Writing about the Facebook Dissenter's claim that FB is a "waste of time" got me thinking about the overall question: what does it mean to waste time? I found it irritating that the Dissenter took it upon herself to judge what would be a waste of time for others, and then I thought: can we even judge what is a waste of time for ourselves?
The more I thought, the stranger the question seemed. It's like the incredibly subjective way in which people define "work." Imagine me and a hardworking stay-at-home-mom: at the end of a long day writing and reading, I say, "Enough work!" and head into the kitchen to clear off the counters and invent some new recipes. At the end of a long day cooking and cleaning, she says, "Enough work!" and goes to write in her blog or catch up on the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review. We're both right. Whatever "work" is, we can't define it by the activity itself, we have to define it by the way the person approaches it. The same must be true of "wasting time."
Some ideas I cycled through:
Maybe it's a waste of time if you're doing it mindlessly. It's hard to think of a bigger waste of time than sitting motionless in a room all day, and yet people I know who have done 10-day meditation retreats swear that it changed their lives. Clearly, not a waste of time. Watching television is an activity often decried (and sometimes praised!) as time-wasting, but that depends, too, on how you do it. I don't feel that time spent watching television is wasted; I'm too busy analyzing the underlying cultural meanings, the acting styles, the artistic choices in the shows I watch. (And, as I mentioned in a recent FB status update, I really did solve a problem at my Harvard job last week using something I learned on "M*A*S*H." I didn't perform an emergency tracheotomy on the receptionist, though. I hope people knew that part was a joke. We don't even have a receptionist.)
So I kind of like the mindfulness/mindlessness distinction ... but then I thought, hey, every action has consequences regardless of whether you did it mindfully or mindlessly. Back in my own Fabulous Bureaucrat days, Adonai knows I spent plenty of time zoning out in meetings, utterly mindless. But I had to attend them, and I got credit for being there. So the time may have been wasted internally, but it wasn't wasted externally, if that makes sense. I'm not usually having some big spiritual I/Thou communion with Milo on his morning walk, either, reveling in interspecies harmony like the love child of Temple Grandin and Martin Buber. I put my shoes on, convince myself that my pajamas look enough like workout gear to be presentable, and drag him out the door. But he needs to exercise in the morning and do his doggie business. I'm taking care of a dog I love, so how can that be a waste of time?
Then I thought, maybe an activity is a waste of time if you're using it to escape other things. Cleaning the house is wasting time if what you really need to do is work on your dissertation. Working out is wasting time if what you really need to do is plant your garden. Staying late at the office is wasting time if what you really need to do is help your kid with his homework.
I like this because it doesn't apply an a priori judgment on the value of particular activities. Anything can be a waste of time if it's used to escape something else. But, again, there are consequences to be considered. You'll still have a clean house, an exercised body, an impressed boss as a result of your alleged time-wasting.
And who decided that the other thing is what you "really" need to do? Sometimes it's obvious, of course: if your kid needs help, your kid needs help, and you can't decide that parenting really wasn't the best life choice for you after the fact. And going to the tavern as soon as it opens in order to avoid looking for a new job is clearly not an optimal choice for the unemployed. But if you find yourself heading to the gym every weekend to avoid working on your garden ... maybe you should give up on the garden. Maybe the problem isn't with your time-wasting activity, it's with the thing that you think you should be doing, instead. Maybe that thing is ill-suited to your temperament and talent. Or maybe you've built it up into this huge unapproachable thing in your head (I'm looking at you, dissertation) and what really need to do isn't so much stop wasting time and buckle down and do it, doggone it, as it is stop being so hard on yourself and reconnect with your joy and sense of play.
I often feel that I can or should be more efficient in my use of time, but I don't know anyone (especially any freelancer) who doesn't feel that way. The only time I really feel my time is wasted is when it gets hijacked by some circumstance outside my control. When I get too sick to do anything that feels productive, but not quite sick enough that I can feel that I truly have no choice but to take to my bed. When I get buttonholed into a long pointless conversation with someone that isn't bringing me any pleasure or enlightenment, and doesn't seem to be doing much for the other person either, but I still can't get them to leave me alone. When I'm struggling with a computer problem or malfunctioning bit of technology instead of being able to do the work the technology was supposed to enable. When a friend shows up late for a dinner date and I have forgotten to bring a book and must simply sit there. In short, I suppose I feel that it's not philosophically possible for me to waste my own time, but that it can be wasted by others, be they people, electronics, or viruses.
What do you think? What is a waste of time? Do you think we can ever make that judgment about others? What feels like a waste of time for you, in your own life?
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