Despite many entrepreneurs’ skepticism, there’s plenty of evidence from the world of business that that slack time breeds innovation, by facilitating creative activities such as ideation, experimentation and prototype development. Not filling every available moment of your employees’ day with tasks can pay off: Google’s 20% time policy and 3M’s 15% time scheme have produced great products we use today like the Post-It Note and Gmail.

A new joint study from the Rotman School of Management and MIT Sloan School of Management suggests that the tedious tasks of innovation also get a boost from leaving gaps in your schedule. “What we’ve shown is that there’s another benefit to slack time that people haven’t thought about before,” says lead researcher Avi Goldberg. “It gives you time to do a lot of the mundane, unappealing, but necessary tasks required to bring an innovation to market.”

The team examined data from the crowdfunding site Kickstarter over a five-year period to track new projects going online for funding during and outside U.S. college breaks. They found a 49% increase in projects posted in known college towns during vacation times, and a correlation between the types of projects and types of school. When arts schools were on break, they saw an increase in artistic projects postings on Kickstarter; when top engineering schools were on break, they saw an increase in tech projects postings.

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The researchers observed that projects were mostly posted during the first part of the breaks and not the end, indicating that the students have already finished the front-end development of the project, and were using the downtime to do the leftover administrative and execution-oriented tasks. Entrepreneurs who used downtime to perform more mundane and execution-oriented tasks saw more innovations can come to fruition.

Goldberg says the results suggest that in an organizational setting when people are given time to do things that aren’t focal or urgent tasks, they will start doing tangential things that may be considered high risk but also yield high reward. “That does not mean it’s a good idea,” he warns. “Presumably you’re keeping your employees busy doing something important, so you have to trade off this potential for some high risk and high reward projects against the things you’ve hired them to do.”

Another possible implication that Goldberg points to: offering slack time to employees in the technology industry to work on the less exciting and mundane tasks instead of on ideation and prototyping can allow a product to clear the hurdles needed to reach the mass market. That’s just as as important as turning an idea into a product.


Do you schedule slack time into your schedule? Would you consider implementing 20% time at your company? Share your thoughts and experiences using the comments section below.

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