Followup to "My slack budget: 3 surprise problems per week"

Previously, I thought the reasons to preserve slack in your life (or in your organization) were to:

  • Avoid using up all of your resources
  • Avoid hitting a crisis where you suddenly have multiple surprise problems, and you have no choice but to either do a shitty job handling all of them, or deliberately not handle some of them at all (and deal with the consequences)
  • Avoid feeling really unpleasant
  • Allow you to live up to principles / be more pro-social.

This year in December/January, the Lightcone Infrastructure team (where I work) took on a large number of difficult projects at once. I was thinking about how wise/unwise this was, and chatting with John Wentworth about it. I listed the problems-with-lack-of-slack.

He said (something like): "Oh, that's not the point of slack. Or, not the part I'm most interested in. The point of slack is to give you the space to notice subtle things and think about them."

A rough model is something like, here are three types of things you can do:

  1. You can take actions on whatever stuff it is you like to do on-purpose. (Typically your day job, or fun projects, or whatever)
  2. You can rest/recover/do-random-fun-things.
  3. You can... be cognizant of stuff going that isn't immediately relevant to the first two things, and mull it over, and notice new, potentially fruitful trains of thought about them.

When you're got too many things to do and stuff is constantly exploding and demanding your attention, #3 is the first thing to go. You often need to be putting out fires (#1), and if you do that too much and did into energy reserves your body will eventually be like "No, screw that, time to burn out for a bit and spend a week tired and recovering." (#2)

But, there won't be a moment where you experience a clear failure-and-control-mechanism that pushes you to spend time on #3. You just... won't notice a thing that you might have noticed.

And this is particularly important when you're working on problems you don't understand how to solve (such as AI alignment, or how to improve institutions, or learn/teach rationality, or, just, any ol' problem in your life you're currently confused about, or maybe haven't even yet realized that you have) 

In the explore/exploit dichotomy, when solving a problem-you-don't-understand, having a train of thoughts in "explore" mode is pretty valuable. Slack gives you space for your shower thoughts to be in explore mode.


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+1 to John and Ray for this; my experience is very similar to John's. Here's a relevant old post from me, where I was trying to gesture at the importance of a cluster of things around or similar to your #3, as distinct from #1 and #2; (Title: Boredom as Exploratory Overhead Cost.)

Huh, interesting! I think to some extent the way my mind works forces me to fairly often spend time on #3 even when low on slack, even sometimes at the expense of the other things. So for me your initial reasoning feels more applicable.

Interesting! I'm curious for, like, a description of the qualia of that while it's happening.

Sometimes I'll be distracted by a thought or feeling or event and feel like I can't move forward with whatever I was doing until I sit down and process it (usually in writing, often in a small Discord channel). Sometimes I will procrastinate on work and the way I will do that will be talking about whatever's on my mind. In general I tend to have a strong urge to talk about/write down my thoughts and poke at them until they make more sense to me.

(It does also happen that instead I avoid doing this with some kinds of things, and it's not good for me, and that does especially happen if I'm extra busy with other stuff, I guess.)

I have experiences that I would say match tcheasdfjkl's description, but I attribute them to anxious ugh-field avoidance of the actual tasks, where “but maybe I need to think about this more” acts as an ambiguously bogus retroactive justification that takes more energy to refute than any completely unrelated justification and therefore winds up stickier. I am in turn curious whether tcheasdfjkl's experiences also match this description or are different.

Sometimes kind of! Though I wouldn't say it's "bogus" for me exactly, just that there tends to be a tradeoff between time spent planning/reflecting vs. time spent taking concrete actions, and I'm somewhat prone to a bias in favor of the former - but I do think most of the time when I do this kind of thinking I do find it useful, it just isn't always the most useful thing I could be doing.

Also sometimes the stuff on my mind that I feel I Must think about is not actually related to the stuff I'm trying to concretely make progress on, but is separately useful to think about. Here too I don't always think this type of reflection is the most useful thing for me to do right then, but it's sometimes hard not to.

(which isn't to say that I wouldn't benefit from doing more of it, or that I don't do more of it when I have more slack. but I don't think it disproportionately suffers relative to my other priorities.)

