The Importance of a Waste of Time / The Downside of Productivity

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In today’s busy world, we often feel like every single second unaccounted for is a waste of time.

We constantly drive ourselves, our employees, and even our families toward productivity.
Even young kids are expected to be busy, either with homework, chores, or any number of planned activities.
But, is this way the right? Are we ABSOLUTELY heading in the right direction with constant time management and productivity optimization?
…is that a gnawing pit of self-doubt in your gut…
What if I were to tell you that those moments wasted are not only important but truly essential to real productivity?
Things may not be as clear-cut as you think.
When it comes to the importance of wasting time, the downside of productivity actually can’t be overstated.
If it seems to you that every effort you make to stop wasting time and really increase your productivity, backfires, seeming only to create more stress, you are not alone.
So, we are going to look at the downside of a concept most people think of as a positive: productivity. And we’re also going to explore a concept most people think of as negative: wasting time.
It’s not rocket science, but it may take some effort to learn to let go of your addiction to productivity. You will find, after learning how and why to waste time, you likely achieve more than before. In more ways than you are expecting.
Let the waste of time begin!
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Table of Contents

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Inbox Zero: Ground Zero for an Epiphany

Hyperproductivity and overly structured days spent on monotonous, seemingly regenerating, lists of tasks are bad for human beings. But, in this digital age, it seems that those tasks are as unavoidable as they are self-regenerating.

Picture your own email box. You’ll get it.
It seems that every single thing we do to increase our productivity backfires:

  • Open email, answer all the important ones
  • Close email, get to work on urgent daily…
  • Open email, reply came in
  • Close, no… wait, another reply
  • Close email, get back to… no, wait, urgent email
  • Answer urgent email, get to working on the… no, wait, the phone rang and now you have 26 replies, 2 reply-alls, and 4 “notes” which all require your attention right now.
  • Realize lunch was an hour ago, smash your sandwich into your face while “multi-tasking” at your desk, and …er, wait – another email…

It’s not just self-replenishing. It seems the more time you spend chasing productivity, the less productive you become.
You are productive, your employer is happy with you. But, it isn’t enough because there is always more to do. However, at least every moment is accounted for, so, at least you aren’t lollygagging about, wasting time.
This concept gave birth to a program named Inbox Zero, by Merlin Mann. That story is also a perfect foil for this reminder that we need to stop, smell the roses, and allow time to waste — or we are hurting our own ability to produce. We’ll get to that in a minute.
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Why Is Psychology Important for Understanding Why We Need to “Waste Time”

According to psychologists, it is important to simply “watch the clouds roll by” occasionally.

You just need to know how to do this in ways that are beneficial. If you wanted to know why psychology is important, this is one of the many reasons.
According to our current work climate, being busy and productive is nearly tantamount to being a good person. We confuse activity with morality, and this is something that is already well known through the works of the German sociologist Max Weber. He insists that it’s a mistake to equate non-productive behavior, or resting, with laziness.
By doing this, we exhaust even the youngest among us with overly-planned days and a relentless drive towards productivity.
In addition, F. Diane Barth LCSW wrote in Psychology Today that wasting time — even experiencing a bit of boredom — is good for you.
She writes about a friend who’s so busy with the job and kids she has little time for herself, her husband, or her friends. Referring to the works of Max Weber, she notes how we confuse being busy with being good.
Elise, like many of us today, suffers from what the German sociologist and economist Max Weber describes as a confusion of activity with morality. With the coming of the industrial revolution, Weber says, we began to equate being productive with being good. Today we have almost come to believe that the busier we are, the better we are.
But Elise’s constant productivity is taking its toll.
“Elise is married to a wonderful man, but there are signs that their relationship is suffering,” Barth explains. Also, her oldest daughter “is clearly rebelling against Elise’s emphasis on productivity.”
She will no longer go to her normal extra-curricular activities and has become a drinker and eater. Meanwhile, the other child is an “excellent student” who keeps as busy as “her mother could possibly wish.”
But, she also has anorexia and will need to be hospitalized.

