The Big Idea
Overwhelm isn’t having too much to do, it’s not knowing where to start.
Questions I Answer
- How can I feel less busy?
- What can I do so my day feels less chaotic?
- How do I stop feeling overwhelmed?
- How can I figure out how much time I need for a project or task?
Key Topics in the Show
How to build in buffers to your life.
Real life examples of how buffers allow you to adjust to unexpected events.
Why sometimes it’s not the best idea to be overly optimistic.
How to calculate the time it will actually take you to complete a task.
Resources and Links
- Tips on How to Not Feel So Busy:
- Add a 50% buffer to your estimated time: If it takes you an estimated 10 minutes to get your child to soccer practice, leave the house 15 minutes before you need to be there.
- If you do have extra time at the end of your drive or finish a project early, I suggest preparing for the next task ahead. Or use this time for friend/family conversations or checking social media (instead of checking it throughout the day).
- Don’t just squeeze in one more thing: Use Siri, Cortana, Alexa, etc. as your personal assistant. Ask them to set reminders for you, like taking the trash out at the end of the day instead of when you’re rushing in the morning.
- No matter how little time you have, take a few minutes, write down your tasks and figure out where you need to start.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, and this is episode 18. Today, we are going to be talking about cushioning your time and creating buffers for yourself. As you know, season two is all about streamlining. You might be thinking to yourself, “What does this have to do with streamlining?” Streamlining isn’t just about taking things off of your plate. It’s really about creating the right size plate for the items you want to put on it. That’s where cushioning your time comes in, because it’s going to help us figure out what we can actually fit on our plates, so when it comes down to our priorities and the things we want to spend our time on, we can accurately get our plate set exactly the way we want it.
The only thing that we know we can expect in life is the unexpected. Cushions and buffers are going to help us with that, because we can either react in the moment when it comes, or we can prepare by creating these buffers. A buffer is literally defined as something that prevents two things from coming into contact and harming one another. The problem is we want to think of our timelines for our goals and our projects as the room of requirement that no matter what, the timeline will somehow magically work. It will expand to fit our estimates even if we dramatically underestimated our time.
We feel like we should be able to achieve everything even when it’s not realistic. It’s not that you need to adjust your goals. It’s really about adjusting that timeline we have in our heads. The room of requirement unfortunately only works for Harry Potter. Why do we need these buffers? It’s because we need breathing room. That’s the white space that allows us to readjust when needed. It gives us the grace to get back on track when we fall off. We all fall off from time to time. Even if you have really well laid out plans, there are times where you’re going to fall off track. It may not be your fault that you fall off track, but you have to allow yourself the space to get back on and to give yourself that grace to be okay with that.
I think a great example of buffers is when you’re driving, because most of us are using buffers without even thinking about it. You know that extra space you keep between your car and the car in front of you? That’s a buffer. You do that to give yourself time to respond or to adapt any sudden or unexpected moves by the other cars. When you get distracted, you might forget about that buffer zone. You get too close to the car ahead of you, and you maybe even have to do something unnatural like swerve or slam on your brakes. It’s the same way with a project or a timeline that’s gotten away from you, because before you know it, the day comes where it’s due. The day the presentation’s arrived, or the project is due no matter how much time you’ve built in.
If you’ve underestimated, you’re forced to swerve or slam on the brakes. By creating buffers, that gives us the space for that breathing room to allow for the expansion of ideas and to allow us to avoid those swerves in the road. Now, struggling with timelines is not something that is unique to you, because most people admit to having a tendency to underestimate their time while simultaneously believing their current estimates are accurate. We know we underestimate our time,
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but we still believe our estimates are accurate. I think that’s interesting, because there was a study that they asked participants anonymously to estimate how long it would take to complete a test.
