It's Time To Reclaim Your Free Time. Here's Your Guide To Making It Happen

How's your 2020 going so far? If you've spent a whole lot of it scrolling through your phone or mindlessly binge-watching shows you've already seen a million times, you're in good company.

We're in the midst of a pandemic, and many of us are having a hard time concentrating on work tasks or helping our kids with distance learning. So when we're finally off the clock (or even when we're on it), it feels easier to disappear into the lit up screen of our phones than do something "productive" with our time.

While we're all for forgiving yourself and taking it slow right now, many of us are getting fed up with spending our free time on things that just don't make us happy. If this resonates with you, worry not: We have an action plan to help you reclaim your free time sooner rather than later. 

Step 1: Understand why you're prone to this behavior in the first place

When you're spending all your precious spare time on your phone, it can be easy to beat yourself up as you wonder, Why am I spending all this time endlessly scrolling through Instagram when I could be doing something I actually enjoy? 

Psychotherapist Jennifer Tomko says we're programmed to avoid discomfort, which is why falling into tasks that make our brains go semi-numb can be so appealing when we're anxious, as many of us are right now. 

"Sometimes we tell ourselves we are just replenishing, but we need to be real with ourselves when it shifts over to avoidance," she explains.

This is especially true as far as social media is concerned. "Scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook and Instagram can be relaxing, but it can also be stress-inducing," Tomko explains. "Be cautious of social media, because it does sometimes have the opposite psychological effects. You may see too many 'happy' and 'perfect family' photos and think everyone is doing this parenting thing better than you, leading to more stress, anxiety, and depression."

Step 2: Create screen time "blocks"

Wait, what? Aren't we supposed to be avoiding screen time, not scheduling it in? Yes, but for many people, moderation works better than quitting cold turkey, so allow yourself bite-sized blocks of screen time so you don't feel totally deprived — and note that a little bit of disconnection is OK. 

"Disconnection can be an important part of self-care, but when it's our only coping skill, it can certainly cause more harm than good," explains Nicole Arzt, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast. "I recommend that you set two to three designated 'blocks' for screen time a day. When you're in that "block," use the screen time as you want. The limits will ideally force you to actually prioritize how you want to use it."

If screen time isn't the problem and you've got some other time-wasting habit, feel free to schedule that in instead. 

Step 3: Figure out how you want to be spending your time and start small

Just because someone else loves reading books in their free time doesn't meant it's what you love. Being honest with yourself about the things that bring you joy is a great first step to spending your time in a more fulfilling way. 

Mood tracking can be great for this, as you can see which activities correlate with better or worse moods. Once you've identified these activities, start small. "Commit to doing that thing once a week in your spare time," suggests  LeNaya S Crawford, LMFT, RYT.

Step 4: Commit

Now that you've identified what makes you happy and taken a stab at it, start incorporating it into your life more than once a week. You can do this by using a habit tracker, or simply being more scheduled with your time. 

"We need to make a conscious effort to find purpose in our days. I have heard clients recently state, 'I didn't do much today, what's the point in even getting out of my pajamas?'" says Tomko. "We NEED a sense of accomplishment to be able to thrive. No matter how small the accomplishment is, it matters."

Tomko adds that we have less structure in our life than ever, so creating your own schedule is key. And remember, you can schedule in that "time wasting" activity, too.

"Create and write out a schedule that includes downtime and productive time," she says. "We underestimate the necessity of having a schedule. It keeps us grounded and focused on tasks, leading us to feeling productive. Some people will benefit from a strict schedule of every 15 minutes being mapped out for themselves, while other people are okay with a more flexible schedule."

When you do manage to spend your free time doing things that make you happy, Tomko suggests finding a way to reward yourself. "There isn't an opportunity to get feedback from peers, so we need to give it to ourselves. Whatever you choose to do with your day that is productive [than scrolling], give yourself credit for your self-discipline," she says. "Be sure to do something that your future self will thank you for." 

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