Slack Off

Who says being productive always means being busy? Not high-tech consultant Tom DeMarco. Here's why he's so up on downtime.

Back when the economy was booming, you got to the office at dawn, gulped down lunch at your desk, and had a to-do list so long that the workday often stretched past midnight. These days, however, things are different. Business is slow, layoffs seem to occur daily, and there just isn't as much work to be done. Now there is something new to worry about: How do you stay really busy?

Tom DeMarco thinks that's the wrong question. As a matter of fact, DeMarco, 60, a veteran high-tech consultant in Camden, Maine, is determined to give idleness a good name. Not that he's calling for out-and-out shirking, mind you. But in his new book, Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency (Broadway Books, April 2001), he argues that knowledge workers and their bosses should take advantage of periodic spans of "dead time" to rethink jobs, tune up departments — even reinvent the mission of entire companies. "The legacy of the nineties has been a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organizations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy," writes DeMarco. Particularly in an information economy, he says, it's a terrible mistake to strive for factory-like efficiency. In an interview with Fast Company, DeMarco shared his views about why we need to slow down.

Why do so many productive people have a hard time accepting the idea that a little slack is all right?

Social theorist Erich Fromm called it the "flight from freedom." There's a certain relief in doing just what people tell you to do. If there's a lot of work, it can be very tiring, but at the same time, there's less responsibility.

If you build in some slack so that you can try new things, you're going to be a novice at first. You aren't going to have any mastery of the subject. That's why change is so upsetting to companies. We need to create a climate that's safe for change, and that means not criticizing people if they aren't 100% efficient every minute of the day.

What are the smartest ways to slow down?

Team interaction is where slack is at its best. It can be a formal brainstorming session, or it can be something much more informal. That's how managers redesign projects on the fly. For example, some companies create explicit provisions so that such brainstorming can take place. But at authoritarian companies, trust has been spoiled to the point that people are hesitant to take advantage of such opportunities.

I often collect my thoughts while jogging. It's meditative time for me, and some meditative time is good. Things often come together in a more organic way when I'm not trying to make a formal outline.

How do we ensure that a little slack doesn't just degenerate into a bunch of well-paid people dawdling and swapping catty gossip at lunch?

If that's happening at your company, you've got a motivation problem.

At a healthy company — especially in an information economy — people tend to have a near-religious intensity about their work. They really want to do a good job. The best way to gauge that commitment is for people to ask themselves whether they really care about making others in the organization look good. It can be a coworker, a boss, or even a subordinate. But if people have that personal commitment, they are going to use slack to make the organization better — not to undermine each other.

You're recommending a little more slack for the rest of us. Tell us about your own work habits.

I work about six and a half hours a day. Remember, I'm an old guy, so I can't work extra-long hours anyway. I usually go for a run first thing in the morning. Then I start working at about 8:30 or 9, concentrating on my biggest project for that week. I work until 12:30, and then I have lunch and maybe do some gardening. Late in the afternoon, I get caught up on all of the little stuff. I don't allow myself to look at my email, for example, until the afternoon. I'm almost always done by 5:30.

Which companies have had the guts to take your advice?

Motorola did. They deliberately built slack into middle managers' schedules. After all, they're the ones who can do the most to reinvent what a company does and how it does it.

I've never worked in any detail with Microsoft, but look at what they do: They encourage sabbaticals, where people get the chance to do something different — and then come back to the company with a fresh perspective.

Who thinks that your ideas are dangerous?

I just did a talk in Los Angeles, and afterward, I got feedback forms. Most of the people loved it. But there was one person in the audience who wrote that I spoke "100% on the people side and 0% on the data-control documentation issue. It was a harmful presentation." Those were his exact words.

Some people have a vested interest in establishing rigid processes for everything and in getting every last bit of work that they can out of each employee. They find what I say disturbing. I call them talent-free managers.

Contact Tom DeMarco by email (tdemarco@systemsguild.com).

Sidebar: Slackitude Shall Set You Free

Just call him a modern-day Aesop. Computer programmer Chris Gottbrath unleashed all kinds of high-powered math to answer this timeless question: If you're running a long race, should you take the slow-and-steady approach or chill at the back of the pack and then sprint from behind to win?

Aesop gave the race to the turtles, but Gottbrath begs to differ. In the computer industry, he says, data-processing speeds are increasing so fast that for a project that takes 26 months or more, the first thing you should do is slack off. Go to the beach. Then come back after a few months, buy the newest computer you can afford, and get to work. You'll still finish ahead of those plodders who started earlier on what is now a slower, obsolete machine.

"I call it 'diligent laziness,' " says Gottbrath, 27, whose calculations can be found online (www.gil-barad.net/~chrisg/html). He and a few friends first developed these insights in 1999 as graduate students in astronomy at the University of Arizona. Then a mock-scientific summary of their findings based on Moore's Law of computational power was posted on Slashdot, where it attracted more than 200 responses, ranging from indignation to gleeful praise. (Note: The math is correct, even if the thesis is tongue-in-cheek.)

Now Gottbrath has taken a real job with Etnus, a software company near Boston. But his tardy habits haven't disappeared entirely. "I keep meaning to submit our work on slackitude to the Journal of Irreproducible Results," Gottbrath says. "But somehow, I just haven't gotten around to it."

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