How To Figure Out What Is Really A Waste Of Time

Some things may seem like wasted time but are bringing you joy in the long run. Here’s how to figure out what’s worth it and what’s not.

How To Figure Out What Is Really A Waste Of Time
[Photo: Flickr user Juanedc]

Everyone wastes time. I know I do. I’d like to waste less time, but doing that requires identifying which time is wasted. And that’s a tricky question.


Open time isn’t wasted time. Sometimes white space is where the best ideas take root.

Watching TV and surfing the web are often low-value activities, but they’re not automatically wasted time. These things sometimes bring pleasure, and pleasure is a good in its own right.

So what is wasted time? I’ve come to like this definition: Time is wasted when it’s neither enjoyed, nor spent in pursuit of some larger life goal.

The Pursuit Of A Good Life

I can’t say I enjoy listening to my boys’ endless discussions of their Pokemon cards, but I want to have a close relationship with them, which requires investing time in caring about what they care about. This time is not wasted.

I savored sitting in a hammock recently for a quiet 10 minutes while my baby napped. Not only was that enjoyable, I was pursuing the larger goal of a calm and happy life. That was time well spent.

A False Sense Of Productivity

But as I track my time, I can see other activities that don’t meet these criteria. I putter around the house at night cleaning up, rather than going to sleep or reading something fun. In my attempts to be “productive” at work, I don’t take real breaks, so my brain forces me to take fake ones. I scroll through social media posts from people I don’t actually know, and read comments on blog posts that aren’t exactly enlightening.


Then there’s the biggie, and one that ensnares me and many people. I say yes to things in my professional life that, upon further consideration, aren’t the right direction for my career. This is complicated, as you certainly look “productive” by sending emails or attending meetings. You also never know when opportunities will arise. But you could watch a lot of bad television in the time wasted in meetings for a job you’ve long since outgrown.

There’s no virtue in being productive toward ends that don’t matter. Wasting less time means being honest about what really does matter to you.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at