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Why We Suck at Using Our Spare Time Well

And how to make good use of feeling at ‘loose ends’

I’m an anxious person, and as a result, I feel the need to be doing something every second of the day. Unexpected stretches of spare time (like when a so-called friend, ahem, is running an entire hour late) are, therefore, my worst nightmare: I impatiently pace the room, aimlessly scroll through Instagram and desperately (usually unsuccessfully) attempt to make good use of these spontaneous 30-minute breaks.

But psychologically speaking, why do I find it so difficult to take advantage of free time, even if that means simply taking a moment to relax? Psychologist Aida Vazin, who specializes in stress management, has a few theories:

  1. My expectations are too high. “Having a bit of extra time here and there doesn’t lead to productivity, because it’s not in your mental model of the day,” Vazin explains. “This may indicate that you have a need for extra (or even excessive) order, leading to rigidity, which isn’t a very healthy approach, as life requires flexibility.” In other words, I need to chill a bit. *hits vape*
  2. I have anxiety (duh). “You may feel a need to fill in bits of spare time, but only big projects or activities come to mind,” Vazin says. “This tends to come from a black-and-white (all-or-nothing) approach to life.” Psychologists call this type of extreme thinking “splitting” — it’s a common characteristic of people with anxiety disorders, who are less likely to view life as various shades of grey, fixating instead on extreme possibilities.
  3. I’m too busy. “For those of us who simply put too much on our plates, these little bits of spare time are more of a salvation from our excessive responsibilities and constant sense of being in overdrive,” Vazin suggests. At least, these free moments should feel like useful moments to recharge, but when you’re worrying about the many things that need to get done, they often feel more like a reminder that you should be hard at work.

So, now I know why free time turns my anxiety up to 11. But how can I fix it? Vazin first recommends simply changing the way I view free time. “It would be great to see that spare time as a useful moment to recharge yourself and view that downtime as part of your productive day,” she explains.

But, like, I just said I can’t do that, which is my entire problem. Fortunately, Vazin has fix: “One of the simplest approaches is to section off projects into pieces,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What part of this activity can I complete in a one-hour span?’ Then, make sure to set up a reward for yourself. For example: ‘If I finish this part of my task, then I get to go have lunch, or eat my snack.’ Finally, set up an accountability system, such as, ‘I will not be able to eat until this part is finished.’”

Using this system, spare time is actually built into your schedule — and even if it’s unexpected, it will be easier to accept as a useful moment to recharge, since you know that you’re using the rest of your day well.

So now that I’m done writing this article, I guess I can go get my lunch.