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Everyone and his uncle seems to know that Benjamin Franklin developed and continuously revised a learning habit throughout his life, as part of his larger, noble attempt to live a good life by following virtues and principles he admired.
This learning habit — Franklin’s setting aside an hour a day to devote entirely to intentional learning— is commonly called the 5-hour rule. Always remembering to account for the weekend, of course.
He is also famous for his to-do lists. And he was on to something.
Franklin didn’t only set goals. He devoted time to active learning. Through that, he discovered how to become more productive over the long term. He doesn’t seem to have worried about short-term productivity too much. Instead, he worked out that by constantly learning, he could steadily and consistently improve his productivity. Looking at his record, I’d say it worked out quite well for him.
But what didn’t Ben record when he devised his schedule each morning? My guess is he didn’t note his buffer time, and I’d bet (almost) anything he had some built-in.
Let’s look at the magic of buffer time.
What is it?
Buffer time is essentially time you allow for in your plans in which life can throw stuff at you. Make you late for meetings. Gift you a win on your premium bonds. Kill your mother. That sort of thing. Expect the unexpected.
Let’s flash forward to the 21st Century world of work. What stuff might you want to create a buffer against? Let me think …
The meeting ran over by half an hour, there was a car accident in front of you when you were travelling in. You’ve not built a buffer. Arriving on time is now out of the question.
The internet is down and you can’t look up that phone number or fact check that piece, and the engineer can’t come out to you until tomorrow. The deadline for that piece is tomorrow. Oh, and it’s 7pm and the cafés are closing in an hour. You live 30 minutes away from the nearest one that you know has reliable Wi-Fi.
What do you do if you’ve not built buffer time into your schedule?
Probably panic, then turn to chocolate (or cheese) for solace.
Of course, even if you’ve allowed time for life to throw a few rotten vegs at you, something might happen that will derail you completely. It doesn’t always work out. But neither is it likely that the combination of events I’ve just used ( and had fun catastrophising with) will happen all at once.
If you take time to put buffer time into your plans, you’ll give yourself the best chance to get what you need to do done, without lasting disruption and without being overwhelmed by stress. And if you’ve done that, you’ve also given yourself the best chance you can to bounce back, regain your emotional centre after something happens, sink back down into focus and be truly productive.
Buffering: The Know How
So how do you add buffer time into your schedule?
Consider what you do each week.
- How long does it take you to drive to your local supermarket?
- How long do you spend on projects for work?
- How long do you give to your family?
- How much time do you spend on social media?
- How much time do you spend on Netflix and YouTube?
Write down as many things you can think of that you do and guess how much time you do each thing for. Note your guess next to the relevant task. Now comes crunch time.. time management to be exact. Some of the apps I mentioned in another piece like Timely and Toggl can help you with that, but if you vibe more with pen and paper that’s great. Use your chosen method to draw a table that’s divided into time segments. Ten or fifteen minutes should do.
The number one rule is consistency, consistency, consistency. Do your best to stick with the method you choose, at least for a few days. Shoot for recording upwards of 75% of your day, including downtime. So record how long it takes you to have lunch, how long you spent watching a video, how long you spent scrolling through Amazon. Record it all. Don’t sweat it too much if you forget to log things down. If you think you can add them to your log later do it, but only if you think you can be accurate. The more stuff you log, the easier it will become to add buffer time later on. If you can keep it up for a whole week that’s good, if you can keep logging like a loony for two whole weeks, that’s marvellous.
Remember, it’s better to stick to it rigorously for 4 days, than to half-ass your daily record for two weeks.
When you’ve finished your logging, compare your actual log to your estimates. How right were you? Your accuracy depends on the task you’re doing. You might have been bang on the money when you estimated how long it would take you to create that PowerPoint presentation, but way off when you estimated how long you watched YouTube for. If you spot any patterns (and the good news is humans are generally good at doing that) jot them down.
Doing the Division
Now to work out which tasks you overestimated the time spent and which you underestimated how long they would take you. This calls for a little division and a bit of averaging. Divide the time something really took you to do by the time you thought it would take you, then average it out over the length of your log. This will give you a good idea of how much buffer time you’ll need (if any) for each task. Here’s an example.
Let’s say your daily commute into work takes 40 minutes, but it averaged out over the two weeks at an hour. You now know you need a 20-minute buffer to make sure you’re not (usually) late.
If you do the division for each logged task and each corresponding time estimate, you’ll have a good handle on the buffers you need to create for a typical day. You can use your calculations to start improving your accuracy, and thereby become better at gauging how long a task is going to take you to do.
So now you know how long you might need your buffer to be, how many should you build into your day?
Somewhere between 2-5 buffers usually works, but just experiment to see what suits you. Then do what I did in the example for each buffer you want to build and you’ll be set. It will vary by task. You might only need a five-minute buffer when doing tasks you’re most practiced at, but I’d recommend building one more buffer than you think you’re going to need during your day. After all, if your day ends up being one of those magical ones when everything goes to plan, you’ll have an extra buffer on your hands. Then what can you do?
If you want to give yourself a motivational boost and have the energy for it, you can do a couple of little tasks with your extra buffer time. Here’re a few ideas.
- Draw up some more learning goals. Really consider what you want to learn, and why.
- Practice things deliberately so that you continue to improve, rather than just doing things automatically and not improving. You can do this by seeking candid feedback on your progress towards your goal(s) from a friend or co-worker.
- Ruminate to get perspective. This can also give you time to have creative hunches that can lead to breakthroughs. A great way to process insights is on a walk. You don’t need to take my word for it, Beethoven thought so too. Or you can bounce your ideas off a conversation partner.
- Try little things out that you think might pay off, big time. It doesn’t really matter whether they work or not. You can think of them all as opportunities to learn and test your ideas.
Whatever you choose to do with your extra buffer you might have when things run extra smooth, be careful not to overdo it. As I’ve said before, sometimes the most productive thing you can do is take a break. I know that. Benjamin Franklin knew that. And now so do you.
So, write down your schedules and buffer away to give yourself the best shot at getting more stuff done, and start building an easier life for yourself right now.