03/07/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

Free Time: Why Women's Views of It Are Out of Sync With Reality

Many of us have grown up in a world where bells marked the beginning and the end of classes at school, where a series of homework assignments had to be completed each day, and where we were supposed to finish dinner before we could have dessert ("the clean plate club"). As adults, we then went into a work world where "face time" equaled commitment and presence signaled productivity. And even if we varied our arrival and departure times at work (flex time), it was called an "alternative" work arrangement. Our lives have been marked by time boundaries.

And today? We have been catapulted into a 24/7 world marked by the death of distance, where work and family demands never cease, and where, in the time it takes us to answer one e-mail, ten more e-mails arrive in our inboxes.

It is no wonder that a new study conducted by my organization, Families and Work Institute, in partnership with Real Simple magazine, reveals that almost one in two women ages 25-54 (49 percent) feels that we don't have enough free time. Although the finding that women are feeling a time crunch is not a surprise, this study is filled with many other surprises for me -- even after years of conducting research on our changing lives at work and at home. Here are some of my major surprises.

  1. We do tasks in our free time (defined as time we spend on ourselves, where we can chose to do things that we enjoy) that we don't really enjoy. Yes, most of us enjoy the time we spend with our children (79 percent) and spouses/partners (77 percent) a lot, but many of us also spend some of our free time doing laundry (79 percent), cleaning (75 percent), and decluttering (62 percent). When asked how much we enjoy all of the things we do in our free time, these tasks were at the bottom of the list with only 20 percent saying they enjoy organizing and decluttering a lot and even fewer saying they enjoy cleaning (13 percent) and laundry (11 percent) a lot. Okay -- the laundry is there and it needs doing but ...
  2. We actually are more likely to share quality standards with our husbands and partners for taking care of our children (80 percent) than taking care of our homes (63 percent).
  3. And about one third of us (32 percent) very often feel as if we are not doing our jobs if we don't do the housework ourselves. It is like the "new feminine mystique" -- we say to ourselves that we don't mind the dust balls in our homes, but do we really mean it?
  4. Many of us (58 percent) feel that we have to finish our chores before we can enjoy time for ourselves. Though we live in a world where housework is never really finished, we still seek to keep our membership in the "clean plate club" when it comes to those chores.

Why are these findings out of sync with reality? Because when we do get help and take some time for ourselves in the midst of our busy lives, we feel much better about ourselves. We are better wives, mothers and workers.

But what about the free time itself? We can substitute one schedule for another -- the laundry for the free-time schedule. I was struck, however, by the 77 percent of women in the study who said that they spend some of their free time "just relaxing" and by the 71 percent who say that really enjoy this a lot. The times when I am the happiest are when I drop any semblance of a schedule and simply putter around. For me, it is among the most restorative times.

And it seems this desire for unstructured time starts young. In my Ask the Children study, young people made it clear that they would like to replace the quality time versus quantity time debate with the notions of "focused time" and "hang around time." Hanging around time is when we drop the schedule for a little while and go with the flow, live in the present, act spontaneously.

So here is to adding some guilt-free "hanging around time" and "puttering time" to our lives --not as another to-do on our busy schedules, but as a restorative time for rest and recovery.