In Defense of Wasting Time

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” ~Socrates

Last night, I was telling my husband that I had spent several hours teaching myself the very basics of HTML code in order to edit my blog’s layout precisely according to my vision for it.

I had actually enjoyed the time I spent on this puzzle, but nevertheless commented to him that I couldn’t help but resent wasting some of my day off clicking away in front of the computer screen.

“Why?” he asked. “You enjoyed it, right?”

Yes, I replied, it was fun delve into something new, and fascinating to glimpse the buried inner workings of the virtual world, but still….

“Right, so you spent some time in the flow, working on something and losing track of time, and now you know a little bit more about how the world works than you did before. How can that possibly be wasted time?”

How true. I had wanted even my day off to be productively idle, to serve some function, even if that function was pure relaxation. But I actually felt more fulfilled by doing something new, something I never would have expected to become interested in.

Not only did I have the idle time to delve into this, but I allowed myself to use that idle time in that particular way—to float off into exploration until before I knew it, I had been reading forums and scrolling through code for three hours.

When I realized this, my first impulse was to think of it as something negative—wasted time! But was it really?

As I thought about our conversation, it occurred to me: Too often, I am far too acutely aware of time. Am I using it wisely? Am I being efficient? Getting adequate work done?

Structuring my day so that I can fit in work, exercise, writing, chores, and maybe even the not-so-occasional episode of Dexter.

There is certainly something to be said for routine. I love feeling that at the end of the day, I have done things for myself, as well as accomplished what was needed professionally, and hopefully worked in some time with friends and family.

And the only way to do that, usually, is by rigorously structuring and sticking to a routine.

But in this rigid adherence to routine, necessitated by busyness, do we risk cutting off access to the meandering flow of the mind—to unexpected discovery and the pleasure that comes from losing time completely in an unanticipated task?

There are several ways to start with the end in mind—temporally (I will be done working on this at five o’clock!), intellectually (I can’t spend time learning HTML—I already know I’m not capable of understanding that), or emotionally (I already know how I feel about that).

If we do this, our lives truly will be barren. There will be no room for spontaneity, learning, and surprise.

No room for defying expectations, for exploring with no preconceived purpose, and therefore, ending up somewhere completely unexpected.

I love to set and meet goals, and in this way I suspect I’m a fairly representative member of our culture.

We all desire to have full, meaningful lives, but how often does our definition of meaningful hinge on the recognition or perception of others?

I admire those people who seem able to do it all and still maintain balance, and I often think, “If only I were a little more focused, or used my time more wisely or efficiently, maybe I could be like that!”

But the truth is, while that might expand my resume or diversify my list of career accomplishments, it will do little to make me happy, and holds slim opportunity for the pleasure of discovery.

One of the great gifts of writing—and, though I don’t have much experience in other areas, I imagine this is true of most forms of art-making—is that it is not a linear process. Too much structure and focus on the end goal will, at least for me, derail the entire creative act.

Writing cultivates flowing, associative thought, the loss of time, and the spontaneous yet concentrated creation of something from nothing.

I have general writing goals, and I certainly have to impose discipline on myself to make room for writing in my day, but the generative process itself blessedly un-goal-oriented.

Goals and outcomes are all well and good for strategic planning, career paths, and athletic feats.

But to similarly structure every aspect of life is to lose the art of it. We lose those moments when we might be most open and most ourselves, capable of discovery through examined contemplation and the flexibility to allow life to unfold as it will.

It is the relaxation of control, the total lack of ambition for this moment, the permission for the mind to wander its path that fends off the barrenness of routine.

And so I will continue to make time for it, to schedule in my spontaneity, if I must, and think of such time not as wasted, but as the most precious I have.

Photo by madmolecule

About Tory Syracuse

Tory Syracuse works, writes and plays in Tucson, Arizona. You can read more of her work at http://tucsonporchswing.blogspot.com.

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