Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Here's the Surprising Secret to Making Your Free Time Worthwhile

During a recent six-week period of unemployment, I’d sometimes forget that my fiancé couldn’t hang out with me. “What are you up to today? Want to go see a movie?” I’d ask eagerly, on a random Wednesday afternoon.

“Stace, I have a meeting. I’m working,” he’d reply with a perplexed look on his face that seemed to be saying, you know this is a normal workday for me and for most everyone around you.

Of course I knew that it was a weekday, an office day as it were. I just thought that, given his flexible work schedule, maybe he could spare a few hours. I had underestimated the importance of him sticking to the traditional Monday through Friday for his own well-being and productivity. I had also underestimated the difficulty of enjoying my free weekdays alone—while everyone else was on the clock.

I had all this time on my hands, but what did it mean if no one was around to share it with me?

According to a study in Sociological Science, in order for your free time to be a good thing, it must coincide with that of your friends and loved ones. Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim, the authors of the study recently featured in The New York Times, believe it’s not so much a problem of Americans not having enough spare time, but an issue of coordination.

It’s probably no surprise to you that many people live for the weekend. Maybe you are one of them. Heck, I’d argue that even the happiest employees look forward to Friday night. So, you might be envious of anyone who’s optionally unemployed because they basically have seven weekend days, right?

Yet, Young’s and Lim’s findings suggest that these people actually feel similarly about the weekend as do their working cohorts; in fact, the researchers “found that the jobless showed almost exactly the same day-to-day pattern in emotional well-being as working people did. Their positive emotions soared on the weekend, and dropped back down again on Monday.”

So, even though the jobless aren’t working Monday, Tuesday, and so on in the same way as the employed, they aren’t, as Young puts it “in sync with society,” and therein lies the issue. The time may be there, but if it doesn’t match up with others, it’s not nearly as valuable.

After a few days of not going into an office five days a week, I definitely found this to be true. I needed Friday evening to come so that I could sync up with my friends, who were about to embark on the weekend with gusto. I felt better on a Saturday than I did on a Thursday—even if I took the afternoon off to check out an exhibit at a museum. While it was nice to skip the relative crowds and get a slice of culture instead of sitting at a desk, at the end of the day, I was still just waiting for it to end.

Because it’s shared free time that’s a big deal and that which adds to our overall sense of well-being, “You cannot get more ‘weekend’ simply by taking an extra day off work yourself,” writes Young. Technically, the work schedules of others make you “stuck ‘at work.’” So while you may imagine that more free time would make you a happier, more contented individual, unless you have someone to engage with, unless another person is on your schedule, it’s unlikely going to be as valuable as you’d like it to be.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take a staycation day here or there if you’re feeling burnt out, but the notion that if only you had an extra day a week off or even a few more hours, equals contentment, is complex. Unless your schedule links up with your girlfriend’s or twin brother’s, the “free time” itself isn’t going to be as powerful as you think it will.

One suggestion for eschewing the if-only-I-had-more-time mindset is to work toward maximizing the two-day weekends that you do have. Make plans with friends and people whose company you relish. Try to leave work in the office and use your hours outside of your job doing things that bring you satisfaction. I know when I line up dinner and drinks with my college friends after work on a Thursday night, it helps me get through the week. Give yourself something to look forward to, and forget fretting about your company’s nonexistent three-day weekends.

Photo of friends hanging out courtesy of Shutterstock.