How to Waste Time Productively

How to be productive

Guest post by Dave Doolin

Here’s a cool trick for being productive, even when wasting time. I’m not sure why it works. Probably something to do with displacing or dissipating destructive emotional energy, allowing you to concentrate… by NOT concentrating.

Concentrate by not concentrating.

Sounds stupid, right?

And how can you be productive when you’re burned out and wasting time?

Here’s the story…

Way back in the mid-1990s, I was in graduate school, grinding my way through the last details of my master’s thesis in geotechnical engineering.

It was going slow.

I had to work on campus in those days. Dial up was too slow for home, fast internet much too expensive, and besides, I did all my work on the Sun workstations. Or, the remote terminal to the Sun workstation cluster. (Same difference really)

I would go to classes and do homework during the day, go home for dinner, then traipse back to campus in the evenings to pound away on geohydrology.

If you have written a thesis or dissertation, you’re probably getting that sick feeling in your gut thinking back on it.

Progress was like swimming in molasses. Cold molasses. Treacle.

Some nights, I would spend 2 hours playing Descent, and 20 minutes writing. Then another 2 hours playing Descent, and another 10 minutes writing.

Are you familiar with Descent? It’s a video game that came out in the early 1990s. It’s not quite unique, but there are (and have been) only a very few games like Descent. The premise of the game is a sort of “underground space battle,” where you (the player) rid an underground mine infested with robot bogies of various badness.

Thing is, this space mine is 3D, so you’re navigating in 3D as well. Navigating and moving. Flying.

It’s WAY hard.

It’s so hard that even today (March 2010) on the gaming forum, people ask advice on how to avoid nausea when playing! Haha… a game so awesome it makes people throw up.

I loved it.

I didn’t even use a joystick. Just the VI keybindings, space bar and CTRL + SHIFT keys. I got pretty good too. I have excellent spatial skills. Underground spaces fascinate me. Roaring down a simulated mine shaft through an aperture while simultaneously inverting during a 180 degree spin and blasting bogies… now that’s flying!
be productive
I did this most every night. For weeks.

I was able to turn two week’s worth of work into two months!

I bet I’m not the only person who’s done it.

I bet some of you escape into gaming too.

So what was going on here? Was I really wasting my time? The thesis did get finished (on time), big hunks of it did get published, and I went on to complete more graduate work in a state far, far away.

And truthfully, I was writing and running (and debugging) a finite element code for checking the numerical results against the mathematical model.

I can’t say as I really know, but my suspicion is that the emotional intensity of playing Descent dissipated an enormous amount of anxiety associated with writing a graduate thesis. Anxiety can be quite a plague when you’re attempting to create something new and unique, and you’re obligated to do it on someone else’s deadline. Startup companies in San Francisco typically have a company ping pong table. Same principle.

As it turns out, Descent is the only video game I’ve ever played, and I quit playing right after I filed my thesis. The thesis writing was a sort of incidental activity, like: “Oh, by the way, I should write a few paragraphs before I go home.” In contrast when I put the thesis first, it left me tied in knots; paralysis by analysis.

The lesson – and this isn’t the only time this has happened – is that I do some of my best work as a side effect of something else, and, once in a while, that “something else” isn’t something I’m supposed to be doing! Personally, I think this is part of being naturally productive.

What’s your opinion? Have you ever experienced getting your best work done while really doing something else? Do you turn a day’s worth of work into a week’s worth of anxiety?

What’s your coping mechanism?

How to be productiveDave Doolin can be found at Website In A Weekend, where he will teach you how to blog.

Photo credit: Striatic

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  1. Annabel Candy November 26, 2010 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Many thanks Dave for the fabulous blog post. I’ve also experienced the same thing. I’ve only played one other computer game too – Aperion (a silly thing with caterpillars) and I was obsessive about it during my tough MA studying year! Lucky I didn’t do a PhD or I could have got into a hardcore game like you:)

    Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone:)

    • Dave Doolin November 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm - Reply

      Annabel, I really enjoyed writing this one, and absolutely delighted you wanted it.

      Thanksgiving was so good today, I’m to do it again with some different friends tomorrow!

  2. Lisa Hayes November 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Surfing the web is my equivalent of game playing. When I am totally stressed about a work project and deadlines I find myself online reading blogs .. which is exactly why I am here reading today LOL. Now back to work!!

    • Annabel Candy November 26, 2010 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Hi Lisa, lol. But isn’t it reassuring to see that wasting time can be productive?! It makes sense really and I’m quite relieved.

    • Dave Doolin November 26, 2010 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      Heh… there wasn’t much of a web back then… oops, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

  3. GutsyWriter November 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    I’m one of those that feels sick with video games and especially wearing 3-D glasses, however, my mind seems to become creative during sleep. I wake up and have to write down ideas at 2 a.m. Of course I get ideas from reading and merging one post with another and another, and my overall interpretation. Thanks Dave.