Those participants were able to estimate correctly. That tells us that we often know how long something’s going to take us, but we have a really hard time admitting it, even if we’re just admitting it to ourselves. We want to think that our hours come with more than 60 minutes, when in actuality, we all have the same amount of time. If you feel like you probably underestimate your time, you are absolutely not alone. This is something that most people are doing without realizing it. It’s a very common phenomenon called planning fallacy. This is a term that was coined by Daniel Kahneman, which refers to people’s tendency to underestimate how long a task will take.
He did a study of graduate students. He asked them to estimate how long they thought it would take to complete their senior thesis. For the students, they found that the best case scenario was that they estimated it would take an average of 27.4 days. Best case scenario they’d be done in 27.4 days. The worst case scenario, they estimated it would take them about 48.6 days. 27.4 days, best case scenario. Worst case. 48.6 days when in actuality, on average, it actually took the students 55.5 days, blowing that worst case scenario out of the water. What’s really interesting is that people also tend to underestimate even when they’ve already done the task before. That’s because we love to rely on the best case scenario.
That one time where you drove to work and it took you 20 minutes, that’s what we rely on even though that was the only time in your entire life that’s happened, and you hit every green light on your route. Somehow, even if it regularly takes us 30 minutes, we truly want to believe that the 20 minute scenario is achievable and is therefore the norm. When we chronically underestimate how long something is going to take and we find that inevitably these things take longer, we feel disappointed, because something unexpected comes up or the task starts being more involved than we’d anticipated, or that our estimate was just simply too optimistic in the first place.
Then, you’re just reaching to the problem. Your results are going to suffer, because you don’t have that space, that breathing room. You end up pulling an all nighter, cutting corners to hand in your project, or you have somebody else on your team pick up the slack, or even worse, you just fail to get it done at all. Instead of assuming the best case scenario will happen, we need to build in buffers for the unexpected events. That way, instead of forcing execution at the last minute, you’re going to have that room to readjust for those swerves in the road. It sounds really easy, but is it? How can we build these buffers in?
It’s always good to create cushions for ourselves as I’ve said, because it allows us a space to grow and react. This works for time and it works for money. Let me give you an example of a time when I have built buffers into my own life. When John and I met, I owned my own home, and he was renting a place. Through his schooling, he had incurred quite a bit of credit card debt because he had to pay for a lot of his own schooling. I firmly believe in living a debt free life. He and I made an agreement together. We decided that I was going to continue paying my mortgage and paying
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for all the major bills for both of us out of my teacher salary, because I was working as a teacher at the time.
I paid for those bills, and he was focusing on taking all of his money he was making at his job to pay off his credit card debt. By the time we got married, we started our marriage living debt free, which was a great way for us to start together. Well, within a year, we were continuing to live with just that one teacher salary. We decided we wanted to give ourself that buffer in case something came up. Within a year, John decided he wanted to quit his job and go get his MBA. Again, we lived for the next couple of years on my teacher salary. It wasn’t an adjustment at all, because we were already use to living on that little salary for both of us, and it was okay.
From that time on, we continued living on a one salary. Even though we were a family, we lived on one salary. Then, when things cropped up that we did not plan for at all, we were better able to adjust for them. An example of that was infertility. We did not anticipate having to have so many infertility treatments or having invitro surgery twice, which if you’ve ever been through it, you know that is very expensive. We were able to do that because we’d created these buffers for ourselves. We were consistently socking away one person’s salary while living off of just the one other person’s salary. It allowed us to get the invitro treatments and therefore get my daughter, Kate, here without incurring a lot more debt.
That is the beauty of those buffers is they allow us to adjust when we need to. This explains why there are companies that have thrived in extreme or difficult conditions while others have not. These successful businesses do not have any better ability to predict the future than anyone else, but they’re just the ones who acknowledge they cannot predict the unexpected. Therefore, they prepare better. It’s all about preparation. The first step is to really take a good, hard look at how you’re doing. If you’re finding that you’re consistently missing deadlines or your timelines are not really working out, take a step back and take a look.
