Gordon Smith

Feel like you’ve never got any free time? You may be right

A pioneering mind from NYU has decided to locate our missing free time. Compared to ten years ago, we have a lot less of it.




As your parents, grandparents, and almost every elderly customer you’ve come across in your retail existence tells you: back in their day, things were a lot better.

No, not the walking three miles in the snow to go to school, nor the onset of polio, or freedom to smoke the darkest of tobacco from the time you could walk.

As the Margaret’s and the Barbara’s of the world so often tell us: we youth of today don’t know how to have a good time.

We spend every waking hour plopped in front of our iWhatsits and our flat screen televisions, scrolling through our Facebooks and doing other stereotypical young (or younger) person things.

We’ve never experienced the joy of playing hoop with stick, or bouncing a tennis ball against a fence for several hours.

If free time looked at us in the face, we’d need it to send us a text message before we even knew what it was, Margaret says.

Margaret, as it turns out, may actually be on to something.


We spend more time looking at the harsh glow of our screens than we do actually taking care of our basic needs – and a heck of a lot longer than we actually spend allowing our minds to relax.


Adam Alter, a psychologist at New York University, recently gave a TED Talk about the way we humans use our free time in this increasingly electronic world.

Even compared to just 10 years ago, our free time has shrunk dramatically.


Source: Ted


That small yellow sliver? That’s your free time. The white bars above? What your free time used to look like.

The blue represents our sleeping, working, and ‘survival’ tasks; like eating and bathing.

The white – and yellow in the 2017 graph – is our free time. Our ever-shortening free time.

You’ll notice that as our free time shrinks, the red portion of our day grows.

That red portion is out screen time: the chunk of our day we spend transfixed upon our preferred device’s display, giving our retinas and our brains a workout.

We spend more time looking at the harsh glow of our screens than we do actually taking care of our basic needs – and a heck of a lot longer than we actually spend allowing our minds to relax.

Alter explains that, while you are able to finish a book, for example, you’re never ‘finished’ with Instagram or Twitter or the like.

This notion of finishing things is called ‘stopping cues’: and with social media providing an endless amount of content, we lose these cues.

Basically, once you start staring, you can’t stop.

That screen time can also be broken up further.

On average, we spend about nine minutes of every day looking at things that ‘enrich’ us, like a health app, or you favourite dating app. But, we also spend 27 minutes of the same day hypnotized by stuff that makes us feel worse about ourselves – like a news app, or that same favourite dating app.

So what can we, consumers of all things electronic, do to avoid rotting our grey matter away?

Anti-climatically, the answer is simply to take an occasional break.

Go outside, draw something, read a (printed) book, plant a plant, verb a noun. Do whatever you want, so long as that whatever doesn’t involve a screen.

This is because, as Adler says, an unhealthy addiction to our devices can lead to feelings of isolation.

‘You get used to it, you overcome the withdrawal like you would with a drug, and life becomes more colourful, richer.’

Which all sounds very positive until you remember you can achieve that same colourful richness with the right Instagram filter.

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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