As a time management coach, you might think that my job is to help people always accomplish more. But that’s not the case. Oftentimes, I’m teaching people how to do less in general so that they have more time to get what really matters done. And I’ve realized that many people have a false sense of what is or isn’t a waste of time.
For example, I shared a ski lift recently with a random teenager. As we rode to the top of the hill, I savored the beauty of the surroundings and the feel of being outside. He had his nose in his phone. By some measures I was the one “wasting” time because my enjoyment of that moment was not generating a tangible output or input. But I would argue that in fact the opposite was probably true. Being present in the moment was anything but a waste.
Let’s examine five scenarios where pockets of “wasting” time could lead to the best possible overall outcome.
When you need to decompress
After a long day of work, sometimes you just need to give your brain a break. Exactly what that looks like varies from person to person, but it’s important. A few examples of mental decompression activities can include: exercising, taking a walk, watching TV, scrolling social media, taking a nap, reading, talking to a friend, listening to music, or even just staring at a wall—it’s a thing people really do. I don’t recommend scrolling on your phone all night. That will leave you more tired than refreshed. But if you need 30-60 minutes of just mindless time on your commute or once you get home, that’s pretty reasonable. If you invest in these mental decompression activities, you should come back to a more clear, alert place to engage with life for the rest of the evening.
When you need to process your emotions
If something happened during your day that really bothered you, take time to think about the situation and to process and release the emotions instead of busying yourself with other more “productive” activities. For example if you had a tense confrontation with a colleague, you could talk about the situation with someone you trust, write out your thoughts, or simply think through what happened, what you learned from the situation, what you could have done differently, and how to move forward from here. If you like to process situations on your own, your commute could be a perfect time to just be silent and think through everything. This emotional processing may take you a few hours or more depending on the intensity of the emotion and the complexity of the situation. But by “wasting” those few hours, you gain peace of mind so you’re not carrying around the negative emotions from the situation for days, weeks, or even months.
When you have a decision to make
As I spoke about in my article “5 ways to make tough decisions faster (and not regret them later),” to make decisions—and good ones—you need to give yourself time to actually think about them. So instead of impulsively checking your phone while you’re standing in line, think about whatever that big unmade decision is whether it’s a career move you want to make or a trip you want to take. Or instead of plopping down on the couch and allowing Netflix to determine the fate of your evening, give yourself permission to think about that financial issue that’s nagging you and to come to a good determination. Coming to a decision can lower anxiety and lessen regret from missed opportunities.
Creative Thinking: To come up with new, creative thoughts, your mind actually needs to relax. This more relaxed mindset is called the “diffuse” way of thinking as opposed to the “focused” mode of thinking. Diffuse thinking happens when you’re not thinking about anything in particular. That’s why people often say they get their best ideas in the shower. This can also happen when you’re brushing your teeth, walking, cooking dinner, or really in any other “in-between” time where your mind wanders. Although it can make sense to listen to podcasts, music, or audiobooks during these times, by not “wasting” a little time by giving yourself input-free space, you may miss out on many spontaneous creative thoughts.
When there is something worth savoring
Circling back to my ski lift example, when I kept my phone zipped safely in my coat pocket and took time to take in the sensation of the brisk air on my face, the sight of the evening snowfall, and the sounds of kids laughing, I was “savoring” the moment. Although on the surface, that may seem like a waste of time, from a psychological point of view, it’s an important key to a happy life. Savoring involves being present in the moment and allowing yourself to fully feel and appreciate the positive emotions generated by the present. My fellow lift rider and I were in the same setting, I savored it, and he missed it. Taking time to really stop and appreciate what a sunny day to a laugh with a coworker to your dog can boost your mood both at present and overall.
Am I advocating you spending your life always with your head in the clouds? No. There are times when we do simply need to focus and get things done. But are there times when a bit of “wasted” time can be the best possible use of time, absolutely! You should enjoy it in any of the above five scenarios—guilt-free.