If someone were to see my daily calendar, they would notice a host of time slots blocked, but kept blank on purpose. These sections are called “buffers” or “emergency zones” – time periods that are purposefully kept clear of meetings or appointments, or any specific slotted activities.
On an average, I try to schedule up to 120 to 150 minutes of these “buffers” or “emergency zones” every day. These are then broken down into two or three slots of 30-45 mins each, and two or three slots of 10 mins each. And just randomly allocated to different times of the day. It’s a system I learnt and fine-tuned over the last 25 years, after attending the seven habits program under Dr Steven Covey.
At first, these buffers or emergency zones felt like indulgences, particularly to those around me at work. But we need to realise that emergencies come unannounced, yet need to be accounted for.
It took years to get people around me to understand the significance of such buffers. But over time I realized not only were these breaks important, they were absolutely necessary in order to improve the quality of output, and to maintain sanity in one’s fast-paced existence.
As individuals grow, whether at work, or in the family, the role of leading, grooming, motivating, counselling, keeping house – needs to evolve and scale along with it. This evolution generally takes place along at least two separate levels:
- from problem solving to coaching
- from tactical execution to thinking strategically.
What both of these transitions require is time, and lots of it. Endlessly scheduling meetings on top of meetings makes people feel extremely exhausted and satisfied that they had a busy day. But the quality of time spent to prepare for the meeting and discussion keeps deteriorating. And to top it all, very few are truly able to add value to discussions, to read the minutes, action the plans and implement. Since every single day turns out to be either meeting-full or discussion-full.
Let us take the role of coaching, for example. It’s often quicker for senior leaders and even homemakers to solve people’s problems for them. But doing so provides short-term relief at a longer time cost. As the organization and families grow, so too will the frequency of those issues, yet there remains only one of us. Unless we can coach others to address challenges directly, we will quickly find ourselves in a position where that’s all we are doing. That’s no way to run a team or a company or a family.
Learning what makes people tick — their unique perspectives, fears, motivations, team dynamics, etc. — and properly coaching them to the point that they can not only solve the issue on their own the next time around, but successfully coach their own team takes far more time than telling them what to do. The only way to sustainably make that investment in people is by not jumping from one meeting to the next, one call to the next, but rather carving out the time to properly coach those who stand to benefit from it the most. Equally if not more importantly is taking time in between those meetings to recharge. The same applies to a homemaker as well.
The same can be said of the transition from tactical execution to thinking strategically. There will always be a need to get things done and knock off another “To Do” item off the list. However, as organisations grow larger, as the breadth and depth of initiatives expand — and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate — you will require more time than ever before to just “think”. Or, to unwind and, at times, just do “Nothing”.
Above all else, the most important reason to schedule “buffers” is to just catch your breath. There is no faster way to feel as though your day is not your own, and that you are no longer in control, than scheduling meetings back to back from the minute you arrive at the office until the moment you leave. Almost all of us have felt the effects of this and seen it with colleagues. Not only is it not fun to feel this way, it’s not sustainable.
The solution, as simple as it sounds, is to periodically schedule nothing. Use that buffer time to think big, catch up on the latest industry news, get out from under that pile of unread emails, or just take a walk. If it’s at home, sometimes it helps to just drop everything, and go out with friends for a coffee and a chat. Whatever you do, just make sure you make that time for yourself – every day and in a systematic way — and don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance. The buffer is the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool to use.
There is a catch though. The flip side of creating buffers or emergency zones by those who are not too disciplined, could lead to major wastage of time in unimportant pursuits while projecting to be thinking, coaching, strategizing or unwinding. Even recreation means just that – re-creating oneself in that time allotted.
As in everything else in life, the real purpose or the real balance can only be decided by each person’s own conscience.