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Dive 56: There’s no such thing as a Waste of Time
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When someone says, “don’t waste time,” you can just feel the pressure to make absolutely sure every second is well spent. But what if we can think of time in a way that doesn’t stress us out? What if there’s no such thing as a waste of time at all? We just have to think about time differently.
Last week, my friend Chris Wong wrote about the difference between “killing time” and “making time.” Is watching a YouTube video killing or making time? It depends on the viewer’s motivation. According to Chris, if the viewer is watching mindlessly, then they’re killing time. If the viewer is watching to learn something new, then they’re making time. There’s some nuance there, but you get the gist.
This is a common way of looking at time. It motivates people to find ways to make the most of it. But it also makes people quite sensitive about “wasted time.” So much so that people will cut tasks that just look like wastes of time but aren’t. And there are consequences for that.
Have you ever seen road construction workers standing around while your car inches by? If you’re like me and most other people, you probably thought they were wasting time. Maybe there are too many construction workers on site.
But construction is hard manual labour. People need breaks, and some of those standing around may be taking a break. Others may be engineers making sure everything’s done according to plan. Some may be safety spotters making sure workers don’t get hurt. So, looks can be deceiving. What looks like a waste of time to one person may be work for another.
It’s the same in my field of software development.
I’m surprised there are still companies that measure software developer productivity with oversimplified metrics. Like, lines of codes committed, and number of bugs fixed. Even though that’s far from what makes a software developer valuable.
The true value of a software developer is in one’s problem-solving ability. But solving large-scale, complex problems is hard. Here’s a valuable tip for if you’re ever stuck on a hard problem in any aspect of life:
Step away from the problem.
Go for a walk. Take a shower. Talk to a rubber duck.
Stepping away from the problem and doing something else lets the unconscious part of your mind work at the problem. Pacing back and forth will look like a waste of time to an ignorant boss. But it works for problem solving.
It’s work that doesn’t look like work.
But here’s the REAL catch:
We ALL risk falling into the trap of cutting critical parts of our lives because we THINK they’re wastes of time when they’re not.
We can only cut out wastes of time if we correctly identify them. But we’re BAD at it.
So, what’s the alternative?
When we think about how to make the most of our time, we focus on our present time. How do we make the most of our time right now?
Or we focus on our future time. How do we avoid wasting time later?
But we rarely think about making the most of our PAST time. Because we assume there’s nothing we can do about it. Since past time is “spent.”
We forget that time is just a means to an end. Time is only valuable because we can exchange it for opportunities. When we spend time, we gain experience. The experience is what we want. It’s what’s valuable. And that experience is valuable as long as you can apply it elsewhere. That’s how you salvage the time that was spent.
Here’s what I mean…
I once told my mother that I planned to pursue a different career. For a while, I wanted to be a flight dispatcher. That got her worried.
Won’t that mean my entire time spent in university will be wasted?
I reassured her that, no, that wouldn’t be the case. In fact, the knowledge I gained from my university studies will never be wasted. Why?
Because my area of study was Industrial Engineering. It’s all about making systems of people and organizations more efficient and effective. That kind of knowledge is useful anywhere.
Now, you might think that’s awfully convenient. And you’d be right. But I also think people underestimate the versatility of their knowledge, skills and experiences.
For instance, my decade-long experience in software development can serve me well in other industries, too. If I became a carpenter, I’m confident I can transfer my problem-solving skills. Sure, the problems will be different. But you can still break them down and identify root causes in similar ways.
Did you watch TV as a kid? If you’re creative enough, you can make the most of those experiences, too.
I watched cartoons as a kid. One of my all-time favourites is Avatar: The Last Airbender. You could say I watched it to kill time. That it was a waste of time. After all, it was just entertainment to me back then. I could’ve been studying for school instead.
But Avatar offered life lessons that resonated with me. So much so, I referenced it in a few editions of my newsletter.
I even learned some new storytelling techniques by rewatching the series recently. If I hadn’t watched it as a kid as pure entertainment, I might not have (re-)watched it as an adult. I wouldn’t have had this learning opportunity.
So, when I watched Avatar as a kid, was I “killing time,” or “making time”?
I don’t know how to answer that question. But maybe there’s no such thing as “wasted time” at all.
If you accidentally buy cocoa powder and throw it away, then it’s a waste. But if you can use it to make chocolate cookies, then it’s no longer a waste.
It’s the same with time.
Your time is never wasted if you can apply what you gained from it. If you can salvage it.
That’s why I call this Salvaging Time.
Yes, it takes some creativity. But I find there’s always some knowledge, skill, or experience you gain from time spent doing almost anything. So long as you can apply that knowledge, skill, or experience, your time is always well spent.
The idea of “killing vs. making time” isn’t right or wrong. It’s just one way to look at time. But Salvaging Time lets you see time more opportunistically. It encourages you to reflect on your collection of experiences to make the most of what you have. It helps you live a life more authentic to who you are because it’s based on a combination of experiences unique to you. And you never have to worry about wasting time because all of your past time becomes a resource for your present and future.
There’s no such thing as a waste of time as long as you can salvage it.
Try it out and let me know what you think.
Check out Chris’ post here. It’s a fun, short, deep read.
Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Salvage your time. And I’ll see you in the next one.