Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to Reclaim Spare Time

There is something nostalgic about spare time. Like an old friend you knew once and somehow lost touch. Spare time sits on the side of a broken fence, wheat stalk between its teeth - daring us to watch puffy clouds, or go kicking through Autumn leaves, instead of hen-pecking at the keyboard. Spare time beckons, yet few can hear the whispers over the whir of cpu's and blare of CNN. How do we rope, lasso and reclaim Spare Time?

For many of us, having a moment or two to spare has been replaced by the unending bleeps of text messages, incoming email, unending tasks, hectic schedules of work and family, and constant financial pressure to survive the recession. Most of us cannot make it through a day without drifting to the computer half a dozen times to check email, or carry the cell phone around for a constant fix. Clearly the impact of such a lifestyle cannot be good for us long term.

When I was growing up, the TV shows on air included Andy Griffith- the ultimate in spare time. Remember the theme song whistle during the opening shots; Andy heading out fishing with little Opie? Everyone stood around a lot, talked to each other and managed minor small town incidents. We certainly couldn't have a cop show like that now, with a lot of hanging out, instead of busting up drug rings. Does anyone have time to whistle anymore?

My other favorite childhood show was the Brady Bunch, (which I heard was Michelle Obama's favorite too). They had a LOT of spare time- even housekeeper Alice. All those kids hung out together after school, went on vacation, sang in a band with matching costumes; and those of us watching had enough spare time to memorize every single episode within the first five bars of the opening scene.

What if the Brady Bunch was set today? Imagine Carol running with her super size Starbucks in her super size mini van, conducting a meeting on her cell while in route to take Bobby and Cindy to soccer practice, Jan to her violin lesson, Greg to football, and Marsha to cheerleading. While Mom is multi-tasking; the kids are plugged into iPhones, cell phones, texting, and checking emails. No one is talking to each other, unless it is to pick a fight, and they certainly are not singing, "We're Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Dancin' All Through the Night."

The temptations upon our time are not in the same stratosphere as they were a generation ago - hence spare time is relegated to the back pasture of our lives. However, I suspect a lot of the activities that consume all hours of the day and night are not as important as we think they are, and learning to step back and evaluate priorities could help generate some vital time... to do nothing.

There has been a lot of news coverage about our declining happiness levels. No wonder we aren't happy - we don't have time to be. A recent UPenn study found that women are categorically less happy than they were 30 years ago. Russell Bishop wrote a piece exploring the fact that men aren't that much happier, and Cara Barker this week conducted some interviews with children, discovering that many of them were unhappy at the lack of contact and connection with their parents.

Sometimes being "happy" is kind of like realizing your nagging headache is gone. The insight is not dramatic, like a bolt of lightning, but comes in a quiet, gentle awareness of relief. Happiness is like that. It takes a healthy dose of spare time to find it. I think Spare Time and Happiness are "BFF", don't you?

Here are a few tips to reclaim Spare Time:

Email Self-Control- declutter your inbox by unsubscribing to anything you don't need or read regularly, and try not to continue long email conversations that aren't necessary. One of Therese Borchard's tricks is to take weekend breaks from her computer. Imagine! This is a great way to scrounge up a ton of free time - think of it as email Sabbath, (Reading this column, however, is an acceptable exception).

Social Networking is junk food, plain and simple. Let's face it - Facebook is the Doritos of friendships and Twitter is a super size box of Fries. Both are tempting, and both are ultimately not all that healthy. Take the time for some "slow food": home-cooked friendships that require face-to-face time. If you are IM'ing someone in your office, get up and try walking over for a change. Facebooking your best friend? Pick up the phone or stop by; imagine how you look from space, hunched over terminals sharing the daily chatter.

Find the "in-between" moments of the day to embrace as spare time. Driving is a great opportunity to do some deep breathing, turn off the noise in your head, and notice the scenery around you, rather than listening to talk radio, eating, or talking on the cell phone. Find the moments in the shower, doing dishes or walking the dog to flatten out as buffer zones of nothingness.

Force yourself to be bored. Remember being bored? It is the MacDaddy of spare time. Kids today think five or six seconds of spare time equals being bored, and many adults' tolerance for unfilled moments is not much better. Set aside several hours once a month with nothing particular to do - and see how it affects you.

Spare Time sauntered into my life last week when swine flu blew through my house. With sick kids, life comes to a grinding halt. Spare Time roped me in by force- and it was not comfortable. To rebel, I filled it with all sorts of backlogged projects like putting together good will donations, painting peeling trim, and clearing up the yard. At long last, I surrendered (the key) and just hung out. It became rejuvenating, and felt great.

We are not wired to go 24/7 with mental chatter. Sometimes just listening to the wind blow is enough to keep you from going over the brink. How does good ole' Spare Time show up in your life these days? Love to hear your comments, and please click on Become a Fan to receive weekly notices, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

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