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Why is Slack Time So Important to Innovation?

In the modern workplace, it seems time is one of the most precious commodities – and getting scarcer by the day. Employees are encouraged to work from the moment they sit down at their desks until the moment they clock out, with minimal breaks in between. Sometimes, even bathroom breaks and opportun

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
free time to think create and innovate

In the modern workplace, it seems time is one of the most precious commodities – and getting scarcer by the day. Employees are encouraged to work from the moment they sit down at their desks until the moment they clock out, with minimal breaks in between. Sometimes, even bathroom breaks and opportunities to get up and walk around are limited, and policies controlling leisure behavior while on the job are rigorously enforced.

These same companies are simultaneously wondering why innovation no longer seems to occur within their organizations – why their practices are stagnant, their products are old hat, and their employees fail to come up with new ideas and opportunities. They're working hard. Doesn't that mean that they should be more productive?

Unfortunately, these companies' leaders fail to realize why slack time is so important to innovation. Leisure time in the work environment leads to more innovation. Many business people seem to know this, it’s just hard to put into practice.

In one study by Aberdeen Business School, business people were interviewed about innovation – or the lack of it – in their companies. The author writes,

At the end of each interview I asked the interviewees what they would do first to encourage innovation in their organization if they were suddenly omnipotent. By far the most common answer was time.

But respondents often qualified this – they didn’t want more of the same kind of time, they wanted more unstructured time that did not have specific outputs or procedures attached to it. The managing director put this very well when she yearned for ‘time to play, time to gaze out of the window, time to let things settle, time to read and react.

What is it about slack time that leads to innovation, discovery, and change in the workplace?

It's during those moments of aimless thinking that the greatest innovations are free to occur.

Phil McKinney

During slack time, the brain is free to roam.

When you're aimlessly browsing the internet, staring out your window, or wandering around the office, what are you thinking about? You might not even be able to put your finger on it, but chances are, when your hands and eyes are engaged in an activity that doesn't require the full investment of your brain, you're turning over something else in the back of your mind.

Since you're at work, your brain is already tuned into the activities that are taking place in the office. You're thinking about the problems that you've encountered throughout your business day, or the situation that your coworker mentioned earlier, or an improvement to an existing product. It's during these moments of aimless thinking that the greatest innovations are free to occur. Unfocused thinking allows you to put together previously unrelated pieces to develop a more coherent, useful whole.

Slack time provides a much-needed opportunity to refresh.

No matter how much you love your job or how invested you are in the project on your desk, there is a point where you simply have to allow yourself to rest and refresh your mind. In high-level, stressful jobs, these mini-breaks are even more necessary. It's not “slacking off.” It’s taking a moment to breathe, to get distance from the stresses and demands in front of you before diving back in with renewed enthusiasm.

Your brain isn't designed to focus on the same thing for eight hours straight. Taking breaks allows things to settle back into place within your mind. Then, when you return to the job at hand, you're able to give it your all again.

Slack time decreases stress.

No matter what you're doing, too much time spent bent over a desk will raise your stress levels. Your mind will naturally tend to wander. Under enforced deadlines, with strict rules about when you are and are not permitted to take a break, your stress levels will rise exponentially. People who are stressed simply aren't creative thinkers. Quick: name ten ways you can make change in your organization right now. Fast! Don't take time to think about it! You can have two minutes to think about it, no more.

Under stress, your mind probably froze. Given the time to think through the entire process, you could probably come up with a number of great ideas; but given only a couple of minutes to rattle them off, you might not have been able to come up with more than one or two. If you were able to make a list of ten, they were probably fairly mundane and much less effective than what you could have come up with if you'd given yourself longer to think about it.

The same is true of people who are under stress to meet deadlines and accomplish projects throughout their normal work day. They're giving it their all, but the harder they have to work and the higher their stress levels rise, the less likely it is that they'll provide creative, insightful responses to the situations they deal with each day. Individuals who are given slack time, on the other hand, can take a deep breath, release the stress, and take the time to think through what's in front of them. They will come up with more creative strategies, better solutions, and ultimately be better, more productive employees.

Slack time creates a better work environment.

Consider for a moment where you would rather work: in a company where every break is monitored, or in a company where you have the freedom to get up and walk around, interact with your colleagues, and engage in leisure activities throughout the day? Offices that allow their workers some freedom ultimately have much happier workers, and happier workers typically produce higher-quality work. Allowing employees the flexibility to structure their days the way they want makes them feel less like cogs in a machine and more as if the company genuinely appreciates their individual contributions – which fosters more creativity and engagement with the company’s mission.

Ultimately, slack time makes employees more productive. It gives them what they need to give you their best – and that means that your business will stand a better chance of creating true change in your field. Looking for more ways to foster innovation within your business? Then lets get connected.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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