Buffers: The Space Between
Does it feel like your hair is on fire all day long? Do you tend to run late? Do you schedule things back to back? Does it feel your roles are bleeding over into each other? Do you get bombarded as soon as you walk in the door? It’s time to build in buffers.
A buffer is space between two things to keep them from colliding. Buffers give us breathing room, they give us space to deal with the unexpected things that come up, help us set boundaries, and allow us to dictate the flow of our day.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that you need more time to reset between events in your day, you need to build a buffer. You need to create space in your day.
I want to share three types of buffers. The most straightforward and common one we hear is a time buffer. Less common types of buffers include mental buffers and physical buffers.
If you schedule meetings or appointments back to back, you have no time to reflect on the last one before you jump into the next. There is no room for the first one to run late or take extra time to answer questions. There is no room for traffic or other unexpected things that often come up. There is no time for you to take some quick actions from the last meeting or appointment. There is no time for you to refocus and prepare for what’s next.
A time buffer is creating a block of time in your calendar after an event that allows you to decompress, recover, reset, refocus, put out fires, answer questions, hit traffic, etc., before you have to get going on the next thing in your calendar.
How long your buffer needs to be can change based on factors like whether an event tends to run over, how draining you think it will be, the bandwidth you have that day, etc. You should actually schedule a buffer into your calendar (especially if others have the ability to schedule things into your calendar). If you think it will take 20 minutes to get somewhere, you should plan to give yourself 30. We tend to estimate time based on best case scenario (as in no traffic or accidents or needing fuel), so giving ourselves 30 minutes allows for a more realistic commute window.
How you transition from one mental space to another. Think of a mental buffer as a warm-up or cool down. A mental buffer acknowledges that to do the next task, you need to be in a different mental or emotional space or state than you are in right now, so you need to transition to that state. This is like getting to work and it taking a while to “settle in” to work mode, or getting home and needing some space before your family jumps in and needs something your energy and attention.
To create a mental buffer, you need awareness, time and tools. You need the time it will take to implement tools to collect yourself and raise or lower your mental and emotional energy to match the situation you are about to face. For example, acknowledging that you aren’t in the right mental or emotional space to respond to and sensitive email or have a difficult conversation, so you deliberately decide to not tackle those tasks RIGHT NOW. Then, you deliberately choose to use a tool like rhythmic breathing, loving kindness meditation, mindfulness, or exercise, to deliberately change your mental and emotional energy to get where you need to be for the next task. You can’t have a tough conversation with someone if you are depleted or if you are on edge. Getting where you need to be mentally and emotionally to be present and engage effectively with others is a service to you and to the other person.
Physical buffers look and sound more like boundaries or containers and are intended to protect physical spaces and the mental energy around them. It could be keeping work and electronics out of your bedroom, creating physical buffers to protect sleep. It could be creating a specific area in your house where work or homework are done. This not only helps keep your home more organized, but it protects mental space. If you are trying to focus in the same physical space where you relax, sleep, or play, it will be hard to maintain focus because your brain associates that space with other things, not with work. A physical buffer can also be leaving your work station for lunch and breaks.
Some work from home experts go as far as to recommend separate devices (here, here, here, here, here and here). As in have a work computer and a personal computer, have a work phone and a personal phone. That way, when it’s time to put work away, you completely separate yourself from the work devices and only use home devices. You aren’t tempted to switch screens and check work email because it isn’t even set up on your personal device. I understand the logic here, and acknowledge that it’s not necessarily a practical or a feasible options (as I type from my both business and personal laptop and check social media on my both business and personal cell phone).
What can you do to create space in your day? What do you already do to create breathing room?