Waiting versus Idleness

We spend a lot of our lives doing nothing. Doing nothing is usually viewed as wasting time, and there are two ways it can be done. When you waste your own time, it’s called idleness. When others waste your time, it’s called waiting. I enjoy idleness.  I don’t like waiting.

Wasted time is not empty time. Empty time is meditation. You could argue that meditation is about subjective time standing still. Your productive potential, in theory, is either preserved or enhanced through empty do-nothing.  Wasted time is also not the same as recovery, relaxation or recharge time. That’s about using this minute to make another minute more potent.

Wasting time requires putting pointlessly dissipative activity into it. An annoying argument with an idiot about something that doesn’t matter, that ends up frustrating you, is a good example. You actively destroy the productive potential of time.  I like doing that sometimes.

Many are disturbed and offended by the very idea of wasting time. There is a beautiful bit in John Updike’s Rabbit series, where Rabbit Angstrom’s young girlfriend Jill  accuses him of having a “Puritan fear of waste.”

I used to be like Rabbit. Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with wasting time through idleness. I am still not comfortable with others wasting my time by having me wait, however. I suppose I am not evolved or ego-free enough for that.

Our culture of work is designed around wasting time for others. And it is not just waiting in queues, or waiting for important people who are running late for their appointment with you. That’s merely status-waiting. Robert Levine, in The Geography of Time, has a beautiful discussion of the interplay of status and waiting in different cultures.

I am talking about more deep-rooted ways of wasting time.

Paychecks for creative information work, unlike paychecks for hands-on or routine information work, are not about buying work. A paycheck represents an option, but not an obligation, on the part of an employer, to get value out of purchased time.

This so offends the work ethic of many that they’d rather manufacture highly-energetic and apparently productive ways of wasting time than enjoyable and openly pointless ways. Those who insist on the former love busywork. Those who prefer the latter are part of the  retired at work movement. Stanley Bing is the Messiah of this movement.

Employers recognize this deep-seated need to be “productive,” and encourage cultures of busywork over cultures of retired-at-work. This despite the fact that enlightened employers of information workers know they are buying time options rather than time stock, and that those comfortable being retired at work are more productive. So they take on the burden of creating busywork support systems.

Since busywork is by definition unproductive, you cannot find material evidence that it produces anything of value. You must look for social proof. Those who manufacture busywork therefore, do so in social ways, creating collective anxiety complexes to validate the value of each others output in circular ways.

Those who are caught in busywork economies usually recognize that they are really in a holding pattern, waiting for something to actually happen in their lives. But most of the time, they manage to forget it. That’s why they need a good deal more recharge/recovery time than either the productive or the idle. Busywork is vastly more exhausting than either. Waiting is existentially costly. Fred Wilson once said that the iPad is about reducing waiting costs, and he is right. The device lowers status-waiting costs in queues and waiting rooms.

Isn’t it ironic, by the way, that the industrial age created a proliferation of “waiting rooms?”

Unfortunately the iPad does nothing to lower busywork costs.

Fortunately, idleness costs nothing. You do not need to lower the costs of idleness because there aren’t any. If I ever run a big organization, I’ll have idling rooms at random locations, instead of waiting rooms in front of the offices of important executives.

The non-paycheck world is not different, since the same work-ethic anxieties operate everywhere.  There is enough room in the murky art of setting hourly consulting rates and pricing project proposals that you can adopt any time-wasting philosophy your anxieties demand. I’ve met consultants who bombard their clients with more busywork output than the most refined bureaucrat, and I’ve met other consultants who spend most of their time doing nothing, but still earn about the same as the ones who manufacture paper. For the latter model, you don’t need to rely on complex global labor arbitrage schemes of dubious morality to create your 4-hour work week. Most kinds of creative information work allow you to do so.

In the world of work, the great divide between those who choose to waste time by waiting, and those who choose to do so through idleness, is far more important than the more nominal divide between paycheck types and free agent types.

On the idle side of the fence, I have met many who like 10 hours of idleness for 30 hours of productive work. These are the high-energy dynamos. I’ve also met others, like myself, who like a ratio of about 30 hours of idleness to every 10 hours of productive work. I am fine with people who follow either pattern, though the low-idleness types tend to run ahead and leave me behind.

It is waiting that bothers me. Others usually don’t know how to waste my time properly. I have to do it myself.

Our methods of measuring and valuing time are very primitive. As information work becomes increasingly about creativity and ideas, the time-value-of-money equation is breaking down badly. But those who are comfortable with idleness have an advantage over those who enjoy waiting.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I find it mildly ironic that I am self-validating your post by indulging in idleness at work just now by reading your blog rather than cranking out reports that are the very definition of busywork. I whole-heartedly concur that idleness is the sine qua non of my own productiveness. Kudos on giving credence to the unspoken truth.

  2. in programming it is called busy-waiting, in which you’re spinning constantly, polling to check for some events. this is just as energy-consuming as any other activity. alternatively, you could set it up so you get an interrupt/event that informs you that the other guy is ready. you can go sleep in the meantime, or do something else.

    i lived in america for some years. it is a difficult place to be idle in because americans are very goal-directed behaviour type of people. even their weekends have to be occupied in some correct pursuit that will reflect well in their professional lives, and hopefully show up on their resumes.

    of course we must condemn americans for this, because it is so much fun condemning americans.

