140. Are you wasting time usefully?

Rama Nimmagadda
5 min readDec 1, 2023
Photo by Prateek Kumar Rohatgi, taken in 2020, at Dudhwa National Park, India

“Taking a break can lead to breakthroughs.” ― Russell Eric Dobda

My daughter mentioned recently that taking breaks and using that time to set her room in order, has actually helped her perform better in her class tests. I generally encourage her to take breaks from study-preparation by going for walks and such but discourage her from wasting break-time on things such as “Instagram” reels. I also encourage her to sleep well and for long hours. This may sound reasonable and actually bland but this is in stark contrast to how I lived most of my life. I used to think that breaks were a waste of time and sleep can be sacrificed on the altar of maximizing value.

It seems like an obsessive fascination for maximizing efficiency has taken root in the modern psyche (more on this here). Most people would like to derive maximum value out of the limited lifetimes. Breaks, particularly unscheduled ones, are generally considered a waste of time.

“It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze…” ― Seneca

In the not-too-distant past, before the advent of the internet and mobile phones, many people used to interact informally with their neighbours, friends and/or colleagues with no set agenda. People also used to while away their time in leisurely activities such as reading newspapers (newspapers were sensation seeking at that time too but not obsessed with creating “facts”), periodicals/newsletters, and occasionally, even meet relatives. I am not trying to glorify the past here. My point is that in the pre-internet era, there used to be ample opportunities of unstructured outlets for spending time and also there was lesser preoccupation with efficiency. The post internet world gave rise to the era of attention engineering — internet companies vie for our attention and have become experts at capturing and monopolizing our time. It has become much harder to have free time.

A while ago, kids used to dream up games and play. Their time was not occupied by one class after another (music, cricket, soccer, abacus etc). I believe that this helped kids build resilient, enduring friendships and also made them organically more creative. This is what many modern kids are missing out, at least to a large extent.

“Once a year, go somewhere you have never been before.” ― Dalai Lama

If you have not yet read Mathew Walker’s book called “Why we Sleep”, please do — it could end up saving your life, literally. It is a book on all things “sleeping” written for lay people. I fully understood the importance of sleep only upon reading that book. During sleep, our body works on repairing and growing our muscles and our brain organizes and consolidates memory and moves important bits of information from working memory to long term storage. In this process, our brain also connects seemingly disparate pieces of information, sometimes resulting in sudden emergence of creative solutions to nagging, difficult problems. While it may be fashionable to say that life is too short to waste on sleep, sleeping is anything but a waste. Sleep must be amongst the most effective and efficient “active” recovery mechanism that humans ever engage in.

Sleep is a very useful way to “waste” time because it is active with subconscious activity, but passive with regards to conscious activity. I believe that this dichotomy of active and passive is critical for something to be an effective break. Any activity that takes your mind completely off your primary priority and in turn, keeps you actively and fully engaged in an unrelated psychological and/or physical activity is a good candidate for usefully “wasting” your time on. This allows opportunity for your subconscious mind to assess and consolidate the progress on your primary priority. This hopefully commits your learning and pushes it down into the baseline of your subconscious. Further efforts will allow you to build on this enhanced baseline. Not surprisingly, this is similar to how compounding works.

“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.” ― Alan Cohen

Serious long-distance runners sooner or later recognize the value of “slow” running. “Slow” running feels like a waste of time because it can get mind numbingly boring, often. Slow running is anything but a waste of time though. Almost all fat burning from running happens during slow runs. Aerobic capacity expands mostly during slow runs only, which in turn helps with increasing capability for pace.

Watching movies can serve as good breaks provided, they engage you intellectually and/or emotionally (or put you to deep sleep). Running and walking can serve as excellent breaks. Various other great examples are cooking, reading, playing with children, sports, etc.

Bottomline

“When he worked, he really worked. But when he played, he really PLAYED.” ― Dr. Seuss

In fast paced lives that we end up living these days, taking breaks is very important. Breaks can recharge your energy levels, reaffirm your priorities and rejuvenate your soul. However, it has been my experience that not all breaks accomplish these. In fact, certain kinds of breaks can sap you further or make you dull.

Breaks that engage your mind actively on an alternate priority but keep your mind off of your primary activity, do the deed. On the other hand, breaks that do not engage your mind like scrolling through Youtube can be a drain on your mind.

Do not mindlessly take breaks, for it is the nature of breaks that makes all the difference.

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