Do you have time built into your day to do the sort of high-level thinking that can take your work to the next level? Jeff & Kyle discuss the importance of building “slack time” into your schedule — unstructured time that lets your brain start making big picture connections — along with some tips and tricks to make slack time work for you.
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Kyle: Hello and welcome to unReactive, where we look to help marketing leaders reclaim their time and sanity by exploring the topics that keep us stuck in a state of reactivity. I’m Kyle Morck, and I’m joined as always by my co-host Jeff Reynolds. How are things going, Jeff?
Jeff: Just absolutely fantastic. We spent some time with the team today, so that always feels good. Get to see everybody and so I couldn’t be more excited.
Kyle: Yeah, it’s good to have some in-person interaction for once. So what are we talking about today? I heard you were bringing our topic to discuss.
Jeff: Yeah, I wanted to talk a little bit about slack time. Slack in the schedule, not Slack the app. Right. You had shared a stat with me that the average senior manager spends 23 hours a week in meetings. Right. That’s really incredible. And that means if you have 40 hours worth of work a week, or you’re trying to, you know, work a reasonable amount, you’re only leaving yourself with 17 hours to get the actual work done.
Kyle: Yeah, and that includes your time between meetings, all of those pieces. So a lot of that time’s probably accounted for as well.
Jeff: Exactly. And so this seems to me that that runs totally counter to how we think about what the most important functions of a marketing leader. Because if every second is scheduled, then you don’t have time just to think, right? And most of or at least large chunks of a leader’s week should be thinking about the meta parts of your job as a marketing leader, right? Is my team functioning right? Is it designed right? Do I have the right people in the right seats? You know what should they be working on? What shouldn’t they be working on? And, and then most importantly, I think it’s about looking up and looking towards the future.
And, and you can’t do that without slack time.
Kyle: And it’s also different from a lot of leaders. I would argue that marketing leaders still have a very creative aspect of their job to be thinking towards innovation, all of those things. And you need free time and free space to do that type of thinking as well.
Jeff: A hundred percent because if you’re trying to squeeze in thinking time around your TPS reports to use the office space reference, you know you’re never gonna have enough time because the time to think will always be squeezed out by other priorities. It’s just the way it is. Like, the idea of the important being squeezed out by the urgent.
The thinking will be squeezed out by the doing for most marketing leaders and we need to stop that.
Kyle: That’s exactly right. So, What do you think are the primary kind of purposes why you need to build Slack time into your schedule as a marketing leader?
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I’m sure there are many and many I won’t cover that are sort of nuanced, but I see four basic reasons why slack time makes sense. One is, slack time is when all ideas happen , you know, the best ideas happen, right? We’ve all had that sort of shower moment, that idea that comes to us right as we’re going to sleep.
It’s a physiological thing. Where as your brain and mind finds time to relax, ideas happen. A matter of fact, have you ever heard the story about Thomas Edison and his bearings, I think it was
Kyle: And his bearings, no.
Jeff: I think it’s bearings. He used to sit in a chair when he had a problem to solve, hold with a handful of bearings, like steel ball bearings. And he would start to fall asleep. And when he fell asleep, the bearings would fall out of his hand hit the ground and he’d wake up and he claimed, I think it was Edison, I could be wrong. That that’s where his best ideas came from. Because it was like that moment between the rested brain that can happen during slack time and can’t happen during meetings, and the prompt of, in his case, the bearings.
But I think my real point is when you’re tying your brain up with all the doing, the ability to just think and sort of have those moments. dries up. So slack time is sort of like the time when our brain can go off and play, and I think that’s really important.
Kyle: And I think that what’s important as a distinction is that this isn’t time to catch up on your emails or to just surf social media or something like that. Cuz one of the reasons that that shower brilliance happens is because you have literally nothing else to put your brain on.
There’s nothing to kind of distract it and pull that attention.
