Time is indeed precious, and it makes sense that we want to avoid wasting it. But what does it actually mean to waste time?
We’ve all heard that “time stops for no one,” “time is money,” and “life is short,” leading many of us to believe that idle time is something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.
It often feels like we blink and another day, week, or year has flown by. For people who set high standards for themselves and their accomplishments, wasting time can feel like a personal failure to achieve some predetermined measure of success or productivity.
Dr Lillian Nejad, a clinical psychologist, explained that the fear of wasted time is very common.
“The truth is, we do have limited time on this earth,” she said.
A surprisingly large amount of this time is already taken up with basic survival tasks like eating and sleeping, which take up about five and 27 years of the average lifespan, respectively.
Time is indeed precious, and it makes sense that we want to avoid wasting it. But what does it actually mean to waste time? Why do we increasingly feel like time is slipping away and that we don’t have enough time for everything we want to achieve?
What does it mean to ‘waste’ time?
Dr Nejad pointed out that wasted time isn’t necessarily about what we do or accomplish. Time spent ‘doing nothing’ or resting is often well spent. Being busy or productive can waste time if the activity is unaligned with our goals or values.
“Wasted time is when we are behaving in a way that is contrary to our personal needs, goals, and preferences,” Dr Nejad said.
“So, what may seem like wasted time to one person might be a valuable activity for another.”
Judging how we spend our time or comparing ourselves to others is tempting but likely unhelpful. Social media portrays highlight reels of other people’s seemingly picture-perfect lives. It can pressure us to ‘keep up’ with our peers and squeeze as much output from every spare second as possible.
This mindset can lead us to a hamster wheel of always being busy but never feeling fulfilled. We also put ourselves at greater risk of burnout while losing touch with our ‘why‘ because we are too frantic to pause and reflect on how we truly want to use our time and energy.
Time well spent
The first step Dr Nejad suggests in making better use of your time is tracking exactly how you spend it. She recommends spending a week writing down what you spend time on and for how long in an activity diary or journal.
“You can track the exact number of hours per day you spend on each app,” she said. “You will be shocked by the number of hours you spend on games and social platforms!”
This activity helps us become more mindful and honest about where our time is going. You should include mental activities like worrying, ruminating, and overthinking in your activity diary.
Facing the reality of how we spend our days may feel confronting, but getting a clear picture of your schedule is an essential first step. No one else ever needs to see what you write down. Try to be curious and avoid judging yourself for what you learn – self-criticism is a less-than-ideal use of your time and energy.
Next, begin sorting your weekly activity into three categories. The first category is things you want to do that align with your goals or values. These include work or school projects with clear objectives and deadlines, personal projects or hobbies that provide a sense of achievement or enjoyment, relationships, and health-promoting behaviours like sleep, food preparation, exercise, self-care, and deep rest.
The second category is your non-negotiable responsibilities, including household chores, personal care, and life administration, like paying bills and scheduling appointments.
The final category is potential personal time wasters or activities that may be unnecessary, unimportant, unhealthy, or excessive. These will differ for everyone, but they are usually the things that typically don’t align with the life you want to lead or distract you from your goals. Depending on your circumstances, these may include doom-scrolling on your phone or mental time-wasters like worrying, procrastination, or ruminating on the past.
Dr Nejad then suggests evaluating your activities against your values and goals to explore potential areas where you can get some precious time back. She recommends asking yourself questions like “What drives me?” or “What makes me excited to get out of bed?” to clarify what is most important to you.
Once you’re clear on your values and aspirations, it’s time to evaluate your activity to see where you can make adjustments. Ask yourself if your schedule is full of things that serve or detract from your goals without self-judgement or criticism.
If you find that a pastime isn’t particularly ‘productive’, go deeper into why you do it or what needs it may serve. Does it help you avoid other daunting tasks? Does it relax you, calm anxiety, or help regulate your nervous system? Or has it just become a habit that feels uncomfortable to break?
You can then explore if there are activities you can let go of, cut back on, or find more effective, efficient, or enjoyable ways of doing. You can complete a dreary household chore like laundry while listening to your favourite podcast or allow yourself to scroll social media while you go outside for a short walk to get some fresh air and movement.
There is no ‘right’ way to spend your time. It’s all about how your routine makes you feel in the short and long term. Not every moment of your life has to be directed toward productivity or being your ‘best self’. The idea is to reflect on how to create a healthy balance so that you spend enough time and energy on all the parts of your life that matter to you, including those that may seem frivolous or unimportant to someone else.
Taking action to reclaim your time
Once you’ve identified potential areas where you can free up time, Dr Nejad suggests making solid decisions for changes you’d like to make.
“Write down some actionable steps you can take to turn wasted time into time well spent. Start with small changes and work up to more significant ones,” she said.
You don’t need to eliminate every time-waster, especially if you enjoy them. You could start by consciously limiting their time in your week.
“It can help to write down your new plan of action for the week,” said Dr Nejad.
Focus on what cutting back on ‘time-wasting’ will free up time for, like a hobby you always wished to take up or an old friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with. Avoid criticising yourself for wasting time, and focus on empowering yourself to create a meaningful and authentic life.
Habits are notoriously hard to break, so don’t be hard on yourself if you slip up or need the support of an accountability buddy or mental health professional.
Making any significant behaviour change is inherently challenging, and setbacks are to be expected. Go easy on yourself, and aim for progress, not perfection.