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Too much free time may be almost as bad as too little (apa.org)
143 points by porterde 82 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

Asking people to imagine a state of mind they've rarely been in is supposed to inform of us what exactly? Almost nobody can predict how would they fare in drastically different circumstances.

I, too, am one of the people who can't just look at the ceiling all day. But I am also burned out and tired enough to probably need at least one year for complete [non-passive] leisure. I'll likely pick a hand craft, write those N programs I always wanted, start properly cleaning the house, be a bit more persistent in my workout regime etc. -- many things really.

I know this because I've been going through the very usual "work 9 months, rest for 3" rhythm that many programmers have gone through. But asking a bunch of Joes and Janes that never had that? Not very useful IMO.

And yes, too much free time is bad. I've taken such a good care of my wife that eventually she lost all sense of purpose and life direction and now she has to try really hard every day to rediscover them again.

> And yes, too much free time is bad.

Obviously I don't claim to know her individual circumstances but speaking in more general terms, a seeming excess in free time may sometimes prove fruitful. Could be that a person was stuck in a "local maximum" in their former life, and by being pushed off that low hill they will eventually wander upon a much higher mountain of achievement. In other words, with a new self-directed sense of purpose they may find something much more fulfilling than the standard "eking out a paycheck" that most of us accept as the normal state of affairs. And that may take that a long time to accomplish, longer than they would ever been able to make time for in their old life filled with busywork.

Absolutely correct.

The problem with all that however is that I've been the strongest person of everyone around me for all my life and when I finally broke and needed somebody else to support me for 1-2 years, she wasn't (and still isn't) there to do that for me. So I continue my death march, at a great cost for my physical and mental health. And I keep a routine that helps me stay in shape but I can feel it every day that this is not what the soul wants. But eh, oh well.

She's an amazing woman and she'll crawl out of this eventually but in the meantime my needing help just broke her back and made her more depressed -- because she can't help the man she loves with exactly the thing he needs help with.

One of the things you said is very apt: indeed getting out of the local maximum and realizing the world is yours for the taking and that can you do so much more can be very frightening to a lot of people, her included. She's still struggling a lot with it and sometimes still wants to just get back to do house work and making some money on the side with a part-time job. I mean, eventually she might do just that but at least it will have been an informed choice, which IMO would be fair.

But yes, even arriving at "what do I want now?" in this situation takes a long time indeed. Which can be sad and discouraging when you watch as a side observer.

OOOOR ... people with low mood tend to be less able to engage in activities?

It reminds me of that joke: a biology professor is teaching physiology. He takes a frog and says "jump". The frog jumps. The prof then chops the frog's legs, and says "jump" again. The frog now stands motionless. "We conclude", says the prof, "that a frog's hearing depends on its legs!".

There’s a Soviet version of that joke that is way harsher.

Care to share?

The "Soviet joke" that I know, sanitized and ROT13'd:

Fbivrg fpvragvfgf qvfpbirerq gurer'f n qverpg areir pbaarpgvba orgjrra gur rlrf naq gur erpghz. Guvf jnf irevsvrq rkcrevzragnyyl ol bofreivat gung vafregvat na bowrpg vagb gur erpghz jvyy znxr gur fhowrpg pel, naq vafregvat n arrqyr vagb gur rlr jvyy znxr gur fhowrpg rkpergr.

I don't know the soviet version, but knowing a little Russian humour I will 100% bet that it is the same joke but with a person rather than a frog.

> participants were asked to imagine having a given amount of discretionary time... [and then] asked to report the extent to which they would experience enjoyment, happiness and satisfaction.

This seems like a weird research design to me with limited power to actually tell us anything. Why would we think the amount of enjoyment people imagine having in response to an amount of free time we tell them to imagine would correlate well with actual experiences? Are people generally good at predicting how much they would enjoy random imaginary circumstances?

Now that might be an interesting study, how much do the things we predict will make us happy actually make us happy?

Or actually, replying to myself, this study maybe did tell us something: Most people say they need some leisure time, but would also like to do something productive with their lives, not just sit around all day doing nothing.

OK, fine, good to know I guess, that that's what most people want. I guess it's a kind of inspiring view of humanity, people want to do something useful.

I think there is still some values in studying these 'purpose' thresholds and how they differ between places and cultures.

The main issue is that the study conflates free time with leisure.

