Use time wisely -- by slacking off

I bet you're reading this at work -- and feeling guilty about it.

Rest easy. You are not alone. A recent survey found that the typical American worker wastes slightly more than two hours a day, not including lunch and scheduled breaks. The insurance industry is particularly rife with time wasters (can you blame them?) and Missouri, for reasons not entirely clear, is the state with the highest percentage of slackers.

The No. 1 time-wasting activity is surfing the Internet and sending personal e-mails (a finding perhaps skewed by the fact that the survey, conducted by AOL and salary.com, was Web-based), followed by socializing with co-workers, conducting personal business and just plain "spacing out." All of this loafing is supposedly costing employers $759 billion a year in lost productivity.

The findings were greeted, predictably, with much hand-wringing about the declining American work ethic. I find the survey disturbing too, but for a different reason. American workers, it turns out, are wasting less time than they did just a couple of years ago -- 19% less. We must stop this dangerous trend.

The elevation of hard work to the status of noble pursuit is, in the sweep of human history, relatively recent. The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed hard work as a curse.

Attitudes toward work differ not only across time but also place. Corinne Maier's appropriately slim volume, "Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay," advocated that workers resort to "active disengagement" at the office. It was a bestseller in France but didn't resonate on these shores.

When it comes to interspersing work and frivolity, nobody beats the Thais. "If a job isn't sanuk -- fun -- it's hardly worth doing," Thai architect Sumet Jumsai told me over a Scotch at his Bangkok office recently. Jumsai is no slouch, though. He's designed some of Thailand's landmark buildings -- and, clearly, had fun doing it.

In this country, there is talk of trying to derail the office slackers by blocking access to Facebook and other time-wasting websites. I think that effort is doomed, because this is an old story: Company heralds new technology as a novel "productivity tool." Company is shocked (shocked!) to discover that same technology is also a novel time waster.

Despite all of this fretting, we are no slacker nation. The U.N.'s International Labor Organization recently issued a report that found that the U.S. leads the world in worker productivity -- and by a wide margin.

So why do we feel like such slackers? For one thing, we are a nation ambivalent about work. We both cherish it and resent it. I suspect that some of this loafing is a subtle form of revenge. With work now sloshing over into personal time (think BlackBerry), it seems only natural that personal time should slosh back into work. Technology is fast rendering distinctions between "work" and "leisure" meaningless. This is a problem. If the U.S. is to stay strong, we need to goof off more at work, not less.

Goofing off is not a waste of time -- well, not always. Exhibit A: Albert Einstein. He was a world-class loafer. In 1905, he was working as a clerk at a Swiss patent office, spending a lot of time spacing out. A "respectable federal ink pisser" is how Einstein described himself. Yet it was at work, daydreaming one day, watching a builder on a nearby rooftop, that he experienced "the happiest thought of my life" -- a thought that soon blossomed into his "special theory of relativity."

Thus the recent Web survey gets to the heart of the paradox. We are a nation of doers, hard workers, yet we are also a nation of ideas, big ideas. These two aspects of the American personality constantly rub against each other; great ideas require idleness, but idleness makes us uncomfortable.

In his essay, "In Praise of Idleness," British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed reducing the workday to four hours, convinced that "the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."

I agree. So be creative, be happy and waste some more time. Read this article again and again. Try reading it backward. E-mail it to co-workers. Translate it into Mandarin, then back into English. Then grab a coffee and enjoy some down time.

Eric Weiner is author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," to be published by TWELVE in January.

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