When Are You Free? 4 Steps To Reclaim Your Calendar

“Modern man thinks he loses something - time - when he does not do things quickly. Yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains, except kill it.” Erich Fromm

Amongst the hustle of the ordinary fast track Tuesday, my phone buzzes and hums with a stream of emails, texts and reminders: 4:00pm appointment, pick up bread on the way home, what is everybody doing this weekend? Are you free tonight? Can you drop off my cooler this week? Class at 5pm. While part of me enjoys the idea of being needed and my day scheduled, the stimulation of it all becomes a pulsing dissonance of obligation percolating in the belly of an otherwise placid afternoon.

Out of this, I pledged to turn off my phone for 30 days and see what it was like to live in a simulated pre-cell phone era. From the day I proposed the idea, friends and family questioned my intentions and actually pleaded to keep my phone on. Their reasons ranged from “what if you get into an accident” to “what if I need you to pick something up?” This ambition was cut short after 3 days and I instead opted for a compromised Airplane Mode during work hours clause.

The Economics of Time

My motivation to withdraw stems from two questions: when are we free? and what role does technology play in this? Time is not free if spent in a way that taxes us, either emotionally or physically. Time is the currency of life and how we invest it is inevitably what our life becomes. If we desire freedom then understanding how our freest hours are spent is key to gauging it.

While it is easy to blame our busy schedules on technology, we must admit our role in perpetuating its influence. The smartphone, for example, is a tool. We can use it to enrich our lives or exhaust it. Blaming stress on a phone disregards our responsibility. Rather than dealing with the underlying issue at hand, I chose to opt out. This did not solve the problem, but created new ones.

In an age of constant and instant connectivity, it is easy to book and overbook, overextending our time and energy  leaving us in desperate need for a vacation or Xanax . However, being disconnected and disenchanted with our lives robs us from the beauty hidden in the everyday.

Instead, let’s consider what is important on an individual level and what we can do to truly set our time free. Here are 4 Ways To Reclaim Your Calendar:

1). List your top 4 priorities. Take 5 minutes to sit down and make a list of the four most important goals/tasks/priorities/hobbies to you at this moment. Next, shift your schedule from today onward to only include what is on the list. For example, writing, learning, relationships and time alone are my top priorities. Each of these enrich the other, so spending time on one adds value to another, resulting in a better return on time invested overall.

If time is money, choose the aspects of life that offer the most return on your investment. What makes you feel most alive? If you can narrow your needs and goals down to four nouns, you are on your way to a freer schedule.

2). Be OK with saying no. Once we finish our list, we must then master the art of saying no to non-list obligations. This can be difficult, refusal is often taken as a personal slight. It can cause a lot of anxiety to turn down plans as well, especially if you want to use the allotted time to binge-stream Netflix.

However, which scenario is worse: being present only in body, daydreaming about your couch and wondering what you are missing on Mad Men, or being at home fully engaged in an evening perfectly suited to your needs? It is not the couch or show that is important, but rather meeting our underlying need.

Sometimes, we need time to do nothing. Whether this nothing is to watch TV, dance in our underwear, draw, write or stare out the window. There's freedom in this nothingness, and unless we  learn to say no, we remain bound by obligation. Saying no affirms our needs rather than neglects them. Remember, a no in one direction is a yes in another.

3). Be a mole, not a hedgehog. When whittling down to four priorities, you may, at first, be unsure how to use this new found time. Much of our life is spent minorly engaged in a variety of tasks rather than digging deep into a select few. We spend time with people for years without knowing their deepest dreams and fears and visit the same restaurants without exploring the menu or getting to know the staff.

Instead of being the hedgehog, skimming the shallow surface of our daily lives, let us adopt the mole way of life and dig deep into each moment. By focusing our time and energy, we can enrich each encounter by billowing into the subtleties of our chosen priorities. For example, relationships are one of my top priorities. Since acknowledging this, I cut back obligations that were draining and have been better able to put energy into others.

4). Leave room for spontaneity. Our lives are an ongoing improvisation. The scripted life can render the whole act a bore. Be whimsical, take chances, ditch the planner once and a while and play a new role. Whether, for you, whimsy is lounging alone or rummaging across the moon drenched city, sometimes the best plan is to have no plan at all.

The Tools Of The Trade

We sometimes feel oppressed by obligation, bending to the will of the tyrant Duty. Whether it be a personal planner or smartphone; the tools we use to make life simpler often further complicate it. We try and fit our lives into the small white spaces on the calendar, taking inventory of each hour. Yet, we curse our own ink when we are spread too thin.

Luckily, these technological tyrants are mere tools. We invite them into our lives and dictate how they are handled. It seems that the true culprit is our unspoken apprehension to be idle. Keeping a busy schedule helps us feel needed and important. We fear lonesome Friday nights or a destitute lock screen, displaying only the time.

Unfortunately, overcoming this fear is not as easy as clearing our calendar, but it may be a step in the right direction. Maybe it is my innate need for open spaces and time that reinforces my bias against unchecked productivity. However, there is a sublime peace in contented solitude.

Solitude helps reset our minds in order to gauge the rest of the world. If we can find contentment alone in a quiet room, then anything more is superfluous. If we do not feel at ease during our free time, what is it costing us?

Photo by Vinoth Chander