Don't Kill Time

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If you’re okay with killing time, it’s not scarce enough.

Time is scarce, life is short, and as the grains of sand slip through the hourglass, so does the precious gift of time. Once gone, it disappears forever. We all know these things. And yet, at work and at home, we’re so lost in a trance of distraction that killing time has become a chronic disease.

I remember the moment I started thinking about this. It was 2017, I was living in New York, and if I didn’t find a roommate, I’d go broke. I was paying for two rooms in my apartment, and my name was on the lease. None of my friends wanted the spare room, so I posted an ad on Craigslist. Two hours later, I received a reply from a 31-year-old PhD candidate named Mark. My roommate and I invited him to tour the apartment, and since he seemed like a nice guy, we invited him to live with us.

From the moment he climbed up our narrow Brooklyn stairwell, Mark spoke with a debilitated mumble. He had the round back of a slow-to-mature third-grader who dreams of being picked first in kickball someday, but is always picked last. Like Mark, those kids are mad at themselves, not the world. Externally, they’re harmless. But internally, they’re a stew of pain and passive insecurity.

In the afternoons, Mark would mope from his bedroom to the living room, where he turned on Netflix. When the weight of invisible agony pressed hard enough on his eyelids, he’d pass out. Some days, I’d come home at 6pm to find him can’t-even-wake-him-up sleeping on the couch. Later, we discovered that he was taking emergency-room-grade anxiety medications every morning, and drowning himself to sleep with Heineken, always a Heineken, in the evening. Ironically, he was writing his PhD thesis on tobacco addiction treatment, and sadly, it wasn’t curing his own addiction. He was caught between the rock of loneliness and the hard place of an evaporating bank account. Slowly, his anxiety turned into a gloomy depression — not sadness, but a bland disposition where he didn’t feel anything.

He was also late on his rent. He never spoke about friends, and once, he came home with bruises and a broken arm from a seizure.

And yet, as his life spiraled into chaos, he stayed apparently calm. It wasn’t a Stoic, powerful calmness. It was a helpless calm, where nothing was worth doing because the world was too difficult. Perhaps he was allergic to people. He was so burdened by life, and so overwhelmed by his thesis, that the only thing he wanted to do was “veg out” and kill time.

At some point, it occurred to me that there’s a Mark in all of us — a person who can’t confront the challenges of the modern world and can’t resist the allure of distractions from it. A person who is cynical about everything because pessimism requires no imagination. A person so paralyzed by the tyranny of judgement that they close the door, retreat to the couch, and watch others live their lives on TV instead of walking the pavement themselves. And whenever that person surfaces, so does the desire to kill time.

The Desire to Kill Time is Rooted in Nihilism

Much of modern leisure is slothful. It’s spent in a state of passive, shoulders-slumped consumption where we inhale processed foods that make us fat, TV shows that numb instead of inspire, and advertisements that create anxieties that only shopping can relieve. The lethargy of modern leisure says that movement is tyranny, as if humans are batteries to be recharged by the electricity of mindless entertainment. That desire to kill time stems from deep-seated nihilism.

As I watched Mark numb himself and suppress his emotions with a pillow of liquor, I felt scared that my life would resemble his. So, I decided to do the opposite of what I saw him doing, and do nothing but work. I activated Gary Vaynerchuck hustle mode and put all my energy into work, from checking email before getting out of bed to reading an article while waiting for my oatmeal to microwave. I saw a life of hard work as a virtuous one. Though I’ve never been driven by big-time wealth, I bowed to the idol of discipline and poured myself shots upon shots of workahol.

In retrospect, I realized that was something of an over-correction. In my desire to avoid nihilistic time-wasting, I confused what was good with what was difficult, and what was hard with what was productive.

Leisure is Not Killing Time

To be sure, even though I’ve realized a life of total work is no way to live either, my life is better for my obsession with work. You wouldn’t be reading this essay without it. But the work-above-all-else mindset exposed me to more nail-biting stress than I wanted. Now, I’m looking for ways to escape my obsession with work and enjoy leisure time without wasting it.

