Book review: In Praise of Wasting Time

Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.

Thoreau

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, and in particular the challenge of doing nothing. So when I came across this little book, I had to read it. At only 128 pages, this is a must-read for anyone curious about the benefits of dropping everything and just being.

Professor Lightman outlines our fixation with time, with how long everything takes, with filling every minute of our waking time with activities and projects. He argues that our lives have become “frenzied”, that we get angry if we have to wait to see our GP. We have lost the ability to take the meandering way home, to daydream,

The problem, Professor Lightman argues, is that we are constantly plugged into “The Grid” – the internet, digital communication and social media (although he does also argue that the general pace of life outside of this has taken on a frenzied pace). Consumerism and an obsession with productivity have lead to a “heightened awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time” at the expense of genuinely free time for reflection and doing less. Even the speed at which we walk has increased in recent years.

He extols the benefits of unstructured time in terms of our creativity and mental “replenishment”. This non-stop stimulation from technology is having a detrimental effect on our mental health, leaving us with an inability to be alone with ourselves.

Lightman also talks about how childrens’ lives are overscheduled and the amount of pressure parents feel to have their children reach certain milestones by particular points in their lives, to keep up with peers. Play, both for children and adults, has many well-documented benefits. The joy of doing something simply for fun or amusement allows the mind to focus on means rather than ends.

The author outlines the well-known benefits of meditation on wellbeing, although he says that this is not strictly necessary, what is needed is simply downtime from The Grid. Downtime enables us to rest and develop our creativity.

Whilst this was an interesting read, I did not come away feeling like I had learned anything new. I think many of us are well aware that our lives and those of our children are increasingly overscheduled, and the disadvantages of technology for our mental wellbeing. What was most interesting to me was in the final chapter, Lightman talks about the difference between chronos – sequential clock time – and kairos – time created by human events, such as a meal or a relationship, a memory.

Surprisingly, despite mentioning meditation, Lightman does not really mention mindfulness, which I think is the key to what he is getting at – when we are aware of what is happening right now, in this moment, then we can truly slow down time (as it were) and begin to create some space in our lives to appreciate the little things, to create gratitude, appreciation and the sense of kairos he mentions.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

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