The Value of Unstructured Time

Day 9 of #100DaysToOffload

We've been having a non-argumentative argument in my house about what to do with the kids over the summer; more specifically, what camps or activities we might send them to. One of those ordinary parenting logistics things which, with so may camps and summer activities planning to be online rather than face to face (yet still chargin lots of money), has some added wrinkles this summer. In my own household, this everyday planning is but the latest proxy war in the never-ending ideological struggle between my spouse and me on the matter of unstructured time.

I am acutely aware of the ways my work habits in the past year have exacerbated a long dormant condition of workaholism. It has been even more extreme for my wife, whose work had always involved the structure of an office environment and regular (if long) hours. Working from home was not a huge change from me, as I already split my time so that a portion of my days were at home. A lot of people working from home for the first time in the past year have discovered the age-old truth. You'd think you might spend less time working, but in reality you end spending more, because it's so easy to stay in your working state.

So we come to the parental juggling of summer activities. I grew up not doing many. It was a special and rare treat to go to something like a camp. (And even then it was nerd camp, so there were classes and the like.) Most of the time we simply played during the summer. When I was old enough (and in fact, before I was really of the right age to do so) I worked during the summer. By contrast, my kids have grown up in an overprogrammed world. We have dutifully “enriched” them with various summer options, up to this past year when things shut down. And now, even with some things opening up (though many remaining online), I find it harder to stay quiet about the fact that fundamentally I think it's ok if they spend their summer doing whatever the hell it is they want to do, grappling with their potential boredom, and finding outlets for their creativities. It's true that they can learn stuff or experience things at camps and activities, and I'm fine with a smattering of that. But I don't see it as a wasted summer or any great problem that kids not spend their summer being busy all the time.

My spouse, obviously, disagrees with this philosophy. It seems to unsettle her to imagine that the kids might not have these various logistics obligations forming at least the majority of their summer plans. It is a bubbling up, as in all long marriages, of an old disagreement. It parallels our differences when it comes to work in general. For her, work is what happens when you go to the office. This is fair, given her profession and career and personality. I can do that sort of thing too, but it is uncomfortable and less than productive. I am at my best when I commit intensely and focus for short periods, then take time and let things simmer in the background. My best work happens when I have space and freedom to play, that unstructured time, either a part of the day or even multiple days at a time. That's not an indulgence; that's a necessity. And at my best I can arrange things in my own work to allow for that.

So I end up “working” late into the night, when I'm engaged and enjoying something, because it is interesting. That's a kind of workaholism, but when it's there I value it. I enjoy it. I would be doing nothing else. That fits me and, I suspect, fits my kids as well.

I am thinking about these things nowadays not just because of the trivial matter of deciding summer logistics. I went for many years without that joy in my work, without that excitement that would keep me up or simmer in the background of my mind as I went about the day. It was, in part, because of an overly structured work apparatus that demanded constant busywork and oversight. Some people thrive in that never-ending grind of to-dos and emails. For me, it's death by a thousand cuts and I withered away, not realizing the systemic causes of my burnout until it was too late. So in a lot of ways I welcome the resurgence of that long dormant workaholism. It tells me I'm on the right track. I want to play more in these areas I find myself working in now.

I know there are plenty of people who need lots of structure and are lost without out. That's fine. I'm not one of those. For a long time I've felt guilty about that. It's indulgent to imagine that work should be play and indeed I'm old enough to know that work usually isn't play, that the Steve Jobs aphorism to young people about finding what you love is marketing copy more than life strategy. But I'm also old enough to appreciate time as a gift. Unstructured time is freedom, an arena to exercise control. That is an even more significant gift. Saying that work should be like play is misleading; the point is having control of your work time, something that you have to pay attention to when working at home because otherwise the day would be wasted in domestic distractions. Unstructured time is time that I get to control. It pains me to deprive others of that, no matter how enriching a summer curriculum may be.

And so the ideological struggle continues, between the forces for freedom and the planners of summer.