Time strategy #5: Leave breathing room

IMG_1203In 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!

11 thoughts on “Time strategy #5: Leave breathing room

  1. In the strain of maybe it doesn’t need to be done, I harassed my doctor into letting me go back to work Aug 1st with restrictions instead of waiting until Aug 29th. I basically had to sign a blood oath that I wouldn’t over do it and that I would rest as needed. That being said I have had to take a hard look at the my falling Tetris shapes. For me to be able to go back to work, which is imperative, a lot of other stuff must go. Dinner is very important to me. I love to prepare and share a meal with my family. It’s time to reconnect and an oasis of calm family time. The reality is I can’t cook it. But the important part is the sharing. So sorry little box. You have to go into the closet. I usually do my side gig on the weekends. But I need to rest. That’s another little box that will go into the closet for awhile. I guess one could ask themselves if I were physically incapable of doing everything I normally do what would stay and what would go.

    1. I totally agree with this comment Jennie. I am in the early part of my third trimester of pregnancy, and this experience has certainly been a lesson in how to cope with fluctuating energy levels and losing the ability to stand and cook or garden, for example, for long periods. All good preparation for the baby being here I guess!

      On a broader note though, this is probably the first time in my life when if I had to pull an all-nighter, I’m not convinced I would actually be able to do it. Realising this is forcing me to prioritise, probably for the first time, and not just on physical activities but on tiring mental ones too.

      1. @Claire – one of the hardest things with having young kids, I have come to believe, is that there is little opportunity to make up sleep. If you’re up at 5:30, there is no snoozing and then feeling bad about it but convincing yourself it was worth it to stay up later finishing things. Just not an option.

  2. I recently practiced the lowering of standards so that I could recuperate for a week. I invested energy on organizing ahead of time, and decided to skip the full house vacuuming and washing all of the sheets before taking a few days off. It’ll happen eventually but it doesn’t have to happen in the short period when I most need my energy. Instead I focused on getting some rest when I desperately needed it and taking care of Seamus’s paw when he most needed the nursing care. I’ll have to make up for it now but it was worth it.

  3. You are singing my song with this post 😉 I love this whole series!

    I just returned from a 2.5 week vacation to Scandinavia with my 6yo (just the two of us) and as I was looking through Rick Steve’s guidebook, I was overwhelmed by what he suggested we cram into one day. So I suspect you and I have very different travel preferences Laura 🙂 On vacation, we planned for one big activity per day (like Tivoli, an amusement park) or two smaller ones – something in the morning and another afternoon/evening one, with a bit of rest time back at the hotel mid-day. If it was a travel day, finding food and settling into the hotel was the activity for the day. I suspect some people would say we wasted a bunch of opportunities to see more things in the limited time we had, but it was of the the BEST vacations I’ve ever taken, specifically because I didn’t give in to this imagined pressure of “but what if we never come back?” We took it easy, we saw some cool things (but not everything), and we have great memories. Even if we didn’t get to the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm…

    1. @ARC – wow, that sounds like an awesome vacation. And just the right pace with a 6-year-old. Sometimes kids slow things down…and that’s a good thing. Hmm. Maybe I need to take a vacation like this with my 9- and almost 7-year-old…

      1. It was a really great vacation – having 1:1 time with her was great, as well as experiencing all the new stuff in a totally different culture/country. It was also easier to do stuff with 2 people vs. 4 and she is super laid back so she was an easy traveling buddy.

  4. This sounds amazing! I’d love to do something like this with one kid. I agree completely that giving up the pressure of “but what if we never come back” is amazingly freeing. No need to run yourself ragged checking off boxes on a vacation!

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