The Value Of Slack

Slack Is The Capacity To Make Changes And The Resource To Deal With The Unexpected

You Waste Years By Not Being Able To Waste Hours

The Value Of Slack. Slack Is The Capacity To Make Changes And The Resource To Deal With The Unexpected.  Humorous graphic of boss calling his staff "slackers"!

Defining Slack

Slack can be defined as free or spare time, as an underutilized resource or in an engineering context as inbuilt redundancy, and when applied to a person as in everyday speech: "cutting her some slack",  it means giving someone space.

Wiggle Room

In summary it consists of excess resources - that could be time, money, people on a job, or even expectations. It allows some wiggle room to respond to changing circumstances. It allows a margin for error and space for reflection and experimentation.

Optimal Utilisation

There is a wide spectrum of points at which people and resources can be said to most efficiently optimized and it depends on the context.

At one end of the spectrum there are some contexts where a lot of slack is perfectly justified and desirable, such as with armies. Ideally we don't want armies to be used at all  and the more slack armies have the better.

At the other end of the spectrum there are contexts where minimal to no slack is the best position. We don't want a brain surgeon to have slack mid-operation.

Then there is the mid-point space which includes most of us when we are engaged in projects and tasks that involve a deliverable and a timeline for completion.

Being Seen To Be Busy

Organisations that have a culture of busyness can become cultures of "being seen to be busy".

I recall the first major IT programme I worked on 25 years ago and being impressed with the endless rows of hundreds of business analysts and software developers beavering away on their laptops.

After I had been there a few days I came to realise that most of them were not working productively and were just filling in their time looking busy.

Being Seen To Be Busy

Needless to say this IT programme was failing and my remit was to work with the programme manager and programme director to resolve the problems and help them get it back on track.

The issue that led to this rampant "being seen to be busy" culture was the failure of the middle managers to provide their teams with clear objectives and defined deliverables.

They blamed the client company for lack of clarity about the requirements. But the real problem was that the programme manager and the programme director whilst being exceptionally bright and technically competent did not have the capability to manage their managers in a way that delivered results.

I resolved this by bridging that gap and giving the the teams very clear and precise instructions, addressing all points of clarification, and giving them defined deliverables against fixed milestones. Then I managed them very closely to get the results.

We changed the culture to a delivery mentality and encouraged slack time to be used productively in reflection and informal discussions to come up with creative solutions and solve problems.

We delivered this $50 million dollar programme in budget and on time.

My experience on this programme, and in many other business situations, has convinced me that the return on investment [ROI] on slack time can massively exceed the apparent cost of lost short-term productivity.

    Slack is functional capacity sacrificed for long-term gain and survival.

Slack Versus An Obsession With Efficiency

Slack Versus An Obsession With Efficiency

Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency and try to ensure that every resource is fully utilized. These organizations often have a culture where people are expected to work ridiculously long hours.

In our personal lives many of us are also obsessed with the chimera of maximum efficiency, and we stuff our schedules full of tasks that occupy every waking hour.

But this corporate and personal obsession with efficiency fails to understand that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing, we need slack.

Many of us have come to expect work to involve no slack time because of the negative way it is seen

In a world of manic efficiency, slack often comes across as laziness or a lack of initiative.

Without slack time, however, we know we won’t be able to get through new tasks straight away, and if someone insists we should, we have to drop whatever we were previously doing. One way or another, something gets delayed.

This increase in busyness may well be futile, as author Tom DeMarco says:

“It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.

It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously.

In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.”

Getting To The Train On Time

I recall a situation about 15 years when I took my son to the railway station. This involved a drive from the small commuter town where we lived into the neighbouring city.

My son was aged about 20 at the time and obsessed with  a "just in time" mentality. [Or as I put, leaving things to the last minute.]

On the day in question my son had allowed just over 20 mins to catch his train. I was able to drive fast, there were no hold ups and we got to the station in 22.5 minutes and he caught his train.

I made the point that the driving conditions had been exceptionally favourable and normally I would allow  45 minutes to make this journey, 30 minutes for the drive and a further 15 minutes for unexpected hold ups.

He did not agree.