    • Dave Doolin November 26, 2010 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      Oh yeah, Descent would have you taking Dramamine by the fistful. Even in 2D it’s crazy!

      I get so many ideas I have to shut them down. At the moment, I’m refusing to even think about ideas, and I’m not writing them.

      I think we’re living through the start of a new age, where ordinary common people can have real ideas, and really act on those ideas. Sort of a democratization of creativity. Very cool stuff. Scary, but cool.

  4. Kelly Lester November 26, 2010 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Wow. What a concept. Thanks for this Dave! As a mompreneur just closing in on finishing my first year in business, I can definitely say I’ve felt guilty for all the hours I spend surfing the web when I should be taking care of the myriad of projects always looming in my mind… I didn’t realize that some of my ‘time wasting’ was actually therapy. LOL, I didn’t know I actually had time for therapy sessions! Turns out I did, and they’ve been a terrific bargain at that! Thanks for reframing my guilt Dave.

    • Dave Doolin November 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm - Reply

      You can rain money on me later. =)

      What I’m doing now instead of video games is reworking some freshman level computer science. I know, what a geek. It’s so much more interesting now that I’m not supposed to have time for it. (And I never took those courses in the first place, so it’s good to review them anyway.)

      Anyway, happy to be of service. It’s what I do..

    • Annabel Candy November 26, 2010 at 8:57 pm - Reply

      Hi Kelly, lovely to see you here. I love that we have permission to time waste now. All that Getting Things Done stuff can be a bit much at times, sometimes it’s good to just zone out:)

  5. Dave Doolin November 26, 2010 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Haha! I just noticed that picture you found. That was taken 4th Tuesday (Super!) in October 2006 outside the Seibel building in Emeryville California.

  6. Heather November 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    My game of choice seems to be Heroes V at the moment (been playing the series since I was around 8-10 years old). When I really don’t want to be working I’ll go and waste hours on that, then wind up doing some other work ridiculously quickly in the small hours of the morning.

    Very glad I don’t have a Thesis to write though!

    • Dave Doolin November 27, 2010 at 2:27 am - Reply

      I could definitely fix your “no thesis” problem… heh…

  7. Gabriele Maidecchi November 27, 2010 at 1:43 am - Reply

    I am familiar with the concept you describe Dave, even if it doesn’t happen too frequently to me. Perhaps I am getting too serious with age ;)
    But jokes apart, my company has got some “crazy” moments as well to allow for stress to depressurize nicely. Sometimes it may look like we’re “wasting time”, but we really are not. And I am glad you know what I mean.

    • Dave Doolin November 27, 2010 at 2:29 am - Reply

      Part of the reason I have so many little projects in various states of (in)completion is this same sort of thing, a desire to not waste time. I’d probably be better off playing the video games!

  8. Scott McIntyre November 27, 2010 at 1:59 am - Reply

    Hi Dave,

    You make an interesting point I’ve not really thought about before.

    I’ve definitely had times when I’ve had big projects to work on and – yet – have felt that I was focussing TOO much on getting them done. When that happened, I reacted by feeling that they were the last things I wanted to do and came up with excuses to put them off.

    Perhaps by not focussing all our attention on completing a major piece of work, we ‘trick’ ourselves into believing we have a choice – rather than feeling forced.

    It can be good to allow ourselves to be distracted… if it helps to refresh our motivation to do the important stuff.

    • Dave Doolin November 27, 2010 at 2:32 am - Reply

      I get this feeling when the project is too large to fit inside the deadline. Then I don’t want to look at it all. Which makes the whole situation even worse. These days with myself, I’ve gotten pretty good at lopping off the low value junk from a project, and focusing in critical necessities. I’d hate to be in the position with a boss who refused to triage.

  9. Galen Pearl November 27, 2010 at 2:13 am - Reply

    Yes! Now I feel so much better about doing something that is not what I am “supposed” to be doing. I have a great job, but it sometimes involves some tedious tasks. I break up the tasks with other things like playing a game online, doing a sudoku puzzle, or something like that. At the end of every game, I think, okay now I will complete a little more of the task. Your post made so much sense to me–now I understand why the distraction actually helps me focus more on the task and get it done. Thank you!

    • Dave Doolin November 27, 2010 at 2:34 am - Reply

      Once I get stuff down to the super tedious level, I can multitask them. For example, blog maintenance chores across the several blogs I have. When I do that, I can hang out on Twitter and do other stuff at the same time. It really helps to multitask in those situations, at least for me.

  10. Catherine White November 27, 2010 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    What an excellent and impractical post. For over two years I had writers blog, or block …could not for the life of me get anything new on the paper.

    When I took up another creative activity, and began to master that, my writers blog, errr I mean block, magically dissipated.

    I do some of my best work as a side effect of something else profound to say the least.

