You need more slack

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To be free to do what you want, you need slack — extra resources to fall upon when something goes wrong. This post is about a) why slack is so important and b) how to get it.


Slack, as defined by Zvi, is the generalized concept of "leeway in life". I highly recommend reading the linked post for inspiration.

Slack is — the freedom to fuck up, to miss short-term wins, to live your life suboptimally. A weekend with no plans. A project without a deadline. A financial safety net — savings, parents, etc. Insurance. Own house where you can live indefinitely without paying rent. Tenure. The famous contract clause that prevents 20th Century Fox from messing with The Simpsons (resulting in this).

Slack is — having trust in your future. Knowing that if you get bruised, the bruise will heal. Knowing that if you quit your job, you will find another. Knowing that a fight, bad day, or a mental breakdown won't permanently damage your friendships. Knowing that if you break up with your partner, you won't be forever alone.

Slack lets you do-what-you-want in lots of different ways:

Slack means margin for error.
You can relax.

Slack allows pursuing opportunities.
You can explore. You can trade.

Slack prevents desperation.
You can avoid bad trades and wait for better spots. You can be efficient.

Slack permits planning for the long term.
You can invest.

Slack enables doing things for your own amusement.
You can play games. You can have fun.

Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked.
You can have a code.

Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think.
You can be honest.

Slack is essential for freedom.

How to stop losing slack

To have more slack, you must stop losing slack.

The easiest way to lose slack is to spend it like a drunken sailor.

If you do everything that you can do and that would be a good thing to do, you will very quickly lose slack. Stop doing it.

If those with extra resources are asked to share the whole surplus, all are poor or hide their wealth. Wealth is a burden and makes you a target. Those visibly flush rush to spend their bounty.

Where those with free time are given extra work, all are busy or look busy. Those with copious free time seek out relatively painless time sinks they can point to.

When looking happy means you deal with everything unpleasant, no one looks happy for long.

You want to have extra money, unused mental energy, free time (especially uninterrupted free time), etc. You should not try to spend them just because they "sit unused". You want to save them. This will let you relax, explore, have fun, and, most interestingly, deal with the consequences of your risky decisions. You will start making more risky decisions automatically.

Here are some pieces of actionable advice.

Don't help everyone who needs your help. Examples from my own life:

  • Stop routinely offering to lend friends money because you have more than you'll need this month anyway and you don't mind helping them out.
  • Don't try to skim every link somebody sends you. Don't endeavor to watch the first episode of every TV show somebody recommends you. Even if you have free time.
  • Don't store others' shit in your room, garage, or attic. Even if you have extra space there.
  • Don't be your friends' IT guy/girl, hoster, webmaster, and so on. Don't store their passwords or their backups for them.
  • Don't work on weekends.

Treat every extra responsibility as a significant burden. It will help to pretend to be counting your burdens — kinda like the spoon theory. You can only handle N at a time. Any small responsibility counts towards the limit.

Time constraints are particularly dangerous. Anything that requires you to be somewhere at a certain time, or a certain day, has potential to mess up with other opportunities. Even if you don't have any plans for next Saturday, having to pick something up for a friend in the middle of the day means that you won't be able to have any plans for next Saturday.

Guilt hazards are doubly dangerous. There are promises you can't break, or even take back in advance, without feeling guilty. Even if it wasn't your fault. What's worse, there are people with whom every promise becomes like this. Maybe they are sensitive, maybe they expect a lot from you, or maybe they are just especially bad at making backup plans and so you are genuinely their only hope once you've made the promise. Run away from such promises and such people.

In general, never say "I will" to make yourself do something you'd rather not do — only use it to convey that you are sure you will do something. Every "I will" you utter counts towards the burden limit.

How to find extra slack

To get extra slack, look at any activity you do and figure out how to de-risk it beyond what is normal.

To take one example: if you produce any kind of content, or even post on Facebook, you are constantly in danger. You might post something people don't like. You might tarnish your reputation. You might make some enemies. You might alienate your friends or relatives. The solution is — have many identities. Make an anonymous Twitter account. Have separate Facebook accounts for work and for outside-of-work. Don't share your blog with your colleagues, even though it feels good. Don't try to have a single site/newsletter/etc where you publish all your content. Don't use your real name unless you have to.

You can apply this to anything and everything. The smallest things. Keep your phone always charged, instead of "charged just enough". Etc.

Have savings

There is one bit of advice that fixes many things at once.

Save up.

If you spend your savings way too easily — invest in something that is a bit annoying to sell, like cryptocurrencies or stocks. "I can quit my job and nothing bad will happen" is an enormous piece of slack. Think of those savings as explicitly buying that piece of slack.

Never touching your savings account is the price of your freedom-here-and-now. Don't think of it as "in case something happens later" — think of it as "the ability to take risks in life".

If your bank supports sub-accounts, go and create one called "Slack" right now. Don't transfer money to it immediately — wait till the next salary and transfer only a small amount. Repeat after every paycheck.

Be careful. You want to keep its status of a sacred account. Whenever you are tempted to withdraw money from it, look for ways to avoid it — loan money from friends or relatives, sell possessions, etc.

It's possible to simultaneously have too much slack and not enough slack

In some respects, I have taken this post's advice to the extreme. I have no long-term constraints. This is actually preventing me from having a good life — I have a ton of freedom that I am not using for anything. I need to scale back.

  • I dropped out of university and avoided military service.
  • I don't have a car, or any real estate, and I don't plan to.
  • I never rented a flat for more than three months.
  • I never signed a long-term work contract. I never had a job that didn't have flexible work hours. Apart from middle school, I never wore a uniform or followed a dress code.
  • I am terrified that I will find a girlfriend with university, or an office job, or strong family ties, and she won't be able to move to a different country if I want to move.
  • Previously, all my possessions could fit inside a suitcase. Once I moved to another country with nothing but a toothbrush, slippers, and the laptop in my bag.

At the same time, I used to have much less short-term slack, and it was biting me. I used to say "I will" way too often. I used to take up every easy task that I could do and that would be good to do. I'd try to fill my days with productive activities, even when they weren't much better than doing nothing. I would sacrifice every individual day worth of freedom because I knew I still had years of freedom ahead of me.

What to spend slack on?

Slack is essential for doing-what-you-want, but so is — knowing what you want. If you don't know what you want, you will just keep accumulating slack, keeping your options open, and not doing anything with them.

In next posts we will look at wanting things.

Appendix: what happens when you don't have short-term slack

  • It's sunny and you want to go outside, but your phone is discharged. Or maybe — you are waiting for a delivery. Because you ran out of toilet paper.
  • You are not feeling well today. Anxious, irritable. You'd rather not interact with people for a day, but you promised to help your brother with something, and then you have a call at work, and then your boyfriend wants to watch a movie together. You don't feel like you can cancel anything, because "my goodwill budget with all those people might run thin", so you spend time with all of them, visibly irritated, feeling like you hate them for ruining your day. They, too, feel that you're annoyed at them, but don't show it. Everyone is worse off.
  • You want to visit friends in Australia. The ticket is expensive — $1000 — but you can live there for free, so it works out fine, money-wise. Except that you can't afford spending $1000 right now, or you can but barely, and you end up not even considering going.
  • You have a project with a tight deadline and you feel like you can't spend even two days away from it. You could spend two days on hiring somebody to help you out with the project and it would go faster, but you don't feel like you can affort those two days.
  • You have a pain-in-the-ass client. You could fire them, but it's tricky when you don't have other clients, or time to find new ones.
  • You are stuck at a low-paying job. Learning a new skill would take three months, but you can't afford to be without a job for three months. You end up spending several years there.