Belfast Telegraph

Time-wasting a sin? We all should do a bit more of it...

By Rosie Millard

If you are reading this while sitting in an airport lounge, congratulating yourself that you have arrived two hours before the flight, I have bad news for you. Equally, if you are at the railway station a good 30 minutes before the train goes, don't think you're so clever.

Rather than it being a good idea to arrive so early that you could almost write a novel before departure, you have got it all wrong. According to American maths professor Jordan Ellenberg, at least.

Getting to the airport frightfully early, we now learn, is a bad strategy. In his book How Not To Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths Of Everyday Life, he summarises it thus: "If you've never missed a flight, you're not doing it right."

The prof says that we should calculate the "negative units" of time wasted in airports and try to eliminate them by choosing the optimal time to arrive. This is the precise moment which minimises wasted time, while keeping your chance of catching the flight in play. If you don't do it thus, warns the prof, you will be wasting time.

Now, before you say "So what?", I must remind you that time-wasting is regarded as a cardinal sin. From built-in tumble dryers to remote-controlled garden sprinklers, ready-made food and even the spellcheck on our computers, domestic living has become utterly streamlined in order to protect us all from the toxic notion of "wasting time".

So, I not only lay the breakfast table every night, but I prepare the breadmaker so a fresh loaf is ready just at the time everyone comes downstairs. If I know I have even 15 minutes to spend on public transport, or while waiting for a child to come out of school, I make sure I bring a magazine with me in order that no second of my day can go past when I am not doing something formative and fulfilling.

And yet, maybe we should all be a bit more relaxed about the fear of wasting time and waste less time fretting about it. Yes, it is great to arrive at the station just as the train slides into view, or to swish open a wardrobe and discover a phalanx of ironed shirts rather than swearing under your breath, grabbing a wrinkled horror and praying you know where the ironing board is.

But surely it is just as important to live your life in the moment, rather than working out the optimum time to arrive at the airport next week?

We are all now being told that "mindfulness", or being aware of the joy in the present, is a crucial part of mental happiness. I can't help but wonder if the prof has chosen to ignore this.

The danger with his theory is that in putting every single hour through a mathematical algorithm, life becomes so functional that one forgets that drifting around quite happily picking up a book, glancing through it and putting it down again, is a key part of a pleasurable existence.

Indeed, when I apply the prof's wisdom to my own crammed, time-poor, frantic lifestyle, I realise that the only moments I feel wholly relaxed are when my time-saving devices are nowhere near me.

Running miles along the towpath, for example.

Or sitting leafing through ancient bird books at my parents' house. I once spent 12 hours waiting for a plane at Sao Paolo Airport. It's the sort of thing that would have driven Professor Ellenberg crazy.

I don't even remember having a book to hand. I just drifted around and looked at people. It was good.

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