Free time? Do some second guessing, says Charles Assisi
Vacant hours must be protected, but should they also be scheduled and planned? Try going with the flow, as we all once did, before the gadgets, apps and alerts.
The productivity geek in me felt compelled to do a personal time audit recently. The intent was to figure out just how much “free time” I really have each day. After accounting for work, sleep, time with family and friends, hobbies and factoring in for slack, three hours is what I ended up with, on an average day.
This is quite a lot by any yardstick: 15 hours per work week, 60 hours a month, 720 hours — or 30 working days — a year.
I have become quite protective about these hours. Once I started paying attention, I saw how endangered they can be. If I give away minutes to everyone who interrupts with some request, I’ll lose them. And time cannot be recovered or reclaimed; it’s gone forever.
Clearly, my next question had to be: What was I going do in these hours available to me? Which led me to a larger question: Does it make sense to plan, or should one just go with the flow?
Much of our contemporary literature on the crafting of a “good life” suggests that following a plan works better. From a philosophical perspective, this is a question that has been debated for centuries. Go with the flow, the philosophers tend to say; after all, it cannot really be controlled. Life will go where life must, no matter how many spreadsheets we create around it.
The British writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, in fact, described his approach as the Law of Reversed Effort. “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent unknown quantity may take hold,” he wrote.
There is something practical and, well, something divine about this observation. Try going to sleep when frazzled about not being able to sleep. Chances are you can’t. That is why people are told to focus on their breathing, meditate by observing their thoughts — think about anything, in other words, but sleep. And sleep eventually follows.
In much the same way, if one is told not to think about a pink elephant, that is all one can think about. Until one stops trying to follow the instruction, and simply lets the thoughts wander.
What makes this practice divine? In large parts of the world, India included, this wisdom is native. One simply accepts that there is a larger power at work in the universe, and surrenders to it. In Taoism — the Chinese school of philosophy based on the teachings of Lao Tzu, who lived in the 6th or 7th century BCE — this surrender is called “wu wei” (non-action). As a reed bends in the wind, such “surrender” is considered an act of wisdom.
I used to go with the flow a lot more than I do now. Then, as a young man, I became convinced that to get anywhere of consequence, I needed to live to a plan. That appeared to be a more efficient approach. So, even now, the idea of having no plan for my free time made me edgy.
Conversations with elders helped. The contemporary world places a premium on planning. But a line that sits somewhere between going with the flow and planning every moment is what I should aim for, the seniors advised. That is how the world used to be, before the gadgets, apps and alerts. There was room for set goals and room to breathe; room for focus and flexibility. When change arrived, it could be accommodated more easily.
I decided to give this a shot.
And so, when a friend called as I sat down to write this piece last night, I went with the flow. Can you meet, he asked? I shut my laptop and said I could. It isn’t every day you get to head out with someone who knows every bylane in the bustling Mumbai suburb of Jogeshwari.
My column was delayed, but eventually got done. Meanwhile, I claimed some of that free time, made precious memories, spent an evening with a friend I rarely see, and ate the best seekh kababs I’ve ever eaten in this city.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)