On Learning to Accept the Gift of Free Time

lake hope family free time
“I always talk about the flexibility of our schedules, but when do I ever take advantage of that?”

I said that to my wife while I had my jeans rolled up, my feet dipped in a shallows of a lake, and our son chirping joyfully as he dug at the sand and splashed it into the water with his shovel.

It was the last warm day for a few weeks, perhaps for the entire fall and certainly the last time the nighttime temperature would be warm enough to sleep outside.

It was also a Tuesday.

My wife is a graduate student and I work as a freelance writer. We split up the childcare with our two kids, and we try to keep our schedules flexible when she’s not teaching a class. This set up means I get to spend more time with the kids, but my income can also be uncertain from month to month.

I often tell people that being a writer means I get to be really flexible and get to spend more time with the kids even if the income isn’t amazing. And then last Monday we realized that the temperature would drop after Wednesday and it would most likely rain over the weekend. So we debated whether we should go camping on Tuesday evening and spend part of Wednesday at a lake.

I wondered for about an hour if I really should jump on the opportunity.

By the time we stood on the shore of Lake Hope the next day, I was disappointed in myself. Why had I even debated this? True I had to work late on Monday and then had to hustle a bit on Wednesday afternoon to keep on pace for one deadline. But I HAD the flexibility to make a 24-hour camping getaway happen when the weather was most conducive.

Our toddler especially loved sleeping in the tent. I mean, what’s better than shining a flashlight all over a tent and occasionally blinding your father with its beam? And what could be better than having free reign of a beach and lake with a bucket full of digging toys?

This little camping trip was supposed to be the precise kind of benefit to my uncertain freelance career!

Sometimes I’m so focused on my work and my career that I forget about the trade off I’ve made. I try to keep pushing, and I fail to rest, take breaks, or receive the gift of free time. I start to measure my success in terms of my bank account even though I’ve tried to make a flexible schedule a priority for my family.

I’ve tried to give myself the gift of free time. Unfortunately I’ve been so focused on my work that I’ve failed to take it.

How many gifts are right in front of us for the taking?

What keeps us from receiving what is already ours?

 

3 Reasons We Neglect Personal Maintenance

spiritual-maintenance-relationships

 

Without maintenance a home, bike, or car can be damaged, slowed down, or completely disabled.

While we can see the ways that objects need maintenance, it’s easy to forget that we need “maintenance” for ourselves, our relationships, and our work. It’s tempting to rush from one thing to another without reflecting on how we’re doing, where we’re going, and if we even want to go to there. A little bit of maintenance time helps us take stock of these things so that we can live a bit more intentionally and healthily.

Maintenance could be reading a book, having a conversation, relaxing on the porch with a drink, taking a quiet walk, praying, or journaling. Different practices will come in handy for various seasons of our lives, but we never lose the constant need for reflection and adjustments.

There are three main big reasons why we neglect maintenance time and risk breaking down personally/spiritually, relationally, and professionally:

 

The Pride of Being Busy

Stopping feels wrong, especially when we see ourselves as critical to our own success. In addition, we’re surrounded by people who are busy as well. Rest isn’t exactly a cultural priority, and we can easily turn that into our baseline expectation for life—assuming that not being busy is a problem.

We tell ourselves that we’ll run out of money, the household will fall apart, or we’ll fall too far behind if we stop to take stock of ourselves and make some adjustments. It’s all up to us, and that breeds a frantic lifestyle that fails to live by faith, fails to value Sabbath, and feeds anxiety.

Take a social media break. Take some time off from work or household chores—even 30 straight minutes will help. Just stop long enough to see that the world won’t fall apart if you stop.

 

We Forget What Stillness Feels Like

I used to listen to the news in the car, play podcasts while walking and doing the dishes, and browse the Internet while sitting in the living room. I didn’t have much time left to pray, talk to others, think, or read books.

The constant consumption of information and need for stimulation becomes an addiction. It used to be really, really hard for me to take a walk without a podcast or music on. I used to crave the news while taking even the shortest car trip.

Thankfully, we can train ourselves to value stillness and quiet. When I take a quiet walk these days, my worries have time to bubble to the surface so that I can think them over and pray about them. Some of my best writing ideas have surfaced during quiet walks—even when I’m interrupted by a toddler begging to stop and look at the waterfall.

