| November 14, 2018

Last updated: December 5, 2018

Hobbies, Podcast, Productivity

Podcast #458: In Praise of Wasting Time

Your time on earth is finite and once you use it up, it’s gone forever. Thus on the AoM podcast, we talk a lot about how to maximize your time — how to use it more effectively to be more productive. But is it possible to be too concerned about managing your time? Should you also make space for chucking out all the to-do lists and schedules and just being kind of idle?

My guest would say yes. His name is Alan Lightman, he’s a physicist and writer, and the author of the book In Praise of Wasting Time. Today on the show Alan forwards the sort of countercultural argument that intentionally wasting time isn’t a vice but a virtue. We begin our conversation by discussing what Alan means by wasting time, and then get into how wasting time benefits our psyches, creativity, sense of mental self-reliance, and even, ironically enough, our productivity. We end our conversation discussing the difference between chronos time and kairos time, and how wasting time allows us to spend more time in the latter state.

Show Highlights

  • Why Alan started seeing value in wasting time
  • What Alan means by “wasting time” 
  • How our perception of time has changed through the course of history 
  • Why increased communication speeds cause anxiety 
  • Why people are less creative in our modern times 
  • How Alan has effectively used “wasted” time in his own creative endeavors 
  • Why everyone needs unstructured, unplugged time to just think
  • Letting your brain truly wander versus directing its attention
  • The value of play 
  • Why goals, especially in your leisure time activities, can hold you back
  • What about “wasting time” in your professional life? How do you make this case to your boss?
  • Chronos time vs kairos time 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Your time on earth is finite. Once you use it up, it is gone forever. Thus, on the AOM podcast, we talk a lot about how to maximize your time, how to use it more effectively to be more productive. But is it possible to be too concerned about managing your time? Should you also make space for chunking out all the to-do lists and schedules, and just kind of be idle? Well, my guest today would say yes. His name is Alan Lightman. He’s a physicist and a writer, and the author of a book called In Praise of Wasting Time.

Today on the show, Alan forwards the sort of counterculture argument at intentionally wasting time isn’t a vice, but a virtue. We begin our conversation by discussing what Alan means by wasting time, and then get into how wasting time benefits our psyches, creativity, sense of mental self-reliance, and even ironically enough, our productivity. We end our conversation discussing the difference between Chronos time and Kairos time, and how wasting time allows us to spend more time in the latter state. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/wastingtime. Okay, Alan Lightman, welcome to the show.

Alan Lightman: Nice being on the show, Brett.

Brett McKay: You got a nice little book out called In Praise of Wasting Time, which is based on a TED Talk you gave. Before we get to the book, I’d like to talk about your background, because I think it’s really interesting. You have a physics background, but you’re also a novelist, you write poetry, you write essays. And that’s not a combination you see too often. I’m curious, how did that happen?

Alan Lightman: Well, I was very interested in both science and the arts from a young age. I built homemade rockets and fired them, and I wrote poetry. I did science projects, and I was editor of the school literary magazine. I didn’t see anything unusual about having interests in both science and the arts. I do remember that my teachers, and friends, and even parents tried to push me in one direction or the other. But I resisted those pushes, and just continued following my interests.

Brett McKay: It sounds a lot like, we had Walter Isaacson on a while back to talk about da Vinci. And da Vinci was the same way. He combined both arts and science together.

Alan Lightman: Well, I think that he achieved a little bit more than I have in my life.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this book, In Praise of Wasting Time, because that’s a provocative title. And we’ll talk about our perceptions of time and our emotion towards it. But what got you thinking about, “Hey, maybe instead of seeing wasting time as a bad thing, maybe there’s some value to that”? What was the impetus?

Alan Lightman: Well, for many years, my wife and I have spent our summers on an island in Maine, a small island. It doesn’t have any roads on it. It doesn’t have that ferry service to it. It doesn’t have any bridges to the mainland. And when we come here, we unplug. And my wife is a painter. And we’ve noticed that our creative activities, our creative spirit is tremendously boosted by not having to-do lists, not having a schedule every day. And I have been alarmed over the last 25 years, to see how the pace of life has increased, and people don’t give themselves time anymore just to let their minds wander. So, both for positive and negative reasons, I have tried to orient my lifestyle in such a way that I had periods of time that were unstructured and unscheduled.

