How to Make Your Free Time Count
Image courtesy of SpencerHanson

How to Make Your Free Time Count

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

The usual problem with time is not having enough of it. Between work, my own projects, home life, social life and various necessities, it feels as if I barely get to exercise my true passion of absolutely wasting my time. (This comedy sketch describes it perhaps a little too perfectly…) Joking aside, there’s lots of advice about how to best manage a lack of time.

Occasionally, though, we suffer the opposite problem: too much time on our hands. Usually, this is temporary—perhaps a summer break from university or a period between jobs. Sometimes the circumstances of life, including health and family situations, leave us with time to spare and no idea how to use it.

When we find ourselves with an unstructured block of time and, crucially, the freedom to use it how we choose…what should we do?

Start with the Obvious

Clearly, you can do whatever you want with your time. You can take it as an opportunity to be generative or to be relaxed + playful. You can be as disciplined or lax as you like. But in order to know what you want (and to avoid the painful ennui of watching the days drip by, with nothing engaging to do) it’s necessary to think through your options. Here are a few thoughts to get you started, along with my pick for myself if I were lucky enough to have this summer free:

1. Learn Something New

Gaining new skills and knowledge is an evergreen favorite for multipotentialites: languages, botany, musical instruments, crafts, philosophy, dance… Or perhaps you’ve always enjoyed ancient mythology? Now is the time to pile up a stack of books and get reading.

Whatever you’re dying to learn, if you put your mind to it, you could get 80% of the way there pretty fast.

Maybe I would: Take up the accordion. (Yes, really!)

2. Get Creative

Make something—anything, really! Sometimes we don’t bother starting a project because we imagine the best possible version of it, and realize we’ll never get there.

Focus on what you can create during the time you have, and remember that the creative process is also its own end.

You might not have time for a novel, but what about a novella? Or a short story? It’s unlikely you’ll make a sculpted replica of Michelangelo’s David, but maybe you can take up pottery and make a new dinner set.

Maybe I would: Decorate my office; research some creative wall-painting and give it a go. (With the phone number of a professional painter on hand, just in case…)

3. Volunteer in Your Community

Right now, you’re not too busy to give back. Local organizations are always desperate for help. If you find yourself surprisingly time-rich, consider donating some of that time.

Volunteering can be a great way to learn new skills, build connections and get out of your own head. Come up with a cause you’re passionate about and see who in your area is doing great work on the topic.

Maybe I would: Help out at a local food bank.

4. Improve Yourself

A gap in activities is a great excuse to change your routine. We are defined by our habits, which are tricky to alter once they get ingrained. This block of empty time could be the key to trying something new.

Try picking just one new habit—daily meditation, exercise, journaling, cutting out sugar, yoga…whatever you’ve been thinking about adding or subtracting from your life but haven’t gotten around to.

Tell yourself it’s ‘just for the summer’ (or for a few weeks). This makes it much easier to start. And to continue… Before you know it, you’ll have a healthy new habit to take into your next chapter.

Maybe I would: Last summer, I did exactly this with daily workouts. I’d definitely benefit from reviving this old habit.

5. Connect + Reconnect

When we’re busy, our relationships are often the first thing to suffer. Seize this opportunity to consciously invest in friends, family, lapsed friendships or meeting new people.

Maybe I would: Sign up for a bunch of meetups and classes. Hopefully, without totally overdoing it… :)

6. Do Absolutely Nothing!

Doing nothing is a legitimate choice. As long as we’re genuinely choosing to do nothing, and not just lazily drifting into it. It’s worthwhile taking time to just be, to exist without pressure, and to enjoy our family,  friends or own company. Even being bored can be a good thing, if we use it right!

Maybe I would: I struggle with doing nothing. Even a day is difficult—a whole summer sounds terrifying! Maybe I’d schedule a day per week, specifically for rest and recharge.

Intention is Key

Of course, these ideas are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. You probably have dozens more.

The only truly important consideration is to reflect and act with intention. What results would you like to see when this block of time is over? How do you get from where you are now to those results? And how can you have fun along the way?

And remember: you may be very lucky to have this big block of free time, but that doesn’t mean you need to pressure yourself. If at the end of it you haven’t written the Next Great Novel, or transformed yourself, or climbed Everest…that’s fine too. Just as long as you can look back and be sure that you chose what you wanted to do, and that you tried your best to do it.

Have fun!!

Your Turn

What would you do with a block of unstructured time? Any ideas you could share with your fellow multipods? Let the community know in the comments!

Image credits: 1. spoilt.exile, 3. Maryland GovPics, 6. Stuart

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Maryske says:

    A more detailed reply later, since I’m supposed to be working, but after reading this, I went off to the Swedish equivalent of ebay to look if there were any second hand flutes available (the ones that play to the side) – another old musical dream after last year’s violin ;-) So who knows – summer vacation here starts next week!

