How my free time disappeared

This article was written for the Carnival of Aces, which this month had the theme of “quarantine”.

Back in February, I got a new job. I like my job, but my main complaint was the long commute–over an hour and a half in each direction. My husband had an even longer commute, so we were in the process of looking for a new apartment in a better location.

In March, my company told everyone to work from home. My husband’s company did the same. Suddenly we had all this extra free time, multiple hours every day that we would have spent commuting. But all that extra free time–and more–got immediately slurped up.

Although it could be said we’re all in this together, I’ve noticed some stark contrasts in the way that COVID-19 has impacted our personal lives. There are those who lost their jobs or were sent home from school, and there are those who kept their jobs and now have to take care of their kids at the same time.

In the ace community, you might expect that since few people have kids, people gain free time rather than losing it. But as someone who keeps track of ace community activity (for linkspam purposes), I’ve observed a precipitous decline in activity in March and April, followed by a slow recovery in May. Other people have noticed it too. I’d like to offer my own experience as a case study of why this might have happened.

Loss of services

With so many people in the service industry losing their jobs, it’s important to remember that they were in fact providing useful labor. In many cases this labor now needs to be performed by individual households. This is most obvious when it comes to childcare and education.

But for our household, the biggest impact comes from food preparation. In the beforetimes we would often get food from our offices, and go out to eat a few times a week. Now we prepare all our own food, breakfast lunch and dinner, day after day after day. I’m sure some readers were already preparing all their own food to begin with. Still, for us it is a new time drain.

Opportunities to get closer

Although there are many friends who we haven’t talked to much since the virus hit, some people have taken it as a cue to reconnect. In particular, I’ve been spending a lot more time with my brothers playing games. First we finished a campaign of Factorio, and now we are playing Minecraft.

Another person I see a lot more of is of course my husband. So we’ve found new ways to spend time together as well, such as working out. I am more in shape than I have ever been my entire life.

And then my mother, who has been doing Zumba instruction for years, is now doing Zumba over Zoom. So now we do dance workouts as well.

Some people have felt isolated by the virus, but in some ways I feel more connected than ever. The time I devote to these connections is well-spent to be sure, but spent all the same.

Lack of time, or lack of energy?

What if I said that I have plenty of free time, but I just spend more of it playing video games? I’ve already mentioned playing video games with my brothers, and there are others that I’ve played by myself such as Heaven’s Vault, Disco Elysium, and Animal Crossing. In my experience, playing video games is often a low-energy activity, something I can do even if I’m fairly tired. Blogging, on the other hand, is more of a high-energy activity.  From one perspective, I’m not blogging because I’m too busy playing video games; from another perspective, I’m not blogging because I’m too tired.

There are many things about COVID-19 that are exhausting. There’s the perpetual bad news on social media. The sudden shift in routine. The concern that I or one of my relatives will catch the virus. And particular to blogging, it feels like writing about anything besides the virus is pointless; and writing about the virus itself is also pointless. These are not ideal writing conditions. Writing takes more energy than ever before. So I don’t write, I play video games, and then sometimes I write about the video games.

Work behind the scenes

It’s also worth noting a few things that have occupied my time/energy which apparently have no relation to COVID-19. For instance, in the past couple of months I’ve been managing volunteers for the Ace Community Survey. There are a lot of volunteers. I am also part of a program mentoring new data scientists. I do a lot of stuff I never talk about!

Perhaps the takeaway is that life goes on, and I still have the usual things to occupy my time, on top of all the virus-related time sinks. And it makes a difference that the usual things I occupy my time with are things that can be done online, and therefore were never cancelled.

On the reddit page I linked to earlier, there were several hypotheses for the decline of activity in online ace communities. These hypotheses included “people are having internet connectivity issues because of the high demand for bandwidth,” and “people who’ve returned home don’t want family to see that they frequent aro/ace websites.” That may be, but I believe that my personal experience–although it is colored by my unique personal circumstances–suggests that people might just be busy with other things, or just too tired.


  1. says

    Oof, yes, all of these.

    I’ve noticed the same thing about food prep and cleanup – it used to be that, of the 5 people in my house, only two of us regularly cooked most of our meals (and we had opposite schedules); the other three mostly ate at work, ate out, or got delivery. But now that we’re all stuck at home, suddenly we’re all trying to cook and also generating about 3x as many dishes – we’ve gone from running our dishwasher every other day to running it as much as twice a day sometimes. And between that and trying to do bulk shopping instead of popping in every 3 days or so like I used to, our pantry and fridge and running out of room.

    The reconnecting thing you mention has been kind of one of the neat things – a lot of old friends from high school who I’d mostly lost touch with have been organizing zoom chats to catch up on things, which has been nice.

    I’ve also definitely suffered from the loss of energy / will thing. Part of it for me is that I like having a very strict sense of work/life separation – I’d been one of the last people in my office not regularly working from home a few days a week, because I like keeping my home for fun things, and keeping the office for unfun work things.But now that I’m forced to work from home all day, my safe home space for blogging and volunteer projects and whatnot has been invaded by stressful work concerns, which for the first month or so completely disrupted my mental/emotional routines and killed any desire to do writing or organizational projects. Although, it wasn’t so much that I lost energy, as that I only had energy for things that had no overlap with the things I do at work – so while blogging was too close to comfort, crafts projects and video games seemed unaffected.

    The other thing I noticed is that for me, as a public transit user, my commute time wasn’t actually unproductive time – in fact, it was my main quiet time when I could catch up on reading blogs and articles and books and news and such without other distractions, and when I did a lot of the internal mental planning of figuring out how i was going to organize my time and projects for the rest of my day. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to fit all that back into my day now that I don’t have that as part of my schedule.

  2. says

    In my entire life I have never been wealthy enough to be able to afford ready-made food. Nor have I ever been willing to buy processed foods, because they tend to be unhealthy. Thus I have always been forced to cook my own food. It doesn’t have to be time consuming. I prefer recipes that are either (1) quick or (2) allow me to simultaneously do other things.

    Examples of #1: soft boiled eggs, rolled oats, various grain flakes (for example, mix buckwheat flakes with warm milk, wait for a couple of minutes, and your food is ready). I also like all those foods that can be eaten raw without any preparation—milk, cheese, yogurt, fruits, vegetables, some fish, nuts, seeds.

    Examples of #2: various soups. Throw all the ingredients in a pot and forget about the whole thing for an hour until the soup is done. For example, my last blog post was a recipe for a sorrel soup. Technically, making it requires about two hours. In practice, it’s not like I have to sit next to the pot all the time while it is simmering. Moreover, I always make enough soup to last me for about three days.

    Thus I’m spending very little time on cooking even though I make all my food myself.

    By the way, for me personally there has been little change in my daily routines because of the virus. I worked from home already before it, and I am not a particularly social person anyway. The main change was that nowadays I try to frequent grocery stores less often and buy more stuff each time.

  3. says

    @sennkestra #1,
    Loss of work-life separation is something that many of my coworkers have talked about. I seem to have stumbled into a solution without meaning to. I use the same monitor for both my work computer and personal computer. So every day I have a setup and tear-down procedure to switch which computer is connected to the screen. It seems to provide enough work-life separation for me.

    @Andreas Avester #2,
    I make the same thing for lunch every 2 days (taking turns with my husband): portabello sandwiches with corn on the cob. I slice 3 portabellos, fry with tomato sauce, and put on toast with cheese. Maybe it’s a bit complicated but I find that I get sick of a lot of simple things in the long term. It’s a balance between effort and complexity.

    For breakfast, I have cereal every day. That seems to work and is low effort, so I never mess with the formula.

  4. says

    I make the same thing for lunch every 2 days (taking turns with my husband)… Maybe it’s a bit complicated but I find that I get sick of a lot of simple things in the long term.

    Interesting. I would quickly get sick of having the same dish every day (regardless of how complicated it is). But I do not get sick of various simple dishes as long as I have a different simple dish each time (I’m fine with having the same thing twice in a row or every few weeks but not again and again and again).

    For breakfast, I have cereal every day. That seems to work and is low effort

    Yep, they sure are simple to “cook.” Unfortunately, they are also too expensive. Where I live they cost at least 5 euro for kilogram. I can buy various grain flakes for 1/4th of this price.

    It’s a pity that various foods that are quick to make are also expensive. Or unhealthy. Cereals made from whole grains with no sugar would be healthy, but I don’t like the taste. Sugary cereals are tasty, but they are a dessert, and it’s better not to eat so much sugar on a daily basis.


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