Wasting Time Works

As Copyblogger notes, “[i]n 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”
This “wizard,” whose name would long outlive himself, took a rather progressive view of creativity and what we would call productive. You see, he felt the most creative person on earth is useless if they can’t sell their product. And if you don’t allow your brain to work at full capacity, by literally “wasting time” and allowing that creative process to happen.
Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.
Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.
Merlin Mann, on the other hand, has a very different approach to the productivity conundrum: Inbox Zero.
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Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann, and Hyper-Productivity in the Modern Age

Merlin Mann rocketed to the forefront of digital productivity early on when he presented Inbox Zero to Google employees.

The idea was simple.
And, it was productive.
It was time management.
Email had become, and still is in many cases, a time suck and task dispenser of overwhelming proportions. All day long, immediate and urgent, or silly and inconsequential, emails roll in.
Some have a task required, some a response, but all of them take time. Time and constant attention, making it appear that you spent your whole day chasing the bottom of a never-ending chasm, er, email inbox.
As Oliver Burkeman reported in The Guardian, when presenting Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann explained that it was a method of handling email. And, it was truly simple. The idea was that, often, people’s inbox was stressing them out to the point that they were being less productive.
The idea was basically that every time you enter your email box, you systematically handle each email until your email box is empty, (Inbox, Zero).
Entering your email meant staying until you had answered, listed, prioritized, and completed every task.
Then, you get out, and get on with “life.”
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The Book That Never Got Written

It was a productivity tool. It was well received and spawned many blog posts. But, after Merlin Mann was contracted to write a book about his Inbox Zero insight, the book didn’t happen. Not one year later. Not two years later.

After those two years, Mann would write a (now deleted) blog posting explaining that, for all his obsession with spending his time well, he had missed the important things in his life. Including moments he would never retrieve with his daughter.
Productivity is not worth sacrificing your life for, and it would appear that this one-time productivity whiz learned that the hard way. In fact dogged determination to increase productivity, and ignore the personal costs may be harming you in more ways than you know.
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The Importance of Psychology in Wasting Time

Quartz’ Olivia Goldhill told Mann’s story in an article on Quartz titled “The Psychological Importance of Wasting Time.

She introduced the article on Twitter with the cheeky, “I’ve wasted a fair bit of time recently, and that’s ok.”
According to Olivia Goldhill, “[t]he problem comes when we spend so long frantically chasing productivity, we refuse to take real breaks.”
When our health, family, leisure time and self-development all fall away, sacrificed on the altar of productivity.
[su_quote cite=”Olivia Goldhill,” url=””]“We put off sleeping in, or going for a long walk, or reading by the window—and, even if we do manage time away from the grind, it comes with a looming awareness of the things we should be doing, and so the experience is weighed down by guilt.”[/su_quote] She presented the opinions of a psychologist who focuses on workplace behavior, Michael Guttridge.
He said, “There’s an idea we must always be available, work all the time.” In today’s workplaces, this is all too familiar a feeling.
“It’s hard to break out of that and go to the park,” Guttridge said. However, those downsides of productivity that we have been talking about are fairly obvious here.
While we attempt to maintain focus on being productive, we find ourselves chained to our desk.
Staring at the computer while we are constantly drawn off task anyway. Often we get used to using our breaks to run virtual errands (or get sucked into social media). That habit doesn’t help you, either
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“Running Virtual Errands” is not “Taking a Break”

Social media, shopping websites, political updates, whatever our poison – “we tell ourselves we’re ourselves we’re “multitasking” while really spending far longer than necessary on the most basic tasks,” says Goldhill.
We live at our desk. No, seriously, we even eat at our desks, which is pretty unsanitary in general, just chasing 20 more minutes of productivity. So, instead of walking away from our workspace, we handle our online errands there, too.
We may get some chores done — paying bills or ordering groceries — but we have drained our reserves instead of refilling them. We have missed an opportunity to take a real break.
There are so many benefits to simply taking a break, but not all time wasted offers a benefit.
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What’s in a Word? The Weight of a “Waste of Time” Synonym