There’s a company called Sketch Deck, which is an online design project company, that did just that. They found they were consistently underestimating their project timelines. 67% of the time, they were failing to meet their deadlines. They took the time to look at 70,000 hours of design work to find out why their timelines were consistently being underestimated. The result of their findings were interesting, because for each step in the project, they found there was a 50% chance of completion on or before the deadline. That sounds pretty good, right? Let’s look at it the other way.
That means there’s a 50% chance of it not being completed in time. Then, that just keeps compounding. The second step, again, there’s a 50% chance you’re not going to make it on your timeline, so then, there’s a 25% chance of actually making your final deadline. With each step, it keeps compounding. If your project has three steps, 12.5% chance of finishing it on the timeline you have set. We want to believe that the steps where we get done ahead of time are going to make up for those steps right? You’re not really finishing 50% faster necessarily.
That make up time you’re getting is just slivers. We have to remember to not be overly optimistic. Just like we talked about with that time you went to work and it
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took you 20 minutes, we can’t think about that. We have to think about that would be great if we got there in 20 minutes, but it’s probably going to take us really the 30 minutes, right? That’s our norm. That’s what you have to do with your cushions and your buffers is allowing yourself that space for what’s realistic. If you have a project that has two steps and each one of those steps takes two hours, there is a really good chance you’re not going to be done in four hours. I know this seems unsettling to thing, “It should just take me two hours,” but you have to allot for the things that you don’t normal anticipate.
I’ve got a little exercise for you to go through. If you go to inkwellpress.com/ podcast and you look under episode 18, you’ll see an exercise to go through to help figure out how to find the cushions for your time and figure out where you are underestimating your time. The solution, honestly, is really pretty simple. That’s the good news. It’s simple because really if you add a 50% buffer to the time you estimate, you’re going to be in much better shape. Now, 50% may sound really generous, but consider how frequently things actually do take us 50% longer than expected.
If it takes you an estimated 10 minutes to get your child to soccer practice, leave the house 15 minutes before you need to get there. Having that five minutes of buffer will relieve the stress of being late. If you get caught in traffic, you’ve got time built in for that. Sometimes you get halfway down the road and you realize your kid’s forgotten their soccer cleats and you have to go back. That allots for that. You’ll find the task is easier and faster to execute than expected. That extra time is going to feel like a bonus that you can bank up. If you’re saying, “Okay, that’s great, but what do I do if I get there in 10 minutes? I get there early. What am I supposed to do with that time?”
That’s bonus time right there. That’s your time to bring something to read or get prepared for the task ahead of you. With that extra time, a lot of times I like to center myself and prepare for what I’m getting ready to do. I also like to use those little hidden moments as time to have conversations with my kids, because I have them trapped in the car and we can have a conversation. I use that time, too, to check in with social media. I don’t allow myself time to check in on social media except for when I have those little buffer moments that are my bonuses. That’s my time to check in.
Again, I would encourage you to download our exercise to see where you can find your buffer time at inkwellpress.com/podcast under episode 18. I think you’ll find that really helpful. Time blocking is often presented as the answer for getting things done. Having done that exercise, this is going to allow you to time block in a way that’s really appropriate for the time you need. Now, I love time blocking because I really think it allows you to focus in your time, but if you’re falling victim to this planning fallacy where you’re always underestimating your time, you’re going to feel behind each and every day.
I think this fits in a lot with what we talked about back in episode 12 when we talked about creating your ideal planning system, planning each day as it comes. That way, you’re able to adjust for the unexpected. If you’re planning out your entire week on Sunday, when you get behind on, let’s say, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and
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Friday all already feel behind. It doesn’t feel good. Really, making sure you have these buffers by adding 50% of your time estimate for each task and then planning each day as it comes will really help you figure out how to get things done in the way that works best for you.
