Is efficiency the wrong answer?: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
There’s a growing movement in support of slack, which frees a person from busy-ness. There’s no ‘time to work’ and ‘time to play’. It’s all time in which to engage with the world.
I’ve always been an efficiency beast. There are no “wasted” hours because every slot in the day is planned. I efficiently build in wiggle-room too, so I can accommodate last-minute changes. If all goes to plan, I end up with a few delightful spare moments amid the bustle of the day.
I’ve always been proud of this intricate workflow map, tweaked over years, that helps me run my day, my week, and my life with minimal hurdles.
But, it turns out, the most efficient people may not be the most effective people. This soul-crushing, counter-intuitive thesis lies at the heart of the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (2001), by management thinker and software programmer Tom DeMarco.
I’ve been re-reading this book at my mother’s seaside home in Kerala, and wrestling with the idea that I may in fact be hurting my chances at greater success and happiness, by doing too much. Should I be spending some of my waking hours staring at the sea (doing nothing is vital, DeMarco says); taking long walks instead of intense runs; catching short, unscheduled naps? Should I be working as and when ideas bloom, as I’m doing right now, on a Sunday afternoon (insanely inefficient)?
This way of life doesn’t fit the narrative that most of my generation was raised on. Even our time for rest, recuperation and play was precisely scheduled.
Which is why, when I first read DeMarco’s book, I put it down to a difference in world views. But the world has changed so much in the two decades since he wrote it. There is so much flexibility built into our digital, AI-inhabited age (most companies don’t mind if you get ChatGPT to do part of your job for you, for instance), that I’m starting to feel like maybe, in our current times, his world view is one that applies to us all.
My GTD (or Get Things Done) lists are planned meticulously and revised every weekend. But the backlog of unfinished tasks is still long. Could it be that leaving time for slack would actually help me?
DeMarco defines slack as “the degree of freedom to effect change”, adding that slack is the natural enemy of efficiency and vice versa. He has studied healthy companies and great software code for years and says they have this one thing in common.
Slack is not wiggle room. It is freedom from busy-ness, which creates freedom for people at various levels within a working grid. It’s the freedom to switch off for a while; turn away from a task and return to it later, with an altogether different perspective.
Allow for too much slack and the incentive to complete the task can fizzle away. So how does one determine the optimal level? In the search for my optimum, some other truths have surfaced.
Take something as simple as getting to the airport. I’ve always deployed the just-in-time approach. The last time around, I arrived at the terminal half an hour earlier than I normally would and realised how the calm that came from not being rushed altered my experience of this event.
That may seem like a small thing, but what it gave me was a feeling of abundance of time, mind space and leisure. I am starting to see how this kind of slack could create a mindset that is better able to pivot amid change and take charge of circumstances; how it could build room for learning, thinking and living within the regular workweek.
Many of my generation might look at such a person’s schedule and see self-indulgence, inefficiency, perhaps even laziness. What does it result in, the slack time? That answer, on most days, is “nothing right away”. In the long term though, it is the people with slack built into their lives who end up engaging with the world, keeping up more effortlessly. And isn’t that the true goal — to be relevant and effective rather than just hyper-efficient?
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)