Using the time you have

Trent at The Simple Dollar posted today yesterday two days ago (It appears I’m behind on my RSS feeds) a story about a guy he knew in college, who had a dead-end low-paying job as an overnight cashier at a gas station. But when Trent went to visit him, he wasn’t bemoaning his sad situation: he was using his sketchpad and pencils to practice his skills drawing perspective, lighting, shading and so on. Now he’s a graphic designer.

I’ve been talking to one of my friends who’s in high school right now, and thinking how much of a waste (US) high school is. Since the teachers have to assume that students are only paying attention about 20% of the time, they repeat everything 5 times. Which means that there’s really no point in paying attention more than 20% of the time, even if you really do care. So out of the 6 hours of the day you have to spend in class, you only get about an hour and a quarter of useful information. The other 4.75 hours are just wasted. Unless….

What could you do in your situation?

My sister wrote her first novel in high school (the teachers thought she was taking notes). I practiced my writing (primarily in the form of satire, aimed at our teachers, but hey, practice is practice.) But you could also practice:

  • Focus Being able to pay attention to what you choose is a useful skill, and one that most of us lack. Don’t believe me? Play this game:

    1. Get a stop watch
    2. Hit the start button

    3. Think about lemons
    4. As soon as you think about anything other than lemons, hit the stop button
    5. See if you can get over 10 seconds.

So the next time you’re stuck in a pointless lecture or a useless meeting, practice your focus. Try to listen to what the speaker’s saying, and see how long you can go before you get distracted.


  • Proactivity Another highly-useful skill — the #1 habit in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — is the ability to decide what to do, instead of letting other people and events dictate it for you. Whether in a dead-end school or a dead-end job, look for places to do stuff on purpose. Ask your teacher or your boss for permission to do something different — a different focus for your assignment, or a video blog instead of an essay, or something more advanced than what you’ve been doing. Even if they turn you down every time, you’ll still get the benefit of having learned to think and choose for yourself, which will serve you well when you get out of here. And you’ll be surprised by how many times your proposal gets accepted.


  • Vision Questing This one takes some outside work, but may be one of the most useful things you can do. I wrote a while back about our culture’s lack of a vision quest or initiation to adulthood: we’re graduating high school, college, grad school, our first job, our second job, our last job… without ever learning what we could offer the world, and what we would like to offer the world. Nobody helps us identify the talents and skills that would help you find a successful niche. Nobody gives you the opportunity to think about what “success” means to you and how to achieve it. Nobody asks you what your goals are. Of course we all live lives of quiet desperation!

    But you could start. The process will take years, so you’d best start quickly. Brainstorm stuff you like to do, and stuff you find easy to do, and stuff people ask you to do. Jot down connections between them. See if any vocations suggest themselves to you, and test them out to see if you really like them as well as you thought. Journal your findings. Brainstorm some more. There are no easy answers, but if you keep asking the questions, you’ll find that the answers eventually take shape.

  • Courage I’ve written about the need for courage already, so I won’t bore you by repeating it again. But no matter where you spend your days, there are opportunities to increase your courage. Ask a cute member of your preferred sex for their phone number. Speak up in a group discussion when you don’t agree with the direction the conversation is going. Stand up to the local bully on behalf of someone else. Don’t act like everyone else around you, just for a few seconds.

    Don’t be irresponsible

    Please note, I am not advocating doing these things at the expense of what you’re supposed to be doing. You really are going to have a hard time if you graduate high school without knowing basic math, and you’re getting paid to do the work your boss gives you. So do what you have to do.

    All I’m saying is…if there’s some time left over after that… don’t let it go to waste.

    The link to 7 Habits is an affiliate link. If you’re interested in buying the book (which is an awesome book, and I would recommend it to everyone), and if you have found my blog interesting and/or helpful, you can help me out by purchasing the book through that link. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but it helps me keep posting stuff despite my dead-end, low-paying job. Plus you give a boost to world literacy. What more could you ask? Learn More.

    • apingel

      How else do use wasted time productively? What else could you learn or practice during time that goes unused right now?

    • K-eM

      A great book on courage and vision questing is Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently by Gregory Burns. He talks, in layman’s terms, about how fear works in our brain and how successful people overcome or push through fear in order to achieve great things and even to give themselves permission to pursue great things. I found it very helpful when I first read it and use it whenever I find my fear or “lizard brain” holding me back from searching out and trying new ideas as well as following through with them in the face of opposition or lack of interest from others.

      • apingel

        That sounds awesome! I find The Lizard is the single biggest obstacle to anyone’s project, but at least if you’re aware of it, you can identify what’s actually holding you back. It’s easy for the fear to disguise itself as common sense or even wisdom.

    • I shared your post on my twitter account, thnks.

      • apingel

        Thanks, patchcrack!

    • roclafamilia

      Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!