How to Stop Wasting Time

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

Hello, fellow procrastinator.

This is not your average “how to” post. I’m not going to tell you to read emails while brushing your teeth, buy agendas or download calendars. I’m not going to give you some revolutionary mantra or try to sell you a magic timer.

Instead, I’d like to open a discussion on a rather disregarded question: what does wasting time mean?

As a person who thinks frequently about growing older and occasionally comes across the odd video of a 5-year old child who plays the piano like Mozart and then wonders what the heck I’m doing with my life, I’ve spent a significant amount of time struggling with how to make the most of my time. In fact, I’ve often felt like I’ve wasted a significant amount of time trying to figure out how “not to waste time”.

I’ve bounced around from idea to idea and tried it all. I’ve splashed out on fancy planners, made long to-do lists (only to promptly misplace them), tried to multitask, tried not to multitask… I’ve all but bought a time machine.

Yet amidst my frenzy of doing as much as I possibly could, there always seemed to be holes in my day that time would just get sucked into. It was like the harder I tried to get rid of them, the harder they clung to existence. I’d sit down at 5pm to work and suddenly it was 6pm and I had just barely gotten started. I spent too long thinking. I didn’t know how to get started at things, or later realized I should have started differently. I’d end up starting another task when the first three were still only half done. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember what I spent half the day doing.

It was like my space-time continuum had a virus that ate up my productivity.

I’m sure you’ll find loads of articles that try to help you with a practical approach — how to stay focused, do one thing at a time, keep track of your projects, etc. Some of them may work splendidly for you (in which case, yay!). But if they don’t, perhaps we can take a step back and examine things from a more philosophical perspective. (Incidentally, I found this parable precisely during one of those “time-wasting” intervals while absent-mindedly flipping through a book).

***(simplified version of the parable included below!)

Hui Tzu said to Chaung Tzu:

“All your teaching is centred on what has no use.”

Chuang Tzu replied:

“If you have no appreciation for what has no use, you cannot begin to talk about what can be used. The earth, for example, is broad and vast, but of all of this expanse a man uses only a few inches, upon which he happens to be standing. Now suppose you suddenly take away all that he is not actually using so that, all around his feet a gulf yawns, and he stands in the void with nowhere solid except right under each foot: how long will he be able to use what he is using?”

Hui Tzu said: “It would cease to serve any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded: “This shows the absolute necessity of what has “no use”.

***Simplified version***

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu:

“Everything you teach focuses on things that are useless.”

Chuang Tzu replied:

“If you can’t appreciate things that are useless, then you also can’t appreciate things that are useful. The earth, for example, is extremely large and spacious. But even though it has all this space, a man only uses a very small part, that he stands on. Now suppose that we take away all the land that he is not standing on, so there is only earth below his feet, and an empty space everywhere around him. How long will he be able to use the land underneath his feet?

Hui Tzu replied: “It would stop serving any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded: “This shows how absolutely necessary useless things are.”

— — —

This concept was initially very hard for me to wrap my head around, but when it comes down to it, I think it’s absolutely right. If ying and yang cannot exist one without the other, then being productive needs it’s time-killer partner too. Wasting time is completely necessary precisely because it’s absolutely unnecessary. One needs to complement the other.

Our brains are not machines. They’re more like dogs when you take them on a walk. You can guide them in a certain direction, but they need to run free once in a while, pause every now and then, or retrace their steps. If you try to stop these things from happening, you might reach your destination sooner, but I’m sure you won’t enjoy the way there the same way. In a certain sense, if you accept this, you don’t have to stop wasting your time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m by no means suggesting that you forget all about your responsibilities and twiddle your thumbs all day long. But I think life would get a lot easier and more manageable if we accept the less productive moments as permanent and legitimate inhabitants in our schedules.

Cover and divider photos by annca on Pixabay.

ESL Notes (25 words/expressions):

Exercise below! 🙂

fellow: used to refer to someone who has the same job or interests as you, or is in the same situation as you. (In this case, saying “fellow procrastinator” means we are both procrastinators). Another example from Cambridge dictionary: “our fellow travelers were mostly Spanish-speaking tourists”. (Back to the text)

this is not your average… : This is a common expression (just make a search on Google with these words!) to say that something is in some way special or different. (Back to the text)

come across: if you come across something, it means you find it but you weren’t looking for it. You can also come across people. For example, I was walking to the grocery store when I came across my best friend from high school. (we had not planned to meet, we met each other by chance). (Back to the text)

the odd video: you might know the adjective “odd” as meaning “strange” or “unusual”. It also has a second, lesser-known meaning: “not happening often” (this is the meaning that I used in this article). Here are two examples from Cambridge dictionary: “She does the odd teaching job but nothing permanent” (this means she doesn’t frequently have teaching jobs). “You get the odd person who’s rude to you but generally the volunteers are really helpful” (this means that occasionally, but not often, you meet a volunteer who is rude). (Back to the text)

struggle with something: to have difficulty with something. For example, many people struggle with learning English phrasal verbs! (Back to the text)

to make the most of something: to take full advantage of something. Often this is used with “time”, but you can also make the most of a course, make the most of a trip, make the most of an internship, etc. (Back to the text)

bounce around: this is a phrasal verb. In my text, it means that I tried many different ideas, I went from idea to idea (I tried one idea, then I tried another one, etc.). Very often, this phrasal verb is used in the sense of to talk about or brainstorm many ideas: “We were bouncing some ideas around for the design of the book’s cover” (we were discussing them casually in order to get different people’s opinions). (Back to the text)

