I love writing about what successful people do before breakfast. But I also think that the real sign of a mindful life is how people answer a different question: What should I do after dinner?
From studying hundreds of people’s time logs, I know what most of us do. After dinner, or after the kids go to bed, the television or laptop comes on. It makes sense. People are tired. In that relaxed post-dinner state, you probably won’t go to the gym, and most of the year it’s too dark to do much outside. Screen time is the default option, and it’s not a bad one. There are a lot of great shows on these days.
The problem is that these late-night weeknight hours add up. If your kids go to bed at 8:30 p.m., and you go to bed at 11 p.m., that’s two and a half hours a night to play with. Even if you don’t have children at home, if you’re home from work at 7 p.m. and done with dinner at 8 p.m., you can easily have three or more hours to fill. This is probably the bulk of your available leisure time during the week, and since it seems hard to do much with, life feels a lot less interesting than it could be.
Fortunately, if the TV is getting a little old, there are lots of other ways to enjoy these evening hours. Choose your approach right, and you’ll end the day mellow and happy, not wondering where the time went.
1. Think it through.
No, you don’t need to plan your evenings minute by minute. But just asking before the end of the workday if there’s something specific you’d like to do with yourself before you fall asleep can make the evening far more enjoyable. Maybe it’s making a special dessert, or maybe it’s doing a crossword puzzle with your partner, but whatever it is, thinking of it beforehand vastly increases the chances that it actually happens. What one thing would you like to savor today? If you’re keeping a micro-journal, what one memory would you like to record? How can you make that happen before 11 p.m.?
2. Find a project.
One of my happiest memories from childhood was building a dollhouse. I set myself up in a little workshop with my tools and wood and glue, and whenever I had a spare moment, that’s where I went. One of the reasons we fail to use time well as adults is that we don’t have something we really want to do with it—something so compelling that we seize any space available. Think about what this might be for you. Something artistic? Tinkering? Even reading a really good book can become a project that quickly consumes your evenings as you try to figure out what happens next.
3. Get out of the house.
We often get so busy scheduling our kids’ lives that we forget to schedule our own. But it’s the rare person who couldn’t spend one evening a week doing something for personal fulfillment. You could try a regular volunteer gig, a cooking class, voice lessons, or regular hangouts (of the real, rather than the Google variety) with friends. Such personal commitments take, at most, two to three of each week’s 168 hours, but they can easily become the highlight of the week.
4. Put off screen time.
Even if you do enjoy some television or web surfing every night, challenge yourself to do something else first. Give a loved one a call before turning on a show. Read for 30 minutes before the set comes on. I recently interviewed a young man who completed his thesis by making himself work on it for an hour before playing video games. Once the hour was up, he could play as long as he wanted. Screen time expands to fill the available space, so giving it less space means you’ll watch what you enjoy most, but you still have space for other things, too.