Cut yourself some slack

5402128599_2dbed60212_zMy experience of being excused from jury duty this week has reminded me of this: I really like having slack in my schedule. Lots and lots of slack.

That may sound a bit strange coming from someone who writes about productivity and efficiency. I do like using bits of time for bits of joy, and I think it’s amazing what you can get done in 15 minutes. That said, I have never advocated squeezing stuff into every minute of the day. It’s counter productive to do so. Every schedule needs some space.

I wrote about that this week over at Fast Company (as usual, their headline writing prowess far exceeds mine: Creating Slack: The quick scheduling trick to make your week most productive). Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif’s new book, Scarcity, crystalized this concept for me. They mostly write about the decisions made under the stress of monetary poverty, but there are bad decisions made under the duress of time poverty, too.

They liken decisions about time and money to a suitcase. If you’re packing a very small suitcase for a trip, then whenever you put something in, you have to take something else out. That something might be something you actually care about. The cost is high.

The monetary equivalent of a small suitcase, of course, is being broke, but the time equivalent is having every minute booked. When a meeting runs long, you have to cancel another and there’s no space to put it. So you double book it with something else. That will just make you more behind next week, but (to use another analogy) it’s the same reason people take out payday loans. The interest rate is usurious but at least you get the cash. You figure tomorrow will sort itself out.

If you have the time equivalent of a big suitcase, though, then the something you’re trading off putting in is probably not something you’d take on the trip anyway. It’s all good (in our analogy, we don’t actually have to carry the suitcase). It’s like being a millionaire in a grocery store. Sure, money is fungible and any dollar spent on one thing is a dollar not spent on something else, but when you have a lot of money, what you’re trading off isn’t something you need. Maybe, if milk goes up 20 cents a gallon, this will potentially result in your third generation heirs thinking twice about buying a diamond-studded shower curtain, but, you know, you really don’t care.

People can make more money. No one can make more time. So the only way to have a big suitcase of time — the equivalent of the millionaire’s grocery budget — is to leave open space in your schedule.

This is slack.

It’s certainly something I try to practice in my life. Partly, I just like daydreaming time. I’m an introvert and I like to be alone with my thoughts. But beyond that, I know that inevitably phone calls will get rescheduled. Articles will need more edits. A great assignment will come up, or on the negative side of the ledger, kids will elect to do a loop-de-loop over the rail at the zoo’s goat exhibit, smash into the concrete barrier, get wounds stapled shut in the ER, and then need appointments 10 days later to remove the staples (purely hypothetically, of course). With no slack, there is no where to put this stuff.

To be sure, too much slack can be counter-productive too. If I know I have a lot of time, sometimes things take a lot of time. I have spent a wee bit of time dilly-dallying around the internet during these past few days of jury duty excusal. But my preference is to err on the side of more slack, rather than less slack. You can still do a lot while leaving slack, particularly if you focus on doing stuff that matters during the non-slack time.

Do you build slack into your schedule? How?

Photo courtesy flickr user flossyflotsam

11 thoughts on “Cut yourself some slack

    1. @NicoleandMaggie- the staple removal is actually totally separate from the surgery tomorrow. My toddler is having strabismus surgery tomorrow to correct her being cross-eyed. The 3-year-old is the one who launched himself over the rail at the goat exhibit (as a friend pointed out, at least he didn’t choose the lion exhibit). We have been heavy consumers of medical services this past week!

  1. Ha.

    Not exactly answering your question, but off on a tangent (as ever): My husband is really, really good at “not filling the margins,” to borrow @Carrie’s phrase, and this is good. OTOH I do tend to fill in the margins (plus) at least by his standards, and this also has positives. Overall I feel that we work well as a team thanks to this state of affairs, though it can produce tensions.

    1. @bogart- we have sort of a mix of this. My husband is less of a planner than I am. On the other hand, he seems to believe that you can always fit one more thing in. We’ll have to be somewhere in an hour, and he’ll suggest we go to Costco first, though it has never taken us less than 90 minutes…

  2. Ha! If you recall, I feel similarly about having margins. This is exactly how I feel. Time for the little things (or BIG things) that come up, time to “putter” and daydream, and decompress. But yes, if you have too much slack, it tends to be filled in unsatisfying ways. There is a happy medium. Best wishes for both kids’ medical procedures. My sister and I both had multiple strabismus surgeries as young kids.

    1. @Ana – thanks – I’ve been told it’s minor and that the surgery is harder on the parents than the kid. Still, not exactly thrilled to be going through this.

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