Jeff: Exactly. I agree with that. I think the real point is it’s unstructured time, and I think it could even, you know, you had earlier mentioned the example of, walking to meetings, well, maybe you can turn that into your slack time with some intentionality. You know, we can talk a little bit more about that, but I think the real point is it’s when you’re zooming out, you’re letting your brain rest so we can see the forest for the trees and do what brains do.
Kyle: All right, so that’s number one. What’s number two?
Jeff: All right. So yeah, number one was slack time helps with your best ideas. Number two are humans are built for intervals, like we are interval training machines, right? We sprint and then we rest , we do set of pull-ups, or at least some people do, sets of pull-ups not me.
But other people do. And then we rest. It’s just like physiologically how we’re built and if we try to just run nonstop without rest, physical and mental, then we are actually working against our natural physiology.
Kyle: And it’s not just that we’re built for it, it’s we need it. Like we can’t function without that rest.
Jeff: Yeah. And I guess what I’m trying to frame there is when we are not allowing for the rest, when we are not allowing for the slack time, what we are doing is actively working against our own interests.
It’s like saying, I think today I’m just gonna walk around on my hands and knees, you know, it’s not how we’re built, we’re built to be on two feet, not all four or whatever.
Kyle: So what’s your third reason?
Jeff: Third reason, it’s it helps us see how things fit together. When you schedule too much time, when everything’s sort of project oriented, we get really myopic. We really get to be those sort of police horses with the blinders on, and we’re so focused on that task now, good things can happen.
Of course, good things can happen, and great ideas can happen when you’re focused on a task, I’m not saying that that’s not a thing, but when our minds are rested, I.e. Because of the interval thing. And when we’re giving ourself the space, we can start seeing how all the pieces fit together.
Our subconscious will do that heavy lifting for us instead of focusing on just the individual puzzle pieces. So sort of it’ll, what I’m trying to say there is it helps us zoom out subconsciously on the problem that we’re trying to solve.
Kyle: There’s actually a lot of brain science that goes behind that idea. Essentially when you are focused really heavily on a task, you’re functioning entirely from your short term memory, which is really bad at taking a lot of disparate pieces of information and tying them all together.
But once you give yourself time to rest, that moves your brain activity back to your longer term memory that’s more built for connections and synapses between those different ideas. And that’s what allows you to take bigger pictures and make them into something that makes sense for you.
Jeff: Very interesting. And yeah, I’ve read some of that, but that’s sort of intuitive when you say that. I mean, we all, all experienced that and, you know, I, as sort of a copywriter by training really try to use this to my advantage. I use that short term memory when I go in hard on something to take in all the inputs and dump it into my brain.
And then I think on it hard for a few minutes. And then I really do try to take advantage of slack time. A lot of times for me it’s walking, intentional walks or non-intentional walks, or sleeping and just let my brain then put together those pieces while I, while I rest, and then it’s amazing.
I mean, I really think that’s part of the shower thing too. To be honest. Your brain is also rested overnight and put all those pieces together.
Kyle: Yeah. And it is that reason and that like physiology that I use as my excuse for being a procrastinator as well because the longer time you give for things to be kind of on the back burner of your brain, the longer it has to cook and get good ideas forming. So I really like, really purposely in my life, try to give myself the full time span I can for something because it makes it a lot better formed when I start to move it back to that short-term memory to really start producing.
Jeff: That’s really interesting because don’t you think there’s also some dangers in that? Like, can anybody do that
Kyle: I, I don’t know, like it’s… I’ve made it work, but it makes my life a lot more stressful for sure. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.
Jeff: Right. And so it sort of depends on your personality and you are also, frankly your willingness to work and do whatever it takes. You know, if you’re gonna procrastinate till the last minute, you gotta be willing to work till two in the morning to deal with it. Sometimes maybe, you know, and that’s interesting cuz that really ties into the fourth reason Kyle really tightly…
Kyle: All right. What’s the fourth reason
Jeff: Slack time generally with, or let’s put it in the negative without Slack time we can let little things or little problems turn into crises because, we’ve basically turned everything into a procrastination situation. Every situation into a procrastination situation. So we’ve filled every minute with every ounce of our energy, right? We’re totally depleted.