Have you ever heard that the Inuits have 40-50 words for “snow?” The importance of snow in their life is reflected in the sheer volume of words. Likewise, the importance of wasting time is quite clearly indicated in the number of words and slang terms that English-speaking people have for it. Some are clearly negative, such as “lazy,” “trifling,” or “lagging.” Others are more ambiguous, like “dawdling.”
Whether it is a word with negative or positive connotations, there are plenty “waste of time” synonyms. How many? At least 40. And that isn’t counting the 14 easy to find synonyms for wasting time, or the endless terms we have for someone who wastes too much time.
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A List of Synonyms for “Wasting Time”

Actually, there is a lot more than the 40 contained in the above sterile thesaurus link. I asked a large group to come up with their favorite terms and synonyms for wasting time. The results were great, often longer than one word, and international, to boot.
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chilling shooting the breeze dithering
goofing off fiddle-faddling gathering moss
loitering killing time wool-gathering
lollygagging holding up the wall lint-picking
selective participation holding down the couch vigorous thought experiments
dawdling lagging day-dreaming
lazing around skulking about slacking
going potato malingering banana shenanigans
“Shamming” R&R cold busting
building cloud castles stalling kicking it
[/su_table] Do you know what the only antonym to “waste of time” is?
Time management
Like everything else in life, all of one thing is not good, “all work and no play,” as it were. So, the secret is finding the balance between the two that allows you personal success, but also quality of life. Psychology tells us that human beings must have a balance of activities to be healthy, including downtime.
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The Importance of Time

The importance of time with a capital “T” is bearing down on us every day. As Burkeman put it:

[su_quote cite=”Oliver Burkeman”] “Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice.” [/su_quote] With so little time, and such infinite possibility to plan ambitiously, and massive pressure to be productive with that time, it is little wonder that our attempts to force ourselves into “work mode” for far more of our time than is healthy is causing us so much stress and anxiety.
From the moment we wake up, we are obsessed with time, all the way down to seconds. Clocking in late is a sin, moments wasted are, too. We watch the clock like some sort of never-resting orchestra director, arms never dropping the beat. It rules our lifes, it rules our children’s lives, and in the same way the moon pulls the tides, it affects our productivity.
In The Household Economy, Robert Burns wrote:
[su_quote cite=”Robert Burns, The Household Economy” url=”″]“We need time. We need time to work, to eat, to sleep, and to accomplish all the daily chores of living. We also need time to know and understand our mates, our children, and our friends.”[/su_quote] He then went on to say, “ Most of our relationships, in fact, require more time than we have, and it is difficult to avoid the feeling that we could never have enough. Nor is our list of demands on our time complete. We have ignored the time we need to be alone, a necessary but invariably short- changed period.”
That was in 1977. In 1977, every quarter in your pocket equaled out to a little more than a dollar, now, in purchasing power.
Every one dollar, $4.11 cents in purchasing power. The normal work hours were about the same as a 40 hour week then, too.
But now, we work those hours for about a quarter or so the purchasing power.
It’s no wonder we work at home, long hours, or freelance 16 hours a day. Time, to us, is dollars because we need about 4 times as many of those dollars as our parents to have the same lifestyle they had.
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Is the Value of Time Money?

He could not have imagined the integration of our lives with our professions. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other devices. We even count our steps with bracelets that have replaced our watches and are stopping some of our early heart attacks.
Then there is the 24 hour, 7-days-a-week availability is often required in a global economy that moves at the speed of WiFi.
Simply adding that lack of separation between our personal and professional lives to the value of our time is a recipe for paradoxical low productivity. We are putting in so much of that time it backfires.
Without proper attention to our lives, we are not getting enough human contact with our loved ones. We aren’t taking enough time off, we aren’t going outside enough. We probably aren’t taking very good care of ourselves either. Our relationships suffer. Our personal growth suffers.
So, no, the value of time isn’t money. Time far outweighs money, it’s the most precious commodity we have. Yet, our economy has forced us to equate the two.
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Return to Inbox Zero, For a Moment

Oliver Burkeman wrote an exhaustive article about Merlin Mann and the fall of Inbox Zero.

