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Why We Must “Waste Time” to Be More Productive

It’s time to un-learn and re-learn how we work.


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Erik Vermeulen

2 years ago | 5 min read

Time fascinates me. It has always intrigued me.

In life, we all have had the feeling that we need more time to be more productive and successful.

The opposite is true.

I used to travel a lot to teach at foreign universities and give presentations, workshops, and seminars worldwide. In general, people didn’t envy me.

Of course, visiting other countries is a fantastic experience. But the general idea was that you waste too much time when you travel. And I tend to agree. I lost so much time over the last couple of years — going to airports, waiting at lounges, sitting on planes, waiting for food, and sleeping during flights.

So, it was always very surprising to discover that my productivity levels appeared to increase significantly during my trips. I first thought it had something to do with spending time more efficiently and effectively. I was convinced that busy people just get more work done.

Recently, however, I changed my mind. I now firmly believe that the “waste of time” was the main reason for the improved productivity. It never felt as a real “waste.” It was a time to recharge, reflect, re-energize, and reboot without being distracted by the daily pressures and routine.

There was no choice. It was a necessary part of traveling. So, you never felt “guilty” (which would have been different if I had spent hours and hours on a beach or at a swimming pool).

But why is all this important now? Well, we are entering a world of new work ethics and habits. There is no escape. And in this new working environment, my travel experiences have become very relevant.

Re-learning our New Remote Environment

I’ve never been busier. Surprisingly, the world without (or significantly less) travel is so much more hectic, stressful, and less productive.

I get the same feedback from friends and colleagues. The general idea is that working from home has given us more time and flexibility. But it hasn’t increased our productivity — the opposite.

As one of my colleagues put it: “with the online conferencing tools, we are going seamlessly from one meeting to the other. We don’t even have to go to another room or building. There is no break whatsoever.”

She is right.

And there is more. When we were in the office, there was sufficient time for fooling around, making jokes, or engaging in small talk (about sports, food, and other non-working related stuff).

These informal office interactions have largely disappeared in the world of online meetings and conferences. Today’s virtual meetings are usually shorter and so much more efficient than the in-person counterparts.

Another colleague even mentioned that he was missing the daily traffic jams. They “forced” him to waste some time. Being stuck in traffic provided the opportunity to listen to music, an audiobook or a podcast. It was a perfect end of the workday and helped him put things in perspective.

Of course, we don’t have to worry about the lack of “wasting time” moments when things go back to normal, and we return to the office and start traveling again. However, we should be careful not to engage in wishful thinking.

We won’t go back to normal anytime soon.

I currently see companies and other organizations offer three options.

First, they encourage their white-collar and knowledge workers to work remotely. Second, they allow people to come to the office if necessary but still prefer them to adopt a working from home attitude as much as possible.

These organizations have introduced smart applications and other tools to manage and control the number of workers in the office. And, third, they have divided the employees into teams that are permitted to go to the office every other week.

No matter what option is available, it’s clear that we have to “un-learn” our old work habits and re-learn new ones that make us more successful and help increase our productivity.

Don’t Feel Guilty

The key takeaway seems simple and straightforward: We must decrease our working time and learn how to waste time to become more productive and successful in the new “remote world.”

But this recommendation is easier said than done. We used to “waste” a lot of time in the old days. But we never felt guilty about it. It was just part of the process. We had to go for lunch and coffee. We had to spend some time commuting. There was no choice.

It’s different now. We don’t have to “waste” that much time anymore. The result? We must learn how to waste time without feeling guilty (the feeling you had when you were skipping a class when you were young).

To put it differently. The “wasting of time” has to become part of our work-life again.

So, to give an example, for most of us, having a nap in the afternoon or just sitting outside isn’t going to work. We need smart time-wasting strategies. We must find activities or tasks that don’t make us feel guilty and uncomfortable.

What works for me is the following.

Outdoor Activity

I go for runs in the morning (but you could also do it during lunch or just before dinner). It’s a great (and often healthier) substitute for the usual commute. Any other workout also works. It will make you fitter and happier. And, it very quickly becomes part of your new work habit.

Social media

Most of my colleagues aren’t active on social media. They consume but don’t create. But posting on social media platforms is a great way to effectively “waste time.” Writing. Making videos. Sharing content. They help you be creative, think out of the box, build a community and start a dialogue.

Becoming more active on social media will significantly improve your productivity at work.

Self-learning

Collecting information, curating content, and researching are also productive ways to “waste time.” What is so great about self-learning is that it will not only make you more productive, but it will also make you smarter.

“Wasting time” shouldn’t be confused with vacation and other free time. If there is one lesson to be learned from working from home, it is that “wasting time” is a necessary bridge between work and life.

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Erik Vermeulen


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