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When Time is Suddenly Heavy on Your Hands

written by Kathryn Britton 15 September 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Most of us can’t imagine having lots of free time. In a 2008 USA Today survey, Boyd and Zimbardo reported that 69% of the respondents described themselves as busy or very busy, and about 49% of them wanted to be less busy.

Yet busy people often suddenly become less busy. A semester ends, or a deadline is met, or a family member no longer needs care, or a person retires. When this happens, people aren’t necessarily happier. When they were too busy, the idea of having open spans of time can seem like heaven. But when the open spans arrive, life can seem suddenly empty, aimless, and without structure. Why get up in the morning? Time, which was so fleeting and precious, now seems both plentiful and easily wasted.

How can we turn an excess of free time into greater well-being? What ideas can help us find Aristotle’s expert mean, just the right point between too much and too little to do, just the right amount of busy?

Too Much Time

A close friend was working very hard last year, barely having time to breathe. Now his workload has been cut in half, and he feels at loose ends. He remembers how precious time was, and he feels guilty about letting it slip away.

My daughter was thoroughly busy over the fall, spring, and summer terms, moving back to North Carolina, taking nursing school prerequisite courses, working a lot of hours at a part-time job, and taking nurse assistant training including practicum hours in a nursing home. Now suddenly she has only the part-time job. The last prerequisite course that she needs isn’t offered until the spring semester. She doesn’t have to be anywhere before 2PM each day.

Finding the Expert Mean

Recently my daughter explained to me what she decided to do in order to put the spine back into her life. It involves five ways of spending time:

  1. Making progress toward professional goals. She’s not taking any relevant classes right now, but she can work on her nursing school application and do some volunteer work that gives her relevant experience.
  2. Learning something new, something completely unrelated to professional goals, in order to gain breadth in her understanding of the world. She’s auditing two courses at the university this semester, one on early Renaissance art, the other on military aviation in the 20th century.
  3. Contributing to the world around her. She likes to have a social action project that fits her personal values.
  4. Having fun. She goes swimming in the quarry with friends, cooks (she’s a determined foodie), meets new people everywhere she goes, reads interesting books, and goes to music shows. She laughs a lot.
  5. Nurturing connections to other people. Since she moved back, she comes over to see us frequently, and she’s busy creating a new community of friends from the people she meets in classes, at work, and at social events. She also writes to her grandmother and her college friends who have scattered over the world. Like Aren Cohen, she enjoys elegant stationary.

So whenever she feels at loose ends, she thinks about these 5 items to figure out something she can do.

Looking Closer at the Five Ideas

Each one of these ideas has roots in the science of well-being. The best source I found for them was Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness, in which she describes 12 Happiness Activities.

Making progress toward professional goals
is one way to carry out Happiness Activity number 10: Committing to Your Goals. Lyubomirsky quotes Australian psychiatrist, W. Beran Wolfe:

“If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert.” (p. 205)

She goes on to say, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”

My daughter is young, so her goals are professional ones. But they don’t have to be. My husband retired with a list of 155 projects he wanted to do, including plant a butterfly garden and read the Western canon. He started the list long ago. I remember many conversations when our children were small that ended up, “That’s something I can do when I retire.” Only he didn’t just talk about them, he wrote them down in a list that he consults regularly. He reports that he has done 80. He is never without a goal.

Learning something new reminds me of Todd Kashdan’s work on curiosity. Todd Kashdan talks about curiosity being strongly related to anxiety. In fact, he uses the metaphor of anxiety and curiosity being on two ends of a slider. You can move the slider from being anxious to being curious as a way to improve well-being. So in this case, my daughter moved the slider from being anxious over properly using her time toward being curious about art, technology, and politics.

Learning something randomly new is a valued activity in our family. I read books out loud to my husband — we recently finished Paradise Lost by Milton, and we’ve read about science topics from cosmology to neuroscience to geology to genomics. It’s great fun to stretch my brain in new directions, and some of these topics are a real stretch. Right now, we’re reading Petroski’s book describing the engineering of bridges. I now view even footbridges with an interested eye.

Finding a social action project corresponds to the search for meaning by contributing to something larger than yourself, for example, as described in Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness. There’s tremendous variety possible here. I’ve seen people use unexpected spare time to become very involved in Habitat for Humanity, in lobbying the legislature for AARP causes, in reading to young children. It doesn’t have to be a huge contribution. When my mother retired, she no longer wanted to take lots of responsibility, but she was happy to file and answer the phone for a couple of non-profit organizations.

Having fun reminds me of Lyubomirsky’s Happiness Activity Number 9, Savoring Life’s Joys. She comments,

Yet the ability to savor the positive experiences in your life is one of the most important ingredients of happiness.”
“Researchers define savoring as any thoughts or behaviors capable of ‘generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment.'” (quoting Bryant and Veroff) (p. 191)

Nurturing connections is Lyubomirsky’s Activity number 5, Nurturing Social Relationships. She comments,

One of the themes of this book is that in order to become happier, we must learn to imitate the habits of very happy people. Happy people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships.” (p. 138).


