Why is it so easy and so hard for us to waste time?
I’ve been lucky to get to travel this year. There are a lot of things I could share about my trips, lessons learned and unlearned and relearned. I could write about connecting with people and about feeling lonely too, and I could write about the discovery of seemingly universal things and also of the cultural clashes. But I actually want to write about something else: time.
Time is weird when you travel. Okay, time is always weird. It speeds up, it slows down; it feels like no time has passed or like there wasn’t enough. Time is weird.
We all pretty much agree that it’s a scarce resource, we only have so much time, but we’re not always aware of it. If we were, we’d probably go mad. That said, when we travel we are a little more aware of it than in our everyday life. We have x days in that location, and we want to make the most of our time there.
The trips I took this year were mostly to places where I had been before. There was less pressure for the tourist checklist. Been there, done that. I was traveling to meet family and friends, and that was really the only thing I had on the agenda. When I wasn’t spending time with them, I was walking around, trying to get a sense of what it was like to live there.
People would say: It’s your last week here, what are you going to do? Last two days in town? What are you going to do? Last night! What are you going to do?
What are you going to do with the precious little time you have here?
My answer was: “I don’t know”, and I actually loved that.
With the best intentions, they’d tell me: you should do this, you should do that. I had friends who seemed worried I’d get bored, or that there wasn’t that much to see in their town.
They’d ask me what I did that day expecting a choc full of activities, and I’d answer that I walked around and sat in the park. Cue the wide eyes.
Sitting on a park bench reading, and people-watching, am I wasting time?
Aimlessly walking around, am I wasting time?
Writing in a cafe, am I wasting time?
Spending a couple of hours in a bookstore, looking through blurbs and colorful cover art, discussing favorites with the bookseller, am I wasting time?
Having an early dinner and heading back to the apartment to illustrate, am I wasting time?
I walked around. I sat and read and wrote in a lot of different places. I wasted time all over the towns I visited. At first, it wasn’t intentional, I would land fully intending to sit down and plan, and map out my days. But then I’d wake up with my jet lag and excitement to explore, and I’d just go.
I was talking to my mother sometime after I started on this draft, and she brought up an article she’d read about the Italian concept of “Dolce far niente”. It translates to the sweetness of doing nothing. Trust Italians to make “wasting time” sound beautiful. But it is beautiful.
Today, there is so much pressure to be productive. We’re flooded with productivity hacks, we’re even supposed to be productive in our free time with online courses, or hobbies and activities we can boast about. Now some of you may be thinking… okay, but I still don’t want to feel like I’m wasting time. Because Italians can be very seductive, they have another concept to lure you in: Ocio Criativo in Italian, Ocio productivo in Spanish. This gorgeous oxymoron translates to productive idle time. Attributed to the Italian sociologist Domenico de Masi around 2000, productive idleness is Dolce far niente packaged for those who need productivity in the title. Doing nothing is not just sweet, it’s productive too! The gist of it is: when we do nothing, when our minds are idle, our brains can generate new ideas. There have been many studies since, looking into how people who sleep more, perform better and how a lot of people claim to be more creative when they’re walking around.
I’ve gotten a lot of my ideas when I was walking, or in the shower, right before I fall asleep and just after I wake up. What do these have in common aside from being situations where it’s a little irritating to go hunting for pen and paper? They’re all moments of idleness.
And it’s not just for Italians. Curiously, the Dutch have a word for this as well: Niksen. “Niksen” means no devices and no stimuli. It’s nothing as a verb: nothing-ing. While not exactly the same, there’s also hygge in Denmark, celebrating the act of staying in and dedicating time to the small joys. In Japanese, there’s Boketto: The act of gazing vacantly into the distance without a thought. In Chinese they say Wu Wei which translates to non-doing or doing nothing. Something tells me if I keep looking, I can find more words like this. Maybe learning to “just be” is more universal than needing to be productive.
When you’ve been running around for a while, the mere momentum seems to carry us on. It can take a minute to stop. It can take a minute to shift gears and shrug off the comments that make us question if we should be doing something else, something more.
This year, on my travels, I learned to chuck the checklist. Sometimes the time we waste is time well-spent.