    Thank you for this

    • Annabel Candy November 28, 2010 at 9:11 am - Reply

      Hi Catherine, interesting. It just goes to show that you can never force things – they’ll come along in their own good time:)

    • Dave Doolin November 29, 2010 at 2:32 am - Reply

      Catherine, I continue to be astounded at our resilience against actually getting things done, and… the amount of work we can do when everything clicks into place.

      I know a few people who can be creative and productive on a strict 9-5 (or similar) schedule. I find it hard to do both. Sometimes, I envy those who can!

  11. Template Faerie November 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    This is a great article, Dave! Not only is it a good subject but it is also written very well and very fun to read! I had never thought that wasting time could be productive, but you do have a point! It’s a good thing to take breaks too, when you get sick of working on something, and the xbox works great for pushing it out of my mind for awhile and getting my focus back.

    I’m definitely tweeting about this one. :-)

    • David Doolin November 29, 2010 at 2:34 am - Reply

      Thanks for helping get the word out. It was a fun article to write, and as a result, I’m renewing my relationship with Descent. Already mastered the first level of Descent II! Thinking about buying Descent III… $0.99 on Amazon for a used DVD. I can hang with that.

  12. Ryan November 28, 2010 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Great post ! Dave . I fell better and comfortable to do somethinlg when i also read the news on the internet. You know sometimes you fell very boring to do your job and you couldn’t concertrate on it and to me read the news is my best way. I also play game online every night after working. It is really relexing and take off every jobs on my mind. I love your writting mate.

    • Dave Doolin November 29, 2010 at 2:38 am - Reply

      I’ve found that once something gets boring, I usually know it well enough to multitask around it.

      On the other hand, if it’s boring and hard, sometimes I need to shut everything down to muster the concentration to complete it. Launches and website rollouts fall into this last category for me.

      I can see more Descent in my future. I forgot how much fun it was. With true 6DOF, I’m tempted to set up a dual-joystick system. There’s only so much strafing one can do using the keyboard.

  13. rob white November 30, 2010 at 12:43 am - Reply

    Very interesting take, Dave. I believe it really comes down to “knowing thyself.” You obviously have an innate belief in your ability to take care of business. People who get things done trust their own unique process for doing so. What may be perceived as a time waster is really essential to the whole creative process. I take daily walks around a pond 2-3 times a day (same idea as playing a video game). Obviously during these breaks I am not working or writing — yet they are absolutely essential for being productive. When we really learn to trust ourselves all of our actions align with our ultimate goals.

    • Dave Doolin November 30, 2010 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      Rob, going out for a run or a walk would probably have been better for my health!

  14. J.D. Meier November 30, 2010 at 6:08 am - Reply

    I think you hit the key … it’s about changing state or how we feel.

    At work, we’ve always had our best results when we added a fooseball table. It’s a great way to change state, and break away from a mental deadlock.

    • Dave Doolin November 30, 2010 at 2:34 pm - Reply

      Strangely, I find I can’t take too much time away, else I lose interest completely, whence it’s *really* hard to get back in the groove. If I start reading something interesting, game’s up.

      Foosball, ping pong, slamming through a level or two of Descent, pretty much all the same sort of thing. Just enough to dial it down a bit, without too much distraction.

      Occasionally, I can switch gears into some code. But that also runs the risk of absorbing my full attention.

  15. C.Kingston November 30, 2010 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Good stuff Dave! You make me want to get a video game, which by the way, I have never owned one. Maybe I’ll hit the local arcade instead (we do have one) so I don’t throw myself to out of whack. I love it though.
    >The lesson is I do some of my best work as a side effect of something else<
    Indeed. And thanks for sharing. Good on you!

    What's my coping mechanism? It really depends on what I'm coping with.
    Truly varies. There is anxiety but that does wind up becoming something fruitful in the end. I always manage to do my paid work, on time, and I do it well (I don't allow it any other way *stress*) but while doing it, and needing to make the deadline, I mess around a lot.
    And that messing around is productive in other ways, just as you mention.
    Occasionally, for me, the best thing to do is to get on the couch and watch anything on the TV. And I always know when that's needed and I never stop myself from doing it. Which is probably why I have seen thousands of Indie films, Silent films, Experimental films, etc… and my friends haven't seen any of them. Pfffffft. And probably one of the motivators to become a freelancer. Yeah!

    • Dave Doolin December 1, 2010 at 6:02 am - Reply


      Descent is totally silly, and you would have loads of fun ridiculing it.

      Interesting about your movie habit. I also read, alot, which also helps channel my energy. Curious about this experimental film thing. Will hit you up on Twitter for more info.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  16. 10 Tips for Blogging Productivity (when you have other things to do) | Website In A Weekend November 24, 2011 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    […] it. You might like it. And you might find it’s not only possible but a whole lot of fun to waste time productively.10. Your secret productivity weaponI promised ten, but I could only think of nine. Since I’m […]

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