Will Doenlen

Handling free time during funemployment

I recently became “funemployed” when I left my startup. Funemployment means you left your job out of your own will without anything lined up in order to take a break, explore new things or figure yourself out. It’s the same thing as being unemployed, just more Millennial.

One of the hardest things about being unemployed is the unstructured free time. You can do anything you want. Outside of your available resources like cash, the only thing that’s stopping you is you. You just have to get out of your own way and make it happen.

Even though it sounds liberating in practice it’s an intimidating scenario. Most people aren’t used to indefinitely filling their own time in a way that’s fulfilling and meets their needs. You just don’t have to do that when you have a job — your time is already spoken for, and what’s left is typically divided up among chores, logistics, friends, family, exercise or whatever other obligations you have.

I’ve done this a few times before and feel like I’ve finally landed on a system that feels good. I observed a while ago that I’ll have a solidly good day if I exercise, do something creative and see some friends. So, I’ve created a very minimalist daily todo list that hits those major points. It looks like this:

Daily todo list with six items: exercise, socializing, making, learning, meditation and writing

Every day I try to hit all of these points. I don’t schedule my time at all. I tend to get into writing and learning in the morning and making and exercising in the afternoon. Socializing is usually in the evening when people are off work. I keep the requirements extremely loose. Writing could be journaling for 5 minutes or it could be writing a blog post. Learning can be anything I want — lately it’s been a deep dive into Three.js and web graphics programming. Making is similar: I just need to create something. One day recently it was an exploration of turning a poem I wrote into an immersive 3D web experience. Then the day after it was trying a new recipe for dinner. Exercise can be as much as running 10 miles or as little as a simple routine of push ups and pull ups at home. Socializing can really be anything as long as I’m seeing people and having fun. I might knock out my socializing requirement with a contortion class where I’m just hanging out and stretching with people. Or it could be a party, a small group dinner or even a FaceTime call with a good friend. I squeeze in meditation whenever it strikes me (though that one would almost certainly benefit from more routine / structure so I can make sure it actually happens consistently). I’ll put in concrete todo items like chores or things I need to get done that day as well.

I don’t hold myself to sticking to this todo list. It’s a gentle list and I make it easy to satisfy — even if I do something for just 5 minutes then I’ll let myself check it off. If I don’t get to all of it then it’s totally fine. Starting is usually the hardest part but once I get going whatever I’m doing feels fun. It’s really just designed to create some basic momentum in my day, give me a small sense of accomplishment and ensure that I’m continuing to explore things so that I don’t stagnate. And over time I get to see the results pile up, bit by bit, and that’s satisfying.

I’ve tried structuring my time differently in the past. I’ve had zero goals and zero structure, and that’s been too little for me since I just end up sitting around feeling restless. On the other extreme end I’ve planned out every hour of every day but that was too much. It kept me on some kind of track but it didn’t allow for serendipity. I’ve tried having very concrete projects as goals but If I’m not careful I can end up focusing too hard on them to the exclusion of everything else. The first time I was funemployed in 2015 a friend in investing casually suggested I use my chemistry background and research the cobalt supply chain to see if Tesla would have enough cobalt to make its batteries. I then spent three months doing nothing but researching the cobalt supply chain, cobalt mining and refining techniques, battery technologies, etc., including doing a deep dive into the history of the Congo where most of the world’s cobalt comes from. I learned a lot and wound up getting really into Congolese music in the process but I’m positive I would’ve been a happier person if I had had more balance.

One important diference between now and prior periods of funemployment is also my own psychology. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve specific things or be moving up some ladder of success. Unsurprisingly, that made funemployment much less fun because I was seeking external validation bit wasn’t in any system that could provide it for me. I care a lot less about that now, though, and so I’m a lot more okay with just following my interests and seeing what happens.

Starting a startup also helped because it broke me out of my perfectionistic mindset which previously pushed me into black and white thinking that something had to be done perfectly or not at all. That kind of mindset doesn’t lend itself to getting things done or taking risks because the barrier to action is too high and the stakes too great. During prior periods of funemployment I did end up exploring new things but there was always angst — where was it going? What was going to happen? Was I wasting my time? But working on a startup quieted that voice and dramatically reduced my barrier to taking action. I learned to structure my time on my own, aggressively prioritize what’s most important and just go do stuff. It made me very comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and it also gave me the confidence to say that I’ll figure things out no matter what and that things will always be okay. All of that is useful for making sure that you keep moving and don’t get too hung up on yourself during an unstructured and ambiguous period like unemployment.

The last thing I’ll note is that my todo list technique wouldn’t work if I felt seriously burned out. The first two weeks after I left I did nothing but read novels, exercise and see my friends. I felt allergic to doing anything that felt like work. I didn’t have my 6-item todo list then — I was completely unstructured. I found myself organically wanting to use my brain after those two weeks, though, and that’s when I knew “rest” was over and that I could start wading back into doing things that felt “productive.” Waiting that period out was important even though I had no idea how long it was going to last. If you don’t honor the part of you that needs rest you’ll just end up right back where you started.