When you have extra time because of these buffers, we are going to be banking that up to use later on. I’ve already planned out an entire episode where we talk about banking our time later on as part of season two. The other thing we really want to do is avoid the one more thing-itus, which is you know what that is. It’s when you go, “Oh, I can get one more thing done,” right? If you start putting buffers in and you’re about to leave work when you realize you have to take out the trash, you don’t want to remember it later and you think, “I’ll just do it now. I have this buffer built in. It’ll only take me a minute.” Then, as you go to take the trash out, you drop the bag, it splits, and then you have to clean it up. The dog starts running around.
You get where I’m going here, right? Everything ends up taking longer than anticipated. Your buffers are not there for you to squeeze in one more thing. They’re built in so you can get your task that you planned done faster. Then, once you’ve gotten the task finished, then you have your buffer time. Now, what I like to do with the one more thing issue, because we all have that, is I use my personal assistant to help me set a reminder. I think most of us have a personal assistant. My personal assistant is called Siri. Yours might be called Cortana, might be called Alexa, but I simply do a, “Hey, Siri, I need you to set a reminder that when I get home, I need to take out the trash.”
Lo and behold, my personal assistant reminds me when I come back home to take out the trash. That’s my way of getting rid of that one more thingitus, because one more thing turns into one more thing turns into another thing, and before you know it, you’re behind. Make sure that when you’re setting these buffers in for yourself, it’s really for the task as hand and not for you to squeeze in one more thing. When you have these buffers built into your schedule, you’re going to find that you can slow down a little bit and you can actually breath and enjoy these activities and tasks you need to do. When you have a ton of things on your plate, you feel overwhelmed, and you’ll be inclined to speed up and go faster, which seems efficient, but it’s not effective.
There’s a really big difference. When you’re rushing around, those are the times where you spill a drink or you leave your credit card at the counter or you leave your keys somewhere or you forget something in the car or you get into a car accident, even worse. That’s because you’re rushing. We really want to create these buffers so we have that space to slow down and really do our best. In those cases where you’re rushing, it actually costs you more time and money than if you had actually slowed down. We really want to slow down our lives to be able to enjoy the things we’re working on in the moment. I often say overwhelm is not having too much to do. It’s really not knowing where to start.
No matter how little time you have, take a few minutes, write down your tasks, and figure out where it is you want to start. I think Benjamin Franklin said it best when he said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” That’s where our buffers come in, because when we’re creating a plan with these buffers, we had this space to do our
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best work and to feel really good about it. Try to remember in these rushed moments to try to slow down, and you’ll see that in the short run, it feels like you’re going really slow, but you’re really looking at the long game. How is this going to help you throughout your day?
When you build in buffers, you’re going to be reaping in some serious advantages: not feeling overwhelmed with a packed schedule, feeling more confident because you’re not letting tasks fall between the cracks, and you can be sure that what you’re doing is important to you rather than whatever pops up. You’re going to fell much more proactive rather than reactive. That’s a really good way to feel. We have to accept the reality that we can never fully prepare or anticipate for every single scenario. The future is far too unpredictable.
Instead, building in these buffers will reduce that friction caused by the unexpected. I love the quote by Bill Gates, but I modified it a little bit. I like to say, “We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but we underestimate how much we can do in a year.” Once you have your buffers in place, that’s really going to give you the space to plan, because we want to stop overestimating how much we can get done in a day. We want to start really estimating accurately so we can estimate what we can get done in a year. I really want to encourage you to get that free download that I have at inkwellpress.com/podcast under episode 18 so you can start really figuring out how much time it is taking you to do these different tasks so we can start building these buffers into your timeline and into your day.
I think you’re going to find that when you slow down and you take the time to enjoy the tasks, you’re going to be much happier. Okay. I’d love to see how you’re doing. Feel free to tag me on social media. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram using the username inkwellpress. You can send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve gotten so many nice notes from so many of you about how you’re implementing a lot of the streamlining into your lives, and that makes me really, really happy. Until next time, happy planning.
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**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.
Tanya Dalton is an inspirational female keynote speaker. She has been called one of the best woman speakers on productivity, time management, goal setting and finding purpose.