‘In Praise of Wasting Time’ is no waste of time to read

Published 6:12 am Saturday, July 7, 2018

“In Praise of Wasting Time” by Alan Lightman (c.2018, TED Books/$16.99/106 pages)

When was your last vacation?

Think hard. When was the last time you turned off your phone for more than three hours, left your laptop at work, or put your briefcase in a closet for a week?  If the answer starts with the word “Nineteen,” then read on: “In Praise of Wasting Time” by Alan Lightman is needed, pronto.

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Tucked in a far-away corner of Cambodia , the people of the village of Tramung Chrum live with no running water or electricity, no TV, internet, or technology. Alan Lightman visited there recently and, when he discovered that village women ride their bikes every morning to a village ten miles away, he asked how long the ride took.

One woman was baffled, saying that it hadn’t occurred to her to even notice.

Her answer made Lightman think about his childhood, aimless treks through wooded areas near his home and “careless, wasteful hours” spent at a nearby pond, unencumbered by the “weight of life.”  Kids today don’t have that kind of leisure. Neither do adults, much to our collective detriment because, as psychologists know, we need “downtime” to regenerate and create.

And yet — oh, the guilt, when we disconnect!  It even has a name: “FOMO,” or the “Fear of Missing Out.” It affects most smart-phone-owning adults and it shortens our attention spans; teens often “find it nearly impossible to be alone” because of that 24/7 connection they’ve never not had.

Part of the solution, says Lightman, is to utilize “something called ‘divergent thinking’: the ability to explore… a problem in a spontaneous and non-orderly manner,” that mind-wandering, let-your-subconscious-chew-on-it thinking that “lollygags.” It’s that kind of problem-solving that works best when you’re thinking about something else.

Then, he says, let yourself get stuck; in fact, “we should welcome” it. Take a chance to mind-wander, to mosey along memories without a plan. See how long you can sit in a room, alone, without checking your email. And learn to embrace downtime: it’s the best way “to nourish the Self” and gain “necessary inner stability.”

Right about now, you may be squirming. To read “Don’t Work” in a business book seems like madness, but hold up: “In Praise of Wasting Time” could have the work-advice you need.

In the same unhurried, frittering way that his memories fall, author Alan Lightman gives readers ample reason to take that vacation, to put away cellies, and seize the weekend. This is an urgent call to action that feels like a lazy summer day: Lightman seems in no hurry to offer stories to boost his TED talk, making readers lean in to the ideas which he espouses. The whole narrative itself is relaxing, and the research he uses hammers the point home with a velvet-peened tool: there’s no drama or demand to this book, but it’s compelling nonetheless.

So turn off your phone this weekend, for heaven’s sake. Sit outside and watch the world go by. Or get other ideas from this book, because reading “In Praise of Wasting Time” is no waste at all.