The value of Dead Time: why it’s sometimes good to miss the train

Before I launch into another topic, I’d just like to thank everyone for your incredible response to my last post. I always get super excited when people share my stuff and give me feedback (by all means do more of that 😉 ) and talking about mental health is ridiculously important, so thanks for helping me spread the word and being generally lovely about it. If you want to support more work on mental health at Oxford, I was sent a link to this project, which looks really cool. And now for something completely (well, slightly) different… 

Despite the slightly Halloweenish title, this post is not about ghosts. Instead, it’s an impromptu collection of musings about the gaps in between proper activities, otherwise known as Dead Time. A quick Google offers this definition:

Time in which someone or something is inactive or unable to act productively

The most frequent source of enforced inaction is probably travelling, closely followed by queuing. Having done a lot of the former over the last few months, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that, frustrating as it can be, this kind of dead time isn’t always wasted.

The plague of constant productivity

As you’ll know from my recent posts about finals/general Oxford madness, my goal for much of the past four years has been to reduce inactivity to an absolute minimum, in order to constantly feed the great, all-encompassing god of Productivity more tasty morsels of work and admin. I’ve got pretty good at that, on the whole; by the end of last year, I was using queuing time to learn vocabulary on Memrise, reciting examples to myself as I cycled across the city, and mending clothes when I had friends over. All this busying about was very efficient and useful, but not entirely fantastic for my mental health, and I’m still plagued by a habitual sense of guilt whenever I’m not being productive.

The cat has no qualms about being unproductive.

The cat has no qualms about being unproductive.

An overemphasis on productivity isn’t unusual in that most derided of abstract concepts, the Modern World, where our gadgets and social values combine to ensure that every second is spent Doing Something. Yesterday, I came across a quote suggesting that the drive for productivity has been affecting us since long before the advent of the mobile phone. I’ve been listening to an audiobook of the autobiography of Helen Keller, whose childhood effectively began with a long stretch of Dead Time imposed by the loss of her hearing and sight (although she later succeeded in acquiring language). This passage from it, about her time at university, rang very true:

 Gradually I began to find that there were disadvantages in going to college. The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I. We would sit together of an evening and listen to the inner melodies of the spirit, which one hears only in leisure moments when the words of some loved poet touch a deep, sweet chord in the soul that until then had been silent. But in college there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think.

Even for those who aren’t into poetry and are kept busy by something other than study, her point is a good one. Time spent just letting your mind reflect on what it’s recently experienced is valuable, and it’s generally pretty hard to come by.

Time Off vs Dead Time

It’s obviously desirable to be able to take proper time off, where you can just do whatever you feel like; read, go for a walk, lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling, throw darts at a picture of your mortal enemy – whatever floats your boat. But for most of us, even the time we allocate to relaxation is usually productive in some tenuous way. I’m in the privileged position of having a job and home that allow me to just exist for a few months post-uni, and although I now have the equivalent of evenings and weekends to myself (albeit at weird times, because I work mainly in a pub), my various personal projects* keep me almost continually productive. And that’s during the kind of break from relentless goal-seeking that most people can’t even contemplate fitting into their lives.

*These include learning Spanish, writing stuff, exercising (supposedly), visiting all the people I’ve shamefully neglected, and planning work experience.

That’s where Dead Time comes in. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you work nine to five, Monday to Friday, and that your weekends do that weird annoying weekendy thing of completely filling up. Let’s also assume, for argument’s sake, that you have a few hobbies and commitments, and that when you do take time off, it’s in chunks of some kind of specific activity (e.g. watching TV), and that you probably spend most of your time off with other humans. This kind of lifestyle is pretty commonplace in the UK, although I realise it’s perhaps less so among my readers, an unusually large proportion of whom lead strange and fascinating lives/are students/are unemployed (delete as appropriate). And in this typical lifestyle, probably the only time you spend alone, doing nothing in particular, is Dead Time; it’s the time spent in queues, or on the train, or waiting for the kettle to boil.

Another cat, because they really are the species that has best honed the art of relaxation.

Another cat, because they really are the species that has best honed the art of doing nothing.

