“The Space to Be a Person,” or Why You Need Slack Time

Call it idleness, slack, non-action, pausing, or just plain “doing nothing.” Whatever you call it, too frequently today it is skipped, degraded, and seen as a less than noble use of time. The United States of America — where I was born and have lived all my life — is especially known for its “never slow down” mentality.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in my annual review that I’d spent a long period of the summer suffering at the hands of (self-imposed) outrageous work requirements. And during that period, when I was taking ever less slack time and ever more time ostensibly working, I started to find myself more frustrated, frustrating, and most of all just wishing I had some time. “The space to be a person” was the phrase that echoed through my mind for months .

What “the space to be a person” meant to me then, and still does, isn’t about physical space — though that matters too — but about the sense of space afforded by time when there are no expectations of you and no tasks you’re supposed to be doing. In that kind of space, you really can just be. That’s one of those things that people frequently regard as new-agey and very “woo-woo,” or just simply vapid. But the difference between doing something and simply being is undeniable if you pause to consider it.

When you’re just being, you’re (forced to be) in contact with what’s actually going on. You’re made to feel that you’re restless or bored or whatever. You’re also, with that space, hopefully able to take some time to get intimate with that feeling and learn (or at least experiment with) how you can be and work with it effectively. And that stuff matters.

What’s more, slack time is time when you can pick up a task that hasn’t been done but should have been. A time when you can finish off that thing you were hoping to do earlier, or work ahead on that thing you anticipate being a time-crunch coming down the pike. But the important thing about slack time is that  you don’t have to do any of those things. It is fundamentally this allowance and possibility for a whole array of different tasks, doings, and non-doings that makes slack time so valuable.

When your time and life is scheduled end-to-end and you’re just barely able to do in a day or a month all the things that you have to have accomplished in that period, you feel like you don’t have space to breathe. And any small setback can easily accrete into a catastrophe that’ll throw everything else out of alignment.

Slack time is, in many ways, the ultimate wealth. Slaves never had it, because while they had periods where they weren’t working they weren’t free to do whatever they wanted with that time. And today, people forced by economic conditions to work two full-times jobs surely know better than most of the softer middle class the value of slack time. Throw in a houseful of kids and, well, this 20-something bachelor can’t even imagine.

But to the extent you can claim it, I really think you must build some slack time into your life. Hopefully regularly and in volumes high enough to really allow you to feel into it. An hour a day isn’t bad, but a few days of nothing per week is really the sweet spot. It lets you be yourself better, fulfill your responsibilities with more ease, and really be in contact with what your life is actually like.