We may spend 3 to 7 years of our lives waiting. Waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for slow internet, waiting in our beds to fall asleep, waiting for our friend to show up, etc. The accuracy of the “3-7 years” number is beside the point, as it’s pretty clear that people do regularly spend time waiting for things and that this time accumulates over the course of a lifetime.
Maximizing cost-effectiveness goes hand in hand with minimizing time wasted. Significantly reducing waiting times sounds like a tall order, but finding ways to make your waiting time more productive seems intuitively doable.
What are some productive ways to spend your waiting time? Presumably, these sorts of answers will depend on the nature of the wait.
I can come up with only two broad categories of productive activities:
1) Thinking about things
2) Doing things
What are productive ways to think during waiting time?
People’s minds wander. Our general introspection usually does not follow a straight line. It follows a loose stream of consciousness that we can guide with finite control. In general introspection, we usually do little bits of thinking about various problems without accomplishing much. By directing our consciousness toward specific problems for short periods of waiting time, we might be able to increase our ability to get productive thinking done.
1) Solving little chunks of big thinking problems
We might want to get some of our important thinking done during time that would otherwise go to waste waiting. It might be a good idea to break off little chunks of bigger problems and try to solve them in your 15 minutes before class. An example of a big thinking problem might be your thesis paper, or your attempt to figure out your ethical views, or figuring out what you want to do with your life. You shouldn’t expect to solve one of these issues in a small waiting period but you might be able to solve little bits and pieces of it each time you get stuck waiting. If you’re driving, you might want to listen to good podcasts and audiobooks so that you can learn while you wait.
2) Solving little thinking problems
I think this is probably the most productive thing to do while waiting. I suggest trying to answer a really narrow question, or trying to provoke in yourself an original thought you’ve never had before, or trying to come up with examples of a specific thing, or deciding what to do later in the day. In my case, I like to think of blog post ideas. I used to listen to TED Talks on my phone while walking, instead of music. I don’t find TED Talks that helpful, but listening to lots of them can introduce you to issues and subjects you never knew existed.
What are productive things to do during waiting time?
Often when we’re waiting we aren’t in much of a position to get stuff done. We’re probably in transit or in our beds or in line waiting to pay. That means we might not have on us the tools necessary to do much beyond thinking. But sometimes we’re at home waiting for the oven to preheat, or at school for our next class to start, or on our computers waiting for a movie to download or a video to buffer. In these situations, we might be able to get some work done despite the time constraints.
1) Doing little chunks of big tasks
Write a paragraph or section of your paper. Apply for a job or two. Contribute to your ongoing writing or art portfolio. Update your annotated bibliography. Build up your LinkedIn page.
2) Doing little tasks
Respond to an email. Look up the hours for the store you might stop by later. Write a blog post or diary entry. Write a stream-of-consciousness paragraph and then see if it inspires any new idea in you. Do a school reading. Take an interesting test. Do the dishes.
Usually, the most efficient way to spend this time will probably be to come up with small thinking challenges that you can solve on the spot, especially if you can foster this with a systematic method of producing original ideas. Spencer Greenberg’s method didn’t work for me but if some variation of it is helpful to you than this should be your go-to technique.