 

We Fail to Understand Diminishing Returns

Four years ago I read a book by an entrepreneur who said that we should work 12 hours or more each day to make a big project happen. There are tons of hours in a day, right? You can sacrifice sleep, food, relationships, and exercise for the sake of sake of a big project, right?

Well, I tried it. Perhaps some people can do that to launch a business, but creative people can’t. We only have so many words, so much energy, and so many hours in a day. That season of pushing harder and harder brought few serious returns for my effort because I was exhausted, stressed, and had neglected personal and professional development.

I had tried to work 10-12 hour days and completely wore myself out. I’m better at recognizing this exhaustion now. I rarely try to work on anything in the evening because I’m too tired and tapped out to be effective.

If there’s a pressing deadline, I’m always better off going to bed on the earlier end and trying to wake up earlier. Or, more realistically, I just call it a day and begin my next work day as usual, recognizing that I can’t push forever.

We have limits. Pushing for a short time may help launch a project or wrap up something with a tight deadline, but our work, personal lives, and spiritual lives will suffer if we keep pushing.

 * * *

We’ve been in a season of maintenance after a busy series of months with travel, childbirth, and book projects. I feel like we’re still recovering and trying to carve out more space for family and for ourselves.

I’m trying to faithfully read some books and blogs that will help me take my next steps in my writing career. I’m trying to savor my walks with the kids and any moments we can quietly play in the living room or we can all sit on the porch as a family and hang out. That’s maintenance for me right now.

 

Where are you at with the idea of maintenance?

Do you feel like you need a bit of maintenance time in a particular area of your life?

What would a bit of maintenance look like for you right now?

 

Need a bit of inspiration for your next creative project?

Check out my eBook Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity.

creating-space-angled-250

Is Doing What You Love Just a Trap to Work More?

The job you love is a trap?If working long hours for the rest of your life is inevitable, why not work long hours doing what you love?

I’m curious if that statement is behind much of our thinking about work and “doing what you love” today.

In American society, it’s expected that we’ll work long hours, take few vacations, and fill our limited leisure time with a good dose of television and family activities. There really isn’t too much free time left if you’re playing to win.

So those who “play to win” have developed a strategy in order to avoid going insane like those guys in Office Space. The play to win experts have herded us hard-working Americans to the promised land of “doing what you love.” It’s become a cottage industry of sorts with learning communities, conferences, books, blogs, and podcasts.

The key to doing what you love is actually working MORE at first to develop that side business. You have to work two jobs and then, as the job “you love” gets more profitable, you can ditch the job you hate and just do what you love.

It’s hard, but it has to be more fulfilling, right?

But here’s the thing, this solution doesn’t necessarily solve our problems. We have this huge carrot in front of us promising that we’ll be happy if we could just spend our many, many working hours doing the thing we love. What if happiness is found in working less or finding fulfillment outside our jobs?

What if “doing what you love” just confirms work and business success have become an idol?

And even if you end up doing what you love, you may end up hating it if you have to do it all day, every day. In fact, you may discover that you really hate certain parts of it, and that could make you even more miserable because you thought you loved this thing. Now the thing you love has become tainted and you just feel trapped.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the things that we love. Heck, if you can find a job that jives with you, dive in.

I’m more concerned that we are “treating” our discontent with the wrong medicine. What if we’re miserable at work because we’re investing too much of our time and energy into it?

What if most of us just need to let our jobs be our jobs and find a way to make them sustainable? And even if we do strive to create a job we love, that doesn’t give us carte blanche to revolve our lives around it.

I’m wondering this week if it’s better to ask, “What can I do?” and “How can I best honor God and my family by making that a piece of who I am?”

I’ve never really bought into the “do what you love” mantra because I’ve honestly spent most of my time searching for the areas where I’m at least competent. Never mind whether or not I “love” my work. I’ve just been trying to find work that I can do. Being an aimless failure has its advantages… maybe?

I started writing because I loved it, but the writing work I do to bring in money is based far more on necessity than love. And I’m perfectly OK with that. I wouldn’t complain if my books suddenly took off and I could write them full time. However, even in book publishing, my career of choice, there are some really unsavory parts.

