Should You Waste More of Your Time?

The joys of "wasted" time

If you want to enjoy life and accomplish anything meaningful in it, productivity matters.

I’ve met quite a few people who feel overwhelmed constantly by their workload. Even in cases when I know I’ve had relatively busier period in my life with less stress. That isn’t to claim I’m somehow superior–I’m definitely not.

Simply that it’s unfortunate these people didn’t know some of the strategies to get more done so that they could have an hour or two without stress at the end of each day.

I’ve also met opposite cases, of people who get more work done in a month than I do in a year. These are entrepreneurs whose businesses skyrocket while mine plateaus, or learners who dominate a subject when I merely dabble. While I’ve struggled to reach moderate goals, they crush progress on far more challenging ones.

The reason I write so much about productivity is because of these two cases. The first, where a lack of productivity results in stress and misery. The second, where an excellence in productivity results in becoming tremendously accomplished.

However, as much as I write and think about getting more done, I’ve really begun to ask myself the question: should I be wasting more time?

Should You Bother Eliminating Time-Wasters?

When I started thinking seriously about the question of where the heck all my time was going, my first answer was to eliminate time-wasting activities.

My idea was that if television, video games or random web surfing were occupying a lot of my time, without adding a lot of value, one way to become more productive would be to eliminate them.

For awhile, this strategy worked. I’ve successfully gone month stretches without television of any kind (and as of this article, I haven’t owned a television in three years). I’ve also shrunk my net time to just 30 minutes each day. I cut, eliminated and squeezed out many time-wasting activities from my life.

After several years of this, I can say that if you need to be more productive, this works. No, you won’t perfectly apply all your reclaimed time onto your biggest goals. But when you can no longer waste time on Facebook chat or channel surfing in the evenings, you can often get more done or at least spend your free time on more interesting hobbies.

The danger of this approach, however, is it forces you to think of every activity you do in terms of impact on your work. Instead of just enjoying spare time, you analyze it obsessively, constantly asking yourself whether its valuable enough to justify the time spent.

The Alternative Approach to Productivity (That Involves Wasting More Time)

Although I’ve been shifting my approach over the last couple years, the real killing blow to the strategy of eliminating time-wasters was, for me, moving to France.

As I wrote previously, my life has been much slower paced than it was in Canada. Biking instead of driving, cooking from scratch instead of from can and plenty of walking. The interesting finding was that, on an individual basis, I find it hard to justify many of the slower ways I’m now living.

It’s hard to justify spending 30 minutes to prepare a meal which could be done in 5 for similar nutritional value and only a little less taste. The time-waster elimination mentality sees those extra 25 minutes as being completely frivolous.

However, I’ve found that the slower lifestyle, with numerous time-wasting opportunities, is actually far more enjoyable than my faster-paced, higher-stress lifestyle was in Canada.

That, by itself, isn’t a revelation. Who wouldn’t want to live a slower-paced life in the south of France? I’m sure you (like I was) have tons of work which doesn’t give you that choice.

What was really surprising for me, wasn’t that I enjoyed the slower life more, but that I actually got a lot more done. In the fall, I had been doing sometimes up to ten hours of class per day, in addition to running this business, exercising and enjoying the Erasmus parties.

During that stretch, I would have been doing at least as much work as many times in Canada. Despite this, I was still living a slower life and I actually accomplished more. My business income tripled during this period, and I made significant progress on my goal to speak French.

How Can Wasting More Time Result in Getting More Work Done?

The shift for me was realizing that time-wasters weren’t the direct issue. Work was. If I was getting all of the work done I had planned, it shouldn’t matter what I do after with my time.

The mentality that caused me to eliminate television or question whether I should go to a party may have made me a little more productive. However, by scrutinizing my free time, I was paying a heavy price. That price was forcing myself into a chronic state of busyness that was exhausting but didn’t accomplish much more work.

For difficult or creative tasks, there is an upper limit to what you can accomplish in a day. I can only write about 3-4 hours per day, even if I have unlimited motivation and focus. After about the 4-hour mark, quality drops and I can’t write meaningful sentences.

I believe the same principle applies to a lot of work. That there is a maximum useful upper limit. Trying to obsessively eliminate time-wasters from your day in order to work more often backfires.

