There are three ways to spend your spare (non-working) time. You can do something that: 1. Improves you somehow 2. Leaves you more or less the same 3. Damages or diminishes you in some way Look at almost any activity and you will see what I’m talking about. On your commute to work, for example, you have a fair amount of “free” time. You can spend that time getting aggravated about traffic, laughing at idiotic conversations on talk radio, or listening to an audiotape on some subject you care about—maybe a course on how to speak a foreign language. Getting apoplectic about the dimwit in front of you who’s driving with his turn signal on will harm you. It will upset you. It will drain your energy. And that will make you less capable of doing good work when you arrive at the office. Listening to talk radio may amuse you. And if it does, time will pass quickly. That can feel like a benefit if you view your commute as time to kill. But killing time is never a good idea unless you are in pain. Spending your commute listening to and repeating Spanish phrases might not sound like a lot of fun. But if learning Spanish is a goal of yours, you will certainly feel better about yourself by the time you arrive at work. You see what I mean. When it comes to our free time, we have choices: Spend it wisely, wastefully, or self-destructively. Choose one. We have these three options every minute of every day that we are not working or sleeping. For simplicity’s sake, I am assuming you have eight hours of non-sleeping time outside of work each day. That amounts to 480 choices (eight hours multiplied by 60 minutes) per day.
Free time, of course, does not present itself in discrete minute-by-minute blocks. But there are still many, many choices. The average person spends four to six hours per day watching TV or amusing himself with video games. Add to that commuting time, time spent sitting around waiting for something to happen, time spent doing stupid things you don’t have to do—it adds up quickly. Even four wasted hours per day equals 28 hours per week or more than 2,000 hours per year. That is enough time to write a book, compose a symphony, build a cottage, or acquire competency in any two complex skills (e.g., playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, becoming a public speaker, learning how to write advertising copy, etc.). I’m talking about free time, but it’s not really free at all. It is a limited and very precious commodity. How you use it determines how richly you live. You cannot ignore your free time. You cannot pretend it doesn’t matter. You have to accept your responsibility for it and decide: Will you kill it, use it to kill you, or invest in it to make your life richer? I first wrote about this 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve tried repeatedly to make good choices. It isn’t easy, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But one thing that has helped me make the right decision was to name my options. The idea: If I am going to make a bad choice, at least I should have the courage to call it bad.
Self-Destructive Habits I tell people who don’t know me that I’ve never met a self-destructive habit I didn’t like. If you aren’t attracted to self-destruction, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Or maybe you have self-destructive habits but refuse to recognize them. A self-destructive habit is anything you do that makes you intellectually, morally, emotionally, or materially poorer. Gorging on junk food is a self-destructive pastime. And however brilliant I have felt while I was doing it, I always felt that much worse afterward. Same goes for drinking rum and getting into arguments… or staying up late watching mindless television. The criterion isn’t how I feel at the time but how these things leave me feeling later on. There are many behaviors that we might all agree are self-destructive. Some of those I’ve mentioned could be put on the list. But—legalities aside—the ultimate judgment about what is self-destructive is a personal one. Only you know whether a particular behavior makes you feel better or worse, healthier or sicker, richer or poorer. The good news is that knowing whether any particular option is self-destructive or not is easy. Just pay attention to how you feel about it the next day.
Zombie Pastimes There are many pleasant ways to kill time. Many, many more than there were when I was a kid. In my teenage years, television was a boring, black-and-white affair. Other than Saturday mornings, there was nothing worth my attention. Nowadays, we all have an infinite number of options when it comes to amusing ourselves. But many—if not most— of those options don’t do us any good. They entertain us. They divert us. They pass the time. But they don’t make us better in any way. In fact, studies have shown that extended TV watching, for example, puts our brains into a kind of zombie zone that lasts long after the TV is turned off. I like my zombie pastimes. I like watching mixed martial arts, listening to Howard Stern, and playing solitaire. I like drinking tequila and smoking cigars. I like eating hamburgers. I like my zombie pastimes especially when I am tired or sad or disappointed. They seem to beckon to me, promising to soothe me. And they do, for a while. But after an hour (or four) of zombie time, I never feel better. I feel more or less the same but a little ashamed of myself.
