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Professional Development

The Importance of Buffer Time

“I’m late, I’m late for a very important date!”

Most of us have heard this phrase from The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. And, unfortunately, plenty of us understand his angst all too well. We’ve all had to rush to a meeting, class or event with the sense that a pocket watch is ticking away in our ear. Once we’ve reached said meeting, we’re flustered and out-of-breath—even if we got there on time.

To be at our best, we need to avoid this kind of time-crunch anxiety. Planning can be a huge help, but even planning alone may not be enough.

We need one more element—something I like to call buffer time.

What is Buffer Time?

The majority of people are fairly good at organizing their schedules when they take time to plan ahead. We know about how long meetings should take or how much travel time we’ll need to get somewhere. 

But that’s under ideal circumstances. 

The moment something unexpected pops up (i.e. a meeting runs over by a half hour or there’s a wreck on the expressway), our schedule is shot. Not to mention it takes 22 minutes for the average person to refocus on a task after an interruption. Thus, if the unexpected something interrupts intense focus, you’re going to be even further behind after switching back.

Yet, we all know folks who miraculously are never late to an event or appointment. They hardly ever seem rushed, hurried or mentally scattered.

What are these folks using that the rest of us aren’t? Buffer time.

Buffer time is simply time added to an appointment or task. In essence, it is planning for the unexpected. It’s taking into account the fact that circumstances might not go the way we planned and we might have to adapt.

Primarily, buffer time prevents task or appointment overflow from affecting your other plans. This translates to less stress when life doesn’t go exactly as planned.
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But, there’s a secondary mental benefit. The 22 minutes it takes to refocus on a task after an interruption? Researchers call this a result of attention residue. It means that even if you’re actively working on a task, part of your mind is still on the last thing you dealt with.

But used properly, buffer time provides a refocusing zone. Instead of instantly jumping from one task to the next, you have time to end your work on the last task and mentally prepare for the next. You’ll lose less productivity to attention residue. You may even find you’re “in the moment” more as a result.

Sold on buffer time? Let’s talk about how to build it into your schedule.

Your Time: Expectations vs. Reality

To get started, take fifteen to thirty minutes to estimate what you think your current schedule looks like. How long do you think you spend on projects at work a week? How much time are you spending with your family and friends? What about your time spent on social media? 

Write down as many estimates as you can. Frame the estimates in terms of daily or weekly time frames, depending on what’s easiest for you to gauge. Just don’t forget to include which time frame you’re referencing. Put your guesses somewhere you can find them—you’ll need them later.

The next step is essential to building in buffer time. You need to know where your time is going now. Which means… time tracking.

Fortunately, apps like Timely, Toggl, RescueTime and Hours have made it much easier to keep up with your time. I typically lean towards these apps due to ease of use, but if paper and pencil is more your style, by all means use a spreadsheet template blocked in fifteen to thirty-minute segment like this one

Regardless of the method you choose for your time tracking, you need to be consistent with it. This means tracking 75% or more of your day including downtime activities. If you forget logging, but can accurately fill in the log a little later in the day, go for it. The more detailed your logs, the easier it will be to build buffer time into your schedule.

You’ll want to stick to this process for at least three days. A week would give you a much better picture of your schedule and two weeks would be ideal. But, it’s better to stick to a shorter timeframe with strict adherence rather than a longer timeframe with half-hearted adherence. 

After you’ve time tracked religiously for a few days, it’s time to examine your expectations against reality. Pull out the estimates you made before starting the time tracking process and compare it to your time logs. How accurate are you? Note any patterns you come across—they can be helpful in the next step.

Time, Fudge and Math 

From here, we’ll use the estimated vs reality to calculate your “fudge ratio” (a term coined by Steve Pavlina in this great article). This ratio determines whether you tend to overestimate or underestimate your time spent on certain tasks. It’s calculated by dividing the time a task really took by the time you estimated a task would take. Let’s look at it in action:

Say you estimated your total daily commute takes two hours, but in reality, it averaged out to two-and-a-half hours. Your “fudge ratio” for the commute would be 1.25, meaning the commute took 25% longer than you thought it did. 

When it comes to buffer time, figuring out a general “fudge ratio” is perfectly fine. To use the commute example: if you underestimate the time tasks will take by around 25% across the board, then 1.25 is a good starting “fudge ratio.” 

However, if you want to be incredibly accurate, you can calculate individual “fudge ratios” for specific tasks or projects. The patterns you recognized earlier? They’ll highlight areas that might need individual ratios. Use them to your advantage to increase your accuracy.

Building Your Buffer

From here, the process is pretty simple. Pick out two to five tasks or appointments coming up within the next week. Make an “off the cuff” estimate of how long you think they’ll take. 

Then, multiply that estimate by your “fudge ratio.” This gives you the time the task should realistically take. 

Now, add between five to fifteen minutes on either side of the task or appointment. Voilà, guaranteed buffer time. Even if the appointment or task runs right up until the “realistic” time estimate, you still have extra time built in. As a general rule, shorter and less important tasks should need less of a buffer added on. Longer and more important tasks will need more. 

Typically, running through this estimation process for two to five tasks a week will build the habit of buffer time inclusion naturally. The habit will spill over for tasks you’re not actively estimating as well. Before you know it, you’ll have buffer time built in to everything you do—without having to think about it.

But, if you’re having trouble finding time to build in your buffer, take a look at any non-essential and non-urgent tasks on your list (social media can be a great place to start). Pare the time you’re spending on them down slightly or get rid of them completely if you’re so inclined. This will open up more space in your day for your buffer time.

Ultimately, making a place for buffer time in your schedule will decrease your schedule demands rather than increase them. And unlike our friend, the White Rabbit, you’ll be able to approach the rest of your daily demands with a clear, focused mind.

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