Why You Should Stop Freaking Out About Wasting Your Time

Why You Should Stop Freaking Out About Wasting Your Time

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

We can’t control whether to spend our time, only what we spend it on.

This thought has echoed around and around in my mind ever since I read the story of Opus 40 – a sculpture park created by one man over 37 years(!).

Part of me recoils in horrified terror at the thought of spending 37 years on a single project – sometimes, 37 minutes can feel like a lot! – but I still find this story inspirational.

In fact, Harvey Fite’s story continued to itch at me after I heard it. I couldn’t stop imagining how I would handle working on such an intimidatingly large project. I’m sure that almost every day I would wonder “is this a massive waste of time? Should I be doing something else?!”

I have no idea whether the sculptor struggled with these thoughts himself –this piece in the New York Times suggests that perhaps he did not – but it doesn’t actually matter either way. No project is so perfect that we’re never tempted by another, and what’s important is that Harvey Fite did it.

Harvey Fite’s time – like everybody’s – had to be spent somewhere, and creating his sculpture park was a perfectly good way to spend it.

Spending Time One Day at a Time

I think this suggests a healthy attitude towards time. The amount of time we intend to spend on a task–a day, a week, or 37 years–isn’t important: that time is going to pass regardless. The only question is whether we will have anything to show for it afterwards.

Sometimes the payoff is immediate, and sometimes it may take decades. All that matters is that there is a payoff.

But Wastes Aren’t Always Wastes

Of course, it can be stressful to believe that every single minute has to be accounted for. A healthy concept of “payoff” must be broad enough to include rest, leisure, learning and creating good memories with family and friends. Not all payoffs have to be economic!

Nor do we have to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy and stick something out just for the payoff we imagined we’d get when we began. Sometimes learning “this isn’t for me” is an adequate payoff for time invested.

Whatever the outcome, there’s no point berating our past selves. You had to spend that time somewhere, and you picked the best option you could see at the time.

There’s No “One True Outcome” to Rule Them All

When we look back and evaluate our lives, we will have a whole basket of things to show for how we spent our time. But there’s no “right” mixture of outcomes which have to be in that basket.

Was spending 37 years building a beautiful sculpture park the “right” outcome for Harvey Fite? The question doesn’t make sense. He chose where to spend his time and created something beautiful out of it. Any mixture of time spent on family, friends, big projects or smaller projects would still have been just as “right.”

You don’t want to be so determined to spend your time perfectly that you refuse to spend it at all. Just as your past self had to, you can only pick whatever option seems best right now.

Choosing NOT to spend your time isn’t an option, so you may as well spend your time on something (or some things) that feel right to you now.

Trading Time

Perhaps I’m particularly dense… but this lesson about time is one I have learned and re-learned many times. I often listen to this song by Jeffrey Lewis, which reminds me that my time is guaranteed to pass no matter what I do, and I might as well try and have something to show for it afterwards:

Your Turn

What makes you feel like you’re using your time well, and what makes you feel like you’re wasting it? Share your thoughts with the community in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

40 Comments

  1. Nathan says:

    I really needed to read something like that today. Thank you, Neil :)
    I’ve spent all my life doing different things, and when they are not “something important”, I feel like I’m wasting the time I have.
    I try to remind myself constantly that I can always get a lesson from what I choose to do, even if the lesson is “you really don’t like this”.
    The best choice I’ve made was not joining the college my parents wanted me to go to. I thought it was for me, but first day in and I said to myself “this is not what I want”, and left it without guilt.
    For me it’s specially hard to start doing things I struggle to do, like, I’ve joined a cosplay dance group, and I didn’t know how to dance! or sew! But I really apreciate the company, I’ve made some awesome friends. (Still have 0 coordination though.)
    Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my life, with my time.
    I know that learning makes me happy, even if it’s a small thing, like a trivia fact (or the sunk cost fallacy, thanks again!). I know that some days I don’t feel as productive as I would like to. I know I’m lucky to have a supportive enviroment.
    I try to stay positive and it’s hard when you have anxiety, depression, and dissociation…
    So, I will try to take the a-day-at-a-time approach :)
    ( PD: Forgive me if my English is not that good :( Love from Argentina :D )

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for sharing, Nathan – I’m really pleased the post resonated with you! Like you, I’m still figuring out what, exactly, to do with my time – I think it’s a lifelong journey. But even finding small things you enjoy is worth being grateful for :) (And your English is excellent, so that’s obviously been some time well-spent for you ;) !)

