Buffer time – What is it and why do we need it?

Now, when you have a super full day at work, what’s the best thing to do? Write another to-do list? Buy another planner? Turn your whole office into a giant whiteboard? Well, these things may work for some people, but I like to recommend something different; doing nothing.

That’s right. Doing nothing. But doing nothing strategically. Many of us look at our work calendars as just open time waiting to be filled, if there’s a slot, there’s a meeting. However, it takes a lot of executive function to move from task to task, and for a lot of neurodivergents, it can be especially hard to end one thing and move to something else, especially if that switch happens quickly or because your daily points are already depleted, whether it’s because your energy is low, you’re mentally drained, you’re hungry, whatever. You need something between those tasks. I introduce buffer time. Now, if you are a fan of Star Trek like I am, you know that engineering often adds time to the job whenever they are quoting the captain about how long something will take. For example, the warp core takes one hour to repair, they quote the captain four hours, she says it has to be done in two. Well, perfect. The repair will take one hour and now they have an extra hour to use as they need. That’s buffer time. It’s built into the overall time it takes to do the project. Now, this is very similar to the way I like to use buffer time. This is time I count into the time it will take for the meeting, so before or after, that’s just part of the overall task.

Now, I’m not talking like a few extra hours, like our Star Trek friends, no, I like to keep mine to about five or 15 minutes really, depending upon how draining I think each task is going to be. So, are you really doing nothing during buffer time? Well, not really, this is actually a period of active rest. Now your brain needs more time to end the previous task and to let go all of the thoughts and emotions associated with it. It’s like your brain is a browser. It’s going to go its best and fastest when you close one tab before opening another. You could keep multiple things open, but just like in real life, the more things you have open, the harder it is to be focused and the more easily you are to get distracted. So, buffer time allows you to mentally close the first tab before you open the next. You’re able to actually focus on the upcoming task much more easily.

Now, if you’re somebody whose brain doesn’t do this naturally, using buffer time can give you the best possible chance of success with each and every task. So, what does this look like in practice? Okay, I go to my first meeting of the day, it’s with Alex about planning a charity basketball game. We are super excited about this topic, the meeting is totally high energy and we’re really on a roll. But then I have to jump off that Zoom call onto another call where I’m with Stephanie reviewing the budget. She immediately starts talking about forecasts and pipeline and closed deals, and I am having a hard time letting go of mascots and free throws.

I try and shift gears, but for some reason, I’m having a really hard time following the conversation. To Stephanie, I appear distracted about something that’s serious, or I look like I’m not ready to just dive in. Maybe I’m someone who can’t focus at all. Now, if I had just ended my meeting with Alex a few minutes early, or started my meeting with Stephanie a few minutes later, I could have really wound down, I could have jotted down any final thoughts and sent them to Alex. I could have gotten up and stretched or done some jumping jacks to give my body a physical reset. I could refill my water, take a bio break or even just sit and do some deep breaths, doing some meditative or mindfulness activities, allowing me to completely disengage from the game and move on, making me more likely to be fresh and focused for the important budget meeting. Scheduling just small buffers before and after each meeting can greatly increase your ability to be on task when needed, and for those of us that have attention issues, we need every bit of help we can get. Now, for me, it’s about making sure I’m mentally done with the meeting before my next client comes in.

It’s not very helpful if your neuro-diversity coach is clearly still in charity basketball land. Taking time to mentally move from one task to another effectively isn’t extra time that you’re taking that should be added on to another meeting or task, and it’s certainly not lazy to take a few minutes to support the way your brain works. In fact, it’s your commitment to trying to be focused on your work, that makes a few minutes of doing nothing, the most important thing you’ll do all day.