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Why downtime is nonnegotiable for entrepreneurs’ long-term success

Posted by Shivali Anand

September 9, 2021    |     4-minute read (690 words)

The myth of ultimate efficiency has ensnared many entrepreneurs and executives. The idea is that people should aspire for long stretches of productivity with no downtime as a symbol of virtue and to get ahead. The classic adage that "time is money” illustrates how productivity and time have become intertwined in modern culture.

Meanwhile, if you're in business for yourself, you've probably felt the strain of simultaneously having several jobs to complete within the same 24 hours as everyone else. And that’s not all – you are also your company’s CEO, accountant, hiring manager and marketer. After all, if you don’t fill all those roles, there may be nobody there to fill your shoes, and a competitor could be waiting in the wings to swoop in if you let up. 

It is human nature to curse the adversary of squandered time when we believe our livelihood is at stake. After all, we consider time to be one of the few things we can control amid the chaos.

The fallacy of 100% efficiency

The truth is that we cannot speed up our thinking, and that it is not a matter of willpower. Eliminating all lost time from our day is not feasible. According to management expert Tom DeMarco, many businesses have fallen prey to the myth of absolute efficiency. In his book “Slack: Getting Past Fatigue, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency,” DeMarco writes that scheduling away downtime precipitates backlogged work, burned-out employees and stress that permeates the business. The mantra of “faster, faster” does more harm than good to business culture.

Decide what should be considered “slack time”

We can all relate to the experience of being in a traffic jam, only to discover that the only thing slowing down the road was automobiles slamming on their brakes because they were approaching one another too closely.

The congestion might have been avoided altogether if each car had kept a bit more distance from the car in front of it.

This is how slack time works. Slack is a reserve set aside in case anything unexpected happens. This buffer serves as a buffer against project bottlenecks, a place to take a step back and assess overall progress or time to rest your brain before moving to the next task.

Slack time is our ally, not our adversary

Rushing through work because we think that is what it means to be efficient is counterproductive. In the end, it causes bottlenecks, increases the likelihood of errors and prevents good decision-making. The truth is that we confuse efficiency with efficacy. Efficacy is getting things done, while efficiency is getting things done economically, and that latter requires room for breaks and time away.

How do you reintroduce downtime?

  • Allocate spare time throughout your day. Plan to spend an extra 30 minutes at lunch doing something creative to allow your brain to unwind and rest before moving on to your next assignment. This buffer also provides room if a project is delayed, or a conference lasts longer than expected.
  • Be at ease with the concept of not working. It's fine to take a break instead of starting up the next to-do merely to go ahead if you or a team member finish a task early. By rewarding yourself with a margin and cultivating a culture of free time, you and your team may avoid the pressures of busy work, which is wasteful work done just for the sake of appearances.
  • Limit the amount of pressure/ stress in your environment. Refrain from promising a deadline or a deliverable that is unrealistic. Consider whether a project is worth the impact it will have on your business. Will it push you and your team to work extra, subsume other projects or swallow all the downtime in the month? Even if your firm is proliferating, you may discover that clients are more ready to accept a more extended timeframe than you expect.
Keep in mind that margins have a lot of influence. Employee satisfaction, mental wellness and creativity don’t cost anything. Prioritizing downtime in your organization is one of the best strategies to safeguard these assets.

Learn how we can put more time back in your day.