Respecting slack time

· January 25, 2018

As a consultant and coach, I find it very fascinating to see how the same topic has a tendency to arise in many different place and conversations I’m in. All of sudden everyone needs to chat about flow, or estimation or what-have-you.

I like telling stories, as a mean to teach and explain abstract concepts. Often when I’ve told a story once it has a way to surface back into conversations in the near future. I partly blame it on my limited imagination, but when it fits the conversation it’s interesting to notice how you tell the same thing several times a day.

The last couple of days people have been asking me about slack, and I’ve related a story about the pastor that married me and Elin. He was excellent in manage his own time and respected a good slack!

Slack, in this context, is the time you get when you actually don’t have anything to do right now. While that sounds like an improbability it actually happens to you several times a day;

  • You just finished a task and there are only 10 minutes to the next meeting. No use starting a new task
  • You arrived at the bus stop just to see the bus leave. Time to wait.
  • The work that you were going to together with your coworker cannot start until she arrives.

Blocked work and slack

Sometimes slack happens due to the way our work works. For example when your work is blocked by others. Let’s say that you have a policy of a limit of the number of items you are working on simultaneously (I hope you do. If not try it - it will help you). 2 items. No more.

What should you do now? You cannot start more work, due to the limit. Now you have slack-time. How should you use this precious time?

This is where innovation, improvements and better flow happens. A few suggestions:

  • Ask others if they need help - flowing their work faster.
  • Do something that is not urgent but important. Fix something that helps you move faster later, for example.
  • Learn something
  • Rest, go for a walk to freshen up your head
  • Go over to the people that are blocking your work and talk to them, to see if you together can unblock the work.

The good thing about all of these tasks is that they are not urgent. Not one of them. You can do this at your leisure.

Also, the thing that you end up doing with your slack time; make it something that you can put aside easily. This way, once one of your tasks is unblocked you can switch over to that. Don’t pick up something urgent, because then you increased the work in process and the likelihood that you will not be able to work with the urgent items once they are unblocked.

Slack is not idle

Slack is not a dirty word, as Julia blogged about, but has often been used as such in our workplace. Slack doesn’t mean put your feet up but is rather a break from full utilization.

Especially if you are doing development of any kind, leadership or innovation you need some spare time to let your brain process and think. If you keep the brain busy producing there’s no capacity left to reflect and think. I’m reminded of Daniel Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking — if you only allow yourself to do fast, reflex thinking there will be no slow, improvement thinking. I’ve once heard it stated like this (might be me messing up a quote, but still good advice):

Without slack — no improvement


Two comments on what I just wrote:

Software development is innovation. I’m convinced of that. Software manufacturing would be CTRL-C+CTRL-V. Bam! Manufactured. But development is not like that. The thinking, problem-solving part is the hard part. Writing the code is “just” translating that thinking into a programming language.

Also, did you noticed what I snuck in the previous section? “If you only allow yourself to do …” Yes. It’s a choice. That you get to make. You can decide to take time to reflect.

In order to explain that last part, you first need to meet Hasse - the Salvation Army officer (pastor) that married me and Elin. At the time Hasse was the leader of the Salvation Army in Sweden and naturally very busy. However, he agreed to marry us, which we greatly appreciated since we know him well.

Naturally, we had a hard time find a time to prepare with him and went back and forth with many date suggestions. I remember that I suggested: “How about Thursday afternoon, around 16?”. The answer will stay with me forever:

No. I can’t do that time. I’m free.

[giving time to process the wisdom]

There. Yes. He was free at that time and would not change that. He knew, as a leader of a large organization, that he needs that time to process, breath and reflect.

Any person needs that time but it is particularly important if you are a leader to have slack in your schedule. Because leadership, I’ve come to notice, is about being there, being a beacon of the culture and acting the values of the company. If I, as a leader, am busy all the time - what signal am I sending to the organization? Leadership amplifies someone told me.

What to do then, Mr smartypants?

Just this week I was coaching a leadership team that had a really hard time to find finding time for retrospection, being together and the slow thinking that Mr. Kahneman talks about. Interesting enough, once we finally found time to do a retrospective we reminded ourselves that we had decided to make time for those things - but failed miserably.

I then suggested that it’s not about making time, but rather taking time (Honestly… very proud of the play on word. Not hiding it.)

That is; everyone has 8-12 (yes… that happens) hours to work per day. You cannot beat the system. Even if you throw in extra hours there will be extra work to do. Especially as a leader. Leadership will be needed.

Instead, we need to prioritize time for slack. Take time for lower urgency work. I’ve coached more than one team where we have put in meeting time called “Free” (thanks, Hasse).

Fridays 12-14 - Free time for the team. Sit together, learn, get to know each other, do non-urgent-work.


Take time for slack. It is good for you.

Respect that time. Be Hasse. Be professional about your recovery, spare and innovation time.

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