The Top Ten Wastes of Time

In Essays, Philosophy, Productivity, Self Improvement, Stoicism

Introduction

Life is short, and life can be sweet, we just need to use it well.

There have been periods in my life where I now look back and think:

What-the-fuck-was-I-thinking?

It almost appears as if it was another person, not me. An example of this is when I let myself slide physically and ballooned to over 100kg between the ages of eighteen and twenty.

An example of this is when I let myself slide physically and ballooned to over 100kg between the ages of eighteen and twenty.

There are other times when I look back and think:

I used to do things better back then.

Case in point when I did several exams to try and get into various prestigious secondary schools in London, and I ended up getting multiple offers, that all came by post on the same Saturday. It felt like a birthday that had come early.

So all this got me thinking about that wonderful question that was posed by ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu:

Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?

And the thing that got me about this is the amount of time that I have wasted. I don’t believe that there isn’t enough time to accomplish the things we want to accomplish because I’ve seen so many examples of incredible things done in a short amount of time. It’s all about the 80/20 rule.

The fact that things take a lot longer than they should, and so we cannot achieve those awesome things we want to achieve, is down to the amount of time we waste. I’m an absolutely chronic procrastinator, and I am highly indebted to Parkinson’s Law to the fact that I can get anything done. I’m actually already writing an entire essay about Parkinson’s Law, so I won’t go into details here, except for a brief description.

In a nutshell, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. So the more time you have, the longer it will take.

However, this is not all about productivity and work, it’s also about living a good life, one that’s generally devoid of negative emotions, and so not wasting time on negative emotions plays a strong part in my philosophy.

With that said, let’s jump right in!

1. Thinking about what could have happened.

The past is unchangeable.

That’s one of the few things that we can be certain of in life. We’ve seen before in some of my previous essays about how we simply should stop caring about the things that we cannot control.

Well, the past is firmly in the category of things that we simply cannot do anything about, and so we should just stop caring about it.

However, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from past experiences. To do so is a wise endeavour, and not doing so means making the same mistakes throughout your life.

What you shouldn’t do, is think about how it all could have turned out differently, and how you wish it had, and endlessly blame yourself for mistakes that have already been made.

2. Excessive Drinking.

Drinking can be fun, let’s not make any mistakes about that. I’ve had more fun nights out with alcohol than I can remember, and there is a great saying:

Because no good story started with someone eating a salad.

If you go for a night out and you are drinking, it can feel like anything is possible. You will get into strange and interesting situations, you will meet new people, and you will have some stories to tell.

However, nothing in life is free, and alcohol is more expensive than the price you observe in the menu.

The problem with getting drunk is that the next day is a wipeout.

This is the reason why I have started to tone down my drinking because I notice that the next day I can hardly do anything to move forwards with my life and goals.

Sometimes, this even stretches for two days.

That’s a huge price to pay, up to two days of my life, for a few hours of a fun at a bar or club.

The trade-off simply isn’t worth it.

We could even discuss how alcohol is often disproportionately expensive, and you can do far more interesting and positive things with the same or less money, but the real issue is that it stops us from creating what is called a positive feedback loops, which is a certain set pattern of behaviour that encourages the same behaviour. For instance, if you wake up early, you will probably go to bed early (because you will be tired but the time it gets to 10pm) and you will wake up early because you will already have had enough sleep by the time it gets to 6am. This pattern is self-sustaining and gets stronger over time unless we disrupt it with something like the over-consumption of alcohol.

I’ve been hugely guilty of this in the past two years, but I am slowly learning my lessons. I have found that if I have some clear objectives that I want to accomplish the next day, I’ll naturally ensure that I am in bed at a decent time (before midnight) so I can wake up early and get through the next day in a sane manner, without my head thumping as if I had been hit by a train.

I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.

Edgar Allan Poe

3. Watching TV

This section may sound elitist, and it is, but bear with me.

I knew from a fairly early age that I was in someway superior to the average person because I found almost every TV channel to be a load of horse manure.

But I reasoned that if they TV channels are showing all these programmes that I think are terrible, many people must be watching and enjoying them, otherwise the TV channels wouldn’t show them. So I reached the conclusion that the vast majority of the population does enjoy these stupid programmes, and are easily amused.

It is actually far more sinister, TV is used as a tool to control and pacify the masses, because people with time to think are dangerous, because they will see the great fraud of modern living for what it is.

Now I’m not against the odd movie here and there, in fact, I often enjoy going to the cinema to see the latest action/thriller/horror movie, but there is a big difference between mindlessly watching TV, and watching a movie.

