No, We Actually *Don’t* Have a Ton of Free Time Right Now. Why We Need to Stop Perpetuating That Myth

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As states across the country issue stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, an increasing number of people are working from home, or they’ve lost their jobs and are navigating unemployment and hoping for the best. While this is all happening, countless memes and tweets joke about how people are perpetually watching Netflix or stress baking sourdough bread. One particularly contentious tweet asserted that people need to capitalize on all the "extra" free time:

The idea within the tweet—that we should use our time at home to be as productive as possible—isn’t a new one. But it has become more widespread and controversial during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some people may have more perceived free time, but are also feeling more stressed and anxious. The tweet “sums up all that is wrong about our hustle, work harder, be more culture,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist based in the United Kingdom. “It doesn’t take into account that many people will be in situations so challenging that purposely acquiring a new skill or business is not a priority right now,” he says.

Ericka Quezada-York, a certified nurse-midwife who works for a hospital-based OB/GYN practice in the Bronx in New York City, says that even though she sees a lot of her patients through telemedicine chats now, reducing some pre-appointment interaction time, she is spending even more time at work—so even her "normal" free time has become even more limited. “Because I spend so much time reviewing my charts to see who needs to come in face-to-face and who can be seen remotely, I estimate I spend an extra 60 to 90 minutes daily at work compared to before the pandemic," she says. "On top of that, I spend a lot of time treating my patients for their pandemic anxiety [on top of everything else], and it takes me longer to take the [subway] between work and home because of transit reductions."

Even if you do find yourself with new pockets of time, other emotional factors may be otherwise clouding your energy, precluding you from nimble productivity we glorify in more normal scheduling. Take Erica Harvey, a bar owner in Las Vegas, who says she had to lay off 47 employees. After she closed her business, she made a list of everything she wanted to accomplish during the month she plans to have “off,” but she feels an overwhelming amount of guilt and depression from laying off her employees. “It’s all I can do to get out of bed,” she says. “I can’t even watch new shows or movies. I just keep watching old movies I’ve seen multiple times because my brain can’t process anything new.”

To that end, people who are safely working from home have had trouble adjusting to their new normal. Noel Liotta, who works in sales and marketing in Raleigh, North Carolina, says she’s working harder than ever because her company had to lay off employees for the first time in its 18-year history. “I'm just trying to keep some pulse on what normal is,” she says. At the start of the pandemic, she pulled out her guitar and keyboard, but she hasn’t touched either in almost two weeks. “I'm childless, I've still got a job, but I'm not doing anything extra or anything out of the ordinary except for a new Saturday night game night with friends via Zoom.”

Free time is a luxury, especially during a pandemic, when parents are trying to become teachers at home, health-care professionals and other essential employees can’t stop working, and those being laid off or reduced in hours are desperately trying to make ends meet.

Prioritizing productivity can lead to burnout, but it also changes the concept of "free time." “When we are in this productivity mind-set, the concept of free time just doesn't exist,” says Ander Camino, a therapist with Alma, a community for mental health professionals. Not only that, but when most people get off work, if they still have jobs, they might check in with family members and friends via phone, take care of their children, and meet their own basic needs. “We can easily fall into the mistake of perceiving [any free time] as an opportunity to invest and do more."

But “more,” for many people, isn’t possible right now. Free time is a luxury, especially during a pandemic, when parents are trying to become teachers at home, health-care professionals and other essential employees can’t stop working, and those being laid off or reduced in hours are desperately trying to make ends meet.

Kelly Small is one of those parents, along with their wife. A creative director living in Toronto, Small has struggled with the demands of homeschooling their 7-year-old child. “We both work full time from home,” Small says. “It’s chaos to try to manage kids and clients all at once.” Any semblance of "free time" has nearly vanished. 

Quezada-York says it’s much harder for her to find free time than it was before the pandemic. Her wife, who is a stay-at-home parent, is now supervising their 9-year-old child's remote learning program. Their three year old also just started speech therapy and physical therapy—the latter moving forward over video chat. “Our whole schedule of doing chores and all those little household-running things is way off," she says. Pre-pandemic, she used to enjoy reading during her commute, but she thinks that wearing a mask 11 hours a day makes it hard for her to focus. Even at home, she says doing anything other than resting is difficult. “Once I've finished all my work-work and my household work for the day, maybe [before the pandemic] I would have watched some TV or done some reading or played a game, but now I just want to sleep,” she says.

That makes sense, Chambers says, because for most people, now is not the time to take on more. He says people need to prioritize their own well-being, and if they have free time, consider helping those who don’t. “Everyone has their own challenges in this period, and those with more free time should be looking to support the most vulnerable and the overburdened, not being individualistic and having tunnel vision, missing what they could be doing for their communities," he says. "It is the time to be more for each other, to do what we can to support ourselves and others through the challenges we face."

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