Confessions of a Slacker

Link post

Cross­post­ing the en­tire thing from Pu­tanu­monit in honor of the Slack se­quence.


Go read Slack, it’s short and im­por­tant.

If you’re not a slacker, that post might change your life and ex­plain why you feel like you have no con­trol over your own life de­spite do­ing well on al­most all counts. If you are a slacker, like me, this post gives our philos­o­phy a name and pro­vides a defi­ni­tion: slack is the ab­sence of bind­ing con­straints on be­hav­ior.

Zvi’s post is ab­stract on pur­pose. I’ll con­tinue his mis­sion by get­ting more spe­cific and, of course, by putting a num on it. To the lat­ter pur­pose, I’ll mod­ify the defi­ni­tion of slack to make it quan­tifi­able:

Slack is the dis­tance from bind­ing con­straints on your be­hav­ior.

Keep your Distance

Slack is a func­tion of many re­sources. Run­ning out of any sin­gle vi­tal re­source is enough to con­strain your be­hav­ior: make you do some­thing you didn’t want to, or pre­vent you from do­ing some­thing you want. Free­dom re­quires hav­ing spare time, spare money, spare en­ergy, spare weird­ness points, available friends etc. The “slack as dis­tance” for­mula looks a lit­tle some­thing like this:

Slack dis­ap­pears when the spare ca­pac­ity of any sin­gle re­source goes to zero, re­gard­less of how much of ev­ery­thing else you have. Main­tain­ing slack re­quires bal­anc­ing all the im­por­tant re­sources, mak­ing sure to shore up the scarcest re­sources first.

My grandma just paid to re­place a pipe on her floor that was flood­ing the en­tire apart­ment build­ing. The other 20 ten­ants were sup­posed to par­ti­ci­pate in the cost, but due to diffu­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity and greed, they de­cided col­lec­tively to weasel out of con­tribut­ing. A lawyer sug­gested that my grandma should go to court but she re­fused, for rea­sons of slack. The ques­tion isn’t whether the time in court will be worth the money gained, but whether the lack of this par­tic­u­lar sum of money will force my grandma into some­thing as un­de­sir­able as spend­ing weeks liti­gat­ing against her neigh­bors. It al­most cer­tainly wouldn’t.

At her age, my grandma’s scarcest re­source is stress-free time. She’s not trad­ing it for money.

It’s re­mark­able how many peo­ple fuck up by do­ing the op­po­site: con­cen­trat­ing on the re­sources that are eas­iest for them to ob­tain, and ne­glect­ing their most press­ing needs.

One half of Amer­i­cans have less than $400 to spare, in­clud­ing mil­lions of mid­dle-class peo­ple who make and spend tens of thou­sands each year. The au­thor of this shock­ing ar­ti­cle is an ed­u­cated pro­fes­sional and a fam­ily man. He has ac­cu­mu­lated many achieve­ments, but he for­got to save any cash to pay the wa­ter bill. On the other side, I have friends from busi­ness school with six figures to spare in their bank ac­count and not a sin­gle hour to re­lax.

What­ever re­source is scarcest for peo­ple is prob­a­bly the one they aren’t good at deal­ing with, and for this rea­son, think­ing about it is aver­sive. It’s eas­ier just to ig­nore it. But an ig­nored con­straint doesn’t go away, it still binds you.

Cur­rency Exchange

When no sin­gle re­source is very scarce, you can keep it that way by figur­ing out the ex­change rates be­tween re­sources and mak­ing trade-offs based on those. Trad­ing-off “life cur­ren­cies” is a sub­ject I dis­cussed in de­tail be­fore, but slack-based think­ing offers a good way to calcu­late the cor­rect ex­change rates. For ex­am­ple: how much is an hour of free time worth to you in dol­lars?

The slack-based ex­change rate is [spare money] /​ [spare time], when the defi­ni­tion of “spare” is de­rived from the defi­ni­tion of slack. Spare X = how much X you can lose be­fore be­ing forced into un­de­sir­able be­hav­ior.

Ex­am­ple: you make $60,000 a year, put $15,000 in re­tire­ment, save $5,000 in cash and spend the re­main­ing $40,000. Of those, $30,000 are for ne­ces­si­ties and $10,000 are for things you can live with­out like fancy clothes and ex­pen­sive restau­rants. This means that you can cover your ne­ces­si­ties for $45,000 and since you make $60,000, that means you have $15,000 a year in spare cash. That’s how much money you can give up be­fore be­ing forced to change your lifestyle sig­nifi­cantly (e.g. move to a cheaper apart­ment) or jeop­ar­diz­ing your re­tire­ment.

Do the same math for time spent: let’s say you spend 10 hours a week on ac­tivi­ties other than those you have to do (work, sleep) or those you re­ally want to do (ping pong). Th­ese 10 hours a week (or ~500 a year) aren’t the en­tirety of your free time, they’re the hours you can af­ford to lose with­out hav­ing to sac­ri­fice im­por­tant ac­tivi­ties.

In our ex­am­ple, $15,000 spare money each year and 500 spare hours im­ply an ex­change rate of $30/​hour. This is a good baseline to con­sider trade-offs against.If you can pay a maid ser­vice $75 to save you three hours of house clean­ing ($25/​hour), you should take the op­por­tu­nity be­cause you’re con­vert­ing money to time at a good ex­change rate.

No­tice that once you’ve made a trade-off, the ex­change rate shifts. If the cleaner comes once a month it saves you 36 hours each year and costs you $900. You now have $14,100 to spare and 536 hours, so the new im­plied ex­change rate is 14100536 = $26.3/​hour. Money be­came scarcer rel­a­tive to free time, and you’ll be less in­clined to keep trad­ing it away.

One dan­ger that lurks when calcu­lat­ing the trade-offs is for­get­ting about the im­por­tant re­sources that are hard to mea­sure. A while af­ter my friend hired a house­keeper, his girlfriend re­marked that if they had done this ear­lier she prob­a­bly would have had a lot more sex with him. What’s the re­source that was bind­ing the girlfriend be­fore the house­keeper showed up? I don’t think it’s spare time or even en­ergy. If you spend your last hour and ounce of en­ergy dust­ing shelves in­stead of mak­ing love, slack isn’t the prob­lem in your re­la­tion­ship.

So what is it? As usual, we shall find the an­swer in the an­cient teach­ing of the He­brew sages.

Abra­ham and Three An­gels, Fi­asella Domenico

The only time in the Old Tes­ta­ment when God tells a bald-faced lie is when in­form­ing Abra­ham (age 99) and Sarah (88) of their up­com­ing preg­nancy. When Sarah hears the news she laughs in­cre­d­u­lously, won­der­ing how can she have a son when “… my hus­band is old” (Ge­n­e­sis 18, 12:13). But when God in­forms Abra­ham of Sarah’s re­ac­tion he quotes her as say­ing “Will I re­ally have a child, now that I am old?”. God obfus­cates the fact that it’s Abra­ham’s age she laughed about.

Ac­cord­ing to the Tal­mud, this story teaches the im­por­tance of “peace in the fam­ily” (shlom-bayit). It’s a re­source so im­por­tant that it’s worth God ly­ing to pre­serve it. Shlom-bayit is hard to quan­tify, but your be­hav­ior is as con­strained when you’ve lost your part­ner’s good­will as if you were down to your last dol­lar or minute. When main­tain­ing your slack ac­cord­ing to for­mula, don’t for­get to count the un­countable re­sources too.

Earphones

I find it much eas­ier to un­tan­gle my ear­phones when I hold the en­tire ca­ble in a loose lump in my hand so that none of the wires are pul­led taut.