A movie has a clear start and end point, while if you are just channel browsing, you can watch TV for seven hours straight. Also, because of the shorter duration, you actually can suspend belief and be aware that you are doing so. If you watch 5+ hours of TV per day, your brain will slowly start to accept all the bullshit that is being sprouted by the news channels, the talk shows, and also by the lifestyle shows.

In fact, there is actually a positive correlation between the hours spent watching TV each day and obesity, which is hardly surprising.

When you watch TV, you are quite literally watching other people live, while not living yourself.

Is that really how you want to spend your time?

4. Commuting.

Travelling more than one hour to get to work each day really lowers your life quality. I used to do it when I lived in London, and it really does make a difference. If you spend an hour each way, that is almost ten percent of your day spent in a car, or a bus, or a train, and yes, while you can still do some things while commuting – such as reading, writing, or listening to something – you won’t have that concentrated effort that you would have if you were working in a stationary manner.

The other thing and this links up a little bit to my point about drinking alcohol earlier, is that commuting is tiring, and when you do eventually get home from work, you won’t feel like doing much else except plonking down in front on the TV.

This is a typical example of one bad habit leading onto another bad habit, which the opposite of the earlier example of a positive feedback loop. This is a negative feedback loop.

One last thing to say on this point, and that is that you should weigh up the negatives of commuting vs what you are actually going to do at work. If you are doing something that you really believe in, then travelling an hour or more each way may well be worth it, that is a tradeoff that only you can decide on.

5. Procrastinating.

One could actually argue that procrastination is the root cause of all time wasting, but that’s not quite true, because doing the wrong type of activity is not necesserily procrastination, it is just a waste of time.

I am massively guilty of this, both in my professional and personal life. However, when eventually I do start something, I find it quite easy to get into the flow and output some quality work.

For instance, I like to write first thing in the morning, as I tend to have some nice ideas about what to write, and then some of these ideas eventually become the essays that you can now read on this website.

This works well for me, but I struggled – and still struggle – to make this a habit that I do on a consistent basis. This is quite stupid, because I *like* writing, and I like writing early in the morning, and I also enjoy the end results of being able to publish something that other people will read and enjoy.

And yet…several times a week I struggle to even get started.

Why is that?

I believe that humans often act like water, and try and find the path of least resistance, and especially least effort.

Writing first thing in the morning takes some effort, I need to pick a topic, make a brief outline, and then sit for thirty minutes or so to actually let the ideas and words flow from my hands. I normally tend to write between 1000 and 2000 words.

The best way to fight procrastination is to simply start, regardless of how you are feeling. So in my case, this would be choosing one topic from a backlog of topics that I have already written down, and then opening a new document and creating a brief outline.

This is only a few minutes of work, but I know that if I can manage to do that, then I will for sure be able to complete my thirty-minute session without a hitch.

I also read something truly wonderful the other day, which is that we can actually choose to do things even when we don’t feel in the mood to do them. Obviously, this isn’t news to most people, but it’s a different approach to beating procrastination.

For instance, this morning I have to review some design work for a mobile app that we’re building over at Whisper & Company, but I don’t really feel like doing so. However, I know that at 10am I’ve got my personal training session at the gym, and so I’ll need to have it completed before then, so I’ll simply get it done, regardless of my emotional state. My current feeling this morning is to take a good book and sit on a sofa in a nice coffee shop and read all morning, but I can ignore that feeling and do what I need to do.

6. Social Media

I’ve spoken before about the perils of Social Media (see here, here, and here). The problem is that social media is engineering to play on your brain’s reward system, and so you can easily get addicted to getting the little notifications regarding what is happening to your online social life.

The problem is that social media is not real life, it’s fake. It’s the best bits, the highlights, of everyone’s lives mish mashed together in an endless news stream. The main reason why I stopped using Facebook is that I didn’t feel it added any value to my life, and in fact I haven’t noticed any negative consequences to leaving the network, but I’ve gained plenty of time in my life.

I realised how ridiculous by social media habit had become as soon as I had quit, because I kept typing “facebook.com” in my browser, only to be greeted by the Facebook login page, which is something I hadn’t seen in years. I was doing this up to twenty times a day, and feeling like an idiot.

After six weeks ago this strange behaviour stopped, and now I don’t even think about it any longer.

7. Worrying about shit

Worrying is a sign that you are not living in the now.

As always, the middle path is the correct one here. Not thinking about the future completely is not a coherent strategy, but neither is ruining the present moment worrying about what will happen, because even if your worst fears are realised, they will have caused twice as much anxiety as they should have.