Even the jobs we love have things we hate.

Sometimes we can’t be picky. I’ve had really bad jobs and really great jobs. The freelance writing I do now is the kind of job that A. I can do and B. Fits our vision for our family. I do writing that I love, and I do writing that I don’t love. The former does very little to pay the bills, and the latter does just enough to make ends meet.

I struggle to balance the call to seek God’s Kingdom first and the necessity of making money. While it’s possible that I could serve God “better” by writing inspiring and instructive books all day, it’s not impossible to serve God while writing clear website copy.

My goal isn’t necessarily to find the job I want because I can serve myself or serve God whether or not I love my work.

Loving a job can be a great thing, but it can also be the quickest path to despair and misery when our job fails to deliver what we need the most.

The Benefits of a Limited Social Media Fast

During the 40 days of Lent, I decided to fast from social media in a limited sort of way. While I know it’s probably more common to quit these things cold turkey, I didn’t think that 40 days separated from social media would actually provide the benefits I needed for the long term.

The Problem

I was using Twitter and Facebook as sources of constant distraction from my work, family, and spiritual life. I wanted to use social media as a tool to communicate with potential readers, to network with fellow writers, and to keep in touch with friends. Instead I checked them both an unseemly number of times in search of links, conversations, or anything that I could read.

I responded to any mention or post immediately. Links to interesting posts were pursued, and I left comments without thinking about the time they consumed.

Any time I hit a tough spot in my writing, I’d drop by Twitter or Facebook.

I needed to break my dependency on these tools, while learning how to use them in healthy ways. It wasn’t going to help me if I could quit cold turkey for 40 days, learn a few lessons, and then gradually forget them over the following months while rediscovering the lure of social media again.

I needed a practical way forward so that my personal, spiritual, and work times were equally guarded that would last beyond Lent.

The Plan

I settled on a plan to spend only 30 minutes each day on Twitter and Facebook. To be honest, that seems absurdly long, but in practice the time goes by quickly! I broke it into 3 ten-minute slots. This meant that I needed to make the most of my time online and if I really wanted to interact with people, I needed to space my time out.

This required a decent amount of discipline, since I wanted to think of interesting things to say, but I also wanted to read what other people were sharing. I didn’t have unlimited time to follow blog posts and links.

In addition, effectively tracking your friends on a tool like Tweetdeck, as I do, I needed to leave Tweetdeck open for a while before I could look at it. I hide my menu bar so as to limit the temptation, but I still knew it was there.

The Results

While I certainly missed my sources of distraction, I soon appreciated the limits of my fast. Sometimes I followed links and ended up reading them beyond my time limit, so I had to subtract time from my next 10-minute session. I probably interacted online a lot less to my detriment in some ways, but I also thought a lot more about effectively using my limited time, which is a real benefit.

I’m most grateful that I broke the habit of checking social media first thing in the morning. Instead I spend my early morning time writing fiction, drinking coffee, reading scripture, and praying. My mornings are SO much better without Twitter and Facebook.

Waiting until 11 AM or later for social media really helps me use my most productive times in the most effective ways—both for work and spiritual growth. I never catch myself thinking, “Damn, I wish I’d spent 30 minutes on Twitter this morning instead of praying or editing my novel!”

In addition, HubSpot marketing found that more people are willing to retweet something on Twitter around 11 AM, so I really have no reason to use Twitter before 11 AM. I can share my links and socialize at 11 AM just fine.

Perhaps my biggest problem was that I found new distractions such as checking my e-mail, but even that was a bit easier to resist since it’s much easier to convince myself that no new e-mails have arrived in the past 15 minutes. Twitter guarantees fresh content. In addition, an empty inbox isn’t all that distracting even on my worst day.

Here are some outcomes from my limited fast:

  • I now budget an extra 30 minutes for blog reading and networking.
  • I stick to the 3 ten-minute social media sessions on Tweetdeck and Facebook. I aim for 11 AM, 2 PM, and 5 PM.
  • I try to avoid social media at night. If I want to drop someone a note or need to send a message via Facebook, I can drop in, send the note, and then log off.
  • I allow myself to visit Twitter online if I want to post something, but I can’t do anything else.

How have you dealt with your bad habits in social media? Have you tried sometime different that worked?