What To Do With Unexpected Free Time

What do you do when 30 minutes of free time falls in your lap?  A client with two school aged kids shared this story the other day:

“Pat was grocery shopping, Max was at a playdate, Eliana was taking a nap. I suddenly found myself with a glorious window of time and I should have done something fun, but I had no idea what to do with myself.”

In a survey we conducted with parents for my forthcoming book, Time to Parent, more than 80 percent of parents surveyed said they didn’t have enough fun in their lives. 80 percent! Play and fun are central to the human experience -- especially for parents, who need to cut loose to be present for their kids.

If you’re not intentional about how you use unexpected pockets of free time, you’ll end up frittering it away on the stuff you always do. Or, you’ll end up vegetating on the couch or clicking around randomly on the internet, which may feel OK in the moment, but doesn’t give you the same sense of calm and focus that a more restorative activity will give you.   

To take advantage, you need a plan. Here’s a different way to approach those free pockets of time.

  1. Spend one day plotting the “free” time you have available. Add it up. Carry around a notebook and write down whenever you don’t have a plan. Also note what you do with that free time. Could be 10 minutes in the car waiting to pick your kid up from sports practice, 25-minute commute home on the bus, the 15 minutes in the evening between the time you arrive home and your family gets home. How much time can you potentially steal back?

  2. Get in the habit of intentionally ignoring one small task. When you find yourself with a free few minutes at home, don’t do what you normally might. Don’t do the dishes in the sink, or rearrange the pillows on your coach, or carry the laundry basket upstairs. Do something for yourself instead. Your family may pick up the slack -- and if they don’t, all that stuff can wait anyway.

  3. Make a “Sudden Opportunity” list. This is your free-time cheat sheet. It’s a list of the three to five activities you enjoy doing in small windows of time. (Keep it in the Notes app on your phone or on an index c\ard tucked into your wallet.) It removes any pressure to “think” in the moment (or fall victim to the lure of technology and social media), and just act instead. Could be getting a manicure, listening to a particular podcast you love, meditating. It doesn’t matter what the activities are -- as long as you find them to be restorative and energizing.

And it while it may seem counter-intuitive to “plan” fun, for parents, it’s an essential act.  The parenting years are the most time stretched of a humans life, and building in ways to have fun, and giving yourself permission to do so are a great strategy for going the long haul.  Be on the lookout for my book Time to Parent, which has an entire section devoted to the topic. From now on, when you are suddenly gifted with a window of free time, you'll know what you want to do with it.