Brett McKay: So, what do you mean by wasting time? Because doing art, that doesn’t seem like that’s a waste of time. So, I’m sure there’s a specific, is there something you’re trying to get at when you say wasting time?

Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, it’s a good question. I think that I mean by wasting time, is spending time that does not have a goal, that is not directed, it’s not scheduled. Spending time in a way that allows your mind to wander. And there are many activities that fit that description. It could be going out to dinner with friends, or it could be taking a walk in the woods, or it could be just sitting quietly by yourself in a chair. But I think that part of wasting time in the way that I think of it is being free from external stimulation. I think that we, that especially with the Internet and with the Smartphones, that we’ve been overwhelmed by an avalanche of external stimulation and information.

And it’s very hard to, under those conditions, it’s very hard to hear your own self think, to get in touch with your own inner self. So, I hope that that gives you some idea of what I mean by wasting time. It’s a combination of unplugging from the external world and spending time in a way that is unscheduled and unstructured, and not goal-oriented.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. What I love about the book, you get into sort of broad look at how our perception of time has changed over history. And particularly, how technology, advances in communication technology has changed the perception of time.

Alan Lightman: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Walk us through, how has advances in communication technology changed our perception of time?

Alan Lightman: Well, the pace of life has always been regulated by the speed of communication, because the speed of communication determines the speed of business transactions and everything else. In the middle 1800s, when the telegraph was first invented, that was a high-speed communication of the time. And I think there was a physician named Beard, Dr. Beard, I can’t remember his first name, who wrote an article about how people were suffering greater anxiety because of the higher speed of life. And he was referring to the telegraph, which was like, three bits per second speed.

And around 1985, when the Internet first became public and available to most people, the speed of communication was about 1,000 bits per second. And today, it’s about 1 billion bits per second. So, we can see how the speed of communication has increased the speed of life. Everything is faster. I mean, even walking speed is faster. About a decade ago, the British Council did a study of the walking speed in 35 countries, and found that just in the last 10 years, the speed had increased by 10%. So, everything is faster. And I think that all of that can be tracked back to the speed of communication.

Brett McKay: And do you think Beard was onto something, that this increased speed of communication, even back then when it was three bits per second, now it’s 1 billion bits, it causes anxiety in people? Are we seeing that manifest itself?

Alan Lightman: I think that we have. People are rushing around more. In terms of the measurement of stress less, people have done studies of college students and found that they are definitely under greater stress than they were 25 years ago. There was a recent article about a year ago that came out in Time Magazine, actually the cover of Time Magazine in the US, that documented the increase in anxiety and depression among teenagers. And some sociologists and psychologists analyzed that and tried to find the reasons why depression and anxiety were increasing among young people.

And of course, there are many factors. But one of the key factors was the pace of life and the fact that teens are plugged in all the time on Twitter, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and Facebook, and they are afraid of losing out, of not keeping up, with their friends. They see all the activities that their friends are doing, and they see it at a high rate of speed. And they have an anxiety about not keeping up. There’s actually an acronym for that, that a psychiatrist friend explained to me. It’s called FOMO, F-O-M-O, which stands for fear of missing out. And so, I think that we see here the results of the increased pace of life and the interconnectedness, I would call it hyper-connectedness of our society.

Brett McKay: And besides the increased anxiety, you also highlight research that shows that young people these days are less creative than say, young people 20, 30 years ago.

Alan Lightman: Yes. There was a study done by a researcher at the College of William and Mary a few years ago that used a standard test for creativity that’s been used for 40 or 50 years, and found that since the early 1990s, which was near the beginnings of the Internet, that creativity was decreasing among young people. And this test measures creativity by a number of ways. For example, seeing a couple of objects and being asked what kinds of activities can these object be used for, what tasks can they accomplish. Or getting part of a story, and being asked to complete the story. Those are just a couple of examples of the things on the creativity test.

