Do You Have Unstructured Time?

Sometimes it feels like every day is scheduled to its fullest. Every moment is spoken for, every instant efficiently organized. But is it worthwhile to have some amount of unstructured time?

It is understood that unstructured time for children is important in their development. Even if it is just for a half hour a day, recess, or unstructured play time, is a commonality in most schools.

But what about adults? Is there a value to setting aside a certain amount of time each day to do nothing? What kind of value might that be?

One theory about dreams suggest that they exist in order to allow our brains to process the events of the day. That makes a certain amount of sense, as it can be very difficult to fully understand a moment as it occurs. It is only with the passage of some time, and the opportunity to think about what happened and to put it into context, that we fully comprehend our lives.

But outside of dreams, unstructured time may provide a similar opportunity. If our brains are not focused on a particular task, they can effectively process what has happened.

Meditation has also become more popular, used by a lot of people for a number of different cognitive reasons. Whether it is concentrating on your breathing, or attempting to be fully present in the moment, many people find meditation useful for calming thoughts and making for a more peaceful day.

Does that count as unstructured time? Or is meditation a kind of structure?

Whether it is meditation, zoning out while working out at the gym, or lying in bed at night before falling asleep, we have the opportunity for unstructured time. Do you take advantage? What is the value in it? Do you have unstructured time?

Related questions: What is the value of inefficiency? What do you think about when out for a walk? Is our attention fractured? How do you set priorities? Are we too busy?

What Deserves Your Attention?

Our brains are remarkable entities. We can perform some truly amazing mental feats, like learning language, memorization, pattern matching, and reading maps (among others). One of the less heralded skills is that of providing attention.

Every waking moment, your mind is focused on a task (and sometimes more than one if you try to multi-task). How you choose to spend your time is how your attention is allocated.

In our modern world, there is fierce competition for our attention. This serves as an illustration about how valuable it is. Entire industries revolve around how to capture — and keep — your attention.

In The News

For example, let’s consider a cable news program. A typical news show features several different items for you to pay attention to. An interview might be going on, so you might be listening to the content being spoken aloud. There is likely a graphic with the guest’s name and qualifications. This sometimes also updates to a notable quote or excerpt from the interview.

In addition, there may be a news scroll across the bottom of the screen with news headlines, and there may be a “breaking news” blurb specifically designed to draw your eyes. Often included is some sort of steady information, like the current time and temperature, or the state of the stock market. Finally, there is certainly a station identifier, to let you know exactly what channel you are viewing.

Having so much information available serves several purposes. The primary purpose — say, the interview — is presumably the reason to tune in initially. The others are there to provide information that might be helpful to you, but also to keep you from giving your attention to another source.

When you are watching a program like this, your attention is primarily focused on one item. However, there is likely some small percentage of your attention on each element on the screen.

Demands Of Social Media

Have you ever noticed that when using  a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, that you mean to do a quick check, but then find that half an hour or even more has passed without you realizing it? That happens because the layout and design of these sites are carefully crafted to capture and keep your attention. Facebook wants you to keep scrolling and Netflix wants you to keep binging.

With so many different demands on our valuable attention, have you given any thought to how you spend your time? News, family, your smartphone, the local sports team, a book: what deserves our attention?

Related questions: How do you set priorities? Are we too busy? What do you get out of social media? Is our attention fractured?