5 Things Parents Who Actually Enjoy Their Free Time Do Differently

When you’re a working mom, the concept of free time often feels more like a distant dream than an everyday reality. Between getting yourself ready for work and the kids ready for school, busting your butt in the office all day, grabbing a few moments of family bonding before tackling bedtime—potty, story, lullaby, all of it—and then facing down all the housework waiting for you, it can seem like your “free” time is limited to the 10-minute window at the end of the night before you pass out. You know, that moment when you’re too tired to do anything more taxing than scrolling your Insta feed.

But the American Time Use Survey, an annual study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, tells a different story. According to their data, even employed mothers of kids under 6—the most time-strapped group of parents—have a full three hours of leisure time a day. (And by leisure, they mean time spent socializing, watching TV, reading, relaxing, playing games, browsing the internet and playing sports or exercising.)

It sounds crazy, and in some ways, it is. Because even if you’re watching TV, reading or perusing Facebook, if your mind is racing with everything you should be doing, that time doesn’t feel all that free, relaxing or restorative.

For my book, The Kids Are in Bed: Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting, I conducted a nationally representative survey of 500 parents to understand what they are doing with their so-called free time. Much of what I found isn’t all that surprising—parents are spending lots (and lots!) of time on chores, the mental load is contaminating the little free time we do have, and our chunks of free time generally feel too short to use well.

But I did find one group of parents who said they feel great about how they spend their free time. I call them “Role Models.” This group spent…

1. Less time on the internet
2. More time exercising
3. More time with their romantic partners
4. More time with friends
5. Less time on life logistics, like running errands, returning emails, dealing with bills, etc.

It’s impossible to say if Role Models are purposely more intentional with their time, or if by dedicating their attention to relationships and self-care they feel better about their time in general. But the association is clear—staring at our phones and poring over our endless to-do list doesn’t make us feel good. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there a lot. I mean to check just one thing and suddenly an hour has passed and I’ve watched the Insta Stories of ten people whose lives look more exciting than mine. My ex-colleague just went to Egypt! My childhood neighbor is at a Lizzo concert! And now it’s time to trudge up the stairs to bed. Another chunk of leisure time wasted.

Of course, none of this is to say that you shouldn’t go on the internet, or run errands or pay bills. You definitely should pay your bills. But instead of putting chores on the top of your list and slotting in time with friends only after you’ve checked off the rest of the to-dos, maybe schedule that brunch date first and plan the errands around it. Sneak in a quick workout and shorten the window you dedicate to email. It’s easy to assume you need to spend all your precious time to yourself on the must-dos, but when you do that, you probably don’t look back at your “free” time and think, “Yes! I was so productive! I feel great!” More likely you think, “FML, I wish I used my time on things I enjoy.”

The must-dos will get done. Time spent on life logistics or aimless internet browsing expands to fit the window you have available. If you put these items lower on the priority list, you’ll still fit them in. You might even get them done faster. When you wait to focus on relationships—with your partners, your friends, yourself—until a giant free window opens up, you’ll be waiting a long time.

So next week, try starting with the good stuff. Before you do anything, schedule at least one window to call a friend or meet her for lunch. Pencil in a workout. Plan an at-home date night. Instead of looking back at the end of the night grumbling, “Ugh, where did the time go?,” you might have so much fun you lose yourself in the moment, marveling when you see the clock, “Where did the time go!?!”