And so even a small speed bump, like the meeting got moved up two hours or something might make, with no sort of slack built into the system I might get caught in my own procrastination trap, if that makes
Kyle: Yeah, you’re, you’re just not giving yourself any safety net to your day or how you spend your time. If everything doesn’t work out as planned, you’re not going to get everything done in that day.
Jeff: And I just think we need to get back to a life that is more. Based on this idea of comfort and sort of a decent pacing of our li, you know, own personal lives instead of this sort of cultured harried- ness, you know. Like I just think about people at line, at the grocery store and literally you’re in line for 40 seconds and you’re, and I’m guilty too, you know, you have to pull out your phone and check on something, right? You’re, you’re actively taking away your slack time when you do that.
Kyle: And the thing that I’ve been thinking about while we’ve been talking about this, with the amount of time that leaders spend in meetings, it’s like weekdays they spend in meetings, evenings and weekends they spend doing that admin work that you know you need to get done.
And then that slack time, there’s no room for it at all. That maybe in the past you could get away with, really being busy on the weekdays because you’re spending your weekend letting things mull over. But then if you’re doing that work on the weekends, you don’t have any time to do thinking.
Jeff: Yeah. Or, or no rest, right? I mean, you’ve put yourself in a situation where you’re either working, you know, you’re working on various types of work seven days a week, and your brain never rests. And obviously this leads to burnout and other issues as well.
Kyle: So the case for slack time seems pretty obvious after you go through those four topics. So why do you think that we avoid slack time? Why is everybody not building this into their schedule?
Jeff: Yeah, I think a lot of it honestly is just cultural. Especially in American culture. We’re obviously in America and we’ve somehow got to this point where we equate busyness with productivity and they obviously have nothing to do with each other, or, I mean, they’re correlated. Okay, fine. I’ll give you that.
But busyness is sort of a sign both to the outer world and myself that I’m productive. And maybe even important.
Kyle: And, and that’s also even just taking as a standard that productivity is something that is worth pursuing that the idea of production is what we’re here on earth to do when that is not actually the case. A lot of that slack time is about doing things that aren’t productive, but are meaningful and get you forward on things instead of just in an act of producing.
Jeff: Well, in a lot of ways you just caught me in that, right? You know what I was trying to say is productivity is good, but busyness does not equal productivity. And your point is that productivity may not even be the right thing.
Jeff: And I think that’s totally fair. If you, if you look at somebody like Steve Jobs or some, you know, I’m picking an obvious brilliant mind, he did not measure himself on how full his calendar was. You know, he was on the hunt for breakthrough ideas every single day of his life.
Kyle: This is probably too much of a off topic thing to go down. But I think that that idea of busyness, like I think about it a lot with hustle culture, things like that, is that in a lot of ways it’s been built from the management class that they’re not a Steve Jobs type that has those big ideas that are really changing the industry. So they have built this concept that, oh, I must be an important person because I am spending all day in meetings so that is what my productivity looks like, that’s how I’m creating value for the organization. And I think that we have all kind of fallen into this trap. As, a culture that we’ve started to believe that when in reality most great thinkers that have really set how the world works and changed it for the better, they were, you know, taking five hour walks every day and just thinking.
Jeff: Exactly. Yeah. You will not find productivity, especially if you go back to like the 19th century, 18th century thinkers. Productivity was not the concept at all. ,
Kyle: Yeah. It is a function of the industrial revolution and like using factory workers as the concept of what creates value.
