Waste a Little Time—You’ll Thank Yourself Later

Photograph by Stella Berkofsky

Waste a Little Time—You’ll Thank Yourself Later

The reminder goes off that your son’s soccer game starts in half an hour. And you have a conference call starting in a couple minutes (which is when you’ll catch up on some lingering emails). That’s when your preferred news outlet sends you a push notification that a recent study has found we are spending too much time on our devices.

Our hyperconnected grid and the constant sense of urgency we place on ourselves threatens our mental health, self-identity, and human connections, argues Professor Alan Lightman in his new book, In Praise of Wasting Time.

Some of the greatest thinkers—Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Gertrude Stein to name a few—have incorporated periods of disengaged time into their days. And while they may have lived in a different era—i.e., when the internet didn’t exist—Lightman believes that “if you don’t make time for quiet alone time, you risk losing time to replenish your mind,” he says. “The mind needs to continually rest and have periods of calm. It is essential to our mental health, our well-being, our sense of self, and our world.” It’s one thing to prescribe it; putting it into practice is another story. Lightman walks us through the art of disconnecting—and living a more mindful life.

A Q&A with Alan Lightman, PhD

What inspired you to write this book?

For many years, I have been worried about the ever-increasing speed of daily life and our growing addiction to the internet. The relentless speed with which we process information today is accompanied by a lack of quiet time spent on personal reflection, privacy, and solitude.

When I go out, I often see people talking on their smartphones, consumed by sending messages, hooked on browsing the internet, or anxiously absorbed in trying to keep up with social media. When I go to eat, I often look around at other tables to see what people are doing, and I mostly see people engaging with their smartphones instead of with one another. When we do this, we’re shutting off potential connections and conversations with one another. We need to connect with people and with ourselves, to know who we are and what we believe in.

This situation is dire: We’re at a point when we’re struggling to find our identities, losing our values, losing our ability to discern who we are and what we’re not. If we’re unable to connect, if we’re unable to take the time to reflect and learn more about ourselves, we lose the ability to know who we are, what is important to us, and our connection with the world.

I wanted to document this problem and also to raise awareness of the psychological damage that can be caused by our high-speed, hyperconnected lifestyles. The incessant stimulation and high demands are anxiety-producing, dehumanizing, and relentless. If we continue down this route, we’ll become a society of mindless beings driven by speed and the artificial urgency of the world.

By writing this book, I also wanted to give readers some strategies for creating time in their daily lives for quiet reflection. Of course, a small change in lifestyle is required: a change in our habits of mind.

What does it mean to “waste time” and why did you choose it as your title?

I chose the title of the book partly to be provocative and partly to suggest that wasting time has value. We’ve created a frenzied lifestyle that dissects every minute of the day in order to be more efficient. Time has become too precious, with no minute to be wasted. We’ve grown more connected to our phones, and more impatient, angry, or irritated if we lose any time. We don’t take the time to step outside the grid. We’re afraid of not keeping up, which has even been documented by psychologists as a psychological syndrome in young people called FOMO—fear of missing out.

“This situation is dire: We’re at a point when we’re struggling to find our identities, losing our values, losing our ability to discern who we are and what we’re not.”

“Wasting time” means time spent without a goal or a schedule. It entails being disconnected from “the grid” and the frenetic “wired world.” I use “the grid” to refer to the vast, virtual world of the internet—the images and videos, the personal postings, the communications and texting, the emails, the websites, the fake news and real news, and the gargantuan amount of information on every conceivable subject. The purpose of taking time to disconnect from the grid would be to reinstate a sense of mental clarity and calmness, to experience a sense of privacy and solitude, and to gift yourself a time for reflection and contemplation. A few good examples of “wasting time” would be: taking a quiet walk alone in the woods, sitting quietly in a chair and just letting the mind wander, having a leisurely dinner with friends, playing a game, or doing an activity just for fun. Each of these activities requires you to disengage for a short period of time from the demands of your fast-paced life, allowing you to create a sense of stillness within yourself.

