The other day in a group session with a few of my clients, we were talking about unscheduled “free” time, “me time”, play time, and the things we do for fun.  It was a tough subject for some members of the group.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. 

Because there will always be more to do, it’s hard for folks to feel as though they can carve out time to do “whatever they want”.  Sometimes, it’s hard to even decipher what “whatever I want” could be.  

And then one of the members of this group said something so brilliant that I knew I was going to write an article about it.

She said, nonchalantly, in the Zoom chat: “Do you need to give yourself permission to be unproductive?”

And that one little question blew my mind.  Because yes, YES!  You might very well need to give yourself permission to be unproductive, especially if your definition of productivity is along the lines of:

  • “Doing all the things”
  • “Using every moment to get stuff done”
  • “Being as efficient as possible, all the time” 

And as I thought about this question: “Do you need to give yourself permission to be unproductive?”, I was also thinking “Why do I not feel this need?” and “Have I already given myself permission?” and “Did I do it so long ago that I’d forgotten I even needed permission?”

But as I pondered deeper I realized that while the answer to these questions was likely “yes”, that wasn’t the real crux of the matter for me.  It’s, instead, that I have a slightly different take on productivity.  To me, the definition of productivity is: “doing what I intended to do”. Plain and simple.

So, if I intend to write this blog post, and I do, in fact, write this post, that’s being productive.  And if I intend to sit on the couch knitting and watching TV, that too, is productive.  And if I intend to sit outside in the sun swinging in the hammock with a beer in one hand and a book in the other, in my teeny, tiny San Francisco backyard?  Well, that’s productive to me as well.

But here’s the thing: no matter how to get there, you deserve rest, relaxation, and joy in your life. (And also, breaks of any kind do, in fact, make you more productive in the traditional sense of the word.  So, if you aren’t quite ready to give yourself permission “just ‘cause”, there you go.)

So what’s it gonna take to make it happen?  Do you need to give yourself permission to be unproductive?  Or do you need to adjust your definition of productivity?

And, as I always like to make the philosophical tactical, here are a few suggestions for creating more space in your life for the things that fill your cup:

Schedule it

You schedule meetings.  You block time on your calendar for work, and maybe, exercise.  What about blocking time for “do whatever I feel like”?  You’re used to showing up for what’s on your calendar.  So use that to your advantage and schedule some downtime.

Make a list of activities you enjoy

Not sure what you’d even do if you had a few hours of downtime to do whatever you want?  It’s surprising to me how many people I speak with have a hard time naming things they enjoy doing.  Sometimes you feel like you’ve been stuck in “busy mode” for so long that you’ve forgotten what you liked to do before you got so busy.  Start making a list.  Think back to before you had kids, or perhaps to when you were a kid.  What were the things that could entertain you for hours?  Then the next time you have some downtime, choose from the list.

Find a buddy

Worried that, left to your own devices, you won’t be able to stick to your plans to “do what you want”?  Contact a friend, make a date, and commit to doing what you want to, together (even if you’re not really together).  Hold each other accountable.

As for me, I’m writing this post from 30,000 feet in the air.  I had planned, in advance, to use this time on the plane to write this post (thank you, technology!).  And after I write this, I’ll be shutting down, logging off, and generally disconnected for the next week. Except for running a live Q&A session for my Time Well Spent program (which I am SO excited about doing), I don’t plan to work at all.  I’ve an OoO reply set on my email and I don’t plan to check it until I return.  

Instead, I intend to spend quality time with family and friends that I haven’t seen in two years. I intend to eat some amazing dinners.  I intend to go on walks while listening to podcasts.   I intend to do a whole lot of nothing.  And, while, yes, I think I’ve given myself permission to be unproductive.  I actually don’t think of any of this as unproductive.  Because I’ll be doing exactly what I intend to do.


  • Alexis Haselberger

    Time Management and Productivity Coach

    Alexis Haselberger Coaching and Consulting, Inc

    Alexis Haselberger is a time management and productivity coach who helps people do more and stress less through coaching, workshops and online courses.  Her pragmatic, irreverent, approach helps people easily integrate realistic strategies into their lives so that they can do more of what they want and less of what they don't.  Alexis has taught thousands of individuals to take control of their time and her clients include Google, Lyft, Workday, Capital One, Upwork and more.