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Spend Exactly None Of Your Time Killing Time

Illustration: Chelsea Beck (GMG)

Here’s a good resolution, if you’re the sort of person who resolves to do good and healthy things and then maintains any hope of actually doing them: Resolve to divide your waking hours exactly and only between doing things you should be doing, and doing things you want to be doing.

When you are not doing something you should be doing—straightening up around the house, taking out the garbage, walking the dog, your job—you should always and only be doing something you actively want to be doing, like reading a book, or playing video games, or pursuing a hobby. Conversely, when you are not doing something you want to be doing, you should always and only be doing something you should be doing. This is a good resolution because it’s not aimed at some specific result that deviates a whole lot from who you are already, like overhauling your diet or your sleep regimen or whatever. No overhaul required, here. You already do plenty of what you’re supposed to do, and plenty of what you want to do. Resolve to stop doing anything else.

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But I already do this, you are saying, as you sit at your desk, not working, procrastinating, avoiding work by dicking around on the internet and winding up on a dumb-ass late-January blog about, of all things, self-improvement. No! Right now, you are not following this very good advice. You are not doing what you should be doing—unless what you should be doing is reading blogs—nor are you doing what you really want to be doing, which is parasailing or skiing or hunting moose in ye olde cowboy game. You are killing time, waiting for either the energy for work or the consequences of not doing work to give your life some feeble structure. Stop it! Killing time is the very habit we are trying to address, here. There’s barely enough time as it is.

Along the way you will need to hone your sense of what things you should be doing. You know the most obvious ones—they’re occupying the margins of your consciousness all the time, bearing down on you and poisoning the time you spend not doing them. Chores, assignments, projects, bills, phone calls, repairs, and so forth. The list is a little bit longer than that, which is both good news and bad news. It’s bad news because it includes things like talking to your folks on the telephone, or listening patiently while your spouse rants about their day, or brushing your teeth—things you put off doing nearly as much as work but which, I’m afraid, must be done. But it’s also good news, because by acknowledging that those are responsibilities, you have also earned the right to take some satisfaction from having fulfilled them.

Sometimes you have the bandwidth and energy to address your attention to the things you should be doing, and other times the thought of getting your car inspected or working out or washing a sinkful of dishes fills you with a sudden urge to throw yourself down a well. When you have the energy to do the things you should do, do them, or keep doing them. When you don’t—and this is crucial—go ahead and give yourself permission to set them aside for another time. But—and this is also crucial, because it is the lesson of this damn blog—when you give yourself permission not to do the things you should be doing, please spend the resulting block of free time doing something good and cool, something you genuinely want to do.

You will also need to hone your sense of what it is you want to be doing. Today, the thing I most want to be doing in all the universe is riding Splash Mountain. That activity, I am afraid to say, is completely out of the question, in no small part because I am supposed to be doing the thing I least want to do in all the universe, which is working. Since I would certainly rather die than actually work, I’m going to do something else. But what? It helps to start all the way out at riding Splash Mountain, because understanding want in terms of genuine desire keeps you from slipping into the shitty headspace of just measuring activities against the dread and misery of work. In almost all cases I would rather be watching Law & Order reruns than doing chores, but that doesn’t mean I really want to be watching Law & Order reruns. In the endless list of things I could conceivably do with a day, watching Law & Order reruns is probably closer to doing chores than it is to riding Splash Mountain. In fact, I often default to watching Law & Order reruns because some part of my brain recognizes that it keeps me anchored in place near the chores, and isn’t so joyful that I can be said to be really enjoying myself, which is clearly something I don’t deserve.

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So it is with scanning headlines or surfing Instagram or refreshing Twitter, the grey shit you do compulsively when you are procrastinating. Yes, you would rather be doing those things than painting your living room—anything, including bleeding from the eyeballs, is better than painting—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth a shit. If you’re not going to paint the living room, that’s fine! But now use the time on something good! In my case, if I start all the way out at riding Splash Mountain and work backward from there, long before I get to watching Law & Order reruns, I will arrive at things like bowling or going to the movies or hunting moose in ye olde cowboy game. Those are things I find myself wanting to do, but rarely give myself permission to do. Ask yourself, “What are some activities that would be genuinely fun?” Make a list! Cross off the stuff you know you can’t do, and then pick and do one of the ones you can. Go to the zoo. Watch a horror flick. Try out a new bar. Read a few chapters of a good book.

It can feel reckless and irresponsible to spend your day bowling or baking or hunting moose in ye olde cowboy game, but a big chunk of the guilt associated with these activities stems from not really giving yourself permission to do them, at least in part because too much of your average day is already given over to tweeting at Jonathan Chait. But it’s healthy and productive to do cool and fun things that enrich your life! The solution, here, is to buy yourself the time to do the really interesting things by first being honest with yourself about all the sweaty hours you waste tweeting at Jonathan Chait. You are a successful and prolific time-killer because you’ve got a selection of ways of doing it that are marginally less dreary and more stimulating than folding laundry or managing spreadsheets, and some inherited puritanical impulse that tells you you’re still close to upright so long as you’re not actually enjoying yourself. Bullshit! When you are not doing what you are supposed to do, do something you genuinely want to do. That’s the rule.

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Of course, there will be any number of times when you are prevented from doing any of the things you want to be doing. The rule is also this: When you cannot do what you genuinely want to do, do what you are supposed to do. Here is a good life hack: when you lack the bandwidth to take on an important chore or duty, you probably still have the bandwidth to make a list of all your important chores and duties. Do that! This counts as a thing you should be doing, because often enough in making the list you will hit on something that requires little enough of you that you can take it on right away, without too much suffering. And even if you don’t, the making of the list will bring you a little closer to addressing yourself to the items on it, and that’s enough of a positive step that when the time comes for you to do something you want to do, you will feel the satisfaction of having earned it, through work. That’s what’s missing from the shame-soaked hours spent avoiding and procrastinating: the feeling that you deserve to have a good time, and the permission to have one.

Of course, you will probably fall short of dividing your time exactly equally between responsibilities and pursuits. Don’t think of that as failure. When you remember this wise practice, when it occurs to you, treat it as a rule and follow it. Ah, right, I said I wasn’t gonna sit here stewing in my anxiety all afternoon, so instead I’m going to go see Into the Spider-Verse. Good plan! You are going to end the day with something to show for it, and that’s the whole idea.

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