When Time Stands Still: The Coronavirus and Free Time
By Michelle Shir-Wise, author of Time, Freedom and the Self
I often begin my lectures with a short thought exercise, asking people to think about what free time is for them. Some define it in terms of freedom from work and domestic duties, or time for the self. Others respond saying, "I wish I had free time" or "I wish I had more", expressing a sense of time pressure and busyness. Free time seems to be all the more attractive the less we have of it, and its association with freedom adds to its appeal. It is envisaged as a realm of freedom when we are free from external constraints, and free to choose to spend our time as we wish.
Now, since the coronavirus has come into our lives, people don’t seem to be as busy as they were—excepting perhaps health workers and manufacturers of surgical masks and disinfectants. It feels like time is standing still: businesses have slowed down, millions of people are in quarantine or home isolation and uncertainty reigns. The virus has affected every facet of life including our time.
For many of us, the usual burden of time pressure and busyness about which we so often complain seems to have been lifted, and free time is no longer so scarce. On the contrary, all of a sudden many of us are faced with a surplus of free time and we don’t know what to do with it. Rather than experiencing a sense of relief, we may feel stressed by this unexpected time on our hands. How can we explain this conundrum? The following is an attempt to answer this question from a socio-cultural approach.
The way we spend and think about our time, whether committed time or free time, is culturally constructed. We should see all this extra time as an opportunity to do less, but perhaps being busy and presenting ourselves as such, has become an integral part of our selfhood. Cultural prescriptions of productivity, whether in the media or time-management apps, make us feel compelled to utilize every spare moment and the more we get done, the better. Thus when our time is not experienced as productive and well-utilized, we may feel dissatisfied and even guilty about wasting it. We need to feel and look busy all the time. An essential element of time management is planning time by organizing schedules and preparing to-do- lists that must be checked off. Our time should not simply be passed but filled, in keeping with scripts of busyness and efficiency. When it is fluid, unstructured and relatively flexible, we may not know how to deal with the freedom. The uncertainty of the coronavirus has made the management of our time more difficult. We simply cannot plan ahead. Is the international conference, planned for June, going to take place or not? We can’t even schedule short-term activities. Can we organize the family gathering or are some members going to be in isolation? Intel has advised its employees to work from home. Should I do so too? Can I take the train tomorrow? What about our vacation overseas, is there any point in booking tickets? As much as we hear each other complaining about not having time, there is something comforting in the certainty that busyness brings with it.
Nevertheless, why don’t we seem to be happy with this extra time? Undoubtedly, the fear of the virus is one obstacle to finding enjoyment in the additional free time. Moreover, our free time activities have become restricted in many regions. Yet, perhaps more broadly, a major attraction of free time lies in the sense of freedom associated with it. When this free time is forced upon us, it loses part of its appeal. It becomes more like committed time, whether at work or in the home, since it is not construed as a matter of choice as it was. Individualism and free choice are so deeply ingrained in our culture so that when we feel that external constraints determine our time use, the additional time is not experienced as desirable and worthy.
We do not always put much thought into the way we spend our time. We seem to be forever rushing about squeezing in as much as we can into our crammed schedules. When we finally have more free time, whether because of a world pandemic, a strike or any other reason, perhaps we need to resist the cultural scripts of busyness that shape our notions of time so that we may experience free time as freedom.
Michelle Shir-Wise (PhD, Bar-Ilan University, Israel) is an independent researcher exploring time use, the self, popular culture, freedom, class, gender, youth and ageism, particularly as they relate to middle-class suburban culture in Israel.