How Do We Quantify the Elusive Concept of Wasted Time?

Byron Reese and Scott Hoffman on Our Endless Fascination with the Way We Spend Our Days

We are obsessed with time. The folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary say that the word “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language, with the word “year” third, while “day” and “week” both make a showing in the top 20.

Our fascination with time reflects how much we value it, and by extension how we want to avoid wasting it. And we’ve worried about this for quite a while. Four centuries ago, in William Shakespeare’s Richard II, the eponymous monarch utters the line “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.”

But even Shakespeare was late arriving on the wasted-time bandwagon. Two millennia ago Seneca penned, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.” They didn’t call him Buzzkill Seneca for nothing.

One of the great equalizing facts of life is that everyone on the planet has exactly 24 hours in a day. Although we all individually choose to spend that time differently, let’s look at how we collectively use those hours and try to sort through how much of that time may be wasted.

A logical place to start is with sleep, the activity that takes more of our time than any other. The average person sleeps, or tries to sleep, about nine hours a day. Over an 80-year life, sleeping nine hours out of every 24 means we’re asleep for a total of 30 years. Is sleep wasted time? Only to the extent it is avoidable and is not considered pleasurable. If sleep is necessary for survival or if a person finds it pleasurable, it’s not waste. While the pleasure value of sleep varies, scientists still don’t understand physiologically why sleep is required for human life—but it evidently is. You can go longer without food than without sleep. The effects of modest sleep deprivation, such as staying up for 24 hours, mar your cognitive ability as much as being intoxicated.

Many sleep scientists believe you cannot train your body to need less sleep, and that doing so merely builds up a sleep deficit that manifests in poorer performance, which must be paid back at some point. Some argue that there’s a more efficient way to sleep than in one block, and that our recent ancestors, just a few centuries ago, spent fewer net hours sleeping by alternating shorter periods of sleep and wakefulness—a practice known as bimodal sleeping.

If humans can go without sleeping, the world’s militaries would like to know how. An article in the New York Times, for instance, points out that bristle-thighed curlews routinely fly as much as 6,000 miles without a stop as they travel from Alaska to the Marshall Islands. Assuming an average speed of 20 mph, that’s more than 13 days without sleep.

DARPA, the research and development arm of the US Defense Department, is studying birds to see if soldiers can consistently do the same. Not the flying part, obviously, but the staying awake part. Figuring out a way to juice soldiers is hardly new; the Third Reich’s devastating blitzkrieg invasion of France was powered by amphetamines that kept their soldiers awake for days and extended how long they could march at a time. But amping up armies with stimulants goes back way before even the last century. Cocaine was widely used in armies during World War I, and other drugs have been given to soldiers at least as far back as ancient Greece.

Our fascination with time reflects how much we value it, and by extension how we want to avoid wasting it.

There exist tantalizing accounts of humans who allegedly needed no sleep at all. Al Herpin, who entered into eternal sleep in 1947 at age 94, claims to have spent the later decades of his life getting absolutely no sleep at all. Or consider Paul Kern, a Hungarian soldier who took a bullet to the head in World War I and is said to have never been able to sleep again in the subsequent 40 years despite the use of hypnosis, sleeping pills, and alcohol. Other stories along these lines seem to have been widely believed and reported in their time but are seriously doubted by scientists today.

In modern times, the longest verified amount of time a human has gone without sleep took place in 1964 at Stanford University, under scientifically rigorous conditions, when teenager Randy Gardner spent 11 consecutive days awake. During that time, in which he was being closely monitored for signs of microsleep that might have escaped his notice, he maintained reasonably normal function, albeit with some clear evidence of cognitive decline. Afterward he slept for 14 hours, then ten the following night, and was then back on track, evidently none the worse for wear. Well, maybe that’s not quite the way to say it. He went on to suffer from debilitating insomnia, which he describes as “karmic payback” for his teenage stunt.

Certain diseases can interfere with sleep—in some cases, fatally. In an illness out of a horror novel, those who contract fatal insomnia see their brains invaded by prions, misfolded proteins believed to be able to transmit maladies. For the first four months of the disease, the unlucky patients suffer insomnia that leads to panic attacks and paranoia. For the next five months, they suffer from hallucinations. Eventually a complete inability to sleep leads to rapid weight loss, dementia, and eventually death. The whole process usually takes about 18 months.

