So much to do, so little time (more on Rule #5: Create a back-up slot)

This week the Tranquility by Tuesday Challenge is focusing on Rule #5: Create a back-up slot. Anyone can make a perfect schedule. True time management masters create a resilient schedule that can absorb the unexpected — both good and bad.

Generally this involves building in more open space. Open space is the time equivalent of an “emergency fund” — that foundational personal finance concept. When you have some money in the bank, you can deal with unexpected expenses without going into debt. You don’t necessarily know what those expenses will be, but it’s the rare life where the roof doesn’t spring a leak, a car doesn’t require expensive repairs, or someone is out of work for a short stint at some point. An emergency fund lets you deal with these “known unknowns” (as the late Donald Rumsfeld would put it) with far less stress.

Most of us know this, but building up an emergency fund isn’t exactly easy. If you’re starting from nothing, you’re trying to put away a little money here and there when there are no doubt very reasonable things to spend money on right in front of you.

Building up a “time emergency fund” is also difficult — with the added challenge that if you save $100, it stays saved until you actively spend it. If you keep an hour open this week, it does not then stay open in perpetuity. Once that hour is over, it is in the past. So you have to keep replenishing the supply.

But the good news is that while a solid monetary emergency fund might be six months worth of expenses, no one expects six months of open time. A few hours a week will do you.

Building that up requires making the same choices that one does with money. You put away a little time here and there when there are no doubt very reasonable things to spend time on right in front of you. Again — not easy! As one person said in the Tranquility by Tuesday project, there is “so much to do, so little time,” and so it “feels slightly unrealistic to get everything done and keep slots clear.” If someone has been trying to meet with you for four weeks and you see that Friday morning is open, it’s not going to be easy to say no when it looks like you have nothing going on.

But those who were willing to try it out did come up with some reasonable strategies. By planning on Fridays (Rule #2), it would become clear that a week was pretty full, which nudged some folks to put a stop on agreeing to anything new over the next seven days. If it wasn’t truly urgent, it would need to wait until the next week. One person told me they stopped going to any meeting that didn’t require their active participation. One did an accounting of all the meetings she was handling, realized the number was ridiculous, and did some serious delegation. Others met with their managers to discuss what was the best use of their time and what was not.

Some people created more open space by booking more childcare. I know that might sound extreme, but one reason people wind up with packed work schedules is that some folks (mainly women) have a story that using childcare is “bad” and so the less used the better. But if you have a job that truly does take 40 hours a week and you are attempting to squeeze that on the edges by always doing school pick up and such (because you can work from home!), that is going to create a time crisis where it wasn’t inevitable.

You should also try to create some open space in your personal life. I’ve generally tried to schedule fewer kid activities on Wednesday than other days. That way if we need to do something (like, I don’t know, get a kid’s glasses repaired) there is a potential spot during the week that doesn’t involve canceling things.

How, practically, do you build open space into your life?

New here? The Tranquility by Tuesday Challenge is a 9-week program based on my nine favorite time management rules. I talk about these rules, and how they changed people’s lives, in my most recent book, Tranquility by Tuesday. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out!

5 thoughts on “So much to do, so little time (more on Rule #5: Create a back-up slot)

  1. I tend to add the open space at the beginning of the week this term. And block Thursdays and Fridays for meetings, catch ups, lunches, since I have a weirdly fragmented teaching schedules on those days. I’m getting better at saying no to meetings which will not meaningfully progress research/writing on Mondays and Tuesdays. It works better from an energy perspective as well, I can review student work on Fridays when I’m tired.

  2. I haven’t nailed the back up spot yet, but there is more white space in my week this semester. One benefit (maybe also draw back) is that I get to linger as I do my work, which I’ve missed. Scheduling every hour means I charge through things, which is efficient but not always enjoyable. It might be the same task, but it feels different.

    1. @Lk – I’m actually a big fan of this. I like lingering in some of my work, and thinking about things, instead of just plowing through. To do that, though, I need lots of open space in my schedule, and to not feel like I need to race through things to make a 4:00 pick up somewhere.

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