JUNE 25 — “I’m four minutes ahead of schedule? This is unprecedented. I don’t know what to do with myself” — Andrew Shepherd, The American President

It’s a paradox. Open-ended, “free” time ─ or what I call unstructured time ─ is the time during which there are no obligations or requirements to do anything other than what you decide yourself to do.

The problem is that for many people, the moment they get such “time to themselves”, they immediately obsess over “what I should be doing, now that I have free time”.

It’s like the story of the dog chasing the car. He barks and runs after the car, then finally catches up — but what happens next? Bite it? Bark some more? Piss on the tyres?


Unstructured is undomesticated

Unstructured time is especially problematic for people who have spent their lives in quasi-OCD mode: Strict schedules, goals and objectives, tasks and deadlines, work, work, work x infinity, etc.

To be (miraculously) given a slice of time devoid of “something to accomplish” can be a source of boredom, stress, anxiety and (gasp!) mild terror.


I knew a company director who was given an all-expense-paid trip to Scotland. It was a three-week vacation FOC.

That’s 21 days of doing nothing but eating haggis, deciphering what the Scots are saying, and hunting for the Loch Ness monster. Know what happened?

He flew back after four days. Couldn’t take the pure nothingness and horror of having no meetings to chair, no subordinates to instruct, no projects to manage.

The open secret in many Malaysian offices today is that people feel tangible guilt if they fail to 'appear' super-busy, even when no one is watching. — Reuters pic
The open secret in many Malaysian offices today is that people feel tangible guilt if they fail to 'appear' super-busy, even when no one is watching. — Reuters pic

Time had become simply too wild and free. Far better to leash it back to a regime of rules and structures.

Many Malaysian executives may even see the very concept of “free time” as a moral failure.

Life and existence is about attaining KPIs, about turning my bread-and-butter into abalone-and-roast-beef, so what’s with all this talk about “spending your days doing whatever the hell you want to do”?

The open secret in many Malaysian offices today is that people feel tangible guilt if they fail to “appear” super-busy, even when no one is watching.

Like what President Andrew Shepherd said in the quote at the start of this article, an open schedule can be stress-inducing.

Unstructured time has the power to produce anxiety, lead people into temptation and cause people to go round and round in neurotic circles worrying about a) how they’re not using their time well but b) how they need a “much deserved” rest but, alas c) feeling guilty about spending so much free time doing nothing and therefore d) thinking of something “productive” to do, and starting all over again from a).

In a word, we both desire — yet can’t deal with — unstructured time.

No more surprises?

As a result, I suspect society has cornered itself into a dire conclusion: There should be no such thing as unstructured time.

Every instance where such times may occur needs to be framed properly:

  • Every vacation becomes a “time set aside for rejuvenation”, in between answering emails and musing quietly about a corporate vision
  • Every hour with family becomes “quality time with the younger generation to ensure they’re on the right path”, but let’s not make it a top priority especially when office deadlines are approaching.
  • Every minute in the museum or aquarium or zoo is a “learning experience” interspersed with an Insta-worthy photo every three seconds and a mental note about how this item or creature (wisely) reflects or (stupidly) rejects my philosophy of life

The point is that time has been categorised and invaded by the philosophy of the capitalist workplace in which everything has a pre-assigned value and purpose.

We already know what we’re going to do at every second of every occasion; there are no surprises anymore because the very idea of surprise has been cordoned off out of time.

Modern time has been fully colonised. And thus unstructured time is confined to the garbage bin of the irrelevant or, worse, the neither-here-nor-there.

Such a mind-set would probably disagree vehemently with Nassim Taleb’s quote:

“You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification and, above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else’s narrative”.

Behold, that hints at the truest definition of unstructured time i.e. an interval where you can fashion your own “something” which may be “nothing at all”.

Or, at least, nothing you’d worry about others caring or not caring about. Or, if you want them to care about it, it’s your decision.

Or, whatever — it’s your life. Your time.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.