I started off the new year with more free time than I ever would have expected—I had five full weeks off of work due when the US government shutdown. The entire shutdown situation was angering, to say the least, but a weird outcome was that I was given an unexpected opportunity to decide how to spend my time.

I really love Laura Vanderkam’s investigations into how people use their time and how they can use it better. After reading her book 168 Hours, I spent more time thinking about what I do with my time and even tracked my time for a few weeks. In retrospect, I wish that I’d tracked my activities during my time away from work to have an objective view of what I really did. But I didn’t do that, and so my only data are from a series of 6 (!) to do lists that I made over the course of the shutdown.

The Situation

I couldn’t go to work, and I found myself in an interesting personal experiment: how will I spend my time if work isn’t an option?

I had three big constraints:

  • First, given that we didn’t know how long the shutdown would last, I couldn’t plan more than a few days in advance or travel far from home.
  • Second, I was furloughed and not receiving a paycheck, so I had to keep our spending to low to ensure our second income (which I’m so grateful for) would cover the bills.
  • A third factor, which perhaps wasn’t so much a constraint as just a fact of life, was that it was the middle of winter and I live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—gardening and many of my other favorite outdoor activities would not be an option.

What I Did With My Time

Did Errands I Never Get Around to Doing: I often find it impossible to accomplish the simplest tasks when I’m at work. My job is fun and uses a lot of brain power, which means that I often can’t even find the time to make a simple phone call to schedule an appointment during the work day. So I spent a fair amount of time doing things that I struggle to find time for: ordering fuel oil, changing our insurance, finally calling the tax assessor, ordering contacts, etc.

Tidied Up: I tidied up, although perhaps I missed out on an opportunity to use the Kon Mari method that is all the rage right now. I spent a lot of time cleaning and organizing our garage, which was a major goal I wanted to accomplish before spring. I was thrilled to find out that we didn’t have an unreasonable amount of stuff; our stuff was just a jumble that needed to be organized. I also sorted and consolidated my sentimental items into two smaller plastic bins and did some general cleaning.

Organized My Future Life: I also used the time to improve my systems for planning and staying organized. I did year-end activities like calculating our 2018 budget and (another goal for this year) carbon footprint. I made worksheets (yes, actual worksheets) for meal planning and printed copies of our personal household shopping list.

Cooked: I took on a greater share of house chores since I was at home during the day, which including cooking dinner nearly every night (usually we split). I avoided boredom by trying new recipes—finding something online that sounded good, and then often altering it to accommodate our eating style. This meant finding beef recipes that could be used with venison, and altering recipes to use maple syrup or honey since I quit sugar. I now have more than a half dozen new recipes and know how to make venison jerky!

Volunteered: January is always a bit of a busy time for volunteering, and I put even more time into in than before. Our local fishing derby was in mid-January and I spend all of a day helping with registration and raffle sales. I spent even more time volunteering for the Keweenaw Land Trust, including taking on a few tasks that the staff was happy to have some extra help on. Among the different outlets for my volunteer efforts, I was probably spending 10-20 hours a week on various tasks to give me a substitute for meaningful work and social engagement. Some days I kept so busy with volunteer work that it was almost the same was being at my job.

Outdoor Activity: I’m hoping to do a cross country ski race later this winter and so I spent a good amount of time out on the ski trails (or in the woods) building up my mileage. Although it is winter, the weather was really good for much of the time. I also went snowshoeing with a friend a few times to catch up with them on life and enjoyed the fluffy now and some really gorgeous scenery. And I went ice fishing one weekend and caught two fish, which was a lot of fun.

Blogging and Pet Projects: This is a weird category because I have several overlapping projects, and I spent more time on all of them. My first big campaign was to update several lecture for the Gardening for Cold Climates online course. After spending a bunch of time on that, I shifted gears to spending more time writing on this blog and on pitching writing ideas to some other sites. I started planning my new garden for 2019 and revising our forest management plan for Otter Point Woods. I think that the garden and forest planning will have a big payoff come March and April when we can start working on those projects.

Socialized: Being at home in winter can be pretty isolating, so I made a point to spend time with people. Often that meant going out for a snowshoe or ski, or enlisting some friends to get some productive volunteer work done over coffee and hot cocoa. It also included a few dinners with friends and an occasional lunch or happy hour meet-up. Some friends, knowing I was home, offered up an opportunity to spend a day with their eight-year-old when his school was closed, and we spent the day playing card games, skiing, and watching a movie.