  2. Thom J. says:

    The thought of should I be doing “this” has always haunted me. I’ve enjoyed playing guitar or doing some type of art but the nagging doubt that it is a waste of time has always bugged me. Intellectually I know that artistic expression is good but I often struggle with taking the first step in beginning the creative process. TJ.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yup, the “should” is the real killer there. I could do this, this or this… but which one “should” I do? It’s an impossible question which just paralyses me. I hope you continue to enjoy creating or playing music or whatever else brings you happiness :)

  3. Jeeyoon says:

    Thanks so much for this post.
    I’m so happy that I read this today, because I was feeling so anxious all day long
    in the office.
    Since my early twenties i always had doubts about whether I should spend my time on this rather than that, and most of the time ended up doing nothing.
    Still there are things that I’ve accomplished, but not that passionate or proud about.
    The thing is it’s hard to choose to do something (that you want to do now) that seems completely unrelated to what I’ve done until now. I can’t help but think : “you should’ve started doing this earlier, it’s too late to start now.. if you do this your past times are wasted..”

    Like you said, there is no point in berating our past selves.. so I should learn not to be caught up by my past..

    Thanks from Korea :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m so happy it resonated with you, Jeeyoon :) good luck both relating better to your past self, and doing good/enjoyable things in the present!

  4. Anne M. says:

    I struggled with this for many, many years. But over the past 10 or so I’ve been reducing the feeling that I’m wasting my time, which could arise at any moment, by realizing that I was projecting an outcome that I had no control over. I’ve worked a lot with the idea that 1) time is not what we think it is, the measurements hours/days/years and our perception of them are not at all accurate because it is relative and shifts; and 2) our ingrained concept of accomplishment, even beyond money, of having something to show for it, credentials, objects, acknowledgment, knowledge, skills, and the idea of a legacy, living beyond our lives, is so absurd. When we go, we don’t know what whether anyone remembers what we did or how it will be used. When we look at what our lives “mean” it is again just our projection, our perception of a set of values, values that are not objective, absolute. Everyone lives. Period. Anything beyond that is just a bunch of stories we tell to ourselves and each other. This, has helped me tremendously to move away from that sense of not being adequate.

    And here is a link to a song I like that I think speaks to it!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1vlKXEHen4

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is great, thanks Anne! Exactly right – accomplishment is all relative anyway, so why waste our time worrying about it! Thank you for sharing :)

    • Rosie says:

      Great comment Anne, thank you.
      I’m always puzzled by people who go on and on about ‘leave a legacy’. Why? if it inspires you, sure; but as a rule of life?
      I’m so in the present moment that it seems a real dead end to be thinking and planning for AFTER I’M DEAD. I cannot fathom that this is a real thing for so many people.
      Thanks for the music link, a lovely discovery for me.

  5. Valerie says:

    I read things that either make me feel validated in my choices, way behind the curve and lazy, uneducated and even brilliant sometimes. It’s hard to find a comfort zone when I am constantly comparing myself to very smart and accomplished people. I over-think and under-act. I feel anxious and guilty for over-thinking feeling particularly like I have wasted my time. It’s the feelings that are attached to my actions (in this case over-thinking) that prevent me from “doing” something. Your point of view helps me put thinking and creating in a category of production instead of procrastination. The reduction of the anxiety that I am doing something wrong … helps quell the fear in my call to action. Whether it fails or succeeds … the time was spent. Thank you for your words of encouragement. Your point of view made me smile and motivates action. :-)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s fantastic, Valerie! I hope you keep that fear quelled – as you say, the time is spent regardless of success or failure, but you might as well try and not be too attached to the outcome :)

  6. Derrick says:

    This post was the perfect pairing with my morning coffee. It is such a stressor to not only manage the time you have in one day but to manage the thoughts of what you could be doing in one day instead of the thing you are doing! I loved the mention of not getting to caught up in perfection that it keeps you from doing anything at all. I have found myself there more times than I care to admit. Aligning yourself as best as you can to the things in which you feel joy is never time wasted. Joy is our internal compass; what has helped me to decide where to spend my time is the presence or lack of joy. Follow the Joy!

    • Janet says:

      Well said! As a frustrated perfectionist- I am trying to find joy in my journey of life and not let perfection rule my decisions.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is great! I actually wrote a piece for Puttylike (which hasn’t gone live yet) all about optimising for joy, and how our happiness can be a guide – as you say, it’s never wasted!

