Is anything really a waste of time?

by Kristin on May 19, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Robert S. Donovan

We all know that small investments can yield big returns (at least we knew that in a different time and economy). We’re also familiar with the common adage about volunteering: You gain so much more than you give.

Why, then, am I so concrete and literal when it comes to measuring time in my day-to-day life?

When I’m going through my days, an hour is an hour—60 minutes. It’s either spent poorly or well. An hour spent doing one thing is an hour taken away from something else. If I put my work away and take a real lunch break, I have “lost” an hour of my work day; if I give up an hour of reading and relaxing time in the evening, I can “gain back” that lost hour of work.

Part of this mindset could be the product of working as a freelancer in a deadline-driven, time-billable industry. Projects usually start with time estimates, which involves trying to nail down the unknown: How much time will this work require? Will the ideas come quickly and willingly, or kicking and screaming? Will I be focused and alert, or distracted and sleepy?

As I work, each hour is recorded and accounted for—a running total is calculated as I go, and held up to the original estimate. It’s hard to not think of time as a commodity, and hard to keep that mindset from spilling over the rim of the workday onto other areas of my life.

Learning to let go of the concrete side of time

Lately, though, I’ve been convinced, again and again, that I need to stop thinking about my time in this way. It started when I wrote this post about the importance of giving my mind time and space to wander. In the two weeks since then, I’ve been deliberate about taking breaks and seeing what happens. It’s been an experiment, of sorts: If I delay my work day by a half hour to take a walk, do I actually lose 30 minutes of work time, or am I that much more focused and efficient when I sit down, because of the walk?

In addition to taking walks, I’ve putzed in my garden, met people for lunch, taken power naps, and sat in the sunshine with a book. Time-wise, each investment has been anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour—and it’s all time that I honestly don’t think I’ve had to “make up” later. In other words, I have seen a return on my investment.

When I take the time to walk or weed in my garden, I feel more relaxed, which clears my head and helps me to focus. When I meet Jason or other friends for lunch, I feel energized and inspired by the conversation. Sometimes, by being with others, I’m able to let go of stress; other times, I get ideas for a blog post, or my mind is stimulated just listening to the ideas of others.

Rethinking the expression “waste of time”

The returns on these time investments are so varied, that I’m sure there are many I haven’t even identified. But the point is clear: I need to stop being so literal and  greedy about time. Even when things completely out of my control come up—one of my daughters comes home sick from school, or an errand I thought would take 30 minutes takes twice as long—I need to stop thinking about that as “wasted time.” All time is comprised of moments when I can be learning something, gaining writing material, caring for someone, and yes, even “building my character.”

Thinking about it that way makes me wonder: Is anything really a waste of time?

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  • Kathleen Quiring

    Oh man: good questions, good questions. I have been wrestling with this same issue for the last couple of years. I’m always looking back on my day and despairing because I didn’t spend enough of it doing “productive” things. I think about that hour when I should have been working that I spent instead reading about the health benefits of soaking grains or talking to my sister on the phone. I think of it as wasted time. But when did we start to equate “productive” with “meaningful”? Why isn’t life-learning or relationship-building, or even enjoying the beauties of life, considered as meaningful as completing projects? And, like you, I find that these other activities help me to complete those “productive” projects with much more enthusiasm and energy. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject!

  • Thekla Richter

    Time spent being fully present and happy is time well-spent– it needn’t be profound, meaningful or “productive” to be worthwhile. When things take longer than they “should” I agree that that’s not wasted time either – it’s just life, and how long something took to do. I agree with you that a sense of abundance and spaciousness about time goes a long way towards helping us make the most of our lives.

    I do think time can be wasted, though. I see wasted time as time spent without being fully committed to what you are doing… time spent numbing yourself out rather than relaxing, time spent escaping/distracting oneself from what one is is actually doing, time spent worrying rather than acting, time spent resenting what you are doing because your choice on how to spend your time wasn’t made with a full heart. I try to live my life with as little time wasted in those kinds of ways as possible.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    I spent 20 years in the corporate world (seems like another life). I wasn’t very popular there. Once we sat in a sales meeting watching a DVD: “We must do the most productive thing at every moment,” said the expert.

    “What an idiot,” I responded.

    My boss broke in, “Did you ever consider that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax?” he asked with a tone of voice that declared victory.

