Let’s say there are four kinds of time.
One. Fun. High Quality Leisure Time, or HQLT.
Two. Work. What we do to get paid or move toward important goals.
Three. Productive time. Getting things done that do not lead to financial gain or tangible goals.
Four. Junk hours.
It’s worthwhile to think about this, because we don’t get a rebate on time. Once it’s spent, it’s spent, no rain checks or coupons or returns. It’s up to us to make our own plans. If we don’t, if we don’t create our own structures or wallow in our own definition of leisure, then we’ll wind up living out someone else’s plans.
What fun is that?
While we all get the same twenty-four hours a day, our experience obviously varies. Some people love doing things that drive other people to distraction, and vice versa. Personally I hate driving, but I don’t mind cleaning the bathroom. I hate folding laundry, but I don’t mind ironing. I kinda love stain removal and mending and building furniture kits. It would be easy to imagine someone who would trade with me straight across.
It’s also easy to imagine a bunch of people who loathe their jobs, and a couple who can’t believe they actually get paid to do what they do.
That’s why it’s so personal, what we define as ‘leisure’ or ‘productive time.’ It’s very helpful as we try to identify our junk hours.
What makes HQLT is that pleasant feeling of satisfied, total relaxation that is so rare in our culture. We share with each other how “crazy busy” we are. We’re discouraged from bragging about how relaxed we are or how much we sleep, because what could possibly cause more envy than that?
I slept sixteen hours one day in 2019, and I don’t even feel guilty. It’s safe, legal, and free, and you can try it too.
On the other hand, I’m sure I wasted at least sixteen hours mindlessly scrolling on my phone last year, without even noticing I was doing it. That’s almost the definition of junk hours.
Junk hours are the hours we lose that aren’t fun, yet also don’t turn into any kind of accomplishment or money.
When I was a kid, I probably watched every single episode of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. Yet, try as I might, I can’t tell you the plot of any of them. I can only recall a couple of quotes or roughly describe most of the characters. On the other hand, I have a pretty good recollection of many of my childhood drawings, times I spent petting the neighbors’ cats (and their names), and all the Nancy Drew mysteries I read. I can still vividly picture the old apple tree we used to climb and all the crags where I put my feet. For me, there’s a pretty big difference in emotion and mood between the stuff I enjoyed and the stuff I did by default.
I didn’t have a lot of junk hours as a kid because TV was the major time suck that was available. It was the only kind of tech with the power to steal our attention.
That all obviously changed with the invention of three things: cable TV, the internet, and the smartphone.
These are the three that interfere with our sleep. Starting with the first of these, we collectively stopped inviting our friends over to our homes as often, stopped going out to socialize as often, stopped sleeping as much, stopped joining as many clubs, and stopped having as many hobbies. I can speak to this because I’m (just barely) old enough to have conscious memories of the late 1970s and I was here for the change.
There are three things we can do once we’ve identified our junk hours. We can shrug and accept them, we can try to schedule them out entirely, or we can pair them with other things that we find more productive.
Junk hours aren’t necessarily bad, and they aren’t necessarily all tech-related. For instance, my chronically disorganized clients tend to burn a lot of time either searching for lost objects or rearranging their clutter. Indecisive people will burn time trying on multiple outfits and trying to choose what to wear, or spinning their wheels on what to have for dinner. Highly stressed and over-committed people often burn time on extra errands, because their stretched mental bandwidth interferes with their attention. Out of groceries, out of gas, need that missing item or the (extra) project is stalled out.
Typically these kinds of junk hours cause stress in a way that productive time does not. It’s not necessarily doing a gross or annoying chore that’s the problem; it’s having to do something on a tight time constraint when we feel like we’ve messed up somehow. Cleaning up spills when you’re already late, making extra phone calls because a deadline somehow slipped, running last-minute errands as a result of being too busy in the first place.
This is why I celebrate the bonus time that comes from being organized. I can almost completely eliminate those frantic feelings of being late or scrambling to find something. Instead I can yawn and stretch luxuriously. Sometimes I can actually take a long nap.
Total relaxation in a tight time window is almost impossible.
What makes HQLT high-quality is somewhat nebulous. That feeling of knowing it’s perfectly fine to take a nap, even a three-hour nap. That feeling when there’s nothing to do on your day off but finish the doorstopper novel you brought home.
How many times have we burned through a solid hour of time (or two hours, or three hours) and we’re not sure where it went, but it sure didn’t go toward a nap or any other feeling of complete enjoyment and relaxation?
A trick that can help with this is to identify where we tend to get sucked into the black hole of junk hours. For me, since I don’t really engage with social media, it’s my news feed, so I limit that time to either waiting at the bus stop or working out on the elliptical. The time I was losing to endless scrolling now goes to reading actual books, which I prefer. I don’t burn much time choosing meals or outfits or searching for lost objects because I have policies for all that stuff.
The best way to search and destroy junk hours is to have a clear vision of something you’d much rather do. Maybe it’s something you used to love as a kid, like drawing, or lip syncing to your favorite songs, or roller skating. If you can see yourself doing this thing that is total fun for you, just make sure you have all the stuff you need (like bigger skates) and go out and have fun.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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