Work is results-driven. You work towards an outcome, which doubles as the measure for how well you’ve spent your time. In contrast, well-spent leisure should be valuable in itself. Staying active doesn’t guarantee leisure, but it should bring us alive because the heart dies in moments of sloth. If work is guided by utilitarian outcomes, leisure is driven by intuitive awareness. Leisure is not a time to retreat from the world. Rather, it’s a time for poetry, prayer, and philosophy — a chance to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Even if leisure doesn’t require an end goal, we should anticipate that good things will come from it. For example, the Greeks saw leisure as a time for learning. In fact, the etymology of “school” comes from the Greek word for leisure, skole. But the synonymous relationship between school and leisure disappeared in our work-governed, productivity-obsessed world.

This type of leisure feels like a forgotten art because capitalism has a way of turning all leisure into a sin. Instead of seeing how leisure can create wisdom, we think like an economy thinks — as if only transactions can create value. As the great philosopher Gorilla Zoe once said: “My time is money, and baby money is time. I got money, I wanna make you mine.”

But if we see time and money as two sides of the same coin, then time spent not making money is wasted. Thus, our obsession with productivity has the pernicious side-effect of demonizing leisure. But only in leisure can we hear the birds chirping, feel the tingling warmth of a goodnight kiss, or listen to the echoes of the universe.

From my perspective, work and leisure follow an explore-exploit tradeoff. Exploration is guided by intuition. It’s driven by joy and adventure, without a desired outcome. It’s devoted to activities that are interesting, but not necessarily productive. Just as focusing on happiness will prevent its acquisition, aiming to make leisure time useful will suck the joy out of it. In contrast, the exploit phase dashes towards an end goal faster than a shopper on Black Friday. It’s deliberate, mind-driven action, where performance is measured by outcomes.

To be sure, meaningful leisure can look like work. Consider the dad who spends his time building a backyard patio (we’ll call him Jimmy). On Saturday, he drives to Home Depot to purchase 2 x 4 wood and Sherwin Williams paint. When he returns home, he works on the deck. Where his family sees sweat and a sunburn, Jimmy feels the satisfaction of manual labor that’s not imposed by the demands of the market. He hammers his wood, paints his walls, and when a nail falls in the wrong place, he bleeds. Swayed by the dogma of economics, his family encourages him to hire a contractor and outsource the project. But Jimmy sees things differently. His blood is a river of satisfaction. He respects his hammer like he respects his Bible, but smashes it into the wood faster than a Mohammed Ali punch.

Building puts him in a flow state. Hammer. Paint. Hammer. Paint. Hammer. Paint.

But patio-building isn’t his family’s kind of leisure. They prefer to order supplies on Amazon and hire assistance for physical tasks. After all, they don’t like how the heat of the hardwood torches their face until sweat stains their T-shirt. Jimmy’s story demonstrates that the value of free time depends not on the activity you pursue, but on how much satisfaction it gives you.

This disparity in enjoyment applies to all kinds of leisure activities. A friend just completed a 32-mile race in the pouring rain in less than five hours. To me, that sounds like torture. To him, it was bliss. The difficulty is the joy. Likewise, many people hate walking to a campsite, sleeping in the cold, and taking a dump in the woods — but others call that camping.

Work, Play, Relax—Just Don’t Kill Time

Mark was never engaged in any kind of fulfilling leisure because he numbed himself in his free time. But his work didn’t fulfill him either. He spent a lot of his work hours killing time, too — because he didn’t see time as scarce.

As I learned from Mark, the well-lived life is granted to those who shatter the chains of nihilism, and instead see both work and leisure time as gifts to embrace. Sloth is evil, for time is the very essence of life, and only in the afterlife does the clock stop ticking.

Nobody thinks they’ll get old, but everybody does. The Western World’s fixation on work leads us to evaluate ourselves on achievement rather than on how meaningfully we spend our time. As we move through life, we should swing between the discipline of work and the fullness of leisure. But in both cases, we should remember the scarcity of time and never kill it.

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Thanks to Ellen Fishbein for working on this essay with me.