The next time he needed a lift to the station, he did not allow sufficient time, there were hold ups and the trip took 45 minutes and we arrived at the station late and he missed his train.

"I told you so!" were my parting words as he got out of the car.


When he returned a few days later I asked him how long he had had to wait for the next train. "I didn't" he said, "the train was delayed and late leaving so I caught it..." which rather undermined my position!

    Good companies excel in the creative use of slack, and bad ones only obsess about removing it.

Slack Allows Us To Deal With The Unknown

Black swan events

It comforts us to believe that the world works in simple and predictable models. While this may be true much of the time, there are rare and unpredictable events, known as black swans which are events that are difficult to predict, occur very occasionally and have potentially extreme consequences.

Because our standard models don’t take black swans into account, hidden risk looms behind seemingly safe and predictable events.

Rather than just maximizing our opportunities during non-black-swan times, survival depends on our ability to weather black swans.

In addition to black swan events, there are many unexpected things that can go wrong and work against us.

In all of these situations this is where slack helps us prepare for the unexpected by allowing us to have back ups and options.

The best way to be prepared for these unforeseen events is to understand and develop the qualities of antifragility. This is a phrase coined by Nassim Taleb and it describes  the quality of something that gets better, or thrives, in the presence of disorder.

Two Is One And One Is None

Members of the US military have a maxim: Two is one and one is none.

If you bring one piece of gear on a mission, it’s bound to break, and when it does, you’ll find yourself in trouble.

Far better to have not only a Plan A and a Plan B, but a Plan A, B, and C. Former Navy SEAL Richard J. Machowicz calls the intentional creation of strategic back ups “advantage stacking”:

“ want to stack so many of the advantages in your favor that, when the order comes, when the opportunity presents itself, you can’t help but win.”

Two is one and one is none” may sound fatalistic, but it’s also realistic; Murphy’s Law is far too often in effect.

To paraphrase Nassim Taleb:

    Slack is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens... usually.

Not Missing My Flight

I have always been a bit of a boy scout and always try to think ahead and think around corners and  try to prepare for the unexpected.

An example of this occurred before the pandemic, and before I left Singapore and returned to the UK.

When I am flying I have a habit of allowing an extra hour and half on top of the check in time advised by the airline. This is my wiggle room  to allow time for if the taxi is late or doesn't show up, or if the traffic is heavy and causes a delay.

I get to Changi airport early, order a coffee, set up my laptop and do some work. I take the view that as I am going to be working anyway, rather than do it at home, I might as well do it at the airport.

On this occasion I got to Changi early walked round to the back of the taxi to get my bag out of the boot only to find the taxi driver in a state of agitation. The key to the boot had broken and he couldn't open the boot.

Fast forward 2 hours and eventually I got my bag and headed up to the departure lounge - and still with time to spare.

Taking Advantage Of Slack

How much wiggle room do you have in your life?

Approximately 63% of Americans live from one pay check to the next, 40% could not meet an unexpected expense of $400 and 44% were living beyond their means before the pandemic started.

The figures here in the UK are similar with approximately 50% of the population financially vulnerable, that is to say who might be impacted by a financial event and have no mechanism to deal with it.

Life is uncertain. There are many threats to our health, wealth and general well-being.

The 2008 banking crisis brought the world within days of a systemic collapse of the world's financial systems. It has been said that society is only ever 5 days away from the stone age. We came close.

The debt has not disappeared it just shifted from the private sector to the state...

Here in the UK a recent BBC programme posed the question: Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?  It analysed and considered the contributory factors that have led to demise of many civilisations over the past 5,000 years and common factors include:

  • Climatic Change
  • Environmental Degradation
  • Inequality And Oligarchy
  • Complexity
  • External Shocks
  • Randomness/Bad Luck

Several of these factors are having global impact in the present age.

It's not just about money

One of the things I have noticed living and working in South East Asia is the difference in how much people support and help each other - in family networks and in neighbourhood networks.

The stronger societies such as Vietnam are those where mutual support  - via family and community networks - seems to part of the social DNA.

I would suggest that the strength or weakness of your personal family, neighbourhood and work related networks are an important measure of how much slack you have in your life.