What are some of the benefits of “wasting time”?

Allowing the mind to roam freely ignites our creativity, it’s necessary for mental rest, and it promotes the liberation of our inner self. By “inner self,” I mean that part of us that imagines, that dreams, that roams through the halls of memory, that thinks about who we are and where we are going and what is important to us. We need time for our inner selves to synthesize our self-identities and replenish our minds. All of these activities require quiet time when we are not plugged into the grid and not rushing from A to B. Research has shown that creativity requires long stretches of uninterrupted and unscheduled time.

For those who grew up with the internet and only know a way of life being plugged in, how do you introduce them to a simpler time?

I believe younger people suffer from this hyperconnectedness and frantic lifestyle more than people over the age of around seventy-five. I also assume people in rural areas may suffer less from this distressed lifestyle, since life is slower outside the big cities. That said, for kids who were born in a time where the internet and cell phones were already a great part of their day-to-day lives, there are things they can do to unplug and develop new mindful habits.

  • Spend twenty-four hours without using a smartphone or a computer. During this period, take a quiet walk in a beautiful place and carefully observe what is around you. Pay attention to the details of your surroundings; let your mind wander.

  • Try sitting alone in a chair for fifteen minutes without any external stimulation. See what comes to mind. Allow your mind to wander and creative thoughts to flow.

  • Spend an afternoon hanging out with a friend or playing a game, and leave your smartphone behind. Be present with whomever you’re with. Engage in conversations and activities together.

What are the downsides to not stepping outside of the grid for detached time? What do we lose?

If we are unable to detach from the grid and wired world, we no longer have moments to think or reflect. For example, if we’re stuck in traffic for ten minutes, we begin feeling angry because we’ve lost precious time, instead of allowing the time to pass and using it as an opportunity to reflect.

We also lose the ability to reflect about the world, ourselves, life’s important questions, and our relationships with friends and family. We lose the slow, digestible rate that we need for our minds to take in and understand information. We lose time for silence or privacy. We lose spending time with our loved ones, letting our minds spin freely, and importantly, thinking creatively. Psychologists have long understood that creativity is born out of free and unstructured time.

“When that increased productivity is coupled with the ‘time equals money’ equation, we have created an urgency to make every minute count. We are addicted to the speed and the connectedness.”

If you don’t make time for quiet alone time, you risk losing time to replenish your mind. The mind needs to continually rest and have periods of calm. It is essential to our mental health, our well-being, our sense of self, and our world.

What advice do you have for those who feel it’s too hard to incorporate periods of down time in their life—because their lives are too busy, stressful, or hectic?

It is hard to incorporate periods of downtime because we have all been swept up in the high-speed and hyperconnected wired world. Productivity has increased enormously in the last fifty years, mainly through new technologies.

Of course, there are countless ways in which technological advancements have benefited the world. They have allowed family members who are geographically separated to be connected, and they have increased the way the medical community diagnoses and treats people, among many other things. While these developments have made our lives possible, they have come at a cost. When that increased productivity is coupled with the “time equals money” equation, we have created an urgency to make every minute count. We have carved up our day into fifteen-minute units of efficiency. We are addicted to the speed and the connectedness.

For all of these reasons, it is very hard to unplug from the grid. It is like giving up dessert when we are addicted to sugar. We are living a sugar-filled lifestyle, and we are killing our inner selves. For people who feel that their lives are too busy to disconnect and slow down for short periods during the day, I ask them whether they would stop eating dessert if their doctor told them that they had serious heart disease and severely clogged arteries and might face life-threatening circumstances in a year unless they changed their diet.

Do you think it’s becoming harder to unplug or enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle as technology continues to grow at such a fast rate? Will there ever be a backlash to this increasingly frenetic way of life?