This is actually a lot of what I get out of meditation. I'm not really able to actually stop myself from thinking, and I'm not very diligent at noticing that I'm thinking and returning to the breath or whatever, but since I'm in this frame of "I'm not supposed to be thinking right now but it's ok if I do", the thoughts I do have tend to have this reflective/subtle nature to them. It's a lot like 'shower thoughts' - having unstructured time where you're not doing anything, and you're not supposed to be doing anything, and you're also not supposed to be doing nothing, is valuable for the mind. So I guess meditation is like scheduled slack for me.

Curated. This post articulates something important that I feel like I wrestle with every day. There are strong pressures to generally do more. There's just so much value you achieve if you did more things! But it's maybe something of a trap. If you take on too much, you lose the ability to notice which things most need doing.  


I have a couple of positions I need to fill at my work. I’ve been off on holiday this week and it occurred to me that I should change one of the roles quite a lot and redistribute work.

I’ve had this issue for a few months and while in work I’ve been a bit overworked to actually take a step back and see this opportunity.

Completely agree with you and John here. When I'm overworked, I often notice that what I'm feeling the most is a need to reflect on my current trajectory and do some meta-thinking.

Another way of phrasing it is that slack actually lets you react when you notice confusion, instead of having to let it be.

This also fits well with the problems with too much slack: for me it's not doing too much rest but doing too much meta-thinking instead of actually doing things.

I agree with the basic setup, although I think their is an optimal amount of slack to maximize the effectiveness of noticing subtle things. To notice these things you need experience, and time to reflect on it. Too little time is probably the main bottleneck in most cases, but in some cases it will be too little experience. IE Hiring a hundred slack-specialists to hang around with 100% slack-time is not likely to be productive.

Maybe I am mis-reading you, but I think of the "noticing subtle things" is something like, after you put out all the fires you later think "many of these problems seem to stem ultimately from the way that..." or whatever. But without having seen the problems that could not have happened.

for me, its even more Slack for the mind. And i would have initially associated the benefits with creativity.

Im a CEO and have lots on my mind. i can use up all of my worktime to put out fires,... at home 3 kids, and lots of hobbies. So my mind is not allowed to rest it seem.

I usually had the most creative or problem solving revelations when i was traveling in my car for hours. I recently started with audiobooks while traveling. This affected me heavily, creativity and revelations reduced drastically. I also noticed this, when i switched from scientific work on a university to a business job. Time to think, reflect can only be found in slack time for me.

Same applies to workforce, if they have no slack i receive 0 suggestions for improvements outside their job. As soon as they are little bit idle, they start to think outside their box it seems.

Just wanted to share this, as thats the first thing i was thinking about but i would have put it differently.

Isn't this what different journaling practices try to combat against? To have dedicated time and space to regularly think on what are you doing and why are you doing it. BuJo, for example, places special attention to daily/weekly/monthly reflections.

Yeah that does seem like a major point of journaling

This reminds me of focused/diffuse thinking.

Focused thinking is rule-based, mechanical, goal-oriented, precise, strictly sequential, logical, works in small steps.

Diffuse thinking is creative, open-ended, creates long connections, produces leaps of insight that are impossible in focused thinking.

The best example of this is solving math problems. Paradoxically, it requires to alternate between these two modes frequently and fervently -- something that people generally struggle to do. After all, most people either think like bureaucrats (like me) or they think like artists. But in this case, and in any other complex endeavor, you need both.

Different life phases require different focused:diffuse ratios. The primary variable for that is slack.

I think this idea absolutely hits the spot.  A well worn saying is that good workers are generally promoted beyond their own capability. This is true but often because they get bogged down with meetings, fire-fighting, admin, pleasing the (Wo)Man etc.., lots of reactive stuff. My experience exactly. I changed jobs, gave up management, went down to three days a week (gaining two days of slack), declined as many meetings, as I could getaway with and became more productive than any time previously, largely because of having time to let ideas slowly gestate, play with stuff, notice the subtle things, and thereby make progress in useful directions.  I swear my employer effectively gets 5 days out of me. I should be paid more!

I feel personally addressed and a little offended, so thank you for the reminder. It's too easy to slip into too much of #1. I don't think that is necessarily bad but I do want to work more on problems I don't understand.