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By definition, free time is devoid of expectation. It’s the sparkling reward for all your hard work.

But having and deciding what to do with free time can be very stressful – especially in law where busyness is a status symbol and idle, unproductive time is often treated with suspicion.

Some people feel enormous pressure to maximise their precious downtime with meaningful activities and a full calendar, while others struggle to see the value in time away from work despite ample health-related evidence to the contrary. Instead, experts recommend an approach that respects the mind’s need for rest.

How lawyers perceive free time

Stephanie Thompson, a corporate psychologist and executive coach at Insight Matters who works with a large legal client base, says she observes two common approaches to free time in the profession.

“There are some people who have a fear of missing out and a need to make the most of every minute, so they might fill their calendar with exercise or socialising,” she says. “There are also people who think, ‘if I’m not working, I really don’t see the point’. They are so task-focused and work-focused – that’s really all there is.”

She says these perspectives are a natural extension of the types of personalities attracted to a career in law. “Either they’re hyper-intellectual and achievers, or high-energy, world-conquering kinds of people.”

For the FOMO crowd, “the natural manifestation of that outside of work is something that looks the same, it’s just the subject matter is different,” Thompson says. “They’re still running around trying to win and achieve and get things done. It’s just that what’s on the plate is different.”

These attitudes may also be a consequence of the very small amount of free time the average lawyer has in a 50 or 60-hour work week. A recent Canadian study published in Emerald Insight that examined male lawyers’ experiences of work-life balance found opportunities for any sort of equilibrium are still limited. Prominent in the ‘career script’ of what it means to be a male lawyer is an expectation of very little free time.

What’s more, the free time lawyers eke out is often spent attending work-related social events and activities, explains one of the study’s co-authors, Julia Richardson, a professor of human resource management and head of the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University.

“These activities often involve high performance and competition,” she says. “For many men there is some suggestion that cycling has replaced golf as one of the most popular work-related activities for networking. If you go out cycling with your clients or other lawyers, generally there’s still that pressure to be listening to your clients and your boss.

“What ends up happening is that your leisure time becomes an extension of your work time.”

The case for head space

So, are these full-steam-ahead or disdainful approaches to free time good for you?

Thompson says some people can live and work at a frenetic pace with little need for free time if they are particularly resilient. “Resilience is both a trait and a learnable skill,” she says. “Somebody who is very resilient and has also good organisation, good structuring of their work and domestic lives, they can sometimes do quite well without really suffering too much.”

But resilience only takes you so far. Eventually, Thompson says, difficulties arise “when you try to do other things with your life, such as ordinary things like have a family”.

When you don’t give your brain time to pause and refresh, it doesn’t work as efficiently. You’re also at higher risk of burnout and health problems associated with chronic stress, like heart disease, arthritis and type 2 diabetes.

“If you’re pushing, pushing, pushing in a way that is unsustainable, biologically and psychologically, then at some point your body will force you to take downtime because you’ll fall sick,” Thompson says.

Likewise, viewing free time as wasteful and unproductive may lead to less happiness and poorer mental health, according to a new study by Ohio State University. The researchers found higher levels of stress and depression were associated with the naysayer cohort.

Ample research shows our minds need frequent rest and taking breaks can improve mood as well as your performance at work. “We have to start thinking about proper downtime to get that psychological space,” Professor Richardson says.

“The more work-life conflict there is, the more negative the impact on your work performance. It absolutely makes sense from a career perspective to have balance.”

Making time for free time

As for what to do with your free time, Thompson recommends “low intellectual involvement, peaceful activities” like yoga and swimming. You might cook dinner, read a novel, hang out with your kids or lounge around in front of the television.

Try to resist the pull of a full calendar and tune in to what you want to do. “Start with one evening a week and try that, see how that feels,” Thompson says.

Ultimately, it’s about taking a break from the always-on, achievement-oriented mindset – even if your activity of choice seems a little more demanding. “Perhaps you’re taking classes and learning Spanish,” Thompson says. “You might try quite hard in that class to do well. It’s really about switching off that competitive behaviour and enjoying what you’re doing.”

Professor Richardson suggests starting with small, incremental changes. “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I spending time with? What am I spending my time on? Where might I make some adjustments?’” she says.

Importantly, she says, how much time you devote to free time depends on individual preference. What matters is you’re enjoying it in some capacity.

“Some people may be entirely comfortable with working long days during the week and then taking weekends off,” Professor Richardson says. “For others, it might be finishing every day at 5pm and maybe working on a Sunday afternoon.”