How to create structure in an unstructured day?
July 9, 2012 10:13 AM   Subscribe

What are the most successful strategies for managing unstructured time?

Through life circumstances, I have found myself with a lot of time on my hands and very little structure or responsibilities. I am extremely grateful to have the gift of time. Even so, this is very new to me, as I have lived most of my life working two or three jobs, running around with hardly a moment's free time at all!

Nowadays I find it's very hard for me to make good use of the time that I have at my disposal. I have a few hobbies and interests, but there is no schedule for when I should pursue them, so I take a laissez fair attitude...why do it now when it can be done later? I find myself getting very unmotivated.

I'd like to get into a hobby or passion 110% but I just don't know what since I tend to dabble in a lot of different things and then my motivation issues pop up. I believe that part of the issue stems from guilt about not deserving to have fun. Also, a general shyness about doing things aloneā€¦but of course, no one is around during the day for me to make plans with every day. Even if I could make such a friend, I feel they would be a crutch, but the problem would still be there.

I can't be the only person who has trouble managing unstructured time. Would there be website resources to help people with this issue? I'm also thinking that grad students must go through this. Also, I wonder how service members structure their time when they are off duty, since they learn to live a disciplined life.

So Mefites, how can I develop some goals or a structure to fill my empty days and put it into action?
posted by davisnot to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Make lists. Set goals.

Hang out with people in the evenings.

Part of self-motivation is just discovering what works for you. Motivation techniques do not always generalize across all personality types.

I'm doing my own thing, job-wise, so I have tons of unstructured time. My work day is based on my internal feelings, and not a clock. When I feel motivated, I grab a computer/paper/workspace and I work rabidly. I try to get the most done when I'm feeling that way. Then when I feel unmotivated, I just do lazy/fun things without feeling guilty.
posted by colinshark at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pick a normalish work week time to wake up every morning and stick to that schedule. Otherwise you will only increase your isolation when you try to make plans with friends for 11pm on a tuesday and they all look at you like you shat the rug.
posted by elizardbits at 10:35 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is no reason you can't make a schedule for your unstructured time.

When I was on summer vacation with very little to do and a want to expand my home business it went something like:

9:30-10: Post Office/Errands
10-12: Create
12-2: Personal Time
2-2:30: Etsy Forums
2:30-4: Photo Shoot or Editing

I'd also always make a to-do list for the day. The first thing on the list? "Make To-Do List" YAY! I've already got something crossed off, I'm on my way! I'd set alarms on my phone so that I would know when personal time was over and I had to get back to work.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2012

Your post implies that you had previously no such time available for the most part. I'd say start by losing the guilt of having this time and see it as a gift in your life's journey. Relax into it first, develop new daily routines for mornings, breakfast, lunch and afternoons. Then, there'll be a vacuum created for you to discover what you might like to fill it with.
posted by infini at 10:37 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some writers swear by the Pomodoro Technique.

The only thing that really works for me is having a deadline. I have a job but I do have a certain amount of free time, and I like to write fiction, but I only ever complete something if there is a deadline, however artificial. So I join groups (very good for general accountability), look for contests and stuff like that.
posted by BibiRose at 10:54 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I do is be accountable for my time.
I backdate in my calendars what I did after I did items from my list(s). Its easy to keep yourself doing something, and hey even back dating your calendar for leisure time is good too.
Its kind of like keeping track of your finances but with time. The more aware of how you use your time, the more likely you are to make that time count for something.
posted by handbanana at 10:56 AM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use a personally modified variant of the very popular time management system "Getting Things Done".

I have a giant "Inbox" where I write down all my to-dos, and then I sort them into "contexts", which is just places where those tasks can be done. For me that is basically the home computer and "out and about". Then I work these into a calendar.

One big thing to take from the GTD system is that if something only takes 5 minutes or less and can be done right now, just do it immediately.
posted by MikeyObviously at 11:01 AM on July 9, 2012

"Take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves."
Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:23 AM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I asked something very much along these lines and got some good answers, although mine was more about academic necessities. There's still some very applicable advice in there.
posted by SNWidget at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2012

My new system is still a work in progress but here's how it goes:

Because I have a lot of free time and not a lot I have to do, it was very hard to motivate myself to do things. Even necessary things can always wait when you have so much time.

So instead of thinking about what I *should* do, I made a list of all the things I *could* do at any moment. I taped the list to the back of my bedroom door.

It includes to-do-list items, but also fun stuff, hobbies, reading, exercise, making plans to see friends. I even wrote "watch television" and "eat lunch."

When I am not sure what to do I stare at the list until something appeals to me. Then I do it. If it is something I only need to do once and then it is done, I cross it off. If it is something I can do again or is only partially finished, I put a check. I still get a sense of accomplishment from doing things when I make a check.

The only thing that I didn't put on the list is "surf the internet," because I don't want to encourage myself to do more of that.
posted by mai at 8:52 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suck at unstructured time. I suck at imposing a structure on unstructured time. I find that in order to not just waste my time during periods like that, I have to take on activities that I can treat like a job: a set time and place, others expect me to be there, etc. For example, this summer I'm volunteering at a hospital three days a week.

For me, three days is enough to fool myself into taking advantage of my free time by compressing it, but not so much as to make it feel like I don't have real free time at all.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:10 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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