If I can only write for 3-4 hours constructively, then eliminating more time from my life so I have 8 hours to write wouldn’t help. The intelligent move is to try to focus myself so that those 3-4 hours are insanely productive. Eliminating or squeezing my free-time to allow more space for work won’t help much and it will make my free-time less enjoyable.

My current approach to productivity is simply to not look at the time-wasters at all. Instead, I need to be focused on only two questions:

  1. Is my working time separated from my free-time?
  2. Am I doing everything possible to get more from my current working time?

Alternative Productivity Strategy #1 – Don’t Let Work and Free-Time Mix

Instead of asking whether I was spending too much time surfing the internet, I should have been asking myself when I was surfing the internet.

The problem isn’t time-wasters in general, but when you like to waste time. If you’ve decided ahead of time that you need to be working on a project, then you shouldn’t be on Facebook.

Work when you’ve decided to work, and don’t let any activity (time-waster or otherwise) intrude on that.

At the same time, this means not working when you’ve decided to relax. And, perhaps more importantly, not applying the same mentality to your relaxation time as you would with work. The question should be: “what do I feel like doing?” and not analyzing whether cooking the 30 minute meal is more wasteful than the 5-minute reheat.

Alternative Productivity Strategy #2 – Maximize the Time You Do Work

Unlike the first strategy, this one is open-ended. You can always do more to get more from the time you do work. If you’re running a business, delegating or outsourcing a key task is one way you could easily maximize your working time.

But some of this process is mental too. Because even if you aren’t wasting time during your work, you may end up wasting time simply by not working effectively. I’ve had moments where I start and stop article ideas for 30 minutes before finally settling on what to write. By restructuring my writing process I can avoid this trap.

In work, where every second is devoted to getting a result, it makes sense to label some tasks time-wasting and others not. But, in life, the result is the process and the same philosophy of minute-counting and value-squeezing often destroys the very experience you wanted to have.

I’m curious about the readers here. Have you taken steps to become more productive? If so, what route did you take–did you try eliminating the “time-wasters” or did you take one of the alternative approaches I listed here? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Image courtesy of madmolecule

  • Mathieu

    This is I think a big hangup in the self-help community. It seems to me like there is a definite and growing divide between PRODUCTIVITY vs. (what I call) DREAMERS. One emphasizes cutting out all nuisances and taking a cold hard look at yourself while the other focuses much more on finding the sources of pleasure which, in turn, makes you a more productive individual.

    What struck me in this post was where you said life moves slower, so how did I get MORE done????!! As an American now living in Switzerland, I can definitely confirm this “nonsensical” mystery of productivity. I had a really good conversation the other day where one person said “I’m going to get rich” and the other responded “get happy first”. I really think what we need to be looking for, as a society, has nothing to do with productivity, but with quality of life. Quality is the only measure. Peace of mind first will bring productivity because you will have no distractions. THAT is the effect of living in a place like you described. Nothing distracts you. So you do freely whatever it is you want. Some people are different, they move to a place like NYC and explode with potential. Me, I’m the opposite – I seek peace of mind and good feelings first, then I get productive, then I start taking well thought out risks and progress as an individual. For that reason, I can’t take die hard productivity buffs seriously, because I think they generally just lack peace of mind and being on a good path. What exactly are they looking for? Or maybe sometimes its hard to realize that there really are large differences in people sometimes.

    Anyways, interesting post.

  • John Paton

    This reminds me a lot about well formed outcomes that are a big part of NLP.

    One of the key points about a good outcome is that it should be stated in the positive– because this focuses you on the goal instead of the problem. So instead of saying I want to loose weight, it’s better to say I want to feel strong.

    It seems like with your article here, you shifted your focus away from spending less time on time-wasting activities (a negative outcome), towards trying to be more productive while working (a positive outcome).

  • Kate

    I would say that I’m a slow-mindful-doer rather that “work hard for 4 hours and then relax”. I can’t see any reason to draw the line between the Work and the Rest.
    I feel I can learn from both. Every minute. Even while cooking))))

    The best idea that works for me is to have a “result I can touch” outcome. It is not about as soon I can get a result, But
    -is this result as good as I want to see it
    – what have I learnt from “doing”?

    It is really good if U can get things done. There is also a room for better – enjoying the whole process

  • Eric Normand


    This article hit home for me on several counts. Having the time to cook something properly (that is, slowly and mindfully, with TLC) is very restorative. I also like the idea of separating out your work (productive) from your free (recreational) time. It helps to make sure you’re on task.

