The last couple of weeks have been a little nutty – time-wise – in my world. This isn’t overly surprising; every year at this time things get a little hairy as my family and I adjust to everyone’s post summer schedules, and try to coordinate all of them with as much ease as possible. With a husband who’s a union vice president with meetings at all hours of the day, a 13-year old son who plays hockey plus has a job as a hockey time-keeper, a 10-year old daughter who dances competitively (and neither child being old enough to drive yet), plus my own schedule as a professional speaker, author and coach, “busy” at this time of year is just par for the course.
Usually, I can do “busy” quite well. Frankly, I’m a master at scheduling things with very little overlap, incorporating great self-care rituals, and holding mental space for all that is going on and coming up. I am not unique in this; most professionals – women in particular – are very skilled in these respects. So, what was it that happened over the last two weeks that took my normally busy-but-manageable life over the edge? What was different? Sitting with this question as I attempted to recover from a melt-down moment, I realized the issue. In a word, buffers. To be more specific, I hadn’t incorporated any buffers. Let me explain.
As I said earlier, I am very, very good at scheduling my life in such a way that there is very little overlap between activities. From time to time, some overlap is inevitable. Overall, however, I am able to arrange things so that activities might line up beside each other, but they won’t leach into each other, time-wise. Even when my kids have activities at the same time, I can figure out a way to arrange MY schedule, so that I really only have to be in one place at one time. Which, let’s be honest, is a good thing, since I haven’t yet figured out how to clone myself!
Here’s the challenge: as good as I am at setting things up to align without overlap, one of the things I forgot to incorporate over the past weeks was BUFFER time. Buffer time is time that isn’t actually allotted to any particular task or appointment. On a calendar, buffer time looks “unscheduled”. One of the things I know for sure is that buffer time is essential, especially in the lives of really busy people. This might seem counter-intuitive, so let me say more. Buffer time – unscheduled time – is necessary between scheduled activities because it allows you to maintain your sanity. Buffer time is the time that allows you to travel without worrying about being late; buffer time is the time that allows you to go to the washroom, grab a drink of water, or just breathe, before heading on to the next activity. As you read this, I’m sure you’re thinking “I know this, Gail. Everyone knows this.” And I would agree with you; I know it too, and have known it for a while. So why didn’t I incorporate it? And why don’t YOU incorporate it (because one of the things I know is that you are just as guilty as I am, at times, of not building buffers into your life).
Here’s what I realized, as I took a look at my life and the lives of other busy people in the world. There is a belief – one that is reinforced in numerous places, with various clichés and sayings, that time is not to be wasted. This belief, extrapolated, translates into some version of “empty space on your calendar means that you’re not using your time wisely.” Some would take it a step further and say that “empty space on your calendar is wasted time, and in fact, a sign of laziness.” Well, who wants to be lazy? Or thought of as lazy? Certainly not me. And so, I scheduled myself brilliantly, with no overlap, but also with no buffer-time. The result was that I went, quite literally, from activity to activity to activity with no time or space to breathe, to think, to just BE.
Now, I want to be clear. It can be easy to think that if you’re moving from a meeting, to a project, to a massage, to dinner, that the incorporation of the massage is personal, self-care time and therefore sufficient to maintaining your sanity. I assert that it’s a start; and it’s not enough. If you are, in fact, moving from activity to activity, no matter what those activities are, and you do not have “blank space” or buffer time in between those activities then, over time, you are setting yourself up for burn out. And that, my friend, is not where you want to be.
Bottom-line: buffer time is the secret key to managing busy schedules. The busier you are, the more you have to do, the more you need to incorporate buffer times. Let go of your fear of being judged as “lazy” by others; let go of your fear of “wasting” time. The best way for you to use time, is in such a way that you accomplish all that needs to be done and still reach the end of your day feeling a sense of accomplishment, without a sense of being used up. Build in the buffer times. Embrace the blank space in your calendar. In the long run, these spaces are the secret weapons of busy professionals everywhere.
Gail Barker is a Certified Professional Life Coach and Co-Author of The Control Freak's Guide to Living Lightly. Since 2002, Gail has supported hundreds of professional women, through coaching, workshops, and her monthly ezine, in shifting their lives from chaos to calm; her coaching practice revolves around the concept of ease. For Gail, life is all about having every person experience success on their terms. To this end, she invites you to ask yourself, "whose life are you living?", and if your answer is anything other than "my own", visit Stellar Coaching and Consulting at www.stellarcc.com to get on your own path to success.