  7. steph says:

    ohhhh this constant anguish!!
    Thanks for the post Neil!

    I haven’t find a way to relax about it… I just try to push through, do things when they feel right… Sometimes… most of the time… I look back and see how my choices led me in one direction and how seemingly “useless” stuff built up into something as important as a new career choice, for example… This is weird, and exhausting (because I am always worrying about losing my time — getting older doesn’t help! lol) but fascinating too. I think it also gave me some form of inner trust, that everything will “make sense” in the long run.
    And for a more immediate remedy: going to a dance class or to the gym help me reduce anxiety! :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yup, mixing short-term strategies like dancing or burning off the anxiety with long-term attempts to get to a healthy mindset is probably the best way :) It helps me to remember we’re all just figuring it out together and that nobody has it all sorted, too!

  8. Julie says:

    A mix of working purposefully – because the thing to”show” might be knowledge, or a relaxed mind, for example – and being willing and able to evaluate when something’s not going the expected direction, to be open to other outcomes, to changing course, or abandoning the effort as a lesson learned.

    Also this was in my mail this morning:
    Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes, that’s exactly the state to aim for, I think! Perfectly said. (I achieve that state for about five minutes every year, it feels like, but I’m aiming at getting there more consistently…)

  9. Sienna says:

    I LOVE OPUS 40. It’s on my list of sites to visit someday soon! And learning about it certainly made me think differently about how I choose to spend my time. You’re right–there is no opt-out for spending time, in general. It slips on regardless. So we have to just decide that we might as well make it valuable. Here’s another thing that blows my mind the same way: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slab_City,_California

    The fact that there are people alive who actively choose to just live their lives in a place like Slab City, so far removed from what I consider to be a regular routine/life, reminds me of the actual possibilities in a lifetime. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way!

    This might be a little morbid, but once upon a time when I was making my “Me Manual” (a concept I picked up from another post on Puttylike!), I wrote down a reminder to self: “No matter what, you will die in the middle of *something*.” It’s kind of scary, but also freeing, to remember that we’re all fated to leave this place with work unfinished. It takes the pressure off to get it “all” done before we go.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes!! I love reminding myself of people who live totally differently than I do, it helps me give myself permission to choose how I want to live.

      And your last paragraph reminds me of a quote I return to a lot: “it is not your responsibility to complete the work, but nor may you desist from it” :)

  10. Yes, I think there is no time wasted in fretting over pursuing various topics. In fact it gives us great creative powers!
    For example, yesterday I read about the life of the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, for no other reason than that I was curious and resonated with his story. Inspired by this new information I got a dream during the night which then pushed me to write a blog post today where I outlined a method for find truth and happiness, tying it in with a wide variety of topics; psychology, philosophy, religion and spirituality.
    I think it makes life beautiful.
    I have started to accept that I have crazy ideas and projects, some on a frightening scale, some less so. I just let them be when I am overwhelmed by them, but I don’t give up on them. Perhaps some of them will be like that park, and only be finished at the end of a long life. Perhaps others will seem much more possible when I have grown myself enough.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Very cool story, Björn – exactly, all projects happen at different scales and fretting about scale doesn’t help us with any of them :)

  11. Eurobubba says:

    It can be immensely rewarding to contribute to projects that may take far beyond our individual lifetimes to complete. Building a cathedral, or a body of scientific knowledge, for example.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yes! I love this attitude: that whole “plant a tree whose shade you will never sit in” philosophy is really inspiring to me :)

  12. Tom says:

    Thanks Neil!

    Such a very appropriate post for me right now.

    My mother-in-law passed away suddenly just before Christmas, at a young age. Then, little more than a week ago my grandmother-in-law also died. I’m heading towards middle-age myself, my career is at a plateau, boredom has hit, and I’m grappling to find an answer to ‘Where next?’

    The loss of two people who, for many complex reasons, were unable to make the most of the time they had has given me plenty of reasons to question how I should be spending my days. Which of my projects are whims and just a waste of time, and which are worth pursuing? Should I just cull them all, wipe the slate clean, pack a bag and head off on a plane to clear my bucket list? Hmmmm.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s sad news, Tom. I hope the self-reflection leads you to some good places, and I’m sending lots of good wishes to you while you figure it all out.

  13. Paul Ricken says:

    Great article Neil. I just fugured out after 54 years that I am allowed to do whatever gives me energy and to do whatever I like to give energy to. This makes the time issue a none issue thing. It is just being human with no limits. And that was the meaning of life in the first place. With love, Paul.

