Make yourself an "I did it" list
Have you ever found yourself working full time, yearning for free time but then find that when you finally get that day or week or month off, you "piddle it away?" If not, lucky you! However, if you relate to this idea, you'll find yourself in good company. Many of my clients report an uptick in anxiety and depressive symptoms when they get more free time and most are confused and self-critical at their reactions.
This experience shows up for me on my "errand days." I am busy with private practice clients Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week. Weekends are busy with family activities. Mondays and Fridays are the days I have to run errands, manage the house, volunteer at school, catch up on paperwork related to my practice, and get some me-time. On one hand, I look forward to errand days each week because I don't have to worry that something will go wrong (sick kid, me getting sick, some other emergency) and I'll have to cancel on patients. On the other hand, Mondays and Fridays can be a struggle. Especially recently, I've had some health-related issues that have made my energy more variable and so it's difficult to stick to a to-do list to organize the day. I've ended many Mondays or Fridays feeling like I accomplished nothing and didn't even enjoy it.
Learning to feel good about unstructured time
I started today with a clear calendar and a swirling list of things to do in my head. I knew I didn't want to weight of a to-do list on me though because yesterday, I wasn't feeling very well and I was afraid that if I committed to doing a big list of things today, I might feel bad for not getting it all done. So I adopted a practice I often recommend to clients called an "I did it list." This list is nothing fancy - just a piece of ruled paper where I jot down the things I DID accomplish today. No miracles have been performed around here but quite a lot of things have actually gotten done and most of them are things I would have never put down on a "to-do" list.
"I did it" as a mindfulness exercise
Listing the things I did today served an additional purpose of helping me be more mindful and aware of how I use unstructured time. I was able to reflect and laugh at myself about how difficult I find it to finish a task, soup-to-nuts, in one attempt. I gave myself a gold star for bringing two loads of laundry up from the dryer, folding them, and putting them away all before moving onto the next task. I also noticed funny things I was trying to avoid. I boiled some chicken bones on Saturday with the intention of making soup but couldn't get it done in one night so the broth, bones and all, sat in the fridge over the weekend. I did NOT want to sort through this mess to get the broth I needed for dinner. I actually completed loads of laundry to avoid the chicken broth project for hours. Eventually, noticing my avoidance, I tackled it and made some Tom Kha soup.
A values check-in
Recording my "accomplishments" for a day also helped me check in on my values and allowed me to compare how I actually spent my time with how I WANT to be spending my time in a life I value. From a purely psychological perspective, giving myself credit for all the little things is something I value. Life seems fundamentally better to me when I practice self-compassion and gentleness with myself. From a time perspective, I notice that I spent most of the day taking care of my family and my house and a bit of time on my business and clients, exactly how I want to spend my Mondays and Fridays.
So next time you're struggling with unstructured time, consider the "I did it list," and let me know how it goes!