Alan Lightman On Wasting Time

by Anitra Pavlico

For millennia, humans have had a tradition of introspection and meditation. The Buddhist Dhammapada says that when a monk goes into an “empty place” and calms his mind, he experiences “a delight that transcends that of men.” The ancient Greeks exhorted one to know thyself. Montaigne wrote that the “solitude that I love and advocate is chiefly a matter of drawing my feelings and thoughts back into myself.” This was not so easy even in quieter times, but in the wired era, it has become almost impossible. When Bertrand Russell wrote his essay “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932, the threat to downtime and self-fulfillment was work: “I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” This is still valid, as we work more than ever despite skyrocketing productivity thanks to technological advances. The trouble today, however, is that even our supposed leisure hours are spent on the grid, essentially ensuring that we never get a moment’s rest.

Over the past few years, numerous books and articles have sounded the alarm on how our online habits are affecting our mental health. Even individuals in the tech industry–including Tim Cook, the Apple CEO who prefers that his nephew not use social media, and Tristan Harris, former Google employee and founder of Time Well Spent, a group advocating for more sensible use of online tools—are joining the chorus. Against this backdrop, physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifesto, In Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time.

Lightman starts his book with an anecdote from his recent time in a rural village in Cambodia. When he asked a villager how long it took her to bike daily to the market ten miles away to barter for food and goods, she replied that she had never thought about it. Lightman is “startled” at this, and jealous. He points out that we in the “developed” world (his scare quotes) have carved up our days into minuscule portions, not a single one to be wasted. He admits that “from the instant I open my eyes in the morning until I turn out the lights at night, I am at work on some project. First thing in the morning, I check my email. For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers.” As I suspected from reading his accomplishments on the book jacket: This man does not waste much time. At the time of writing the book, however, he had only owned a smartphone for four months, so was able to speak to the effects of the device on his life with a sense of novelty.

Lightman likens the pervasive feeling that we must stay connected at all times to the invisible authority in Kafka’s The Trial, but without the explicit authority, only a ubiquitous mentality. He argues that we need to develop a new “habit of mind” to allow us to disconnect, and to learn again how to contemplate and reflect.

Scientific developments support his argument that quiet time is essential. The most interesting parts of In Praise of Wasting Time discuss the role of undisturbed, unstructured time in creative breakthroughs. Lightman cites notorious time-waster Albert Einstein, who believed that “it is unquestionable that our thinking goes on . . . to a considerable degree unconsciously.” Lightman notes that German psychiatrist and physicist Hans Berger, the inventor of the electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical activity of the brain, found that the brain is always active, whether engaged or at rest. In fact, it only uses about five percent less energy when resting compared to when it is actively working. This may be a comfort to those of us who have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing.

Lightman points to several productive, creative individuals who routinely had unstructured time in their days. A fellow physicist at MIT, Paul Schechter, used to sit for hours daydreaming on park benches, which he credited with helping come up with important ideas, including a formula for the number of galaxies with different luminosities. Gertrude Stein used to drive around in the country every day and find a place to sit and write; much of that time was not spent writing, but gazing at cows. Mathematician Henri Poincaré, after a few weeks of fruitless work on functions, drank coffee one evening and in his sleeplessness found that “[i]deas rose in crowds; I felt them collide under pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions . . . “

Lightman writes that while different theories of creativity exist, most researchers agree that it entails “divergent thinking,” which consists of the ability to explore different solutions to a problem in a random, spontaneous way. According to Lightman, who has written five novels, several books on science—including one on great scientific discoveries of the twentieth century–and several essay collections, among other works, “Divergent thinking does not cooperate on demand. It is not easily summoned. It does not follow the clock. It cannot be rushed. It withers and fades under external schedules and noise and assignments.”

It is one thing for adults to experience negative effects from unbroken connection to the grid. The more distressing phenomenon is its effects on children. Lightman looks at the increase in mental health issues for young people and draws a connection to the virtual reality that the digital world creates, which many children and adolescents have grown up thinking is normal. He quotes Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, who says that young people are “in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from.” According to one study, feelings of loneliness in middle- and high-schoolers have dramatically increased starting in 2007, around the time the iPhone was introduced. The harmless-sounding FOMO acronym for the “fear of missing out” that plagues young people makes light of an ominous reality.

Lightman feels we are in a “dire” situation:

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentless driven by the speed, noise, and artificial urgency of the wired world.

He suggests that we need to develop new mental habits that allow us to reintroduce stillness, solitude, slowness, and personal reflection into our lives. Inspired by biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson’s proposal that half of our planet should be designated as conservation land, Lightman suggests that “half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection.” He has a few proposals, including a ten-minute period of silence for K-12 students during the school day; “introspective intensive” college courses featuring lighter reading loads and increased emphasis on creative essays or other introspective assignments; a “quiet room” in the workplace; and an “unplugged” hour during family dinnertime.

Skeptics may say Lightman is overreacting. The benefits of technology are well documented. People truly do seem to love being on their phones. Social media allows us to stay in touch with family and friends far away, and so on. But that doesn’t mean we need to be cyborgs, virtually welded to the grid. If you have ever lamented that you can’t seem to find a moment to clear your mind, that you can’t sleep, your kids can’t sleep, and that you keep reaching for your phone, I recommend the compelling, beautifully-written In Praise of Wasting Time.