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How To Make The Most Of Unexpected Time Off

What would you do if you suddenly had a few extra minutes?

How To Make The Most Of Unexpected Time Off
[Image: Flickr user Asaf Antman]

Whatever you think of the U.S. government’s partial shutdown, it’s posed an interesting question for a few hundred thousand furloughed workers: What do you do with a sudden, but unpredictable, amount of time off?

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You’re pretty sure you’ll be back at work soon, but you don’t know when. While the shutdown is its own beast, such situations can happen for other people, too. Consultants sometimes find themselves “on the beach”–finished with one project, but not quite sure when the next one will start. Power outages, strikes, accidents that close buildings or other such things can leave people with time on their hands. If you knew for sure that you’d have exactly two weeks off, you could plan a two-week vacation. But you don’t know that.

So what do you do with that open but uncertain time?

I’ve been pondering this, and i realized that in some ways, taking free time day by day is like planning your weekends on Friday. There’s a lot you can do–though certain things you can’t do as easily. People might like to volunteer with time off, and if you have a regular gig, you could scale that up. The problem is that many nonprofits need time to screen you or train you, and they might want more predictability from volunteers than “Maybe I can be there on Friday, but I might be called back to work then.”

But there is still plenty you can do. When people ask how to use their weekends better, I suggest making a list of things you love to do within a two-hour radius of your house. Maybe there’s a state park you like to visit (not a national park right now, of course). Maybe there’s a pick-your-own fruit farm, or an art museum 90 minutes away that you’ve never made the time to go see. Now you have the time. Many day trips don’t require huge amounts of planning other than the decision the night before to do them. When you know you’re going to get time off, you can look at your weekend list of day trips and prioritize the activities.

You can also use the time off as a reminder that few professional situations are permanent in the modern economy. Sure, you’ll be back at work soon, but these days it’s not enough to be employed. You need to stay employable. So spend your newfound time reaching out to people in your network–you definitely have time for lunch–and thinking through what you’d like your career to look like in five years. What skills do you need to acquire, or what do you need to try to make that a reality?

Even if a new volunteer situation isn’t in the cards, you can harness that impulse to do something for your community with small acts of kindness or microphilanthropy. Research how you can volunteer regularly once you get your schedule sorted out (the Hands On Network specializes in night and weekend opportunities that are workable for working professionals). Do something low-key but helpful–picking up trash along your street or in a neighborhood park, or checking in on neighbors. Go online and explore the breed of microphilanthropy sites that allow donors an insight into the projects their cash supports: Modest Needs to help people with unexpected large bills, DonorsChoose to fund classroom projects, GlobalGiving for international projects.

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The nature of uncertain found time makes it easy to feel as though you’re spinning your wheels. But as long as you can point to one thing each day that you did–for instance, recruiting four friends to help you fund the last little bit of a field trip for a hard-up school in your area–the time off can feel refreshing, rather than wasted.

How would you spend precious found time? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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