Free Time & Productivity

Most people consider free time and productivity opposites. I would argue that they are not, but are in fact, closely related.

As a culture, I think that we have seriously underestimated the value of our free time. We are always on the go at home, and at work we are often behind schedule. There is never any time to help someone else or to work through new ideas that will pay out in the future. Please allow me the opportunity to illustrate, from first-hand experience, why I believe so strongly that our free time, productivity, and our sanity are so closely related.

Free time allows us to reflect upon our immediate design problems. It does not matter whether you are riding your bike or holding down your lawn chair, your subconscious is still working on all those problems. Many of the answers to my most difficult design bugs have come to me in this way. This is also true concerning my most successful circuit architectures.

Free time grants the opportunity to help others with their problems. Imagine how much more productive you would be if someone who knew how to solve your most difficult design problem (perhaps he/she had run into the issue before), had the time to stop by to help? I'm not suggesting that you need to run back to the company maven every time your circuits are misbehaving. Keep in mind that you will also be helping your peers just as they are helping you with your problems, and most of the time you will be working out difficult problems together as a team.

Consider as well how much more fun and enriching your work experience would be if this behavior were the norm rather than the exception. I have never felt better about myself or as confident in my own abilities as I have after helping someone else solve their design problem. There seems to be some kind of “productivity multiplier” going on when everyone helps one another with their hardest problems.

We also need free time to work on new inventive circuits. Conservatism usually prevails when the question is always “so when is it going to be done?” Sometimes reusing old circuit topologies can end up taking more time in layout or testing than designing a new circuit specifically to get around old, well-known problems. We learn from our mistakes and should have the opportunity to correct shortcomings of our older designs.

I don't know about you, but if I didn't have my unstructured free time, I think I would go crazy. You are much more likely to have a positive attitude if you are given the opportunity to think, be creative, and to help others.

Here would be my wish, my recipe for success. At work, we each should have somewhere between 10 percent to 20 percent of our time totally free. Twenty percent is a day of every week free to help others, or work on new ideas. At home, the number should be even higher, say 50 percent. These numbers would include time for all of the points above, summarized below.

In addition, if this were possible, I would use some of the above free time to sit down and talk with other technically educated people outside of my immediate work group. This can happen at local seminars, by attending trade shows, or any place where ideas can be shared. How else might we find out what kinds of products a university researcher or a chemist may need in the future?

Here is the wrap-up:

  • Free time so we can talk to others (and help them using our experience);
  • Free time so others can help us (as above but in reverse);
  • Free time just to talk to one another without working on any specific problem;
  • Free time to work on new inventive circuits that have nothing to do with a project/budget;
  • Free time to subconsciously work on all of our problems;
  • Free time to help save our sanity!

Still don't buy it? Let's take a moment and learn a lesson from history. Long ago, humans spent all their time working just to stay alive… hunting, gathering, farming… always busy. The day's work did not end until darkness came. Exhaustion was the norm by this time.

At some point in history, technology or a cultural change enabled some people to have more unstructured free time to think and invent. This moment marked the very beginning of the technological revolution. More efficient farming techniques came next followed by more free time for more people, etc. Free time = productivity!

If it were not for your free time, you would not be reading any of these blogs. My conspicuous blogging absence is a direct result of being too busy myself. It is difficult to follow these rules but believe me, it will pay off.

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31 comments on “Free Time & Productivity

  1. eafpres
    September 3, 2013

    @James–at some level I agree with you, although I'm not sold on “structured” free time at work.  High tech companies I've seen prosper “trick” employees by providing environments where they have what appears to be free time to talk to others, network within the company (Microsoft and Apple come to mind) or work on pet projects (Google).  What is the trick, you ask?  Well, they get those same folks to work 12 hour days and come in on weekends.  You do the math.

    However, I think there is an answer to part of your good concept.  You touch on the idea of talking to others you might not routinely engage at work, collaborating, getting expert input, etc?  What comes to mind is an enterprise social network.  Even if you discount all the noise etc. on Linkedin, it is still amazing what expert input you can get, for free, from complete strangers.  Now bring that back inside your four walls (figuratively) of the company, and you have a much more pre-qualified network.  I believe that enterprise social networking, although not a slam dunk, will become a new paradigm for internal communication and collaboration, replacing a lot of email with actual discussion, getting that stray thought from someone outside your group but who has exactly the perspective you needed, etc.

    I'd be all for giving employees an hour a day to chat away on Yammer or some other internal/enterprise social network.