As part of that, he told us how the “streamlined” productivity tool had influenced the people using it.
Predictably, the dedicated, don’t leave the screen until you have processed every email (as more come in) had an effect. Perhaps less predictably for those who feel that a “strong work ethic” (read: addiction to productivity) is the best thing we bring to the table, that effect was a net negative.
[su_quote cite=”Oliver Burkeman”] “And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn’t reliably bring calm.” [/su_quote] The kind of calm required for mental health and real productivity.
Despite whittling every tiny splinter of time out of your day for productive tasks, you remain chained to a desk, stressing and doing less in more time.
He went on to explain the “allure of the doctrine of time management,” simply put, control, and one day to have it over everything:
[su_quote cite=”Oliver Burkeman”]“The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster.”[/su_quote] You can’t have control over everything, and you can’t have limitless hours to work.
You can, however, get endless emails, and feel like that Greek legend, Sisyphus:
damned to roll the same boulder up the same hill, every day, over and over, forever.
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Importance of Time Yet Again

If you are so successful, why are you still working 70 hours a week?

That question is the title of an article written by Laura Empson for the Harvard Business Review. She discussed the problem from a different perspective.
Through her research, she has heard the same kinds of stories over and over again. The stories of people in white collar jobs who despite knowing better, chronically overwork themselves thinking more time working means more success.
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Chronic productivity-focused overworking is harmful

This kind of thinking can cripple the quality of your work, according to Empson, and your health.
So, productivity is harmed, yet people in professional jobs continue to measure their worth by time punched on the clock.
And they continue to try to drive themselves for that extra inch, most likely doing much less than they could have done in less time.
We all have to push it, occasionally, to meet a deadline or make a deal. If you find yourself squinting at the setting sun and realizing you hadn’t left your workspace all day a bit too often, chances are you are working harder than you have to with a tired, underperforming brain.
She encourages people to stop and rest. Because, while we may find reward in working hard, working too hard can, in fact, hurt us. And, it can make us make mistakes. Recognizing the signs of being overworked, in yourself and in your office, and making adjustments, is essential.
Working hard can be rewarding and exhilarating. But consider how you are living. Recognize when you are driving yourself and your staff too hard, and learn how to help yourself and your colleagues to step back from the brink.
Still locked into that 4,000 weeks? It seems such a short time for a life, right? Perhaps we should get back to something healthier, like the importance of wasting time. For your health, of course.
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The Importance of Wasting Time

Coming back around to Olivia Goldhill’s exhaustive article on wasting time, she had this to say about those intrepid self-lovers who somehow allow themselves the luxury of this novel idea.

It’s not as though we need to work so hard. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pan, author of REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, writes in Nautilus, luminaries including Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, and Charles Darwin had quite relaxed schedules, working for five hours a day or less. The truth is, work expands to fill the time it’s given and, for most of us, we could spend considerably fewer hours at the office and still get the same amount done.
And there it is.
Do you really think that if you spent another hour at work, you’d get another hour’s worth of work done? Of course, you wouldn’t.
The result is a fractured, exhausted stab at doing what you intended. And, you get what you get: whatever it was you managed it while exhausted.
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Skipping breaks at work

So, it’s not anathema to success to work shorter, more productive hours. It is also not in any way bad work ethic to take reasonable breaks during your workday.
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But, is it important to fritter time away?

