Most of us have very little unscheduled time in our days - and it’s hard to keep that time unscheduled. For every precious free evening we hope to put towards finally reading that book, cleaning that closet, or simply sitting on the couch doing nothing, there’s a friend, parent, partner, child, or colleague who would prefer we spend that time doing something else.
This is one of the reasons why so many of us dread the last-minute request, even if it’s for something we might otherwise enjoy. “Hey, do you want to go see a movie this Saturday” can feel like a huge drag, for example, if you’ve been looking forward to a blissful day of unscheduled time for weeks.
Advice columnist Captain Awkward offers some excellent tips on how to handle these types of invitations, including the suggestion to hold off on answering until you’ve asked yourself whether this is something you really want to do:
If the person comes back with an invitation and you’re not enthusiastically sure you want to do whatever it is, delay! Then, actually do check your calendar, check in with yourself if you actually want to do whatever it is, and answer the person when it’s convenient for you.
It’s not so much about stopping the question before it comes (pretty much impossible!) as much as it is practicing not giving into pressure to give an explanation of your schedule OR an immediate answer.
The Captain also notes the value of the phrase “I’m sorry, I have other plans.”
Your plans could in fact be “I will be busy reading silently alone in my house with my phone turned off” or “Swiping right” or “Climbing rocks in the middle of nowhere” or “Reorganising where I keep my collection of antique spyglasses.” Express all of the details of that as “Sorry, I have other plans this weekend, but enjoy yourselves!”
Of course, this situation changes somewhat if the person you’re saying no to is a member of your immediate family, who are going to notice if your “plans” are, like, chilling on the couch with a book.
If you consistently find that your spare time is being commandeered by family members, productivity expert Laura Vanderkam offers some suggestions:
For example, if you want to go for a run, and yet someone else wants a garment washed for the next day, you can decide that this is not your problem. Other people can have problems without their becoming your problems. This is true even if you care about someone.
If someone wants to watch a show, and you don’t want to watch that show, you can say “I’d like to do X,Y, Z instead, thanks for asking.” Then go do it. Your partner isn’t going to leave you because you elected not to watch Mad Men, particularly if you are investing in the relationship on other occasions. Your children aren’t going to stop loving you because they had to wear a different pair of pants to school.
Vanderkam also notes the power of spending your unscheduled time in a place that isn’t your home. Yes, home is often where we feel the most comfortable and relaxed, but it’s also where we’re most likely to be asked to do something besides whatever it is we’re currently doing.
Consider taking your rare unscheduled hours to a second location, such as a library, a park, or a museum - and try to avoid checking your phone while you’re there.
You can also request that a co-parent or another adult get the kids out of the house so you can spend a few unscheduled hours on your own. As Lifehacker’s Michelle Woo explains:
My husband and I do something like this. On weekends, I will often take our daughter out during the day on Saturday, and he’ll take her out during the day on Sunday.
We’ll come together for dinner both nights and everyone will have a lot to talk about. (“We got kettle corn at farmers market and I helped Dad in the garden,” my five-year-old will tell me excitedly. “How was your day, mama?”) It works, and that stretch of solo time really does refuel us.
How do you keep your unscheduled hours from getting swallowed up by other people’s needs and activities? How do you say no to that last-minute invite or request? If you’re part of a family, how do you prioritise do-nothing-days not only for yourself, but for everyone in your household?