On pointless waiting

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-06-10T08:58:56.018Z · score: 44 (21 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

I’ve often noticed in myself a tendency, if I am not doing something immediately engrossing, to find myself waiting.

Waiting, waiting, waiting, not really being present, just willing time to pass.

But the weird thing is, frequently there isn’t anything in particular that I’m waiting for. Getting out of that situation, yes, but I don’t have anything in particular that I’d want to do when I do get out.

I have a suspicion that this might have to do with mental habits ingrained in school.

In elementary school, there’s no real goal for your studies. Mostly it’s just coming there, doing the things that teachers want you to do, until the day is over and you get to go.

In that environment, every minute that passes means winning. Every minute takes you a bit closer to being out of there. That’s the real goal: getting out so you can finally do something fun.

During a lesson you are waiting for recess, during recess you are waiting for the end of the day. Outside school you are waiting for the weekend, on the weekend you are waiting for the bliss of the long summer leave.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

So you learn to pay attention to the time. Human minds are tuned to feedback, things that let them know how well they are doing. And since each passing minute takes you closer to the goal, the passing of time becomes its own reward.

Time having passed means that you have achieved something. Time having passed means that you can feel a tiny bit of satisfaction.

And then that habit, diligently trained for a decade, can carry over to the rest of your life. Even as an adult, you find yourself waiting, waiting, waiting.

You don’t know what it is that you are waiting for, because you are not really waiting for anything in particular. Even if it would actually be more pleasant to stay engaged with the present moment, you keep tracking the time. Because waiting feels like winning, and every passing minute feels like it takes you closer to your goal.

Even if you don’t actually know what your goal is. Even if reaching your goal will only give you a new situation where you can again wait, so that you are never actually present.

Still, you keep waiting, waiting, waiting.

(typical mind fallacy [LW · GW] employed for the sake of artistic license; I am describing my own experience, without claiming this to be a universal one)

6 comments

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comment by Dagon · 2019-06-10T17:18:31.712Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's worth a bit of reflection to determine if you're getting value from slack in those times that you think you're waiting. Daydreaming, reflecting on things you read, etc. all can be very useful, and tend to happen for me mostly when I'm not actively pursuing something more visibly satisfying.

I also have experienced the "just on hold" feeling, where I can see no value and I regret not doing something else. I like to think that's an unavailable-to-introspection value, but it's probably just waste.

comment by shminux · 2019-06-10T15:47:00.087Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Godot never comes.

comment by Viliam · 2019-06-11T22:07:28.228Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW
In elementary school, there’s no real goal for your studies. Mostly it’s just coming there, doing the things that teachers want you to do, until the day is over and you get to go.
In that environment, every minute that passes means winning. Every minute takes you a bit closer to being out of there. That’s the real goal: getting out so you can finally do something fun.

How much difference is there really for an employee?

Unless you are doing the "early retirement" thing, your job is also something that will never be done. Doing the tasks only results in getting more tasks; completing a project gets you assigned to another project.

The difference is that you must keep certain non-trivial level of productivity to keep the job. Exceeding this level, however, usually brings little benefit -- in worst case it only brings extra work with no benefit; in best case, there is a sublinear reward (e.g. permanently doubling your productivity could result in 30% salary increase).

(It doesn't necessarily have to be like this. There are situations where doubling your productivity could result in only working half the time -- as would be the natural outcome of working for yourself. But in my experience this usually happens informally and unreliably.)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-06-12T05:38:24.602Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on how motivated you are to do your job, I guess. If you're only doing your job to get paid, then it's as you describe.

comment by sil ver (sil-ver) · 2019-06-11T09:32:13.421Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. Well put. This is related (though not identical) to the excellent Rest in Motion post from Nate Soares.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-06-12T05:39:18.845Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about that post. Having read it might have been a part of what helped me notice myself doing this.