Relaxed: I had more downtime to be mellow. I could read blog posts in the morning while drinking coffee (although more often I was pecking away at a volunteer project) and take a few minute break between shifting to a new project. Although I stayed busy throughout the day, I was admittedly less efficient with my time. I even found myself (a pretty punctual person) showing up 5-10 minutes late to things. I love to read, but I didn’t read any books until the last week.

What I Didn’t Do

Nap: I absolutely love to nap on weekends, and so I was surprised that I napped only on rare occasion. I also didn’t sleep in—most days I was up at the same time that I’d be up to go to work, give or take 20 minutes. This is pretty stunning given how much I love to sleep, but I suspect that our early winter bedtime meant that I was getting enough sleep.

Eat Breakfast: I’ve been tending toward eating brunch, not breakfast, on weekends over the past few years and it was interesting to see that I rarely ever ate before 10 am during the entire 5 weeks. I’d just wait until sometime between 10 and 12 when I got hungry and eat then—usually leftovers for lunch but sometimes eggs—and then eat a snack sometime in mid-afternoon. I wasn’t purposefully trying to eat late; it was just what came naturally. But if that’s the case, how come I’m always hungry at 8 or 9 am when I’m at work?

Watch TV: I had 25 days off of work, and I didn’t watch any TV during the day. We did some evening and weekend TV watching in early January (including binging the final two seasons of Parks and Recreation so we could finish the show and move on with our lives!), but were consistent with our low-level of TV watching. And although I spent more time on Facebook and checking the news, I avoided getting sucked in.

Paint: I think all of my co-workers had projects that involved painting or other home improvements. Not me. A few more days off might have led to a small bathroom painting project, but I’m happy to have dodged that task.

Lift weights:  I think I spent more time exercising that I would normally have, but probably not as much as I would have liked in retrospect. Even though I tell myself to do more strength training, I didn’t actually do any more than normal—despite the fact that I have a weight set in my house and so I didn’t have any legitimate reason to not do it. eyeroll

Fix My Mitten: My knit mitten had a stitch come loose while I was ice fishing, and I caught the dropped stitch with a snap-swivel to keep it from unraveling. Two weeks later, and I swapped out the snap-swivel for a safety pin. How did four weeks pass and I couldn’t fix my mitten? another eyeroll

What I Learned

Many folks who write about time productivity and personal performance suggest doing an activity where you write out your ideal day, Sometimes the recommendation is for an absolute ideal day in your dream world, and other times it’s a realistic ideal day given your current life. Either way, the idea is to get you thinking about how you’d really like to use your time.

I’ve both versions of the ideal day activity, and now see aspects of both reflected in how I actually spent my time. When I look back, I chose to spend the bulk of my time doing things that are similar to my day job—writing, teaching, planning events, and helping others in topics related to conservation and land management. This is reassuring because it means that I’m probably doing what I love. If I had spent the past 5 weeks researching the history of sailboats, painting with watercolors, or playing video games, I would wonder if my life was out of alignment. (Sometimes I did wonder if I was just lacking creativity in how to spend my time. I’d try to think of something else I’d rather do but never come up with anything.)

My pattern of work, however, was different. Often, I’d wake up, make coffee, and start working on a project right away. I’d work for a few hours until I reached a natural stopping point or had to begin getting ready for a noon meet-up. I focused early in the day, and then did easier tasks midday when my brainpower was lagging or went for a ski. Interestingly, this routine is really familiar to me even though I don’t use it at my job: it’s how I organized my days when I wrote my master’s thesis working from home. I also spent fewer hours on my volunteer work that I would at a full-time job and commuted less, both of which are also in my ideal week.

Lastly, I was surprised by the amount of time I spent being social. Don’t get me wrong, I spent a lot of time home alone and loved it. I think I would have spent more time alone in the past, but I really did make a point to reach out and spend time with a lot of different friends. I also wrote emails and letters (real letters and valentines!) to friends who live far away. It’s been illuminating to see how large and diverse of a community I have around me, for which I’m incredibly grateful.

2 thoughts on “What would you really do if you had more free time?

  1. You filled your days in ways that worked for you. And you did it intentionally, which is great. I predict you’re going to be a natural when it comes time for you to retire from your job, but not from life.


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