Wasting time could be the best way to use it. (2024)

Co-hosts Becca Rashid and Ian Bogost explore our relationship with time and how to reclaim it. Why is it so important to be productive? Why can it feel like there’s never enough time in a day? Why are so many of us conditioned to believe that being more productive makes us better people?

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity:

Becca Rashid: So, Ian, when I sent you that voice note yesterday, I just wanted to let you in my head a little bit.

Rashid field tape: Hello, Ian. Alas, I’m waiting at the bus stop, and it seems it will never come.

Rashid: A small glimpse into how anxious I am just waiting for anything.

Rashid field tape: I don’t know what to do. Do I just start walking? Do I give up? Do I walk to the Metro?

At this point, who really knows? It’s been probably four minutes. Oh!

Ian Bogost: It was only four minutes, Becca. It’s not very much time.

Rashid: It’s embarrassing, and I’m standing there, and while I’m waiting I’m switching between two modes, of like, I should be making the most of this time. Let me read that article my friend sent me. Or check my emails.

Or, like: This is insane. It’s only been four minutes. I should be a bit more mindful. But I know that I don’t want to be wasting my time just standing there.

Rashid: I’m Becca Rashid, producer of How to Keep Time, and I’m here with my co-host, Ian Bogost.

Bogost: Hey, Becca.

Rashid: Hey, Ian. A lot of your writing and reporting here at The Atlantic is about technology and all the ways it’s changed how we understand ourselves and the people around us.

But I also think about how much tech has changed our relationship with time.

Bogost: Technology tends to make things faster.

Trains and airplanes get you places faster; factories and machines build things faster.

But communications technologies—like telephones and the internet and such—allow us to send and receive information faster. And a lot more frequently, too.

Rashid: And all those emails and texts and posts and notifications give us more stuff we can do. And it makes it easier to do something all the time, right? That makes it harder to tolerate wasting time—just doing nothing, or being alone with your thoughts.

Bogost: Oh gosh, it’s so true, Becca. You know, your laptop, smartphone—all of those devices make it easier to get more done. Work, socialize, or do banking, or kind of anything at all.

So on one part, we’re more efficient but continue to feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day. And you know, Becca, in your last season, you talked about the difficulty of building meaningful relationships. And when it comes down to it, most people just need more time to do that kind of thing.

Rashid: But even when we do have enough time, we don’t know how to lean into the moment the way we used to—we’re either anxiously planning for the next task, or we’re being compulsively productive because we’re sort of nervous about free time in this new way, when we’re just sort alone with our thoughts.

Like, why does it feel like time is moving too fast at certain points and other days not at all? Or how do we reconcile regrets over losing time or wasting that that we do have?

Bogost: Yeah, I mean all this time stuff can feel really slippery —one moment, you know what you want to do and you just can’t find time to do it.

But then the next moment, you’re absolutely swimming in time that you don’t know what to do with. So hopefully we can make sense of some of those problems this season.

Rashid: This is How to Keep Time.

___

Bogost: Becca, when you’re thinking about wasting time, what do you mean? Wasting time compared to what? To do more work? Or like, waiting to get back to your desk to do more work? So that you can, what … send more emails? Isn’t that just a waste of time, too?

Rashid: No, I know. I know. But I always have the thought in the back of my head that my time is limited. There’s actually something called chronophobia.

Bogost: Chronophobia.

Rashid: Where some people really worry about that experience of time passing. I can understand that impulse to feel like time is withering away if you’re not doing something productive with it.

Bogost: Sure.

Rashid: I don’t know; it makes me wonder how we got to this point of measuring our own time and other people’s time. How do we actually spend less of our time measuring how much of it is being wasted?

Bogost: When you think about it, it isn’t all your time always being put to use. You’re there in your body and your mind. You’re living through your day and your life no matter what you’re getting done. And your time is finite.

Your years on Earth are numbered. And, uh, you’re never going to be able to do everything. You want to do everything possible because of that. So maybe we, rather than chasing it, need to figure out how to be in time. Being in time rather than chasing time.

___

Oliver Burkeman: I was completely freaked out when I first did this calculation and figured out that, uh, the average lifespan in the developed world is around 4,000 weeks.

Obviously, you don’t know how many weeks you’re gonna get in any individual case. It’s more this fact of it being finite is something that I think we obviously intellectually understand, but we don’t behave on a day-to-day basis as if time were finite.

Rashid: So Ian, I talked to Oliver Burkeman—a journalist and an author. He used to write a column for The Guardian where he wrote a lot about productivity hacks and personal development.

Burkeman: This fact of it being finite is something that I think we obviously intellectually understand, but we don’t behave on a day-to-day basis as if time were finite.

