one, I'm faster in the mornings at clearing the stuff that needs doing. Getting quicker at it is part of the ole' GTD philosophy after all.

Sure Stuff I choose is whole aspects of my current work and I'm lucky in that my work permits that. And I can always choose to put out a bunch of fires in my email inbox.

One thing Covey had going for him was identifying your roles in the world, beyond work to community and family commitments. This permits me some space in the week to flesh those out too.

The College aspect only occured to me later as I watched my son choose his college courses. What I remembered was that excitement of checking something out, of furthering yourself within it. Those Electives can be personal, I want to do more photography. But they can also be work related, I want to research business opportunities in the Spring.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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