At the core, this ends up mostly being about what to do with time, which is really about what to do with your life, which is obviously a pretty big topic. I don’t have any real advice here, so don’t expect any in this post. It’s more a manic summary of my sometimes mental state put on display for who-knows-what-reason.
I recently found myself in a situation with “free time” and the question of how to spend it. The parameters were as follows:
- My girlfriend was out of town and we live in a somewhat remote place with zero friends in proximity, so social situations were off the table.
- I was ahead of a few deadlines and didn’t have any urgent work pressing; no need to work.
- The weather was moderate; I wasn’t constrained to the indoors.
- At the moment I’m sheltered, healthy, happy and with access to resources enough to more or less do whatever I want, within reason and reach.
Here’s what it looks like inside my head when this happens. Continue at your own peril. Absurd length and absence of linebreaks completely by design.
Ok great, I’ve got so many books to read. Which is the best to start with? Let’s see, I can finally finish Sapiens, or wait, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is more relevant and important to the world right now, so probably best to finish that first, then go back to ancient history. But wait, is that the best use of this time? I’ve got that project coming up, and [girlfriend] comes back on Tuesday, plus I’ve got to mow the lawn later so I should really do the most valuable thing first then with the remaining time get to the less important stuff. Or wait, do I knock out the low-hanging fruit so the list is smaller and then give the important stuff more airtime? Nah ok let’s do the important stuff first. So what’s that… Ok I’ll make a list. No wait, better yet I’ll kill two birds with one stone: I’ll finally build that app where you put in stuff you want to do and what you’d like to focus on that week and it just feeds you tasks when you tell it you have X free time. I’ve really been lacking exercise and it’s finally nice out, so first I’ll go for a quick run before I start that. …You know, I sound pretty disorganized and panicked right now, and I’ve been meaning to get back into a regular meditation habit - there’s that saying, “those who don’t have 10 minutes to meditate need to meditate the most” and I’m pretty much embodying that right now. So I should meditate before anything else! This mental state I’m encountering right now seems to be full of lessons for myself. I should really write down how I feel right now so that later on I can reflect on it, maybe write a blog post about it. Should I write the blog post now, as I’m feeling it? No no that’s low in importance, I’ll remember how this feels later 1 and just write it then. Well now I’m just doing nothing, in silence and there’s so much information out there that I’m fucking missing out on by just being here. So I’ll put on a podcast that way I can at least be semi-learning something while I deliberate. [podcast turns on] Oh this is really interesting, I should listen to this for a few minutes, maybe I’ll wash the dishes at the same time so at least I’m getting something done - cleaning up the house will free my mind a bit and everything else will flow from that. …ARRRG No! No dishes! I’ll just wash the dishes right before I pick up [girlfriend] from the train station. I don’t care that much that it’s a little messy right now, there are such better things I can spend my time on (what were they again?) …. but now that this podcast is on I’m reluctant to turn it off and cut off this stream of highly-valuable new information into my brain.. What can I do while this podcast is playing?
I could go on. But like, what the FUCK? This is a clear state of a certain kind of pain-free panic and anxiety.
I find this to be totally arresting. Most of the time I end up going down a fruitless, masturbatory rabbit hole on some programming side project for no real good reason other than solving a chain of silly problems squirts out some dopamine (or whatever).
There are a few factors I can see at the root of this:
- My time is limited (both in the near-term, like in the moment I described above, and in the I’m-gonna-die sense)
- Because my time is limited, it’s more valuable
- I have this bizarre notion that I could be making some big contribution to something or other if only I figured out what and how…
- There are things I think are important to work on, and because of the immediately-above item, I feel like I should be working on them
Cancel any of them out and the problem goes away:
- Your time is no longer limited: Ok, I still want to figure out what to do, but it isn’t urgent that I figure that out right now.
- See above
- You’re not going to make a difference: Ok… bummer, but I guess I can relax.
- Nothing is important: Well then, I’ll just do what feels good!
If it’s too hard to cancel any of them out (I think #3 has the best shot at being true, with #4 being a close second, if you agree with the rest of the nihilism on this site) then the only way forward is to offload the decision-making somehow. Have a framework that makes the choice for you. This is where I’d unveil some AI-life coach startup if I was in that business and working as a marketer.
I’m not. The best idea I’ve come up with is to try and sketch out what a life-well-lived looks like. Then as long as you’re doing something in that picture, you’re doing something you know is valuable.
Write out some big goals and habits randomly on a piece of paper. Connect some of them, fill in other bits here and there. A mind-map, essentially. I’ve been down this road a few times - the pattern is roughly the same: Go through dozens of panicky-free-time experiences described above, realize that I should spend one of them figuring out what matters to me, make the mind-map described here, feel like it’s really important for a few days, lose it, forget the whole thing, repeat.
I don’t know the ultimate solution. Probably has a lot to do with discipline and hard work.
Eh, this post is done I guess. Bye!
I am writing this many days later. I didn’t make a note at the time. In sitting down to write this, I’m re-simulating that mental state, which is fun in and of itself. At the moment, I don’t exactly have “free time” because my options are limited by other environmental situations, which may be precisely why I’m finally doing this. ↩