Scroll through any social media feed right now and you’ll find plenty of opinions on what to do with your free time during lockdown.

There are two broad schools of thought here:

  1. You’ll never again get this amount of free time - it’s your opportunity for self-improvement and you must use it to the max.
  2. Things are stressful and awful at the moment - it’s perfectly fine to treat yourself kindly and make self-care a priority.

How are we supposed to know which one’s right?

First, we’ve got to recognise that everyone’s situation is different. Plenty of parents have voiced their displeasure at being told how to spend their time by childless writers with fewer responsibilities (guilty - I’ll be careful). I don’t think many will want to read War and Peace in the evenings after a few months of homeschooling.

Many people are safe, but bored: they’re not in danger of losing their home, don’t have other people to take care of, and have income or savings to see them through the hardship.

Others are on the frontlines, keeping society moving. They’ll relish their free time more than ever as going out to work right now isn’t exactly easy. And others may be busy dealing with big life changes the situation has brought.

That said, these thoughts apply to the first group; those with relative stability and a sudden increase in free time at home. Should they take it easy, or take the bull by the horns?

The case for filling your free time with activities

You’re unlikely to have this much free time again.

Although loads of us are working from home now, many businesses are struggling to adapt to remote organisation, and can’t wait to get back to the office. The commute is not yet a thing of the past.

And although we might have more lockdowns in future, they’ll be prepared for and handled differently as society learns to adapt. This means we probably won’t face a stretch of home-time of unknown length again.

While we’re heading into difficult economic conditions, economies will eventually recover; people will get back to work and new businesses will be started. We’ll all need our bodies and minds to be healthy, and some shiny new skills will really help if we're looking for a career change or new position.

Plus, getting lost in creative activities keeps the mind sharp and stops time going so slowly.

If you’re able, volunteering to help the health services and your community can be hugely helpful to the vulnerable members of society, and can bring you out of your comfort zone, making for some memorable experiences and a sense of satisfaction. Or less formally, you could get involved in organising socially distant gatherings in your neighbourhood for isolated or lonely folks.

The case for taking it easy instead

Read any motivational post on LinkedIn these days - they’re enough to make you give up and go back to bed. Lots of righteous business gurus waking up at 5am to live-stream their gym sessions between sales calls. And if you're not hustling along with them, you're gonna be left behind - so they say.

For many of us, more pressing concerns take centre stage in our minds. The health of our loved ones, the stability of our finances, the political situation around the world - these are all difficult to deal with. It's impossible to carpe diem when everything in our lives has been upended. So some slowing-down time is essential to keep ourselves going.

Rest is something we all need for the sake of our health - physical, mental, spiritual and social. If you've been going 100mph recently, take a moment to enjoy some constructive nothingness. It'll do you good.

If you find yourself bored of taking things slowly, you can try dipping into different activities without committing to any big projects. That said, boredom is a feeling worth examining because it often shrouds a different emotional state. If nothing stimulates us, maybe we’re exhausted, or hungry, or drank too much coffee, had something sugary to eat and we’re crashing after the energy high. Maybe it's time to get some exercise or call a friend instead of scrolling through Netflix, unable to find anything worth watching.

Remember - this won’t be the only time you’ll have free time to work on projects. In future you’ll always have weekends, evenings, holidays, sabbaticals, lunch breaks, and so on.

Free time in the future

In Time And How To Spend It by James Wallman, the author explores the concept of the ‘peak-end’ rule. This is the psychological theory that we’re most likely to remember two parts of an experience - the emotional peak (the thing that made us feel most intensely) and the point where it ended. So we don’t quite remember things truthfully; more that we remember the memorable bits, if that makes sense.

When we look back on lockdown times, we might have difficulty remembering the passage of time. We won’t remember every day. Strings of uneventful afternoons will blend into each other.

But there’s the real chance we look back and think “what was I doing all day?”

And if you think that’s a feeling you might regret, maybe it’s an opportunity to prevent that. Can you make each day memorable? Even if it’s just a little bit, your future ‘remembering’ self might thank you.

We can’t go anywhere, but we can cook different food, try new hobbies, or speak to different people.

So which side to choose? It’s up to you.

How about a compromise? Spend two hours a week on self-improvement, maybe. Dedicate Sunday mornings to language learning. Write a page of your novel at the same time you’d normally be driving to work.

You don’t have to go all-out; rest healthily and box off some of your time and energy for creative pursuits. That way you won’t get burnt out and bored, but will also have some progress to look back on and be proud of.

The one thing we’ll all emerge from this with is a newfound understanding of how our non-work time passes, and how we’d like to spend it.