The Importance of Buffers

Last Friday I was scrambling. The first episode of my new radio show was due by 4 PM, I had company coming to my house for the weekend who were scheduled to arrive by 4:30 PM, and I had three conference calls that day to boot.

It was pure madness, and I was completely frazzled. I had to turn in the show without a single run-through to make sure it was OK, my house wasn’t nearly as clean as I would have liked, and I was still in lounge clothes when my guests arrived — not at all my normal way of handling things, especially where work is concerned.

The bad thing was that my entire week had gone that way, too: jumping from one appointment to the next, eating lunch at 2 PM (if I was lucky), and stopping work just in time to go to bed at a decent enough hour to be rested enough for the next morning’s appointments. It was chaos, and it proved that not only do I need an assistant, I also needed to create buffers within my schedule.

It might seem efficient to have back-to-back appointments with small buffers to compensate for meetings running over and time to get to the next one, but what about the time needed to process what happened in the meeting? In every appointment I have, whether with a client about a project, a partner about a strategic alliance about collaborations we’re getting underway, or a guest about the radio show, there’s usually some sort of follow-up that needs to be done after the meeting. Wouldn’t it be more effective to do that while it’s still fresh on my mind?

My schedule wasn’t the only place, though, where I needed this kind of space.; some padding around all the things I needed to do and all the units of time in which I did them. I knew I needed to start putting buffers around everything that I do:

  1. Buffers in my schedule. Instead of scheduling three appointments in the middle of my day, I now schedule two and then use that extra space around them both so that I have time to do the majority of follow-up for each while it’s still fresh on my mind.
  2. Buffers around my work day. I need time to throttle up and wind down at the start and end of each day, rather than immediately jumping into or out of work.
  3. Buffers within and around projects. Instead of creating a jam-packed project schedule, spread it out over an extra quarter to a third of time to account for setbacks and unanticipated delays. Also consider adding “rest time” between projects to help keep the creative juices flowing and in case a project gets pushed back for some reason.
  4. Buffers around vacations, breaks and sick leave. It takes a little time to get back into the rhythm of working, and usually there’s a backlog of emails, blog maintenance, writing and other tasks that have to be tackled in addition to the regular work. Try adding a buffer of a quarter to a third of the time you were out to compensate for the added workload, as well as the “jet lag” caused by time away from the regular routine.
  5. Buffers around weekends and work weeks. This is one place where I actually have been doing much better with maintaining buffers. I reserve Monday mornings for accountability calls and planning so that I can see where I’m going in the weeks ahead and where I’ve been in the past week or two. On Fridays, I’m trying to get into the practice of using an hour or so to plan out the coming week and make any adjustments to my schedule and workload, based on any projects and appointments I have on the docket.
  6. Buffers around problems. I’m coming to appreciate that when I’m struggling with something in my business or when I’m adding something new to the mix, I need to leave myself enough space and time to work it out. I might need time to figure out a solution (like in the case with hiring help and offloading some of my work), adjust to something new (like the new radio show and its added workload), or simply to reflect on an issue and figure out what I want.

I’ve come to realize that it’s not realistic to expect yourself to jump from one thing to the next with no downtime or space to reflect on what you’ve done, where you are and where you’re headed. It’s important to have “wiggle room” to make it all work and keep yourself from getting overloaded.

Do you add buffers in and around your work day?

Image from Flickr by Plutor