The Perils (and blessings) of Unstructured Time

As we get further into summer, I notice that many of my clients have more unstructured time on their hands—whether that’s due to a break from school or work (e.g., for students and teachers), vacations, house-sitting, etc.—and that this experience CAN BE UNCOMFORTABLE. It seems especially challenging for those of us used to hustling and using busyness as an avoidance strategy. I personally am getting ready to go on maternity leave and as my schedule of client sessions gradually lightens, I also find myself with more chunks of time left unaccounted for. Sure, there are plenty of things I could and probably should be doing, but I’m often left with panic at the start of the day about structuring my day most efficiently and often guilt at the end of the day if I feel I’ve “wasted time.”

These swathes of time might seem exciting and liberating, but for most (myself included) they seem to bring a lot of pressure and anxiety—sometimes existential panic.

Minds inevitably wander. The thoughts we get pretty good at avoiding or distracting ourselves from when we have a more rigid schedule find a way of creeping to the forefront. You’re not doing enough. What if you don’t get momentum going on goals you have and you never accomplish them? Am I using my time wisely? How lucky I am to get this bit of freedom; am I totally squandering it? Some days my mind is sharp and focused. I can bat away distracting thoughts/mini-projects (that seem urgent, but are not) with ease. If a distracting thought or desire comes up, I can place it gently in a bouquet of “later.” Other days I flit from browser window to browser window, task to task, indulgence to indulgence, giving all ideas and whims immediate attention, or worse, slipping into self-doubt and shame. Time slips away and then the guilt creeps in.

Being “busy” and “productive” can be a totally healthy way of structuring our time and engaging with the world. We can find meaning and connection when we have filled our schedules with activities that matter to us. However…

Being constantly on the go can also be a really easy way of linking our self-worth to productivity and cheating ourselves of the skills required to manage unstructured time when it is dumped on us.

Why is it so hard to be bored or unoccupied or let ourselves relax? Why do we think of it as a bad thing, especially when there is lots of evidence that boredom and taking time to play and recharge is actually good for us, allowing us to be our most creative selves? How can we move away from the pressure and guilt that is often associated with unstructured free time? How can we practice more self-compassion when we find ourselves being overly critical? How can we embrace slowness?

I’m not saying it’s necessary to sit in silence for hours and hours or indulge endless laziness—it’s okay to have high expectations—but as a goal for myself (and a challenge to you if this applies), I would like to cultivate a healthier relationship with unstructured time, one that involves ease, intention, and forgiveness.

I would like to get better at finding balance and accepting that both experiences, that of being super productive and that of being completely lazy when given a day with essentially nothing to do, and everything in between, are normal and acceptable.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to wake up one morning and run a marathon with no training, it seems like a lot to expect ourselves to go from full rigid schedules to days of complete openness. But what a blessing to have an opportunity to work on strengthening these muscles. Here are some suggestions for “training” yourself to wrestle with unstructured time:

specific/actionable tips to work on building skill of interacting with unstructured time

  • Take a silent car ride or walk/commute without immediately throwing on a music playlist or podcast.

  • Shower/bathe with the intention of paying attention to sensations, but letting your mind wander.

  • Practice semi-structured time planning, i.e., instead of rigid expectations and goals, keep it loose and light. At the start of a totally open day, pick three things, no more, you want to accomplish and allow yourself flexibility even on these (e.g., instead of “run 3 miles” try “engage in nourishing movement at some point”).

    • That said, know thyself. If you know you need more specificity to be able to get something done, by all means, be specific, but try to keep the list short.

  • Prioritize socializing. Nothing gets us out of our heads and feeling more seen and understood and normal like taking time to talk to people we care about.

  • Meditate.

  • Switch up your environment. Get outside.

Vaguer Tips for cultivating a healthier mindset regarding unstructured time

  • Shift your definition of “productivity”:

    • Assess “productivity” on a broader time scale, i.e., a week overall, not one morning or one day. Some days you’re going to crush it; some days you won’t.

    • Allow boredom and play to be considered essential and valuable for creativity/productivity, not thought of as frivolous or wasteful.

  • Forgive yourself and call upon gratitude and acceptance when guilt pops up. (It’s okay if all you did today was read, watch Netflix, and make a meal for your family. You’re lucky you can do that. Again, look at what you did over a whole week.)

  • And struggling with unstructured time is kind of a modern privileged problem, isn’t it? Our ancestors probably didn’t doubt themselves so much when they were focused on feeding themselves and keeping themselves safe. Same goes for those currently struggling with those needs. Again, practice gratitude, but without guilt.

  • When an uncomfortable thought—a self-assessment, a worry, a memory—comes up, DON’T IMMEDIATELY RUN FROM IT. Don’t reach for a distraction. See if you can tolerate it, learn from it, be curious about it.

  • Remember that this is likely a temporary state.