It's not just about the big things

You may choose to take a fatalistic attitude to black swan events, but I would suggest that there are many ways in which you can create more slack in your everyday life to ease the stress of things going wrong. I have given a couple of simple examples above, and in my experience creating more slack is possible when we look for it.

The other benefit of having more slack in your life is that you give yourself the space to spot and exploit opportunities.

Focus on the consequences not the probability of it happening

As you are reviewing your everyday life and looking to introduce more slack, focus on the consequences of problems and opportunities [which you can know] and not on the probability of it happening [which you cannot know].

Build in slack where the consequences are greatest.

The cumulative effect of building slack into many areas of your everyday life can add up to can add up to disproportionately large benefits.

Key Point Takeaway:

    The value of slack in your life is the capability and capacity it gives you to make change in your life and the resource to deal with the unexpected.

    How much slack do you have in your life?

    Stop optimizing for the short term and start playing the long game.

    Accept less efficiency in the short term for far greater gains in the long term.

Further Reading:

Adopt The Boy Scout Mentality - "Be Prepared"

Next Article:

6 Tips To Help You Stop Trying Too Hard

Return from: "The Value Of Slack "

to: Walking The Talk

Or to: Mental Models

Contact me

English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


  1. The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

    Issues You'll Face When Playing The Long Game. The challenges of the road less traveled is loosely based around the phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with his book "The Road Less Traveled". This arti…

    Read More

  2. How To Benefit From the Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

    These Unseen Margins Can Have A Very Dramatic Impact On Your Life. To understand how to benefit from the unseen margins we need to start by understanding what they are and where we find them. In this…

    Read More

  3. The Art Of Thinking Clearly - How To Do More Than Just Survive And Reproduce

    3 Key Tips The art of thinking clearly starts with the sobering realisation that our brains are designed to achieve two things: Survival and Reproduction! 98% of our thinking is unconscious, automatic…

    Read More

  4. Algorithms to Live By - 5 Useful Rules Of Thumb

    5 Useful Heuristics From Algorithms To Live By The thesis of the book "Algorithms to Live By" is that algorithms developed for computers can be used by people in everyday life in a wide range of situa…

    Read More

  5. Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

    The Art Of Being Wise Is The Art Of Knowing What To Overlook. We are blessed and cursed to live in the digital age. We have access to more information than we can possibly handle yet we struggle to fi…

    Read More

  6. The Checklist Manifesto - Your Personal Safety Net

    A Checklist Is A Safety Net That Encourages Better Results And Prevents Avoidable Mistakes. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correc…

    Read More

  7. How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

    How To Avoid The 7 Causes Of Everyday Stupidity. We are all capable of everyday stupidity as we undertake routine tasks in our business and working lives and also in our personal lives. This is not ab…

    Read More

  8. Beginners Mind And The Voice Of Experience

    Only The Experts Survived Evolution. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." These are the famous words of Shunryu Suzuki in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Min…

    Read More

  9. The Art Of Being Alone Is A Skill

    Let's Make Today A Good Day. You may not have chosen the condition of being alone, and it may have been imposed upon you by circumstances beyond your control, but your response to the situation is wit…

    Read More

  10. Intuition & Anxiety - Are There Angels Or Devils Calling Here?

    How To Tell The Difference Between Intuition and Anxiety. How do you know whether the voice of your intuition is real or just the product of your inner anxiety? We all struggle with these inner voices…

    Read More

  11. Like A Prayer - Life Is A Mystery

    It Isn't The Process Of Prayer That’s The Problem, It’s The Way It’s Framed. Regardless of what we feel about Madonna or her song the topic of prayer often arouses strong reactions. Usually, it is som…

    Read More

  12. Fear Of Missing Out - "I'll Have What She's Having!"

    We Follow The Herd - We Mimic Other People's Choices. Fear of missing out - or FOMO as it is popularly referred to - is the feeling that everyone else in your peer group is having much more fun than y…

    Read More

  13. Free - Self Improvement Resources

    Exercising Balance and Discernment. I have just updated these self improvement resources with a number of additional sources of material that are practical and can help you change your life. Check it…

