Wasting My Own Time
Posted on January 2, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 31 Comments
For 2019 I didn’t do any resolutions, because over the course of time I can’t say that I’ve found them particularly useful, either as an encouragement or as a goad. For me, the way it usually works is that I decide to do things, or I don’t, and my behavior changes accordingly.
With that said, in 2018 I think I ended up doing myself a real disservice with regard to how I was spending my time. I wrote about writing The Consuming Fire in two weeks, which sounds impressive except for the fact I noted I didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, because my time management had not been great. So when unavoidable issues came up, whether positive or negative, I didn’t have enough margin in my schedule to compensate. Life comes at you fast and sometimes no matter what you just have to deal with it. At the same time, better discipline with one’s time often means the difference between being able to manage what comes at you, and just having to push through at substantial overall cost.
The other thing I noticed last year was that I wasn’t very happy with how I was spending a lot of my time, or more on point, how I was wasting it; I had a few too many days just sort of hitting refresh on social media even though there was nothing there I was particularly interested in seeing. I love hanging out on Twitter and chatting with friends, but much of what I was doing wasn’t that. It was me just staring into Tweetdeck, watching people get worked up about things that didn’t necessarily have to do much with me. I wasn’t reading as much, or playing games, or watching movies or TV — relaxing things that generally made me happy. I don’t think I was on social media more last year than I was in previous years, on balance. I just think for some reason it contributed to me doing other things less. I think it’s an attention span issue.
One more thing: I’m going to turn 50 this year. I’m not using this occasion to freak out about my mortality or my place in the world, since I’m pretty comfortable with who and what I am, and don’t really mind the fact I’m going to die (although hopefully not, like, soon). I am, however, thinking about how I’m using my time, and how much I want to use the increasingly limited amounts of it that I have, on things that aren’t either useful or making me happy. I’m increasingly finding that just staring into the computer when I’m not actively writing or engaging with friends isn’t actually enjoyable or making me happy.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to do a few things, and I’m going to tell you now about three of them. The first is something I was already doing to some extent: blocking social media between 8am and noon when I’m at home and having that as my prime writing time; that is, when I’m writing the stuff I’m being paid for. The second is relieve myself of the idea that there is such a thing as multitasking, and to focus on doing one thing at a time. So, when I’m writing (say) a piece on Whatever, not to be checking Twitter or Facebook while I’m doing it, which is really easy for me to do and also really distracting.
The third is simply to ask myself “is this the best use of my time” when I’m aimlessly sitting in front of my computer. Sometimes it is! Sometimes “aimlessness” is me doing nothing in order to recharge my brain. But often it’s not. And when it’s not, I should be doing something else — reading a book or writing something or actually walking on the treadmill or making Smudge chase a red laser dot, or whatever. I do have things I want to do, that aimlessness in front of the computer isn’t helping with. I’m gonna be 50. I’m not going to regret not sitting aimlessly in front of the computer, but there will be other things I’ll regret not doing instead.
These aren’t resolutions and I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t perfectly execute them. What they are, is me tweaking my process to make me happier with how I’m spending my day-to-day life. If they work, great. If they don’t, I’ll try something else instead. As I believe I noted elsewhere, the process isn’t the goal, the goal is the goal. And the goal here is to be happier with how I spend my time.
Will that make a difference for you from your vantage point? Probably not; again, what you’re mostly seeing on your end is output, not process (and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to see the process, as it mostly involves me in a bathrobe). The thing is, and I hope you understand, this isn’t about you. At least, not very directly. But hopefully in the longer run we’ll all see the benefit of me making better use of my time. We’ll see how it goes.
Since I am but a number of years older and therefore closer to the end game, I heartily endorse your healthy boundaries. I have some boundaries that have worked for me as well — one being not to bother with Twitter at all and the other not to have FB on my phone — and I’m thinking a “no-browsing on the computer between x and x hours” would be a good one to add! Would contribute to getting work done anyway! ;) Go for it, we will all be the better for it with writing that’s excellent!
