Thoughts on Buffer and Margin

I’m currently reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and I’ve really enjoyed the three-quarters of the book that I have gotten through so far. It’s overall an easy read, with a compelling message and fairly recent examples. Although the author’s suggestions and tips haven’t been as specific as I might have liked, the general themes have done the job of getting me thinking about my focus and my goals.

Most recently, I read the chapter on “buffer”, which is similar to the concept of margin that I’ve read about before. One of Greg’s suggestions for increasing buffer was to add 50% to your estimates of how long (or how much) something will take. Because I often need to provide estimates to my managers regarding completion of tasks and I’m also scheduling time on my calendar to get things done, this was a helpful and very practical tip.

Breaks In Between Meetings

One other idea that came to mind regarding buffer, although not suggested in the book, is the idea of placing “blank space” between meetings during my day. I would love to experiment with only accepting/scheduling meetings so that there is always at least 15 minutes between one meeting and the next. I have a tendency to stay longer in some meetings and then I find myself running late to the next engagement. Having space in between would allow me the flexibility to stay longer, finish up an important discussion, or write down some thoughts and action items from the previous meeting.

Leaving Meetings Early

Of course, not all meetings run as long as they’re scheduled, often due to the amount of buffer that the organizer willingly scheduled into the meeting. You just never know when a meeting will run over or not. So, the other way to make this work is to deliberately set myself a timer/notification 5-10 minutes before my next event and use that notification as my “deadline” to leave. If the meeting isn’t over by the time my next notification sounds, I need to simply get up and excuse myself. This would also apply to those situations where I’m at my desk, in “the zone”, getting things done. Instead of treating the 5-minute notification as a warning during which I should hurry to finish that last email or edit one more design, I could treat the notification as a call to stop, get up, and walk to the meeting.

Buffer For Larger Assignments

Zooming out a bit, I can see how the concept of buffer applies to the weekly plans I make and the estimates I verbally commit to for larger deadlines and deliverables. I could assume that the best-case scenario will happen, or I can plan some contingency for the inevitable hiccup that will almost certainly arise. Of course, this always feels dangerously inefficient, especially when my estimate turns out to be way too high for something. I worry that I’m not actually getting the work done as effectively/quickly as I could, and then people won’t trust my estimate the next time. In Essentialism, Greg mentions the concept of work filling the space/time allotted to it, and I often wonder when I give myself lots of time whether I could have done the job with 30 minutes less.

What About Extra Time?

The argument is that an “Essentialist” enjoys the freedom of extra time that may result from a larger buffer, but I’m also concerned about time waste, or the perception from my colleagues that I’m not performing to the level I have in the past. There’s obviously a sweet spot, and numerous external factors that play in to whether or not I’ll be done early or late. Perhaps my worries about having excess time are simply the result of me not knowing what to do with it. Perhaps if I had that “extra” time, I could actually catch up on a few new emails that came in, or organize my to-do system, or do a short weekly review?

Yep, this is still something I need to put into practice as part of my daily and weekly routines, and I feel it will be worth it. I’ll try to report back in the next weeks after I attempt some experiments with the ideas I mentioned here.