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]

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  • Carol Sheahan

    Love the comparison to one's monetary situation. Building in slack time is just like paying yourself first, don't you think? I try to build in slack time each day by blocking out my calendar so that I have, in essence, booked a meeting with myself. And I stay true to that time unless it is a dire emergency. I find that if I don't do this, others suddenly become the ones in control of my time.

  • Alana H.

    Excellent reminder of better time management. Slack allows for more flexibility and organization, which leads to a more balanced and less stressful life. Incorporating slack into my work life and even home life seems so practical, yet genius. I will start next week to see how it goes.

  • everyfrog

    What I find really sad is that this article had to be written... that these thoughts have to be vocalized, to remind people to take time for themselves, that we've become so busy and so in-demand that we have to "schedule" slack to allow us to get from one place to another or even to breathe. That's great for the ego but what does it do for the rest of the body, mentally and physically? This year was a breakdown year for me, realizing why am I so damn exhausted and tired and busy and not enjoying all the things that are making me busy. That's where I started to learn the word "NO" and realizing what is important in life. Good article, just sad that it had to be written. 

  • Gretchen

    When I was consulting and charging for my time by the hour, clients got discounted rates for a half day, a full day, or 2, 3 or 4 day commitment. 

    But they were charged a premium if they wanted me for 5 days in a row.

  • Paul H. Burton

    Laura: Today's work world exists in dire time poverty. Ironically, we have as much time today - 24 hours - as we did 100 years ago, but people today feel much more constrained. The flow of information has increased and the demands on our time are more numerous, but the important stuff still needs to get done, just like it did in days gone by.

    One area where we can increase our available time is to reduce the amount of unnecessary email flying around. To-date, solving the 'email problem' has been approached as a receiver-centric issue. There is value to that. How we handle messages can be efficient or inefficient. But what if we reduced the overall number being sent? What if we went all Six-Sigma on email and got lean about our production? A new company is doing just that with their clients. Reprisemail - - is helping clients recover the time and productivity lost to unnecessary email being generated internally. Just creating thirty minutes more a day of productive time drives a huge sense of relief and more work gets done.

    Another great trick - one I've given audiences for years at my seminars - is to cut 25% out of all meetings. That makes a 60-minute meeting 45 minutes long and a 30-minute meeting 25 minutes long. Like the known unknown, many of those shorter meetings will run long, but many won't. If even one of them finishes on the new ending time each day, we pick 1.25 hours of time per week to do other things. More of those types of tricks can be found in my book "Focus Pocus: 24 Tricks for Regaining Command of Your Day" which is available on Amazon.

    I firmly believe in taking command of our time, which is represented by how we process information, create information, prioritize work and manage our schedule. After all, it's our 24 hours and they're in limited supply. We must make the best use of them that we can!

  • Rebecca

    Yes, my slack day is actually Monday. I keep Monday open, mostly because I work conventions and other social gatherings over the weekend. I work from home on Monday, can schedule my personal errands and get off on the right foot, hitting the floor running on Tuesday. If I have a pressing due date, that's the day I focus on it, helping the rest of the week glide by.

    Will forward to other friends in my circle who may benefit from more slack time in their scehedule.

    Thanks! RR

  • Lvanderkam

     @Rebecca- makes total sense to have Monday be the slack day if weekends involve a lot of networking. Since I tend to plan things on a weekly basis, I need my slack later in the week, but it depends on how people work best.