They are the bane of all schedules, the destroyer of all plans. They are the dread of managers and coordinators everywhere. They bring the organizer to their knees.

They are unexpected events.

Unexpected events take up valuable time and energy and money. They use up resources which were planned for something else. So how do we allow for and plan for the unexpected? How do we incorporate what we do not foresee into our plans? We do this by using two strategies: buffers and flexibility.


A buffer is some resources which are not allocated. These are resources which we have available to us but we do not use in our plans. In budgeting, we call this an "emergency fund," which is money that we have in an account but which is not part of our budget. In time management, these are blocks of time which are on the schedule but which are not part of the schedule.

How much should be in a buffer? The amount is flexible, depending on where we are in the plan. An "emergency fund" should be enough for one time period without any income; for example, if we were working on a family's monthly budget, there should be enough money for one month of expenses without any income. If we are working on a weekly schedule, we should have enough free time for one cycle of activity, say one set of chores or one set of meetings. This time does not have to be all in one block, but we should be able to see it in our schedule.

For example, say we were working on a construction project, like remodeling a house. We have a number of people working in a coordinated fashion, like an electrician and a plumber and a team of carpenters. We work a six-day week on the house. For each week, we should have a buffer of one day (10 hours) of unscheduled time among the team. Not everybody has 10 hours of free time, but we can see a total of 10 hours. Then, as the week progresses, that time can be shortened, until on the last day (day 6) we have maybe 2 or 3 hours unplanned. If we try to schedule every hour of every day for every person on the team, we are risking the entire schedule to unexpected events. By putting some free time into the schedule, we are more likely to handle the unexpected.


The other tool to handle the unexpected is flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The tasks in the plan should occur in a scheduled, planned fashion. However, we need to have some tasks which can be moved around. That way, when an unexpected event occurs, we can move those tasks around to make room to handle the unexpected event.

Let us go back to our house remodeling. Some tasks have to be done at particular times, like getting ready for an inspector. However, other tasks can be moved, like building the front porch. If something unexpected happens, we can delay the building of the porch until later in the week; this movement gives us the time to handle the unexpected event.

Planned for the Unplanned

The key idea is that there will be unplanned events and needs, so we need to put aside resources to handle the unplanned. To schedule all resources, particularly all the time, completely is to risk having our schedule explode when the unexpected occurs. This is a huge risk, and one which is unnecessary. While we cannot handle everything, we can handle most, if we plan for the unplanned.

Author's Bio: 

John Steely has been teaching mathematics, study skills, and habits of success for over 25 years. You can access a number of free resources he has found and made at Steely Services