About 15 years ago I got into productivity, big time. At that time, my daily schedule was incredibly hectic: I was managing my own company, which was started in a chaotic country, on a very new and unstable niche: online publishing. I had to cope with a lot of unexpected stuff, and I had challenges all over the spectrum: from human resources (good people were hard to find), to clients (good clients were even harder to find and keep). So, something had to be done, otherwise I was about to go crazy.
So I started to test and implement all sorts of approaches, with the only goal of doing more in less time. As I was getting deeper into the field, the goal changed: I wanted to do more, but in a more meaningful way, with less energy and time spent. I went through Getting Things Done, Pomodoro and countless other techniques (some of the first posts on this blog are chronicling this very journey). Eventually, I came up with my own framework, called Assess-Decide-Do, which I’m still using. By the way, the latest iteration of this framework has an app, called ZenTasktic, which works on iPhone, iPad and macOS (syncing data transparently on all devices, obviously).
But, as I got more productive, something interesting started to happen: suddenly, I had more time. Like, literally, more hours in the day which weren’t filled with work, or with anything related to the business side of life. And that’s when I first experienced what I now call “free time anxiety”.
I’m Free! Now What?
Being busy is a horrible way of generating meaning. Yet, a lot of people are taking that path. I know, because I was one of them. Back then, crossing off tasks from my to do list, checking my income obsessively, growing the business each and every moment, all these were things from which I was deriving both meaning and pleasure.
But what if you optimize your schedule to the point that you can do all of the above in half of time? What would you do with your remaining part of the day?
I confess in the beginning I didn’t even know that I was having “free time anxiety”. Instead, I kept thinking that, even with those optimizations, I was still not doing enough. I was still having that feeling of “insufficient effort”.
The “click” happened when I had my first day off because my body couldn’t cope anymore. I didn’t have any specific pains, I just felt that everything inside me was shutting down. I didn’t go to work that morning and spent the rest of the day in bed, not moving, staring at the ceiling. It was my first day off after 3 years of non-stop work, 14-16 hours / day, no weekends, no holidays. Probably well above 1,000 days of intense, continuous effort.
From that point on, I realized that: 1) I was doing way too much and 2) I was doing way too much because I had “free time anxiety”. Slowly, I started to cope with it. Here’s what worked for me.
1. Calibrate Your “Why?”
Whatever you do, it must have a “why?”. For me, that “why?” was: I want to make a million dollars. A bit lame now, in hindsight, but hey, that’s how I was back then. And yes, eventually I did make a million dollars. And then spent it all and got into debt, but these are other stories.
Fact is, by constantly calibrating my “why?” I realized how far or close I was to the answer and started to control the amount of effort I was putting into it. Without knowing how far or close you are to the goal, you’re just stumbling in the dark, pushing and pushing until exhaustion. But when you know roughly where you are, you also know that you’re doing exactly what it takes to reach the goal, and all that “free time anxiety” is starting to go down.
2. Repeat To Yourself: “I Matter, Too”
Another thing that really helped was to constrain myself into thinking “I matter, too”. Just by reading that sentence I realize now how caught I was in my own labyrinth of self-destruction by work. Nobody should “constrain” themselves to think “I matter, too”. Anyway…
The way I did this was by literally putting alerts in my phone about personal stuff, like taking a walk, or calling a friend, or just spend 30 minutes outside, in a park. I “tricked” myself into believing that those simple things (which were, basically, myself) matter too, by putting them in the system where all the other stuff was important: my agenda, my calendar. And it worked.
3. Start With Small Doses
If you spend 3 years working non-stop, don’t expect to magically feel relaxed if you spend an entire afternoon with your friends. It just won’t happen. The anxiety will be so strong that you’ll collapse and run back to your desk, desperate to “catch up on some work”.
A much better way is to start with small doses, like the alerts I was using in the previous paragraph. For starters, just half an hour outside could be ok. Maybe in a couple of weeks you could stretch that to an hour. In all honesty, I didn’t do it like this, I started cold turkey to disengage myself from work, days at a time, and I went overboard. That’s how I actually learned that small doses are better.
So, are you battling “free time anxiety” in your life right now? If you do, I just want to tell you that you’re on the right path: you just managed to read an entire article, without interruptions, and you seem to have enjoyed it.