How To Get Ahead Without Working Any Harder

Alexis Haselberger
6 min readFeb 27, 2023
Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Maybe you’re a planner (with the best of intentions), and maybe you’re not (because you know what they say about the “best laid plans”).

But If you are, I bet there’s one thing that’s tripping you up: You’re trying to make the perfect plan but you’re not accounting for the fact that you don’t have all the info when you’re making the plan.

When I work with clients, or lead workhops for companies, a question often comes up: “Why should I bother planning when the plan is going to change?” Or sometimes this comes out as “When I take the time to plan, I just feel discouraged because urgent things come up that knock me off my plan.”

Does that sound like you?

Here’s the thing: Plans WILL change.

That’s just the nature of living in a dynamic world.

However, there’s a way to plan that accounts for the fact that new things will come in, that the you don’t necessarily need to know what will come up tomorrow in order to make a realistic plan today.

And what is this magic strategy that helps you make plans that actually work?

Buffer.

Every day, there’s going to be some amount of “stuff you didn’t know about yesterday that must be done today”.

(Brief tangent: Can you please help me come up with a shorter, catchier term for this concept? I say this all the time, but it’s really a mouthful!)

In order to plan in a way that feels good, you’ve got to take this reality into account.

You do not know the future. You don’t know what will arise tomorrow.

But one thing you can be pretty darn sure of? SOMETHING will come up tomorrow.

So instead of being annoyed when these urgent matters that really do need your attention NOW come up; how about simply accounting for them in your plans.

This is buffer.

Buffer is not planning out every single minute, but instead leaving time available for what may come up.

Because again, you don’t necessarily know WHAT will come up. But you can be pretty sure that SOMETHING will.

What’s so important about buffer anyway?

Well, when you plan with buffer, good things happen:

  • You’ll be a lot less stressed because if things take longer than you expect you won’t be scrambling.
  • You’ll have far fewer days where you need to work late due to new and unexpected work; your day will be able to absorb it. Because you’ve planned for it. Even if you didn’t know what “it” was.
  • You’ll have far fewer work “emergencies” that encroach onto your personal life because you will have built in the time to handle them. When your schedule is packed super tight, there’s virtually no room for error. One little extra thing can cause a negative cascade of events. An urgent request comes in, you do it, but then you don’t have time for the other things you planned to do, so you have to move some of those to later in the week. But the rest of your week is also packed so tightly that there’s no room for these things, so you feel like shifting ALL your future plans or pulling an all-nigher are the only options.

Have I sold you on creating buffer in your schedule yet?

I hope so. But if not, read on, because I’m going to share a few tactical things to think about when you’re starting to plan with buffer.

Build in buffer through time blocking

Think of your calendar as a visual representation of your task list (it’ll help you be more realistic about what you can get done). Think through what you’ve planned, and how long it will take. Leave unplanned time and label it “buffer”.

Not super familar with the concept of time-blocking? I have a series of articles on the subject and you can check them out below if you are interested in learning more.

Building in buffer when committing to timelines/deadline

When someone asks you when you can do something, is your first instinct to give them the best possible scenario date?

If so, I want you to experiment with something that might be a little uncomfortable.

Before you say “sure, does Wednesday work?”, add a few days of buffer in there. Instead, say “I can get that to you by Friday. Does that timing work for you?”

And if they say yes, then you’ve just done yourself a huge favor. Now, if you get it done Wednesday (just like your optimistic self thought you would) you look AMAZING; you got this thing done ahead of deadline.

But if you get it done Friday (2 days after you thought you would), because it took longer than expected, or other more urgent stuff came up, you are still 100% accountable. You did this thing by when you said you would.

Now, you might be wondering, but what if they say no?

Well, in that case, you’re still in a better spot because now you have info you didn’t have before you asked. And you can look at your priorities and shift as necessary.

How much buffer do you need?

Well, this answer is going to be different for everyone, but here’s a way you can check for yourself:

For the next week, every day, keep track of how much time you spend on this category of “stuff I didn’t know about yesterday but has to be done today”. After a week, average it. That’s how much buffer you should start with.

Are there any buffer “gotchas”?

You bet! When planning your day, there are a couple of things that a lot of folks miss:

  • Email/Slack

We tend to think that email and Slack are a layer of work that will somehow just get done between everything else. Not so! Communication takes time, and it’s better to simply account for that reality.

How much time? Again, that varies. But you can track it, find out your daily average, then account for it in your plan.

Personally, I spend about 60–90 minutes a day processing my messages via the One Touch Rule and doing “quick tasks” (most of which take place in email or Slack). And because I know that the upper end is 90 minutes, I generally plan for two 45 minute blocks per day. If I have extra time, lucky me (and see below for what to do with it)!

  • Breaks

You need to pee right? And eat? And hydrate?

Yes, yes you do.

And these things take time, so don’t forget to account for this in your plan.

If you don’t account for these activities, then they will eat up any buffer you create and leave you feeling like this technique doesn’t work for you.

Isn’t this just “sandbagging”?

Sandbagging is intentionally and deceitfully inflating time estimations and or lowering expectations so as to produce an overinflated result.

This is not buffer.

Why? Because buffer is attempting to account for reality, not trying to intentionally deceive or “buy time”.

What if you have extra time at the end of the day?

What a fantastic problem to have!

This is the great thing about buffer. If you don’t need it, then you get to do something that was on your list for tomorrow, today! And that puts you in an even better position for the week ahead. And feels fantastic to boot!

If you’ve ever heard me refer to task realism, this is it.

It feels SO MUCH better to do something today that you had intended to do tomorrow than to have to push something you intended to do today to tomorrow.

(And you know what else you could do with buffer that you don’t end up needing? Take a nap, read a book, or knock off a bit early.)

It’s up to you. The point is that when you plan with buffer, it’s much more likely that you’re going to be the one in control of your time instead of being beholden to the pressures and obligations that feel outside your control.

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Originally published at https://www.alexishaselberger.com on February 27, 2023.

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