But it’s really not surprising to me that creativity has decreased, because I think that creativity requires stretches of unstructured time. Gustav Mahler used to go walking in the countryside for several hours after lunch when he was working on a piece of music. And there are various examples of people doing their creative work when they are unplugged, when they are separating themselves from the rush and the heave of the outside world, and just listening to their inner thoughts.

Gertrude Stein, the writer, used to take drives in the countryside, get out and just look at cows, when she was working on a piece of writing. The unconscious mind is involved with creativity. And we have lots of evidence that a lot of our thinking happens unconsciously. And the unconscious mind does best when it’s not being poked and prodded by the outside world, when it’s just given time to go through its secret hallways in solitude and silence.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think you also highlight research. I think this, as well, whenever we are bombarded by external stimuli, our attention gets focused on that, laser pointed. That’s all we think about, the only thing we look at. And as a consequence, we don’t have this, I think they call it the default mode that our brain goes in when we’re not really paying attention to anything in particular. And in that default mode, that’s when ideas in your head start swirling around and mashing together, basically.

Alan Lightman: Yes, yes.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about this creative process, and how you’ve used quote/unquote wasting time, unplugging, just unstructured, unscheduled time. How has that played out in your life? What do you do? You’re a writer. You wrote Einstein’s Dreams. Did you come up to any situations where you hit a wall, and then you just basically decided, you know what, I’m gonna unplug, I’m not gonna have any expectations of getting something done, I’m just gonna go sit or walk and let my mind wander?

Alan Lightman: Well, yes, that happens many times. And it happened when I was in my scientific career, as well as my writing career, because science is a creative activity, as well. But a lot of times, the solution to a problem will come, not when you’re attacking the problem head-on, but when you’re doing something else that might be unrelated to the problem at all. Taking a shower, or taking a walk. I remember that I was working on a novel some years ago, and one of the characters was not coming to life. And I kept struggling, and struggling, and struggling, and trying different things with the character. And I just couldn’t make the character come to life, and it was killing the entire novel.

And then I remember, I was just taking a walk one day, and I started hearing dialogue from the character, different dialogue than I had heard before. And suddenly, I understood her in a much deeper way than I had before. And I think that my subconscious mind had been trying out different pieces of dialogue for this character, seeing which one opened up, which one led to her heart, and led to her soul. And finally, there was just one piece of dialogue that rose to my conscious awareness, that made her come alive for me. And I understood something about her that I hadn’t before.

A very similar thing happened when I was working on a scientific problem long ago when I was in graduate school. And I had been beating my head against the wall for six months, trying to find a mistake that I’d made. And then, I woke up one morning feeling like I was floating. And I rushed to the kitchen table, where a bunch of my pages of calculations were lying there, and I suddenly realized the mistake that I had made. And it wasn’t from going from one equation to the next, or pounding on the problem. It was something that happened unconsciously.

And I think that there are just many, many examples. Those are a couple from my own life, but many examples where the unfettered mind, the unconscious mind, is able to accomplish things that the schedule-driven, time-driven mind cannot. But of course, there are many other values of quote, wasting time besides creativity. I think one of the, and you can stop me here if you don’t want me to go on.

Brett McKay: No, keep going.

Alan Lightman: But I think that we need unplugged, unstructured time to explore our inner self, and consolidate our self-identity. And I know that sounds mushy, and sentimental, and trite. But we need time to think about who we are, and what’s important to us, and where we are going, our values. And we need time to remember things that we’ve done in the past, and reevaluate those with new experience. And all of that is part of what I call consolidating our self-identity, understanding who we are.

And you can’t rush through that. You can’t do that kind of mulling and thinking when you’re sitting in a dentist’s office waiting to go in, and you’ve got 15 minutes to read a magazine or think. You can’t do that when you’re answering emails, or when you’re sending out Twitters. You need time where there’s nothing that you have to do, and you’re just letting your mind wander and think about what it wants to think about. I mean, too often, we are directing our minds to go from A to B, and make this appointment and make that appointment, answer this phone call. We are not letting our minds wander freely.

And part of what we lose there is not just the ability to be creative, but the ability to understand who we are. We need to constantly evaluate who we are, because we have new experiences every day. We have new decisions that we need to make. And all of that is part of our self-identity. And we need quiet solitude for that kind of thinking.

