A few months ago, I was the presenter for a morning training and it was my plan to have fresh coffee and donuts when the attendees arrived.  The day before, I had stopped into the donut store and placed my order.  It was the final task on my presentation To-Do list and with that completed, I felt fully ready for the next day.

The morning of the presentation had gone smooth; until I arrived at 7am to get the coffee and sweet treats. Not only had my order from the afternoon before not been prepared for me to swing by and grab on my way to the presentation, but my order couldn’t be found anywhere. To top off the situation, the coffee shop was hopping busy. The drive-thru was swarming with cars and inside, the lobby was full of sleepy people waiting for their jolt of coffee and sugar to start their Wednesday morning.

When it was my turn at the counter and the manager realized that my order had not been completed, she did her best to suppress her own annoyance and promised to have it ready as quickly as possible. For the next forty minutes (yes, forty) I stood back and watched her and the other staff members move at lighting speed but only every so often, did anyone stop to work on my order. I normally would have become agitated by a situation like this but I could clearly see with my own eyes that they simply had too much to do to give my order the attention it needed.

After about 30 minutes of waiting, I positioned myself closer to the counter where the manager could keep a view of me waiting. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I just knew that if I continued to fade out of her sight, I might run the risk of having to leave for the presentation without coffee or donuts. What she couldn’t see, she seemed to not be giving her attention to. She dealt with the tasks that were right in front of her eyes.

As I stood there watching the clock tick closer to the start time of my presentation and seeing the donut shop staff scramble to meet everyone’s needs, I knew there were some great life lessons to be gleamed from the situation.

How often do we get so busy doing the tasks at hand that we literally have no time for the additional things that are thrown on our plate? How often do we only give attention to the tasks that are right in front of our faces and ignore those we can ignore? How often do we put out fires rather than plan ahead so that our stress levels can stay lower?

When we cram our schedules with no time margins, we do ourselves a terrible disservice. I am as guilty as the next busy person in this area. As I write this, I am not just hoping others can sit back and reflect, but I plan to as well.

What are some practical things that we can do to help create time margins in our lives so that we are not too busy to respond to the unexpected hiccups in our schedules or even great things that might pop up?

1) We have to plan ahead for disruptions: 

That morning at the donut shop, my stress level did not go as high as it would have if I had given myself my normal 10 minutes to do anything. See, I have this weird internal theory that most things will only take me 10 minutes to complete. I am usually wrong and it ends up leaving me a few minutes behind. But not this day. The day of the presentation I gave myself a huge (by my standards) margin of time and guess what? I needed every minute. The donut shop disruption was annoying but not a schedule changer. It was only that way because I had planned for unseen disruptions of some sort.

2) We don’t have to be busy every minute of every day:

For those of us who enjoy a productive life, leaving margin in our schedule feels weird and like we are not maximizing every moment to its fullest potential. In reality, when we are not busy every minute of the day, we are allowing the space to be available for that phone call we really want to enjoy or an unexpected quiet moment that gives our spirit some rejuvenation. Not having a schedule that is maxed out every single day allows us the opportunity to get to the “next order” and perhaps, that may be something really special. How sad would it be to miss it because we just flew by on our way to the next thing on our daily list.

3) We have to figure out what are the important things in our lives and what are just good things:

Being able to decipher between great projects and merely good projects is critical to living a high quality life that still has margin. There are so many wonderful things to get involved in and to be a part of but if we want to have enough time for the next order when it comes up, we have to get clear about our priorities. If you find yourself (as I often do) with too full of a schedule, let’s both take the time this week and make a Priority List. I am not just talking about the basics that include family and friends. We all know those have to be on the list. I am talking about a list at a much deeper level.

We can ask ourselves where we want to be in the next year, three years, five years and ten years. If we could have anything, what do we want our lives to look like? From that time of productive day-dreaming, let’s backtrack all the way to today. What steps do we need to take right now in order to get us pointed in the right direction of where we hope to be? With that in mind, we can better learn to say no to the people and projects that don’t help us stay on course to living a life we find enriching and peaceful.

I hope you enjoy this exercise of day-dreaming and then putting in to place the small daily steps that will get you where you want to be or maintain the course you have already started. Not everyone needs a huge re-direct. Many of us have done these types of exercises before and we are headed in the right direction. Even then, we must guard our schedule and energy level so that we don’t get derailed by excessive and unproductive busyness.

Do you have time in your daily schedule for the next order that might come up? If not, what can you do to change the situation?