Time management is the modern obsession. Conventional wisdom says that we should be squeezing every drop out of our lives. It’s all about productivity, success and doing more.
If this sometimes leaves you feeling a little weary and discouraged, take heart. Science offers strong arguments on why you should embrace slack.
In economics, slack refers to unemployed resources. The premise is that all capital and labor should produce goods and services, all the time. There’s no place for idleness — economics isn’t called the dismal science for nothing.
But management scientists studying the role of resources within businesses find an unexpected relationship between slack and performance. Much of their research suggests that slack is beneficial.
The five papers discussed below are all from business schools. Apply the lessons learnt from companies to your own life. The results may surprise you.
1. Creating space for change
Entrepreneurial firms are innovative, proactive and take risks. They put their time and money towards realizing their goals. They’re not discouraged by failure. The same applies to entrepreneurial individuals.
So what does it take to be entrepreneurial? Mathew Hughes and colleagues looked at the entrepreneurial orientation of German firms. They found that slack resources promote entrepreneurial orientation. This makes sense. Trying something new takes time, costs money and may yield nothing.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need slack in your life. Working sixty hours a week to pay the interest on three credit cards is not going to give you space for change.
One conclusion of this study was that slack breeds slack, in a good way. Firms that used slack resources to be more entrepreneurial became more profitable. More profitable firms have more resources. And those firms that kept devoting slack resources to entrepreneurship created a positive spiral of innovation.
2. Working together to build something great
A recent study by Ajay Agrawal and colleagues obtained data from Kickstarter. They looked at projects launched over a period of six years. They found that most happen during university breaks. When engineering students are on holiday, engineering projects appear on Kickstarter. The same applies in the fields of art and design.
Why? Well, the authors point out that innovation is costly. Above all, it takes time. People have more ideas when they have more time. Most of these are bad ideas, even when they are sober. The Kickstarter data reflect this. But good ideas — valuable projects — also increased during breaks.
In addition, complex projects shaped by teams increased when students were on vacation. It’s easier for several people to get together and work on an idea when they all have free time.
A conclusion of this study is that slack time is crucial to teamwork. Organizations such as Google have already taken this on board. Google has always allowed employees time to experiment. They now similarly encourage team building and collective innovation.
3. Learning and creating knowledge
Anders Richtnér and coworkers examined organizational slack during new product development. New product development requires teams with diverse skills working together to create knowledge. In this context, slack relates to product deliverables and human competence.
When people work together, they learn by experience, through socialization. They also learn by others sharing experiences. When people discuss their specific knowledge, they can create something new by combination.
In general, a reduction in slack caused a reduction in knowledge creation. Tighter deadlines and pressure to deliver translated into less discussion between workers. Downsizing project teams led to loss of competencies.
The researchers found that people also internalize knowledge better when there is more slack.
Learning requires listening, watching, discussing and thinking. More of the same goes into creating new knowledge. Anyone who has read The Double Helix will know that James Watson and Francis Crick spent much of their time slacking. The results include the human genome project and Dolly the sheep.
4. Being on time
Being late is common because travel planning is a complex problem. Yinghui Wu and coworkers should know. They research public transport networks. Their paper, in Transportation Research Part C, describes a mathematical model for developing bus timetables.
The mathematics of the bus timetabling model is beyond most of us. The authors resort to an algorithm based on evolution theory to solve their problem. Nonetheless, we can all learn something from their findings.
It turns out that the key to punctuality is slack. Travel times are not predictable. You may know that it takes fifteen minutes to drive to work. Or an hour by train. Except when the train is late and there’s a stalled car in your lane.
Add slack to your estimated travel time. Give yourself extra time as a buffer against randomness. When things go wrong, you won’t have to stress about being late. If you’re early, use the time to grab a coffee, meditate or call your mom. Or come up with your next idea for Kickstarter.
5. Feeling better by doing better
Erming Xu and colleagues study corporate social performance. Corporate social performance takes in business ethics, environmental protection, philanthropy and employee welfare. Responsible companies also contribute to their local communities.
The researchers studied over a thousand public companies in China. They found a positive correlation between slack and corporate social performance. Companies with available resources allocated these to social welfare.
It’s easier to give when you have slack. Witness Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Or the army of retirees volunteering everywhere. Giving makes people feel good. There’s science to prove it. So, create some slack in your life and donate. You’ll be happier for it.
Hughes, M., Eggers, F., Kraus, S. and Hughes, P., 2015. The relevance of slack resource availability and networking effectiveness for entrepreneurial orientation. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, 26(1), pp.116-138.
Richtnér, A., Åhlström, P. and Goffin, K., 2014. “Squeezing R&D”: A Study of Organizational Slack and Knowledge Creation in NPD, Using the SECI Model. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 31(6), pp.1268-1290.
Wu, Y., Tang, J., Yu, Y. and Pan, Z., 2015. A stochastic optimization model for transit network timetable design to mitigate the randomness of traveling time by adding slack time. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies, 52, pp.15-31.
Xu, E., Yang, H., Quan, J.M. and Lu, Y., 2015. Organizational slack and corporate social performance: Empirical evidence from China’s public firms. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 32(1), pp.181-198.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash.