As of this writing, a 1,300-foot container ship that had been stuck for days in the Suez Canal, clogging one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, was freed. The size of the boat was almost surreal. It measured almost a quarter of a mile, the length of approximately four football fields. The scale of the Suez Canal is even more mind-boggling. Constructed from 1859 to 1869, the Suez Canal is a 120-mile, man-made waterway that connects the Red and Mediterranean Seas and divides the continents of Africa and Asia. It is considered the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Today, ten percent of all shipping traffic passes through the canal. And yet, all it took to completely block this vital artery were some high winds and a large cargo ship.
There’s a lesson in all of this. Humanity’s obsession with generating more output from finite resources comes at a cost. We sacrifice long-term and sustained benefits for short-term gain. We abhor slack and fail to design it into our systems. Slack is seen as a weakness. As a sign of laziness and neglect. Take a look at what is happening all around us right now. Seemingly overnight, in most knowledge industries, the pandemic freed up capacity that had previously been spent commuting or otherwise transitioning from one activity to another. The pandemic thus unleashed an enormous amount of slack capacity. Almost as quickly as it was unleashed, that slack capacity was put to use. Today, the single most common organizational complaint I hear is that days are spent in back-to-back Zoom meetings with essentially no breaks. Even the small, pre-pandemic interludes walking between offices have vanished. Now, with the push of a button, we exit one meeting and immediately commence another. And, on top of all this, days are starting earlier and ending later.
Tempus edax rerum – time devours everything. Create more time, and it will almost instantaneously get used. The consequence is that there is no slack in the system. No empty space to accommodate the inevitable high winds of life. No room to rejuvenate and re-energize. No capacity for strategic, long-term thinking.
To be fair, there is much to celebrate in the sudden emergence of new capacity. We can now do more of what’s truly important in the same amount of time. But unless we intentionally design slack into our systems – unless we shift the narrative from slack as negative to slack as essential – we will end up in the sclerotic state in which the mighty Suez Canal found itself. An untenable condition whose adverse systemic effects outweigh the short-term gains in productivity.
Here’s the thing. You are in charge of building the ship. You get to decide how big it is and how much you want it to carry. You determine its speed, direction, and destination. If you find yourself complaining about the unsustainable pace and quality of your experience, there is only one person to look to – you, the architect (or captain) of your life. Cut yourself some slack. You deserve it and need it.