There Are Better Options Than Netflix or Scrolling the News

Illustration: Justin Cassano

Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to asklaura@medium.com. (Your name will not be used.)

Dear Laura: Like many working parents, my only free time tends to be after I put the kids to bed at 8 p.m. I’m totally exhausted by then, and it’s not easy to leave the house. Sure, I can watch Netflix or scroll social media, but it really doesn’t feel like “free” time at all. Any advice?

WWhen we think of leisure time, many of us picture a day at the spa. Since most of us don’t spend many days at the spa — especially now, as we hunker down for self-quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic — we then believe that free time is a theoretical concept, or something only for the very privileged.

But the problem may not be a lack of time. It’s that a lot of our free time — especially for parents with kids home from school — is inconvenient to use for anything other than binge-watching TV or scrolling the news endlessly. And now that so many of us are working from home and housebound, it can be hard to think of anything to do in the evening other than turn to a screen.

But that inconvenient time can still be truly free time — if you’re smart about it. That’s the lesson I took from Rachel Bertsche’s new book, The Kids Are in Bed. As she notes, potential chunks of leisure time are often “spent on activities that are largely unfulfilling (see: scrolling social media), but we engage in them because they take minimal effort and we’re too tired to make good decisions about our time.” She goes on to explain that “the difference between feeling regretful about that time and refreshed by it is all in how we use it.”

So how can you take the refreshing route? First, think about what you’d like to do with your leisure time before you become exhausted. Over lunch or at your desk, make a list of fun things you could do in the evening. In happier times, you might plan on dinner or drinks out with a friend, a salon visit, or a yoga class — but these days you’ll want to focus on things you can enjoy at home.

That category might include planning a late dinner or a drink with your partner, a video chat session with friends, running on a home treadmill or doing a yoga video, hobbies such as scrapbooking or woodworking, reading, or even indulging in screen time with a purpose. (Why not create a mini film festival of your favorite movies from the 1990s, or revisit Laura Dern’s oeuvre?)

Then, as you plan your weeks, think through which of these options you’d like to choose on any given night, and think about the logistics that might need to happen. If you and your spouse plan to eat takeout together on Monday night, you know not to eat earlier or casually agree to an evening work call. If you’d like to work on a scrapbooking project, you might make sure your materials are accessible.

That’s practical, of course, but there’s another reason beyond sheer logistics to plan your evenings ahead of time. Plans help us manage our energy. You’re not going to suddenly decide, after a taxing day at work and the usual bedtime battles, that you’d like to do a video yoga class while your spouse decompresses by playing Fortnite. But if you know that’s your intention for the evening, you save a little bit of energy for and put out your yoga pants — and look forward to it all day.

Just one practical note: To increase the chances that you fit in a screen-free leisure activity, do it first. Once you collapse on the couch, you won’t feel motivated to do anything else. Scrapbook for an hour first, and then you can watch TV.

Finally, if you find it really hard to use evening hours for anything other than screen time, consider making the evening shorter. Go to bed earlier, get up earlier, and maybe you’ll have the energy to do something fun in the morning.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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