“Wasting time is about recharging your battery and de-cluttering,”.
Taking time to be total, gloriously, proudly unproductive will ultimately make you better at your job.
But it’s also fulfilling in and of itself, and healthy.
Psychology says so. Science says so, also, working too long indoors is causing a boom in vitamin D deficiency related illnesses.
Actually, Psychology Today made it crystal clear, wasting time may be the best thing you do today.
It may allow you to become a better employee, a better partner or spouse, or a better child or parent.
It can help you remember that you need to use that time not only to work, but to stare at the clouds and find shapes.
It takes both to be healthy. So, yes, it is important. Stop skipping breaks. Set a timer. Go.
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The Physical Benefits of Sitting in the Sun

Many of us are pushing ourselves so hard, we don’t get any time in the sun. Being in the sun stimulates vitamin D production, which we need to stay healthy.  Vitamin D is essential to your health, and a risk factor for being low on vitamin D is staying indoors.
Chances are, you are not overworking yourself in the park.
Much of America is vitamin D deficient, as in 75 percent. And it isn’t just Adults. It’s our kids. Those kids we are raising to know the value of every dollar, er, minute. According to Scientific American:
[su_quote cite=”Scientific American” url=””]“Three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, the so-called “sunshine vitamin” whose deficits are increasingly blamed for everything from cancer and heart disease to diabetes, according to new research.”[/su_quote] ‘Waste’ your valuable time sitting in the sun letting your mind rest for a few minutes a day is a great place to start. Now you know you are taking an active role in preventing the damage caused by your cave-dwelling lifestyle.
Some people have increased risks associated with being in the sun. If you are one of them, make sure you talk to your doctor about how much sun is good for you, first.
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How Much Time in the Sun do You Need for Vitamin D Health?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the time we need to spend in the sun varies. The biggest factor in the time you should spend outside is your skin pigmentation.
If you are very light skinned — “[p]ale skin, freckles, burns very easily, hardly tans” — you should spend between five and ten minutes in the sun a day.
If you have light skin “that tans a little,” you should spend about ten to 20 minutes in the sun.
For those whose skin is better described as getting an occasional sunburning, but tanning well, between 15 and 25 minutes in the sun.
If you have naturally dark skin, and very rarely sunburn, they recommend 20 to 30 minutes a day in the sun.
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Day Dreaming is Worth the Effort

No one can be their best without slowing down, without allowing their brain to wander.

In fact, if we fail to dream, the Ulitmate Championship of meandering thoughts, it can erode our ability to remember. When people fail to enter REM sleep, the phase in which dreaming occurs, they fail to remember what they were taught before they fell asleep. This isn’t to say that dreaming and wasting time are the same, just to reinforce that your mind requires downtime.
Yet, despite this absolutely understood need for humans to engage in banana shenanigans, we still try to fill as many hours on that clock as possible with work. Believing, somehow, those 12 hours of fractured, distracted, multi-tasking, controlled chaos nets you more productivity at the end of the day than 8 focused hours. All because our time is so short, and so precious.
But by doing so, we strip our time of meaning and true personal growth, all for a few more dollars. 4,000 weeks isn’t long enough to live two lifetimes; so you need to make sure there is time for you to live your life during this one.
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How to Waste Time, And How Not To

If you search for “how to waste time” you will find, inevitably, article after article that offer you apps, websites and internet games.

But, when you laze about, wasting precious time, you need to do it in ways that are as beneficial to you as possible. That means not at your desk, not staring down that screen, and putting down your device. Ok, maybe not putting down your device, after all, you are going to want pictures, music, or to find the perfect park. But, before we cover what you should do to waste time, let’s talk about what you shouldn’t be doing.
There are 8 things that successful people never waste time doing, according to, you may be surprised by them.

Productive, successful people don’t do the following:

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1. Get sucked into social media 5. Hang out with negative people.
2. Go through the day without a plan. 6. Dwell on past mistakes.
3. Do emotionally draining activities. 7. Focus on what other people are doing.
4. Worry about things they can’t control. 8. Put themselves last in priority.

