Too much time on her hands

“Where do you find the time to do that?” That’s what I often hear from people when I talk about blogging, social networking, or anything outside their current habits. I’ve also heard this as “I don’t have the time to even learn about that,” or even “In order to follow that advice, you have to have a REALLY good job where you don’t have to do any real work.” They’re all variations on the “Too much spare time on his hands” put-down dissected by Cory Doctorow in his excellent blog post.

Too much time on my hands. I’ve heard that a lot. People use it as a convenient excuse to dismiss what I’m saying, to not take action, to not think about what they’re currently doing and what they can do better. And that’s okay–as long as they’re being intellectually honest about their excuse.

When I handle this question at my presentations, I usually show that all the activities I talk about can be salami-sliced into things that people are already doing. Spent two hours searching for how to solve a problem? Spend another two or three minutes posting the solution on your blog so that you can remember it and so that you can teach others. Reviewing the previous week and planning the next one? Blog about it as a way of sharing your progress.

People who understand the principle of relentless improvement (kaizen) and are interested in something will almost automatically find those slices. People who want to learn something but who don’t know how to get started will find those slice suggestions useful. People who think it’s a waste of time will shake their heads and say things like “She has too much time on her hands.”

Clay Shirky made an excellent point about spare time and what people choose to do with them. Here’s an excerpt from one of his presentations about Wikipedia and cognitive surplus:

[The television producer] heard this story [about Wikipedia] and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

Clay Shirky, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Too much spare time on my hands? =) We all have moments when we don’t have to do anything. People can spend that time watching television or indulging vices, or people can do something that helps them and helps other people. As long as people are happy with the way they spend their time and the consequences of their choices, then they’re fine. But if they use “I don’t have the time for that” as an excuse to avoid thinking about how they spend their time, then that’s their decision.

It’s not about having time. It’s about choosing how to spend time. I’m still learning how to do so, and I think I’ll always need to learn more and more about the best use of my time. But I’m pretty happy with the way I spend time – there’s always more to do, but I’m pretty good at doing good things. When I hear other people say, “She has too much time on her hands”, I hear it as less of a statement about me and more of a statement about them.

How about you? How do you feel about time?

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  • Sebastian

    For the most part, I agree with you. I don’t blog at all, except for my own personal notes on the computer. But I use a lot of my free time to learn new techniques using free software to make my life easier and more effective at work. Analogous to the criticisms you’ve gotten, when some of my colleagues see all the stuff I can do more efficiently/better than them as a result of this, they “accuse” me of having too much free time on my hands. The first few times I heard this, I couldn’t understand how they could draw such a conclusion without knowing how I handle my time, and thought they surely don’t know what they’re talking about. Later I realized that at least some of them might simply be putting their entire selves into my situation without consideration to differences in circumstances and priorities between us; family, goals, and the million other things that make up our lives, and hence our ideas about time are not comparable. So the “too much time on my hands” comment is now meaningless to me without substantial explanation.

  • Maybe you could write about your habits that make you as productive as you are right now. Or another post about tools that help you become more productive. Single post, unordered list. That might help people break a couple of bad habits that eat up a lot of their time more than they realize.

    • gary

      good idea. i am looking forward to it.

  • I wish I had more cognitive surplus. It’s no fun to think and do all the time.

  • gary

    sacha: i am glad you have a lot of *free time*!!! we benefit! thanks! gary

  • Agreed on choosing where to spend your time. Personally, I don’t watch much TV and don’t subscribe to papers/magazines, preferring to find the info I need on the ‘net. It’s a personal choice, of course.

  • I know what you mean about people using all kinds of excuses not to do things today it is easy for unknows like me ot publish books . I hear from other people who are interested in writing .
    I have a lot of things off to varous agents I am waiting to hear back from them.
    I so have been their seen that and done that unless you are really good you stand a better chance being struck by lightening .
    My sister was a much better writer then I am she was always perfect with grammer I am not.
    She took one writing course after another was analzed by the best but never published anything .
    I took one writing course after I finished my first book . I who was awful in english decided I wanted to write in my late 50’s .
    I wanted to write so I wrote my high school english teacher copy edited my second book .

  • I think some people use the “too much time on her hands” comment because they’re so busy that they don’t dive deeply into anything unless they have to.

    Plus a lot of people are simply not creative and spend their “spare time” consuming, rarely or never creating.

    I wonder whether there is a correlation with the Myers-Briggs N/S scale: are the people who make that comment typically on the S side, and commenting typically about people on the N side? N-people form under 15% of the population. Even though SPs (“artisans” in David Keirsey’s taxonomy) are creative, what they create is generally considered “normal” and doesn’t elicit the too-much-time comment: only Ns do “weird” things.


  • This is an awesome, awesome post. I’ve just finished Here Comes Everybody as well. Even knowing you as I do, I can certainly admit to thinking this about you at some point – and it’s not so much “free time” as the way that you manage to wring out every spare moment into some terribly interesting or useful artifact. Must be the advantage of thinking in lisp ;)

    I do love your approach of the “just blog it”. I don’t leverage the value of the crowd in my own admittedly small audience nearly enough, so my “long tail” is even tinier than it could conceivably be than if I just actually posted more without substantial increase in what I would consider writing quality.

    As for the question of why people need to come up with these excuses, I, for one, know I have a lot of mental plaque and emotional baggage in work that keeps me stuck in some negative patterns. Your bravery in tackling any problem big or small, heroic or mundane, is special and hard to come by :)

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