A post on “free time”?  “What free time?!?” I suspect you are asking.  And truly, I hear you.  I don’t feel as though I have much (any?) so-called “free time,” either.

But because it seems so rare, free time is a topic I believe we should consider.  Today, I’m excited to share some tips from passion and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam and fitness expert John Fawkeson how to assert freedom (control!) over your free time.

To start, here are two arguments for spare time that appeal to different sides of our brains.

The Quantitative Argument: Time is fixed and finite . . . but we have more than we think.

Laura Vanderkam explains that there are 168 hours in a week. Assume that you work 60 hours a week, as follows 12 hours every weekday or 8 hours every weekday plus 20 hours divided between nights and weekends.  You get the basic idea. I hope (though I recognize it is highly unlikely) that you sleep for 8 hours a night.

That still leaves 52 hours for you to divide between things that you must do and things that you want to do. The number of hours doesn’t change – but you have more slices left over than may you think.

The Qualitative Argument: Time is finite . . . but malleable.

Imagine time as a balloon that represents one week. The amount of rubber in the balloon doesn’t change – but the density of what it is filled with can.

In other words, time is highly elastic. Consider the fact that we can always find time for an unforeseen emergency such as a sick child or broken water heater, even during our busiest days. We cannot make more time, but the time we have can stretch to accommodate our priorities.

So, we have more – and better quality – free time than we think.  But what are we doing with it?

For the most part, many of us are wasting this precious commodity. Instead of proactively carving out time for things we want to do, we build narratives around what we believe we must do and the limited time we believe that we have.

We engage in passive activities (watching TV, browsing social media), because we are exhausted and don’t have energy to devote to what matters most to us. And the cycle continues. But the good news is that we CAN do things differently – and even a few small changes can make a significant impact.

I really like Laura Vanderkam’s quotation: “We don’t build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.”

In her TEDWomen 2016 talk, How to Gain Control of Your Free Time, Vanderkam emphasizes the importance of identifying what is most important to you and changing your perspective on time. She recommends spending a few moments on Friday afternoons (or other “low opportunity cost” times) to identify 2-3 priorities for the coming week in each of three areas: career, relationships, and self.

Adding YOUR priorities to your calendar – even if some need to be broken down into smaller activities over time – is a fundamental way to take back control of your free time.

If It’s Not *Time* Preventing You From Doing What You Want, What Is It?

Vanderkam also shares some additional tips for leading a more productive and healthy life in this blog post. One of her observations is something I also frequently hear from women lawyers: “When I ask people what they’d like to spend more time doing, the most popular answers are exercising and reading.” We’ve just discovered that time isn’t what’s keeping us from doing these things – so what is?

The conundrum of finding time to exercise perfectly summarizes the additional roles that energy and motivation play in having a sense of control over our free time. We know that even 20 minutes of exercise a day is good for us.  That it will increase our energy levels.  And that it improves the quality of our remaining free time.

But for many of us, it can be very hard to make this choice to exercise. For some, going to the gym may be second nature, but other activities, such as arranging social engagements (e.g., dinner with friends), may elicit similar difficulties.  Those of us who have trouble reaching out know we will enjoy the time we spend with others and that it will be good for our emotional well being, but we find it hard to send that email or pick up the phone.

We all have one or more of these things where we tell ourselves and others that we don’t have the time – but the truth is that we simply lack energy and motivation.

While thinking about this subject, I came across an article by John Fawkes, 20 Ways to Take Control of Your Life that I found thought provoking. Not all of the recommendations in Fawkes’s post are relevant to our lives (it may have been written for a younger audience.) But it is an interesting and broad take on this subject that made me think about how many elements come into play when we contend with control.

Here’s an example. Fawkes notes: “Most people could benefit from [losing some fat or gaining some muscle] health-wise. But there’s an equally important psychological reason to [do so] even if you’re already at a healthy weight: to prove to yourself that you can. If you’ve never intentionally gained or lost weight before, doing so once in your life will give you an incredible sense of mastery over your own body.” While I don’t fully subscribe to this idea, it made me think a lot about the connection between mind, body and motivation when it comes to control. And what we can do about it.

So here is my challenge to you this week.


  • Observe when you say (to yourself or others) that you don’t have time to do something.

    You may be astounded how frequently this comes up. Note when, where, and how often this happens.  See if there are any patterns. Are they things you want to do but don’t have sufficient energy to try? Are they things that just aren’t priorities for you but keep popping up as “musts?”

  • Identify one thing that you’ve always wanted to do, but set aside due to a “lack of time.”

    It can be relatively small.  Perhaps, “read a book.”  Or relatively big.  Maybe “run a half marathon,” or “take a trip to Tuscany.”

    Consider what needs to shift (in work and your personal life) to make these things possible. Break the activity down into manageable steps – and make it happen.

  • Identify two “control” habits – a start and a stop – that you would like to work on.

    Is there a time or energy-sucking habit you would like to stop or reduce?  Perhaps watching less TV, no social media on weeknights, etc.? Is there a physical or mental health habit you would like to work on?  Maybe go to the gym twice a week, drink no more than one cup of coffee a day, meet up with a friend once a week, etc.?

Personally, I have found more energy and greater contentment by simply deleting most of the news that I was watching and reading and substituting mediation and yoga in that time slot.

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