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Cut me some slack

Until August this year, my weekly planning had no room for slack.

The 112 hours that I'm awake every week is divided into 84 different slots that are either an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours long. That's about twelve blocks of time each day. I never have more than one task in a given slot (unless it is two half hour meetings). But, until August, I used to fill in nearly every slot when I sat down on Sunday evenings to plan my week ahead.

This was ambitious planning, but ineffective. I used to get about 50% of the items done in a week. Some tasks would take up more time than planned, some unplanned tasks would come up and as a result, I'd slip on half the tasks.

Then, one day in August, after a lengthy vacation in Europe that involved close to zero planning (Sunday evening was no different from any other evening in that sense for two weeks), I came back and decided to add slack to my schedule. I began to fill only up to eight of the twelve available slots on any given day. That was a 33% reduction in the number of planned tasks.

The result? My measured productivity shot up. I have since been consistently covering 75-80% of the planned tasks each week.

But if you have a careful eye, you'd do the math and point out that the actual quantum of work that I'm doing hasn't really changed significantly. I'm still doing the equivalent of what I used to do before I started adding slack to my schedule. 75-80% of 67% is ~50%, which is the same as before. So the increase in productivity is only notional. Accounting gimmicks. Right?

Right. But with a difference.

True, there is no significant jump in the quantum of work that I'm doing. That has remained the same. But the increase in productivity is to be looked at a different way.

When I was doing 50% of the planned tasks, I was doing the 50% that were most immediate and burning, the ones that needed attention right away, the ones that had deadlines looming. So, even though I planned to do other tasks that didn't need immediate attention, I wouldn't get around to them because the lack of slack ensured that I hurried through the tasks that needed attention right away (whose quality also suffered as a result) and pushed out the others to the 50% that wasn't getting done and picked them up only when they reached boiling point.

But once there was slack, there was ample time to dedicate time to all the planned tasks and take up things that came along the way in the blocks of time that were unplanned. This allowed for better focus on tasks as there was lesser pressure of looming deadlines and things that needed to be acted on right away. And the proof is in the metrics.

Since adding slack to the schedule, I've written at ~2500 words a week for my book as opposed to ~1750 words a week before. I've written ~2.5 blog posts a week as opposed to ~1.85 a week before. I've been reading at 60+ articles a week as opposed to ~30 a week before. And these were the tasks that were getting pushed out when there was no slack in the schedule.

A lot of startups pride on spending every waking hour creating and shipping something only to constantly fight fires that keep cropping up. An organization that is over-optimised might feel like they are getting more done than they would if they had slack built in, be it in terms of sensible working hours for its employees, or additional members on the team that aren't all sprinting, but in all probability they are constantly working in a fire-fighting mode, and letting the quality of their product and experience suffer in the long term.

It is good to have some slack.

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