Can You Have Too Much Free Time?

by | Jun 28, 2023

Do you feel like you don’t have enough time in the day? Does your lack of time to get everything done leave you feeling stressed? If so, you’re not alone, as about 70% of wage earners say they “don’t have enough time to be with their children, their spouses, or to spend on themselves.” Source. Feeling like you are constantly short on time is called “time famine” and it’s a common source of stress and unhappiness worldwide.

If you are experiencing time famine, you probably wish you had weeks, months, or even years of free time. I have friends who work long hours, suffer time stress, and consequently are counting down the months and years until they can retire. When I talk with them about what they plan do with all that free time, the usual refrain is they want to “relax” and “play.” Sounds great. But is it really?

It turns out that having a lot of discretionary time isn’t an unmitigated good. While having too little time isn’t great, having too much free time is also linked to lower subjective well-being.

Many of us experienced having too much free time during the COVID lockdown. Other common examples are the drop in happiness that often occur post-retirement or after selling a business. Having the freedom to do whatever you want each day sounds great, but it can leave you feeling rudderless. For instance, a few years ago I met someone at a conference who had recently sold his business for hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet he wasn’t happy. He told me that he felt lost at sea and completely bored. “There’s only so many rounds of golf I can play or so many birds I can shoot in a week to fill up my time,” he said. “I shouldn’t have sold my company — I have nothing productive to do anymore.” It’s a common trope and research confirms that having too much discretionary time can lead to unhappiness.

You can think of the relationship between discretionary time and happiness as being an inverted U — here’s a diagram:

Thus, the goal is to hit the sweet spot – to be moderately busy without having too much or too little free time.

But what about when you retire? Or if you have a few months off? Or you sell your business? Or you are stuck at home during a pandemic? What should you do? Research suggests some answers:

1. Spend your discretionary time with other people. So-called “social discretionary time” didn’t show the same inverted U pattern — only “solo discretionary time” did. Sure, some time to yourself can be great, but too much time alone tends to reduce happiness and well-being.

This conclusion is buttressed by another study that I previously wrote about that found that we’d rather be administered an electric shock than be left alone with our own thoughts for too long.

2. Make your discretionary time productive. Just flipping through Instagram or Tik Tok will make you miserable. As will channel surfing for hours on end. Choose a productive activity to preserve your sense of well-being in the face of free time. Exercise. Do some yard work or gardening. Volunteer. Start an arts or crafts project. Learn a new skill. I think reading is a productive use of free time.

The key is to limit your solo and non-productive free time. If you are nearing retirement, have something(s) to retire to, not just something to retire from.

1 Comment

  1. This IFOD tracks with my experience. Time spent on my phone feels less free even though I am actively choosing it. I’ve been reading about solutions and perspectives to help, and your two main points are clarifying even though I think I already understood them on a sub-conscious level. Thanks!

    ‘Freedom has been defined as the opportunity for self-discipline.’ – Eisenhower


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
%d bloggers like this: