Slack gives you space to notice/​reflect on subtle things

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.