    However, I am still struggling with that. I want to apply my mindfulness to my blog and other online ventures. That means I need to slow down. If I start rushing, I am no longer putting as much of myself into the post I’m writing because I am stressed out. I don’t think this contradicts what you are saying. It just means that there is a minimum amount of time I need to spend on the post. Eliminating waste around that is essential but difficult.

    Thanks for the great post

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    This makes sense. When I have mixed the time for leisure and non-leisure, it has not worked so well, but when I have not mixed such time, I have gotten wonderful results. The mixing results in the leisure looking like the obvious choice.

    Removing time-wasters has had some relevance for me, but it has not been a solution. The solutions lie in alternates like the ones you have listed. Any time I have removed a time waster, some other item has replaced it, and it is usually still in the not-so-productive category.

  • Ben Weston

    Hey Scott,

    This is something I’ve been wrestling with over the past couple of months. Like you, I started eliminating activities that weren’t productive to work but then realized that I suddenly had hours of free time that I wasn’t sure what to do with. I naturally started filling those hours up with more work and not until my girlfriend started commenting on it, did I notice that I was now just doing work for the sake of work.

    I think the issue for me and many other people is learning how to appreciate and enjoy free time, without having the compulsive need to fill it up with more work, just for the sake of feeling more accomplished or productive. I still have no idea how the hell to “relax” for instance.

  • Richard @ Lifestyle Design Unl

    I agree with you that you can only be productive for so long before it starts to slip. Many times I will be trying to write some articles and it will be taking forever. I discovered that if I gave up for a while and came back fresh the next day I could fly through them.

    Now I find I am most productive in the morning so I try to get started pretty early – 7 or 8 am is normal for me – and then be done by lunchtime. Then I take the rest of the day off and achieve just as much as if I try to “force” myself to work 12 hours a day.

    It’s also a nice feeling knowing you’ve “done” and learning these limits is important when you start working for yourself.

  • Zengirl @ Heart and Mind

    Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed and stressed about a task, best strategy I have found for me is to back off from it completley and do something else for a while and come back to to the task when I am relaxed and calm enough to focus on it again. Of course, this may or may not be for everyone, but thought I share it here.

  • Donniezazen

    I totally agree with slow lifestyle. Once you have achieved an above average success in your desired goal, it’s time to slow down. It is the time when one should go beyond time. The more important thing is enjoying. Like about food, you can get same nutrition value from a canned food but cooking from scratch is bliss, smell the cooking food, and i bet its the healthiest.

  • Cameron Hurd

    Spot on, Scott.

    I agree with what you’re saying wholeheartedly, as I can’t seem to produce anything of value after I compose or write lyrics for longer than 4 hours.

    However, I’d like to add a little caveat about leisure time, which I’m sure you’ve covered in the archives somewhere. I’ve blocked facebook, and have been spending my leisure time in much more rewarding ways. Though consciously ‘maximizing fulfillment through leisure’ feels a little overzealous for me, it’s important to consider now and again! 🙂

  • Mike

    Hey Scott,

    I did exactly this while preparing for my finals this past semester, and wound up having the best grades I’ve had in college. Even though this semester was a lot more challenging content-wise, I was able to get through finals relatively stress-free. Instead of staying up all night or locking myself in a room for days, I found the times of day that I was most productive, and maximized my productivity during that time. Once I started to lose focus, I would stop working, knowing that I had accomplished a lot, then chill and hang out with friends. I didn’t have any late nights and was completely confident for each final based on the week or so of extremely productive study sessions.

    I guess this corresponds to strategy #1. I’ve tried to do some of the things you mentioned, like completely eliminate time-wasters, but I’ve found that I rarely increase my productivity and greatly decrease the amount of enjoyment I get out of each day. I like to find a good mix. I spend most of the day doing work, with a few breaks spaced out through the day, then make sure I have a few hours every night that are completely my time. Figuring this out has really helped me get the most out of my days.