Jeff: Yeah. And again, we’re sort of stuck down this hole a little bit, but just to point it out that that hangover from that industrial thinking, the industrial revolution, let’s say, you know, let’s go 1850 to even 1960 or something, obviously that’s not all the revolution, but just sort of that peak, you know, consumerism, the shift to mass production, and then the consumer culture versus as we’ve moved into the information age, the whole world has shifted into different kinds of value, and yet we’re still stuck in telling ourselves a story and following scripts that relate a certain period of history that no longer exists and will never exist again.
Kyle: And it’s, it’s been just as purposeful as anything to try to move knowledge workers into a, factory mindset where they’re producing widgets with their thinking that can be, you know, capitalized on.
Jeff: Well, we’re gonna put a pin in that and come back to that. Cause that’s a big, that’s even bigger topic.
Kyle: So with that said, what do you think is still driving that? Like beyond the culture, why aren’t we building in slack time?
Jeff: Well, I think there is a lot of just personal avoidance. . You know, I think we’ve become less good at personal reflection and less good at calmness. And I don’t know what you call him. He’s a founder of Angel List Naval Ravikant. I don’t know if you know him. Do you know him? He’s sort of a modern day philosopher as much as anything.
And I, I just am always reminded of his quote, if you can’t be happy with a coffee, you won’t be happy with a yacht. And in a lot of ways, I feel like the quiet moments of life, the moments that of slack time force us to face a reality or a question about sort of our own personal contentment.
This sounds big, you know, like that you, you know, sort of like the quietest room. A room where you’re there by yourself kind of idea and, and slack time kind of feels that way to people. So instead, if we’re not really happy in our lives, or we’re just kind of confused or we’re just floating, it’s more comforting to sort of distract ourselves with shiny objects and full calendars.
And then I have an excuse for why I haven’t been self-aware and self-reflective, right? So there’s just kind of a personal avoidance part of all.
Kyle: I’ve got a term that I use with my wife, like especially in my past career, we would go, you know, months at a time where it was 12, 14 hour days and then all of a sudden it was done because we were putting on performances.
And then, okay, now like the world just opened up again. And I would call it the existential dread because like I started thinking. You know, why we exist and things like that, instead of just that, what we need to do to make that event happen. Yeah, exactly. So I think that that feeling of you know, this time is unstructured, can be very hard to fathom at times.
Jeff: Yeah, and I think within an organization, within a company, it’s even worse than that because even if you personally don’t have that existential dread, or even if you don’t associate the busyness with productivity, your boss might, and if your boss does, then she might be up in your business all day trying to, and driving your schedule and scheduling, you know, scheduling projects and things to avoid it for herself or to, to like kind of get back to your earlier point to sort of like, feel like a manager or feel like the boss, right?
Like if a boss can’t tell you what you’re doing with every second of your time, are they a boss.
Kyle: I really think that in today’s corporate world, the most important part of being a leader is being able to really advocate for yourself and your team to have the time, space, tools, resources you need to actually do good work instead of falling into these cultural traps.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely.
Kyle: So do you have any tips, recommendations for how we can create more slack time in our daily work lives?
Jeff: Yeah, I, I think the first thing to remember is that slack time can come in many forms, right? It can be scheduled, like I was saying. I, I, I do think that’s sort of the easiest way in maybe a beginner’s way. And you could do that by, you know, blocking yourself out at four in the afternoon to walk to your car or walk home or whatever and, and sort of not allowing meetings you know, just in that time.
And then stare out a window, I suppose. Right. So, you know, you could just block out time. But
Kyle: That also takes a large amount of dedication though to actually follow through on that time. Because there’s a lot of times, like, you know we had our episode on prioritization that you can say, oh, this is what’s important to me now while I’m setting up my calendar. But then when the day comes, it’s so easy to just let the work you’re doing, slip into that hour and use it in different ways.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, you have to build the habits for sure. And that’s why I think perhaps the scheduled time is not actually a good starter place for thinking about slack time. Like maybe you get there eventually. It’s sort of like meditation. Have you ever done meditation? Kyle?
Kyle: I have.