Enriching Behavior Our third option is the obvious winner: Choosing an activity that somehow improves you, leaving you feeling (or actually being) wiser, smarter, more understanding, happier, healthier, stronger, etc. So why is it that we don’t always choose enriching options when deciding how to spend our free time? The reason has to do with energy. Enriching behavior takes more of it. It takes more energy, for example, to practice my French horn than to play solitaire. I don’t know why that is, but it is. And if it requires, say, 100 milligrams of mental energy to play the French horn for 15 minutes, it takes 1,000 milligrams of mental energy to will myself to open up my case, blow the spit out of the valves, and put the mouthpiece to my lips. Again, I don’t know why that is, but it is a fact of life. Enriching behavior is also less addictive. I’ve put at least 40 hours into studying Italian and so far have felt not a single impulse to continue. Each practice session requires willpower to initiate and energy to push through. I do think I know why that is. Practicing Italian is stressful for me because it is difficult. And it is difficult because I am not good at it.
Making the Right Choice We have three choices. And as long as we are honest with ourselves, we know which one is the right one. The trouble is we don’t always have the energy to do it. Driving to work, your energy stores may be low because you have not yet done anything active. Driving home from work, your energy stores may be depleted. You are in the car and you have a choice. You can listen to that Spanish language CD, you can listen to Howard Stern, or you can… I don’t know, keep glancing at your odometer to see if you can catch it rolling over into the next set of multiple zeroes. You know you should be doing the Spanish CD, but you just don’t feel like it. So what do you do? There are many answers to that question. But here’s what I do when I find that I’m going to be stuck behind the wheel for a fairly long period of time. (I don’t drive to work.) I make a deal with myself. Practice language for five minutes, I tell myself, and then you can listen to Howard Stern for the rest of the trip. I have convinced myself that I can do anything for five minutes—even hold my head underwater. (Four minutes and five seconds is my record.) So I do the five minutes. And most of the time, something marvelous happens. After about two minutes, my stress level drops considerably. After another minute or two, I find that I’m actually enjoying the work. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens most of the time. So my five minutes of enrichment turn into 10 minutes and then into 15 minutes. Sometimes they last the entire trip. As I said, I don’t drive to work. So for me (and maybe you?), the challenge I face every morning is a little different. Still, I have to force myself to make choices that will get my brain in gear. After breakfast, I head up to my studio above the garage. I’m very tempted to head right to my computer and read email… see what’s come in overnight. But email, as I’ve been saying for more than 10 years, is zombie work. Ninety percent of it will not enrich you. Ninety percent of it will enrich other people or no one at all. I know that I shouldn’t read my email first thing in the morning—that it will reduce my energy and possibly even put me in a foul mood. But the zombie part of my brain wants to do it. How do I overpower the zombie part of my brain? Again, I make a deal with myself. I tell myself that before I do any email, I must first do an hour of something enriching. More precisely, I must put in 15 minutes and see if that stretches to an hour. My usual choice for enrichment these days is to practice the French horn. (Don’t ask.) To make sure I face the decision squarely first thing in the morning, I leave my French horn on top of my desk when I leave my office in the evening. So, I can’t turn on my computer and check my email without taking down the French horn and setting it aside. This little barrier of shame is enough to get me to open the case and get started. I am not trying to become a concert-level French horn player. So my goal is limited to 15 minutes of practice a day. Practicing the French horn is easier than learning Italian right now, because—for whatever reason—I seem to have a knack for it. So I get in my 15 minutes pretty easily. That leaves me feeling pretty good about myself. The experience of practicing—being an enriching experience—adds to, rather than depletes, my mental energy stores. I use that extra energy to practice Italian (or French or Spanish or German—again, don’t ask) for another 15 minutes. Then I use what amounts to a double dose of mental energy to write something. Writing, at this stage of my writing career, is both enriching and also relatively easy, because—after years of practice—I am relatively good at it. This is what I do. And it works for me. Enriching behavior doesn’t have to be practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language or writing poetry. It can be as simple as reading an inspiring or informative book. Enriching behavior takes energy, as I said, but it gives you back that energy and more for your time invested. And it makes you feel like a better version of who you are or who you want to be.