I personally have a lot of “non-work” time, but not that much leisure time. I just fill up time with personal projects, and stuff like house renovation that I would have otherwise put off.

In fact “work time” is only defined for me as “time I do stuff to get paid so I can make other stuff”. So yeah if I could “work” as little as possible, it’d be pretty good.

I have at least two ways of working on anything.

One is the playful way that explores the problem domain. This does not feel so much like work.

The other can take on a monotonous job at high intensity for days on end, satisfied there is no better way.

For a long time, it was almost always that my free time was in the former and my work in the latter. This resulted in a lot of unfinished personal projects and a deep dissatisfaction with work.

My most productive work has definitely a blend of the two, and there is a skill in knowing when to switch between.

Adding to that one in my case what I define as "leisure time" time is defined as hard physical labor in normal terms, e.g. hiking, weightlifting, pouring concrete, cutting trees. I do it on my own tempo of course so it's not stressful, but I've found a long time ago it's the best way to relax from all day screen sessions, which happen often.

> I do it on my own tempo of course so it's not stressful

"I don't have to, but I have some time for this" is THE reason that those activities are relaxing. I have to haul some wood recently, but because I absolutely have to do it before the wood is spoiled and because I have many other activites I have to do and too little time, I can't count that as leisure. Last week I had a kind of breakdown and spent whole day gaming. That was THE best day this year, I rested even better than with 1 week of kayaking that I do every year as holidays (which actually became another chore to do with family).

> So yeah if I could “work” as little as possible, it’d be pretty good.

Shrink that denominator!

> 2,550 American adults were recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

> participants were asked to imagine having a given amount of discretionary time every day

Seriously? I trust this about as much as I trust a twitter poll.

Yeah, whats next. Imagining how your weight would change on a diet to measure that diets effectiveness?

In all seriousness, the majority of Brain-Computer Interface trials involve asking subjects (usually able-bodied in the initial stages) to imagine moving their limbs.

There is a neuroscientific basis for that. We have well established research showing how imagining movements activates (almost) the same parts of the brain as making those movements.

This is entirely different from asking people to imagine how they would react to a scenario. There is a pretty wide body of research documenting how poorly we tend to be at estimating such reactions.

>We have well established research showing how imagining movements activates (almost) the same parts of the brain as making those movements.

In some people, some of the time, with no way of knowing beforehand if it's the system failing or the patient.

Mouth noises or button mashing are an insufficient proxy for ground truth

This seems like a reasonable first step before creating prototypes and more advanced studies. What am I missing?

The fact that we're still doing it 30 years later.

Especially when if you wanted to try and survey people who've actually experienced a sudden upswing in free time, now is the time to do it. I wouldn't have to imagine my answer because I experienced it over the summer of 2020.

I thought there's no way that's right, but no, that really was their method behind one of their studies. What in the world?

MTurk is a laughable source of input and a lot of academics rely on it for their papers

My experience with Mturk is that participants just randomly click anything, so that they can complete the task as quickly as possible. Almost none of them care about getting it right.

My anecdotal life experience as a person in their mid-forties: my happiness depends upon a balanced daily rhythm. And I need things I "have" to do to capture that rhythm. With too much free time I just fall apart. It feels good for about three days, maybe a week or two tops, but after that I need my schedule back.

I took 3 years off in my 20s. During that time, I had a checklist with like 5-7 things I was supposed to do each day. Stuff like Brush Teeth 2x, Say ‘Hi’ to a stranger, Go to Gym, Read for 45 minutes, walk for 60 minutes, etc. I would go to the library every Sunday and print out my checklist and then make a new one the next Saturday.

I’d take a picture of it each week and post it online with commentary on how the week was. Posted a bunch of them online here:


> I took 3 years off in my 20s.

Wow! As someone who never even took a gap year that sounds amazing. Yet so out of reach.

(20-something doing the same)

What's stopping you?

My guess would be: money?

And loss of career momentum.


I find that I'm happiest when there are things I need to do, but there is little to no cost to deferring them and doing something else. In a situation like that you're always occupied, doing the most enjoyable thing at the moment.

The problem I have is if there are multiple projects I can work on, I have a difficult time figuring out which one I'd get the most enjoyment out of working on right now. Part of that is because there are parts of programming or design that is high stress, but the result is something to be proud enough where the mental boost from the result makes the stress worth while. But at the beginning it is hard to just start "something", and it gets harder if there are multiple "somethings" to choose from.

