Modeling When You Have No Free Time

We’ve all been there, or are there now.  You look at your kid’s school and sports schedule, your work schedule, family obligations, and yard work and realize the amount of free time available for modeling is measured in minutes not hours.  It’s not just the absence of free time, such time periods in ones life also leave you with little mental energy when a few spare minutes do show up.  After a long week of work and hours spent commuting, even if you have the time you may not be able to bring the level of focus required to effectively put a model together.  During such periods it’s not unusual for the layout and modeling to go completely dormant for months.

It’s a common life situation and one that can be dealt with without falling into a funk or becoming frustrated.   The problem is as much organizational and psychological as it is time related.

In order to stay engaged with the hobby, and keep your skills sharp, it’s important that to the extent you can, that you get at least  some modeling done every week. Even if it’s only ten minutes, try to get something done no matter how small.  Try to avoid month long stretches where nothing happens.

Here are a few thoughts when you find yourself in this zero time/zero energy situation.

  • Don’t compare your progress to others.  Another modeler’s rate of progress is totally irrelevant to what you are doing.
  • When you are entering a time period like this, it is very important from a psychological standpoint to keep the layout room clean.  Piles of junk strewn about the top of the layout, random boxes scattered here and there, and general clutter subconsciously give you a negative view towards your work.  Clean all tools, boxes, etc. off of the layout surface.  Any item not being used should be put away during these periods of slower progress.
  • Have the self awareness to understand that you have times when you are mentally sharp and focused and times (many times) when you are essentially brain dead.  You want to be totally prepared to get some work in when you have a few moments of ‘mentally sharp time’.  You don’t want to be all set to go and then find you need to spend ninety minutes running to the store to get new blades or paint.   Use your ‘brain dead’ time effectively by doing  mundane but necessary tasks such as cleaning up, getting your tools ready, parts clean up etc.
  •  Have a list of projects you want to get done.  Keep it on the light and easy side.  The projects should be simple but necessary.  Examples include: right-of-way signage, vehicle license plates, signal boxes, electrical poles, small sheds,  laying a few feet of track, etc.  No job is too small to put on the list.  Be realistic and set yourself up for success.  When you enter a crazy period in your life where you won’t have a lot of hobby hours available, it’s probably not the best time to put construction of that craftsman sawmill structure on the list.
  •  Be prepared for open time slots when they do arrive.  Know what projects are on the slate and have everything ready to work on them. This means ALL tools, parts,  and supplies. Throughout the day you have numerous chunks of sub-premium time.  These are periods where you don’t have enough time or energy to get quality work done but time non the less for getting brain dead tasks done.  Sitting around for 20 minutes waiting for your family to get ready to get out the door for an event?  Clean the layout room.  Get your tools ready for the next project.  Use this sub-par time to do prep work so that when premium time does open up,  you can use it one hundred per cent, and entirely on modeling.


Have a list prepared of small but necessary modeling tasks (left).  Use downtime to be have everything set out for your upcoming project (center).  During times of slow progress, keep your layout surface totally clutter free (right).


  • It’s a cinch by the inch.  If you are working on a larger project try to get at least something done every several days.  It doesn’t matter how small the task.  Building a structure?  Try to get a few windows painted one day, the flashing on a casting cleaned up the next.  It all adds up.
  • Limit internet time.  I know, easier said than done.  Re-train yourself to get out of the habit of checking emails every half hour and firing off ten paragraph philosophical missives to the chat forums.
  • Take kit instructions with you when you leave the house.  Taking your child to the dentist?  Use the time in the waiting room to carefully read the instructions for you upcoming kit project.  If you aren’t working on a kit, such downtimes are good for reading that decoder or DCC manual.
  • If you have a layout, try to get at least fifteen minutes of solo operations in a week.  This could be as simple as doing a few yard moves or spotting a single car at an industry.  What if you’re layout isn’t operational?  If you are far enough along to do so, temporarily tack in ten feet or so of Atlas code 83 flex track and a switch or two to allow to do some running.  You can replace it with more detailed permanent track later.

No TimeB

No project is too small as long as it is a necessary item (left).  Try to get fifteen minutes of solo ops. time in per week, even if on temporary track (right).

 In summary, the point is to stay engaged with the hobby by maintaining momentum and realizing that completion of the smallest of tasks on a consistent basis will allow you do so.

Give it a try.  Pick a small, very simple project you at least want to get started on next week.  It should be something that takes no more than hour total to complete.    Set a goal this week of having everything ready to work on it by the end of week.  This means all tools and parts neatly laid out on your work bench and ready to go.  The following week, work on it in fifteen or twenty minute intervals until you’re done.  If it takes two weeks, instead of one that doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting a little done each week.