Here's a scenario that might feel frighteningly relatable to you:
It's Sunday night. You look at your calendar for Monday so you can be prepared for the week. You've got a meeting at eight, one at nine, another at ten, an eleven o'clock meeting followed by a "working" lunch meeting. Then you find yourself in a two-hour working session on a key project followed by a one-hour break (you think this might actually be a mistake since white space on your calendar is a complete anomaly) followed by your weekly one-on-one meeting with your boss at four p.m.
You think to yourself:
"Not a lot of time to get a whole heck of a lot of work done on Monday"
You look at Tuesday. It looks like an exact replica. Did you accidentally look at Monday again? And Wednesday? Seems to have been a copy and paste operation. Still back to back to back to back all day. Wash, rinse, repeat. All the way through Friday.
Then you have that irritated internal conversation:
"How is anybody supposed to get any actual work done with a calendar and schedule like this?"
Despite the scenario I just described, this isn't an article about meetings, how to make them better, or even how to stop having them. There are plenty of good articles out there about that. And to that end, there are a lot of productivity hacks out there that can make us work more efficiently and effectively regardless of how many meetings we have.
But what if our mindset around the work, how long it should take, and our sense of urgency - sometimes being arbitrary and artificial - are the real drivers of the packed calendars and meetings many of us complain about?
The No Buffer Zone Problem
Years ago, I worked for a very successful company but one where all of us seemed to be constantly in triage mode. One of the longer tenured employees said something that was pretty insightful:
"We always plan for the best-case scenario around here. We leave no room for error. And then when something happens - which it always does, we find ourselves in impossible situations."
She was talking about the fact that the buffer time between things was minimal. The amount of wiggle room on initiatives was minimal. The resourcing models were about as tight as they could be.
Many of our daily lives are based on best-case scenarios, too. Then when the unexpected happens - which it seems to on a regular basis (at least in my own work and life) - things start to fall apart and can have cascading effects on other work and even our work-life balance. My own work-life index highlights how lack of an effective buffer zone can wreak havoc on all aspects of our lives.
Building A Better Buffer Zone
The reality is that we can't control many aspects of the business world or even the companies we work for, but we can control how we go about allocating our time and better managing the inevitability of life and work where things don't always go as planned.
Here are three practical and easy ways to build a better buffer zone:
1. Simplify and prioritize.
The more things you have to do, the more inclined most of us are to squeeze time and resources so that everything gets done. To counteract that, in my own business and even in my personal life, I started simplifying what required my attention. This helped me prioritize more easily, which ironically then started creating a natural white space buffer zone without me having to change all that much about how I allocated my time.
2. Add fifty percent "extra" time to everything you are doing.
From there, I started adding extra time to everything I was doing. It may seem like a bit of a mind game, but it was a mind game that worked. If I thought something should take an hour, I built in an hour and a half. Sometimes, it did take an hour. Then I had "bonus" time. Quite frequently, though, "sh&! happened", as the expression goes. And I needed that extra time.
3. Plan for the unexpected. Build it into your time allocation.
Then I started actually planning for the unexpected not just in broad blocks of time (e.g. the fifty percent rule from #2 above) but thoughtfully planned for the things that could happen. Of course, this is basic contingency planning. Many of us do this quite well at work. But I started applying the approach even to my life outside of work. I had never done anything like that before, and that represented a huge mindset shift that gave me back a lot of time otherwise being used for "triage."
So if you've got a no buffer zone problem, you're probably not alone. I had one. These three simple things helped give me a little more space and breathing room.