A Google image search for “me time” brings up familiar photos: women (often with towels on their heads), holding cups of tea (often in two hands, like prayer for sanity), sitting in fragrant baths, or doing yoga (often on the beach).
For many, “me time” has a hint of triviality. If hours devoted to paid and unpaid work – from the desk to the freeway to the nappy-change table – are useful, then minutes to oneself are useless: the moments left behind by valuable labour. There is also a mood of luxury to it, as if “me time” were a day spa commodity: expensive pampering with coconut, lime and sandalwood, while body parts are trimmed, painted or rubbed.
Yet “me time” is simply another word for leisure. And leisure need not be useless or costly. The Romans had a word for it: otium. For a civilised retiree, otium was not necessarily about Naples villas, banquets of goose's liver and spit-roasted boar and trips to the vomitorium. Instead, it was time to cultivate oneself; to reshape and rejuvenate one's character.
The scholar and statesman Seneca, for example, took up philosophy in his spare hours. “It is not carried on with the object of passing the day in an entertaining sort of way and taking the boredom out of leisure,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius. “It moulds and builds the personality, orders one's life, regulates one's conduct.”
As Seneca saw it, his hours of otium were essential for a good life: time to take stock, reflect upon himself and the world, and to improve his mind with conversation and study. “What really ruins our characters,” he wrote, “is the fact that none of us looks back over his life.” Seneca's point was straightforward: his character required a mindful captain, not just a cruising autopilot. His “me time” was very serious, precisely because of what the “me” suggests: the cultivation of the self.
Importantly, otium is not just for philosophy wonks. Exercise is also part of “me time”: not only because it relaxes us, but also because it improves us. Regular jogging, for example, can promote the virtue of constancy: less caprice, more consistency. Martial arts like judo and boxing can develop courage. A brisk walk is good for the lungs and legs, and also the intellect: the state of “transient hypofrontality” helps innovative ideas to develop. Rock climbing prompts humility.
“Me time” can also be for art and craft. Working at Lloyd's Bank and caring for his wife Vivien, T.S. Eliot had “me time” in the very early mornings: for poetry. The discipline he developed as a banking clerk was translated into his art. His art, in turn, made his strained emotions and harried thoughts more vivid, clear and beautiful. He was exhausted, but oddly contented with himself (if not his marriage). Jane Austen had “me time” too, with a few intricate manuscripts: one of them, Pride and Prejudice, has its bicentennial birthday this year.
Not everyone has Eliot and Austen's gifts, but creative hobbies need not be world-class. The point is to translate the vague tangle of life into something "out there" in the world. We "objectify" ourselves, to use Marx's helpful language, in phrases, clay figures, pastel sketches, knitted jumpsuits and the garden. (Jane Austen was also a very keen gardener.) In doing so, we can better reflect on ourselves. Alongside their decorative pleasures, and the joy of skilful striving (often called "flow"), art and craft are a chance for a more honest consciousness.
In each case, “me time” is neither trivial nor necessarily costly. What makes it valuable is not its price tag or popularity. Its worth is existential: “me time” is for care of the self. This is selfish, not because it thieves from others, but because it sees the self as an adventure: something to keep revising and refining.
At its best, this adventure is no egotistical conceit: by developing ourselves, we have more to give others. With regular “me time” we are stronger, more lucid, courageous or aware of our own flaws. At the very least, we are simply more sane.
Speaking of which: time for that cup of tea.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His new book Philosophy in the Garden (MUP) is out now. Damon's on Twitter: @damonayoung