Although hardly as severe as in the case of fatal insomnia, accumulated sleep deficits take their toll on us all. Fatigue due to diminished sleep is considered a contributor to the cause of any number of disasters, from the Exxon Valdez to Chernobyl.

How, then, do we spend the other 15 hours left in our day? Of the approximately 700,000 hours each of us is allotted in our lifetime, we will each spend an average of 90,000 of them working in an occupation. That may sound like a lot (and depending on the job you have, it might feel like even more). But, doing the math, you’ll find that it only works out to a lifetime average of three hours a day. Remember, of course, to subtract out your youth and retirement years, weekends, vacations, and for some, those days when your boss isn’t watching closely.

On average, people work eight hours a day, 225 days a year, for 50 years. By a conventional Western definition, it would seem that these hours are more or less the opposite of waste. If someone is paying you to do something, regardless of how mundane, irrelevant, or boring it might be at the moment, it must be worth something to them, and it creates work for you—so we can’t classify any job where someone is paying you with their own money as waste.

What are we doing when we aren’t sleeping or working? In the United States, the second-largest use of our time is actually… television. According to Nielsen, as recently as 2018 we spent four hours a day watching it. That’s broadcast television in real time, the same way the Pilgrims used to watch it. We’re not talking time-shifting DVR or YouTube, just plain TV. And given that nearly a quarter of that time is commercials, that’s an hour a day being told you have bad breath or are balding or that your car isn’t quite adequate. Multiply the numbers out over a lifetime, and you’re likely to spend well over two years of your life just watching commercials. That doesn’t count all the other ads you come across, all the radio and billboards and internet ads. Is that two years of life wasted time? Maybe not. If you value the shows you are watching, well, they have to be paid for, and that’s what you are doing by watching those ads.

TV isn’t even a majority of the media we consume. According to the same Nielsen study we spend 11 hours a day consuming media, which includes reading, listening, and watching. There’s overlap here with the work time we discussed earlier. You may be watching a video at work, which would result in the double counting.

By a conventional Western definition, it would seem that these hours are more or less the opposite of waste.

Of those 11 hours, we spend three on our smartphones. This particular part is a new phenomenon, and it accounts for our rising consumption of media. Our behavior here has been heavily modified over the last decade. Now many of us can’t step into an elevator without whipping out a phone to check email. How else are we going to spend the eternity it takes to get to the seventh floor? But again, we can’t categorically count any of this as wasted time.

What about time spent in the car? On average, drivers in the United States spend about an hour a day and drive an average of 30 miles. Over the course of your life, the amount of time you will spend waiting for red lights to turn green is measured in months. Is all of that wasted time? Conceptually, yes. After all, you’d ideally want to be able to step into a Star Trek-like transporter and just appear where you want to go, right? But transporters don’t exist, and we are willing to spend the time to get wherever we are going. So we can’t practically regard this time spent as waste until there is a better alternative.

What about time stuck in traffic? According to a study of commuters by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, in 2014 “congestion caused urban Americans to travel an extra 6.9 billion hours and purchase an extra 3.1 billion gallons of fuel for a congestion cost of $160 billion.” The same report notes that in order to be on time for an important freeway trip, on average drivers left half an hour earlier than they would have otherwise, to account for traffic. Is this time wasted? In the strict sense of the word, yes. But it’s waste we choose. We could build more roads, mandate mass transit, cap the size of cities, and require carpooling, but we collectively choose not to. Evidently, we would rather wait in traffic than do these things.

Then there’s… everything else. The average person spends an hour a day eating and another hour a day doing chores. Over a lifetime, each of those amounts to a couple of years of your life. Add in another year of your life sitting on the toilet.

We’re dealing in pretty round numbers here, but if you’re keeping score you will have noticed that all this activity, from sleep to work to media and all the rest, adds up to more than 24 hours a day. How can this be? It happens because we multitask, so things get double-counted. You may watch reality TV while in the bathroom or listen to music while doing the ironing. If you’re a real overachiever, you can take a nap at work while a video is playing on your computer and score a three-fer.