Same thing with watching TV. I used to be able to sit down and flip the TV on, with a choice of a handful of stations, and vegge out. Now with several streaming services I can sit there for an hour flipping through stuff to find something, and then turn the TV off because I can't decide on what is most worth my time "right now".

> things I need to do, but there is little to no cost to deferring them and doing something else

An author's quote that stuck with me:

You have to always be working on 2 books. That way you can work on the other while you procrastinate on the first.

I've found this for myself, too, seemingly.

And it helps to have "work" that is hard but enjoyable. Then when you're working hard, you're looking forward to rest; and when you're resting, you're looking forward to work. And you throw in a lot of "play" too, if possible (for me, sport, relationships, etc.). So, whatever you're doing, you're enjoying what you're doing AND you're looking forward to something (work, rest, or play), which adds enjoyment to the present (work, rest, or play).

My anecdotal data-point.

Anecdotally I can report myself having an enormous excess of free time but only because I'm in a tough financial and mental situation, I have no job, but I'm also living a very frugal lifestyle to compensate. This frugality leads to few possibilities to meaningfully go forward. For the last year and until next month or so I'm having basically unlimited free time, but I'm not happy about it.

I'm close to retirement age. I'm advised by everyone I ask not to just go "cold turkey", but find things to do which give respect from others, and contribute to some activity. It could be part-time work, or volunteering, but taking a role in an activity which builds something, is better for your health. It's probably a variant of CBT, taking behaviour which commands respect engenders a sense of self-respect which lifts the spirit. You have purpose. Old people who cease work and stop, die young. Those aggressive golfers are probably drinking hard too. The ones who are "working" even if without pay, working for minimum wage to supplement retirement income, and for the social engagement, seem to live longer, happer. Even just being able to grumble about how menial the work is, helps. My god! I used to be a company director, now look at me, sorting underwear in a charity shop (but.. doing it) -kind of thing (I am not a company director and I do not work in a charity shop)

Talking to unemployed people, who want to work, I also know they say that the support systems in the state typically make this really hard: you cannot commit to work without pay, if it risks your status as unemployed, to recieve welfare. If you have to go in to interview or for some welfare process, and can't volunteer that day, a lot of agencies can't use you because they can't rely on you. So, its a double trap: its "safer" to do nothing, because you can't either let down the people you want to do things with or, be denied welfare. Truly, a trap.

So, if you don't have a risk here, I very much suggest you find some thing to do, any thing, which contributes back to some other endevour. Wash dishes in a local kindy. Hold newborn babies in hospital whose parents can't be there. Help pack food for people who are starving. Join a morning pick-up-litter group.

I also know how tedious these suggestions are, how much they hurt and irritate. When they were put to me in times past, I "bit back" and told people not to be facetious or patronising. I knew these things could be done, I didn't need to be "told". I had to be driven out of a slump, taken in hand, and guided to a better sense of my place in the world, so I don't say this as "haven't walked there".

(I only say this because you strongly suggest your are aware this situation is not improving your mental health, or making you happy. To use an internet witticism or two, "you do you" and "Im not the boss of you")

I've been in the position of needing to heed that advice, but not able to, as well as needing to tell it to someone close to me, but knowing it wouldn't be well received.

Maybe the best we can do to help a friend in that situation is invite them out to lunch and a walk, and be a kind listener. That has certainly helped me, and I think I've helped a friend or two that way.

Yes, this is good advice. Be a good listener.

I have found that 1 week holidays are optimal for me. 2 weeks off is common over the Christmas period but I find that if I spend it at home, I enjoy the first week of laying around but am bored of it by the second. And if I spend it out somewhere else, I get exhausted by the end of the first week and want to be back home.

The problem usually is that by the second week I want to get to some kind of difficult and productive task but I can not think of anything that can be done within a week so I either do nothing or start something that I do not finish. If I had 6 months off I would certainly be able to fill that with interesting tasks.

Unfortunately in my situation it was all "this will be over soon". I never expected more than few months of this. If I assumed this from the start I'd probably have a business growing by now.

