When I organize a space for someone or help them with time management, one of the key elements in ensuring success is leaving extra room. As with the rope in rock climbing, a little slack is good to allow for movement and progress while too much slack can cause problems. Where can you leave some slack and how much is enough?

The general rule of thumb in cupboards, bins, closets and other storage spaces is to leave 20% empty. This is a very generous amount of slack and for most people hard to come by. If you can leave 10% empty you are doing really well.

Empty space or slack in storage means that you don’t have to have incredible upper body strength in order to push apart hanging clothes in a closet to fit in your fresh dry cleaning. Hanging clothes will have a nice amount of breathing space, meaning less ironing from crushed garments. You will be able to see everything. Problems like mildew or moths will become evident before they’ve had a chance to munch through a rack of tightly packed cashmere and wool.

In containers, extra space means you won’t have to put together a jigsaw puzzle every time you want to repack the holiday decorations. It also means that if you bought one more nutcracker for your collection, you have the room in the nutcracker bin to store it. If you have too much slack, however, things roll around and can break in containers, so extra slack requires extra padding like bubble wrap and tissue paper. On the other hand, over-packed containers can also cause breakage (and back pain for the lifter) so find that balance.

Putting things away is much less daunting if you have slack in your cupboards and drawers. I encourage my clients who only have one or two people living in a household to not buy things like paper towels in enormous bulk quantities. The savings is not worth the storage they take. Some people have paper towel rolls stuffed into the garage, laundry room, pantry and bathrooms just from one Costco run. There are better uses for your storage real estate!

In time management, leave as much slack time as possible between activities but not so much that you start to get de-motivated or feel slothful. I like to leave a couple mornings a week open for potential long hikes or extra home maintenance and often that time gets filled with unanticipated but necessary activities. Leaving a bit of extra time between appointments allows for more relaxed meetings, less speeding on the road and time to gather one’s thoughts to be more effective in whatever activity follows.

In the Covid era, leaving slack in the schedule is crucial. We can no longer feel virtuous about going to work with a cold and ethically can’t be out and about if we test positive for Covid. If you’ve built slack into your schedule, your work projects won’t fall apart if you find yourself in bed for a few days.

Slack means that you can say yes more to coffee with friends, be more spontaneous with your kids or take on an extra community service project. One way some people create slack is to schedule themselves to the gills and then cancel as needed, but that method tends to erode trust with others. I prefer scheduling the absolute essentials and then adding in the extras, sort of like adding chocolate chips and nuts to (gluten free) oatmeal cookies.

As I’ve said in past columns, using your downtime wisely is a key element to staying organized. If you use your unexpected free hours to handle work projects and household chores you have been putting off, it will be a lot easier to maintain a nice balance in your slack “bank” account. Slack is not about procrastination—quite the opposite! It is truly guilt-free, well-earned free time. Spend your slack wisely and enjoy the serenity.