The Paradox of Free Time

Matcha and red bean roll from La Boheme bakery, vegan mocha from Genie Juicery, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

Students are familiar with the following paradox: during the maelstrom surrounding exams, we yearn for free time to do more, whether ‘more’ means hobbies and niche interests or even additional academic pursuits. But once we do find some free time, we are suddenly, helplessly lost; we slip into directionless idleness, then irritated boredom, and eventually mild disappointment.

For the first few days of bliss, this is to be expected. After continuously striving for months on end, a complete break is, of course, more than wise. But the true paradox lies in the unforeseen and excessively prolonged duration of this ‘break’. A week stretches into two, which stretches into a month, which threatens to consume half of the summer holiday. There may well be faint dapples of productiveness splattered throughout, but they rarely conform to our grand envisions at the end of the school year. It is necessary to note now, before we discuss any further, that references to ‘procrastination’ and ‘unproductiveness’ are made with the broadest senses of the words in mind. Spending a structureless day with friends is productive. Watching four seasons of the trashy werewolf romance that you were secretly desperate to binge on is productive. After all, these are things that you had aimed to do when free time finally graces your schedule.

That leaves the lone (unproductive) option: aimless faffing around. You certainly have concrete ideas of what you want to do, but somehow cannot muster enough willpower to put any of them into practice, even if many are extremely appealing. As you mindlessly scroll through social network after social network, continuing even after you are absolutely sure that there will not be anything new to see, you know that you would be much less bored and restless if you were on a beach, drinking in the blithe atmosphere, as you had frequently wished to do so when you were tackling your exams. And yet when the opportunity glaringly presents itself, your backbone is inexplicably stapled to your dusty sofa.

Elaborating on this incongruity does not solve anything, but it does illustrate the fickleness of human motivation. When our circumstances pretty much force motivation upon us (during exams or in other high-stakes situations), we find it much easier to be motivated to do other things, no matter how unrelated. Without any serious consequences or threats, however, we only have ourselves to look to. So how should we seek to motivate ourselves? An interesting and succinct video explaining the science of long-term motivation can be found here.

Of course, maybe the problem is not that we are too ‘unproductive’, but that a compulsion to constantly occupy ourselves is hard-wired into our brains. Drilled into us during the school year and reinforced by our generation’s insistence on maximising both quantity and quality (especially relevant for Hongkongers), a sudden long stretch of freedom only magnifies any inactivity. Recognising this fails to remove the underlying sense of unease and restlessness that repeatedly resurfaces when we sit idly by. But the irony of this pressing need to productively enjoy ourselves is blindingly obvious. In order to make the most of my holiday, I should do X, Y, and Z, and try A, and maybe learn B, and take up C as well… As each generation becomes more privileged than the last, and has more access to resources and choices, it seems logical to conclude (as older generations have done and still do) that life is much easier for young people nowadays. But these privileges go hand in hand – and are somewhat offset by – significantly increased demands and expectations. A poignant example: in Hong Kong, grade eight on the piano or the violin has already become relatively ‘standard’ and ‘expected’, and with younger and younger children accomplishing this feat, it is now considered ‘invaluable’. Whatever next? FTCL?

The quest to be outstanding at everything is particularly apparent in the years leading up to our university applications, especially those for colleges in the United States. After all, American colleges emphasise their holistic assessment of potential students, further compelling us to focus on our extensive repertoires of co-curricular activities and awards. It is not unusual to see four- or five-paged curricula vitae produced by Hong Kong students, nor to take part in more after-school activities than there are days in a week. I have no intention to argue that life is harder – I would definitely still prefer to be blessed with the privileges that I have now – but ‘difficulty’ can manifest itself in multiple forms. Unfortunately, having seen parents and domestic workers dropping three year olds at tutorial centres, any shift in societal attitudes is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But having identified this impossible, perpetual desire to achieve more, at least we can individually attempt to reach self-satisfaction and acceptance. After all, at one point, many of these achievements become meaningless and unimportant anyway. Even universities are asking students to only include four or five activities, so even on a superficial level, there is no longer as much incentive.

Photograph by Christy Lau.

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