  2. Jin says:

    The problem I had in the past is to do with procrastination – just sitting there and dong nothing! And I am still suffering from this problem to some degree. I am actually now looking at ways to improve time management so I can actually put free time to use.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Procrastination and time management is a HUGE issue, which (ironically) I keep meaning to write about! Good luck in sorting out your time :)

  3. So true about doing nothing, as long as that’s what you’ve chosen. I really struggle with free time & how to fill it, usually because I can’t decide what I really want to do & have this anxiety around making sure I choose the best thing. As a result I often end up doing nothing, but not out of choice & then get stressed about how I’ve done nothing. If I just chose to do nothing in the first place it’d be much better!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely! It’s a totally legitimate choice, but if we’re going to do it, we might as well let ourselves enjoy it :)

  4. Tricia Ballad says:

    This is exactly my struggle – when my to-do list is overflowing and deadlines are looming, it’s shocking how much I can get done in one day. But give me a day where I probably ought to work on X and should do Y, and chances are nothing at all will actually happen…until X and Y are beyond critical. Working on that…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ah, that’s me too! I’m getting better at it, and someday I hope to have a proper strategy – when I do I’ll definitely share it here :)

  5. Julie says:

    I usually structure my unstructured time! There are things I have to get done and fun things I want to do, so I set a timer and bounce back and forth. At the end of the day, I feel great for having accomplished things (the dishes and laundry are done!), and wonderful because I also enjoyed myself (I crocheted a new hat while watching Poirot!).

  6. Helen says:

    I find that if I have a whole day of unstructured time I loose half the day just thinking about what I could be doing. If on the other hand I have lets say 4 hours only, then I can accomplish a lot more. So I guess I do much better and feel much more satisfied with shorter amounts of free unstructured time.
    I also think if you find yourself with weeks of free time that planning something, even something you are kinda hesitant about doing, is so much better than doing nothing.
    Retirement is going to be tough!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Definitely agree – a long period of free time is worth planning something in. Though depending on circumstances maybe a few weeks to decompress is what we need. It’s all about what’s best for our unique circumstances – the main thing is to engage with them and choose for ourselves I think!

  7. Gabi says:

    Someday I will have unstructured time … Retirement? I always prioritize my projects for off time, so there is usually a list waiting.

  8. Marie says:

    “Sometimes we don’t bother starting a project because we imagine the best possible version of it, and realize we’ll never get there.”

    All. The. Damn. Time.

    This post and list was helpful, thank you for sharing!!!

  9. Christi says:

    Thanks for the post and all the insightful comments. I have been out of work this past month. The first time in 21 years! I have a wonderful sense of freedom and a big sense of opportunity to reinvent myself. Some days I am balancing art, cleaning my closet, playing cards with housemates, and searching for a new job like a master acrobat. Other days I am clueless about how to spend my time and worrried about being a single mom with very little income. These suggestions comfirm I am not alone and I am looking forward to writing my to do list for today. Thanks!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow, Christi! You’re definitely not alone with this – I think time management is a huge struggle for everyone, especially big blocks of time like we’re discussing here. Sounds like you’re doing well in filling it – and don’t feel too guilty about those days when less gets done. Keep pushing, and I hope you find the next thing very soon :)

  10. Gibby says:

    This is just what I needed.

  11. Yes, totally agree with all these ideas. Even if I won the lottery or inherited a massive fortune from my long, lost, rich uncle (still waiting on that boat to come in), I’d still need to pursue something with my time. Doesn’t have to be pressured: even lying in a hammock once in a while will do, but honestly, I think I’d love to go back to school or work on creative project and/or hobbies. I think society somehow makes us feel internally guilty for having free time or not being busy, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things though!

  12. Tara says:

    I enjoyed seeing that I had achieved all of these even though it took me a few years to get there and figure it out. better late than never.
    It’s always nice to see that other people too have a hard time with managing their free time.
    Thank you for the article :) and happy writing!

  13. Em Bouchard says:

    That sketch just gave me an existential crisis! :P

  14. Liz says:

    Recently I deliberately quit my stressful corporate job after realizing I have been working for 40 years – and decided to take a year off before figuring out a better avenue to support myself.
    Finding the Puttylike website and this inspiring article are a direct result of how thus far I spend some of my free time ‘wandering’. To add a bit of structure, necessary to avoid flailing about mindlessly, I also have planned for several mini creative projects (nothing daunting, but something I can pick up and do at any time) and have at least one practical goal a day, which might be as basic as grocery shopping or paying bills.
    I’m a month into my sabbatical, so I hope I can keep some momentum going. It takes work, though!

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