  2. samicksha
    September 4, 2013

    @eafpres: Thanx for good summary, apple seems good example here but i doubt on MS, although enterprise social and collaboration are distance apart as if now you might find all your colegues and employees on FB rather on Cisco Web-ex connect…

  3. eafpres
    September 4, 2013

    @samicksha–there are systems as you mention Cisco WebEx connect, Microsoft OCS, etc.  But those are mostly pure communication tools.

    I would say you can find most of your colleagues on Linkedin.

    Enterprise social network is like Linkedin private within your company.  Yammer is one example of an enterprise solution in the market today.  There are a few..

  4. Netcrawl
    September 4, 2013

    @easpres you're right they're pure communication and collaboration tools used primarily in enterprise networking and collaboration works. Linkedin is  agood exampleo f social networking site that making a huge role when it comes to enterprise collaboration- its the de facto standard.

    Yammer is another great tool bought by Microsoft but Microsoft still not able to fix the “yammer problem”, the tool is not yet fully integrate with Microsoft products. We still dont know what exactly Redmond(Microsoft)planning here, there's no clear goal on Yammer. i like the work in Linkedin, they're pretty cool and awesome.    

  5. RedDerek
    September 5, 2013

    Do not forget the sleep time. There have been several times that I have woken from a good sleep with solutions to problems. I do some of the mundane stuff around the house such as lawn mowing and car oil change / brake job. These are the breaks from my usual thought processes that allow my mind to “background” think of solutions.

  6. vbiancomano
    September 5, 2013

    It's up to the best hands-on employers to make it happen—they're in control, at least in the workplace. But those companies will be fighting the same element that got them to where they are today: high technology. Perhaps it started about 35 years ago, with the personal computer. The major selling point went something like this: “It'll allow you to do more in less time, so you'll have more free time.” Employers didn't see it that way. They flipped the argument and we were hit with a demand for much more productivity in the same timeframe. Not surprising that society overall now faces an epidemic of anxiety, particularly when it comes to “getting more done.” Not necessarily better. But more.

    Regrettably, looking to the past will be a long shot. There's an old line: “If we had a nuclear war that destroyed everything and we truly had to start from scratch, there would be jobs for everyone…..except history teachers.” Sorry to say, our species doesn't seem to learn from history.

  7. eafpres
    September 5, 2013

    @RedDerek–good point.  For about the first half of my career I used to get ideas just as I was falling asleep.  If I didn't write them down, I couldn't remember them later.  So I kept a pad and pen by my bed, and would sit up and write down the ideas, then I could get restful sleep.  At some point that kind of stopped happening–my brain would not “switch off” gradually, I would be thinking hard on problems and trying to get to sleep, and the problems kept me awake.  I think it is an ageing thing–we don't sleep as well, and that may hurt creativity.

    For a while I took naps at lunch.  It helped me be sharper in the afternoons.  The falsehood of free time as noted in another comment eventually turned lunch into more work time, along with nights and weekends.  Here in the US we are the most productive nation ever on the earth, but it does have a price.

  8. samicksha
    September 6, 2013

    Can say eafpres, i agree you yammer when it comes to private social network for company.

  9. eafpres
    September 6, 2013

    Hi samicksha–have you used a private (enterprise) social network?  I'm involved in one project and using Yammer.  It is not nearly as sophisticated as Linkedin yet, but it works.  A good feature is you can set up private groups for specific teams to collaborate.

  10. Davidled
    September 7, 2013

    Company related to high tech, is one of good example for free time related to the increase of productivity. Main goal is to increase the productivity, as employer provides a little bit free time including all facility related to entertainment inside building.  Worker stays late in company like house as they enjoys a free facility. I am wondering whether that is a true free time. I guess free time is a part of workload in some case.

  11. goafrit2
    September 8, 2013

    When a “free time” is structured, it is not a free time. I prefer to have that freedom to work as an adult without the need of telling me when my time is free or not. That is how creativity is fuelled. When you plan FREE time, it is no more free.

  12. goafrit2
    September 8, 2013

    Apple was run as an autocratic system under Steve Jobs. Yet, it was the most innovative. I think some  things in a business have much to do with productivity than rules in the system.

  13. Scott Elder
    September 8, 2013

    @goafrit2  <>

    Famous quotation from Thomas Edison:  “Hell, there are no rules here – we're trying to accomplish something.”

  14. Scott Elder
    September 8, 2013


     “If we had a nuclear war that destroyed everything and we truly had to start from scratch, there would be jobs for everyone….”

    I have spent some of my career in a couple of poor countries.  There was a running (sad) joke among the local population during the past few wars.  It was something to the effect of why doesn't America please invade us so we can rebuild too.

  15. Vishal Prajapati
    September 9, 2013

    I also agree that if free time is structured then it is not a free time. And also believe that free time is the most creative time when most of the inventions can happen most creatively. So, free time should not be structured.


