Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Managing your free time

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade
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Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

It's almost the end of summer and you may be bemoaning the fact that you just did not have enough free time.

The short vacation you took was good, but a longer one would have been even better.

Here's a possible surprise: scientists have discovered that by themselves, longer vacations don't make a difference. Rather than the number of days, what has an impact is how well we manage our free time.

Researcher Wei-Ching Wang and his team at the I-Shou University in Taiwan recently completed two studies, one of college undergraduates and the other of retirees. The findings were quite similar - "free time management" has a direct bearing on "quality of life", but the quantity of this time does not.

In Wang's work, free time refers to those periods when "people are under no obligation and can decide for themselves what to do".

Most of us use this time informally, either for leisure, to relax or to achieve a sense of balance. When we receive too little of it, we get stressed, causing us to find ways to get more of it.

These academics discovered that most professionals don't use their free time constructively, preferring to avoid making plans. In fact, some actively resist the notion of explicitly planning non-work time; they see planning as a work activity that belongs only on the job.

Anyone who has been to Disney World in Orlando may know differently. Families who don't plan their visit to the theme park end up in long lines during the hottest parts of the day. As a result, instead of leaving relaxed, they vow to never, ever return.

Little do they know there exist entire books written on how to manage one's trip to Disney World. I can share from firsthand experience that they are absolutely indispensable.

This backs up the research. Having no plans for free time can cause big problems ranging from boredom to poor health to increased time pressure.

It flies in the face of a myth that free time should consist of spontaneous activities that are automatically fulfilling simple because it's time that's not being spent working. According to Wang and his team, we have it all wrong.

While there are numerous studies revealing that carefully managing our time on the job improves the "quality of work" we do, the fact is only a small portion of each month is devoted to work. When we retire, the balance shifts even further.

How we spend the rest of our time has an impact on how we cope with stress and deal with the negative effects on our physical and mental health.

Our lack of skill in this area may be the reason why there's time-use research proving that modern employees have more free time than ever before, but also greater feelings of time pressure. We are like athletes who never spend time recovering - we are always sprinting.

In his publication, Wang shares a prior study showing that students trained to plan their use of free time were better able to turn boring situations into something interesting. As a result, with better planning, they could avoid DisneyWorld's queues and focus on enjoying other activities at the park. Also, they would be more likely to minimise 'screen time', reducing the negative impact that viewing TV, playing games or browsing the internet has on our social lives as well as our health.

How can we use these and other scientific findings?

1. Employ a 168-hour Per Week Schedule:

Many professionals see their calendar as a tool for only managing appointments. Recent research reveals that this may be a mistake.

Instead, free up your schedule from its historical, and artificial, 40-hour constraint and convert it to a tool for total life management.

In his books, Neal Fiore advocates the idea of an 'un-schedule', where you start by setting time aside for sleep, leisure, meals and family before entering a single work activity. This makes sense when compared with the recommendation from my column on April 27, 2014 that married couples should find a way to share at least 15 hours per week alone together in order to keep the relationship alive.

2. Don't Leave Leisure Time to Chance:

To reiterate the findings of the Taiwanese team, learn the habit of planning your free time.

Rather than fear a loss of spontaneity, appreciate the fact that your plans can be changed at any point to suit your need for an escape to, say, Hellshire Beach.

3. Focus on Developing Your Skills:

It's ironic that the better your productivity skills, the more you can enjoy your retirement. This implies that your capabilities in this area, once developed, can benefit you for a lifetime.

While you may develop them with work in mind, the studies indicate that far more is at stake.

There's just no escaping the requirement to manage your time well. It's not a burden. Instead, Wang and company have found that it's the key to maintaining your quality of life.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.