That probably sounds like an unwise thing to put on your CV, but it’s nevertheless true. I deliberately leave slack in my schedule. I aim not to be busy. And that’s why I get more done.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, that’s the truth. The less I fill my diary, the more I’m able to achieve.
Flash back to the 1990s, and picture a young and relatively inexperienced lead software developer. Thanks to years of social conditioning from family, from school, from industry, and from the media, I completely drank the Hussle Kool-Aid.
Get up early. Work, work, work. Meetings, meetings, meetings. Hussle, hussle, hussle. That’s how you get things done.
I filled my long work days completely, and then went home and read and practiced and learned and answered emails and planned for next work-packed day.
A friend and mentor recognised the signs. He recommended a I read a book called Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork & The Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco. It changed my life.
Around this time, ‘Extreme Programming’ was beginning to buzz on the message boards and around the halls of developer conferences. These two revelations came at roughly the same time. It’s not about how fast you can go in one direction – following a plan. It’s about how easily you can change direction, change the plan. And for change to be easy, you need adaptive capacity – otherwise known as slack.
Here was me as a leader:
“Jason, we need to talk about this urgent thing”
“I can fit you in a week on Thursday”
“Jason, should we look into these things called ‘web services’?”
“No time, sorry”
“Jason, your trousers are on fire”
“Send me a memo and I’ll schedule some time to look into that”
At an organisational level, lack of adaptive capacity can be fatal. The more streamlined and efficient they are at what they currently do, the less able they are to learn to do something else. Try turning a car at its absolute top speed.
At a personal level, the drive to be ever more efficient – to go ever faster – also has serious consequences. Aside from the very real risk of burning out – which ends careers and sometimes lives – it’s actually the dumbest way of getting things done. There are very few jobs left where everything’s known at the start, where nothing changes, and where just sticking to a plan will guarantee a successful outcome. Most outcomes are more complex than that. We need to learn our way towards them, adjusting as we go. And changing direction requires spare capacity: time to review, time to reflect, time to learn, time to adjust.
On a more serious note, highly efficient systems tend to be very brittle. Think of our rail networks. The more we seek to make them more efficient, the bigger the impact on the network when something goes wrong. If we have a service that takes 30 minutes to get from, say, London Waterloo to Surbiton, and we run it every hour, if there’s a delay, there’s 30 minutes of slack to recover in. The next train doesn’t have to be late. If we run it every 30 minutes – at maximum “efficiency” – there’s no wiggle room. The next train will be late, and the one after that, etc.
My days were kind of like that; if my 9am meeting overran, then I’d be late for my 9:20, and late for my 10am, and so on.
When we stretch ourselves and our systems to breaking point – which is what ‘100% efficiency’ really means – we end up being rigid (hard to change) and brittle (easy to break).
We’re seeing that now in many countries’ handling of the pandemic. After a decade of ideological austerity stripping away more and more resources from public services in the UK, forcing them to become ever more ‘efficient’, the appearance of the unexpected – though we really should have been expecting it at some point – has now broken many of those services, and millions of lives.
Since the late 90s, I’ve deliberately kept my diary loose. For example, I try very hard to avoid running two training courses in the same week. When someone else was managing my diary and my travel arrangements, they’d have me finishing work in one city and jumping on a late train or flight to the next city for another appointment the next morning. This went wrong very, very often. And there was no time to adjust at all. If you’ve ever tried to find a replacement laptop at 7am in a strange city, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So I highly recommend reading Tom’s book, especially if you’re recognising the symptoms. And then you too can become a more productive slacker.