Slack Budget: 3 surprise problems per week

by Raemon3 min read25th Feb 20206 comments

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Previously: Slack

In a couple earlier articles I urged people to adopt strategies that reliably maintain a margin of "30% slack." I've seen lots of people burn out badly (myself included), and preserving a margin of resources such that you don't risk burning out seems quite important to me. 

But I realized a) "30% slack" isn't very clear, and b) this is an important enough concept it should really have a top-level post.

So, to be a bit more obvious:

Maintain enough slack that you can absorb 3 surprise problems happening to you in a week, without dipping into reserves.

"Surprise problems" can take multiple forms. These can be financial expenses you didn't know about (whoops, I needed to buy some medicine), or cognitive attention (whoops, I need to figure out what medicine to buy) or stress (whoops, I'm sick, and now I need to talk to a bunch of doctors while being kinda exhausted).

These can be problems happening to you, or problems happening to friends that you care about.

Why "3 surprises", and not just one? Because at least a couple times a year I personally run into 3-surprises-in-a-week. And sometimes I get hit with much bigger things require me to burn my reserves, and if I didn't have a habit of ensuring my reserves I just wouldn't be able to do those things at all.

I was motivated to write this today because, last week, four problems came up. I had recently taken on two major projects; a community institution was in trouble, and a friend was hurt and needed help. I only had bandwidth to deal with 3 of those. I realized that not only was this a particularly bad week, but I had let too many ongoing responsibilities accumulate.

The weekend came 'round, right as I hit exactly-zero-slack. I needed time to recover, but I had made some time-sensitive commitments to help with some of the above things, and I ended up having to spend the weekend doing a more constrained version of those outstanding obligations, while carefully recovering.

Being Pro-Social Requires Slack

I think an important part of being a good friend, community member or effective altruist, is taking care of yourself. I think if you can't absorb 3 surprise problems per week, it probably make sense to prioritize fixing that above most other things. 

"But my friend is in trouble!"

That's legitimately sad, but if you can't absorb 3 surprise problems per week, you are probably not going to be able to help your friend next week. Moreover, you might burn out, then you will need to be asking other friends for help, and you might need to ask that at a time when they were also hurting. 

Take care of yourself.

"But the world is in trouble!"

The world is always in trouble. There is no end to the things you might hypothetically do to help it. It is virtuous to help. It is not virtuous to help in a way that runs the risk of you becoming one of the people who need help and are adding to the problem.

"But maybe I can do this and it'll be fine?"

One of the legitimately tricky things is that, sure, often you can roll the dice and come out fine this time. Many extra tasks you take on are usually okay, but have, say, a 10% chance of turning out to involve much bigger responsibilities than you thought you were committing to. You can skirt by a few times and be okay.

But, well, if you do that 10 times, one of the times you will turn out not to be okay.

Developing intuitions around how risky actions are, and developing policies for how often to do them, is pretty important.

"But I made commitments!"

I take commitments pretty seriously. Trust is one of the sources of slack. So if you've suddenly realized you've overcommitted, often the solution is not to abruptly abandon all of them. 

But, it is often necessary to abandon at least some, while making sure to take ownership of that abandonment, perhaps with a promise to pay back a favor later.

Develop Weekly Capacity and Build Reserves

That all said, I quite sympathize if you see your friends hurting or the world on fire or even just lots of cool parties that you want to go to even if you need to recharge.

There are various things you can do to build up that capacity. Get a better job. Carefully cultivate friendships that are naturally restorative most of the time. Find a good living situation. Invest in habits that that eventually make things easier.

This isn't a selfish thing to do for yourself, it should be coming out of your long-term improve the world budget.

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Anna T from Facebook notes: “I like this, but basically never meet this standard for myself. I feel like I’d never be able to do anything meaningful if I stuck to this.”

This is an important enough point that it kinda makes me want to rewrite the final section of the essay dramatically to account for it better. 

[FB didn’t let me copy paste exact wording. Grrr FB! Copying this over by hand to make it easier for me to get around to this later]

I'm a big fan of slack & overprovisioning. It applies to systems as well as individuals - if you're tuned for 100% utilization at anything less than lifetime peak instant, you're going to run out at some point. Worse, fragmentation of capacity (if you're heavily-scheduled, all the free slots are spread out and small, and you have to move things to make use of the room you have) and context-switching costs can be significant, in addition to real value.

I'm not sure I share the framework of "avoid dipping into reserves" - this is what reserves ARE. they're the slack that lets you be efficient.

I think “tiered levels of reserves with increasing costs” is a more general description, out of which the “frequently dip into short-term reserves during normal operations” (even biological cycles of sleeping and eating involve that) and “hesitate before dipping into longer-term reserves because it might signal either something else avoidably wrong or the need to change other plans to compensate” fall from different points in the continuum.

I like this conceptualization a whole lot. Structure your reserves such that the replenish rate matches the frequency of need: it's OK to dip into daily reserves once a day or so, and monthly reserves about once a month. If you have recently used more of your reserves (or something is coming up that you predict will need more), you should restructure a bit to increase your replenishment rate.

In this case reserves meant something like "the stuff that doesn't automatically replenish within a week." In the case of money, this'd literally be "the amount of money you make in a week minus living expenses." Sometimes you make bigger purchases, but you should reflect before you do.

It's a bit subtler/weirder for non-money things. There is some rate at which you (or, at least, I) can call in favors, or pull all-nighters, or deal with intense social drama, before it starts affect my ability to accomplish my usual day-to-day-activities. For example, if stay up late cramming to finish one assignment for work, I can still go into work the next day and do my job. If I did that for a week, I'd become less effective.

What counts as "reserves" depends both on how many recurring obligations you have, and how much resources you have.

Suppose that having the right amount of slack is important, and that the right amount is enough to handle three surprise problems per week. What actions would one take based on that?

Well, this sounds like it’s about figuring out how much capacity to use, so:
Notice whether you have more or less than you should; if you have more, use it more freely and/or de-prioritize getting it; if you have less, try to use less or get more. Do this independently for several types of slack.

(And at the level more concrete than that are specific things you can do to build up capacity. Which is a hard problem in its own right, and an important one.)

But does slack in fact behave like a limited capacity or resource? Financial slack does, sure. Attention, less so, in that you can’t save it up for later. To what extent stress does is an open question, as far as I know.

But in my experience there are many kinds of surprise problem where handling them is less like spending a resource, and more like making a saving throw: there’s a chance of success mostly based on your own abilities in the domain, and mostly not based on how many other problems you’ve had recently.