I really have fallen off of my blogging rhythm ever since getting back from vacation: the trip left me somewhat sleep-deprived, somewhat frazzled, and with a sequence of small “I finished a game” posts that I felt that I had to get out of the way. That combined to get me out of sync; I’ve still been taking notes about things that I want to write about, but I haven’t actually gotten around to writing about most of them, with the result that some of those ideas feel a little stale, and I’m not sure whether to write about them anyways to get them out of my head or to let them fester and continue to take up space with the hope that they will eventually decompose completely.
I was going to say that this post is a perfect example of that, because the events that triggered me to write about the topic took place during the first half of May, and enough has changed in that context that the details there really aren’t relevant. Except that, as I self-consciously typed the introductory paragraph, expecting that I would delete it (because, really, apologies at the start of blog posts do nothing for readers), I realized that that paragraph is actually a pretty good example of the topic in hand.
Namely: overwork and slack. Where, by “slack”, I don’t mean goofing off: I mean the idea popularized by Tom DeMarco’s book with that title of building in a bit of downtime / buffer into your work. This is, of course, hardly new to DeMarco: e.g. the lean folks are happy to present graphs showing response time going to pot as your utilization approaches 100%. Still, his book on the subject was important, and my memory is that it was rather good. (I should reread it!)
And a lack of slack was exactly where I found myself at work in early May. I’d gotten back from vacation, and immediately had to deal with a combination of digging out from two weeks of e-mail / change and dealing with end-of-quarter craziness. And the end-of-quarter craziness led directly into start-of-quarter planning overload, which unfortunately happened at the same time as my turn came up for two different periodic rotations.
The result was that I had no slack. In fact, it was worse than that: not only did I not have time to respond to all of the unusual requests coming in, I didn’t have time to do my basic normal “keep my head afloat from week to week” tasks, either. So the result was that I did a bare minimum of survival stuff and combined that with responding to a largely random subset of the unusual requests.
Which was not fun, though it didn’t suck too much, because the overload cleared out a week and a half later. What was amazing, though, was how it felt when it cleared out. All of a sudden, instead of feeling like my input queue was 125% of capacity, I felt like my input queue was 80% of capacity, and not only could I burn down my queue, I could spend more time thinking and working in a non-reactive manner. Which was great! I really felt like I was being a lot more effective than I had been when my input queue was overflowing. So I definitely want to try to hold onto that feeling, to work to maintain a buffer.
(Though to what extent I actually was more effective is subject to debate: since then, there’s been a mutual decision that my approach to planning and task assignment is a bad enough fit for my employer’s house style that I’m no longer a manager. I do think that’s mostly a fit issue, but it’s certainly true that I wasn’t working crisply enough in my preferred mode of operation to be able to push back against that fit difference.)
I’m still feeling the lack of slack at home, to some extent: a combination of recovering from vacation and having a little bit of work spill over into the rest of my life and then starting a major project. (Kitchen remodeling, whee.) And, of course, just having too much stuff on my lists. Fortunately, the way it plays out at home is rather different from the way it plays out at work: there’s not that much immovable stuff, so as long as food gets into the house and cooked, we’ll do okay. So this isn’t actively making me unhappy, it just means that I’m seeing a bit of a backlog building up in Things. Which is a useful feedback loop, I should think about what actions to take in response to it.
This post has not been revised since publication.