“Jack, I gotta get a life!,” she said. “Hobby? My hobby has been driving my kids around.”

We were all getting fidgety sitting at the gate waiting for our delayed plane to Atlanta. She was sitting next to me, flying for a family reunion in Atlanta, and I was flying further, to Savannah, to pick up my daughter. We started chatting and it turns out I was sitting next to a pediatrician confronting a minor dilemma in her life.

“Driving my kids around, that’s been my life for so long. Now that my kids are older – one off to college this year and the other in high school – suddenly I have some free time,” she said.

“The sad thing is,” she continued, “I don’t know what to do with myself. When I sit down to sip a leisurely cup of coffee while paging through a fluffy magazine – I hope to see myself like one of those women they show in ads luxuriating over a cup of coffee in their cozy sunroom – I start thinking ‘I should be doing something. I’m wasting time!’ … Frankly, I suck at free time!”

Ahh, I know. You might be thinking now ‘champagne problems,’ or ‘first world problems.’ Sure, in the scheme of the universe, or even of life here on earth, our challenges in spending our free time in a way to replenishes, relaxes, and fortifies is a minor problem, I grant you that. But however minor in the grand scheme, finding and making good use of our limited free time is a problem for many of us over-tasked physicians.

When I started to write this article, my first sentence was to the effect, “Isn’t it ironic that as physicians we’re better at worktime than leisure time.” But before I even finished this sentence I realized there is nothing ironic about this state of affairs: we spend a lot more time at work than we do at leisure activities. We get good at what we do the most. Additionally, at work there are more external forces present that structure our time. With our free time, we’re often on our own. So given this problem of unsatisfying free time, I came up with the following idea as a possible path to a solution. Given that many of us are by nature or by training task-oriented, why not use that framework to help us develop our leisure skills. Here’s how to use what already works and is familiar, our task-orientation, to develop a more balanced life.

Schedule It!

The first challenge to satisfying leisure time – even before deciding how to spend it – is to first have some. Think about your life: do you have scads of free time just lying around waiting to be picked up? For most of us the answer is a resounding No! There are few empty places on our calendars to fill. So, the only way to get some is to schedule it in.

For example, if you’re a writer and wait for inspiration, you’ll not produce much. You need to schedule your writing time. If you’re a seeker of a source of balance, fulfillment and relaxation and you wait for free-time to show up on your doorstep and knock on your door, you’ll be waiting a long time. So schedule it! That’s the first step. Some examples:

Let’s say you want to add more physical activity into your life. Then, for example, schedule in a walk in the morning. You might need to wake up half hour early to walk in the woods. Or walk to a great coffee shop half a mile away so you’re forced to walk a mile both ways. Or you may find that after work is a better time. So pack some shorts and running shoes and stop off at a park or track after work and before heading home.

Or you may want to be a writer. Scheduling in writing time is probably more important than any other variable to writing success, whether it’s inspiration, talent, or something to say! I was just reading the new book by Irving Yalom, a psychiatrist now in his 80’s who is best known for his handbooks to group therapy and existential therapy. In his current book, Creatures For a Day, he writes in passing that 7-10am every day is his writing time. Although I found this book moving, the thing I’ll remember the most and that is likely to most change what I do is that sentence about his scheduled and inviolable writing time.

Choose a Focus!

Now that you have given thought on how to fit in (or perhaps wedge in is the better verb) some time for leisure activities, you have to choose what you will spend it on. Start by considering your objectives. Given our goal-orientation, objectives are another concept we physicians probably can relate to. Ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish?” To just relax? To take my mind off things? To write the great American non-fiction book? To improve my health? To bond with my kids? To renew my relationship with my spouse?

The objectives will guide your activity. One activity I found works for me is making dinners on most Tuesdays. I like the balance in this activity between having to focus on what I’m doing and letting my mind roam free. There is also the pleasure in engaging in a physical task. And last, it strengthens my bond with my kids and my wife.

And, by the way, I’m not a good cook. Currently, I rotate only four meals, all of which the kids like, which is a prerequisite for Dad’s cooking to work. I grill burgers of beef, bison or turkey and experiment by adding different ingredients into and on top of the meat. (BTW, a secret to better burgers is adding a little liquid to the meat. It could be water; I prefer salsa.) I also have a fool-proof recipe for grilled salmon with an asparagus sauce, for potato soup, and for chicken casserole.

Simple stuff, to be sure. But in the future when my kids are long out of the house, I have a feeling I’ll most remember the times of my meal preparations and of eating of these meals with the family.

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Reward Yourself!

Consider the phrase “spending your free-time,” a phrase I’ve repeated throughout this piece. If you “spend” free-time it implies that might have had to “earn” it. My point is that you might feel most able to give yourself permission to spend time on yourself, perhaps even selfishly, if you feel it is in reward for completing your tasks at work and at home.

The danger to avoid with this approach is that that this time of “pay-off” may never come because your chores never end. Here’s an idea: first decide what tasks you need to accomplish to “earn” your free time. Then schedule in that free time as if it just as important as any other appointment. Remember you earned this free time and it now deserves its own special space in your calendar.

That’s it for today. Let me know your challenges and solutions to make the most of your free-time.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Apple of My Eye

This week’s LanguageBrief idiom is “Apple of My Eye.” It is used to refer to someone you cherish deeply. It often conveys romantic feelings, although usually not explicitly sexual ones. Also, it can be used to convey a different type of love, like that of a parent towards a child. There is the sense in this phrase of specialness or exclusivity when referring to someone in this way; that is, only one person can hold this position for you. You have two eyes, but only one ‘apple of your eye.’

The 1970’s saw a song called “Apple of My Eye” which became a minor hit. But the phrase itself is older, much older than that. An early use of it is attributed to a work from the year 885 by King Aelfred of England. The original meaning of ‘apple’ was the pupil of the eye, but soon took on its present idiomatic meaning.

This phrase has continued to be used regularly through the centuries. In Midsummer’s Night Dream, Shakespeare writes:

Flower of this purple dye, Hit with Cupid’s archery, Sink in apple of his eye
This idiom also appears more than once in the King’s James Bible that was written eleven years later in 1611.

I’ll end with this. Pete Ham, the writer of the 1973 song “Apple of My Eye” was inspired to write his song because of his ambivalent feelings regarding his band, Badfinger, leaving Apple Records, the Beatles’ record label. Apples, the fruit, have such positive connotations for us that many brands use it, and the phrase “Apple Of My Eye” remains evergreen.

That’s it for today. You can reach me through this email. I will respond to last week’s and this week’s email in the next few days. Thanks for your patience.