Rashid: And during our interview, he mentioned what he called a disillusionment with all the self-help solutions.

Bogost: Yeah, yeah; I feel that.

Burkeman: So I think an awful lot of that kind of conventional productivity advice is really based on keeping this fantasy alive that very soon—next few weeks, next few months, at some point—you’re gonna get to this place where you are on top of things, where you have got your arms around everything, you’re the sort of air traffic controller of your life, you know?

Rashid: But then one day, after years of being in the weeds of lifestyle advice, he had a kind of epiphany on a park bench during a really stressful week when he realized that none of the time-management hacks were working.

Burkeman: I was trying sort of increasingly frenetically and frantically and desperately to come up with the set of techniques and scheduling tricks that would enable me to get through this ridiculous quantity of stuff and just being hit by the thought like, Oh, oh, it’s impossible. Oh, I see. Right. It’s impossible.

Bogost: Becca, I mean I’ve definitely spent years CHASING time myself and not knowing exactly how to be in it, but maybe the trick is to just accept what Burkeman is saying … that it’s impossible.

Rashid: Burkeman wrote a book in 2021 called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, where he walks readers through his personal journey with trying to get on top of it all, on top of time, and failing miserably.

___

Burkeman: We’re constantly trying to reach a kind of godlike position over our time.

Rashid: Okay; when you say “a godlike position,” I’m thinking, like, all forgiving, most merciful. But when you say “godlike position over time,” what do you mean by that?

Burkeman: I think—and again, to some extent this may just be the hang-ups and screwups of me and some other people—but I think that a lot of what we’re doing when we claim that we’re engaging in becoming more productive, more efficient, getting on top of things, getting organized, is really an attempt to kind of feel unlimited with respect to time, with respect to the tasks, responsibilities, goals, ambitions we might have for using our time.

It’s a way of sort of not having to feel what it really feels like to be finite, to have to make tough choices, to have to acknowledge that there are always going to be more things that it would be meaningful to do with time than we’re ever going to have the opportunity to do.

Rashid: It’s interesting; I went through this phase, you know, in my early 20s where I realized if I wanted to be amazingly accomplished at anything I would have had to have started when I was three years old. You know, whether that’s like gymnastics or ice skating or what have you; I was already decades behind. It can be really hard to cope with the realization that that time is gone, and you may not have ample time to get there in the future.

Burkeman: I think obviously it is possible, in a very sort of down-to-earth way, to use one’s time well for some future goal, right? But I think that on a sort of deeper level, what a lot of us are doing when we’re trying to use time well, in that sense—when we’re sort of deeply committed, as American culture is especially deeply committed, you know, to the idea that every moment must be used maximally well—it’s not only that that becomes a very sort of capitalistic idea where the only real benefit is is the profit motive.

It’s also just the fact that it’s focused on the future, right? It’s all-defining: Everything about now in terms of some more important moment coming later, when it’s going to actually have its value. It’s going to cash out, you know; it’s going to have been worth doing.

And so because what happens when you do this is that you end up, like, missing your life. You end up missing the present. Or to speak to what you were saying, you know, focused on regret that you didn’t start using your time in this rigorously instrumental way earlier in the past, you get to this very strange conclusion.

The only real way to use time really well—to actually find meaning in the present—is by some definition of the term to waste it.

I think that in many ways, because of the world in which we live, that is so completely committed to the idea that time must be used for future benefits, everything we think of as “wasting time,” as pure idleness, is really defined as that because it doesn’t lead to something in the future.

Rashid: Right, and I’m even referencing my childhood as wasted time, when I should have been training to be a gymnast, instead of just, like, a childhood. But in adulthood it’s harder to see it that way, because efficiency, time management, and productivity are all essential elements in how we make a living.

So, how can we approach this idea of wasting time and how we’re conditioned to think about it—not as something pulling us away from productivity, but just as a part of life?

Burkeman: It’s something that takes a positive effort. It feels like you shouldn’t just be using your leisure time to go on a run. You have to be training for a 10K or something.

Rashid: Yeah, right.

Burkeman: You have to have fitness goals. It’s kind of a bit embarrassing, in some way, maybe, to have a hobby these days, but it’s really not embarrassing to have a side hustle. And the only real difference is that one of those is something you’re trying to turn into a business.

Whereas, you know, if what you like doing is collecting stamps from around the world, right? That doesn’t really work anymore. I’m not sure what happened to stamp collecting these days, but you know.

Rashid: Like, a nonproductive hobby for sheer enjoyment, but there’s nothing materially valuable about that. Maybe, with the stamps.

