On Slack - Having room to be excited

by Neel Nanda13 min read10th Oct 20207 comments

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Slack

A few months ago, I came across a concept called Slack, and I have found this an increasingly valuable lens for understanding my life. Slack is, roughly, having spare capacity in my life. Not being pushed to my limits. Having downtime and room to explore. Being robust to small risks. Not feeling constantly stressed and anxious, having things weighing on my mind. In this post, I’m going to explore the concept of Slack, why the default state of the world is to lack slack, why this matters, and some thoughts on what to do about this.

I first came across the concept in this post by Zvi, and it’s written fairly abstractly. And for good reason! I’ve struggled to articulate precisely what the concept really is. So, to see whether this resonates, here are some examples of what having Slack looks like:

  • If an urgent task comes up, you can reprioritise, put off your current work, and take care of it
  • If you’re tired and have spent the morning getting nothing done, this is fine. You can stop working early, take a long break, write the day off entirely, and get back to things tomorrow
  • If you come across something awesome, you can put off what you’re currently doing to take a few hours to dive deeply into it, and see what comes out of it
  • If you have an unexpected expense - you break something expensive, fall ill, etc - it’s not a big deal, your savings can absorb it

I think Slack is an incredibly important component of having a life worth living! Having Slack gives you freedom. You have room to explore, be spontaneous and try new things. You have room to zoom out, reflect on your life, notice problems and fix them. You can take the time and energy to break out of whatever bad local optima you’re stuck in. You can relax - life always contains risks and setbacks, but you know that you’ll be able to deal with them when they arise. You can be free of constant short-term anxiety.

I’m labouring this point, because the default state of the world is that your life lacks Slack. It is obvious that Slack is important when phrased like this - zoomed out, in the abstract. But Slack is defined as something you can spend. There is a delicate balance between being willing to use your Slack where appropriate, but also realising that it is a quantity worth treasuring - something to cherish, prioritise and guard.

And there are times when it is exceptionally hard to have Slack! Due to life circumstances, like illness or money problems. By choice, eg by choosing to do an intensive job or degree for long-term reward. But I think there are also many times where Slack is spent needlessly. Where you always allocate your spare capacity away to the next priority, always trying to make your life optimal in the moment. Without noticing the bottlenecks you’re creating, and what you’re giving up. And this post is aimed at noticing ways you waste your Slack, making it clearer what you’re giving up, and seeing if it’s really worth it.

Units of Exchange

Digressing somewhat from Slack, a related lens I find useful is the idea of units of exchange. We often think of our lives in terms of quantifiable resources, such as time and money. This is valuable, because we often trade-off between these two resources, by trading one for the other, and tracking resource costs can tell us whether it was a good trade! For example, often jobs are just a way to trade time and labour for money. Going the other way, we often pay money to save time. For example, I made this website with Squarespace and pay a fair bit more for that than a free alternative, but I save a lot of time due to things just working.

The idea of units of exchange is to introduce more abstract resources. Harder to quantify but important things, such as energy, willpower, sleep, focused time, attention, health, etc. Everything we do in life is a trade-off, but often we’re trading these more abstract resources too, and thinking about them can make it clear what the actual trade off is. Examples:

  • I’d pay for an Uber home rather than taking the time to walk if late at night, but not during the day - during the day I’m trading money for time, at night I’m trading money for sleep
  • I’d prefer to take a train to work than drive, even if it takes longer, because I can take the time on the train to read or get work done - the true trade isn’t for time, it’s for productive time
  • I turn off all notifications when I’m working - it takes the same amount of time to respond now vs later, but the real cost is to my attention and focus

This mindset can sound obvious at first, but it’s often insightful when trying to diagnose a problem. For example, when I feel overwhelmed and stressed, the right solution depends a lot on which resource I lack! Maybe I just don’t have enough time, and can resolve this by quitting something, or being less social. Maybe I don’t have enough sleep, so I’m being extremely unproductive in the time I do have, and I can resolve this with better discipline around bedtimes and not staying up. Maybe I’m too stressed, and I really need to focus on the root cause of what’s stressing me out so I can relax more.

Units of exchange can be hard to think about, because they’re difficult to quantify - we can’t just calculate exchange rates like we can with money and time, they’re too abstract. But often this isn’t decision relevant. Often the important thing is identifying bottlenecks - the resource(s) that I spend too much of, and don’t have enough of when I need them. And this is where units of exchange help us to understand Slack better. Your Slack is constrained by your tightest bottleneck. To really have Slack, you want to have spare capacity in all of your resources - enough energy and rest to pursue your interests, enough time to spare, enough willpower and attention to keep focused, enough money to be able to relax and try things.

And, accordingly, if you find a bottleneck, fixing this should be your priority. This is likely one of the biggest constraints on your life and your Slack. Notice where you spend it in your life, and ask whether you feel happy with this allocation. Ask yourself where you can cut back. If it’s money, look at your budget. If it’s time, think about your biggest commitments and time sinks, and think about what you least value. If it’s sleep, think about your sleep routine. If it’s willpower, think about the systems in your life. The question is not whether you can afford to give something up. You’re already giving up your Slack. The question is whether what you’d have to give up to fix it is better than what you’re already giving up. Everything is a trade-off

I find it valuable at this point to think in systems. It’s easy to notice a bottleneck and resolve to Try Harder and fix it. But your resources are spent in day-to-day life, bit by bit. If there is one big fix, then that’s awesome! Eg, an unnecessary time commitment you can just quit. But often the problem is from the default actions you take. Eg, bleeding attention away every time your phone buzzes. And the only sustainable solution is to change the default.

Exercise: Think about the abstract resources in your life. What feels like a bottleneck? What is holding you back? What feels missing? And once you’ve found one, think about how you spend it. Is there anywhere you could cut back? Are you happy with this allocation, and the Slack it costs you?

Naive Optimisation

Another failure to have Slack that I personally resonate with a lot stems from perfectionism, and a neurotic desire to “optimise” my life - what I call naive optimisation.

I’m a very big fan of true optimisation - which I consider to be defining goals, identifying the actions that best achieve those goals, and shaping my life so that the default path is to take those actions. I think this is awesome, and a big component of my personal growth over the past few years. But as I talk about in this post, there’s a failure mode of naive optimisation that I find it easy to fall into. Where there’s a neurotic voice in my head that, in every moment, uses guilt and stress to push me towards whatever action seems best in the moment.

And naive optimisation is terrible, because this inner voice is full of biases! It doesn’t account for the value of information and trying new things, that could go awesomely. It always needs to be in control, and fears vulnerability and risk. It’s a perfectionist, and holds me to unrealistically high standards. It takes energy to ignore, and is very hard to ever properly turn off.

But, for the purposes of this article this is important because naive optimisation will burn away your Slack. Slack is something to be guarded and protected to help with risks, to take opportunities, to respond to unknown unknowns. To embrace Slack is to inherently give up some aspect of control in my life. Slack is always precious, but rarely feels necessary. And so the neurotic voice in my head always wants to give it up. To be an overachiever, and take that extra course, since I obviously have time for it. To say yes to that extra commitment. To feel bad and guilty when I have time for rest, and am not pushing myself to my limits.

Needless to say, this is terrible. This mindset is a significant impediment to having an awesome and fulfilling life. Even without any true hard constraints, listening to the naive optimiser can burn away all of my Slack, without me ever realising what I’m giving up. Further, this is a bias. You fundamentally cannot trust yourself, in the moment, to properly protect and cherish your Slack, you need to have some form of manual override. Build systems to protect your Slack. Budget yourself time for things, and keep to it. Schedule yourself downtime, and make it feel sacrosanct.

I find this mindset similar to the one needed to take meaningful rest. It’s never necessary to take a break. And, for any single break, I might get more done if I don’t take it! And I often won’t feel like I need rest when it’s time to take a break. But if, on a policy level, I systematically don’t take enough breaks, then I get stressed, tired, unfocused and get way less done. So I need to overcome this systematic bias, create a manual override, and make the default action to take breaks even if it feels unnecessary. And that I can’t just listen to the naive optimiser in my head if I really want to win. Just so when it comes to preserving my Slack.

Motivation

Another area of my life that is extremely important to me is motivation. Specifically, the divide between intrinsic motivation - doing things because I want to, because I feel excited about them and driven - and extrinsic motivation - doing things because I have to, driving myself with guilt and obligation. And an ongoing quest is getting over the crutch of using extrinsic motivation for everything, and cultivating a life full of intrinsic motivation. Generally, I find intrinsic motivation far more fun and far more useful, but also far more fragile and easily lost, while extrinsic motivation is often easy and available, but rarely as effective as it could be.

