Uncontaminated free time

In my talks — especially to professional women’s groups with a 30- and 40-something demographic — I’ve started throwing out a question: It’s Saturday. Your husband (or partner, or parents) suddenly announces that he/she/they are going to take your kids on a field trip and will be back later that night.

In other words, you have the day to yourself to do whatever you want. 

So what are you going to do with it?

I’m always intrigued by how many people need to ponder this question for a while. They enjoy the pondering — some call it a dream scenario — but it’s a dream scenario because they view it as unlikely. We may have more time than we think. Legitimate studies of parental time use find that even parents with young kids have around 30 hours of free time per week after the demands of work, family, and chores are accounted for. The problem is that this time often appears in bits, 20 minutes here and there, and is “contaminated.” The kids are watching a movie…but could come bother you while you read. They’re at soccer practice, but will be home at some point. They’re asleep, and so you can’t really leave the house. If you’re in the midst of building a career and raising a family, truly uncontaminated free time requires a lot of advanced planning. It doesn’t drop from the sky.

But I still like this question, because it forces us to think about what we’d like to do more of with our time. What do you really enjoy? What little pleasures do life’s responsibilities sometimes crowd out?

I experienced this scenario a few weeks ago when my husband — atoning for a bad week of travel — woke up on Saturday and announced that he’d be taking the kids to the Bronx Zoo. We live in Pennsylvania. I knew I had about ten uncontaminated hours once they were in the car at 9 a.m. Not wanting to waste the time, I planned some anchor events: a long run, some writing on the back porch, and two leisurely shopping trips. I rarely do any sort of recreational shopping any more. I order everything online, or zip through stores grabbing what I need because I have some number of small children with me or waiting for me at home. Lingering in the stores was lovely.  

As I was pondering this leisurely day, though, I recalled the opening scene from 168 Hours. Theresa Daytner, mother of six and owner of a small business which then had 12 people on the payroll, goes for a hike on a Thursday morning. She wanted some uncontaminated time and so — in the midst of more responsibilities than most of us — she simply took it. I work for myself, too. I could go shopping in the middle of the day sometime if I so desired. I could write on the back porch (heck, that’s even my job!) I could go for longer runs. Even the corporate types at my speeches often have personal days in their benefits packages. Many of us could take a day or two to smell the flowers here and there.

We just don’t.

I’m not entirely sure why. In my case, I probably worry that self-employment requires so much self-discipline to stay focused that once I start hitting Neiman Marcus on a Tuesday morning it will all fall apart. But the good thing about asking the Saturday question is that once you have an answer, you at least have an image. An image can sometimes become a goal. And a goal can sometimes become a plan. A plan for creating at least a little uncontaminated me-time in a busy life is a good step toward creating the life you want in the 168 hours you’ve got.

What would you do with a free Saturday (or Sunday)?

As a side note: If you travel a lot for work, hotel time can also be uncontaminated me-time.

Photo courtesy flickr user Project GreenBag



13 Responses to Uncontaminated free time


  1. I do get this from time to time and I generally spend it with a mix of reading novels, watching anime, putzing on the internet, and doing work/chores. Not so much in the past 3 months since it’s easier to feed the baby from the tap than to pump. Given my druthers, I’m pretty much a homebody. (Recreational shopping sounds miserable to me, and going out is much more fun with the fam than without. Though on conferences I will sometimes shop if there’s something missing in my wardrobe. I often get my haircut at conferences as well.)

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – my kids still keep me on my toes, but yes, there is a huge increase in free time once the baby stops nursing every 2-3 hours!

  2. oilandgarlic says:

    Interesting question. I would probably exercise longer, try to meet up with a good friend, and then watch a movie or read a book. I also like the idea of leisurly shopping, which is something that has definitely fallen by the wayside in recent years!

    • Laura says:

      @Oilandgarlic – it is the cruel irony of the human condition that, for many people, as they have more money to shop with, they have less time to spend shopping.

  3. Marci says:

    I also am self-employed, and my middle-school children no longer demand so much of my time. Still, I have struggled with what to do with any down time, crazy as it seems since I had dreamed of having more personal time for more than a decade.

