Free time - for parents, it’s a hot commodity we never feel like we have enough of. Which is why it can be frustrating when we have it and don’t feel like we use it to the fullest! Picture this: the baby has just fallen asleep for a nap and you’re torn about what to do with that precious little window of time to yourself. Should you reorganize the kitchen cabinets, start re-painting the living room like you’ve been planning, finally start watching The Sopranos, call your mother, exercise, prep for your Monday morning meeting, take a nap…? Gah! Who knows what to do! And if you’re like me, you may find yourself online shopping the entire nap away for a two piece bathing suit you’re never going to buy and when you hear those first stirrings through the monitor signaling the end of nap, you wind up feeling guilty for having wasted a chance to relax or be productive. In essence, you’ve done neither and it doesn’t feel good.

Free time. In theory, it sounds amazing and I certainly complain I don’t get enough of it. But how do you make the most of it so you don’t end up feeling like a deer in headlights when you find yourself with time just for you?

How to Use Free Time Mindfully

Most free time that we feel good about falls into one of several categories. It’s time that you use towards education, physical health, relaxation, or socialization and connection. Whether it’s sprung on us or we’ve built in a planned window of time, it may be helpful to ask yourself if what you’re doing falls into one of those categories. If it does, then you will most likely feel satisfied with your use of that precious time to yourself. Consider some ideas below to make sure you’re getting the most out of your free time.

Schedule it

Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail?” Ben dropped some serious knowledge, didn’t he? Welp, take his advice to heart and plan how to use your free time. Build into your schedule a coffee date with a friend, a block of time to read, a bike ride, a pedicure - whatever! Taking control over how you use that time will ensure that you feel good about how you use it.

Keep a list of things to do

But wait. Isn’t free time supposed to be wonderfully spontaneous and structureless? Well, maybe. But if that isn’t working for you and you find yourself feeling like you’re not using your time to your fullest, keep a list of your ideal ways to spend that time. Even when we schedule in our time, we still have windows of time pop up and it can be hard to think on our toes. Having that little list will help jog your memory of what you want to do - it takes that paralyzing indecision out of the equation.

Have stuff ready

Leave things out so that you don’t have to get over that initial inertia to start on something. If the bills are waiting neatly piled by your computer or you’ve got a list written down of each of those schedule-related calls you have to make, or you’ve got every tool for your project gathered in one place, or even if it’s just that you’ve got a tidy pile of magazines you’re waiting to flip through, it’s a lot easier to get started on something when it’s all ready to go at your fingertips.

Don’t feel guilty about how you spend your time

There may be some days you really need some self-care and if you spend your free time taking a nap or watching a cheesy rom-com in the middle of the day that you’ve already seen five times, well then, that’s ok. We all need a break at times. Escapism can be a quality use of your free time and one you shouldn’t feel guilty about.

Cut out the internet

That’s right. Put down the phone. Don’t spend time scrolling through Instagram or watching TikTok videos or thumbing your way through other social media sites. It doesn’t make anyone feel good to watch curated photos and videos of others online who appear to be living their best lives and doing great things with their free time while you watch them through a screen. Focus on you to get the most out of your time.

Set a goal

Maybe you have a larger project or accomplishment you are working towards. Having that idea, topic, or project clearly defined can add a framework to your free time as well as an overarching structure.

Exercise

When all else fails, nothing feels more productive or invigorating than getting some exercise. Whether it’s an intense HIIT workout, a stroll through the neighborhood, or a few minutes of stretching and focused breathing, moving your body is always a productive way to recenter yourself and your mind. And that always feels like a good use of time.

Pitfalls of ‘Wasted’ Free Time

Free time can feel wasted or unsatisfying if we don’t thoughtfully use it. A powerful tool in managing or taking control of something is to track and measure it. Think about nutrition apps that track your caloric intake or even smartwatches that measure your exercise. They can point out patterns we may otherwise overlook. (For instance, I was pretty sure I was crushing my daily exercise until my watch passive aggressively asked if I’d finished my workout during my workout. Maybe I’d better get that heart rate up a little more…) If you’re feeling like you’re not optimizing your free time, then track what you do in those windows of time for a few days to get a clear picture of what you do with it. This may help you see patterns of activities that make you feel good and others you find unfulfilling. Once you have that information distilled, focus your time on those things that feel most positive to you. Additionally, here are a few pitfalls to sidestep when it comes to free time.

Drifting into and through your time

Without being intentional in how you use your time, it’s easy to “drift” into activities you aren’t really interested in doing or find fulfilling…like clicking your way through an online rabbit hole. That lack of decision on your part and passivity in what you do can leave you feeling disappointed.

Thinking you’re going to have the perfect window of time

Yes, you can plan for it and work it in, but often free time is going to present itself in various snippets throughout the day. Don’t fall prey to the notion that you’ve only got 15 minutes here or 10 minutes there so there’s no need to do much. Seize those bits of time and make sure you’re using them for something meaningful to you.

Productively procrastinating

Don’t I have some online pre-registration paperwork to fill out? Doesn’t the fridge need a wipe down? Well, sure, these things may need to happen at some point. But if you’re doing them in avoidance of another, more meaningful or important task, then you’re probably not going to feel great about using your free time to check these little boxes. Yes, they may be somewhat productive, but they are a means of procrastinating for something else. (Kinda like how you couldn’t possibly start on that high school essay until your room was clean.) A lot of us parents use productive procrastination to put off doing some restorative self-care - like reading or getting a walk in - in lieu of some of those sticky tasks and it ends up feeling like an unfruitful use of time.

Feeling guilty about how you fill the time

Relaxation is important and restorative and helps you be a more patient parent. Don’t feel guilty about doing a few things just for yourself - like a nap, a massage, a true crime podcast, etc. If it helps get you back to a better state of mind, then it’s a good use of time.

Being paralyzed by too many choices

There is no perfect choice so don’t agonize over it so much that you end up doing nothing. Simply prioritize your free time list and go with what’s good enough. Additionally, think about maybe limiting your options with how you spend your free time so you don’t fall victim to decision fatigue.  

We all want our free time to feel like quality time. And sometimes, to achieve that feeling, we just need to reframe our thinking a bit or take a few small steps to make sure we’re really using our time in the ways that we want. So seize those minutes as they come your way. It’s your time - spend it in a way that makes you feel good!