Resilience and building in slack

I have an unfortunate pattern of making myself late to things. One part of how I do that is that I (unconsciously) tend to assume that everything will go right en route, and thus I don't leave any extra time to allow for things going wrong; in fact, I usually end up leaving myself less than the minimum amount of time I would need if everything were to go right. And so when things near-inevitably do go wrong, there's no room for resilience, and I end up even later than I would've been if all had gone well.

I was thinking about this recently, after the second time in a row that I nearly ended up late for a flight because I hadn't given myself any extra time, and I think it comes up in my life in a lot of different contexts, not only time issues. If I have just barely enough social energy to attend a party, then when the party ends up being more draining than I expected, I'm going to run into problems. If I'm already grumpy because I haven't eaten lately, but I don't eat anything because I'm expecting to have dinner in an hour, then when dinner gets delayed, I won't have the resources to cope. If I'm overcommitted at work and a new emergency project comes up that I need to divert resources to, then I'm likely to miss my deadline on my main project.

In my life, I'm privileged enough that most of the contexts where this happens are under my control, in that I can and should build in more slack. But of course lots of people run into similar issues that they don't have control over. If someone has just enough money in their bank account to pay rent, and then the water heater explodes, it's obviously a problem.

So I'm tempted to wander off into discussions of social services and safety nets and so on, but really the focus of this entry was meant to be on musing about how I handle things in my own life. Although the paradigm of building in slack has of course been around for a long time, I hadn't really thought about it in terms of applying it to my own choices in any kind of systematic way until recently.

So far, the only specific change I've made is that I'm aiming to be at airports an hour and a half before my flight instead of an hour before; then when I start out late and run into heavy traffic and get lost and find the airport signs confusing and it turns out the lines are longer than I expected, I won't get as stressed about the possibility of missing the bag check-in cutoff or missing the flight. I've now done this a couple of times, and it's worked pretty well.

The jury's still out on whether I'll manage to apply the principle more generally. But I'm finding it a useful paradigm.

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

Join the Conversation