All wise and valid things to do with your time, says this 61 y/o. Time becomes more valuable and fleeting as you age. One never knows what might be coming at you next.
If you follow through, I expect the effect on me is that I will have more/better stuff from you to read.
Multitasking is possible when one of the things you’re doing requires partial attention – e.g. sitting in a meeting where you’re not really needed but someone wants you there. I can’t see it being really possible while doing intensive work like writing, figuring out plot elements, designing something, programming, etc. Having said that, I personally find that solving problems with creative work often is best done while doing something else (riding a bike, swimming, going for a walk, taking a shower, even sleeping/dreaming). So there might be something to multitasking for some activities.
Us older clunkers ( me 66) actually take the time to answer ya Scalzi…grin.joke…the younger viewers of your email messages may have many things going on…but it has to be said the older generation from 55 to 85 never had authors of books emailing them any thing at all…( I am being fair mentioning people aged 55 to 85 I think, since the older ones may not consider this stuff.) This is serious stuff and this time you have put together a very thoughtful engaging view on the idea put forth. It has to be read seriously and thought over. You take the time to do it and you have sent out many email…in the past…You not only use time wisely in some ways like this…but also you may be carving out for yourself territory few other authors ever have done before. Means you Mingling with the fans or those who know of your work. Over time there is the danger of not enough time for everything meeting gigantic ego…but you are doing a tightrope walk here or dance…very well with how you spend time…but for myself I think the traveling idea to places in the world is over glorified…really. Fifty years great…but for you and others who have a fan base….its more time put in to travel when you have to think hard on what can be done if you use the media and the internet to achieve meeting them…and then all that free time….to do…well … as in ZEN…sometimes to do Nothing…. End.
Really appreciate your openness about your process, John.
I am approaching my 62nd birthday, and I have to say that I am honestly astounded by how younger folks at my workplace seem to be able to juggle their for-pay tasks with updates on their phones, listening to podcasts, twitting, face-booking, and all the rest. As far as I can tell, they’re doing a fine job with the paying work, and still managing to keep up with all their social media activities.
I really think it must be something about younger brains being more agile or flexible or something, because I find that I have more than enough to keep me busy with the stuff they pay me for. I just can’t imagine doing my work timely and accurately while doing all those other things as well.
So your self-revelation is a familiar one to me. And you are wise to realize this now instead of a decade hence, else you’d be regretting a whole lot of wasted time. Ask me how I know this….
As I’ve noted a time or two (or possibly more than that), getting old sucks, but it mostly beats the alternative.
Just so long as you continue to make time for burritos and pie as well :)
I really appreciate you saying that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, and I agree, contrary to the assertion from Miles above. There is the *illusion* of multi-tasking because like old Windows 3 systems, what we are doing is rapid task-switching. Every time you switch tasks, there is a cognitive overhead and cost — and some switches are more costly than others, which is why I think the myth of multi-tasking persists.
So Clifford Nass, at Stanford, has done research on multitasking. Not only is nobody good at it, but the more people try to do it, the worse their performance on the individual tasks as well. I suspect there are biochemical reasons for that having to do with how memories are formed and accessed, a period of plasticity, and consequent interference between tasks. But I once reviewed a paper for Science that counted the number of times students were task switching during class and compared that to their GPA for the course. Five times or more -> a full letter grade hit.
Thank you for talking about your lacking time management. I feel a lot better about my own epic time management fails last year.
Avoid the Hallmark channels or you will find a great new way to relax and do nothing productive. Seen so many Hallmark Christmas movies the last two months that I could write a screenplay for the next one in my sleep.
When I was 50, my son turned 15. On his birthday I asked him how it felt to be half-way to 30. He replied, I don’t know. How does it feel to be half-way to dead?
I think you got the better deal. My son is now all the way to 30.
Thank you for this.
I know for me, I was frantically flailing around, searching for distractions from the trash fire that was Washington D.C. in 2018. Some of those distractions were less than helpful.
And I agree with all the commenters who say that multitasking is a myth.
