Wasting Time

Is it possible that wasting time can actually be a good use of time?

by John Zeratsky

A few weeks back, I was talking with my friend Nick Baum (founder of StoryWorth) about Make Time. He shared with me a concern about “time management” and “productivity” advice in general:

I worry that it’s not okay to “waste” time. These articles, they make it seem like every hour has to be used perfectly. Sometimes I just want to read a book or play with my kid. I know there are a lot of good techniques for making better use of my time, but the complete focus on optimization really turns me off.

I totally agree. My goal is not to encourage optimizing every hour. Sure, I write about making good use of time, but that’s a big-picture goal. If reading books and playing with your kid is a good use of time (and it certainly sounds like it is!) then I want to help enable that.

Plus, it’s not even possible to be perfectly productive at all times. We need time to recharge, space to think, flexibility to hang out with friends, and idle brain bandwidth to evaluate and consider opportunities. I’ve written about this before, when I designed my workday around writing — and found that four or five hours of real work was all I could do. The rest of the day was “wasted” — on email, reading, eating, chores, walking — but completely necessary.

The conversation with Nick was in the back of mind when I came across a couple of articles about the value of wasting time. The first is an excerpt — from a book called Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang — and the second is a summary of an interview with Michael Lewis, ultra-successful author of The Big Short, Moneyball, and many other books.

First, here’s Pang in Rest:

Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking… Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.

He revisits a study of violinists at the Berlin Conservatory in the 1980s. You know, the one that Malcolm Gladwell made famous as part of his “10,000 Hour Rule” in Outliers? Pang flips the analysis, away from time spent practicing to the time spent resting.

The top performers actually slept about an hour a day more than the average performers… The best students generally followed a pattern of practicing hardest and longest in the morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and then having a second practice in the late afternoon or evening.

This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD… Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive.

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

In Inc magazine, Minda Zetlin describes an interview with Michael Lewis about how a different kind of rest — the space between projects—is essential for choosing the right things to spend time on.

Lewis said: “People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives. If you mistake busyness for importance — which we do a lot — you’re not able to see what really is important.”

Lewis is willing to waste time — a lot of it — if something seems like it could be really worthwhile. He’ll spend a year or more hanging around someone who interests him even before he knows for sure whether he’ll wind up with a book.

“My laziness serves as a filter,” Lewis said. “Something has to be really good before I’ll decide to work on it.” Lewis has published six heavily researched books in the past 10 years while also working as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, so his laziness certainly hasn’t stopped him from producing quite a lot of work.

But it has helped ensure that what he does is his very best work — only the things that really call to him.

It’s becoming more and more clear to me that “wasting” time isn’t a waste at all — in fact, it’s necessary to make good use of the “productive” time.

But, we should try to avoid the middle: long days of medium-focus busywork that’s neither restful nor especially productive. Unfortunately, that kind of work is the norm in most workplaces today. With Make Time, I’m trying to change that.