I’ve always been an efficient monster. There are no “lost” hours because every time slot in the day is planned. I also build a wobbly room efficiently, so I can accommodate last minute changes. If all goes as planned, I will end up with some exhilarating spare moments amidst the hustle and bustle of the day.
I’ve always been proud of this complex workflow map, refined over the years, that helps me manage my day, my week, and my life with the fewest obstacles.
But it turns out that the most efficient people may not be the most effective people. This soul-crushing counterintuitive premise lies at the heart of the book Slack: Navigating Burnout, Busy Work, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (2001), by management thinker and software programmer Tom DiMarco.
I’ve been re-reading this book at my mother’s beachside house in Kerala, grappling with the thought that I might actually be hurting my chances of greater success and happiness, by doing too much. Should I spend some of my waking hours staring out at sea (doing nothing, DiMarco says, is vital); long walks instead of vigorous running; Taking an unscheduled short nap? Should I work when ideas bloom, as I do now, on (insanely inefficient) Sunday afternoons?
This lifestyle did not fit the narrative most of my generation grew up with. Even the time for rest, recuperation and play was strictly defined.
That’s why, when I first read DeMarco’s book, I based it on a difference in worldviews. But the world has changed a lot in the two decades since he wrote it. There’s so much flexibility in our digital age populated by AI (most companies don’t mind if you get ChatGPT to do some of your work for you, for example), that I’m starting to feel like maybe, in our own right now, his worldview applies. We all have to.
GTD (or Get Things Done) lists are meticulously planned and reviewed every weekend. But the backlog of unfinished tasks is still long. Could letting time stagnate actually help me?
DeMarco defines stagnation as “the degree of freedom to effect change,” adding that stagnation is the natural enemy of efficiency and vice versa. He’s studied healthy companies and great software code for years and says they all have this in common.
Slack is no wiggle room. It is freedom from busyness, which creates freedom for people at various levels within the work network. It’s the freedom to shut down for a while; Walk away from a task and come back to it later, with a completely different perspective.
Allow too much slack and motivation to complete the task may wane. How does one determine the optimal level? In searching for my best self, a few other truths have come to light.
Take something as simple as getting to the airport. I have always implemented a timely approach. Last time, I got to the station half an hour earlier than I usually did and realized how the calm that came from not rushing had changed my experience of the event.
This may seem like a small thing, but what it gave me was a feeling of plenty of time, mental space, and free time. I’m beginning to see how this kind of indolence can create a mindset that’s better able to pivot in the midst of change and take responsibility for circumstances; How it can make room for learning, thinking and living within the usual work week.
Many of my generation would look at such a person’s schedule and see self-absorption, incompetence, and possibly laziness. What does it result in, slack time? That answer, most days, is “nothing right away.” In the long run, it’s the people with an inherent sluggishness in their lives who end up engaging with the world, and effortlessly keeping up with it. Isn’t that the real goal – to be convenient and efficient rather than just overly efficient?
(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)
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