I for one am happy for you to do what results in the best books you can write. Because everything else you do online is kinda marketing and just fun, I’ll bet.
Thank you for being here. Best to you and your family in the new year.
(And I forgot to mention that I still go directly to Whatever’s actual site to read. I know. I am a fossil. I will be 58 this year, which seems impossible but true. My older son is Athena’s age and I have another one two years behind them.)
Do the things you want to do, and can do, now!, at 50, but put off because you will surely be able to do them a few years later.
I’ve read these posts for the longest time and have never commented, but I had to throw a coin in the cap for in for this one.
A perfect sentiment to ring in 2019.
I, for one, still carry a flip phone and have no social media accounts. A big part of being human is seeking newness… scrolling through the murky, electronically-lit, thousand-chartered waters is not usually the best path to enlightenment. A fine lesson in self-realization here.
I just read an excellent discussion about the difference between using activities for:
– A pleasant experience to look back on
Good luck! Changing habits is hard but ultimately very worth it. I’m also trying to stop the aimless clicking and scrolling. (And the nighttime sweets!) I know if I make a habit I’ll stick with it, but the habit making is so hard! Ugh. Gotta keep at it!
I struggle with spending my free time in ways that, in the long run, make me happy. I do great at spending my money in ways that make me happy, why is it so much harder for me to do that with my time?
On a related note, the way I think of multi-tasking is that my various bodyparts can do only one thing at a time, and only one “hard” thing at a time. I can use my hands to do one thing, my brain another, as long as only one is challenging. For example, I can craft and watch TV; the harder the crafting, the easier the TV.
BTW, I’m bonding with a coworker over your books … and your burrito philosophy. Thanks for providing a bridge!
I like it.
Time spent out in nature (even if not involved with any specific goal or task) is seldom “wasted.” Most of us, sadly, don’t get enough of it–to the point that “nature deprivation syndrome” is now listed in the DSM-4 psychological handbook. I suppose if you need nature + goal, it looks as if you have no dearth of lawn to take care of.
That said, at age 71 I’ve developed a new skill for the 21st century: multislacking ™.
When I hit 50, I let my hair go grey. Every time I looked in a mirror, I wanted to be reminded that I didn’t have forever to do the things I wanted to do, so I get to them now.
John, this is your future calling.
I was fortunate to be able to retire comfortably at age 57, but out of nowhere I found that I had a broken mitral valve and had to have heart surgery that year. I will not say I had any kind of great epiphany after surviving a life-threatening illness, but I will say this: it’s better to have had something like this occur at the beginning of my retirement than to have had it end my retirement.
Take care of yourself and enjoy the now because you just never know what’s around the bend.
I’ve done something similar, and couldn’t be happier about it. Although I started “the other way around”. I added more and more “I really should do X daily” (with X being stuff like reading, etc) until I *had* to stop wasting time
I stopped doing resolutions years ago. My default is simply to be in a better place, mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, economically, spiritually (you get the idea and I’m not sure some of those don’t overlap) than I was at the start of the year.
I’ve been on a news and social media “fast” for the past several days, because it had gotten to a point where I just couldn’t take it. I must say, it feels good. I feel much calmer and relaxed. Social media is just such an unending stream of bad news and conflict. I feel little urge to go back.
If you have not added this to the plan yet, if you have not had one get a colonoscopy. It could save your life. It did mine
pjcamp: That paper you reviewed for Science concerning multitasking and effect on GPA – was it ever accepted for publication? I searched its online archives using several relevant search terms and didn’t come up with anything among published research papers. Perhaps it didn’t pass peer review.
My time-waster is the comments on Talking Points Memo. The past two years have been isolating, and TPM has a pretty good community. It is comforting to know there are like-minded people out there. Your attraction to twitter may have a similar cause.
I have nothing to add to the multitasking aspect of this conversation, other than I think even trying is evil, but robes… My best days are spent in my robe, and my local writer’s group is informally called Writer Chicks in Robes, and I have extras in case anyone forgets theirs… Men are allowed to join, but they have to bring their own.
Here’s to more days in robes in 2019… :-)