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Get a Life

Slacking Off

by Daniel Steinberg

Generic image illustrating the article
  When a reporter asked Spencer Tracy what he looked for in a script, Tracy quipped, “Days off.” But what if his days off actually made him a more rounded actor?  

I love the rhythm of the academic year. There’s a regularity to the day that feels refreshing after the anarchy of summer. A month ago the streets were empty this early in the morning. Now there’s a parade of kids each carrying an overloaded book bag and a musical instrument. The high school kids walk one way down our street and the elementary kids head the other way a half hour later.

What makes this all seem fresh and fun when it begins again in September is the summer break. The kids have had a chance to get away from the routine of school. They’ve gone their own ways and done their own things. When they come back in the fall they are in a new grade, doing something different than they did last year. Eighth grade uses the skills they acquired in seventh grade, but the challenges and tasks eighth graders face are new.

Why can’t we have that experience as adults?

I was spoiled as an academic. In my last semester of college I asked my friends what they would be doing that summer. Other than those going on to graduate school, they looked at me as if I needed to grow up. We aren’t kids any more. We don’t take summers off and then come back to work. We start our jobs and take the vacation days we earn—and perhaps when the company tells us we can. At least that’s how it is in the US.

According to, the average US employee gets thirteen vacation days per year. That’s about two and a half weeks. The next closest on the list were Japan, Korea, and Canada, where employees averaged twice as much. In the UK employees averaged nearly six weeks and in Brazil, Germany, and France employees averaged nearly seven weeks per year. Topping the list was Italy where workers average seven weeks of paid vacation per year. That’s nearly a summer’s worth.

Imagine getting a summer break every year like you did when you were a kid. Now reflect on the fact that this is the reality for Italian workers. Ah, but the US is so much more productive than Italy, right? Whether or not that’s the case, there is a dangerous delusion lurking here.

That’s the phrase Tom DeMarco uses in his book Slack. He begins the book with the warning of “a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organizations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy.” He talks about the companies that pared their staff to the bone until all they were left with was people who were working too hard to have the ability to really be effective. He says, “What got cut out of the most aggressively purged organizations is the capacity to change.” Companies traded their futures to meet short-term goals.

DeMarco’s book is a look back at the legacy of the nineties, but now that we are seeing record-level layoffs it is worth revisiting, as its lessons also apply to today’s world.

It goes against the grain to encourage slack in an organization, even though there are cases that show how an organization can benefit from slack. Google’s well-known 20-percent time, where engineers spend one day a week working on something they are passionate about, pays off for them in many ways. Understand, the engineers aren’t goofing off; they are working on something of their own choosing, something other than their day-to-day jobs.

Google publicizes the projects that have resulted from this 20-percent time but benefits would be realized even if none of those projects ever shipped (or more likely because it’s Google, went Beta). It’s similar to taking a summer vacation, but the time off the job is woven it into the work week in a way that impacts the organization less.

There’s a tremendous benefit to the individual in taking time off from work and doing something completely different. In the last issue of PragPub, editor Michael Swaine wrote about the benefits from the retreat that his partner’s staff goes on together. They see each other in a different setting and bring back this shared experience when they return to work.

But what practical use is this insight to those of us who are stuck in a country and a corporation that isn’t buying it? What do you do if your company isn’t supportive of these shorter or longer breaks?

I had a friend who was determined to take his summers off. He worked at a very large company in the early 80’s and took every summer off without pay to refresh and re-energize. One summer they told him that they just couldn’t give him summers off any more. He told them he saw their point, but that he was taking the summer off anyway, and they could decide in September whether or not they wanted him back. When the end of summer came, sure enough, the big company didn’t take him back. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and said goodbye.

“Well, that’s no good,” you say, “I could never do that. Not in this economy.”

OK, maybe not. But that’s just one example. Here’s another example of someone who thought differently about time off. A year ago, Dave, Andy, and I met someone with a radical approach to how much he should work each year. Before the year began, he figured out two numbers. The first number was the amount of money he needed to support his family and his obligations and provide a responsible amount of cushion. This was the minimum amount he needed to make each year. He would ensure that he booked enough business to make at least this much money.

He also had a second number that represented the amount of money that he wouldn’t feel comfortable making more than. He felt that there is a limit to how much you can earn in a year without it being excessive and a bit selfish.

So each year he set about working enough to earn more than his first number. Once he reached that threshold he would slow down and only take on other projects that interest him. When he hits the top number he tries to eliminate all of his billable work. He might work on a new software technique or learn a new language or, as he had just done, spend time training to swim competitively.

Then there are sabbaticals, where you take an entire year off every so many years. Some companies actually provide sabbaticals, but it’s something you could create for yourself, too. I just read Daniel Pink’s blog post about Stefan Sagmeister. Pink reported that at the recent TED Global conference Sagmeister reasoned that if you look at your life, “The first 25 or so years are devoted to learning, the next 40 or so to working, and the final 25 to retirement.”

So what if you made a simple change. Take just five of those years from your retirement and slot them into your working years. This is like a traditional academic sabbatical. Every seven years Sagmeister takes a year off. Pink writes that  “Sagmeister closes his design shop [and] tells his clients he won’t be back for a year [...] It sounds costly, I know. But he says the ideas he comes up with during the year ‘off’ are often what provide the income for the next seven years.”

Back when I was in school I looked forward to the school year when I would learn new things. As much as I enjoy learning while I’m at work, I really look forward to the time when I can step away from my work a bit and  learn new things with no clear benefit.

So imagine for a moment that you could take time off to work on something entirely different. How much time? Maybe it’s a day per week, maybe it’s a summer break, maybe it’s the end of the year after you’ve earned a set amount of money. Or maybe it’s a sabbatical. Whatever the structure of your time off, what would you do with it?

Daniel is the editor for the new Pragmatic Life series and the series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple’s ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack, and other Mac developer conferences. Daniel has produced podcasts for Apple featuring the work of developers and scientists working on the platform. He has coauthored books on Apple’s Bonjour technology as well as on Java Programming and using Extreme Programming in Software Engineering classes.