How “Free” is Free?

As we head into the dog days of August, it can be easy to slack off a bit…think to ourselves, “I’ve been working hard. I deserve a little free time.” And that can be true. That said, when it comes to how you spend your free time I want you to begin asking yourself, “How free is free?”

Why? Because if you live to be seventy years old, you get 613,620 hours in your life—and that includes time spent sleeping.

This is not a big number.

Now I’m not saying it isn’t important to have time to recharge, to blow off steam, to be off duty—whatever you want to call it. But that time needs to be as carefully considered as your work time, and I find that’s rarely so. While most of us know exactly how many hours we worked last week, very few of us can give me an exact count of how many hours we spent—and here’s one of the most over-used words in advertising for a reasonrelaxing.

FYI: for advertisers, “relaxing” is code for separating you from your cash. 

Please note: I am not characterizing learning a new skill set, or honing an existing one, as wasting time. If you’re a music enthusiast and you decide to spend some time learning to play the guitar, or you’re an amateur gardener and you take a few hours to go through seed catalogues, I consider that time well spent. What I’m talking about is time spent drooped on the sofa watching reruns of reality shows, or surfing the web in pursuit of the newest video in which a dog has been taught to play the piano.

If you think I’m being too strict, consider the idea that in the same way the quality of the food you put in your body affects your ability to perform at your best—which is why you want to make the cleanest, most nutritious choices available– the quality of the books you read, movies you see, people you spend time with, activities you pursue, etc also affects your ability to perform at your best. If you’re putting junk in your mind, it’s unlikely it will have the stamina to pursue your passions. We’re a nation that loves a diet, a purge, or a cleanse: put yourself on a mental fast food fast.

How to begin? I would recommend starting by simply noticing what you’re doing with this time: watching television, surfing the web, hanging out with friends, and make a note of approximately how many hours a week it’s consuming.

I would then have you ask yourself, “Is this time spent contributing to my dreams, or just daydreaming? Is this person someone who motivates and stimulates me to be my best, or is this someone whose only appeal is to my reptilian brain?”

In short, given the finite number of hours available, is this someone or something I want to spend my time on or with?

I’m not saying your answer won’t be, “Yes! Yes, thanks, Frances, I don’t need to be an overachiever every hour of every day of my life.” Or, “Guess what, Frances? Today is, in fact, the day I set aside to put my brain in neutral and get caught up on exactly what’s been keeping American Idol afloat all these years.” Or, “You know what, Frances? You can take a number because I’ve set today aside to watch Formula One racing with my kid with the volume up so high our ears bleed.”

For the record, I’m fine with all these answers. Why? Because they indicate you’ve made a choice: everybody needs a ‘cheat day’ in their diet, and everybody needs dropout time in their life.

But the same way consistent exercise resets your basal metabolism rate, the effect of consistently healthy mental choices resets your mental metabolism rate, so I won’t be surprised if – having done a day of sprawl and gorge– your brain doesn’t start feeling like you’re packing on ‘brain flab’. Flab that will begin melting away moments after you stand up, lace up your mental sneakers, and begin taking concrete steps to create the career, and the life, you want and deserve.