The Free Time Falacy

I’ve often heard people, and I’m one of them, say they would do such and such if they had more free time. I’ve also heard thought devoking (the opposite of invoking) advertisements on television ask the question: “Would you like more free time?” or similar. The main reason I bring it up is because I sat next to a woman on the train who saw me typing away, working on The West Queen and she said she would like to write a book, if she had the free time. So? So what?

What is free time?

Free time is a clichĂ© we use to express dissatisfaction with our time management skills. The term itself has no real meaning. It is as if we somehow have time that we can get and spend and somehow we can have “free” time. But we can’t step out of our temporal experience can we? No. The time we have is the time we have and we are always doing something while it passes. There is no way to gain free time or extra minutes. We all get the same. So that is why I say it is meaningless to talk about having spare or free time. But the feeling that we aren’t making the most of what time we have is universal and does have meaning.

What can we do?

I told the woman on the train that for the past forty minutes, while I was writing my book, she was flicking through a gossip magazine. Couldn’t she do something with that time? She laughed and told me that wasn’t even the worst of it; she’d read the magazine cover to cover on her trip in the morning and now she was just flicking through it for something to do. So she was killing time. There she was wishing she had more time while simultaneously doing nothing of value with what time she had. We are all like that, of course. I’m not some superhuman dynamo of continuous productivity (I am a superhuman dynamo, but not of continuous productivity). The real trick is to recognise and appreciate the time we have. The real reason the woman on the train wasn’t writing her book was because, for whatever reason, she didn’t feel she could.


I have a theory on motivation, real motivation that is. At any given moment we have a choice of things we can do. Some are easy and some are hard. Some things we can do to avoid something unpleasant and some things we do out of habit. Motivation comes in two flavours; forced and avoidance. Forced motivation is when you look at the lawn and know it needs mowing. You roll your eyes, take a deep breath and just do it. There is no real consequence of not doing it and no real benefit from doing it, but you make yourself anyway. The other motivation, avoidance, is when there are consequences for not doing a thing. The more dire the consequences (real or perceived) the stronger the motivation to do something to avoid them. When I was younger, one of my friends, a bloke in his forties, was admitted to hospital with a colon obstruction. He a section of his bum cut out and had to wear a plastic bag to poo into. They reconnected his plumbing and he is doing OK now, but the reason he went through such an awful thing was because he didn’t eat enough fibre (obviously I’m simplifying here, but you get the picture). I did not want bowl cancer or an obstruction or anything to go wrong with my bum at all. I realised all I had to do was eat whole grain bread, high fibre cereal and I could avoid all that trouble. To me it was simple. I eat a fair bit of bread in the form of sandwiches, toast and sometimes with my dinner.

And this relates to writing how?

I think we, as humans, take the path that allows us to avoid bad things. My father-in-law has worked his way up from being a school drop out to a multi-millionaire by taking risks, working hard and working smart. He had no other choice. If he didn’t travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometres for a job, if he didn’t live in a shed for years while building his first house, he wouldn’t have anything. So he had the motivation to put in the hard yards and now he has the benefit of that work. He asks me constantly why I don’t quit my job and start some business or other. My simple answer is I have it too easy. I have a highly valued university degree and many, many years of experience that I can sell easily for good money. Not fantastic money, but certainly more than I’d get in the first five years of hard work. So I keep doing what I do because I don’t have the free time to build up a business. But what about writing? Before writing on the train I read books. Books in Australia cost $25 for mass market paperback. I was reading 1.5 books / week so I was spending $150 / month on books. I could have switched to e-books or scoured the second-hand stores, but I had an easier option, one that I’d been waiting for find the free time for. I started writing to save money on books. So if you want to write, or do anything at all really, you may find it easier to get going by finding out what you can avoid or get out of by doing this other thing.

  • I write to save money on books (originally, now I do it because I really enjoy it)
  • I grow and eat my own fruit and veg and eat high fibre foods to keep from getting cancer
  • I run every day and do weights every other day to keep fit and healthy so I don’t die of a heart attack
  • I walk the dog each morning at the beach so I’m not pestered by him and his chewing the rest of the day
  • I remember my wedding anniversary so I can wake up each morning

Need motivation? Just think of what you want to avoid.

About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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