Robert Greene once told Ryan Holiday that there are two kinds of time: Alive time and dead time.
Dead time is when you wait for life to happen to you instead of for you. It’s when nothing seems to change for the better, yet when you take an honest look at the last six months, you realize all you’ve done is complain.
Alive time is when you’re making it count. It is when you do your best every day, no matter how hopeless or unfortunate your current situation may seem. You focus on what you control and try your best to learn and get better.
The idea behind this distinction, of course, is that whether you spend your time being “alive” or “dead” is up to you – and this is where the other kind of dead time comes in: Sometimes, you just have to wait. At the hairdresser. At the doctor’s. On an airplane. On a bus.
We all spend many hours waiting for our turn, but even those hours needn’t be wasted. The classic example is listening to a podcast or audiobook on a long solo drive. You can sort your photos on your phone while waiting for your haircut. Check your emails until the bus gets here. And so on.
What’s trickier, however, is to correctly identify the dead time that’s not obviously dead. How tired are you really after lunch? Too tired to write? Can you still do simpler tasks? Or do you actually need a 20-minute nap? Time that’s dead energy-wise can be deceiving, and the deception goes both ways: One day we’ll afford ourselves too little rest, the next a 30-minute gaming break turns into a 3-hour session.
It helps to approach recovery in increments: When the brain fog feels strong, you set a timer and relax for a full 20 minutes. No work thoughts invited! Once it rings, you check in with yourself: Do you feel better? Alive again? Ready to tackle a bigger challenge? If not, try another 20-minute interval, and so on.
Sometimes this’ll spiral into a lot of truly dead time, but on those days you probably need it. In a normal week, however, it’ll help you convert more of your day into alive time, and at the end of it all, when every kind of time – alive, dead, years, moments – is tallied and all accounts will be settled, that’s the metric that counts.
Identify your dead time, and bring it back to life. That’s how challenges become changes, and how slumps turn into straights.