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Slack Tasks

You’ve got to hustle. Have a side-gig. Do personal projects. Build a personal brand.”

Such tips are frequently offered, commonly aspired to, and irregularly achieved. It is not entirely poor advice - but it is unduly simplistic.

The general idea is that you’ve got to somehow achieve concurrency - both multitask, and execute well and with focus. And, for a human, this isn’t really possible.

So what is possible?

Green balls hanging with slack

First, you have an obligation to your body and health - you have to eat, sleep, and be physically active and emotionally balanced. You can compromise these things sometimes, but if you hope to sustain performance you cannot neglect them long-term. With good habits, these activities become ingrained and generally don’t need conscious focus - but they do need discipline.

Next, you have one or more essential commitments - a job, family obligations, school, or similar. These are likely structured to coordinate with others and take up much of your day - on the plus side, they hopefully also provide psychological and material rewards. Unlike personal health, these are much more than habits, and occupy a large segment of your mental real estate.

That’s already a lot. So how on earth do you fit in any sort of “hustle”?

The same way you eat an elephant - one bite at a time.

Instead of just piling things on aspirationally, you’ve got to find small enough units that can be chipped away at. At the same time you’ve got to structure these units such that they add up to something resembling your goal.

Want to learn math? Pick a playlist and watch 10 mins a day. Quick pop math videos are too short to really learn, and multi-hour MIT courses are commendable but often too much to tackle - so, find the sweet spot between. 3Blue1Brown is a good example, with most videos ranging from 10 to 30 minutes. Yes, that’s a decent chunk of time, but it’s long enough to realize actual benefits, and short enough to usually be doable a few times a week (hint - try it instead of TV).

Want to write? Pick a platform and toolchain that doesn’t make you work too much, keep a list of potential topics, and write quick and messy drafts when the mood strikes. Separately, come back and edit - doing this in bits and pieces is actually a good thing, as you’ll catch and refine more each time. This very post was conceptualized months ago, quickly drafted as a “stream of consciousness” in the past week, and then edited down here and there before publishing.

These are “slack tasks” - small things you can get done while you’re “slacking” on the big stuff (your health or your primary commitments). Slacking off has a negative connotation, but it’s a natural reaction to the desire to do something else - harnessing it into just that both allows you to achieve different tasks while still maintaining primary focus.

Having “slack tasks” acknowledges the reality of our psychology - that we can’t really work concurrently, but we find ourselves in moods where we need a change of pace. These moods are fickle, and the need to return to our primary obligations is often significant - so, anything we’re going to accomplish during them must be intellectually fungible. Little tasks that accumulate into something big fit the bill.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you think of some “slack tasks” to work into your life.