My slack budget: 3 surprise problems per week
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, and cost different types of reserves. 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 though you’re tired.
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 budget for improving the world.