A Cheat Sheet for Choosing the Right Free-Time Activities Following is a list I jotted down—a list of what are, for me, enriching ways to spend my time. These correspond to my personal value system. You may have different ideas for what sorts of activities are likely to leave you feeling like a better version of yourself. My enriching choices include: • Reading inspirational or informative material • Drawing and/or painting • Writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, etc. • Practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu • Engaging in demanding physical exercise (like PACE workouts) • Watching educational documentaries • Listening to uplifting music • Paying attention to fine art • Watching a really, really good movie—consciously • Having a good conversation with a thoughtful person. My zombie choices include: • Reading crime fiction • Playing solitaire • Watching TV shows such as Justified and Downton Abbey • 90% of the email I do • Drinking and socializing (as Ernest Hemingway once said, “I drink to make other people more interesting”) My self-destructive activities include: • Drinking too much and saying things I regret the next day • Gossiping — whenever • Fighting — whenever and for any reason • Watching reality TV • Other things I’d rather not talk about right now You may not agree with some of my designations. That’s okay. You can (and should) make your own list. But in creating that list, consider the following: Making enriching choices… • Teaches you something worth knowing or develops a skill worth having • Fosters an understanding of people and situations you had been previously closed to • Strengthens you spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally • Builds confidence and develops your ability to make wise choices in the future • Is hard to do—until you get good at it • Leaves you feeling energized Making zombie choices… • Teaches you nothing • Requires no thought. It is watching TV, rather than going to a stage play. It is getting a massage, rather than practicing yoga. It is chugging a brewsky, rather than savoring a good wine • Tends to be habit-forming. Because it feels good (in a medium-energy sort of way) and is so easy to do, you find yourself doing it over and over again • Is easy and as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Zombie choices are tried-and-true diversions that pass the time • Leaves you with the unpleasant feeling that you’ve wasted your time Making self-destructive choices… • Feels really good at the beginning • Attracts bad company. Since most smart people don’t approve of what you are doing, you find yourself doing it with another set of friends. Eventually, you reject the people who “don’t get it.” They are too straitlaced or lame to understand, so you figure you don’t need them in your life • Disables you intellectually, emotionally, and physically. You become less capable of performing complex skills or dealing with complex issues. Eventually, you are less capable of peak performance overall • Is more than habit-forming. It is addictive. Self-destructive activities have ever-extending thresholds. What gets you off in the beginning is never enough to get you off later on. You mistakenly believe that more is always better • Leaves you feeling like a failure When we are at our best—confident and full of energy—enriching activities are an easy choice. When we are feeling just okay, we can usually reject self-destructive pastimes but tend toward zombie activities. And when we are at our worst—low in energy and full of doubt—we are most susceptible to self-destructive choices. But you can make good choices.
Five Ways to Make the Right Choice 1. You must identify the activities that are, for you, enriching, zombie, and self-destructive. Make a list like the one I made above 2. Pay attention to the free time you have—even if that free time is partially committed to other people (such as the time you spend with family and friends). Assess the amount of time you typically spend each day on enriching, zombie, and self-destructive activities 3. Make a commitment to change 4. Accomplish that transformation by making little “deals” with yourself. Before you engage in self-destructive or zombie activities, force yourself to spend at least five minutes doing something that leaves you richer 5. Build from there.
About the Author: Mark Ford is an author, entrepreneur, publisher, real estate investor, filmmaker, art collector, and consultant to the direct marketing and publishing industries. Ford is the author of essays and books on entrepreneurship, wealth-building, economics, and copy writing. He has been one of Dr. Tim Reynold’s mentors for many years. Click here to learn more