Brett McKay: No, that point really hit home with me, because it reminded me of the book The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman. It was written back in the 1950s. And basically, he said that the American middle class was shifting to, they were becoming other-directed beings. Basically, they got their sense of identity by looking what other people were doing, right. And social media particularly, I think has amplified that, or the Internet. Because whenever you have an opinion, often times the first thing you do is, “Do other people think the same thing?”

So, you Google whatever. You try to find something on Reddit that agrees with you or disagrees with you. And yeah, I mean, I find myself doing that. And at the same time, I’m like, “Man, I just want to think what I want to think,” right, not care about what other people … I mean, you have to care what other people think. There’s a balance. But I feel like we’ve gone too far.

Alan Lightman: Yeah. Well, this is part of that fear of missing out, the FOMO syndrome, that’s causing increased anxiety and depression in teenagers. They are constantly checking with their friends to see what other people are doing. And they don’t have the self-confidence to just know what they’re doing, and to honor their own decisions in their own life. We’ve developed a manner of living, a lifestyle, in which we require constant external validation. And the Internet makes that so easy to do, to check and see what other people are doing.

Brett McKay: And I guess that just increases the anxiety, right, because when you post something-

Alan Lightman: Yes.

Brett McKay: When you post something on Instagram, you think it’s cool. But then, everyone just ignores it, or they comment about it, make fun of it. And you’re like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do that thing.” That’s sad if that happens.

Alan Lightman: Right.

Brett McKay: So besides unplugging, besides, I guess you’ve done things where you go for walks, what are some other ways we can waste time? You mention in the book, playing is a great way to waste time. But what kind of play are we talking about, here? Are we talking about video games, structured sports leagues, or are you talking about something else?

Alan Lightman: To me, play is anything where you, I guess sports is an interesting in-between case, because when you’re playing sports you have a goal usually, to defeat the other team or defeat the other player. So, a sport event can be recreational, it can be something that’s relaxing, but it can also be something that’s very stressful and competitive. So, I think it depends on how you play the sport, what the outcome is, in terms of your mental state of being.

But for me, play is again, when you’re engaging in an activity that doesn’t have a goal, that is entertaining, pleasurable, unstructured. I think that what I would add to, when we talked about how do you define wasting time, and I said I thought it was spending any time where you don’t have a goal, you don’t have a schedule. If you want to make play a subset of that broad definition, I would say that play is all of those things plus something that’s pleasurable.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So, that could be a lot of things. It could be art. I mean, that’s a type of play. You just kind of mess around, do what you want.

Alan Lightman: Oh, definitely.

Brett McKay: Music could be playful.

Alan Lightman: There are a lot of wonderful ways to waste time. I think that wasting time has gotten a very bad rap, that we feel guilty, especially in this age of high productivity, we feel guilty when we are not doing something that is manifestly productive. And I think that part of that guilt goes back to our Puritan origins. The people who came over from England and Scotland, the pilgrims, part of the Puritan ethic was that it was actually sinful to be idle. That was what they called wasting time, being idle. Being idle is not doing productive work. It was actually a sin against God, according to the Puritan ethic.

And I think that that mentality, even today, 350 years later, I think there is still deep in our culture, in our cultural ethos, this idea that wasting time, or being idle, or not doing productive work, is sinful.

Brett McKay: Right. But I mean, there’s also in Christianity, a culture in some sects of where you waste, I mean you kind of waste, they have festival weeks where they do things that we typically don’t think of as productive, as resting, and eating, and celebrating.

Alan Lightman: Yes, I agree. So, that kind of dimension is running a counterpoint with the other dimension, which is that being idle is sinful. So, I think that yes, that Christianity does recognize the festival weeks. I mean, there’s the Sabbath also, one day a week. But the rest of the time, we’re supposed to be at work and laboring in the fields. That’s the actual phrase in the Bible, laboring in the fields.

Brett McKay: What’s interesting though, we talked about it. It’s being so productive all the time can be counterproductive in the long run.

Alan Lightman: Yes. It’s an interesting irony there.

