How Should I fill Unstructured Time?

Dr. Robert Ritzema

December 27, 2020

Do you waste time? If so, you’re not alone! Most of us find our minutes, hours, and days slipping away, without anything to show for them. Yet striving to be productive all the time can turn us into worker drones, slogging through one dreary, effort-filled day after another. The dilemma we face is that it’s not good to toil constantly but we tend to use time poorly when we aren’t working. I’d like to suggest that there is another way we can think of our time that avoids the impasse between drudgery and waste. It’s to ask ourselves, “Is this a profitable use of time?”

Weigh the options

The term “profitable” sometimes refers to financial gain, but also can mean any sort of advantage or benefit. So, when I ask myself whether it would be profitable to pick up my guitar and practice chords, I answer “yes” because I’m learning something and stimulating a seldom-used area of my brain, even though I’ll never become an accomplished musician. Reading a nature magazine seems profitable, since I’m discovering more about God’s good earth and the efforts being made to preserve wild places. I exercise most mornings, which benefits my body. Sending an encouraging text to someone who is struggling benefits their spirit. Currently, I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the Magi’s visit, and that sharpens visual discrimination as well as evoking thoughts of Christ’s coming, both advantageous things. On the other hand, turning on the TV or video game usually squanders time, as does scrolling through my Twitter feed or reading political opinion pieces.

The apostle Paul addressed the choices we make about what we do as follows:

“All things are permitted, but not all things are profitable. All things are permitted, but not all things build up.” (I Cor. 10:23, Lexham English Bible)

Gather the beneficial

Sure, spending hours scrolling through social media is permitted. There’s no rule forbidding it. But it’s not profitable. It doesn’t build up anyone. The word translated “profitable” here is symphero, which also means “to be advantageous” or “to be better off.” I’m better off as a result of some activities, like reading a Psalm while I’m drinking my morning coffee. I’m not better off if I spend that time looking at emails or You Tube videos. Symphero can also be translated “to gather together.” It’s as if the heart contains a basket. When we do something profitable, we put something of value in the basket—a useful thought, a good memory, a sharpened awareness, a new ability. When we do something unprofitable, what is added to the basket is either something valueless or something actually detrimental—pride over having bested someone in an argument, for example, or malaise from boredom-induced snacking. At the end of the day, we’ve either gathered things of consequence or worthless things.

Guide your children

Thinking about what is profitable aids in parenting as well. Children need to do tasks and learn responsibilities, but constant toil disheartens them and often crushes their spirits. Out of necessity, children spend a lot of time doing something other than working. Parents can direct that non-work time by seeking to make it profitable in some way. What are some activities that will build up the child or help them build up others? Crafts can foster creativity and develop fine motor skills, cooperative games can cultivate the ability to collaborate with others, writing a thank-you note can promote gratitude and cheer the recipient, family devotions can enhance spiritual awareness. Having some understanding of what’s required for healthy development and being aware of the particular developmental needs of each child in the family can equip parents to better nudge children towards doing things that are profitable with their time.

So, filter time through the sieve of asking whether the things you and your family do are beneficial. You can avoid the extremes of constant work or wasted time by regularly examining whether your day’s activities are profitable. If you make this a habit, you’ll typically be able to look in your heart’s basket at the end of the day and find something of worth there, be it modest or substantial. And the ongoing accumulation of profitable things shapes you towards Christlikeness.

Posted in: Parenting, Family Fun

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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