Wasting Time

Spending time and energy.

April 10, 2014

Last week, the International Society for the Study of Narrative held its annual conference at MIT; I was there and got to chair a panel called "Abjection, Pollution and Waste:  Narrative Ecologies."  I don't work on "waste," or eco-criticism more generally, but I volunteered to chair and this was where the organizers put me, and I’m always happy to learn something new.

The three papers were excellent, the discussion that followed was stimulating.  One woman in particular asked a really good question:  what about time?  Is there something about the passage of time, of aging, that makes one more conscious of waste, more fearful of waste?  If we think of waste as a natural product of cycles -- life cycles, ecosystems, the work of the body -- what role might time play in our thinking?

With a birthday in two days, I’d rather leave the aging part aside. But I have been thinking about this question ever since, and what keeps reverberating around my mind is a topic that I’m sure preoccupies UVenus readers -- what about time, indeed:  specifically, our abhorrence at feeling like we are wasting time?  Books and blogs about busyness (among the more recent, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte) have become their own industry, including the backlash against busyness (thank you, Hanna Rosin).  We act like the wasting of time is as repugnant as other forms of waste (if I may say so without going beyond the bounds of good taste).

I don’t think I’ve quite worked this out yet, but all forms of productivity create outcomes or products.  The processes and cycles of producing something, of using energy to make something, brings us the thing we were hoping to have as the end result (hopefully).  But it also brings waste products.  Waste is the inevitable byproduct of the expenditure of energy to create something.  At the same time, it’s sort of the dark other of the thing we were aiming for.  We have to have it in order to get to the thing we were going for, but we also want to make sure it’s dealt with as cleanly and as quickly as possible.

Well, if we’re all always thinking about productivity, what do we mean by that, by “productivity”?  What’s the outcome we’re aiming for with all this producing?  Do we mean filling every available slot on our calendars -- even that last precious hour we were saving for some really meaningful activity, like finally getting to the supermarket because all that’s left in the fridge is a half a lemon and some kefir?   Getting to inbox zero -- or filling up some other poor soul’s inbox with reports and minutes and reminders -- even if that means the writing we were hoping to get done goes undone, because mediocre productivity is better than no productivity?  

What’s the result of all this productivity?  Sarcasm aside, sometimes it is actually getting some good stuff done:  that book chapter written, those papers graded, the meeting that results in an exciting opportunity for collaboration.  Sometimes it’s making sure your work on the Committee for Committees is up to speed -- which is its own kind of necessity and reward.  After all, some days are for making and some days are for maintenance.  

I’m interested in the waste product of all this productivity.  It seems to me that our expenditure of time and energy in #gsd has an unfortunate byproduct:  the fear of wasting time itself.  The more time we spend in trying to be productive, the more we churn through cycles of productivity, the more anxiety we produce around the very idea of time.  The fear of wasting time is a waste product of our attempts to use our time as efficiently and productively as possible.

One of the givens of “waste studies” is that waste fills us with horror, horror at our own abjectness, disgust at how we can be so repulsive.  I’m probably exaggerating a little -- it’s only a calendar after all -- but I can think of plenty of days when rather than simply “casting the skin of the day into the hedge,” as Virginia Woolf wrote, and letting go, I’m appalled by my own self and how little I got done.  Did I waste the whole day?

And do we not seek to regulate time, and manage our anxiety around time -- make it orderly, much as we do with other forms of waste?  We must dispose of it properly, make sure it’s all in its proper place with timers, Pomodoros, time diaries and online logs, Toggl, apps that keep track of how many minutes we exercise, how many hours we sleep -- heck, the whole folder I have on my iPhone called “Time and Tasks” devoted to no fewer than six apps.  For someone who’s really bad at math, I spend a lot of time counting.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that, ironically, the thing we use, the thing we manage and master to try to be as productive as possible is the same thing that fills us with dread when it stops being the catalyst to getting things done and becomes instead something we fear wasting, and a waste product itself -- all the worse because there’s nothing else to show for it but a sense of lost hours.  One bad day is enough to make us say, look at all that time I wasted.  

I don’t have any solutions for this.  (And this post probably makes me sound a bit nuts, so you shouldn’t take advice from me anyway.)  But I think I would say that I sort of wish my inner efficiency expert would take the day off every once in a while.  On the other hand, she’d probably be terrified of wasting all that time.


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