Brett McKay: I think all of us can figure out ways to waste time in our private life, right, just unplug, where you spend an evening just not doing anything, taking a walk, playing with your kids, etc. But how would you make this case to say to your boss, say, “Hey, I need an hour and-a-half where I’m not doing anything, so I can think and mull on this problem we’ve had”? That’s a hard case to make, because the problem in the business world is, what gets measured, whatever, what’s that thing? What gets measured gets done, right?

Alan Lightman: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, we are measuring productivity, emails answered, etc. So, it ends up where you don’t actually end up being productive.

Alan Lightman: Yes. Well, it’s a great point that you raise, and a very important one. And I think in the last 10 years, that a number of businesses in the US and other countries have actually experimented with giving their employees some time to meditate. And of course, meditation is only one form of unplugging, but it is one that has been explored. And the businesses that have instituted this as a practice have actually found that it increases productivity when employees are given some time in the day to just be alone with their thoughts.

Another case in point is Bell Laboratories, which is the research arm of AT&T, before AT&T was broken up. And Bell Laboratories, at Bell Laboratories, there was very little direction for the employees. They were given laboratories, they were given equipment, and they were allowed to follow their own research interests without a designated project. And many great discoveries came out of Bell Laboratories. For example, around 1950, the transistor was invented, which came out of Bell Laboratories.

And the irony there is giving the employees, these are employees in science and technology, sort of unfettered free time to just invent and explore, that they actually brought great wealth to AT&T. Because the transistor is one example, that’s led to all kinds of technology. Almost everything that we have today started with, the computers and the Internet started with the transistor. So, I think smart businesses have learned that giving your employees some free time to just explore pays off. It pays off monetarily. People are just more productive when they have some time to themselves, to let their minds wander. Of course, their minds are wandering on things that are related to the company, but there’s no project, there’s no schedule.

Brett McKay: And what I love how you ended the book, you talk about these distinctions. I’ve read about this before, but I think you fleshed it out. In ancient Greece, they had two conceptions of time. The first was Chronos time, and then there was Kairos time. What’s the distinction between those two types of time?

Alan Lightman: Chronos time is time measured by the clock. And they did have clocks in ancient Greece. They had sand clocks and water clocks. It’s regimented time. 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute, and so on. And life is governed by the clock in Chronos time. Kairos time has nothing to do with clocks. It has to do with human life and human events. Its movement is measured by events like marriages, or love affairs, or meals, or the births of babies, significant events. You might have a few days pass with no Kairos time passing at all, with no significant events. So, I think the ancient Greeks considered their leisure time to be Kairos time, when they were not on the job, when they were not working. When they were just spending time eating, or with their families, or taking walks that was all Kairos time. And they realized that there needs to be a balance between Chronos and Kairos.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think for me, Kairos time are those moments I remember, whenever you’re sort of letting your mind wander and you start thinking of memories. Like those weird little memories you never thought you’d remember in the moment, but they come up, for whatever reason. Those for me, are Kairos moments.

Alan Lightman: Mm-hmm, yeah. And those moments probably don’t come up to you while you’re busy sending and receiving emails.

Brett McKay: Right. No, they don’t. It’s when I’m, right before bed, or I’m driving in the car, or yeah, when I’m not doing anything, when I’m wasting time, right?

Alan Lightman: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: So, Alan, this has been a good conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book, and your quest to let people waste more time?

Alan Lightman: Well, the book is published by Simon & Schuster, and it’s just called In Praise of Wasting Time. And then, I just published an essay in the Washington Post. They have a section called This Inspired Life, and there’s an essay there that talks about this. I think that I am certainly not alone at all in my concern about the frantic pace of life. And I think that there are other thinkers and writers who are writing about this, that there’s a book called Distracted, by Maggie Jackson, which talks about this phenomenon.

The sociologist Sherry Turkle at MIT has written a couple of books about the danger of being on the Internet all of the time. I think her most recent book is called Alone Together. So, there are other people who are also concerned about this trend in our society to live faster and faster, and be more and more plugged in all of the time.

Brett McKay: Alan, thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it.

Alan Lightman: Thank you, Brett. Thanks for having me on your program.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Alan Lightman. His book is In Praise of Wasting Time. It’s available on Amazon.com. Check it out. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/wastingtime, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. And if you enjoyed the show and you’ve got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.