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Instead of jogging or swimming or surfing, my usual lockdown exercise options, I went for a walk the other day with the explicit goal of wasting time. Strolling along Sydney’s eastern coastline, I had no destination in mind, no schedule to keep, and I stopped along the way.
I admired the way a rising tide pushed the water up over a reef at the pace of a long breath. I watched an eager puppy revel in a game of fetch. I thought about my kids, the future and old memories. My mind wandered. My phone stayed in my pocket. I did not look at my watch. And when I got home, I felt remarkably refreshed. I still don’t know how long I was gone.
It felt like I’d somehow traveled outside myself, or at least my routine and my incessant checking of the news for some kind of positive update about Australia’s latest Delta outbreak.
My meandering journey was inspired by a book I’d been reading — “In Praise of Wasting Time,” by Alan Lightman. He’s a physicist and novelist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I turned to him in part because (perhaps like many others) I’d become frustrated with the sheer helplessness of yet another Covid lockdown.
This just isn’t a situation that we can work or think or argue our way out of, even if many of us on Twitter can’t help but try. So what can we do? Read, for one, and perhaps, I thought, we can also change how we relate to time. Slow it down. Find joy and creativity in the lull.
That’s what Lightman argues for in his short book, which combines personal anecdotes with research on the way our wired world alters the way humans think, and guidance on how to resist the addiction of what he calls “the grid.”
None of it’s entirely new; the book came out a few years ago, and the downside of constant digital connection has now become more accepted. Even Apple has added tools to the iPhone that aim to help us see, manage and decrease the amount of time we spend on the small screen that guides so much of existence.
For some critics, Lightman’s book is too vague. A review in The New York Times by a business school professor noted that the author “fails to adequately distinguish between very different forms of wasting time,” from playing Minecraft to watching a river flow.
But to some degree, that’s the point. Lightman — whose amazing book of short stories, “Einstein’s Dreams,” imagines all kinds of different ways for time to work — doesn’t dictate how to waste time because it’s up to us to figure that out. Gustav Mahler took three- or four-hour walks after lunch and jotted down ideas along the way. Vladimir Nabokov chased butterflies. Gertrude Stein wandered the countryside, staring at cows.
How often did any of us make time for our own meandering before Covid arrived? Even now, how much of our time is spent worrying about the pandemic, rather than living as well as we can in the middle of our uncertain mess?
“Little by little, we have lost the silences, the needed time for contemplation, the open spaces in our minds, the privacies we once had,” Lightman writes.
Maybe now is the time to get it back. It’s harder for some than others. I’m terrible at unstructured dawdling, but I’m getting better with lockdown-driven practice. For me, that has meant more walking, reading randomly and just sitting still. This morning I listened to the birds at sunrise — really listened — for the first time in months, and their songs reminded me that most of nature does not even know that a virus stalks us like an invisible wind.
And you? If you’re in lockdown or just fearing that this pandemic might go on forever, what if anything are you doing to rejigger the way time and productivity work?
Tell us your time-wasting tales, however banal or ridiculous, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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