Jeff: You’re a pretty serious guy, so, yeah.
And so the first time, I don’t know if you remember the first time you did it and you tried to like, I think the first time I sat down and tried to do like sort of a mindfulness thing for like 20 minutes, I said a 20 minute timer, and that felt like a hundred hours.
Kyle: Yeah. I’m horrible at meditation because exactly what we’re talking about. I can’t spend 15 minutes in my own head.
Jeff: Exactly. and it’s a learned skill. And so maybe the thing to do is to start with found time, which we can talk about and then expand to scheduled time. So found time could be that time between meetings, right? It could be between projects. It, it could be walking from one side of your campus to another side of your campus.
The real thing is to you, you don’t have to change. You know, completely like your habits completely. You don’t have to think, oh, I’m really gonna think about stuff during this walk. All you have to do is stop yourself from doing the other stuff, that would distract you from thinking. So then the only trigger is don’t pull out your phone.
Don’t check your email while you’re walking. Train yourself when the call that you finished. With you know, a colleague or whatever was over, that’s not the time to check your email. It’s the time to sort of check in with yourself and say, what’s the most exciting thing in my life?
What’s something that’s worrying me? And, and just sort of check in with these like big, broad, prompt questions, right?
Kyle: And that’s also something that you can use your calendar as a bit of a forcing mechanism. Like in a lot of calendar software, you can make it force 15 minutes in between calls so that someone can’t schedule your time right one after another so that you have that time to take and do nothing.
Jeff: And in my experience, if you start doing that in 15 minute increments, and maybe only five minutes of that ends up feeling like slot time where you’re thinking eventually you start sort of subtly building the skills, just like the meditation example. And over time it’s like, oh, now I can spend an hour just walking and thinking.
I mean, if you, like you were saying the, you know, the famous minds, there’s so many of ‘em. You know, the Truman’s, the Walt Disney’s, Einstein, all these people, all these great minds who spent so much time walking, they didn’t necessarily start with a five hour walk, right? Like you build up to that when you start
Kyle: just physically you need to build up to walking for five hours a day.
Jeff: speak for yourself. I mean, yeah, no, definitely. Definitely. So, I mean, I really think it’s more about thinking once you change the habits, and I always recommend that James Clear book Atomic Habits, just to think about that simple model you know of, of thinking about what’s triggering you to take certain behaviors and, not trying to change the habit rather than try to change the trigger. So I think, you know, if you start thinking about that, so the trigger is I’m off the phone call and becoming more conscious in that moment of I’ve hung up that phone call. What am I doing after it? I don’t wanna move to my keyboard and check my email. Instead, I’m just gonna sit and stare out the window. So that’s the it. The first thing is recognizing the trigger that’s causing you to pick up and check Twitter or otherwise be distracted.
Kyle: That’s great. We talked a little bit about what constitutes slack time to, but it sounds like you were talking about like prompts, things like that. It sounds like you’ve got some ideas around how to structure your slack time, you know how to structure your unstructured time to make it productive.
Jeff: Well, I just think there are like a few things that seem to work for people. Right. So prompts, you mentioned that one that’s that is sort of the most active of these options. It’s requires a little preparation. You know, you could list questions in your notebook or put a sticky note on your monitor about the things that you wanna wanna be thinking about.
So, you know, you’re just constantly reminded about big questions and they can be big, but they don’t have to be big. Right. I have one friend who actually creates a weekly theme that she uses to guide her slack time for the week. So, so one week it might be some, literally just a word like ”team”, right.
And so she just writes a sticky note on Monday morning, puts it on there, and then whenever she has time, she’s just literally trying to sort of meditate or think about her team and what they could do. And then if she has a free 15 minutes or or so, she might sort of try to focus that. But on, but it’ll always be on team this week.
And then next week it might be something like customer delight or something like that.