Are these the only ways to take unexpected free time and turn it into greater well-being? Of course not! One other message of Lyubomirsky’s book is that fit is important — the happiness activities that you choose have to be ones that you are willing to persist in doing. They need to feel right for you. But perhaps these ideas will suggest things you can do even when you are very busy to be ready for a sudden expanse of free time. My husband’s project list was more than 30 years in the making.


Boniwell, I. & Keynes, M. (2005). Beyond time management: How the latest research on time perspective and perceived time use can assist clients with time-related concerns. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 3(2), 61-74.

Boniwell, I. (2009). Time in our lives: Time use satisfaction and its relationship with subjective well-being. VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Petroski, H. (2005). Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering. Vintage Press.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Zimbardo, P. & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.

Time Flies courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Campanile and Duomo in Florence, Italy courtesy of Ruth Lozano
Summer in Redgranite Quarry courtesy of Just Add Light
Dahlias After a Rain courtesy of gailf548
Fade In (Sliders)
courtesy of billaday
Millenium Bridge on the Tyne River courtesy of Tony Hisgett

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oz 15 September 2010 - 2:36 pm

Kathryn – what about exercise, sleep and meditation?

Kathryn Britton 15 September 2010 - 3:39 pm

Great ideas for additional types of activities to consider — thanks for bringing them up. They just weren’t part of the example I was writing about. My daughter actually does put a lot of focus on exercise — which is wonderful because she views our house as a gym and comes over frequently to use the exercise equipment and then stay for lunch. I suspect it didn’t occur to her to mention it because it’s not something that she needs to intentionally add to her life.

Marian 15 September 2010 - 4:24 pm

Hi Kathryn

I’m scheduled to give a talk to a local women’s group in the New Year. Your article has fired me with enthusiasm for a topic near to my heart as a retired person – how to make the most of all that wonderful ‘free time’. This was not always so … thank you for a great revision of how positive psychology can help in so many different ways.

PS I am as a speak revising for a Philosophy examination – great stuff.


Jeremy McCarthy 15 September 2010 - 10:36 pm

Great article. I love your daughter’s framework. I think most of positive psychology is about answering the question, “how should we spend our time?”

Amanda Horne 16 September 2010 - 1:33 am

Kathryn, I love this about your daughter “put the spine back into her life”. It suggests foundation, strength and health.

Jeremy, that’s a great question: “how should we spend our time?”, and to add to that “where do we get our energy” (so that we live a good life).


Kathryn Britton 16 September 2010 - 1:17 pm

I detect “Learn something completely new” in your statement about studying for a Philosophy exam. Brava!

Good luck with your talk, and feel free to add other ideas here — just as Oz has.

Kathryn Britton 16 September 2010 - 1:41 pm

Your statement reminds me of a McKinsey article, When your calendar is a moral document: A conversation with Reverend Jim Wallis. The subtitle is “The CEO of the social-justice organization Sojourners discusses the imperative for rethinking values in the wake of the economic downturn.”

It makes sense that all the little decisions we make about how to spend time add up to the shape of our lives as a whole.

He is mostly addressing the “too busy” and what gets left out because time is short. But I think it’s also important to consider times of “not busy enough” and what we choose to add back in. In fact, it seems a more creative practice, since omitting something that is already there is easier than coming up with something to add.

Thanks again for your comment.

Kathryn Britton 16 September 2010 - 1:58 pm

My daughter was really stunned to read the article and see how easily I connected her ideas with positive psychology themes. We talked about whether she would have come up with these ideas if she hadn’t been hearing me talk about positive psychology for the last 5 years. Her conclusion: The specific ideas were hers, but the idea of being intentional and creating a plan to feel better about herself in her current circumstances, that is what came from hearing me talk.

Where we get our energy sounds like a great idea for another article — perhaps with links to some of Marie-Josee’s articles on physical health as well the whole question of “good fit.” Let me know if you are feeling inspired.

Thanks for commenting.

Lauren 19 September 2010 - 3:53 pm

I enjoyed reading your article and am inspired by your husband’s project list. I often have ideas for what I would do if I weren’t so busy, but simply writing them down on a master list is a great suggestion. I was curious about what Aristotle said about “expert mean.” But when I searched for more information about that online, the closest reference I came up with was “golden mean,” which seems to refer to that delicate balance between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Is that the same thing as expert mean? Thanks!

Kathryn Britton 19 September 2010 - 5:03 pm


Expert mean is another term for golden mean. I like this term, not just because that’s the way I learned it, but also because the expert/golden mean is not a fixed point between excess and deficit. It’s a matter of judgment including awareness of context. So there isn’t a single perfect point between cowardice and rashness — there’s a point in the middle that requires judgment — expertise — to figure out.

Make sense?

Thanks for the comment, and good luck with your master list.

