Elon Musk plans his days in five-minute increments. Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 a.m. Tony Robbins plunges into ice water every morning. Read enough stories like these and you could be forgiven for concluding that extreme productivity demands extreme and unpleasant action.
But, according to a thoughtful new post on blog Farnam Street, you'd be wrong. There's a paradox at the heart of productivity, the post contends, and it means you'll actually get more done if you skip the heroics and instead leave more slack in your schedule.
To be more productive ... slack off more?
This might initially sound too good to be true. That's understandable. Who wouldn't be suspicious of experts telling you that the secret to superproductivity isn't waking up at the crack of dawn or 14-hour days but instead being more of a slacker? But this conclusion isn't just the pronouncement of some random blogger. It's the central takeaway of Slack, Tom DeMarco's classic on workplace efficiency.
The book outlines the fundamental paradox at the heart of productivity: leaving white space in your calendar feels like an indulgence (or, in your manager's eyes, a problem to be eliminated), but constant busyness actually prevents us from working at maximum efficiency.
That's because when every moment is filled, we're unable to absorb shocks or pivot quickly when the situation changes. We might be working all the time, but we end up either working on the wrong things or dealing with organizational bottlenecks. Leaving some time free in your calendar (or some dollars unallocated in your budget) is inefficient in a totally predictable world. But as the past year has spectacularly illustrated, we do not live in predictable times.
Slack "allows us to handle the inevitable shocks and surprises of life. If every hour in our schedules is accounted for, we can't slow down to recover from a minor cold, shift a bit of focus to learning a new skill for a while, or absorb a couple of hours of technical difficulties," the post says summing up the book, adding, "in general, you need more slack than you expect."
"I slack off not because I'm lazy or don't care about being productive. In fact, I've found that slacking off makes me more productive because I slack strategically--meaning that I take breaks at designated times, for regular intervals, in ways that sharpen my focus when I sit back down to work," she has written. "Strategic slacking has enabled me to dramatically increase both the quality of my work and the amount I get done in a given day."
The key word here is strategically. Constant busyness will make you exhausted, inflexible, and blinkered, but no one is saying you don't have to put in plenty of hard work to achieve big things. You just want to make sure you don't pack so much work into your days that you leave no room to look up, assess the situation, and adjust your plan of attack.
The secret to maximum productivity, it turns out, isn't anything as unpleasant as ice baths or extreme scheduling (though power to you if you find those helpful). The secret is leaving yourself enough room to maneuver. That slack won't just help you stay sane. Counterintuitively, it will also help you get more done over the long haul.