Exploration

One of the main things that slack gives you is op­tion­al­ity, the free­dom to change your plans. The value of op­tion­al­ity varies a lot de­pend­ing on what one is up to, whether you’re ex­plor­ing or ex­ploit­ing. “Ex­ploit” is when a sin­gle best op­tion is available to you, and you pur­sue it sin­gle-mind­edly. For ex­am­ple, I’m start­ing an in­tern­ship at a dream com­pany in a few weeks, and I will care about noth­ing ex­cept get­ting a full-time po­si­tion there. I won’t be in­ter­sted in other em­ploy­ment op­tions, and I won’t need slack for any­thing be­sides work.

“Ex­plo­ra­tion” is when a lot of paths are open, when there’s great po­ten­tial but lit­tle cer­tainty. That’s when slack is valuable, it al­lows you to pur­sue the op­por­tu­ni­ties. I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate slack in my own life af­ter mess­ing up a crit­i­cal ex­plo­ra­tion phase due to slack­less­ness, my col­lege years.

When I was 18, I joined a very se­lec­tive aca­demic officer train­ing pro­gram. We pur­sued a dou­ble de­gree in math and physics con­densed into three years, along with in­ten­sive mil­i­tary train­ing and enough chores to be a bum­mer. We had nega­tive slack: no money, no free­dom, and a daily to-do list that would take about 20 hours to com­plete, but only if you were fresh off 8 hours of sleep. I dropped out af­ter a hec­tic two years. I re­al­ized that not only did I re­mem­ber al­most noth­ing from the classes, I didn’t even know if I liked physics, or the army, or if I ac­tu­ally wanted to be an officer.

The same year my wife-to-be en­rol­led in a com­mu­nity col­lege with­out much pres­sure to do any­thing other than study and to try stuff. She made lifelong friends, learned Ja­panese, tried out a bunch of sub­jects and even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered and fell in love with biol­ogy. Then, she could shift fully into ex­ploit mode: she aced all the available biol­ogy class, trans­ferred to a good uni­ver­sity where com­pleted a de­gree in biol­ogy in two years, and got into a lead­ing grad­u­ate pro­gram. She be­came a biol­o­gist be­cause she had sev­eral years when she didn’t have to de­cide what she would be­come.

I made up for my slack­less un­der­grad ex­pe­rience by go­ing to a slack-friendly busi­ness school. I had time to play ev­ery sin­gle in­tra­mu­ral sport, go on a lot of drunk dates, and be­come a reg­u­lar writer for a satire mag­a­z­ine which I spent more time on than all my home­work com­bined. Writ­ing satire later turned into a pay­ing gig, a short but ex­cit­ing stand-up ca­reer in NYC, and even­tu­ally Pu­tanu­monit when I couldn’t get any­one to pay to hear my jokes. This blog only ex­ists be­cause in the last few years I’ve guarded my slack jeal­ously.

And yet, I see smart peo­ple in elite uni­ver­si­ties fall into the same trap I did origi­nally. Very pres­ti­gious schools are very com­pet­i­tive, and com­pe­ti­tion will in­cin­er­ate ev­ery bit of slack you have. Heavy course loads leave stu­dents lit­tle slack to fool around with satire, squash, or even fool­ing around. Once you start pur­su­ing a ma­jor there’s lit­tle slack to learn any­thing else, and once you grad­u­ate with a load of debt there’s no slack to do any­thing but take the first pay­ing job on offer. A less pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity that re­quires half the time, the effort and the money of an elite school of­ten offers a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion sim­ply by leav­ing you with slack and the free­dom to ex­plore.

The same is true for other ex­plo­ra­tion ac­tivi­ties like travel (on long trips, I try to leave 50% of the days un­sched­uled), job hunt­ing, and dat­ing. Slack­less­ness brings des­per­a­tion, and des­per­a­tion leads to mak­ing the sort of choices that your friends will shake their heads about a decade later. Fight for your slack, and give your­self it.

Amos Tver­sky Said

The se­cret to do­ing good re­search is always to be a lit­tle un­der­em­ployed. You waste years by not be­ing able to waste hours.

How much time did he waste com­ing up with this pithy apho­rism? It was worth it.