There are only 24 hours in a day, so why do we waste so many of them?
In many cases, we don’t have a choice. We waste time waiting for the world’s longest traffic light to change. We waste time while Websites load animations, videos, music, and more ads than anyone has time to ignore.
We waste time standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, in spite of how hard we try to figure out which line will move fastest based on a personal algorithm that factors in the number of people in each line who are older than 60, the number of items in each shopping cart, estimated time it will take people to find their wallets and whether the checker is chatty or not. Even then, somehow we always manage to choose the slowest one. Luckily it’s not a waste if you consider being able to flip through the tabloids and read about how many pounds Lindsay Lohan has lost, how many Kirstie Alley has gained and how much money Bernie Madoff’s British clients have lost. (That’s a great use of your time.)
We waste lots of time in airport security lines, mostly because people are shocked that a liter of water is more than three ounces. They forget that their four-pound belt buckle is made of metal. They act surprised about having to take their shoes off, even though they’ve had to do it every time they’ve fl own for the past eight years.
And we waste lots of time commuting.
Boy, do we waste time commuting.
According to Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey, the average American worker spends 46 minutes a day commuting to and from work. That’s 199 hours, or 25 eight-hour days, each year. This is more time than we spend on vacation, daydreaming about vacation, and calling in sick because we’ve used up our vacation combined. If you work for 30 years — hey, a guy can dream he has a retirement plan, can’t he? — that means you’ve spent two years’ worth of work days sitting in traffic or on the subway, wishing you were anywhere but where you were. The good side is, if you don’t commute, this means you can retire two years earlier. (Let me know how this argument works on your boss.)
Then there’s the time we waste — I mean, spend — picking out our clothes. A survey by the British clothing company Matalan found that the average woman spends nearly a year of her life — 287 days, to be exact — figuring out what to wear. That’s 6,888 hours — or 413,280 minutes — spent deciding what to put on just so a woman can look in the mirror, turn to her partner, and ask, “Does this make me look fat?” If we’re not waiting in line, commuting or picking out clothes, we’re being completely non-productive while sleeping. We might get eight hours (if we avoid the late-night talk shows), and that’s twice the time we spend being productive at work.
But sleeping isn’t a waste of time: In a survey conducted by Westin Hotels, more than half the people polled said they’d rather have a good night’s sleep than good sex.
And how about all that time we spend online? That’s not a complete waste, either — and not just because you managed to uncover the e-mail address of the first girl or boy you kissed while in third grade so you can write and profess to never having gotten over them. A study presented at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience found that online searching is actually a mental exercise that enhances brain function in older adults. They don’t know if the same holds true for young people, but it’s hard to believe that YouTube videos of Mario and Luigi Meet Yoda (done with Legos) could be anything but brain-enhancing.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is whether reading wastes your time. In particular, reading articles about wasting time is anything but a waste of time. I don’t have any studies, however, to back this up. You’ll just have to trust me.