splash out on something: to spend a lot of money on something, especially things that you like but that you don’t necessarily need. For example, many people splash out on an expensive vacation. (Back to the text)

promptly: quickly, immediately, without any delay. Usually you do things promptly on purpose, because you must do it quickly. In my text, I used it for comic effect (to say that I immediately lose the lists, so fast that it’s almost as if I meant to do it). (Back to the text)

misplace: this is another, more formal word for “to lose something”. People often use it for comic effect (using a formal word in an informal conversation often has a funny effect). (Back to the text)

all but: this is an advanced expression, it means almost. For example, “The game was all but over by the time we arrived.” (the game was almost over). In my text, I was trying to say that I’ve tried every possible option, and that the only one left I could have tried was to buy a time machine. (Back to the text)

frenzy: uncontrolled and excited behavior or emotions. Here are two more examples from Cambridge dictionary: “There was a frenzy of activity in the financial markets yesterday.” “In a moment of jealous frenzy, she cut the sleeves off all his shirts.” (Back to the text)

sucked into: suck is what your vacuum cleaner does, or what you do when you drink through a straw: to inhale air through a space. Here I was making a metaphor that it is as if the time was sucked into a hole: as if the hole pulled or “inhaled” the time and thus made it disappear. (Back to the text)

cling (irrengular past tense, clung): to hold onto something very tightly, to refuse to stop holding it. Think of a scared cat that ran up a tree: it clings onto the tree with its claws. (Back to the text)

end up: this is a phrasal verb. If you end up doing something, it means you did it but it wasn’t in your original plans. For example, lots of students say that they will spend the weekend studying, but then they end up watching Netflix instead. Remember that end up is followed by a gerund (-ing form verb)! (Back to the text)

eat up: eat all of something (informal, phrasal verb) (Back to the text)

loads of: a more advanced way to say “lots of” (Back to the text)

keep track of something: to keep a record of something, to make sure that you know what happened. If you keep track of what you eat, for example, you write down everything you eat or take pictures. (Back to the text)

absent-mindedly: without paying attention. Here are two more examples from Cambridge dictionary: “She absent-mindedly left her umbrella on the bus.” “He went to call his wife, only to absent-mindedly dial his boss.” (Back to the text)

flip through: to look quickly at the pages of a book, magazine, etc. (Back to the text)

a gulf yawns: this is a complicated and artistic way to say that there was emptiness and nothing all around him, except for the tiny piece of land right under his two feet. This is a very artistic and philosophical-sounding expression which you won’t ever need to use (I didn’t change it because I included the translation exactly as I found it). (Back to the text)

wrap your head around something: to understand something that is difficult to understand .You might hear different variations of this expression, including “wrap your mind around something” or “get your mind around something”. The version I’ve always heard in Canada is the one I used. (Back to the text)

when it comes down to it: you can use this expression for emphasis, when you’re giving a conclusion. (Back to the text)

every now and then: this is another way to say sometimes or once in a while. (Back to the text)

by no means: an advanced way to say not at all. (Back to the text)

twiddle your thumbs: to do nothing for a period of time, usually while you are waiting for something to happen. Another example: “I arrived early for the meeting so I was twiddling my thumbs for half an hour.“(Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • Is there anything in your life that’s special? (your hometown, a person or professional you know, a museum you like, an author or book, an event, a restaurant or food, etc.) Talk about it by starting with “___ is not your average…” and then explaining by giving reasons and details. For example, “Paris is not your average metropolitan city. It has dozens of tourist attractions, museums, and it’s one of the most visited cities in the world.”
  • Do you ever come across people you know in your neighborhood, or on your way to work, or when you’re out in the city? When you clean your house, do you come across any items you thought you lost?
  • Think about something you don’t do often. Make a sentence using “the odd…”. For example, “I don’t really go to the cinema, but I watch the odd romantic comedy at home on Netflix”.
  • What part of learning English do you struggle with the most? (remember to use the gerund! for example, “many people struggle with learning phrasal verbs”). Do people struggle with learning your native language too? What specifically?
  • What does it mean to you personally to make the most of your free time? (if you make the most of your free time, to you does that mean that you spend it relaxing, or working, or studying, etc…?). Do you feel like you make the most of your weekends usually?
  • When you’re planning a vacation with a friend or loved one, how do you like to bounce around ideas? (in a cafe, over a glass of wine at home, etc.)
  • Is there any item that you splash out on? (clothes, food, accessories, makeup, trips, books…?)
  • Do you reply to all your emails, text messages, voicemail messages, etc. promptly?
  • Did you misplace anything recently?
  • Did you ever all but miss a flight while traveling? If not, can you think of anything else that nearly happened but didn’t?
  • Was there a media frenzy recently over any celebrity-related event that you know of? (ex: there was a media frenzy over the celebrity wedding…)
  • What did you plan to do last weekend? What did you end up doing? Do you often end up doing things that were not in your plans?
  • When you were a child, did you always eat up your vegetables?
  • Are there loads of tourists in your city? What about bars, foreign-food restaurants, shopping malls, museums, touristic attractions?
  • Do you keep track of how much money you spend in a week? What about what you eat in a typical day?
  • Do you ever eat junk food absent-mindedly?
  • When you go to the bookstore, do you flip through books that look interesting? (or do you just look at the front cover or read the back cover?) When you are in a waiting room, do you flip through the magazines that are there?
  • What’s something that’s hard for you to wrap your head around? (common difficult subjects are politics, how the economy works, English phrasal verbs, etc..)
  • What is a hobby that you don’t have time to do often, but try to do every now and then?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! 🙂

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