Burkeman: Right. Yeah, the philosopher Kieran Setiya, he uses the phrase “atelic activities.” So, activities that are not given their meaning by their telos or where they are headed.

Burkeman: And that’s absolutely true in kind of listening, really listening, to other people. Incredibly hard. It’s really hard not to just spend a conversation thinking about what you plan to say next when the noise coming from the other person ceases for a bit, which is of course not really listening. And so for me, a big part of this is just understanding that this does not feel second nature to too many of us.

Rashid: I hear you. I mean, even in this moment I find myself thinking about what you’re saying and also ahead to all the questions that I have left to get through. It’s sort of like when someone asks me what my name is, and then I tell them, and they tell me theirs—but all I can remember is my name that I said out loud.

___

Bogost: So, Becca, maybe it’s a problem in our culture, rather than in us. We’re just all, like, so wound up over making the most of every moment. So much that we don’t even really know anymore what “making the most of a moment” would even mean.

Rashid: And you know, Ian, I’ve even had friends tell me they’re on dating apps almost as a way to productively use their time. Instead of scrolling on Instagram, at least they’re, you know, building toward a relationship.

Bogost: Okay, it’s been a long time since I’ve dated, and I never use dating apps. Are you saying your friends are like, “Well, got some downtime; I better get my dating in”?

Rashid: Yes, definitely. Dating is its own version of a productive hobby, in my opinion.

Bogost: I guess it makes sense in a certain way, like dating as productivity or as an investment in your future partnership, or whatever it is that you’re after. Like, maybe that’s where that idea comes from. You know, “I don’t want to waste my time if this isn’t going anywhere,”—that sort of sentiment is about progress. Like, that a relationship is about moving forward and building into whatever comes next. God forbid your relationship isn’t going anywhere, right?

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: But, like, where is “anywhere,” anyway?

Rashid: I don’t know. I feel like I’m happiest when I’m just wasting time with people. So, when I’m trying to make the most of my time with someone, anyone—romantic or otherwise—I’m not at least trying to think about how much of my time they’re taking up, or the most efficient way to be with them, or whether it’s going somewhere, or whether it’s productive.

___

Burkeman: If I am just sort of around the house with my son and my wife, it’s very easy to fall into “what needs doing next”—you know, this chore, that chore, preparing for the next day. I think if you can do anything to sort of put yourself in a position where you have, you know, all gone on a walk, or all gone to visit something, or all watching the movie, or whatever it is—if there’s a sort of a framework around that—it’s a little bit easier to step away from that instrumentalist mindset.

When I remember, I think also bringing attention to the senses, as opposed to thought, is really important. You know: just literally paying attention to sights, sounds, touch, smell, whatever, is a way of reducing the power that otherwise naturally—for people like me anyway—goes to kind of compulsive thought.

Rashid: So how can I be both mindful and engaged with my time more generally, without having to go full Zen mental-shutdown mode?

Burkeman: Just to be clear, I find being in this mindset—rather than the instrumental future-focused one—really difficult. And I think, you can certainly get lost in thought. And I’m not sure I want to condemn that, because I think sometimes that can be a perfectly meaningful thing to do, but understand and expect that it’s going to feel uncomfortable at the beginning. A lot of people these days say they don’t have time to read anymore.

Rashid: Right, right.

Burkeman: And I think what they often really mean is that they don’t like the experience of sitting down with a book, because their minds are so conditioned to moving fast that it feels unpleasant. I’ve certainly had that experience.

All I can do—and I find it extraordinarily effective, but it doesn’t feel like an incredibly great insight or anything—but all I do is I remind myself that this is how the first couple of pages feel when you’re wired for speed and you’re just sitting down and you’re just beginning to read a novel. And you know, that’s fine, but the discomfort does not kill you, and it lifts.

___

Rashid: So, Oliver, most of our conversation has been about the necessary mindset shift that’s required to be more in tune with each moment. And, you know, it makes me think about my friends with kids, because they have to be super-present with their child in the moment, be present with themselves (enough to be patient with their kid). And they also need to keep up with all the productive tasks and demands to make the most of their time in their own lives.

I mean, how do we balance these competing priorities when there is a sort of instrumental goal to, you know, raise your child and make them into a compassionate human being in the future who can exist and thrive in the world on their own, and also be present with them in the moment?

Burkeman: I find parenting to be an extraordinary crucible for all of this, just because there is so much pressure, both internally and externally, to treat all questions of what it means to be a good parent as questions about what you need to do in order to create the most successful future adult. Um, you know, my son’s learning to play the piano a bit.