Avoiding social media time-sucking:

To avoid social media on my breaks, consider deleting the facebook app from your phone.
Drastic, but not exactly scorched earth.
You can still log onto Facebook regularly through your phone’s browser, during the time you give it.
No more constant pings to drag your attention to your device and the latest political post you wished you hadn’t seen.
Turn off the notifications on your social media apps. You are going to check them, and likely a couple times a day. But, without them calling you in every few minutes, you’ll have way more time to kill time.
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The Value of Wasted Time

Taking the time and achieving the state of being completely, gloriously, and unashamedly unproductive makes you not only better at your job, but better at life. And honestly, anything that takes the sting off of adulting is quite worth the time. Especially when it is making you a better person, too.

“Wasting time is about recharging your battery and de-cluttering,” said Michael Guttridge. Lallygagging is about bringing that balance to yourself. Letting your brain rest so it is functioning at full speed all day while you work. A short session of holding a bench down so you can come back refreshed is an investment. Daisy sniffing is about taking time to arrange things in a way that makes you feel better
Daydreaming and park-walking are about leaving your workspace — yes, even for an entire hour for lunch. It’s worth it. When you get back, you’ll do more with a fresh brain, recharged and able to function. And, it’s worth it.
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So, How To Waste Time?

First and foremost, get outside and take breaks away from your desk.

And, if you have children in your life, teach them to take real breaks, too.
Make time to go take a walk, sit at the park, or actually use that patio you haven’t really had much time for.
Take a walk away from your workspace.
Walk to somewhere safe, (preferably in the sun)  and sit quietly for a few minutes. Use the time to play a guided mindfulness session on headphones, if you are in a secure location.
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What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a form of deep breathing mental exercise.
Meditation, by any other name.
It has nothing to do with any form of religion.
It is more about focus, and learning to calm racing thoughts.
And, it works. According to “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies”:
[su_quote cite=”Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health” url=””]“Mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation.”[/su_quote] If you are counting the time you are driving in your car as time in the sun, don’t. As US News & World Report reminds us, that glass blocks UV rays. So do most modern windows.
Yes, you feel the warmth of the sun through them, but without the UV.
Any time spent doing something you love is time spent on yourself, so, time well spent.
All of us need to recharge.
Give yourself permission to bask in a moment here and there. Get away from your desk.
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Some ways to effectively waste time, during the workday and beyond:

  • Plan a card game with your friends, remember them?
  • Go to the school and see those kids you like singing their hearts out
  • Give yourself permission to eat a healthy meal, and eat it leisurely.
  • While you’re at it, outlaw eating at your desk, but still actually eat. And, at regular intervals.
  • Meditate, or practice mindfulness, regularly.
  • Stare out the window at nothing for 10 minutes.
  • Take a walk, to work, or somewhere to eat your lunch.
  • Listen to music.
  • Enjoy a long bath with Epson Salts or a bath bomb.
  • Visit a day spa, budget permitting, or get a relaxing massage
  • Do some art, especially if you loved it and stopped
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In Conclusion:

We all know that there is a finite number of minutes in our life.

But, we are forgetting that when we push ourselves past a healthy level of productivity seeking, we become our own worst enemies.
Overworking yourself makes you sick. Being inside from sun up to sun down can make you very sick.
Avoiding regular breaks, and working unreasonable hours, your brain tires. When fatigued, you make mistakes and it harms your productivity. It also puts you at risk of mental exhaustion. So, despite your best intention, your choice not to “waste time” on the self-care of a real break at work — to increase productivity — is actually damaging it.

Employers who value you know that breaks are worth it.

Take real breaks at work, it pays off in all sorts of ways.
Walk away at the end of the day, and stay away from it as much as you can.
Set at least one day off for self-care, yes, even if you are freelancing. Try to seek out employers and clients who not only understand this, they make it possible.
This kind of company is good at protecting its resources and understands you are one of them.
When wasting time, seek out opportunities and people that make you smile, things that give you joy.
Because, while you may think you are just doing your favorite thing, you just may find some of that peace that people sought at the bottom of Inbox Zero.

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