So far, we haven’t identified any ways to eliminate wasted time. Yes, you could theoretically take a helicopter someplace to avoid traffic. But for most people that solution is impractical. If you’re making a voluntary choice, based on what’s important to you, on how to use your time, it’s hard for someone else to conclude it is a waste.

By extension, a person who spends all their free time playing video games and drinking beer isn’t wasting their life. Presumably they’re doing exactly what they want with their time. And further, going out and getting a better job would actually be a waste of time from that person’s perspective, since they would be spending that time doing something they didn’t really want to do. They’d rather be at home slacking.

An old joke about a fisherman and a banker has the banker on vacation in a small coastal village criticizing the fisherman’s lack of initiative, as the fisherman works only a few hours a day to make just enough to feed his family. The banker explains that by borrowing money and working longer hours for 20 or 30 years, the fisherman would be able to retire. “Retire?” asks the fisherman. “What would I do if I retired?” And the banker responds, “Well, I plan to move to a small coastal village and fish for a few hours a day.”

As a common adage goes, “the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” Henry Ford, however, would not have concurred. He offered, “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”

Michelangelo might have agreed with Ford. It’s said that after his death a note was found written in the aged man’s hand for his apprentice that simply said, “Draw Antonio, draw! Draw and do not waste time.”

If any of this makes you feel bad, consider that the animal kingdom is full of time-wasting slackers, too. By one estimate, in a given ant colony, three percent of the ants are workaholics and never stop, about a third seem to do absolutely no work at all, and the rest work some and slack some. These percentages may not be all that different from a human colony. Ants also have behaviors that sure look wasteful. They stack their dead in intricate ways, or bury them in specific spots, only to later rearrange them or dig them up and move them.

If slackers who enjoy doing nothing aren’t wasting time, can time actually be wasted? Can we shift down the continuum toward zero waste with respect to time? Absolutely. Let’s consider a few specifics.

There’s time you spend looking for something you lost. This may not sound like much, but consider how often you misplace your keys, your smartphone, the remote control, and your umbrella. But don’t stop there. What about missing computer files, or that website you visited last month that you need to find again? Or that video you saw online? You know, the one with the guy wearing the blue shirt? How do you find that? How about a lost passport? W-2 form? Birth certificate? What about the combination to a lock? Lost passwords? Finding all of these just puts you back to where you were. And as Ben Franklin quipped, that lost time “is never found again.”

The easiest way to eliminate wasting time is through technology.

Just how much time is wasted looking for stuff? This phenomenon hasn’t been well studied, but if you misplace something every day and take five minutes to find it, then 100 days of your life would be spent looking for stuff you’ve lost.

In a similar vein, that sinking feeling you get when you forget to save a file and have to redo a bunch of work clearly could have been avoided. We waste time when we get lost, to be sure. And waiting in lines, such as at the DMV, feels like wasted time as well.

Being sick could count as wasted time if what you got was avoidable. Eventually, it’s highly likely that technology will allow all sicknesses to be prevented or cured. But in the meantime, the colds and other illnesses you get feel like a waste.

What about ways to prolong your life, to add additional time? One candidate could be to take up a physical activity like jogging. Some older research suggested that you could increase your life span by three years by regularly jogging. But if you do the math, you would be spending those three years, well, jogging. Is that worth it? You decide.

Newer research suggests you can get a much better return on your jogging misery. An hour of jogging a week, spread out over four days, works out to about six months of jogging over an adult life, and could add perhaps six years to your life span. Biking seems to yield a similar return. A high-stress life, on the other hand, takes away about that much time. Being happy is perhaps the best medicine of all.

But the easiest way to eliminate wasting time is through technology. We don’t walk up the hill to haul water from the well anymore; we turn on the tap. Imagine household chores before electricity: washing clothes before washing machines, heating a home with wood, et cetera.

While labor-saving devices at work haven’t lessened the number of hours people on average put in at the office, time recouped with labor-saving devices at home has been pocketed, so to speak, and we now have it for leisure. That’s why we can consume media 11 hours a day.

Now, if someone can simply invent the transporter…



Excerpted from Wasted: How We Squander Time, Money, and Natural Resources-and What We Can Do About It. Used with the permission of the publisher, Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2021 by Duneroller Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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