Kirstine Vergara 21 September 2010 - 12:42 pm

I quit my job in an ad agency about 2 months ago because my schedule was no hectic I barely had the time to see my kid. I worked so hard thinking that the money I bring home would compensate for everything. Wanting to give everything to your child is something, but seeing your child grow is much more important. So I quit my job to be there for my son during his formative years. I thought I would be lost without my job, but it turned out fine. Actually, I felt free after that.

Let me share with you an article on Following Your Heart This is really inspiring. Sometimes it may not be easy, but happiness does not just knock on your door; you have to look for it. 🙂

Kathryn Britton 21 September 2010 - 4:16 pm

Thank you for your story and for the link to Terri’s story.

It’s interesting to hear how people make decisions about their time. You certainly showed your child what was most important to you. Besides taking care of your son, what else did you do to put structure in your life, so that you didn’t feel lost without your job? Did caring for him expand to take the space, or did you have time for other things you’ve been putting aside?

Brittany S 27 September 2010 - 9:58 pm


I enjoyed reading your article on time. I was wondering if you have a take on if the amount of time you have in a day, whether having too much time or too little time, takes a toll on your emotional happiness? You mentioned that even if an individual does get free time that then they feel like they have not done enough, but does that affect happiness?

Look forward to hearing from you!

Jeremy McCarthy 30 September 2010 - 12:18 pm

Thanks Kathryn for the link above. I also wrote on my blog about the psychology of time featuring Robert Levine’s book The Geography of Time, a fascinating overview of the history and culture of time. I agree with you on the importance of considering “too much time” although I rarely find myself in that situation.

One cause I really believe in is Take Back Your Time a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting more personal time into our lives. They have a great newsletter which is filled with interesting articles on time.

Kathryn Britton 30 September 2010 - 1:50 pm

Great question. Thanks for pushing me to look for relevant research.

The closest match I can find is a paper by Ilona Boniwell and Milton Keynes titled Beyond time management: How the latest research on time perspective and perceived time use can assist clients with time-related concerns in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol 3(2), Aug, 2005. pp. 61-74. Here is a sentence from the abstract: “Four factors, are shown to play a major role in how people spend their time and how happy they feel with it: liking what one does and perceiving it as worthwhile, balance, responsibility and achievement, and time anxiety and lack of control.”

I suspect that subject is also addressed in the book by Ilona Boniwell, Time in our lives: Time use satisfaction and its relationship with subjective well-being. I don’t happen to have the book in front of me, but I think it’s likely to be addressed there. I’ll add it to the links for the article.


Kelsey 3 October 2010 - 10:32 pm


First, I would just like to commment on your inclusion of Wolfe’s statement “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.” This really spoke to me and made me think.

Also, I would like to comment yet again on excercise, sleep, and meditation. All of which are indeed important factors in balancing your life, but my question is this: do you think that an excess of any of these may also lead to opposite effects on overall happiness? The reason I ask is that for many people I assume, including myself, days can be wasted on these things, especially sleeping, and that the end of the day these things we do to make our day more fulfilling can have the opposite effect (perhaps due to seeing that time wasted or even having pressure from others to do something besides those activites that indeed make you happy)? An example: I LOVE to sleep. It’s something that makes me happy, energized, and also relaxed. But often times I do not wake up until the early afternoon hours and although this may be okay with me, I feel pressure from others to do things other than sleep. Exercising and meditation could also fit into this example I assume. In other words, does what other people have to say about what you chose to do in your free time have an effect on how you view your pleasurable activity and how often you’ll engage in it and feel content doing so?

*I hope that made sense…I had a hard time typing out what I am trying to get across.

Kelsey Twine

Kathryn Britton 4 October 2010 - 5:31 pm

How do you feel when you think about sleep in your life? Do you feel good about yourself, that you’ve gotten just the right amount of sleep for yourself?

Paul Wong reminds us to use our emotional responses as guides in a self-repairing life. If you feel good about sleep in your life, great! Isn’t it wonderful to LOVE doing something that is so crucial for good health. There are many people who don’t get enough sleep because they feel they are too busy for it. If on the other hand, you don’t feel so good about it — find yourself making excuses for it — perhaps there’s room for adjustment.

Part of this is figuring out what YOU feel about it — not what other people think you ought to feel.

Make sense?

James 31 October 2010 - 3:30 pm

I really enjoyed your article as I seem to always find myself with too much or too little time. It seems as if your suggestion for having too much time would be to fill that time with meaningful activities, learning experiences, etc. Would you then recommend finding time to engage in these activities while you’re busy and see yourself as not having enough time? I feel like it might be more difficult to start using your time in this way once you have an excess of free time if you have not made a habit of it while you considered yourself busy. I know that when I transition from busy to not busy I tend to keep the mindset of preparing for the next busy period by being completely unproductive while not busy.
Thank you and again great article,

Kathryn Britton 31 October 2010 - 5:18 pm

Interesting question. I mentioned that my husband kept a list of interesting things that occurred to him when he was too busy, and that list is a great resource for now that his time is not so structured. Even back in his very busy days, he seized every lull as an opportunity to learn something new. He’s my inspiration for macro time management.



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