In Defense of Free Time
We just finished our annual 40 Under 40 for Rejuvenate (coming to you in the August/September issue). It’s my favorite story we do every year, mostly because the people profiled are all so different, despite working in the same industry. They all took different paths to get where they are, and their jobs are generally pretty interesting. But when I’m interviewing someone or reading about them, what I like to hear about most isn’t necessarily what they do for work, but what they do outside of work.
This year’s 40 Under 40 are college football fans, skiers and moms. They’re world-travelers, magazine junkies and singers. They plan fundraisers and volunteer for their churches in their free time (what little of it some of them have). With the advent of email, smartphones and social media came the 24-hour workday, a phenomenon that’s been covered in national newspapers and fashion magazines. This isn’t the same idea as the “second shift,” or the work that men and women, especially parents, take up once they get home after a day at the office. No, this is when we respond to emails at 2 a.m. when we can’t sleep, start client calls while driving to work instead of waiting until we get there, and regularly work through our lunch hours and dinnertime because of looming deadlines. It’s what economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls the “extreme job.” Work is never done until work is done, and as meeting planners desperately understand, work is never really done.
To be fair, it’s not a brand-new trend (fans of AMC’s “Mad Men” often see their favorite characters working late into the night to finish client proposals at a 1960s ad agency). But what I found in talking with some of our 40 Under 40 honorees is that what they do in their free time makes them as good at their jobs as what they do at the office. And having free time and interests outside of work can make you a better employee. How much does your productivity spike, for example, after a few days outside the office? Research suggests that shorter work weeks are better for employee productivity rather than asking people to work longer hours, something companies are increasingly doing as they slash department numbers in order to save costs in a sluggish economy.
This, then, is a passionate declaration in defense of free time. If your company offers it to you, take it. If it doesn’t offer it, ask for it. And fill it with something meaningful. Take up a hobby. Volunteer at church. Travel. Visit family. Have dinner with friends. Exercise. It doesn’t matter what you do; just do something. Because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it, and it’s impossible to get back.