Planning and what freedom feels like

It seems useful to temper what follows with an initial note of humility, irony, and defeat. I have a to-do list, and writing this blog post is the most overdue item on it (it was originally meant to be done by the 28th of January – of this year, at least!). Anyway…

It is difficult, as one moves deeper into the demands of work and parenthood, to avoid running together in one’s mind two things: i) a sense of freedom; ii) long stretches of unstructured time, free from the demands of others. ii) certainly creates i), but it is important to remember that it is not the only way of creating it. Failing to recognise this can lead to a bitter nostalgia trap: you look back longingly to a time of youthful freedom and spontaneity, never to be regained.

Planning is the opposite of spontaneity, but it is not the opposite of freedom. I keep trying to remind myself of this. Writing this blog post is a way of trying to articulate it. In the interests of brevity and vividness, I’ll just offer two examples, one home-related, one work-related.

I rarely used to make evening plans. This arose from a need for unscheduled, demand-free time after ‘the morning routine’, work, and ‘the bedtime routine’. Most evenings, as a result, were spent on the sofa, in front of the television. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but what I came to realise is that often, this time was not as enjoyable, relaxing or fulfilling as it ought to have been. It still felt somehow unfree. Choice fatigue reaches its peak for me at about 7.30pm, and if I wait until then to ask myself/my wife ‘What shall I/we do tonight?’, the answer is more likely to be informed by tiredness and a lack of imagination than by anything resembling genuine choice or resolution. The moral I want to draw here (and I’m aware that to some people this will sound moralistic) is that you need to try to get your best self to make plans that your weaker self can follow through on. It’s harder to slump if you’ve already committed, somehow, to doing otherwise. Sometimes, of course, slumping is what you will want to do, and that’s ok too. I plan to slump on a Friday night!

At work, I’ve started assiduously using my Outlook calendar tool, and I honestly don’t know how I’ve managed to function without it in my life up until now. I use it to manage appointments, and also to plan how I am going to spend the rest of my working days. We’re getting into generic time management territory, but the simple principle here (which I still fail to stick to more often than I succeed) is to allocate fixed slots and spans to tasks, to spend amounts of time on tasks that is proportionate to their importance, and to try not to get sucked into reactivity and the inbox treadmill (two prime instances of unfreedom in my life).

Taking a step back, a good way of summing up what I’m trying to say might be to observe that one way (among many) of measuring the degree of freedom (or autonomy) that a person enjoys is to look at the ways in and the degrees to which that person is able to make authentic, self-directed plans.  Those living under the prescriptive authority of others, or in unstable situations, are, to varying degrees, denied this dignity. When we think of it this way, planning and freedom seem closer to being synonymous than antithetical.

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