And this is important in the context of Slack, because when I have low Slack, I feel like I need to try hard. Things feel scarce, I can’t afford to slack off, or take enough breaks. I need to push myself, and optimise. I need to pull out all the standard, available tools of guilt, obligation, unrealistic standards. I need to be in control. My life is driven by the voice of the naive optimiser, and I fall deep into extrinsic motivation. And, even if in reality, I do have Slack, so long as the naive optimiser is in control, I’ll still be stuck on this crutch of guilt based motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand is characterised by play, curiosity and exploration. Doing something because I want to, not because I have to. This can often be far more fulfilling and far more productive, but there is an inherent lack of control here. I need to be able to zoom out and give myself the room to explore. I can’t let the inner optimiser control every last detail of what I’m doing. To have intrinsic motivation, I must first have Slack.

To me, this highlights well the notion of Slack as spare capacity, the ability to break out of bad local optima. If I’m pushing myself hard, I am stuck in a local optima. It feels wrong to stop, to slack off. Even though doing this well could give me the room to feel excited about what I’m doing, and get far more done in the long-run, I must first have enough Slack to stop and reconsider.

This is an extremely salient problem to me at the moment, because I’m spending the next 3 months trying out academic research. And research is characterised by exploration, following curiosity, trying things and seeing what works. But it’s so easy to slip into the trap of guilt and obligation, to set myself unrealistic standards, and then push myself to meet them, without really giving myself the room to enjoy what I’m doing. (Suggestions on how to address this problem in research would be very highly appreciated!)

Exercise: Where do you use extrinsic motivation and guilt in your life? Are you happy with this? Have you given yourself the Slack to take a step away and try another approach?

Whimsy

I think there is an excellent utilitarian argument for the use of intrinsic motivation, and I feel confident it’s far more effective in the long-term. But this mindset feels like using extrinsic motivation to force myself to feel intrinsic motivation, which I think is doomed to failure. When aiming for an ambitious change like this, I try to imagine a future where I have achieved the change, and ask myself to explain how this happened. And I cannot imagine that change happening by thinking about how useful intrinsic motivation is, or how I really ought to feel it more often. Instead, I think the core skill for intrinsic motivation is to pursue something for its own sake.

There is a particular mindset I sometimes slip into, at the times when I do feel intrinsic motivation, that feels characteristic of a flow state. Where I’m not focused on long-term goals, and am living in the moment. Where I’m introspecting, in touch with the subtle hints of curiosity and excitement in my mind. Where I’m following this sense of curiosity and drive, pursuing whatever seems most exciting in the moment, and loving what I’m currently doing. I call this state of mind whimsy - being in touch with my emotions and my whims, in touch with what I really care, and following those where they lead. And I think that getting good at this mindset is key to a reliable source of intrinsic motivation.

This is not a mindset that comes to me particularly naturally, but the times when I have felt it have often been the most productive and more fun times I can remember. And I think this is a trainable skill - both one where I can practice slipping into the mindset, and where I can learn how to shape my life to encourage it. And it’s a skill that is extremely worth some short-term costs training, if I build it better into my life in the long-term. My ideal life wouldn’t be 100% pursuing whimsy, but it would be a fairly large long-term component.

And this isn’t a skill that can be trained by just trying harder. The main approach I’ve found is to give myself regular space for it, and see what happens. For the last few months, I’ve been calling my Sunday afternoons my Afternoons of Whimsy, keeping them clear, and ensuring this routine feels sacrosanct - something precious that I am unwilling to give up easily. And in this time, I am not allowed to care about my long-term goals, or my various obligations. This is time carved out to introspect, find out what I feel excited about doing, and pursue it.

As I said, this is something that I struggle with, and not something that comes naturally. Sometimes I’m tired and fall into a spiral of procrastination, and do a range of un-rejuvenating things like scrolling endlessly through Reddit. Sometimes I fail to keep out my long-term goals, and end up feeling obliged to do my current highest priority and trick myself into considering it “fun”. But sometimes I feel a whim to do something fun, that I wouldn’t normally take joy in. Like going for a spontaneous run through a thunderstorm, or cleaning up my room while singing along to Disney songs. Sometimes I feel a whim to do something cool and virtuous for its own sake - like watching lectures from an online course I’m finding interesting, writing a spontaneous blog post, trying to code up something cool, or reading a textbook on something I want to understand more deeply. Maybe one in two or three afternoons I do something really awesome in hindsight. But in another sense, this isn’t the point. I don’t care about exactly what I get done - this is time I carve out where the best way to achieve my long-term goals is to not care about them. And so feeling regret about how it goes is missing the point. I feel confident that I’m slowly improving at the mindset of whimsy, and that is the best way to achieve my long-term goals

