The rise of scheduling free time

People are attempting to optimise their days by scheduling in free time. But with time limits and cancellations, free time becomes a task to be achieved – and then is it really free?

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At the start of the year, Leandra Medine, founder of the feminist lifestyle site Man Repellerwrote a piece about the virtues of scheduling free time. She explained that she books leisure into her calendar, as one would an appointment, and sees it as part of her “to-do list” for each day. “I know I like to eat dinner at 5.30pm… and that my kids are awake from 5pm to 7pm,” she wrote, “so by blocking off those two hours every day and reallocating the time lost at work to another couple of hours, I get to feel like I am having my cake, I mean dinner, and eating it too.”

The comments under the piece were riddled with gratitude. “Thank you times one million!”, “Relief wash over me when I read your post”, and “I’ve been using [this technique]... I love it!” were just a few of the comments conveying the message: “never not in need of more structure and time!” All of these readers felt bereft of their free time and were desperate for a technique to claim some of it back, believing that scheduling it might be a potential fix. 

Optimisation – of our bodies, lifestyles and time – has become an unavoidable trend; people searching for the perfect formula to make their lives successful, and more productive and efficient. “In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money,” writes Jenny Odell in her book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, “there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.”

To combat the inevitability of busyness, people are increasingly scheduling in their free time – reserving it in their calendars the way you would a doctor’s appointment or a lunch date. From full-time mothers to photographers to journalists to carpenters, it’s become a popular way to scrape back some dregs of leisure time. But, while many find scheduling free time a liberating godsend, others find that it simply becomes yet another stress-inducing practice.

“I was working ALL THE TIME,” says Lyndsey, a 35-year-old academic at Columbia University. After a year of working across three faculties and barely functioning by the end of the week, she felt she had to do something to reclaim some downtime. “Now I block out a three- to four-hour window in iCal, in purple, which I have depressingly coded as ‘life’. It’s great to know there’s some time in my week when I don’t know what I’ll be doing.”

Briony, a digital marketer in Glasgow, also has “life” marked out from the rest of her, well, life. “I have all my different projects colour coded – meetings in blue, personal commitments in purple and ‘life’ in green,” she says. “It means I can easily see what’s taking up my time that week and adjust accordingly.”

“I like to think even if it wasn't physically blocked out I would be okay,” says Jasmin, an e-commerce editor. “Having said that, I don't plan on stopping.”

Many people I spoke to felt forced to schedule free time after severe mental-health problems, panic attacks, anxiety and depression; unable to guarantee the mental space to wind-down, scheduling in free time was the only work around.  But even if they believed that scheduling free time was, in some cases, a lifesaver, people also felt frustrated that their lives had demanded such radical action. “It kind of depresses me”, “I shouldn’t have to schedule free time”, and “it feels weird having to set boundaries on my time” were common responses to adopting this method. “I feel like a total self-indulgent weirdo scheduling free time,” Harriet, a 27-year-old freelance journalist, says, “like I’m trying to be one of those Silicon Valley lunatics.”

Peter Totterdell, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield specialising in emotional labour and wellbeing at work, argues that scheduling free-time can be useful or detrimental depending on how its scheduler schedules it. 

“There is a separate network in the brain that is active when people are having seemingly idle thoughts, such as daydreaming or imagining things, [compared to when working],” Peter says. “It turns out that this network can have benefits for people's well-being, relationships and creativity… Scheduling ‘free time’ in a calendar might give this default network an opportunity to function, but equally it may turn free time into a task to be achieved – which would defeat its purpose.”

And this is a major problem for many free time schedulers – free time becomes another thing to be optimised. Of the people I spoke to, over half extolled the virtues of spending free time on things like yoga and meditation while criticising pastimes like watching TV.

When people told me how much time they scheduled in, it was rarely more than a couple of hours. But Peter says that to have a positive effect, scheduled free time often needs to be much longer. “People are more likely to spend an initial period of time off doing tasks, such as catching up with chores and social media,” he says. “Longer periods of time off means that free thought can occur more spontaneously.” A full day off from work, Peter argues, might not even be enough. 

However, regardless of how painstakingly they’d scheduled it, almost everyone I spoke to said that they regularly cancelled their free time appointment. Whether it was for social plans, life admin, or, most commonly, to do more work, free time was always the first thing to get chucked. One person even described free time as “breathing room” in their calendar – an empty space within which to potentially schedule more stuff.  All but two people told me they were struggling to not cancel it weekly.

One person did tell me that he had to quit scheduling free time altogether. “Making sure I had cleared outstanding work so I could have my free time… led to longer hours so I could have an afternoon off,” he says. “I became stressed worrying about missing stuff I had planned to do… Now when I work I just have daily cut off times or limit my hours, so free-time happens without much planning or scheduling.”

In New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror, she writes about “organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and often indefensible”, giving the false impression of being “legitimately carefree”. Scheduling free time may give the impression of a perfectly optimised lifestyle – even for those who love it and never find themselves cancelling that time. But when our free time becomes a commodity—one that can be “'done right', moved, or cancelled”—it’s hard to see how the practice really makes us free.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain