My Thoughts on Intentional Free Time (and why I don’t “sleep when the baby sleeps”)

posted by Andrea | 10/17/2014

intentional free time

Chances are that if you’ve ever so much as babysat an infant or small child, you’ve also heard the expression: “Sleep when the baby sleeps”.

And if you’re like me, you’ve heard that expression no less than 872 times in the past 3 years — no, I never exaggerate either 🙂

That phrase used to bother me a lot (especially because Nora hardly ever slept and I would have LOVED to get more sleep) but now, I realize that the phrase “Sleep when the baby sleeps” really has nothing to do with “sleeping” or with “babies”. For me, it simply means that I need to be very intentional about how I use my precious few moments of free time.

We are ALL busy — whether we work full time, part time, or stay at home full time; whether we have 5 kids, 2 kids, no kids, or grandkids; whether we are an introvert or an extravert, a pessimist or optimist, naturally organized or disorganized. I don’t know anyone who could honestly say “I have absolutely nothing to do each day. I basically just sit around.”

We all have things to do, places to be, deadlines to meet, to-do-lists to cross off, and people to take care of. So when we get a few rare moments of free time, it’s up to US to be very intentional with how we use those moments. And no, this does not mean we need to work ourselves ragged every second of the day.

When it comes to my own free time (which, at this point, is usually when the kids are sleeping) I have several factors that weigh in on how I spend my time.

1. How tired am I?

I’ll be honest, I’m extremely tired most of the time and have literally never slept through the night since Nora was born. Dave and I have both adapted quite well to living off less sleep — but there are days and weeks when I know sleep needs to be one of my top priorities.

In these situations, I make a point to get to bed on time, sleep in as long as the kids let me (which is usually 6am), and maybe even rest on the couch during Simon’s nap while Nora watches a movie.

Other times, I’m not feeling nearly as tired so I decide that there are better ways to utilize my free time.

2. What’s still on my Top 5 List?

As part of my daily to-do lists, I almost always have a Top 5 List — which is just as it sounds — the 5 most important things I absolutely MUST get done today.

If any of those tasks are left uncrossed, those will be the first things I do during my free time.

3. What do I feel like doing?

If I have finished my Top 5 List and have a good amount of energy left, I’ll often stop and think about one thing I really want to do just for ME.

Maybe it’s sit and watch one show on Netflix (usually while I fold laundry or make my grocery list). Maybe I want to make a brownie Sundae or yummy smoothie for Dave and my evening snack. Maybe I’ve been itching to do a little Craigslist shopping or work on my digital photo albums.

Whatever it is, I give myself a specified time-frame (usually 30-60 minutes) to do whatever it is I feel like doing — even if it’s not anything productive (gasp!)

4. What can I for-sure finish before my free time is over?

There are few things more frustrating for me than planning on a specified amount of time to work on (and hopefully finish) a project… and then getting unexpectedly interrupted right in the middle. For this reason, I almost never work on highly important or full-focus activities unless another adult is around to take care of the kids.

If I know there’s even a slight chance of being interrupted, I will work on low-focus activities like folding the laundry while Nora looks at books, doing yard work while the kids play on the swingset, or responding to emails while Nora plays with PlayDoh (and requests my help rolling it out every 10 seconds). I’ll save the focused work for after they are in bed and Dave is around just in case.

This might sound very simple, but by being very intentional about what tasks I work on during pockets of free time, I have saved myself so much anger and stress over the past couple of years.

5. How long with the tasks take me?

Before having kids, I was REALLY good at estimating the length of time various projects would take me. After kids, my ‘productivity meter’ basically had a stroke when I realized how much less I could accomplish with small people around me all day.

However, after 3 years of motherhood under my belt, I’ve regained my ability to estimate the length of time almost every daily activity will take me. I’m not nearly as efficient or productive as I used to be, but my relatively accurate time estimates allow me to be extremely intentional about the best way to utilize my free time.

If I know I’ll have less than 25 minutes of time (Simon is sleeping and Nora is watching Curious George) I won’t try to write an entire blog post. Maybe instead, I’ll clean out the dishwasher, pick up the play room, and respond to a few emails.

Similarly, if I know I’ll have 3 uninterrupted hours (after they are in bed) I’ll tackle some of the bigger projects on my to-do list.

Knowing how long various tasks will take me (whether it’s grocery shopping, making dinner, cleaning the bathroom, pulling weeds, or doing VA work) has been a HUGE factor in my efforts to be very intentional about using my free time.

6. What time of day is it?

Personally, I prefer to do small, quick tasks in the morning to give myself an instant productivity boost as I quickly cross off several small items after waking up.

Because of this, I will intentionally NOT start writing a long blog post or doing any extremely time-consuming tasks first thing in the morning. I used to do this before kids, but now, I’m almost always interrupted in the morning (see #4 above) and I start to feel “behind” if I don’t get anything crossed off my list in the morning.

I can’t tell you how great it feels to sit down after the kids are in bed and know that 75% or more of my list has already been crossed off. At that point, I can simply focus on the 1 or 2 bigger tasks I need to complete for the day.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, how we spend our productive time is (for the most part) our choice… and the same goes for our free time.

So the next time you have a little free time, stop and think about the different factors I listed above, as well as any other factors that might play a role in how you choose to use your free time. Then be INTENTIONAL about how you spend those precious minutes and hours! 

sleep when the baby sleeps

Oh, and for the record, I have absolutely NOTHING against using free time for pure leisure — as long as it’s YOUR choice and you don’t let yourself feel bad about making that choice.

If you want to go shopping, go out with friends, work on a craft project, veg out on social media, or actually sleep when your baby sleeps… that’s totally fine. I wouldn’t suggest doing this with every moment of your free time, but we all need time to refuel and recharge on a regular basis.

What about you? How are you intentional with your free time?


Filed under: FamilyWorkSchedulesTime ManagementProductivity

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  1. Thoughtful Links I Love - Joyfully Thriving


    […] shared her thoughts on intentional free time…and why she doesn’t sleep when the baby sleeps. Whether you have a baby or not, we can all be intentional with […]

  2. Heart and Haven


    Ha! I remember with my last baby (I think it was night 2 in the hospital after I delivered), hubby posted on FB “Slept like a baby. Up every 2 hours!” lol.
    I think the “sleep when the baby sleeps” saying really pertains to that very newborn stage when babies really don’t sleep for any stretch of time. Mommies can only go so long with that kind of sleep deprivation aka torture.

    But no, I do not “sleep when the baby sleeps either”. I certainly don’t need 18-20 hrs. of sleep like my 2 month old needs 😉

    How am I intentional about free time? Even though I’m an at home mom, does not mean that I’m a 24/7 maid. As a home manager, I delegate tasks for the entire family to help out with. My 6 & 7 year olds have recently started folding and putting away their own laundry after it’s sorted. My kids make & pack their own lunches for school. Even my 2 yr old helps clean up the playroom by putting toys away where they’re supposed to go. For instance, just yesterday the entire family worked together to get the house cleaned so we could play family games last night before bed.

    But I also don’t just leave chores for “when the baby sleeps”. My 2 mo. old is just as content when I have the music playing, he’s in his swing while I take 20 min. to clean the kitchen & put the dishes away.


    Andrea Reply:

    Yes definitely — I don’t limit productivity for ONLY when the kids are sleeping either (I would get nothing done with Nora awake all day and all night!) Nora usually gets to watch a special movie or Netflix show for part of Simon’s afternoon nap and she knows I’m “getting stuff done” during that time and that we’ll play and read for awhile after that 🙂


  3. Kristen @ Joyfully Thriving


    Well said, Andrea! I think number 2 and 3 are the most important for me. I have learned to be productive with small amounts of time, and when the baby goes to sleep, I have to intentionally choose what I work on. Sometimes it’s chores, sometimes blogging, sometimes photo books. Whatever it is, I chose it! Thanks for that reminder.


  4. marni morris


    Really enjoyed ready this. I have 4 kids two at home two at s cool no day sleeps now but I curious to know what your morning routine is….. like to you fixed hair and get dressed as soon as you wake or do it later….


    Andrea Reply:

    Well, we really don’t have a great “morning routine” right now because the kids get up SO early. They are usually awake by 5:30 and although I prefer to be up before them, that’s not happening right now.

    If I do get up before them, I get dressed and ready right away — if they wake me up, we will probably lounge in our PJ’s for a while 🙂


  5. Jennifer


    Napping may be good for some. I don’t wake up from naps feeling refreshed or ready to get back at it; I wake up feeling worse and less motivated. I make a nap-time list of quiet things to do–fold laundry, counseling notes/admin work, professional reading–because my son is a LIGHT sleeper and our house is small. I feel so much better when my son wakes up and I’ve completed a few things that I might have stressed about otherwise. My son only started sleeping through the night recently, and still not every night. He’s almost 3. The first 2 years were hard! I tried to nap, but I always found myself even more groggy. My body adjusted to the sleep deprivation, and I only had a few melt-downs. 🙂 Cutting back to working part-time a few months ago has made a huge difference, too. I didn’t need to nap, I needed to cut back.


  6. Siobhan


    My only free time so far today was being able to read this post and it took about 20 min to get through due to constant interruptions from my kiddos!


  7. Avia


    I was never able to nap when the baby napped either. I figured that getting some things under control around the house gave me as big of a boost as a nap. Like Molly said, when I was first pregnant with #2 naps all the sudden became a big priority. At first I felt guilty for sleeping through my only productive time but I finally gave myself permission. I understand your point that this isn’t about babies but about free time and I think it’s a brilliant post.


  8. Molly


    Have you seen the ecard that says “Oh, I should sleep when the baby sleeps? Should I cook when the baby cooks and clean when the baby cleans too?”

    I love it, because it’s so true… I was never able to nap when my kids napped (except once I got pregnant for the second time, and at that point, sleep was really important to me!)

    Great post!


    Andrea Reply:

    haha — no, I haven’t seen that card but I love it!


  9. Ivy


    I was never able to sleep when my babies slept either… I was always trying to play catch up on the stuff that wasn’t getting done while I was caring for the baby. Once I started back to work, hubby and I worked opposite shifts so our first baby didn’t have to go to daycare, I did nap in the afternoon when she did but that was more so I could make it through my late night shift at work. You are so right that we have to use the time we have wisely, children are so unpredictable ( I work in a child care center now in the infant room 8 babies ) One day the nap really well and the next time they don’t so trying to rely on them following a routine or schedule is like fighting a losing battle lol.