My parents never let me waste dinner. Stuffed, usually on butter naan and vegetable curry, I always spooned my leftovers into Tupperware for another day. They approached childhood activities in the same way: My after-school schedule was back-to-back car rides between soccer, debate, church, and tutoring. From my mother and father, I learned that I shouldn’t waste a thing—not food, not a plastic bag (given the hundreds under our sink), not a single hour on this earth.
This old lesson applies to Columbia, where we’re constantly worried about wasting time. Any second away from our readings, problem sets, applications, or extracurriculars, weighs down upon us. We’re Fordists removed from the assembly line, but still obsessed with reducing the amount of time lost to unproductive action.
Think about the last time you were in Hamilton Hall, stymied by the sluggish crowd before you. Were most people glued to devices, checking Instagram, Snapchat, their texts? Ironically, this wastes enormous amounts of time (not to mention the irritatingly clogged stairwell), but we pretend otherwise. We persuade ourselves that these are substantive activities—we’re multitasking and accomplishing something!
Perpetual purpose has become the fundamentally modern condition. The ratio between the amount to do and the time to complete them continues to skew. This particularly distresses Columbia students. Consider a typical weekday: gym, bagel at Nussbaum, classes, meeting with professors, lunch, more classes, study group, mentoring kids in Harlem, a cappella practice, dinner, lab hours in Mudd, club meetings, more studying. We have a finite college career in which to complete the University’s infinite offerings. It’s no wonder many choose ‘friends With benefits’ over time-consuming relationships.
To manage our hectic schedules, Columbians employ tools for efficiency. We determine the lowest exam score that ensures an A in the class. We download apps that calibrate a perfect sleep cycle. We strip texts of their rich meaning for pithy quotes that hit a paper’s 1,500-word minimum. Wasted time is the enemy; productivity is a better ally than any NATO member country.
It’s as though we’ve turned being a student into a profession. There needs to be a defensible reason for doing something, even socializing. We binge-watch Netflix and binge-drink at Alpha Delta Phi because we’ve decided our limited energy must be spent in structured order. There mustn’t be any period of unproductivity.
We forget that lost time is just an inherent aspect of life. A certain part of every day will be spent on blinking, eating, passing between our dorm and the next class. And yet, we sometimes shirk basic hygiene, even seeing our friends, because there is “so much to do, so little time.”
Columbians just don’t question this state of affairs enough. I mean, have we really considered living any other way? We say we’re happy, according researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss in Millennials Rising. We describe ourselves as wholesome precisely because we are hardworking and industrious.
But I think it’s because we’re unaccustomed to boredom. Between digital screens and continuous activity, we have become untrained in material deprivation, unacquainted with moderation, and most terribly, we know nothing of nothingness. We are more active than our ancestors... but we are more afraid of inaction. We have come to believe that boredom is not natural, and that it should be avoided through a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of work and play. Having no truly idle time, we’re unfamiliar with the quaint and unexpected.
Remember when we were young, sitting in a lobby or in the backseat when there wasn’t music playing in the car? It was agony. We had to be quiet, and wait, and wait, and wait (without an iPhone). But it wasn’t a sin. The capacity to be bored was a skill, a cultivated prudence. As Bertrand Russell writes in The Conquest of Happiness, imagination and capacity develop from boredom. Too much stimuli—much like our devotion to ceaseless productivity—make us “incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.”
We need to embrace doing nothing, even for a few minutes. Listen to the laborious ticking of a clock, the scratching of pens, tapping keystrokes. The rain drumming at the windowsill and the periodic swoosh of a passing bus. By putting everything down and meandering, doing something where the return on investment is unclear, we can rediscover pleasure in the little things.
Revel in boredom. Waste time. After all, every great book includes boring portions, and all great lives contain some uninteresting stretches. Happiness isn’t found in endless movement, but in the sincere joy of inaction and indirection.
Nikita Singareddy is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and concentrating in statistics. She is the former president of the Roosevelt Institute. For irreverent political and social commentary, follow her on Twitter: @singareddynm. Nik’s Declassified School Survival Guide runs alternate Tuesdays.
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