Is Slacking Off the Key to Effectiveness?

Have you been caught in the downsizing of our recession? Are you doing two or three people's job? Is your boss hoping for efficiencies, but overlooking effectiveness?

Tom De Marco, in his new book Slack, argues that knowledge workers need "slack" time or "thinking time" to be more effective. It takes time to conceptualize and immerse yourself in an idea or problem. I find that when I burrow into a problem until I'm just on the edge of frustration and then take a walk or get out of the office for awhile, the answer just comes to me. And it's usually an answer I wouldn't have gotten if I was working on another task.

The Myth of Efficiency
De Marco argues that downsizing has heaped more work on fewer people causing them to relentlessly switch from one task to another. On the surface you might think that people could get more done, but De Marco suggests that it really incurs a significant penalty. If every task takes 10 minutes to prepare, you lose 10 minutes. I remember a Booz Allen study from the 1980s that suggested that an interruption (phone or visit) can cost you up to 30 minutes to restart the task you were doing.

You've probably had an experience of the "flow" state; you're really cooking on some project and time seems to stand still. "Slack" argues that we all need some time of "not doing" to enhance our effectiveness when we get into flow.

Burnout and Turnover
De Marco also argues that there is a high cost for this task switching behavior: burnout and turnover. His formula for the cost of hiring a new employee is:
(Time to get up to speed x salary + Overhead) * 50%
If it takes a new employee six months to get up to speed, then every time someone leaves, the company loses an employee, their knowledge, and THREE MONTHS.

Most companies advertise for new hires using language like "unlimited possibilities" or "new opportunities." From the perspective in my book Motivate Everyone, this language will attract revolutionary-innovators, but most companies need evolutionary-processors to get the day-to-day work done. So, if you advertise for employees who have a high need for revolution and innovation (a 12-18 month change cycle), you'll increase your turnover rates and costs. If, instead, you advertise for "process-minded individuals who want to improve the business," you'll get people with a 5-7 year change cycle and automatically reduce your turnover.

Balance and Effectiveness
Are you a revolutionary or evolutionary? An innovator or a processor? Do you give yourself some slack, or fill your day-timer to overflowing?

I like to get up a little early every morning to have a cup of coffee and think. This is my "slack" time. Sometimes I like to dream about the future, sometimes I'm drawn into the present. At work I like to take an occasional walk or run an errand that someone on my staff could do, but I need some slack.

How are you going to adjust your day to create a little slack? Create some time to let your unconscious find answers and direction from the seemingly boundless information that bombards us each day.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."