How smartphones are killing dead time, and how I accidentally rescusitated it the other day

So here’s the problem. Those little moments of aimlessness are being squished out of existence by the devices that give us constant access to entertainment, news and, most depressingly, admin. The Tube now has WiFi; suddenly, the last refuge of the London misanthrope (“Sorry didn’t get your fb message was in a creepy tunnel deep within the bowels of the earth”) is no more. Increasingly, the moments where you have nothing to do but sit and think are gone. Of course, I’m as prone as anyone to whip my phone out the second I have nobody to talk to, but I’m not sure that’s always a good thing.

I was forced briefly out of this pattern on the train back from Oxford the other day, which is what prompted this dose of holier-than-thou folk wisdom about doing nothing. Having carefully planned to catch a direct train home, I somehow hopped onto the wrong one due to a couple of confusing announcements on which I did not concentrate. Only as we pulled into Derby did I notice that everyone around me was Northern, and the rolling hills of Herefordshire were nowhere to be seen. I sprinted out of the carriage, babbled confusedly at some helpful station people, and finally managed to get back on track (geddit?!) with an extra three hours of travel thrown in.

Unsurprisingly, this somewhat increased my day’s Dead Time Allocation, and by coincidence I’d completely used up my phone data, cutting me off alarmingly from all internet procrastination tools. I was left with a choice between sitting and thinking, or reading my one book, Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu (which I really do intend to finish this time, but which is a little too dense to entertain me for five hours straight, even if I was capable of concentrating on French through a soundtrack of many excitable children). I mainly chose to sit and think. While I have to admit that I spent a lot of that time internally raging at my own stupidity, it was quite a therapeutic experience once I’d accepted the ridiculous situation I’d created.

Dead Time options

The point of all this

There isn’t really a moral to this story, except inasmuch as there are many occasions on which we’re forced to be unproductive, and I suspect that most of this time, going by my own example, is spent fretting or staring at a screen. I’m not going to preach some kind of hypocritical gospel about being a perfect zen demigod who never falls into the timesinks of Facebook and Buzzfeed, because goodness knows that’s impossible. I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t try to use some of your Dead Time to get things done; most of us need to utilise all the spare moments we can. However, it’s probably clear by now that I’m coming to see enforced, unplugged down-time as a rare luxury.

Movements like mindfulness are starting to suggest that we just appreciate wherever we happen to be during awkward patches of dead time, and I second that idea. Since it’s usually impossible to find times when doing nothing feels properly justified, we may as well let Dead Time stay unproductive, and keep it empty. So, next time you find yourself waiting or commuting, why not put the tablet down, stare into space* and just let your mind wander for a bit?

*Try to make sure that the space you stare into doesn’t coincide with someone’s face, or, worse, crotch. The awkwardness generated when you meet their eye can kill your peaceful mood.

The end – BUT WAIT, there’s more!

That’s it for this week, except that instead of a bonus picture, you get a bonus poem. I’ve been doing an online writing challenge, and although I’ve mostly not got round to completing it, I did do a sarky technophobic poem in response to the prompt of an ‘ode to maps’. It seemed to fit in well with this week’s theme, so here it is. Stay tuned for exciting news of life in rural Herefordshire!

Oh, happy day! Hip hip, hooray!
For never again shall we lose our way;
the app-less traveller roams no more
and the road is clearer than ever before.

Oh, clap your hands in boundless glee!
For the future’s arrived and it comes for free,
they know where you are all the time, it’s true;
but then again, now so do you.

Technology has reached its summit;
let geography class attendance plummet
and the orienteering scene collapse,
for now we’ve all got Google Maps.

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4 thoughts on “The value of Dead Time: why it’s sometimes good to miss the train

  1. I love dead time! Haha taking time to think about things (daydream I guess?) Is amazing. Cheesy as it may be, dead time for me might be the time when I’m most alive :p

    Great read though! Got me thinking, which is always a good sign that what I’m reading has drawn me in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t drive as much as I used to when I worked as an HGV driver doing 120 or more miles each day but I still find that there are times when I daydream when driving. Obviously town driving precludes that but a steady run somewhere is great for it. My favourite route was the road between Burford and Chipping Norton in early spring – lovely!
    I recall being at College on day release in the 1970’s (pre-history for you!) We were at tea break and I was sitting daydreaming oblivious that I was apparently staring at a full time student. She was rather well stacked under her voluminous jersey and came over and kissed my cheek. Regretably, I was far too embarrassed to do anything about it!
    Day dreaming time is important, its when things get sorted out in the mind, well, in my mind anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Working with your hands: A risk assessment | Just an anglophone

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