When I shifted from practicing law to consulting and coaching, I realized that it’s critical for me to protect my own time and energy. I began to get a deeper understanding that in a very real way, I am my own product and I must protect that product. The irony, of course, is that the same was true when I was in practice. My hunch is that if I’d come to this realization sooner, I would have been less stressed out and I probably would have accomplished more.
One of the tools that’s been most important to me is building margins into my schedule. Rather than scheduling myself back-to-back, I leave gaps throughout the day so that I can catch a breath, handle the small fires that inevitably arise, and take advantage of new opportunities that pop up. The gaps can be fairly small, such as leaving 15 extra minutes on either side of an appointment so I don’t need to worry if we run a few minutes long. Sometimes, a gap can be as simple as a pause between calls to grab a glass of water, stretch a bit, and breathe deeply to get the oxygen and energy flowing.
When working on a big project, though, a big margin is helpful. That’s why I shudder a bit when a potential client calls me and tells me that it’s urgent to build his clientele because he has only two months of expense money in the bank or because she’s expecting to be up for partner in the next year. Is it possible to build a solid book of business quickly? Of course. Is it probable? Not on a tight deadline.
Resolve to add margins into your plans. How? Consider these approaches:
- Wherever possible, build time between appointments into your schedule. When that isn’t possible, make a conscious decision to move your body and your mind between appointments to create a shift in your own energy. Doing so will improve your ability to take on the next appointment with a fresh mind.
- When you’re working on a big project, estimate the amount of time it will take and add up to 25% of that time as a cushion. If your goal is to design and host a client seminar and you expect to need six weeks as lead time, allow yourself eight weeks.
- Use project management principles to plan out all of the steps in your project and take advantage of technology so that you can shift the steps and schedules as necessary. At times, despite your best effort, you will need to adjust your schedule or your project despite building in margins. Using a task management system that automatically shifts intermediate deadlines when a project deadline changes will minimize the time you’ll need to spend on designing the deadlines so you can maximize your time on the project itself.
- When others are involved, communicate not only the deadline but also the margin – but do so selectively. If a team member is a relentless procrastinator, you might choose not to include your margin when discussing timelines.
- Underpromise and overdeliver, especially with clients. This has become something of a cliché in recent years, but its validity is beyond reproach. If you promise a client or a potential client something, be sure to allow yourself extra time just in case your plans go awry. Far better to promise a deliverable for Friday and provide it on Wednesday than vice versa.
When you add in margin, you increase the chances that you will be able to stick to the schedule, you create opportunities to respond to intervening circumstances as they occur, and you set yourself up for reduced stress. Will margins always work? No. Projects sometimes go haywire. “No fail” software systems fail. Critical team members get sick. When that happens, you’ll have to adjust, but building in a margin in advance means that your magnitude of adjustment will be less.
Where do you need to build margins into your schedule?