I’m trying very hard not to turn into a sort of tyrant form of parent insisting on so much practice that it takes all the joy out of the experience. And when instead he’s banging around on the piano and I’m banging around on the xylophone that we have in the house.

Rashid: A band!

Burkeman: Exactly. You know, I don’t think that there is any part of me, in that moment, that is thinking, How can we make this band really good so that we can...

Rashid: ...start a world tour?

Burkeman: From touring and downloads, right? I mean there is something about the letting go into those moments that is absolutely fantastic. But where I would most naturally go would be like, “Okay, piano practice for this many minutes. Have you gone through these exercises?”

With parenting and life in general, it always feels like you’re learning just too late. But I am learning that there’s value in the sort of ridiculousness of making those noises in the present, rather than where they might be leading.

___

Bogost: So Becca, the other day I met a colleague of mine for a drink after work, and we went to this sort of weird pub in this hotel. And there was no cell signal, no Wi-Fi network, and I was just sitting there waiting for him.

So I just looked around at, you know, the people coming in, and I looked at the menu a few times, and I realized, This is so rare.

I finally couldn’t do anything else, and so I didn’t feel like I should be doing something else. Because there was nothing else I could really do.

Rashid: Oh, interesting. I feel like if I was in your shoes, I would still feel like I should be doing something else.

Bogost: I probably did feel that way, in truth. But that sensation that, like, it’s worse to do nothing than to delete emails on your phone? Right? But you know, it wasn’t always like this. I wrote a piece earlier this year about this. What did people do before smartphones? I don’t mean for work or for entertainment—what did they do during those off times? When they were waiting for the dentist, or whatever, and it was actually terrible? We were super bored, you know.

I remember being a kid, and you’d look through the Highlights magazine a hundred times before the doctor finally called you. Or like, reading anything you could find: signs on the wall, staring at clocks. You know, in the past, when you had a magazine or whatever, you would burn through it. It would be expended. There were only so many pages, and once you’d read them or skimmed them, you were done.

And your phone, your Instagram, whatever it is: There’s always something new. Maybe it’s not interesting to you, but it’s new. And that feels like a difference.

So that discomfort associated with having nothing new to see in the moment, that’s kind of gone away. Now there’s always something new. And I think that makes it easier for us to think, Well, I should be doing something new at every moment.

Rashid: Right. And that pressure to do something new at every moment—I’ve been at so many dinners and we just sit down, it’s a group of people. And if there’s even a brief lull in conversation, someone says, like, “Where are we going after this?” But we just got there. We’re at the place, we’re at the dinner.

Bogost: You know Becca, I wonder if it’s hard to tolerate wasting time because we’re always looking forward to something—what comes next. Or we have things like smartphones now that make waiting more tolerable, because we can do something new all the time.

But you know, I mean, we didn’t used to know the bus was coming in four minutes, because you could look at your phone and see it. I mean it would come eventually, perhaps, and you would be forced to kind of deal with the fact that the bus, you know, it’s not just there for you, that you’re just one person in the world, and you might have to just wait.

___

Rashid: Patience, patience. We’re always being tested ... like right now. We’ll be back right after a quick break.

___

Burkeman: The art historian Jennifer Roberts points out that patience these days is actually a kind of really important form of control. It used to be that patience was something that people, rather condescendingly, had recommended to people who didn’t have power, right?

So in the days when women were much more likely to be sort of obliged to remain at home doing domestic things, while men were out working in the world, patience was a virtue—because it’s the kind of thing that keeps people from complaining about their situation.

But as society has sped up, patience changes its role. Like now, the default is that we’re all moving incredibly fast. and it becomes a form of agency to be able to sit with a problem, sit with an experience, and not need to bring things to the next stage or figure out where they’re headed.

Rashid: As a little kid, and even now sometimes, just feeling like everything I wanted to do in life needed to be done today. Like—the concept of “more time tomorrow” was never my default. And I remember my parents would always say, “Why are you rushing everything? You’re so young; you have so much time.” Is it helpful to teach kids that time is limited or unlimited? And which one leads to kids having a better relationship with time as they get older?

Burkeman: Yeah; there is a way of interpreting all this talk about time being limited and life being short, which is incredibly stress inducing, right? It basically says, like, “There’s no time. You’ve got to get moving now. You’ve got to fill your life with a million extraordinary activities every day, because otherwise, will you really have lived?”

Burkeman: I think, firstly: Kids, in my experience, have a very natural affinity for being more present and less sort of fixated on maximizing efficiency. But then, obviously in an age-appropriate way, the message here is, “Yeah, time is finite.” But that’s not a reason to start hurrying and fit the absolute maximum into a single day or a single lifetime.