As someone who retired not too long ago, having unlimited free time is definitely a different kind of problem. When Monday after Monday rolls around and I have another free day while others are complaining of going back to work, I find I have to give myself assignments. I like to learn so most of my assignments are on the order of "Why was Andy Warhol a big deal?" "What happened to the Neanderthals?" "What was the CIA hoping to accomplish with Project MKUltra and LSD research?" There's a wealth of documentary films online that can send me in any direction. Where I used to focus on computer code, now I focus on different kinds of problems, but the effect and fulfillment is the same (more actually.)

This is already what I do in my free time. Projects.

When I retire (which I hope is soon, so I can get away from my crushing, but well-compensated schedule), I imagine I will have no problem at all filling my time with projects and a huge backlog of games and books for when I don't feel like doing projects.

I took -8 years off. I did the things you mentioned. I currently see it as throwing most of this 8 years down the toilet. Maybe I could pull out 3 of those 8 years as actually having done something I'll have good memories of but the other 5 years was wasted IMO.

i'm not saying you should have a job but I think, for at least me, I need to doing something productive. That could be raising a child, it could be volunteering, it could looking after someone, it could be helping others with their projects or goals, it could be a project that will be for more than just myself, but it needs to be something that I can look back at and say to myself "that was time well spent"

I binged some shows I'm happy I spent the time watching and played some games I have good memories for but plenty of other shows and movies that just wasted my time. Read too much meaningless internet.

How did you explain the 8 year gap on your resume, when looking for work? I'm on my 5th year, and while I've been busy the whole time, am not sure how to explain the gap to prospective employers. I've also learned so many new skills that my old network doesn't match what I'd like to be doing.

I'm year two into this and I have to say I feel like 80% of my time has been wasted. What did you do before you took time off and what did you do after the 8 years?

Indeed, I have no problem filling my free time with stuff. I took a year off not too long ago. Some days I'd watch two or three movies, there were weeks I spent bingeing Netflix, nights spent playing video games late into the morning, nights spent writing software late into the morning, nights spent enjoying fine food and drink, reading books, hiking, seeing friends, learning new things, exploring new places. There's no shortage of stuff to do. Sure, some days are slow, but I'm not complaining. I could do this forever.

Others are not so lucky, they don't know how to spend their time outside of work. I see retired folks frustrated with their lives, lost and directionless. It makes me sad.

Did you FIRE?

No, I aged out and I'm low income since I had an expensive addiction that I've since dealt with. Money was never that interesting anyway. I mean it would be nice, but over time I'm not sure how it would change my life that much. I've been learning how to write a story by studying others. I've been writing some jokes and am thinking about buying some paints and playing with color. The pandemic has put a damper on socializing, but when it's over I plan to get involved.

I see, thanks for retiring. I am in my 40s and don't have a nest egg to retire early but I'd do it in a heartbeat. I have a 3 year old and cannot be too frugal in so if I don't get lucky financially I'll end up churning till I am forced to retire.

I hope you find your way colors. I've been playing with colors for the past 10 years and I got a lot out of it myself.

Valuing and wisely using free time is a skill. Seems like this study is just measuring people's lack of training in that skill.

Something like: "we found that adding grand pianos to houses improves the overall pianism, but the effect levels out at about three pianos per neighborhood."

I’m sorry but “imagine” is a thought experiment and good for researching how people feel about an idea not for evaluating the actual idea’s impact. This is research into how people relate to time allocation they don’t have and don’t experience. I wish it were framed as such because it’s much more valuable that way.

I didn't need to click it to know it was bad, but come on... still, there's a nugget of common folk wisdom there I guess, but it's funner to imagine why a discipline would produce studies about such things. A related quote I like: "Sometimes I just want to take a break, you know? So when I get like that I set a goal like this one. And that in turn creates a little leisure time. The people who live just for the sake of living have no leisure time." --Ginko (from Mushishi)

I'm in between jobs right now and I find that being unemployed SUCKS. Yes I have all the free time in the world but I have no motivation to do anything productive. I draw and get tired quickly. I read and I get bored after a few pages. I game and I get annoyed after a few matches.

I'm employed and constantly feel like this.

I wonder if this has a medical term. It doesn't sound like depression because I still get out of bed and clean and do stuff. But everything is just "meh"


I’m on leave from my job, which gives me a plethora of free time at the moment. (Usually while on my job, I’m really busy with two kids etc). It is an amazing contrast to my usual workweek. However, in relation to this topic: I automatically fill in productive tasks, and spend the days with stuff that needs to be done. I’ve also devoted a lot if attention to exercise and dietary constaints, so I lost a lot of weight.