  14. Jessica says:

    Time waster: watching tv shows on Netflix that I’ve already seen. aka procrastinating
    I often think it will call me down and help me to get to the right state of being. but most of the time the volume of the voice at the back of my head is hard to turn down.

    Timer filler: actually sitting myself behind my desk minimising met tasks to a ‘to do list’ with only 3 things on it and doing it! The reward: a smile on my face and a happy feeling inside of me of completing something that seemed so “difficult” to do.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This comment could be me, exactly! I do things I know won’t help, but I convince myself it’ll put me in the right frame of mind, but afterwards I’m too annoyed at myself to use the next bit of time properly either. Definitely still learning to break the cycle, and something about the way you wrote this comment was very inspiring for just sitting down and doing the things I want to do :) Thank you for sharing!

  15. Heloisa says:

    Hi Neil!
    There’s something that’s always bothering me, which can be sumarized in this one sentence: “No project is so perfect that we’re never tempted by another”. I’m always jumping from one thing to another, so it takes me forever to get things done (as I end up running various projects altogether). Maybe that’s why I always feel like wasting time and getting nowhere? I had ever thought about it before, I’m dissatisfied everytime I can’t notice a pay off. As you pointed out, that’s definitely the most important thing about it all.

  16. Shelby Lerner says:

    Hello!
    So I’m having a lot of trouble with “wasting time” lately and I think that this helped me a lot. As only an 18 y/o freshman in college, I feel as though I’m having an existential midlife crisis every couple of days. “Is this the right thing?” “If not then what is?” “I don’t like this anymore and I’m not sure if starting all over again is smart” my problem as a multipod is that I get bored with things quickly or I just don’t like what I’m doing anymore. I’ve had so many interests in my life already that I look back and sometimes go “oh Jesus I wasted so many years on marine biology, I could’ve been doing X, Y and Z that whole time! R.I.P. ” But that’s what I wanted at the time and that’s ok. I can’t kick myself for following a passion even if it was only a few years(which is a lot longer than most of my interests). I’m currently a fashion design student and recently I decided “I’m done, I don’t like this anymore” due to many factors but now I’m worried that I’m wasting money and time in college that could be spent on something else. Any thoughts? Thanks!!

  17. Monika says:

    Thank you for this article. I also felt like I should be spending my time “better”, “wiser”, “more productive”. But I actually spent my time just the way I wanted it.
    -the time that you enjoy wasting, is not a wasted time-
    have a beautiful day everybody!

  18. caroline says:

    This article is so relevant to me right now. I worry on a daily basis whether I am diverting my energies to the right projects. And the “problem” is, I have so many on the go, I often run round in circles deciding which to devote time to on a given day.

    “You don’t want to be so determined to spend your time perfectly that you refuse to spend it at all.”

    This line particularly struck a chord, because sometimes the anxiety of time wasting paralyses me and I end up doing nothing at all. Ridiculous! That’s why I am most productive when distracted with a menial job (the Einstein strategy, to steal one of Emilie’s theories): the time I have off is so precious, I am very focused with how to spend my time and end up getting more done. So, actually, I want less time not more! Haha.

    Great article, Neil.

  19. Lori says:

    I feel like I’ve been “wasting time” all day, most of it on-line. But then, I just found Emilie’s TED talk, and this website, and I am soooo resonating with what I’m hearing and reading. I was just thinking to myself earlier today how I don’t “belong” to any one group, because my interests are so diverse. I may have actually finally found my tribe of tribes! We’ll see? So I guess it hasn’t been a “waste” after all! :)

  20. Eunice Vizcarra says:

    This post is something that I need to read everyday!
    I think It can be stressful to believe that every single minute has to be accounted for as well. Now, I think there is time for everything I do not have to despair.
    Thanks!

  21. Nahomy Hurtado says:

    HI Emilie this post helped me a lot
    and clarified my mind because I am very disorganized with my time,
    I want your steps to manage our time and devote their time to each activity I do.
    Thanks for everything I hope to keep reading your post.

  22. Edson Durazo says:

    My opinion is that I’m a hasty person, I do not consider that I waste my time, but I do some things that benefit others…. and not myself. Then I don’t take advantage of my time as I want.
    Now, I think that if I dedicate more time in what I really want and like, it would beneficial for me and others.
    This post did change my vision and I have a different perspective about my goals.
    Thanks!

  23. Edson Durazo says:

    HI Eddy
    I think the same like you

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