Last year I wrote about allowing myself to feel good about choosing not to do something: about not-to-do resolutions. The intentional act of allowing unstructured time. Unstructured time is just what it sounds like, it is time that has no set purpose.
This is not equivalent to fasting or the act of abstinence: giving up something that is harmful or pleasurable to pursue a virtuous objective or, for example, a health goal. In the end abstinence is an attempt to feel better – a search for a form of happiness or a state of mind that will help us in a quest for meaning or contentment.
Linda Grant, writing in The Guardian, has a different perspective: “Banishing harm or pleasure from our lives is a form of self-control when everything else is chaotic and not susceptible to individual influence.“ But then one must consider if the object of our pursuit is in truth our own choice, and not the subconscious adherence to someone else’s ideas.
If you want to experiment with your lifestyle to see if a little more or less of something makes you feel better, that is fine. It doesn’t have to be a yes-no decision.
Unstructured time in a world where time is valued as a productive resource is a difficult individual choice. It is a deliberate decision to counter the pressure of trying to complete an ever- increasing number of tasks in a finite quantity of time, of using one’s time efficiently (that is productively in an economic sense). It requires you to say “no”.
Free time, or leisure time, as promoted by corporate management theories is often relegated to maintaining one’s production capacity by getting sufficient sleep and exercising, while moderating calorie intake and fundamentally anything that could reduce your value to the company (such as production loss due to health problems), or increase your employment costs (such as higher insurance premiums).
Melissa Gregg explains in “Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy” that time management promises that a meaningful life might still be possible in this profit-driven environment, and that with the right techniques, it is possible to have a fulfilling life while simultaneously attending to the ever-increasing demands of employers.
But Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian: “It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.” In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
When you reduce unused expanses of time, you also decrease the benefits of that extra time. Unstructured time for example is essential to creativity, good ideas don’t flourish under time pressure. The Pomodoro time management method isn’t going to help you answer questions about the meaning of life, or what matters to you.
It is a period of time when there are no expectations to live up to, no task waiting to be done. We can simply allow ourselves to do whatever pops into our minds. The year end is often such a time, once work and family obligations have been attended to.
Unstructured time leaves room for spontaneity, for spur of the moment decisions, for serendipity. It also leaves us receptive to our surroundings, nature, and open to other people.
Most importantly, unstructured time reminds us that there is so much more to life.
The irony is that we need to plan for unstructured time.
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