    But on the other side, it needs self discipline. If someone doesn't know how to direct the energy in to the right direction then the free time can never be productive. So, in that case some structurization of free time is required.

  16. goafrit2
    September 12, 2013

    >> Famous quotation from Thomas Edison:  “Hell, there are no rules here – we're trying to accomplish something.”

    Liking this Edison more. Study in a British old colony, they flood you with Faraday, Volta etc. Come to America, you learn new science heroes. Who can create that balance to educate the world kids in a global way. Edison was never thought to me in Africa; I knew more about British science heroes.

  17. goafrit2
    September 12, 2013

    >> It was something to the effect of why doesn't America please invade us so we can rebuild too.

    Rwanda is a living example. It is the only country where young people are running the govt and ministries. But the problem is that to rebuild, you need resources. If not for grants, Rwanda has no chance to make progress. So before one wishes to start from scratch, pray you have saved enough to rebuild.

  18. goafrit2
    September 12, 2013

    >> So, in that case some structurization of free time is required.

    I like how universities are run in U.S. The Chair is not necessarily the boss of any professor. Professors can do anything but there is an implied time structure that ensures they come to teach, do research etc. It works because the end goal is clear to everyone.

  19. WKetel
    September 12, 2013

    If a production worker needs to produce a given number of widget s on the production lline, then that worker's free time would probably just be a waste, unless the worker came up with a better way to produce those widgets without reducing the quality. It is a bit different with those tasked with being creative and producing creative designs for things. Some companies have the luxury of being able to support a staff who can just “be creative”, such as 3M does. Other organizations need to be much more closely focused, That kind of creativity is more rare than many would admit, at least, those who are able to visualize a whole new system just like that are fairly rare. 

    But a bit of time that is not scheduled into a tight focus is the sort of resource that only the enlightened companies would choose to provide. It is also a tool thatthe better managers use to achieve more in the long term. And it may go along with a corporate culture that places value on creativity. 

    The problem is that there are also a lot of tasks that simply demand an application of effort to get them done, and the chance that they can be improved is less. But the truth is that those jobs still need to be done, no matter what. And many of them do not offer much chance for creativity.

  20. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @eafpres – I agree with that approach. Back at Philips, there were 4 of us in an open cubical and we'd always kick around ideas for whatever project we were involved in. And that worked real well with just 4 of us.

  21. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    And if we'd had had the wherewithall to expand that to regularly chat with the engineers in the other quad-cubicals, it would have been quite productive, I'm sure.

  22. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    So making it a company wide policy/mandate (and I hate to call it that as it sounds so formal and pushy) would surely help improve productivity.

  23. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @RedDerek – here too – I've solved engineering problems in my sleep (tho' not at work – they get cranky about napping during bidness hours).

  24. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @eafpres – tying this in to my other comment – I've read that a midday nap (if held to about 20 minutes) is highly useful and can increase productivity significantly.

  25. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @VB – to your point about more/not better – yep, I've had jobs where all that mattered was that you hit certain numbers. The quality was virtually irrelevant – just make sure you hit a certain quantity. Seems silly in retrospect.

  26. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @goafrit2 – quite right – you need some minimum level of resources (natural and man-made) to work with so that you can proceed from there to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

  27. Brad_Albing
    September 22, 2013

    @WKetel – this is why it's better to be an design engineer than just about any other job.

  28. WKetel
    September 22, 2013

    At several different jobs we have had the ability to meet totally informally with the other engineers to figure out solutions to challenges and to decide on a best solution and ways to do things. It was not truly free time because we were working on current projects, but it was completely unstructured time. It was also quite beneficial in that it provided quite a few solutions and cost reductions. So our managers chose to let it continue.

  29. goafrit2
    September 25, 2013

    >> @RedDerek – here too – I've solved engineering problems in my sleep 

    That is true- there are cases when you think through problems even when you are driving from work. It all depends on how you care about the company and the assignment. I always have my notes in case something comes up to note it. When the mind is free, it can think freely and innovation can follow.

  30. goafrit2
    September 25, 2013

    >> So making it a company wide policy/mandate (and I hate to call it that as it sounds so formal and pushy) would surely help improve productivity

    Industries and companies vary. Apple under Steve Jobs was heaviliy secretive and authoritative but yet succeeded. That does not mean any company can do the same and have similar results. Every firm must have its unique culture and way of doing things.

  31. Brad_Albing
    September 26, 2013

    @goafrit2 – Every firm must have its unique culture and way of doing things . Yes, quite so – some are good, and some, not so much. But yes, when the policy is structured properly, you can get good results – which in practical terms usually means high productivity, lots of innovation, and high profits.

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