    Read More

  14. Your Higher Self - Your Hardwired Portal To The Universe

    This Is The You That Is Beyond Your Thinking Mind. This is the big you, the transcendent you, the you that is often referred to as your higher consciousness or higher self. This is the you that acts a…

    Read More

  15. The Power Of Gratitude - It's Good For You!

    Gratitude And Attitude Are Not Challenges, They Are Choices. The power of gratitude quite simply is that it is good for you! Many of us were raised by parents who instilled in us the social niceties o…

    Read More

  16. Living With Your Thoughts - 4 Tools To Help You

    Develop A Good Working Relationship With Your Mind. The first step in living with your thoughts is to understand and develop a good working relationship with all areas of your mind. The key to develop…

    Read More

  17. You Are Not Your Thoughts - How To Escape This Ferris Wheel Of Suffering

    The 4 Stages To Dealing With Your Thoughts. You are not your thoughts, at least that's what your rational mind tells you most of the time, but that's definitely not how it feels at 3 am when you have…

    Read More

  18. Finish What You Start - Action Will Destroy Your Procrastination

    4 Key Tips To Help You Finish What You Start. So why do you fail to finish what you start? Or in my case, why do I fail to even get started? There is a wealth of information out there about how to avo…

    Read More

  19. Going The Extra Mile - The Power Of One More

    Life Is Non-Linear, Which Makes The Rewards Of Continued Effort Disproportionately Big. In the pursuit of a long term goal you have to go countless extra miles to set yourself up for a big success. Go…

    Read More

  20. Tao Te Ching - Connecting To Your True Source Of Power.

    How To Be Lived By The Tao. The Tao Te Ching is one of those books that many people read, few understand, and even fewer put into practice. The only way to know the Tao is to experience it, and it is…

    Read More

  21. Dying To Self & Dropping The Ego

    Everything Does Not Revolve Around Me. The two phrases dying to self & dropping the ego are Christian and Buddhist expressions of the same fundamental truth - the need to correct the inbuilt, hardwire…

    Read More

  22. The Confident Mind - 4 Keys To Peak Performance

    Peak Performance Is Meditation In Motion. Peak performance is grounded in the Tao practise of Wu Wei which means "doing with out doing". This is all about how you take action by being so immersed in p…

    Read More

  23. Going With The Flow - The Balance Of Being And Doing

    Steer The Boat Each Day Rather Than Plan Ahead Way Into The Future. Going with the flow is about learning to become comfortable with uncertainty, and learning how to exploit the potential hidden withi…

    Read More

  24. 8 Principles For Success

    A Timeless Foundation On Which To Build Your Success. There are Universal laws and processes that work to support us and guarantee that we achieve all our goals. But first we need to know what they ar…

    Read More

  25. The Loving Father

    A Love That Will Not Let You Go. I had a loving father. I knew that I did, but I never felt it. My father was a good man but very damaged and unable to show his feelings. So I grew up knowing in my he…

    Read More

  26. Your Ebenezer Stone Of Help

    How To Stay Connected To Your True Source Of Power. Approximately 2,500 years ago the Israeli town of Kafr Qasim was close to the site of two battles between the ancient Israelis and their neighbours…

    Read More

  27. The Stockdale Paradox

    How To Deal With The Attrition Factor. The Stockdale Paradox is named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the American-Vietna…

    Read More

  28. Embrace Your Fear Of Failure And Uncertainty

    We Celebrate Success And Ignore Failure. Numerous studies have been undertaken on successful people to understand what it was that they did to become so successful, how they did it and when they did i…

    Read More

  29. The Wilderness Years - 3 Keys To An Exit

    How You Got Into The Wilderness Matters Less Than The Lessons To Be Learnt There. The wilderness years can be described as any lengthy time, longer than a year, that is spend aimlessly; without an imm…

    Read More

  30. Boredom – Your Greatest Threat to Results

    We Live In A World That Glorifies The Results And Not The Process. We all know what we should be doing, but the trouble with that is that sooner of later we get bored. The enjoyment fades, the excitem…

    Read More

Get new posts by email:


Support This Site