Glorious inefficiency

photo-88I have been accused, more than once, of arguing that people should pack something into every minute of the day. I fully own up to believing that most people can pack more into their lives than they think, or than they do. In 168 hours, there is certainly space for a full-time job, gobs of family time, exercise, sleep, and Homeland marathons. I also see a tendency to claim we have “no time” when we waste drips and drops of it. Yes, the person who reviewed 168 Hours for the Wall Street Journal years ago made fun of the idea of doing plank poses while waiting for food to heat up in the microwave but you know what? Lots of people wish they had stronger abs, and lots of people nuke a snack for 90 seconds at some point in their lives. These things can come together in a glorious combination.

But as I’ve been thinking about the concept of “slack” (in Crystal Paine’s forthcoming book, Say Goodbye to Survival Mode, she talks about “margin time” — 2 hours in each day not accounted for) I’ve realized that one of the reasons to plan your time well, and be ruthless about prioritizing, is that it allows you to be inefficient when you want.

There’s a parallel to money. In the realm of personal finance, for instance, many people become obsessed with small expenditures: the proverbial lattes, lunch from the deli. I think it’s better to sweat the big stuff. As long as you’re in the financial position where the houses you are weighing are in decent school districts and none of the cars you’re choosing from will blow up while you’re commuting, then better to spend toward the lower ends of these categories. You keep your major expenses low and you have lots of free cash to spend inefficiently as you wish.

It’s the same with time. If you’re not satisfied with how you’re spending your time at work (or at home), then the free hours you control become quite precious. I have seen people who are unhappy in their jobs sleep too little because they crave fun time. You stay up late to get it, because if you went to sleep on time then “work would just get more of me.” (Seriously!) Parents at home with small children sometimes become militant about naptimes and bedtimes precisely because this time off is so dear.

But what if we made this off time not quite so precious?

We can be millionaires and billionaires in money, but none of us truly has this option with time. We all have 168 hours a week, and all the money in the world can’t buy you a second more. However, if you’re spending the big ticket items of time in the way you want, then you can waste time sometimes just because you want to waste it.

I was thinking of this last night when I’d hired a babysitter for the evening. I went to the library for a bit and worked on the novel. Then I drove all the way over to the Y (15 minutes) and changed clothes there in the locker room just to run 2 miles. If I’d run 2 miles during the day while working at home, I could have made the whole enterprise (changing, running) take less than 30 minutes. As it was, I probably spent an hour or more of transition time to get 21 minutes of running.

But it was all good. I wanted to see the evening scene at the Y. It’s been a while since I’ve worked out at a gym in the evening. I drove over to my favorite sushi spot. I did not call ahead to order and get take-out. I went to the restaurant, ordered off the menu and ate it there. I didn’t even read anything redeeming while sitting at my booth. I just screwed around with my inbox.  

Sometimes it is fun to be gloriously inefficient. When you generally like how you’re spending your time, you can feel like you have all the time in the world.

What do you like to do inefficiently? What have you done recently that took a lot of time — but you didn’t care? 



9 Responses to Glorious inefficiency


  1. Nicole says:

    I love watching really addictive TV shows (The Bachelor, Sister Wives, and America’s Next Top Model). Watching these shows while taking a too-long bubble bath and having a glass of wine is my absolute favorite way to “waste” my time. Also, every Sunday morning I stay in bed too long to cuddle with my fiancé and our two pets, and then have a long leisurely walk through the neighborhood that ends at our favorite breakfast spot. I never feel guilty because Sunday is carved out for these activities. Sunday is always my rest day.

    • Laura says:

      @Nicole – those all sound fun! I actually have a running joke of how often I see The Bachelor in time logs. Even from very, very busy people. Apparently it’s a lot of people’s secret pleasure!

  2. Meghan says:

    My youngest son’s afternoon naps on Tuesdays and Thursdays are my goof-off time. He just started 3-day/week daycare, and I’ve ruthlessly blocked off 9-4 those days *just* for work. I haven’t had a regular, uninterrupted stretch of time longer than three hours since my oldest was born nearly four years ago, so right now I love really buckling down without much break on MWF. If I also focus during morning naps when my son is home, I can let myself drift during those afternoon naps. Sometimes I literally drift — I just wander around the house, listening to an audiobook and staring out the window! Sometimes I’ll take the time to start something for dinner, since cooking elaborate meals used to be one of my hobbies, or I’ll linger over a cup of coffee and a book.

    I’d love to get to the point where I’m not working more than a couple of hours on weekends, and would love to build in one “free” day per week, but that’s unlikely. For now, I’m happy with my two free afternoon hours. The long blocks of work time feel like a luxury, and they make those short afternoon nap times feel like a luxury, too.

    • Laura says:

      @Meghan – glad you’re enjoying the nap time! If you put your son in one more day of care, or had him stay until 5 those 3 days would that let you stop working on weekends? That would solve that issue too, and if you became proportionally more productive you’d probably earn back the cost… Just a thought!

  3. Jennifer says:

    If I get home early enough from work and do a quick dinner, I like to just sit down and watch my kids play. Sometimes they want to play with me, but it’s “inefficient” and lovely when they play by themselves and I watch and rest (with a glass of wine).

    • Laura says:

      @Jennifer- things are just starting to tip toward that glorious state where I can be home with the kids and not completely *on.* The little one just learned to watch Elmo videos and pay attention to them. This is a huge breakthrough. I can have a glass of wine and read the paper instead of going straight from work to home-craziness.

  4. Meghan says:

    Laura — dropping the boys off an hour earlier would probably do the trick. Thanks for the idea — I’ll give it a try next week! I’ve realized if I get up 10 minutes earlier than they do and get dressed, and get them up 15 minutes earlier than usual, we’re all ready to leave an hour earlier than before. It’s funny how not even 30 minutes can buy us an extra hour, but there you go.

    • Laura says:

      @Meghan – glad to be helpful! Given how gloriously *efficient* I’m sure you’ve been, an extra hour may buy you the weekends off.

  5. an interesting concept. i have to admit that i feel right now like i CANNOT afford the inefficiency described, at least most of the time. at the moment most of my time is allocated to work, sleep, or childcare. i’m frustrated that the margins seem to have shrank recently (reasons: child sleeps less, work is in a busy period – taking extra call, i need to sleep more due to preg.)

    then again, we have a babysitter tonight and i guess there’s nothing efficient about a social dinner out with just adults.