Productivity is Impossible Without Slack

The secret to better productivity is to sometimes slack off.

It’s counter-intuitive, I know. But to get the most out of yourself, you need to leave some time unplanned, unstructured, and completely free.

One of the most influential books I’ve read that’s indirectly about productivity is Scarcity: Why having too little means so much (2013) by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The books explains, through both theory and research findings, how scarcity affects behavior and to some degree cognition. Understanding what scarcity does to the mind is absolutely crucial to any discussion about productivity.

The Scarcity Mindset

Scarcity refers to a lack of any resource, which could be money, food, time, or something else entirely. What’s important to understand is that scarcity can be replicated in a lab. Researchers can—and have—run experiments that put people who are wealthy, healthy, functioning adults into situations where they were short on a resource. Regardless what that resource was, the results would almost always be the same.

When we experience scarcity, we worry about managing the little resources we do have, and we expend a lot of mental energy to try and make ends meet. Again, don’t think of scarcity just in terms of money. Think about time. Or think about child care resources. When we don’t have enough of something we need, other areas of life often suffer as an indirect result. Mullainathan and Shafir explain:

“The poor are not just short on cash. They are also short on bandwidth. … The same person when experiencing poverty—or primed to think about his monetary troubles—did significantly worse on several tests. He showed less flexible intelligence. He showed less executive control. With scarcity on his mind, he simply had less mind for everything else.”

So much of what we do day to day relies on having adequate bandwidth. When one thing taxes our bandwidth, something else that requires bandwidth suffers. For example, if you’re preoccupied with getting your house ready for a party, you might not have the bandwidth to deal with your kid getting floss stuck in his teeth. Most of the time we don’t think about “bandwidth” as such. We just say, “I can’t handle that right now because I’m dealing with this.”

When bandwidth is taxed, the first thing to go is usually stuff we keep in our working memory, or “prospective memory,” like remembering to change the oil in the car or refill your medication.

Think about it: When you’re stressed at work because you don’t have enough time or resources to get things done, what slips first? It’s often something like picking up school supplies for the kids, returning phone calls, or the sixth thing on your mental shopping list that you have now forgotten to buy. These are all important things to remember, but they are not immediate life-or-death important.

To have more bandwidth or resources than you need is to have slack.

Slack and Productivity

To truly make the most of our productivity, slack is crucial.

It’s hard to convince people, however, that the key to being more productive is to not use all your resources. Intentionally creating slack means leaving something to spare. The whole concept of increasing productivity relies on the idea that we should use every resource to its fullest and in the most efficient way. To create slack completely counters that premise.

To be as productive as we can be, however, we do in fact need to protect ourselves, as much as possible anyway, from experiencing scarcity. Part of the way to do that is to protect our slack.

Slack is nothing more than wiggle room. It’s extra padding that absorbs problems. Let’s take the case of preparing the house for a party when your kids (or pet) suddenly gets into trouble. If your goal was to be as efficient as possible, you probably budgeted your time to clean, decorate, and cook so that the food would be fresh and hot right as the guests arrived. More experienced party hosts, however, know that it makes sense to prepare food the night before. Why? To give yourself slack. Preparing food in advance enables you to leave extra time, focus, and energy to deal with anything that goes awry, whether it’s the dog knocking over the garbage can or a kid getting his head stuck in the staircase banister.

One concrete example for how to protect slack at work, at least in terms of time, is to put an artificial limit on the number of meetings you take in a day or a week. One meeting is fine. Two might be pushing it. Upon receiving a third meeting request, you might automatically turn it down, or at the very least reschedule the least important meeting that’s already on your calendar. You need to give yourself time to process what happens in the meetings, follow up on any actions tasked to you, prepare for the next meeting, and leave a little room to tackle any problems that arise.


Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.

Photo by Rocio Pilar, CC.


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