Are You A Waste of Time?
11 Mar 2016
Recently I got a haircut. And, as you might expect, nothing particularly surprising happened.
But, as I was paying, the hairdresser asked a question. “Do you have 50p by any chance?”
Immediately I sprang into action. I searched rapidly, poring through my wallet, tipping coins into my hand and picking out the right change for her.
She whispered something to me I could barely hear. “Relax, no-one’s throwing you out!”
I laughed and smiled and gave her the money. I hadn’t been feeling especially anxious, so I assumed she was joking.
But as I walked away I realised she wasn’t joking. More than that… she was right.
I had been acting as if I were incredibly nervous, even though I wasn’t. Some ingrained habit was stressing me out as I was paying.
I wondered what it was. Perhaps I had been imagining a queue of angry people behind me waiting to pay.
Later, I realised that part of it was fear of wasting her time, as if she couldn’t wait just a few seconds while I found the right change.
I know I’ve felt this fear of wasting others’ time before.
When I was seeing a therapist, I used to apologise for wasting their time as they listened to me talk. They assured me I wasn’t, but it took months before I started to believe them.
When I see doctors I still have that feeling of “I’m wasting their time, someone else is probably sicker than me” – even if I have a clear illness and need treatment.
When I’m paying in a shop, I rush, so as not to waste the time of people behind me, or the person behind the till.
I justify this to myself as simply politeness. And, of course, it is polite to value other people’s time! I certainly wouldn’t advocate deliberately wasting it.
(Particularly since I used to live in London, where the slightest hint that you might be wasting a nanosecond of time for anyone behind you is met by palpable hostility. Maybe that’s where I picked this habit up?!)
But – as with virtually everything – the opposite extreme is also a problem: we shouldn’t undervalue our own time.
It’s okay for me to take a moment to find the right change in a shop. It’s okay for me to seek help and talk to a therapist, or to go to a doctor, or to use somebody else’s time. It’s not ALWAYS a waste – only if I actually am wasting it.
That’s all I want to say today: value your own time appropriately.
Otherwise I’ll keep this short. Not because I wouldn’t want to waste your time, but… well.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.