Learning to stop worrying is a really useful skill in life, and is something that will serve you no matter if you are twenty or sixty years old. The fact that we live in a highly uncertain world now, where nothing can easily be predicted, and yet we have to accept this fact if we want to live a good life, and by that I mean a life that is devoid of negative emotions and anxiety.

8. Planning (too much)

I’ve got a friend who started a food e-commerce startup, and in my opinion spent far too much time – and money – planning, and not enough time doing. I’ll probably piss him off big time by being so brutally honest in public, but that’s the price to pay to hold an honest opinion.

It’s easy to have principles when they don’t cost you anything.

This approach to planning is also touched upon in the brilliant book The Peter Principle, which discusses how people are promoted into incompetence.

So someone who is promoted (or promotes him or herself) into incompetence, once of the defences against attempting to actually do any of work which is beyond your capabilities is to be continuously planning how to do the work, without ever actually accomplishing anything.

It’s far better to get started in a simple and low-tech fashion, especially when it comes to business than to spend a huge amount of time planning.

I know, we’ve all heard the adage:

Fail to plan, plan to fail.

And this still stands true, but there is nothing to say that planning has to be theoretical.

When I co-founded Whisper & Company, a digital agency that focusses on the intersection between design, technology, and commerce, I didn’t start out by writing a long business plan.

We simply decided our core services, we came up with a name and designed the logo with a pen on the back of a newspaper over our first company lunch. Within a couple of days we had the basics:

  • A business card.
  • Emails.
  • A barebone landing page to capture the details of interested customers.

And you know what, that took around $300 to get started, and a year and a half later we’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s because we didn’t plan things out meticulously, but there was still a certain level of planning, mostly in deciding our approach.

That’s the key.

Plan in broad strokes, but don’t get stuck in the minutia because that is where things will go horribly wrong. You can’t predict, in detail, what is going to happen tomorrow, so don’t lie to yourself and try and predict down to the details what will happen in the next five years, it’s a pipedream.

Also, plan for those qualities that will be evergreen. For instance, at Whisper & Company we started out with a beautiful landing page before building our main site a year later, but that was worth the investment because we knew that we would always want a beautiful website, as it reassures our clients that we are able to do a good job on their websites.

9. Doing Things Quickly.

A rushed job is often a botched job, but more importantly, it’s often less enjoyable due to a whole host of factors, like increased stress, lack of appreciation, and insecurity. It is a much better option to take your time when doing things, and really do them, not just half do them.

This may appear paradoxical, this is an essay about the top ten wastes of time, and you are telling me to spend more time doing things, not less?

Well, this is because I tend to see things differently. I recently published an essay on how to 80/20 your time, and I made the point there that generally only 20% of your time will ever be spent on the truly meaningful things, the rest of time is often wasted. This is because it is difficult to regularly get into that state of flow, where your best work effortlessly comes out of you, and also because there is a hard limit on how many hours per day you can work at your best.

By strategy is to take my time by working slowly on the things that truly matter, and either completely eliminating the remaining 80% of non-critical tasks, or at least reducing them as much as possible. This allows me to do cool things like spending the entire of a Tuesday morning going swimming at a five-star hotel with a nice girl, instead of stuck in an office banging my head against a wall (I don’t actually work in an office, thankfully..).

My Tuesday morning this week…

80:20 time

10. Not Taking the Time for Now

One of the major prevailing thoughts of many philosophies, both from the East and the West is, quite wisely, that we can only live in the now.

The past is a strictly unchangeable story, and the future is not yet written, and cannot be accurately predicted, so the only thing you can work with is the now. Yes, that fleeting moment that runs away from you as soon as you try and pin it down.

That is where you live your life, not in the future, and most certainly not in the past. That is why it is of the utmost importance that we take the time to appreciate the now, and live in it.

Of course, by definition, you are not able to not live in the now, but what I am actually referring to is the mindset. If your mind is constantly away reliving past moments and asking “what if”, then you are not living in the now. Conversely, if you are constantly worried about the future and it is making you anxious in the present, then that too means that you are not living in the now.

This is a not a free ticket to act irresponsibly and as if there are no future consequences to your actions. Because if you stop and think about it, planning for the future is something that you can only do in the present, so by doing that you are taking the time to live your life right now.

Final Thoughts

So I would like to leave you with a few final thoughts, and also a book recommendation. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca is a fantastic read. The famous Stoic philosopher warns us against taking time for granted. We have plenty of time to do what is really important in our lives, but  not enough to indulge in all the stupidities that are on offer, and most certainly not enough to waste it on the ten points we’ve discussed today.

Thank you for your time,

Emanuele.