  3. I really identify with the line, “An annoying argument with an idiot about something that doesn’t matter, that ends up frustrating you, is a good example.”

    I do not really enjoy doing that. So, I suppose in my case I am waiting (letting others waste my time) and not being idle. I much prefer being idle.

    This was a very helpful article for me. Thank you.

  4. Is writing about idleness, part of idleness? No, it can’t be. How about reading about idleness? at work? I am reminded of an anecdote narrated by a friend. A visiting Dutch professor – his former adviser, saw a man on a Mumbai street, sitting on his haunches, staring at the passing traffic. The professor remarked, you will never see anybody doing this in the Netherlands.

    My idleness of choice is staring into the horizon. By my definition, you are allowed to think during these episodes of idleness, but it is best not to expect a particularly productive thought or a conclusion to emerge.

  5. Nicolas Sakkis says

    Civilization is free time.
    Mikis Theodorakis

  6. Interesting vantage point – some days ago I listened to a philosopher talking about different kinds of waiting, distinguished by the emotional “mode” you are in: Positively anxious (longing), fearful (kafkaesque) or “mechanical” (like waiting for a train). It seems that you are mostly concerned with the latter sort – which definitely has most impact on all our working lives.

    One thing that surprised me, though: How could you not bring up Lakoff & Johnson here? TIME IS MONEY is such an elegant and pervasive example of conceptual metaphors governing cultures/societies…

  7. This sounds like a great theory, but after 26 years of working I find this sort of thing just an excuse for exploiting the labor of coworkers. Folks with the philosophy you describe spend a lot of time telling me that nothing really matters, just do what your told and nothing more, etc. They also have pansy a** desk job; do you think your mechanic, plumber or roofer gets to play by these rules. You would pitch an endless fit if they did. This is the only part of Bing’s work I despise as it only victimizes people down the food chain who need leadership to get their job done and get nothing but this gravy train of bullsh**.

    • This post is specifically about information work, which does not behave the same way as things like auto repair.

      • On the other hand, contract labor like building a house…. you ever hire those guys? Or for that matter, mechanics and plumbers. They have their own way of working on their own schedule, killing time on the job, etc…

        Does ANYTHING ever get done in the timeframe they “estimate,” EVER? And we know it will often go over cost, too…. In a way, not so different….

        Instead of idling on the internet, they’re idling with a cigarette, or sitting around at the worksite, or doing something on the phone or blackberry.


  8. Nassim Taleb has talked about idleness is his work as well, calling himself a “flaneur” (one who walks around without a destination in mind). He treats it more as a way to compost philosophy into morality, but it’s also part of his anti-Platonism stance.

    “It is an irony that the academy does not have a word for the process by which discovery works best—but slang does. I was trying to describe in a letter what I am currently doing: French would not let me. But argot lends itself very well… I am involved in an activity called “Glander”, more precisely “glandouiller”. It means “to idle”, though not “to be in a state of idleness” (it is an active verb). Gandouiller denotes enjoyment. The formal French word is “ne rien faire” (to do nothing), which misses on the active part —so do words that have a languishing connotation. Glander is what children without soccer moms do when they are out of school. It resembles flâner which has this perambulation part; though Glander does not have any strings attached. The Italians have farniente but it is really doing nothing. Even the Arabs do not have a verb for Glander: the construction takaslana from the Semitic root ksl denotes laziness (other words imply some inertia).”

  9. This is interesting.

    I spend approximately half of my work time ‘idle’. This is averaged. There are various reasons for this:

    1) My work load is inconsistent – at certain periods of the year it is very high and intense, and at others it almost ceases to exist.
    2) My work load is generally low – there are many more low points than high points.
    3) When I am required to do something, it does not usually take long. It involves asking the right person (and identifying who this is) the right thing, wording my requests correctly and diplomatically, and communicating the result diplomatically.
    4) I perform a role that is somewhat symbolic – management’s fears are assuaged knowing that there is somewhere there to assist them, so they want me here all the time. However, there is not always a need for my services.

    My question is though, do I admit to my idleness, or do I conceal it? To admit it would be indirectly ‘dobbing in’ on my coworkers who do similar jobs and have to deal with similar levels of idleness. There is a culture of ‘just shut up about it and read the newspaper’ rather than anyone dobbing in anyone else. It seems disingenous to lie to or deceive management so they do not find out how little I actually do, but if I ‘fessed up to it, I may pay for it dearly by losing the friendships of my co-workers.

  10. surinder k shukla says

    I enjoyed reading about waiting v idleness. Thank you, but while waiting involve sa whole lot of emotions, including anguish, desire and a positive askance; idleness is free from them. Probably idleness has no feeling of guilt i.e. of wasting time. My father used to say time is money but as I grew up there was a realisation that time cannot be encashed completely.

  11. WHat. Are The types of idleneSs

  12. Recalls the passage in Fitzgerald’s tremendous Tender is the Night, where Dick Diver explains that Americans have no repose. That sequence has had a tremendous impact on how I think about idle time.