Kyle: Yeah. And that’s interesting because it’s also helping to kind of trigger the collection of potential ideas throughout the week. Every time that she sees that sticky note, her brain’s going to start thinking on that. And then, the slack time that gives you the time for those synapses to start connecting things.
Jeff: Yeah, and I, I like prompts because it’s sort of an active effort to actually get better at something. You know, you have to engage in prompts and think about it. And so it’s sort of like the most active version of, of slack time.
Kyle: Well, are there inactive versions?
Jeff: Yeah, for sure. I mean, like you could just do nothing.
Right. So it’s sort of counterintuitive, but you know that you said it yourself about being stuck in your own head or, you know, being trapped in your own head, but it’s okay just to do nothing and like look out a window or stare at a wall or stare at the ceiling . So that’s a pretty basic one, right?
Kyle: Yeah, I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, who’s an author that I really like about thinking deeply about time, things like that. And one section of that book is talking about how important for our brains being bored is and how we’ve basically lost the ability to be bored. Like we’re so anti-boredness that we just give our brain kind of constant input. So the ability to do nothing is actually a pretty hard skill that’s worthwhile to develop.
Jeff: And there is a ton. I have read this stuff that Newport did, but there’s a ton of research that supports that, that that big ideas happen in bored moments. And I actually, I’ve struggled with that my whole life. I’m just naturally not really a bored feeling person. You know, I never, I never noticed myself really feeling bored because my brains automatically filling in to do, which I think is a problem.
So yeah, it’s a learned skill and I, so that’s why sometimes I have to go to something more physical. And I used this example earlier, which is walking, right? There’s a just a very classic mind body connection. And there’s something about the kinetic activity that helps ideas flow and gets things going.
What’s funny is then you have to also figure out what your capture device is for your Slack time. I, I run into that problem sometimes cause I’m such a terrible typist on my, my fat fingers on my phone. You know, I’m, I’m like last minute trying to do that or I have to make sure that I have my voice memo things set up and so I can find it so I don’t lose the idea in that moment of walking.
Kyle: Yeah, I’m, I’m a super big fan of walking just about everything that I’ve ever written I’ve actually written first in my head while on a walk, and I, I also have similar troubles with the capturing of it, and I’ve just kind of accepted that if it’s worthwhile and any good, I’ll remember it and just let it go.
Jeff: I just think that the walking is just interesting use. If you feel like you can’t do nothing, if do nothing feels just too painful, then you know, walking’s an obvious out. And also, hey, you might burn a few calories.
Kyle: Yeah, it’s obviously healthy and if you can work that into your day, you know, walk to lunch, what have you, then that gives you that time.
Jeff: Exactly. Exactly.
Kyle: I think you’ve made a pretty strong case for slack time. Is there any kind of last words that you’d wanna say to wrap things up?
Jeff: Well, I think just that this is really, when we’re talking about slack time, we’re really talking about the way humans evolved over millennia. We’re not talking about something new, we’re talking about something old fashioned and something that we have polluted and sort of taken away and over the years, not that it’s unnatural or fresh thinking,
Kyle: Yeah, like, like even during the agricultural revolution, you know, you spent months with nothing to do.
Jeff: Yeah, it gets dark at four 30 and you don’t read and write. What are you doing?
Kyle: Mm-hmm. and, you know, you don’t have any field work to do or anything like that, so you just think about things.
Jeff: Think about things and I mean, we probably have them to thank for our brain development, right? Because, because of that, that’s probably what one of the contributors to our own intellect development over generations. But in the end, you know, we live in 2023, it is right now. And, and we have to figure out how to use these skills to benefit our, our lives now.
So maybe looking back to our ancestors is a good starting place.
Kyle: Thank you all for listening today. If you wanna get more content like this directly in your inbox, be sure to sign up for the unReactive newsletter at upMarketer.Io. And if you have any topics you’d like to hear discussed, please reach out to us on our website or social media. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for chatting today, Jeff.
Jeff: That was a ton of fun, Kyle.