I am both extremely good and extremely bad at wasting time. Good if you’re measuring success via the quantity of time wasted – I probably have about two or three productive hours in an entire day. Bad if you’re judging via the quality of time wasted – though I spend my days playing video games, diving into obscure internet forums, and (on one occasion we shan’t talk of again) watching episodes of Neighbours from 2002, I never fully enjoy myself. Instead, my brain spends every wasted moment reciting mean mantras: you are a worthless idiot, you are a stupid bitch.
My time-wasting is so severe that I’ve been known to procrastinate leisure – to put off actually having fun. I might’ve finished work for the day and want nothing more than to sit down and watch, say, Citizen Kane (this is a lie to make up for the Neighbours thing), but instead I lie in bed watching clickbait YouTube videos. Yes, although I have an Olympian’s stamina for time wasting, I am a Year 8 pupil on Sports Day when it comes to enjoying my wasted time.
This is becoming a bigger problem. As the world remains (mostly) in lockdown, we are realising, one by one, that we can’t be productive for every hour of the day. Let’s say you used to wake up an hour before work to get ready and have breakfast, and your commute was bang on the UK’s average – around an hour every day. Let’s say that after work you used to do something social for at least two hours – go to a film, eat at a restaurant, have a few pints. That’s at least four extra hours you now have to fill every day. (For those with London commutes and complicated hair-styling routines, it’s more like seven. For those with kids, sorry.) Surely we can all accept that it’s not possible to be productive in every single one of these extra hours? And yet the self-loathing thoughts don’t go away.
I’m not totally alone in my point of view – almost from the very beginning of lockdown, people began to argue that a pandemic is not the perfect time for productivity. On 6 April, the New Yorker published a piece entitled, “The Truth About Isaac Newton’s Productive Plague” in response to people who were claiming that now is the perfect time to write a novel/discover gravity. “The idea that the plague woke the brilliance in Newton is both wrong and misleading as a measure of how well we apply ourselves during our own plague spring,” argued the science writer Thomas Levenson in the piece. But even though we are now beginning to accept that we don’t have to produce works of genius during lockdown, I haven’t yet seen anyone go further and argue something I’m increasingly coming to believe: that it’s now actually quite important to waste time.
We don’t know, really, how long lockdown will last, and we don’t know what society will look like when we emerge. Those of us who are lucky enough to stay at home during this pandemic are currently playing a waiting game – we have to run out the clock. Many have already found that after baking a loaf of sourdough, painting a watercolour, or running 5K, there are still hours left in the day. The answer isn’t to bake yet more bread (which, after all, contributes to the ongoing flour shortage). The answer isn’t to beat yourself up. The answer is to bask in the glory of wasted time and ignore the mean voice in the back of your head.
Psychologically, this is good for you. For years, employers have bemoaned “cyberloafing” – the wasted time an employee spends on Facebook or personal emails during work hours. Yet more recent research has shown that cyberloafing is beneficial for employees. A December 2019 study from the University of Florida found that employees spend two hours a day using the internet for non-work purposes, and concluded that this is a coping mechanism that allows us to handle stress and also improves job satisfaction. Conversely, a 2014 study from Johannes Gutenberg University, wonderfully titled “The Guilty Couch Potato: The Role of Ego Depletion in Reducing Recovery Through Media Use”, argued that when people feel guilty about consuming entertainment media, the psychological benefits of leisure are depleted. In short: wasting time can be good for you; feeling bad about it really isn’t.
Yet it’s difficult to reset our ingrained cultural mindset. If you google “wasting time”, the majority of the results feature the words “how to stop”. Time-wasting has been considered immoral by everyone from Immanuel Kant (who saw self-improvement as a duty) to Charles Darwin (“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”) to a curlicue quote I once saw on Khloé Kardashian’s Instagram Stories. This isn’t a universal problem: the Italian phrase “il dolce far niente” refers to the art of doing nothing, and perhaps this is the art we should be mastering with our extra free time.
After all, Darwin spent five years on the HMS Beagle and who knows how long drawing zoological images. If he’d had access to cheap plane travel and a phone camera, perhaps he too would have seen the need to “dare” to “waste one hour”. But those who have studied Darwin’s schedule have found that, on average, even he worked about four to five hours a day. Darwin spent his spare time reading, writing letters, walking and (hooray!) napping. Over the course of the past few centuries, our attitudes to work have become grotesque: a 2019 study found Britons put in the longest working hours in Europe (around 42 hours a week). Though we are expected to work eight-hour days, a 2019 study by Ginger Research found that the average UK worker is productive for just three of these – and yet the world still turns.
I don’t know how to turn off my negative thoughts, but if I manage to, then the most productive thing I will have done this pandemic is to learn to waste time properly.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show