I guess, if I would continue for a long time I would either pick up gaming with the aim of becoming skilled, or do something productive, like start some programming tasks or similar.

Right now I have a month left.

BTW my main goal for the time being is to experience boredom (where I’m partly succeeding). That way I can hopefully look back at this time and recall why I’m usually busy and why it is a good thing.

Well, yes if you have a nothing to do then you get bored ... but the next step is that you will fill it with things to do yourself.

Given the source, and the framing, and the context, this means very little.

The value of free time is very highly dependent upon one's situation and one's conditioning. For a Zen Buddhist Monk it could be valuable. To an inmate in solitary confinement, probably not.

To a modern capitalist office worker with loads of debt, a house full of stuff, and a city full of cars (yeah showing my bias here, sorry), then it could be a world of possibilities while you wear a straightjacket.

Knowing what to do with free time is something we're born with, but it's also something most of us unlearn through decades of rat racing. So regaining that skill of free time appreciation takes... time.

But you can look at it from the opposite perspective. It is well documented that many people suffer increased depression upon returning to work from a holiday. And as many of us know personally, going on holiday can mean 1-4+ days of transition time to finally start to relax and forget about all the (artificial) bullshit we normally think.

So the problem is not that free time isn't useful, but that we are so trained to not know what to do with it that we struggle for a period when exposed to it.

Studies like this are why social psychology has a such a bad name. Add this to the pile of "unreproducible studies that are then over-generalized to justify 'just so' stories."

>>The researchers also analyzed data from 13,639 working Americans who participated in the National Study

In my experience the act of working has dramatic impact on my perception of free time vs. when I have not been working. We tend to count hours and evaluate their "productiveness" when limited by work, vs. focus on overall outcomes and accomplishment when not. I doubt the latter would echo the feeling that too much free time is a bad thing I know I didn't.

"Paying employees less and making them work longer hours simultaneously is actually beneficial and good for their health, study finds"

Adjusting to more free time needs time. You cannot fill the void if you are abruptly to zero work time. You need to find friends, discover activities you like, etc. - which can take years. I know many persons who live a very fullfilling life with almost zero forced work time, but they followed that path almost their entire life.

See Parkinson's Law:

> “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If something must be done in a year, it’ll be done in a year. If it must be done in six months, then it will.


This paper draws its conclusions based on asking people to imagine things. That seems more like speculation, not science.

I do believe our future where the machines do all the work, one of their jobs will be to make us feel like we are doing useful work — just enough, a different amount for each person, so that everyone will feel satisfied and productive.

Perhaps there will be a game called "Software Engineer" where you learn to add small features, make commits, initiate code reviews, do code reviews, and so on. But there will be no more jobs for software engineers.

(Could actually be a useful training game. [Far future] enterprise unification territory.)

For true human happiness you won’t even know it’s a game.

This idea has been explored before. Reminds me of a bit from Brave New World - they had originally tried to create a society where nobody had to work, but it broke down.

Just 10000 years ago there was not ”work”. Before that people lived millions years with 100% free time.

We are still able to be free and decide by ourselves what to do during the day.

In my experience leisure time is absolutely wonderful. Just puttering about, reading, gardening, and maybe some hobby coding, to name just a few things, without anyone else telling you what to do, is fantastic. There is great truth in Twain's observation that "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

There are occasions in social science where it is reasonable to question whether or not the study has become part of that hard to pin down category that social theorists talk about... namely, the kind that is used to justify and perpetuate the status quo.

tl;dr of course a study of a society in which large amounts of free time is not a thing would yield people suffering culture shock when they experience it.


If you are going to refute the point of the article, please share some points or even opinion on why you think it is incorrect.

The study is based on people imagining things. Nothing to say about something so weak

That's a valid criticism which provides more value than a single word retort.

Yes, but then there are examples like this guy:


...who I hope gets as much free time as is possible.

Is it really "free time", if you've committed to an ambitious professional (he's a carpenter) project to fill the time? "Treat your hobby as a job" seems compatible with the OP thesis.

Too much free time is infinitely worse than not enough free time.

Most people are not self starting, and self driven, without someone/something driving them most people flounder.

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