America isn't a country that has ever respected wasting time. But as anyone who reads this space regularly knows, I am not a good American in this respect: I love to nap, take breaks, take time off to explore the world, and generally try to work only when I'm really working. 

But, what is "wasting" time exactly? Some people might define it as any time spent doing work that's not productive, either personally or professionally. I define it as time spent doing something I don't like doing — which can include errands and bill-paying. (Standing on line, or waiting on the phone for a bank representative both qualify as "wasting" time in my book, whereas reading a book or taking a hike isn't.)

However you define it, it's time to redefine it. Because wasting time is good for the brain and can help lower stress levels and boost creative thinking. 

A study, "Inspired by Distraction" concluded that, “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.” How was that figured out? Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, (along with his doctoral student Benjamin Baird) gave a group of people a basic creative thinking test, then gave some of them a 12-minute rest, others a non-demanding activity (think cat videos), and others a demanding activity. 

“The most surprising result of the study was that the non-demanding task was actually better than doing nothing,” Schooler told Great Beatto at Nautilus magazine. The doctor isn't sure why it is: “My best guess is that if you’re engaged in a non-demanding task, it kind of prevents you from having long trains of thought,” Schooler said. “It’s sort of churning things up, stirring the pot, so you’re not maintaining one thought for a particularly long time. There are a lot of different ideas going in and out, and that sort of associative process leads to creative incubation.”

Other studies have shown that people make better decisions following a few minutes of distraction, and other scientists have proven, using fMRI machines that look at brain functions while they are ongoing, that even while we are thinking of other things, our brains are still working on making those tough calls or solving that nagging problem.

What are "good" time-wasters that can actually help you get to your goal faster? Researchers have found that the best kind of distractions or break material are those that are different from what you are working on. So, if you are writing an article, writing an email isn't as good as watching a funny video of penguins falling, or taking a walk outside. If you are working on something physical, however, a mental puzzle or brain twister might be a better way to go. 

Most of us have figured this out already, right? Hence the proliferation of funny animal videos that never fail to get clicks online. Turns out we aren't wasting time at all by enjoying them, just freeing up brain space (and hey, a laugh in the middle of the workday is always appreciated, right?). 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

How to waste time well
Unproductive time can actually be good for your brain — and your stress levels.