By Francis Wade
Sunday, October 5, 2014.
It's the start of autumn and you may be bemoaning the fact that you just
did not have enough free time: The short vacation you took in the summer was
good, but a longer one would have been even better.
Here's a possible
surprise: scientists have discovered that by themselves, longer vacations don't
make a difference. Rather than the number of days, what has an impact is how
well we manage our free time.
Wang and his team at the I-Shou University in Taiwan recently completed two studies, one of college undergraduates and the other of retirees. The
findings were quite similar - "free time management" has a direct
bearing on "quality of life", but the quantity of this time does not.
In Wang's work, free
time refers to those periods when "people are under no obligation and can
decide for themselves what to do".
Most of us use this time
informally, either for leisure, to relax or to achieve a sense of balance. When
we receive too little of it, we get stressed, causing us to find ways to get
more of it.
These academics discovered that most professionals don't use their
free time constructively, preferring to avoid making plans. In fact, some
actively resist the notion of explicitly planning non-work time; they see
planning as a work activity that belongs only on the job.
Anyone who has been to
Disney World in Orlando may know differently. Families who don't plan their
visit to the theme park end up in long lines during the hottest parts of the
day. As a result, instead of leaving relaxed, they vow to never, ever return.
Little do they know
there exist entire books written on how to manage one's trip to Disney World. I
can share from firsthand experience that they are absolutely indispensable.
This backs up the
research. Having no plans for free time can cause big problems ranging from
boredom to poor health to increased time pressure.
It flies in the face of
a myth that free time should consist of spontaneous activities that are
automatically fulfilling simple because it's time that's not being spent
working. According to Wang and his team, we have it all wrong.
While there are numerous
studies revealing that carefully managing our time on the job improves the
"quality of work" we do, the fact is only a small portion of each
month is devoted to work. When we retire, the balance shifts even further.
How we spend the rest of
our time has an impact on how we cope with stress and deal with the negative
effects on our physical and mental health.
Our lack of skill in
this area may be the reason why there's time-use research proving that modern employees have more free time than ever before, but also
greater feelings of time pressure. We are like athletes who never spend time
recovering - we are always sprinting.
In his publication, Wang
shares a prior study showing that students trained to plan their use of free
time were better able to turn boring situations into something interesting. As
a result, with better planning, they could avoid DisneyWorld's queues and focus
on enjoying other activities at the park. Also, they would be more likely to
minimise 'screen time', reducing the negative impact that viewing TV, playing
games or browsing the internet has on our social lives as well as our health.
How can we use these and other scientific
1. Employ a
168-hour Per Week Schedule:
Many professionals see
their calendar as a tool for only managing appointments. Recent research
reveals that this may be a mistake.
Instead, free up your
schedule from its historical, and artificial, 40-hour constraint and convert it
to a tool for total life management.
In his books, Neal Fiore
advocates the idea of an 'un-schedule', where you start by setting time aside
for sleep, leisure, meals and family before entering a single work activity.
This makes sense when compared with the recommendation from my column on April
27, 2014 that married couples should find a way to share at least 15 hours per
week alone together in order to keep the relationship alive.
2. Don't Leave
Leisure Time to Chance:
To reiterate the
findings of the Taiwanese team, learn the habit of planning your free time.
Rather than fear a loss
of spontaneity, appreciate the fact that your plans can be changed at any point
to suit your need for an escape to, say, Hellshire Beach.
3. Focus on
Developing Your Skills:
It's ironic that the
better your productivity skills, the more you can enjoy your retirement. This
implies that your capabilities in this area, once developed, can benefit you
for a lifetime.
While you may develop
them with work in mind, the studies indicate that far more is at stake.
There's just no escaping
the requirement to manage your time well. It's not a burden. Instead, Wang and
company have found that it's the key to maintaining your quality of life.
Francis Wade is a management consultant
and author. To receive a summary of links to his past columns, or give
feedback, please email him at email@example.com