I’m composing this having done about 19 paid hours of work this week. I’ve also contributed to Open Source projects, written here, done some housework, parenting, and various other things.

I don’t define myself by paid work. I can’t really even properly tell you what I ‘do’ for a ‘job’, to be honest.

According to Bertrand Russell, this is all well and good. As Andrew Curry notes in this post, we should be aiming for about 60% capacity at any given time. I usually end up averaging between 20 and 25 hours per week, so it looks like I’m doing OK…

Portrait of Bertrand Russell
One of the key parallels that’s useful to draw here is between the idea of working less and ‘slack’. Slack is a difficult concept to pin down, but can exist in forms from queueing theory to buffer states. Working fewer hours than the current default 40-hour week is probably what most people do already, and it is also probably likely to move our slack-meter to a more optimal level.

Running with significant slack is often more efficient than running systems at high capacity. If you’re mathematically minded, Erik Bern simulates this via some code in the queueing theory link above, but G Gordon Worley III…gives a simpler explanation:

If you work with distributed systems, by which I mean any system that must pass information between multiple, tightly integrated subsystems, there is a well understood concept of maximum sustainable load and we know that number to be roughly 60% of maximum possible load for all systems.

This property will hold for basically anything that looks sufficiently like a distributed system. Thus the “operate at 60% capacity” rule of thumb will maximize throughput in lots of scenarios: assembly lines, service-oriented architecture software, coordinated work within any organization, an individual’s work, and perhaps most surprisingly an individual’s mind-body.

“Slack” is a decent way of putting this, but we can be pretty precise and say you need ~40% slack to optimize throughput: more and you tip into being “lazy”, less and you become “overworked".

Allowing flexibility and time into our systems so that we can sit idle is not an admission of defeat, but instead has the potential to be optimal in many circumstances.

I’m not sure how many working hours a week the dogma “operate at 60% capacity” translates to, but Bertrand Russell thought it might be twenty.

Source:  10 June 2022. Work | Dystopia | Just Two Things