When Stress Is the Problem, This Is the Solution: A Summary of Slack by Tom DeMarco

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I first recommended Tom DeMarco’s Slack a few months ago in my Best of Books newsletter (and also mentioned it in this blog post). Here’s my original description of it, edited slightly with some line breaks:

Slack is “the degree of freedom required to effect change.” This concept is key as more businesses and managers emphasize breakthrough creativity and innovation. 

Efficiency is the natural enemy of slack, because keeping people efficient—100% busy—means they have to process work before being able to address new work. This is fine for one employee, but if each employee’s lack of availability creates this lag, organizations tremendously slow down. 

Instead of considering slack purely as a wellness perspective, which is also important, DeMarco proposes that it’s an investment in an organization’s own reinvention and human capital. 

As with all investments, a penny saved is not a penny earned. When stress is the problem, slack is the solution. 

I really enjoyed this book, and understood a lot more about why the way I approached and structured work was creating unnecessary stress. Whether you’re at a corporation or working for yourself, I’d highly recommend reading it.

Over the following months, I’ve kept coming back to this idea when I’ve even gotten close to experiencing brain overload or stress: I need more slack. 

Here are three of the most important lessons:

Stress Is Caused by Mutually Exclusive Goals

Author Tom DeMarco writes, “When you’re torn between two mutually exclusive goals, when there is no room for give in either one, the result is stress.” It’s so true. Even in a multi-hyphenate career, each individual person only has one individual brain, which works best when they work in one specific role at a time. (Author Cal Newport’s got an interesting way of managing roles in Trello.)

In situations like this, the solution is to prioritize. Life is full of these types of tradeoffs; for example, in a career path, you can experience commercial success or creative fulfilment, but probably not both early in your career. For example, focusing on one solution to solve two separate problems (say, a need for income, a need to do art), will cause stress.

Similarly, in time management, you can only have 16 hours of conscious time per day, with probably 3–4 hours of really good work. Each minute can only be used to do one thing, so you must pick what to do with that amount of time. Consistently forcing yourself to do more will, naturally, stress you out.

Temporary stress is natural, but extended and prolonged stress will lead to burning out—never a good place to be for an individual or an organization. Individuals will feel terrible, underperform, and spiral downwards until they decide to quit. Organizations will lose valuable people and the information and ideas they carried with them. 

In this way, seen from an organizational perspective, slack is actually an investment in its people and in its own future. 

Efficiency can Slow Priorities Down

We live in an age where speed is the most important factor; whoever delivers more value, faster, is better. This is why Amazon’s principle on a bias for action is so valuable.

This need for speed actually conflicts with another value we have, which is on conflating productivity and efficiency. Many people working in organizations, or perhaps independently too, feel the need to be 100% efficient, all of the time. There are many reasons for this; a fear-driven culture of looking not busy, as well as a history of consultants incentivized to show quick improvements, by laying off people from teams who seemed to have too much availability. 

As a result, many workers might feel the need to work at 100% capacity, which means—naturally—when unplanned work comes up, it stacks up in our inboxes. This is fine every so often, but it the lag really scales up if work slows down at everyone’s desk. DeMarco writes:

Think of it from the work’s point of view: The time it takes to move entirely through the network is increased by each pause it has to make in someone’s in-basket. If workers were available when the work arrived at their desks, there would be no wait and the total transit time would be reduced.

This was super valuable to me; not only did I feel less stressed, I also realized why there was a very practical need for availability. It wasn’t just a matter of wellness; availability could actually enable me to do my job better. I could respond to other people faster, which unblocked them and kept their momentum going, which meant morale stayed high.

Doing stuff each minute of the day also would be fine, if the stuff wasn’t so different. Ah, but it usually is! Writing up a memo is different from devising a strategy is different from meeting for a status update. If each of our brains were represented by our bodies, we’d see them contorting and stretching, trying to keep up with the new next thing it needs to do. We constantly switch tasks, which we need to make time for. DeMarco writes: 

This ten-minute task-switching penalty is used up on the mechanics alone of the change: putting stuff away and taking other stuff out.

We assume it shouldn’t take anytime, but DeMarco breaks down this assumption:

The only method I have used so far to substantiate the 15 percent minimum penalty is a time-honored approach called proof by repeated assertion… Before I waded in, the presumption seemed to be that the task-switching penalty was essentially zero. … Even without further proof of which of these two assertions is more likely to be correct, 0 percent or 15 percent, I hope you would feel at least a little bit uncomfortable with the 0 percent premise.

On ideal days, you won’t see me in back-to-back meetings; I’ll have at least 15 minute breaks, not only for my brain to wind down, but also for me to process a lot of information that I learned. And, if I have the spare time, to answer a couple of important messages or emails that need my attention.

Efficiency slows things down, and availability speeds things up. So make some time for your own availability when you’re planning your days and weeks. It’ll enable you to respond faster to people who need it. 

Time Pressure Gets In the Way of Good Thinking

“People under time pressure don’t think faster,” Tom DeMarco quotes Tim Lister. It’s so true; in fact, trying to come up with a good idea is often the thing getting in the way of the idea emerging. 

I don’t love the term “knowledge worker,” so I’ll say it like this: For those of us who spend most of our days typing away at our keyboards, more than half the value we bring to the table is our ideas. (The other half is probably the execution and delivery of these ideas.)

It’s certainly true that only the paranoid survive. But it’s also true that the paranoid, if they practice fear and danger daily, also runs the risk of self-destruction. Organizational and strategic paranoia means taking business threats seriously, but it absolutely doesn’t mean moving through each day like a lion is actually chasing you. It means having a clear articulation of the response to the threat, or dropping inessential items to focus on a priority, and picking and choosing them carefully. Moving fast, in the wrong direction, is completely counterproductive.

Good thinking is more valuable than speedy thinking; this isn’t an excuse to move slow or for analysis paralysis. Good thinking is also informed by data and experiences, so it’s important to balance between moving fast and executing, but also slowing down to see how the actions are actually paying off. 

Effective organizations move quickly, but it’s not driven by fear. It’s driven by clarity, trust, and safety. A core value for slack creates this kind of safety in organizations, which makes it possible for everyone to manage chaos and to want to keep moving forward.

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