Project Practitioners > Alive Time. Dead Time. Which Will It Be?

Alive Time. Dead Time. Which Will It Be?

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


“According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy


Every action and inaction is a choice. Driving an hour or five minutes one-way to work is a choice. The current job you have is a choice. Your reactions to consequences, positive or negative, are choices. The way you spend your time is a choice.

It becomes the classic scenario of wanting what you do not have while not putting in the work. Successful people do not have a lot of dead time, if any. A plane flight across the country is not spent staring out the window. Emails are outboxed so when an internet connection is available, tens if not hundreds of emails are sent at once.

The following are common dead time scenarios which you can make useful:


Commuting to Work

Some have long drive times while others do not. How do you spend this time? If you choose dead time, you spend it on autopilot in traffic waiting for the light to turn green or the person in front of you to idle forward. Music may be playing to keep the doldrums of sitting in traffic to a minimum.

Alive time appears much different in this scenario. An audiobook about management or history is playing. A podcast discussing world events might pique your interest. You are utilizing this time to learn and develop new skills. Making phone calls to determine the day’s activities take place so when you enter your office, you have a few items to take care of immediately.


People Who Are Late

Be it a meeting at the office or on site, someone in the group will inevitably be late. How do you spend this time? A general conversation about the weather or potential weekend activities is dead time. Sitting separately in each other’s vehicles is the definition of dead time.

Alive time is somebody looking at their notes preparing for any and all questions. Maybe making phone calls and sending emails to stay up to date on other projects running simultaneously. Starting the meeting on time without the other individual discussing topics that do not involve him or her can make use of the time.


No Fires or Issues

Everything seems to be running smoothly. You are getting no phone calls or urgent emails. No one is coming into your office. Somehow, you have a natural break in the day. How do you spend this time?

Scouring the internet for random gossip stories or following up on your social media is dead time. You have replaced inactivity with passive activity. You find a coworker in the hallway to corner and discuss randomness until you get a phone call. Driving from jobsite to jobsite is another way to appear busy while just wasting time.

Alive time turns you into a problem seeking missile. Rather than sit back and wait until something comes up, you are reaching out to your team(s) asking questions. Maybe you find yourself in the office of a subject matter expert trying to learn more about their functions to improve on your end. You can take a closer look at the specifications or plans again to ensure your next steps and possible call the engineer for any clarifications.



“So there he was in prison. A number. A body with roughly a decade to sit in a cage.”

“He faced what Robert Greene calls an ‘Alive Time or Dead Time’ scenario. How would the seven years ultimately play out? What would Malcolm do with this time?” – Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy


Holiday is describing Malcolm X. In prison, Malcolm had a decision to make. He could spend the next seven years sulking, sleeping, eating, and repeating or put that time into reading, writing, and learning. The first scenario describes dead time. The second, and his choice, describes alive time.

A reporter once asked Malcolm, “What’s your alma mater?” His response: “Books.”

That is the definition of alive time. While college or university was not an option, learning did not seize to exist. Instead of playing the games of prison yards or politicking, Malcolm chose to widen his vision of the world through books.

He took a bad scenario with plenty of opportunities for dead time and turned those years into growth. While you may not have all day to dedicate to learning, you most definitely have times where this ‘dead time or alive time’ scenario play out.


So, once again, I ask you, how do you spend your time? If you ain’t living, you’re dying.

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