    “Well, sir: if I have to calculate the productivity, it’s really not relaxing.”

    So, Kristin, I’m with you. Go to lunch, but don’t look at your watch. It’s the right of every freelancer. Putz in the garden–good use of “putz,” by the way. Feel the sunshine and breeze on your skin at the same time. But beware the time-thieves: the daily news, reruns of Seinfeld after midnight, and friends who use too much space commenting on your blog. Peace!

  • Kristin T.

    Kathleen, you ask a great question: “…when did we start to equate ‘productive’ with ‘meaningful’?” I’m starting to think there’s something fundamentally wrong in the way our society is oriented, and we better figure it out quick, and re-orient, for the sake of our kids. (Btw, I love your example of reading about the health benefits of soaking grains—made me laugh!)

    Thekla, I’m glad you brought up the idea of things taking longer than we think they should. As is often the case, so much of that is about perspective and expectations, which can really make us miserable. I also think you’ve pointed out some great examples of ways we can indeed waste time—when we’re only half doing something in a numbing, distracted, worried, resentful way. Thanks for that insight.

    Ray, I don’t know you in real life, but I have a hard time imagining you in the corporate world! Although your story about it gives me a pretty good (and humorous) sense of what it was like. :) I’m so glad you found your space, your groove.

  • Raquel

    This is so true but so hard to practice. My “me day” is also the day that I do my volunteer work. I have to cram all kinds of tasks between 8:30 & 1:30. And to be honest they aren’t “me” things that are task that I do willingly but for the benefit of others. Wed used to be my writing day but it has been chipped away at and yes I see the minutes as “lost” if I take a long walk or read outside. I need to work on it. Thanks for shinning a light ~~~~~~

  • Kristin T.

    Raquel, you bring up another complexity—the things we willingly do for other people that are important to us, but not necessarily “me time.” I’m glad you are at least taking another look at your days, as I’m looking at mine. We might not be able to solve all the problems (like the problem of only 24 hours in a day!) but I bet some paradigm shifts and small changes to the structure of our days can help.

    A friend emailed me today in response to this post, and she shared this quote from Henri Nouwen’s book “Reaching Out.” I wanted to share it with everyone, because it is so illuminating, and (not surprisingly) perfectly put:

    “What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation and become mature people? What if all the unexpected interruptions are in fact the invitations to give up old-fashioned and outmoded styles of living and are opening up new unexplored areas of experience? And finally: what if our histories do not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveal to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment? Then our life would indeed be different, because then fate becomes opportunity, wounds a warning and paralysis an invitation to search for deeper sources of vitality.”

  • Sheryl

    For me (and really, for whom else can I speak?!), it all depends on the day and the activity. There are days a “brainless” task is soothing; it’s a break I need. There are other days when it’s just plain old procrastination. On those days it’s just something to do because I don’t want to do something else.

  • Raquel

    The afternoon of my previous post , I went home and it was such a lovely day I round up the crew and went to the bay for a 30 minute sit/dog walk. AND as always seems to happen when we go to the Bay we were blessed with an encounter of nature’s beauty. We have seen dolphin, tarpon, snook, puffer fish, migratory sea birds. This day we found a sea urchin skeleton. It was a wonderful moment when my husband scarified his hat to the salty waters to scoop it up for the kiddo after she had failed to get it with palm stems.

    Time not wasted!

    Thank you for the reminders to shift our pov.

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  • Alisa

    I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that no time is ever wasted–no matter how it’s spent, as long as we can see it as intentional.

  • Kristin T.

    Sheryl, you make a great point—I’m the same way. I need to ask myself what’s behind my “brainless” moments: laziness, procrastination or a much-needed break. But it’s possible, I think, to take a lazy-induced break and turn it into meaningful self-care.

    Raquel, what a beautiful description of a beautiful afternoon! (Btw, my daughters would have done anything to participate in an exploration like that by the bay.)

    Alisa, yes—”as long as we can see it as intentional.” I guess that’s what I was trying to get at when I responded to Sheryl, above. Our motivations might be less than impressive, but we can still turn something random into intentional good. Thanks for your comment!

  • Sheryl

    You’re so right. I’ve been pretty bad at self-care most of my life. I’m trying to learn how to do it better. It’s true—sometimes I have to give myself permission to do nothing because I’ve had days of doing everything. I know, for me, the nothing can get habit forming. I’m still trying to sort it all out.