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Creating Slack: The Quick Scheduling Trick To Make Your Week Most Productive

Constantly canceling appointments, showing up late, and rushing from thing to thing is a terrible way to spend your time. The answer? Build slack into your schedule. Here's how.

I work on Fridays. But if you look at my calendar on a good week, you wouldn’t think I do.

I got in the habit of leaving Fridays open a few years ago when I realized that packing my calendar too tightly was an invitation to disaster. I’d write down my priorities for the week and assign each priority a time, but inevitably, things would come up. These could be not-so-great things, like fitting in a doctor visit, or good things: a quick-turn-around assignment at a new publication, an invitation to a lunch I wouldn’t want to miss. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, these were "known unknowns." I didn’t know what would come up, but I knew something would.

Having open Fridays, I decided, would let me bump projects there. My priorities wouldn’t have to roll over into the next week, which probably had its own deadlines.

I’ve long called Fridays my "mop-up" day, but I came across a better word for this concept while reading Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif’s new book, Scarcity. The word they use for open space? Slack.

While Mullainathan and Sharif, an economist and a psychologist, spend most of their book talking about the decisions people make under the stress of monetary poverty, time poverty comes up, too. When time is in short supply, you start obsessing about it. You think about deadlines even during your days off. You may have trouble sleeping, which hardly helps with work performance. In the worst case scenario, you "borrow" time at high interest rates from the weeks to come. When a meeting runs long, you cancel another and then double book a time slot in the future. You stack new deadlines on top of each other, as if time will somehow magically expand beyond the 24 hours per day the universe grants us. It’s much like someone short on cash taking out a payday loan. You suffer from the usury—but at least you get the cash now. Tomorrow, you hope, will sort itself out.

But when will you have slack? Having slack in your schedule is the equivalent of being a millionaire in the grocery store. If the yogurt isn’t on sale and apples are 30 cents more a pound than they were last year, it’s all good. You don’t even notice these things, because paying a bit more at the register doesn’t require you to trade off things you actually care about, the way someone of lesser means might need to do. Slack in your schedule likewise lets you laugh off a late meeting or shrug if someone misses a deadline by a few hours. You’ve got space to cope. And that space lets you make calmer decisions than you would make in its absence.

To be sure, scheduling open time when you’re swamped seems crazy. When you’ve got dozens of people asking for time, keeping 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. open on your calendar three days a week feels almost selfish.

But the truth is, constantly canceling, showing up late, and rushing from thing to thing is also selfish. It keeps you from giving people your best.

Slack in your schedule means the trains run on time and you can seize opportunities that come to you. Time is a limited resource, but with enough slack, it doesn’t feel that way. You have time for whatever matters to you.

Do you leave slack in your schedule?

[Image: Flickr user José Manuel Ríos Valiente]