Applied Philosophy: How to Spend Your Free Time Meaningfully

A big trend in the management/self-help guru industrial complex concerns maximizing productivity.  While I think this can be a worthy goal in some respects, I think it misses the big picture.  What I think we ought to be doing is looking for ways to maximize the value or meaningfulness of what we do with our time.  For, what does it matter if you’ve maximized productivity of activities devoid of value or meaning?

When I was teaching English in Argentina there was a video series I’d use to teach my business students. I’m not sure if these videos were intended for teaching English but the content was at a level that most intermediate students could understand.  Anyhow, the guy who created the series was one of these management guru guys.  There was a surprising amount of good advice in those videos.  One line that always stood out to me was “everything you do in life either brings you closer to what you want or takes you farther from it; nothing is neutral.”  There may be exceptions to this but I think by and large it holds up as a good guiding principle for how to prioritize what to do with the limited time in your day and your life. 

If we suppose that this idea is a good heuristic, what happens when we apply it to both our daily decisions and life plans regarding what we do with our free time?  I think this is worth considering since free time is perhaps our most precious resource. One thing I notice immediately is that I waste far too much of my time on social media and doing nothing in particular online.  Even though it’s supposed to be relaxing down time, I always come away feeling less relaxed and that now I need to do something to relax from the supposed relaxing activity! Truly, it does not get me the things I want to get out of my free time and it takes me away from them.  I find the contrast particularly strong whenever I read a book instead.  I can never remember a time after having spent 30 minutes to an hour or two reading thinking to myself “well, that was a waste of time!” 

Compare that with time spent going through your social media news feed, debating people online, or just clicking on random articles and videos (not including this article, of course!).  I rarely ever think to myself “well, that was time well spent!”.  No, usually I feel as though that is lost time that I’ll never get back.  And I rarely feel rejuvenated ready to get back to my regular work. Of course, there are occasions where spending unstructured time online can be fruitful, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.  There have been instances where I’ve found valuable articles in my newsfeed that I wouldn’t have found otherwise and where an online debate yielded worthwhile results.

Here’s what I consider to be a big problem.  The type activities that are rewarding require deep immersion and engagement.  The environment of the internet doesn’t easily provide this.  To be sure, the internet provides great content, but the way we access it gets in the way of deep meaningful engagement. We may be reading an insightful article, listening to an engaging podcast, watching a great video online but facebook, twitter, email, etc… are open in the background (both on our screen and in our minds) and prevent most of us from the deep immersion that makes an activity feel worthwhile.  In short, the media gets in the way of the value of the content.

So, what can be done to solve the problem? I haven’t completely solved the problem but I’ve found a few things that work and I’m working on other solutions as I try to squeeze out as much value from my precious free moments.  Here are a few that have worked so far.

1. I print the articles I want to read then put my computer (and phone) in the other room while I read.

2. When listening to podcasts or watching (educational) videos, I put my computer on a table half-way across the room so I can’t touch it.  Or I’ll download the podcast onto my ipod then put my computer and phone in the other room while I listen.

3. (New one) When I go on walks with Otis, I leave my phone at home so I’m not messing with it. This way I get to actually enjoy the walk.

4. When I read books, I put my phone and computer in another room.

These are just a few ideas that have worked for me and have helped me more fully enjoy my free time.  If you have any suggestions that have worked for you, please share! The more meaningful I can make each moment, the better!

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