It’s a reason to cherish the time that you get, and to really show up for it and to enjoy it. I definitely went through a significant period of early adulthood where I was deep in the kind of time-maximization efficiency mindset, and maybe one has to go through that to, you know, come out the other end with some kind of insight.

Rashid: So Oliver, for families or people who do have serious time constraints, they don’t always have the luxury to choose when to spend time with their children, or when they need to be at work. Is there anything that can help make the inability to choose feel less painful?

Burkeman: I think a lot of this is easier for me to say than it will be for some, and it’s much worse if for somebody, the decision they have to make is between keeping food on the table and spending quality time with their kids, for example. They’re just in a worse position than me.

They’re in the identical position to me only in the sense that in every hour, they can do one thing with any moment, realistically, and all the other ones they have to let go. It doesn’t mean that the choices, the options that you have open to you, are good ones. That depends on your situation in life and society, absolutely.

But it does mean that you can let go, to a significant extent, of being haunted by indecision or by guilt or by the sense that you ought to have been doing something else with it, right? Or that you somehow ought to be doing more than you can do. Nobody should ever feel that they ought to do more than they can do.

Rashid: I feel that way more often than not. But how do I begin to step outside this productivity mindset with my time?

Burkeman: You can decide to adopt a certain hobby or change how you apportion your time, so as to spend more time nurturing a particular relationship or something.

You’re not committing to it for the whole of the rest of your days; you just have to take a bit of your time now, or very soon, to do something that matters to you. Even if it’s only 10 minutes; even if you are not confident that you’re going to be able to do it every day for the next month or anything like that. But to just do some of it.

And I think actually, this is a place where the focus on habit-building can be quite counterproductive. Because if you tell yourself you’re going to start meditating every day, forever, that’s quite a burden. And it’s quite tempting to sort of put it off for a few more weeks until your schedule clears up. If you tell yourself you’re going to do it for 10 minutes today, and that’s it, then that is the point at which things start changing interestingly in one’s life, I think.

I think we all experience, sometimes, that sense of simply being in the flow of time, rather than having this kind of clock or calendar, or however you visualize it, hounding you. Or that you’re constantly sort of fighting.

It’s just for itself. Well, that’s obviously very close to a pretty deep sort of spiritual, Buddhist-sounding, Daoist-sounding idea: about how actually only the present is real, and that you have to sort of find value in it if you’re going to find value anywhere. There’s a real argument that “wasting time” in the way we define that these days is something that is extremely important for us to learn to do.

Rashid: Oliver, thank you so much again for your time. I’ve learned so much.

Burkeman: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.

___

Bogost: So, Becca, I think what Oliver is saying isn’t that we should try to capture the literal present moment; that’s impossible now. Always vanishes. It’s gone. It’s gone. But it’s like a slightly bigger “now”—like a little trunk of the moment that you can be in and you can feel happening.

Rashid: I hear what Oliver is telling us being something more like, “When I’m off the clock and I’m at home, I don’t need to be rearranging my pantry immediately as my grandma would love to have me do.”

Bogost: I need to do that too.

Rashid: I’m just so conditioned to be productive and feel like when I have a minute of downtime, if I’m not working toward one of those goals, that it is being wasted.

Bogost: Mmm. So Becca, our show is called How to Keep Time. So “keeping time”: I was thinking about that phrase. You know how you use it in music, like you keep time in music?

Rashid: Like with a metronome? Yeah.

Bogost: Yeah, like the rhythmic sense of keeping time. Like tapping your foot.

Rashid: Yep.

Bogost: If you could feel the beat or hear the metronome, that is as close as we get to sort of being in the moment. Yeah; you can’t capture the present, but you can kind of feel it moving from present to present to present.

Rashid: And I guess that’s the goal, right? I mean, it’s something I’m definitely bad at, because I’m always thinking about maximizing my 4,000 weeks, if I’ve even got that much time.

And I think for me, I just need to start thinking of my time as my own—not something that needs to be maximized or proven to other people as something that I’m using properly.

What does that even mean?

Bogost: Right. Because you’re just using it, “properly” or not.

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: You know, you might not be productive all the time. You might feel like you’re wasting time. But the time that you spend ... it’s still yours, even if you’re not making something of it. I mean, maybe we need to make that absence of productive satisfaction okay.

___

Bogost: Hey, hey Becca, they’re finally making a movie called Clock?

Rashid: What?

Bogost: It’s about time.

Rashid: Oh god.

Bogost: Yeah.

Rashid: Stay with us for next week’s episode, where we explore why we pressure ourselves to look busy … even when we’re not.

Bogost: That’s on our next episode of How to Keep Time.

Wasting time could be the best way to use it. (2024)
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