    When I found myself with longer stretches of “free time,” I felt really out of sorts because I felt like I should do big, fun things (like going to a new exhibit at the art museum or going to a cool new restaurant) but I just couldn’t make myself leave the house. My free time usually is unexpected (e.g. both kids are invited at 5 p.m. on Friday to sleepovers at friends), and I usually don’t have time to plan or psych myself up for an outing. If I sat at home watching TV with my husband or reading, I felt like I was wasting this precious gift of time – with the same emotional impact as if I set a $100 bill on fire.

    I actually had to spend some time doing as you suggest here and plan for more fun in my life. My plan:

    1. Make regular dates with spouse and friends. I’m in two book clubs that have regular meeting times. I meet a friend for a early morning walk at least once a week.

    2. Give myself permission to be a homebody and just read (which I love) and write.

    3. Reward myself with a free day once a month, if I’ve been productive and met my goals.

    There’s more, but you get the idea.

    • Laura says:

      @Marci- Thanks for your comment. I also hate the idea of wasting time. Vegging out on purpose is fine – especially curled up with a book. that’s productive! But flipping through magazines I don’t care about, half-heartedly picking up the house, etc. — that’s a waste. I find that I am much better about using that free time to read if I have good books around the house. So I’ve started going to the library much more often. I’m a bit annoyed with myself because I have a train ride tonight and didn’t pick up anything to read this week…

  4. ARC says:

    Oh, this is an easy one for me – I’d spend most of the day in my craft room – part of it organizing and purging my stuff (it’s the one place I’m a hoarder), but the rest working on all sorts of projects I’ve got on my running list.

    I did simply “take” the free time last January when I did a “Mama Weekend Away”, which was just me going to a hotel room for the weekend. I used the time to get a massage, haircut, read (so much reading!), sleep (uninterrupted), and some “life planning”.

    I wrote about it on my blog – search for ‘mama weekend away’ if you’re so inclined.

    It was lovely, but with a newborn, not going to happen anytime soon, unless I take her :(

  5. Nother Barb says:

    When the boys were small, I would put on the crock pot and do things like install light fixtures and shelving systems and paint rooms. Anything that interruptions really interrupted. Now that they’re big and in school all day — that’s ALL day — a Saturday off is not such a big treat. In fact, since they’re not as needy, the real treat is going with them–I can even wander off on my own, so can they, and I worry only a little bit. So hang in there! Enjoy the time whatever their ages.

  6. Karen says:

    I would practice my violin. I started playing the violin again 6 years ago and taking lessons after a long break for pretty much this reason: I wanted an activity that was just for me, and was creative and challenging. Learning the violin is kind of infinite–if you’re a normal person, you never really run out of things to learn and improve. (For that matter, even the great virtuosos say that.) And you can fit it in into small or large chunks of time. If you just have 5-10 minutes you can do a few scales and exercises, and if you have a few hours you can really lose yourself in a big project.

  7. Kathy says:

    I’ve gotten much better about taking uncontaminated time for myself, even though I still work on not feeling guilty about it. My big issue is time alone in my own home. My husband and I both work from home, and we have a high school senior who has a shortened school schedule and gets home around 12:30. I crave solitude at home and rarely get to experience it–when I do, I tend to read a lot, do putter-y types of projects, and sometimes watch girl-type movies. I could certainly do these things with the guys home, but it feels so much more satisfying to do them alone–with no one watching me “waste” time, and no possibility of being interrupted by one of them.

  8. Cara Marcano says:

    not sure.. and will read comments when I come back to this.. but have to go on a work errand and will remember to grab book I am reading … since part of work errand involves dealing w small biz vehicles so i will be a passenger for part of the ride… so thanks for the reminder to take that book…

  9. Alissa says:

    I love this phrase “uncontaminated free time” Last week I came home to find the house empty and was truly at a loss, first time in year I’d been home alone. Plus I wasn’t sure how long it would last. I took a 15 power nap, then worked on a scrapbooking project. For me, uncontaminated free time would be spent scrapbooking or shopping for clothes. I was surprised at how satisfied I was on black friday when a friend suggested JCP’s and I spent 40 minutes trying on clothes with no little people whining. And I got some stuff I loved. With a 9mo & 2 yr old, it is so rare I go anywhere alone I was willing to get up at 4 am to get some alone time with a friend! Great post as usual.

    • Laura says:

      @Alissa- when I was writing my ebook (the before breakfast one) I was amazed how many people did speak of getting up at 5 to get that uncontaminated free time. Esp if one has very little kids, it may be the only time available. But as people keep pointing out, they do grow up. Someday I’ll be 80 and wishing people would come see me.