Of course. It has become harder to unplug with the increasing pervasiveness of social media and advances in smartphones that keep you attached to them. Luckily, if the dangers are sufficiently clear and documented, then we can develop the willpower and discipline to change our lifestyles. The change cannot be mandated by the government. This must happen at the level of the individual.

A useful comparison would be to smoking. Inhaling tobacco smoke damages our physical health. For decades, we were addicted to cigarettes, and there was a lot of money from the tobacco industry encouraging people—including young people—to smoke. It took several decades of mounting clinical evidence, from the 1950s to the 1980s, to convince citizens and governments that smoking was harmful to our health. But finally, the message got through. There are still some people who smoke, but far fewer (as a percentage of the population) than in 1950.

I believe the same thing could happen with our addiction to the speed of life and to the internet. But we will need much more documentation of the damage being done to our mental health, which is hard to document. There was a study completed in 2011 called “The Creativity Crisis,” which detailed how our creativity has decreased since the mid 1990s. There are other studies that have documented an increase in depression and mental health issues among young people, partly attributed to our high-speed and hyperconnected lifestyles.

You highlight how some of the greatest thinkers of our time incorporated a great amount of downtime to think and create. How can we take steps toward imitating how they lived?

Throughout history, artists, scientists, and thinkers have accomplished some of their most creative work during downtime, when they let their minds roam freely without a goal or a schedule.

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 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. In his 1949 autobiography, Albert Einstein described how his thinking involved letting his mind roam over many possibilities and making connections between concepts previously unconnected. Einstein wrote, “For me it is unquestionable that our thinking goes on…to a considerable degree unconsciously.”

“The purpose of taking time to disconnect from the grid would be to reinstate a sense of mental clarity and calmness, to experience a sense of privacy and solitude, and to gift yourself a time for reflection and contemplation.”

Each one of those amazing thinkers incorporated unscheduled time every day into their working lives. Of course, these people lived before the introduction of the internet, and life was considerably slower in their time. However, in our time, there are a number of things we can do incorporate those habits into our lives.

A few general tips to develop a more mindful lifestyle are:

  • Take a walk outside and leave your smartphone behind.

  • Take a drive in the countryside and leave your smartphone behind.

  • Unplug from your digital devices during dinners.

  • Leave your smartphone, tablet, computer, etc., at home when you’re on vacation.

  • Develop a habit of sitting quietly for ten to fifteen minutes a day without external stimulation.

  • Try to set aside thirty minutes of your day to read, sit, or walk while your devices are turned off.

  • Introduce a ten-minute period of silence into each school day for our children.

  • Have a “quiet room” at our workplaces, where employees are encouraged to spend thirty minutes a day without their smartphones.

It is a question of recognizing the problem, recognizing the dangers, and then having the willpower to change our lifestyle. Not drastically, but a little. Recently, organizations such as Mindful Schools and Mindful Education have been introduced to primary and secondary schools to give kids periods of meditation and quiet.

How do we—as a society—begin to change the way we fundamentally think about what it means to “waste time” and view it in a positive light?

This is a hard one. We could have “digital-free zones” in public spaces, where smartphones and computers are not allowed. We could call for more schools, especially primary and secondary, to require meditation or quiet time. We could require workplaces to give their employees thirty minutes of quiet time a day. But I think that the real solutions have to come at the level of the individual rather than society as a whole, or the government. Each of us has different circumstances and a different lifestyle. But if there is enough discussion of the psychological and spiritual damage being done right now by our modern lifestyle and if those damages are well-documented, then there is hope that we can begin to develop new habits of mind about the value “wasting time.”

Alan Lightman, PhD, is a physicist, writer, and the author of In Praise of Wasting Time. He is the Professor of the Practice of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wrote the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams. In addition to hosting a TED Talk, he has been featured in publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, TED, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. Lightman is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founder and board chair of the Harpswell Foundation, which works to advance a new generation of female leaders in Southeast Asia.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.