  • Michele Nicholls

    Hi, Scott, I do enjoy your writing, it always makes me think, which for an aging brain is very useful!
    I spent most of my adult life bringing up children full time – and believe me, that’s work! Even though it’s not financially rewarded. I was home educating my children, as well, and that process teaches you that there need be no such thing as ‘wasted time’, because any activity becomes a teaching/learning experience.
    For me, the answer to not burning out (which I fear Ben will do, if he’s not careful) was to recognise that you can only put in as much quality work as you feed resources to yourself. If reading a book, going for a walk, cooking a meal from scratch, etc, leaves you feel excited/ renewed/ accomplished/satisfied, you’ve feed yourself with mental/emotional/ physical resources which will feed your work.
    It’s like the old phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – the quality of your work will plummet if the quality of your non-working time isn’t up to scratch!

    Ben, please give yourself a break, and do some things for the pure pleasure of it – that’s all relaxing is ;o) I’ve seen too many of my own generation drive themselves to an early grave, it would be heartbreaking to see your generation waste your lives in the same drudgery.

  • Joe

    After burning myself out from overwork many times i have finally realized that “less really is more”

    I work around 4 hours a day and by following strategy #2 actually get far more done and am vastly happier

  • paurullan

    I fully agree on the article and since my case it nothing special I will not tip in it. But a powerful way to become more productive involves joining some sport you really love (kendo for me) and understand that you are your only judge (so do not become an slave of other’s expectations).

    The rest should come along on its own: be happy, smile everyday and have the most fun from your work.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Anonymous

    I hate the television (grew up in a family of TV addicts-then again the shows were in a different language I couldn’t understand anyway). When I was younger, I was always urged to watch the news instead of reading. (Bah! I’d keep reading) I can’t eat and work online either but I always eat while reading books.

    It has been a time-waster for me because when I’m absorbed in a good fiction book, I have to finish it. But I started replacing them with productivity books and the like. Although I find those books interesting, there aren’t as likely to get me absorbed in them.

  • Sibyl – alternaview

    Great post Scott. I really liked this one. I am definitely going to try to put a lot of what you suggest to work. I thought what you said about setting yourself to be at your best during the 3-4 hours of time when you are most productive was such a great insight. The reality is that we can really overdo it and there is only so much productive quality time we are going to have. However, if we prepare ourselves to get the most use out of that period, we can accomplish so much. Great tip.

  • Ofir

    When you say you’re dissappointed at people that are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of things they’re doing and that they don’t learn to be productive, you’re assuming that those people aren’t being productive already.
    There’s a limit to how much we can fit into our schedule. To analogize, yes, gravity makes us go faster, but eventually, friction will ensure that we reach maximum velocity.

  • Stephanie Staples

    Thinking about my 3 High Vaue Activities for the day(idea courtesty of Mark Leblanc) has helped me focus on what is really important for that particular day. TV is rarely an option for me and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything there!

  • Scott Young


    No, I never said I’m disappointed in *all* people being overwhelmed, or even most. Simply that I have personally met (and I’m sure you have too) people who are overwhelmed, even when they are doing less work than I am at the same time when I am not stressed.

    Obviously there will be many people who are overwhelmed because they are taking on a schedule that would overwhelm anyone. Productivity isn’t infinite in its powers.


  • shane

    Ben Franklin’s personal goals included:

    Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.

    I interpret this to mean that you should be aware of how you spend your time and eliminate undesirable activities. I don’t think he meant you should be working all the time.

    Another of his goals was:

    Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.

    I think this gets to your point about segregating work and play. When you are supposed to be working, get your work done. But when you have set aside time to play or relax, make sure that is what you are doing. Don’t ruin your play time, by thinking about work.

  • Jim Greenwood

    Hi Scott,
    Time of course is your most valuable asset. How you use it will impact the success, love, happiness and fun of your life. Each individual finds their own balance. Sometimes it comes simultaneously and sometimes it’s sequentially.

    Productivity is great. So is resting (wasting time?). Time to re-valuate, re-think, re-vision, re-lax, re-invigorate, etc. can have a powerful impact on your success, love, happiness and fun. It’s also a great place to spend your time.
    Have fun,

  • Iván Pérez

    I read a series of posts this morning that I think you might enjoy, they have a lot to do with this: http://www.friendlyanarchist.c

  • Khoi

    My experience is that stresses have never helped with productivity. I mean forcing yourself even just a bit is a bad sign. It may looks bad in the short term if you lazy out too much, but in the long term it usually provides best productivity. I have had long period of stop doing the thing I do, it looks like I gave up. But actually it was just taking longer for me to recover from long endured stresses.