The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Go ahead, waste some time — it’s good for you. Here’s why.

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I found myself arriving 30 minutes early for an appointment, twiddling my thumbs in a waiting area and annoyed at myself for poor planning.

That morning, I’d been attending to various errands and thought that I had worked things out so that I would arrive at my accountant’s office a few minutes ahead of schedule. What would I do for 30 minutes? I didn’t have my phone with me. I hadn’t brought a book. The magazines in the waiting area were excruciatingly dull.

The thought came over me that I really hate to waste time. From the moment I get up in the morning until the moment I go to bed, I engage in purposeful and productive activity. If I have an extra hour in the day, I can work on an article or read a book. If I have an extra 30 minutes, I can catch up on mail. If I have an extra 15 minutes, I can make phone calls. In an extra five minutes, I can review my “to-do” list. Both consciously and unconsciously, I have subdivided my day into smaller and smaller slivers of productive time use, down to five-minute units of efficiency.

When I am not filling up each of those five-minute holes with directed activities, I feel guilty. I feel slothful. I feel that I would not want my friends to see me goofing off. I feel that I am not living up to my capacity.

Rarely do I permit myself the hedonistic luxury of sitting quietly in a chair for 30 minutes without external simulation or visible activity. Rarely do I let my mind roam freely without schedule or purpose. Rarely do I “waste time.” Of course, I am not alone in the frenzied, goal-oriented life that I lead.

I suspect that part of our guilt about wasting time lies deep in the Puritanical roots of our culture. Most of the Puritans who colonized America in the 17th century subscribed to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written in 1646 and 1647 by a group of English and Scottish theologians. A portion of the Catechism reads: “The fourth commandment forbiddeth the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness . . . ”

In short, idleness was considered a sin against God. I believe that sentiment still lurks beneath the surface of our collective psychology.

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Beyond this deeply ingrained theological imperative not to waste time is simply the fact that it’s hard to slow down in today’s accelerated world. The pace of life has always been driven by the speed of communication, and human civilization has never before witnessed such an increase in that speed as in the past 30 years, with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone.

When the telegraph was invented in the 19th century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about three bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about 1,000 bits per second. The rate is now about 1 million bits per second. The Internet is an avalanche of high-speed information, public stage, entertainment, scandal, images, sounds and adrenaline rush only seconds away. Most of us carry smartphones wherever we go, and we are tethered to those phones like drowning swimmers to their life jackets.

Then there’s the time-equals-money equation, imprinted on us since the Industrial Revolution and the use of time to measure labor. Harry Triandis, an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of Illinois, says that the time-equals-money equation, when combined with the higher productivity afforded by high-speed communication, creates an urgency to make every moment count. A survey of 483 professionals reported in the Harvard Business Review found that 60 percent of those who carry smartphones are connected to their jobs 13 1/2 hours or more each day on weekdays and 4 1/2 hours on weekends. That’s 72 hours per week.

So, what exactly have we lost when we cannot slow down our lives and find periods of the day where we let our minds wander without purpose or goal? When we cannot find a few minutes to unplug from the grid and be alone with our thoughts? More personally, what have I lost when I cannot sit quietly and calmly in a waiting room for 30 minutes?

For one thing, I have endangered my creative activity. Creativity requires unstructured time and solitude, away from the bustle of the world. Composer Gustav Mahler routinely took three- or four-hour walks after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Carl Jung did his most creative thinking and writing when he took time off from his frenzied psychiatry practice in Zurich to go to his country house in Bollingen. In the middle of a writing project, Gertrude Stein wandered about the countryside looking at cows.

The mind needs periods of rest to replenish itself. Some researchers believe that one benefit of sleep is to give the mind an opportunity to make sense of the input of the day. I would argue that constant external simulation during waking hours, without any time for quiet contemplation, is equivalent to sleep deprivation. The need to rest the mind has been known for thousands of years and can be found in the meditation traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Our hyperconnected lifestyle, without downtime, threatens our “inner selves.” My inner self is that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who I am and what is important to me. My inner self is my true freedom. My inner self roots me to me and to the ground beneath me. The sunlight and soil that nourish my inner self are solitude and personal reflection.

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I suggest that the psychological destruction caused by our frenzied lifestyles, while subtle and sometimes invisible, may be as catastrophic as the destruction of our physical environment by our heedless pollution and consumption. Just as we developed a new habit of mind about smoking in the 1980s and 1990s, we need to develop a new habit of mind about our pace of life.

I have a friend, a former high school teacher in Arlington, Mass., who started something new with her students. At the beginning of each class, she rang a bell and asked her students to remain silent for four minutes. This small revision in the school day worked wonders. The students were calmer, more centered and more creative.

All of us can find ways to introduce moments of stillness in our day. Take a 20-minute walk every day and leave your smartphone behind. Unplug all devices during dinner. Try sitting quietly for 20 minutes before bed, with a book or with nothing at all, and just let your mind think about what it wants to think about. For the more ambitious, insist that your workplace have a “quiet room,” where employees are allowed and encouraged to spend 30 minutes a day without external stimulation.

These suggestions may seem inconsequential, but they are part of changing our habit of mind. We must honor our inner lives. Otherwise, we are prisoners in the modern world we’ve created.

Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist and professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. He has written several books, including “In Praise of Wasting Time” and “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.”

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