If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect “buffers,” or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings.
In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day (broken down into 30- to 90-minute blocks). It’s a system I developed over the last several years in response to a schedule that was becoming so jammed with back-to-back meetings that I had little time left to process what was going on around me or just think.
At first, these buffers felt like indulgences. I could have been using the time to catch up on meetings I had pushed out or said “no” to. But over time I realized not only were these breaks important, they were absolutely necessary in order for me to do my job.
As an organization scales, the role of its leadership needs to evolve and scale along with it. I’ve seen this evolution take place along at least two continuum: from problem solving to coaching and from tactical execution to thinking strategically. What both of these transitions require is time, and lots of it. Endlessly scheduling meeting on top of meeting and your time to get these things right evaporates.
Take coaching, for example. It’s often quicker for senior leaders to solve people’s problems for them. You’ve amassed years of experience solving the issues being brought to you. But doing so provides short-term relief at a longer time cost. As the organization gets larger, so too will the frequency of those issues, yet there remains only one of you. Unless you can coach others to address challenges directly, you will quickly find yourself in a position where that’s all you’re doing (adding even more meetings to your day). That’s no way to run a team or a company.
Learning what makes people tick — their unique perspectives, fears, motivations, team dynamics, etc. — and properly coaching them to the point that they can not only solve the issue on their own the next time around, but successfully coach their own team takes far more time than telling them what to do. The only way to sustainably make that investment in people is by not jumping from one meeting to the next but rather carving out the time to properly coach those who stand to benefit from it the most. Equally if not more importantly is taking time in between those meetings to recharge. I want to ensure I’m at my best when coaching the next person who needs it.
The same can be said of the transition from tactical execution to thinking strategically. There will always be a need to get things done and knock another To Do item off the list. However, as the company grows larger, as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand — and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate — you will require more time than ever before to just think: Think about what the company will look like in three to five years; think about the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need; think about how you can widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap, etc.
That thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that’s incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself. Conversely, if you don’t take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it. The resulting situation will inevitably require far more time (and meetings) than thinking strategically would have to begin with.
Above all else, the most important reason to schedule buffers is to just catch your breath. There is no faster way to feel as though your day is not your own, and that you are no longer in control, than scheduling meetings back to back from the minute you arrive at the office until the moment you leave. I’ve felt the effects of this and seen it with colleagues. Not only is it not fun to feel this way, it’s not sustainable.
The solution, as simple as it sounds, is to periodically schedule nothing. Use that buffer time to think big, catch up on the latest industry news, get out from under that pile of unread emails, or just take a walk. What ever you do, just make sure you make that time for yourself — everyday and in a systematic way — and don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance. The buffer is the best investment you can make in yourself and the single most important productivity tool I use.