In years of writing about people’s schedules, I have learned that we all have different activity tolerances. My inclination in life is more toward “full.” I don’t mind having things push out a bit at the seams. On the few package tours I have been on, I have been amazed to see how much downtime is considered normal.
That said, I do know this: a day has exactly 24 hours and a week has 168. All our activities must fit within those limits. You cannot commit to doing 26 hours of activities during a day and expect it to work. Indeed, you probably can’t do 24, or 20. I suspect 18 is pushing it. You have to sleep, and it is impossible to go immediately from one thing to the next. You can try! I have heard of one in-demand business leader who has two conference rooms, and as he is meeting in one, people for the next meeting assemble in the other. That way, as soon as he walks in, the meeting starts. But for most of us, a life with no slack is a recipe for disaster.
Good time management means building in space. Open space is the key to getting more done.
Here’s what I mean. We could picture the 24 hours of a day as something like the game Tetris. Things are constantly falling from the sky in various shapes. With a good sense of the shapes (i.e. how much time things take) and the rhythms of your schedule, you can fit a lot in, and the bottom rows keep disappearing. This is the metaphorical equivalent of being on-time and calm. But when you have a lot of blocks already on the screen, stacking up at the bottom, the shapes that fall from the sky become harder to place. They don’t stop falling, though, and eventually you go over the top. You’re late. You’re rushing. You’re staying up until 3:00 a.m. to get it all done or it’s not getting done.
Leaving some breathing room is helpful for three main reasons:
1. Most things take longer than you think they will. This is true even if you’re pretty good at time estimation (and most people aren’t)
2. Stuff comes up. Unlike in Tetris, 10 shapes might fall from the sky at the same time. Think one kid in the ER, another coming home from school sick, and a full parking lot at the airport.
3. Space allows you to be open to opportunity.
The first two cause much of the angst about time management and tardiness and all that. If you keep these two truths in mind, you may be able to stop being late to places. Ask yourself how long something will take, double it, and you may be about right.
But honestly, I think the last reason is the most important. If a direct report wants to chat with you about new ideas, it is a non-cool boss move to tell her to come back at 4:12 p.m. because you have an 8-minute window then. If your schedule has space, you can have these conversations. You can invite the camera crew from a national morning show to come film your household, should that opportunity arise.
How do you create space? One approach is to do a weekly calendar triage (Friday afternoon tends to be good for this). Look over the next week or two and figure out what you really don’t want to do. Does it have to be done? Maybe, but maybe not. It is kinder and easier to kill things in advance than in the moment. You may be able to shrink things you can’t kill (e.g. converting a meeting requiring travel into a phone call or video conference). You may see things that are redundant (e.g. you have time on the phone with someone you will see the next night). All of this is easier to improve with a few days’ notice.
The second approach is to have fewer things on your calendar in the first place. When asked to take on a commitment in the future, ask yourself if you’d do it tomorrow. If you would cancel or move things to fit the activity in tomorrow because it is so exciting to you, then you will probably feel the same in November. But if you wouldn’t do it tomorrow, keep in mind that you will not be a different person in November. You will have just as many things going on in your life then, except you will also have this commitment you were lukewarm about!
Then there is the stuff people busy themselves with that probably does not need to happen. Some housework falls in this category. People point out that it costs money to outsource household chores, but it does not cost anything to lower your standards. There is no 11 p.m. home inspection. You can go to bed with toys on the floor. The kids can buy lunch. They can choose their own outfits. The oven does not need to be cleaned today. Let it go.
In recent weeks I have been aware of how many wonderful opportunities come up when the space exists to embrace them. There was the Maine trip. I have a friend I sometimes run with during the week. She works from home, but for a big corporation with lots of virtual meetings. She texts last minute if she suddenly has an opening in the afternoon. I like when I am able to meet her. On the days when none of the big kids have been in camp, we’ve been able to go to the beach or zoo. A few nice-to-do-but-not-critical phone calls on the schedule could have derailed that.
With enough space, it all fits.
In other news: This is part of a series of blog posts on foundational time management habits. If you are enjoying the series, please consider sharing it with a friend!