The Art of Embracing Unproductive Moments: Why 'Wasted' Time Is Worthwhile
Discover the value of unproductive moments in a relentless world of productivity. Explore why Merlin Mann, the creator of 'Inbox Zero,' abandoned productivity for precious time with his daughter and learn how embracing leisure can boost happiness and effectiveness at work.

The Art of Embracing Unproductive Moments: Why ‘Wasted’ Time Is Worthwhile

In this age of endless tasks and an unrelenting drive for productivity, we often find ourselves caught up in a never-ending race to check off our to-do lists, plagued by guilt over any moment we perceive as “wasted.” Yet, the reality is that a life entirely devoted to responding to emails and constant busyness can be remarkably uninspiring. Surprisingly, the moments we consider “wasted” are often the most rewarding and essential.


Consider the story of the creator of the famed “Inbox Zero” email system. The Guardian tells us about Merlin Mann, who started writing a book about his efficient email management approach. However, two years into the project, he abandoned it, opting for a blog post (now deleted). In it, he confessed that his relentless pursuit of productivity had led him to miss precious moments with his daughter.
The problem arises when we become so fixated on chasing productivity that we neglect to take real breaks. We postpone the joys of sleeping in, leisurely strolls, or losing ourselves in a book by the window. Even when we do manage to tear ourselves away from the grind, the guilt of what we should be doing hovers over us, tainting the experience.

Regrettably, this often leads to the least fulfilling of habits: sitting at our desks, glued to our computers, aimlessly browsing websites, neither enhancing our happiness nor bolstering our productivity.
According to Michael Guttridge, a psychologist specializing in workplace behavior, there’s a pervasive belief that we must be perpetually available, working incessantly. Breaking out of this pattern to go to the park can be challenging. However, the drawbacks of this approach are glaringly evident. We end up mindlessly staring at the computer screen, seeking distractions on social media, all while convincing ourselves that we’re “multitasking” when, in reality, we’re spending far more time than necessary on the simplest of tasks.

Guttridge also points out that we’re missing out on the mental and physical benefits of dedicating time to ourselves. He notes that people often eat lunch at their desks. Instead, we should go for a walk around the block or to a coffee shop. Anything to get away.

The reality is that we don’t need to toil relentlessly. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pan, the author of “REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” highlights in Nautilus, renowned figures like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Gabriel García Márquez had relatively relaxed schedules, working five hours a day or less. The truth is that work tends to expand to fill the allotted time, and for most of us, we could accomplish just as much in considerably fewer hours at the office.


Sometimes, even activities intended as treats, like watching a movie or going for a run, can become burdened with a sense of obligation. Guttridge mentions CEOs who watch movies in Fast Forward to save time. While they may catch the gist of the plot, they certainly miss out on the pleasure of immersing themselves in a cinematic world.


According to Guttridge, “wasting time” serves as a means of recharging your batteries and decluttering your mind. Embracing moments of unapologetic unproductiveness can not only enhance your performance at work but also bring intrinsic fulfillment.

Even the much-maligned practice of binge-watching TV shows can be a transformative experience if enjoyed without self-reproach. A study revealed that watching TV is far less enjoyable for those labeled “couch potatoes.”

Ultimately, we all have the innate desire to savor moments flipping through a magazine, taking a stroll around the block, or just doing nothing. Let’s embrace these moments for what they are: time well spent.

This post is summarized and based on “The Psychological Importance of Wasting Time” originally published on Quartz on April 30, 2017.

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