Afternoon Inqueery

AI: Leisure Time

One of the things I used to hear fairly often as a teenager was that I was “wasting time” on the computer and on video games. I should be doing something productive, not just sitting around staring at monitors and television screens.

As an adult, people still say I “waste” time on Facebook or debating with people in the comments sections of blogs. I suppose the idea is that I should be working on some goal-oriented project at all times. However, I’m not so sure that I actually am wasting time. I’m not even sure what “wasting time” means.

Where does this notion of wasting time come from? Sociologist Max Weber suggested that the influence of the Protestant work ethic on capitalism stemmed from the different ways that Protestants (specifically Calvinist and similarly strict sects) value labor. While Catholics saw religious life (i.e., priests and nuns) as the work of God, Protestants saw secular work as “a calling” and thus infused secular work with a religious spirit. This meant that working was an avenue for people to bring themselves closer to God, which infused the capitalist work ethic with a Protestant spirit.

To this day, people often discuss work in morally loaded terms. Leisure time is often described by people as “laziness,” which is considered sinful in Christianity. Not working is seen by many as a moral failing. But is this work-leisure dichotomy fair? Is leisure time not spent working on a goal-oriented activity really wasteful?

“Activity that does not result in progress toward a goal is a waste of time.” Do you agree with this statement? Is it ever okay to waste time? Is it even possible to waste time?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at


  1. January 31, 2012 at 3:27 pm —

    I suppose it IS possible to waste time. Living in a medically induced coma for no legitimate medical purpose seems wasteful. But anything that engages your brain, and that you interact with certainly isn’t a waste, it just living.

    If you HAD a goal, then you might have a context to evaluate the relative use of the time in the pursuit of that goal, but having a goal isn’t a requirement of living.

  2. January 31, 2012 at 6:09 pm —

    Just as an aside, I think the basic idea of discussing work in moral terms is much older than Protestantism. You can, for instance, find plenty of moralistic condemnation of idleness in ancient Greek literature, and I trust that Christianity got the idea at least in part from growing up in that environment. (You can go all the way back to Hesiod, c. 700 BC and hear about “the good Strife” that makes people get up in the morning to work in order to achieve more than their neighbours, one farmer striving against another farmer, potter against potter, poet against poet, and so on…)

    • January 31, 2012 at 6:26 pm —

      Oh, I don’t disagree that there are other societies or points in history that have talked about time or work in moral terms. I was just pointing to one explanation for why many folks in capitalist economies do so (not even saying I agree with Weber–it’s just an interesting idea to me). I’m not sure the idea is the same across all Christian sects, though, which was part of Weber’s point (that work ethics were different between Catholic and Protestant populations).

      • January 31, 2012 at 9:55 pm —

        One wonders though if the Protestant-Catholic divide wasn’t for Weber a kind of shorthand for the then- (and still-) popular stereotype of meridional indolence, helped along by some confirmation bias. Protestant-majority nations are nearly all northern European and Germanic, and usually held in opposition to southern Romance-speaking cultures. One doesn’t hear nearly so often about how the Protestant work ethic makes French Huguenots more productive than Austrian Catholics than one hears about how it makes those efficient Germans more productive than those lazy Spaniards.

        • January 31, 2012 at 11:55 pm —

          Yeah. Weber also overlooks the concurrent rise of mercantile capitalism in Japan, which most certainly did not have a Catholic-Protestant dichotomy driving it. 😉

          • February 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

            Au contraire! The rapid economic development of open ports like Nagasaki was driven by Dutch missionaries, of course.

          • February 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

            There was a merchant class well before the ports opened up. Besides, the limited interaction with outsiders would not have instilled a Protestant work ethic throughout Japan. It was an extremely isolated society for a pretty long time before interaction with the Dutch and the Americans.

          • February 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm

            Should have added a joke smiley.

          • February 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm

            Ah, my bad! I kind of thought you were being sarcastic, but I wasn’t sure. =)

  3. January 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm —

    I grew up in a family that heavily encouraged the masculinity of my brothers and I (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told to “be a man”…). This is one of those things I understood to be part of the package deal of masculinity, that a “real man” is supposed to always be working. That if you’re not at your job you should be fixing things or building shit.

    I’m not sure how I feel about it exactly. I know that I reject that “real manly man” bullshit but I also think that certain aspects of that character should be held as virtuous to everybody, regardless of gender. Things like self-reliance, stoicism, and the work ethic mentioned above, if not so focused on those particular tasks.

    However, sometimes it is nice to just do something that accomplishes nothing. Masturbation comes to mind.

  4. January 31, 2012 at 9:38 pm —

    I try to organize my leisure time around some greater purpose, so that it’s at least productive by my own standards. If I’ve learned something new and valuable, had an enriching experience, or helped humankind in some direct or abstract way, then I don’t feel that that time was wasted.

    I get really bored and depressed if I feel I’m caught in some pointless and arbitrary endeavour, which is why I never really cared much for video games.

    But I don’t act all high and mighty towards people who do. There’s times when I fart around for the sheer hell of it (when I need a break from overanalysing everything I do).

  5. January 31, 2012 at 10:04 pm —

    The idea that wasting time just means spending time without a specific goal seems to me insufficient; people will also say that you are wasting time if the goal towards which you are working is something they don’t see as potentially valuable. For example, that same “protestant work ethic”, in the minds of some, means that time spent towards self-improvement is time wasted, as is time spent in furtherance of mental health or a reasonably good social life.

    Personally, I think that those things are most worth doing which are an end unto themselves. I seem to be the opposite of rosewater, as I get bored and depressed when doing something in furtherance of a goal other than the activity itself, no matter how much I want to reach that goal. As you can probably imagine, this can get in the way of many aspects of life.

    • February 1, 2012 at 12:03 am —

      I agree with you on some points here.

      Just to clarify: although I do try to act with purpose, I make sure that I’m not doing that thing simply *out of* purpose. I make sure that I’m getting some present enjoyment out of what I do. Otherwise, what would be the point? I suppose you could argue perfect altruism, but I don’t think there’s any person who isn’t driven by self-interest to some extent. We are human beings, after all; primal, reward-driven. Philanthropists get a kick out of helping people. And axe-murderers get the same kick when they mince their victims. The only difference is their conditioning.

      Whoa did I get off-track there!

      • February 1, 2012 at 10:20 am —

        I agree with this: I hold it as a principle that if anything in my life requires spending a lot of time doing things I *don’t* enjoy, I need to eliminate that from my life as quickly as possible. Similarly, I look at most of my leisure activities as having productive value of some kind: playing video games improves my reflexes and observation, reading blogs lets me share my thoughts and better understand others’, watching good TV gives me new perspectives on the world. I like my work and play to be as closely commingled as possible.

  6. February 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm —

    I have to say, I’m not sure I know. It FEELS like I’m wasting time, but I spent a lot of time in highschool and college being told that it WAS wasting time, oh, and by the way, I wasn’t living up to “my potential”, and maybe I would if only I stopped wasting time.

    And it’s literally true – if I spent more time working toward my goals, I would get there faster.

    The question is whether I’d burn out, or be unhappy, or something in the process.

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