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Don't Give Every Minute a Job

Don't Give Every Minute a Job
Photo by Karsten Füllhaas / Unsplash

In the budgeting world, there is a line made famous by YNAB:

Give every dollar a job.

It's this idea that if you don't give your money purpose (e.g., a category of intended spending), it's easy to lose track of it, and it is at risk of being spent irresponsibly. 

If we apply this to the world of planning, it would be easy to conclude that we should give every minute a job and pack our calendars to the brim. But as I tried to illustrate in The Illusion of the Perfect Weekly Plan, a full calendar does not equate to success.

Failing to plan does not mean you plan to fail

There's a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin that's often cited in planning seminars: 

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. For those who practice time blocking (i.e., put everything in the calendar), this kicks us into high gear, and we try to ensure every minute of our calendar is accounted for. 

It can feel satisfying to fill up the calendar with aspirational goals. The problem, however, is that the plan is merely an aspirational snapshot of what you’d like the week to be. When put into practice, it leads us to inherently unsustainable schedules that we either burnout trying to complete or abandon since reality calls for something quite different than what we envisioned.

The invisible shield to burnout

Rather than assigning a job to every minute of every day, the key is to set aside a percentage of time that is free to be spent later. Like a shield guarding you from unforeseen variables, I call this time a "buffer." 

What are buffers?

Buffers act like a rainy day fund because you don't know what will happen. Here are some common scenarios that might sound familiar:

  • Getting sick
  • Feeling out of sorts
  • Creativity blocks
  • Family emergencies (i.e., sick kids, doctor appointments, etc.)
  • Longer meetings
  • Longer social engagements
  • Work taking longer than expected
  • Things not going according to plan

Without a proper buffer, your plan often gets thrown into chaos, resulting in a really stressful week. Similar to having unexpected expenses pop up, the rainy day fund is critical to ensuring you still have enough to pay the rent and keep the lights on.

But what happens to the buffer if no fires pop up?

Unlike a traditional savings account, the great thing about buffers is that you'll get to spend that time either way. Because, unlike money, you can't hoard time. It comes and goes whether you like it or not. As a result, rather than seeing the buffer as an obstacle to any current or previous goal, it's important to remember that you can still devote that time back to those goals, assuming nothing else gets in the way. 

How much buffer should I account for?

Determining how much buffer each person needs is more of an art than science. After all, the context between each day, week, month, etc., varies as life progresses. That said, it's always nice to have a baseline. In my experience, 20% is an excellent place to start when planning my week. When I try to plan for the future (i.e., next month, quarter, year, etc.), I expand that number to as high as 70% because there are far more unknowns at that point. 

Like any technique, it's important to remember that it's a delicate balancing act.

  • Too little buffer, and you'll end up over-committed and stressed out, making trade-offs on things you usually wouldn't.
  • Too much buffer can make your projects move slower, which can lead to feeling antsy.

While I'd love to complete the set with how "just enough buffer" makes the world go round, the goal is not to estimate with 100% accuracy. It's more of a feeling, but with practice, it becomes easier to know how much buffer to account for as time goes on.

Closing thoughts

As I wrap up this post, some of you might think, "But wait, isn't assigning time to buffers technically giving it a job? After all, its job is to protect you from future things!" And while that's true in one regard, the thing I want to underscore about buffers is that they are about the practice of freedom. 

Are buffers designed against unknown future obligations? Absolutely. However, the less obvious, but arguably more important, purpose of buffers is to trust your future self with the space to determine how best to spend that time.

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