Don’t Panic: Why wasting time helps you stay sane and productive

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“Words, words, words.” — Hamlet Act II, sc. ii

The above quote comes from a scene in Hamlet that occurs before Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”). In this scene, Hamlet is reading a book that’s been reduced in his mind to mere words and has lost its meaning. Hamlet seems to be saying: what’s the point?

As a writer, teacher, and avid reader, I understand what it’s like to feel like what I do has lost its meaning, that my career with words is just that: words, words, words. It also reminds me to have some perspective on what I do — that yes, it is sometimes just about words, but that these words matter if I continue to build up my creative and professional experiences and learn from them.

This post is for creative people who want to create meaningful things that matter. I’d like to focus on two creative and professional approaches that have changed how I get stuff done. First, I’ve learned that doing things that seem counter-productive — “wasting time,” if you will — can help me focus on and finish more creative activities. Second, I’ve learned the value of trusting your intuition: that it’s OK to “lose control” and to improvise every now and then. Since I write and teach writing for a living, I’m focusing on the writing process (but this can apply to any creative activity, really).

The Idle Mind

I’ve written about the importance of “getting away” from the writing process in order to gain perspective in a previous post. These ideas come from Jonah Lehrer’s now-controversial book Imagine, but putting aside Lehrer’s recent issues, there is still a lot to gain from his ideas about the creative process. Lehrer explains that getting away from our usual work habits tricks the brain into moments of clarity and insight:

While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged. (p. 33)

This idea is confirmed in a New Statesman article titled “What some people call idleness is the best investment.” In this article, author Ed Smith discusses why working too much is counter-productive, and that the “cult of busyness” creates bad work and unhappy people, not more creative output. For writers, he says this:

Most writers admit that they cannot write more than about four hours a day, even during a purple patch. They may lock themselves in the study all day long (safely protected from spouse and phone calls) but that doesn’t mean they are writing non-stop. You pedal a bit, then freewheel; even locked in your study, you will be doing this with your mind.

And yet the conventional workplace – the office – condemns the optimal working day as contemptibly slack. Watch carefully the next time someone rushes purposefully past you in the office corridor, shielded from eye contact by the ubiquitous smartphone, radiating the carefully honed “Can’t stop, too busy” expression so characteristic of corporate ambition. They are not rushing to arrive somewhere, still less to achieve anything. They are rushing because rushing is how they display how hard they work.

This idea sums up how I approached work up until at least the last year, but specifically the last couple months. After reading this article and Lehrer’s book, it confirmed that “being busy” isn’t the answer: the answer is finishing better work while allowing the mind to rest, to allow idle time, to not feel guilty for not working harder than is normal.

For example, right now I’m writing this blog post draft. I should be finishing up my semester teaching plans, working on content for a client, and reading some books that I agreed to review. Instead, I am writing this blog post, an activity unrelated to my most important work priorities right now. Why do this?

In the past, I would have scheduled all of these things into a packed 8-hour day, despite knowing that I need to teach a night class tonight, clean up around the house, walk my dog, and make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would then feel guilty when, as always, I didn’t finish everything. This guilt would turn into real procrastination and more guilt/worry, creating stress in my life and a feeling of unnecessary busyness.

My current “time wasting” is not because I’m lazy or I want to avoid the work. It’s because this morning, I hit a brick wall with some of my teaching plans and I need to get away from it and think about it later. If I kept working on it right now, I know I’d produce shoddy work and end up with poorly written assignment sheets, class plans that are half-baked, etc. (it’s happened before). In terms of the client work, well, the project is almost complete and I have time set aside later in the week to work on the project, so why rush it now? And in terms of my reviews, I managed to get about a half hour of reading done this morning and I don’t need to push it. So, I changed today’s plans, walked the dog earlier than usual, and decided to work on this blog post that’s been on my mind for a while. After this, I’ll take some time to meditate or reflect (maybe nap, why not?) and then I’ll get back to my semester planning.

I used to feel guilt for changing plans like this. Now, I see it as a chance to recharge my brain. I gain fresh perspectives on my work as a result. In fact, I’m accomplishing more now than before, and I’m not suffering from burnout like in the past.

We define idleness and time wasting in different ways, but the point is this: things that aren’t directly related to your creative or work life aren’t bad. They can help you focus. They can grant you perspective. So watch that episode of Mad Men, take that walk, shut the office door and take a nap. It’s all about balance, so keep it that way.

The Power of Less

I’m reading Leo Babauta’s book The Power of Less. It’s a powerful and straightforward book that explains my approach to productivity: keep it simple. I’m learning that having too many goals can overwhelm and water down my vision of success.

Babauta’s main idea is that by limiting yourself in the short term and focusing on one thing at a time, you can accomplish more in the long term. For Babauta, it’s about one goal at a time: each task in the short-term should lead to that goal. Obviously, there are times when our daily routine get in the way of this, so he also suggests limiting the amount of time spent on routine tasks like e-mail if your job allows for it.

Based on Babauta’s book, I’ve come up with some daily plans that help me gain back time. For example, I only check email twice a day, and when I check it, I respond to them almost immediately. I also limit the length of my e-mails, keeping them as precise and succinct as possible. Another rule I’ve implemented is to not work past 8 p.m. at night. I wish it could be earlier, but right now 8 is the best I can do. That means I must stop grading, planning, or doing any other creative work that requires serious commitment. Instead, I read, watch TV, work out, or relax. This also means I try to get my most important stuff done early in the morning, allowing me to walk away from tasks later if I need to. I’ve also stopped worrying about not finishing tasks I’ve assigned myself in a day; instead, I just move them to the next day, so I’m still finishing them but not feeling stressed by them. I’ve also learned to limit my daily tasks by answering this question: what do I really need to do today?

Another strength of Babauta’s work is that he emphasizes intuitive thought. In my teaching in particular, I’ve become much more intuitive, allowing for flexibility in the classroom and with my preparation time. This has meant I feel less pressure to accomplish certain tasks. I go into each class with a goal in mind and a simple course plan, but beyond that, I allow my intuition as a teacher to take over. It has meant better classroom experiences for me. It’s allowed me to feel less tied to the everyday teaching responsibilities and focus on my creative activities outside of the classroom when I need to.

Words, words, words: they should matter

Hamlet’s line always gets me thinking about the meaning of creative production. In my writing classes, I emphasize that writing is a process and that it takes time, patience, focus, and a lot of practice.

However, I’ve found that, at certain points in my life, I’ve not practiced this view of writing as a process. It’s affected my creative output as a result of this. Even while teaching writing, I have, at times, felt lost in the thought of writing words that no one will ever read, and this has led to creative dry periods in my life.

This past couple of months have changed that. I’m no longer concerned that my words have no meaning. I just write and follow my creative intuitions. By doing so, I’ve produced more meaningful work than ever before, and I’m able to use these writing experiences to gain professional leads and become a better teacher and writer.

I’ve learned to stop worrying and enjoy the work I do while finding ways to make it better. Hopefully, by reading this, you can start to do the same.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,