Why Wasting Time can be More Efficient

The Importance of Wasting Time, Part 1 of 2

It is important to waste time. Yes, to waste it. Probably not what you’d expect someone who loves efficiency as much as I do to say. But there are two good reasons to waste time. First, sometimes wasting it is, paradoxically, more efficient. Secondly, some things in life are more important than efficiency. Wasting time can honor those things.

Baby falling asleep

In this post I’ll show how wasting time can sometimes be more efficient. In my next post in this two-part series, I’ll argue for wasting time in certain circumstances where it doesn’t lead to greater efficiency. And in each post I’ll provide a framework for helping you decide when to waste time vs. when not to.

Here’s why wasting time can be more efficient:

Why Wasting Time Can be More Efficient

First, let’s say what we mean by efficiency. Efficiency involves being able to accomplish something with the least amount of time and effort.

Some folks have a kneejerk reaction to the word “efficiency.” It suggests to them a frenetic state where every second of life is packed with activity. Certainly when multitasking (which is possible, by the way), efficiency can involve densely-packed periods of hyperactivity.

But sometimes, efficiency involves not hyperactivity but, rather, slow action or even inactivity. Consider these wide-ranging examples:

Getting a Newborn Back to Sleep

When a newborn cries in the middle of the night, the goal—for the parents’ sake as well as for their kid’s—is to get the infant back to sleep. The efficient approach, by definition, is whatever accomplishes that goal with the least amount of time and effort.

At the first sound of crying, American parents tend to rush to their child’s side. But not French parents, apparently. According to Pamela Druckerman in her book Bringing Up Bébé, French parents employ “la pause”—a brief period of waiting. They don’t jump to action.

The quick appearance of American parents—it is argued—often wakes their baby more, prolonging the amount of time it takes the newborn to get back to sleep. By contrast, the pause that French parents take often allows the baby to fall back asleep on his or her own and more quickly.

By not doing anything—by just sitting there letting some time tick by—French parents are able to get their babies back to sleep more quickly. “Wasting time” is a more efficient means to that end.

Winning a Big Pot in No-Limit Texas Hold’em

Another example comes from the world of poker.

In his book Harrington on Hold’em, poker pro Dan Harrington discusses how to build and win a huge pot when you have a great hand.

In that situation, most beginners move quickly to get all their chips in the pot. Such swift action seems like the most efficient means to the desired end. But it’s not. Such eagerness is often perceived by opponents, and it scares them away from committing more of their chips to the pot.

One piece of advice that Harrington gives to a player with great cards is, “Sit on your hands. (Your real hands, not your cards.)” He continues, “Don’t ever give the impression you’re in a hurry. If you must, count to 15 before you put in a raise. Let them wonder what you’re thinking about.”

Once again, “wasting time”—perhaps 15 seconds each betting round—is in fact the approach that more efficiently leads to the desired outcome.

(By the way, if you want to see a disaster that could perhaps have been avoided by slowing down for 15 seconds, watch this guy lose $10,000—all his chips—on the very first hand of the World Series of Poker main event.)

Getting Buy-in on a Business Decision

A final example comes from accomplishing corporate goals.

Before moving forward with a big decision, it is typically important to get buy-in from key stakeholders within your company. Oftentimes that buy-in can only come through discussing the situation with them, receiving their input, asking them questions, etc. It is often a time-consuming process and can certainly feel very inefficient.

But allowing them to weigh in helps them to be invested in the decision. And that investment typically leads to a more robust implementation of the decision (to say nothing of a potentially better decision and a stronger working relationship with them).

Not spending the time to create buy-in can lead to a quicker decision. But such decisions often fall flat in their implementation because others don’t have a sense of ownership.

Once again, a seemingly inefficient way of proceeding—spending lots of time talking with folks—is more efficient in accomplishing the goal.

When to Waste Time in This Way

Efficiency—accomplishing something with the least amount of time and effort—is very often a good goal. And most of the time, being efficient involves swift action.

But the foregoing examples show that being efficient doesn’t always mean being hyperactive. Sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal involves slow action (e.g., talking with colleagues) or even no action at all (e.g., pausing when your newborn cries to see if he or she will fall back asleep).

The principle that can be gleaned from the foregoing examples is this: When efficiency is the goal, one ought to be just as willing to waste time as to pack it with activity. One ought to do whatever accomplishes the goal with the least amount of time and effort.


In this post I argued for “wasting time” when doing so leads to the good of greater efficiency.

But there are higher goods than efficiency. In my second of two posts in this series, I argue for a more profound notion of “wasting time” that has as its end those greater goods. Read it here: Want What Matters Most? Waste Time on It.

Question: Can you think of other examples of achieving greater efficiency by “wasting time”? I’d love to hear any examples that may come to mind for you. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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