Schedule some slack

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I was having a beer with a friend yesterday, discussing how I’ve crammed my life close to the bewaking point with a toddler, a new baby, an MBA program, a job search, some mentoring and networking, and he asked me what pearls of wisdom I could bestow on him for when he finds himself in a similarly hectic spot. ¬†And I came up blank. ¬†It’s not that I haven’t found shortcuts and processes that let me handle this without losing my head, it’s that I haven’t stepped out of the flow, gone to a 10,000 foot view and checked out what’s going on. ¬†This reminded me of something one of our profs said when discussing innovation and creativity: there can be no innovation without organizational slack. ¬†If you (I) don’t stop fighting fires or attacking your task list, you’ll (I’ll) never improve our abilities/capacity to deal with the situation. ¬†No matter how busy you are, if you don’t stop to breathe and evaluate your activities and formulate some strategy, you’re going to get demolished by something you didn’t see coming. ¬†Keep your head up!

So today’s advice / resolution is to create time for slack. ¬†Even with my schedule being crammed to 30-second intervals (I’m working out, doing dishes and debating preschool with my wife while I write this – partially kidding) I figure I can make the time to sit alone at a coffee shop or my front stoop for an hour every week and let myself think about bigger pictures than my todo list. ¬†In fact, if you’re busy like me, I think it’s required that you put it in the schedule. That’s what they tell us about workouts and it applies here – put it in the calendar, make an appointment to do it.

Sometimes though there just isn’t time. ¬†And I think when that happens, in a lot of cases, you can move towards it incrementally. ¬†If you’re fighting fires 18 hours a day, and your organization or family is always in crisis mode, there’s probably something wrong. ¬†You might not be able to go ponder what that is without seeing something else blow up, so just ask five questions when you fix the problem. ¬†Address the immediate fire, sure, but also use this technique to tease out the root causes and commit to making a corrective action at each level of the analysis. ¬†This way you slowly, incrementally improve your processes and behaviors, instead of just dousing a single flame. ¬†Over a few iterations you will start to see the number of fires decreasing, and you can pop up to 10,000 feet for a few seconds for a clear view.