If this idea resonates with you, some tips:

  • If you’re feeling somewhat sold on the problem I’ve outlined, but skeptical at actually dedicating so much time to this solution, seek upside risk and try it! If it works well, this is awesome, something you can keep doing, and could significant help with a major life bug. If not, you can just give up, at the cost of a few afternoons spent doing fun things
  • This is an experiment in pursuit of a long-term goal, so it is something you want to do long-term! Build a system around it, and make it feel sacrosanct. I make mine Sunday afternoons, both because Sunday is a natural time for a period of rest, and because this is a regular routine, that can help me protect and cherish it.
  • Leave yourself a long time! I find that 3 hours minimum is often necessary - I might feel a bit lazy at the start, procrastinate for a while, but then feel a whim to do something cool.
  • Try not to plan too hard in advance - early on I found myself in the failure mode of planning what to do that afternoon in the morning, and in the moment it felt a bit stale, but I tried to push through anyway
    • My current approach is to go for a walk at the start and clear my head. Then to make a wish list - set a 5 minute timer, then write down anything that pops into my head that I could do, and the moment I find something that grabs me, stop writing and run with it! And if nothing seems fun, go do something else
      • Remember, the goal isn’t to find the best thing - that’s the naive optimiser talking. You want to find something fun, and the moment something grabs you you should run with it!
      • I find it helpful to write tasks down as “I could read …?” “I could watch …?”. It is fine if I spend this afternoon doing absolutely nothing, and writing these as wishes anchors me to doing nothing - now anything I achieve is an upside! I otherwise find it easy to slip into the mindset of writing down a long list and getting sad at what you’re missing out on by not doing everything - anchoring yourself to doing everything.
  • Be willing to give up on things - if you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing in the moment, switch to something else!
  • Keep in mind that it’s fine to get nothing done - don’t put pressure on yourself
  • The spirit of whimsy, at least for me, isn’t quite doing whatever I want. It’s about noticing and nurturing the feeling of excitement. If I feel drawn to something, focusing on why its awesome. Encouraging myself to pursue it, thinking about the upside, not about the risks and costs

Overall I’ve found this a great routine to have in my life. I think rest is an important component of my life, but it’s easy for all of my rest to just be a recovery period - something I do in the evening after a day of work, when I feel tired and drained, and just want to switch off and recharge. My afternoons of whimsy are done when I have energy - where I can pursue things I actually care about. Where things still feel somewhat like work, and still take some energy, but feel fulfilling enough that I get out more energy than I put in. Where I can find the work-shaped things in my life that feel intrinsically worth doing for their own sake, and remind myself that I actually care about them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Slack is an incredibly important resource! It’s a major component of my overall life happiness. If you aren’t explicitly thinking about it, the first step is just to realise that Slack is meaningful and important, and something to value, and to notice if your life lacks it. To guard and protect the Slack that you do have, and to carve out more if you don’t have enough.

A necessary condition for having enough Slack is not being bottlenecked - think of your life in terms of units of exchange, and notice if anything feels missing or constraining. And if you find a bottleneck, fixing that should be a major priority! How can you shift the default of your life to better preserve that resource?

A further necessary condition is to relax. To resist the call of the naive optimiser, to resist the urge to squeeze out every last drop of optimality in your life, and to realise that true optimality is this fuzzy, imprecise balance. That to truly be optimal, you can’t fully be in control, and can’t be trying as hard as possible.

Having enough Slack, and cultivating this skill is a key component of getting intrinsic motivation and drive! Which, if you’re anything like me, won’t come very naturally, but is a really important skill, and one worth putting meaningful effort into. And a way I recommend to pursue this, is to explicitly carve out time to practice having intrinsic motivation and whimsy - to do things for their own sake, to let go of outside concerns and obligations, and to follow your own sense of curiosity.

Are you happy with the amount of Slack in your life? And if not, what could bring you closer to a world with more Slack? And how could you take the first step in that direction?

If the ideas in this post resonated, related reading I’d recommend: Zvi on Slack, Jacob Falkovich linking Slack and Units of Exchange, some notes for a workshop I wrote covering Units of Exchange, SlateStarCodex on the importance of Slack. And if the ideas on extrinsic motivation resonated, I’d highly recommend the Replacing Guilt series by Nate Soares

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