Building Buffer

A quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Buffer is just a fancy way of saying to prepare early to offset the variance caused by the unexpected. For instance, you build a buffer by saving a small percentage of your income every month to account for future emergencies that might arise. This way you don’t have to live hand-in-mouth. This is just one example of buffer.

A buffer can be thought of as something that prevents two things from coming into contact with each other.

The most important reason you build buffer is to account for contingencies because things rarely go as planned in an unpredictable world. The whole point of having Buffer is not to live hand-to-mouth. That’s why you save every month, so you’re not living paycheck to paycheck and have contingency funds for rainy days or emergencies. That’s why you don’t spend it all in the first place.

You build buffer to prevent things from blowing up at the last minute. That’s why you start early. This doesn’t mean you have to complete something as soon as you get it. This simply means plan early, map out the project, and leave sufficient time to get the project work done, plus some extra.

You build buffer because, as humans, we’re bad at estimating the length of time it usually takes to do anything. There is even a word for this common phenomenon; it’s called the “planning fallacy“, coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.

You build buffer by preparing early. When you prepare early, you’re accounting for contingencies and things that you wouldn’t account for otherwise.

Because we’re bad at estimating how long something will take to get done, one way to build buffer is to overestimate how long something will take to get done by at least 50% to get a true estimate. For instance, if something usually takes you one hour to do, schedule 90 minutes for it. When it takes you longer than an hour, you’ll be glad to have that extra buffer time. And, when it takes less than 90 minutes, whatever extra time you get back is a bonus. We also tend to overestimate how much work we’ll get done in a given day and underestimate how much we’ll get done in a few months.

Use the good times to create a buffer for the bad. Build slack and buffers into your plan. Expect the unexpected because that’s the only certainty there is.

Another way to build buffer is to conduct scenario planning in your work projects. In other words, apply the “hope for the best, and prepare for the worst” principle. Before you begin a project, think of two scenarios in terms of outcomes. One, figure out the best-case scenario. Then, imagine the worst-case scenario when things get out of control. In other words, you hope things go according to plan, but at the same time, you’re prepared to act when things go haywire (and they often do). Think of all the ways the project can derail, then account for those failures in advance by building in appropriate buffers.

When you’re in the early stages of a project, figure out the best scenario of how you anticipate the project will turn out. Then, figure out the worst scenario accounting for the constraints and the limitations, and increase that number by 50%. That could mean accounting for extra budget and/or time in terms of moving deadlines, etc. This new number is what you should plan for.

Here are some examples of how we can use the concept of buffer in our everyday lives:

One reason that knowledge workers have trouble meeting project deadlines is they save a bulk of the work for the last minute. This can be avoided by preparing for the project as soon as they get it, which enables them to get the work done on time. This does not mean that you need to complete the project as soon as you get it — simply map out the project and plan early so you have plenty of time to get it done.

Be realistic with your work day schedule. Don’t over schedule your day by having back to back meetings. Give yourself some breathing room. That means leaving gaps between meetings so that you can account for overtime and under time in meetings. For instance, if you’re going to have a 30-minute meeting, schedule it for at least 45 minutes.

If you’ve 10 minutes before your next meeting, and you know that it’ll take you at least 5 minutes to get there, don’t spend that time doing something else. Instead, get to the meeting on time, if not early, and give yourself some breathing room.

Don’t wait till the last day to pay your credit card bills. Pay the bills the day you get them, that way you have enough time for your payment to arrive. This is a great example of creating buffer. Even better, consolidate all your bills and set up automatic payments so they occur automatically.

Signing up for online services/subscriptions and giving yourself a few days before the recurring charge date is another example of buffer.

These are maintenance-related things. Regularly get your car checked for tire pressure, oil change, etc. to avoid any car issues when you’re actually on the road. The same goes for health: schedule regular checkups with the doctor. By regularly meeting up with the doctor, you’re anticipating health problems before they might arise and reducing the chances of something bad happening to you.

Use of UPS systems give you a buffer of a few minutes to save your work and turn off your computer in the event of a power outage.

If you’re using 1 GB of data on your phone every month, you should have at least twice that (2 GB) in your account so you don’t get charged a premium if you happen to go over the limit one month. Or, you might have to use it as a Personal Hotspot when your wireless network at home/office goes down or stops working for whatever reason. When that happens, there’s no telling how long it will take to getting the wireless network working again. Having that buffer becomes critical to continuing your work.

Backing up your computer regularly acts as a buffer to avoid the unexpected data loss from hard drive failure, because all hard drives fail at some point. This is a known fact.

I build buffer in my creative work by making something everyday. That way, I have a running list of ideas I’m working on, and I pick one of those ideas to conceptualize into a post a few days before my weekly publish date. For me, that’s writing — for you, it might be something else.

When you exercise every day, and are unable to make it a couple times a month, it’s not really a problem because you’ve built buffer (in this case, it’s a habit) over the span of that month. Also, when you work out, afterwards you have three weeks before your body starts to “forget” or get sore.

Nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar points out in her book Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight:

Your body will be able to maintain fitness levels for up to 3 weeks without stimuli, after which it will start letting go of its fitness levels.

That means by regularly working out, you’re building a fitness buffer of up to 3 weeks.

When your notebook notifies you that you have 5% battery charge remaining, that 5% remaining battery charge is buffer time. That reminder serves to give you just enough time to plug in the charger and keep your valuable work.

When you’re driving, leave some room between your car and the car in front of you — enough so that you can see the base of the rear wheels. That means have enough time to hit the breaks when the car in front stops. That’s buffer.

When you create buffer in your life, you’re preparing in advance for when things might go wrong or not as planned (which they often do). The point is that you cannot predict the unexpected, and you therefore need to prepare early and better so that when push comes to shove, you know what to do. And that’s not the time to think what you need to do, but to do, which can only happen if you’ve taken sufficient time to think it through before.

In other words, you need to have some kind of contingency plans for the critical things in your lives. Otherwise, you’re constantly living in reactionary mode as opposed to living proactively, and that means anticipating as much as possible. With that said, we cannot anticipate or prepare for every situation because the future is just too unpredictable. Instead, I suggest we build buffers in place to offset some of the variance caused by the unexpected.

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