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It’s easy to waste time with all the video games and entertainment on our computers and smartphones (Inigo Quintanilla Gomez/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
It’s easy to waste time with all the video games and entertainment on our computers and smartphones (Inigo Quintanilla Gomez/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Lucy Kellaway

With Angry Birds, eBay, Twitter and Facebook it’s easy to be a pro at wasting time Add to ...

All my life I’ve had an intense and deeply troubled relationship with time. I can always tell you the time to the nearest 10 minutes without looking at my watch. I’m excessively punctual; as soon as I wake in the morning I take stock of how long I’ve been asleep, and I always have a firm idea of what I need to achieve each day and how long it ought to take. It may not be a great way to live. It is certainly not attractive. But there it is.

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This does not mean, however, that I always stick to my plan of what I am meant to be doing. On the contrary, I waste at least as much time as anyone else. It just upsets me more.

As a result, I am always dreaming up new ways of trying to waste less of it. I have not played a single game of Freecell since I vowed solemnly to go on the wagon after a terrible binge about a year ago. But such strategies are pointless, as I just waste time on other things, mainly Twitter and eBay. I am currently bidding for two strange military wooden boxes, which I am praying I do not win as that would mean wasting even more time driving across London to pick them up.

Given my history, imagine how cheered I was recently to stumble on an article in the Harvard Business Review called Building Resilience by Wasting Time .

Slightly unpromisingly, it is written by Jane McGonigal, a woman who designs computer games – on which more time has been wasted than anything else. On Angry Birds alone the world is estimated to spend 300 million minutes a day, a number so high I feel upset even writing it.

Yet, according to Ms. McGonigal, it is not all a waste. Indeed, a small amount of time playing Angry Birds can make us more resilient. So too can looking at images of cute kittens and clicking our fingers repeatedly.

To reach this odd conclusion, she has immersed herself in research from neuroscientists, doctors and psychologists, and found that time-wasting can be good when it boosts us in one of four ways – physically, mentally, emotionally or socially.

The first way is easy. Getting up from our desks and going for a walk shakes us out of our physical torpor. Even I don’t hate myself when I do that.

More surprising is what she suggests for a mental boost: snapping our fingers exactly 50 times, which apparently increases willpower. The same result can be achieved in a less antisocial way by counting back from 100 in sevens. I’ve just taken a break from this paragraph to try this and can report it is just hard enough to be quite fun and leaves you feeling agreeably virtuous. In my next break I plan to count backwards from 200 in 13s. I’m rather looking forward to it.

For the emotional lift, Ms. McGonigal wants us to stare at pictures of baby animals. I have never understood all the mooing over puppies and kittens that goes on, but have given it a go just now. Much to my shame – and surprise – I found myself grinning stupidly at a picture of a yellow Labrador puppy. As a further test, I’ve shown the picture to a hard-bitten colleague. Ahhh, he said, the blank look on his face replaced by a beatific smile.

But puppies alone are not enough. We do not just need good emotion, she says, we need a sprinkling of bad, in a ratio of three to one. This is where Angry Birds comes in. I’ll have to take her word for this: I do not dare go down that road for fear of never coming back again. Instead, I’ve tried another way of achieving the right emotional balance by looking at one picture of Jimmy Savile to every three of puppies. I’m not sure this was a good idea. I now feel sick and have had to take another break and go to the vending machine for a Kit Kat to remove the taste.

When it comes to time-wasting that boosts us socially, the best way, she says, is to shake hands with someone for a full six seconds, which is meant to lift our oxytocin levels. I have just tried pumping the hand of my office spouse while he timed it on his mobile. When I finally let go he said he wasn’t sure about his oxytocin, but he did feel he had just been the victim of harassment.

Just when I was thinking of adopting those of Ms. McGonigal’s tips I rather like, and substituting more puppies and counting backwards for the vortex of Twitter – I have just noticed the following sentence: “I’ve made it a personal goal to waste at least four minutes every hour.”

Four minutes? As one who can waste four hours at a stretch, I have no option but to reject out of hand all advice from such a hopeless amateur.

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